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Secrets of succesful headlines

In directional marketing, the first and most important element that can help turn a website into a truly compelling, action- generating mechanism is the headline. A headline is more than a mere summary of the website.

For one, it is the first thing that people see in the section "above the fold," which is the uppermost portion of the front page that appears in browsers, without any scrolling. ("Above the fold" is a newspaper term, since front-page headlines, above the fold, sell newspapers.)

Unique visitors are often unaware of the sites they visit. If a headline does not instantly give an indication of not only what a site is all about but also the reasons why visitors should browse further the moment they hit it, it will actually deter prospects. In fact, headlines that do not communicate any benefit in navigating the site will dissuade visitors from browsing deeper, which is where most online sales are made.

Headlines That Capture's People's Attention

The true purpose of a headline is not to advertise the website or the business behind it. It's simply to promote the idea of surfing further. In advertising industry parlance, a headline is the "ad for the ad." For instance, a resume is not meant to land a job but to land an interview. A website headline is, in the same way, meant to land the visitor's attention and arouse their curiosity. If a headline does not achieve this quickly, efficiently and effectively, people will simply click away.

You may have heard of the famous "AIDA Formula," which is an acronym that stands for, in order:

  1. Attention
  2. Interest
  3. Desire
  4. Action

Ads must follow this formula in order to be successful. They must capture the reader's attention, arouse their interest, increase their desire and lead them to take some kind of action. In truth, websites are no different.

The first part of the formula refers to the headline. If the website's headline does not command enough attention (or does not command it effectively and rapidly), then the rest of the formula will fail. People will likely leave at the click of a mouse. So in order to help you, here are a few tips on how to increase the attention factor in your front page's headline.

Usually, there is a gap between the prospect's problem and its solution (or a gap between where a person happens to be at the moment and the future enjoyment of a product's benefits). But many prospects either do not know there is in fact a gap or, because it is one, try to ignore it as a result. Therefore, a headline that communicates the presence of such a gap or one that widens it will likely appeal to those who can immediately relate to it -- people within that site's target market.

Using a headline that immediately conveys either a problem or a potential benefit not only makes the reader aware that there is a gap but also reinforces it in the mind. After reading the headline visitors will want to know, by browsing further, how they can close that gap. Famous sales trainer Zig Ziglar said that people buy on emotional logic. In other words, they buy on emotion but justify their decision with logic. Therefore, emotionally-charged headlines also help to widen those gaps.

The wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be. How do you achieve that? While a website should focus on the solution rather than the problem, adding a negative (or a potentially negative) situation to the headline is often more effective because it appeals to stronger emotions and motives. Granted, this might seem somewhat unusual or contrary to what you have learned in the past. So in order to understand this, let's take a look at how human needs and emotions work.

In the late 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchical theory of human needs. In essence, Maslow stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. The next one in that hierarchy is our need for safety. After that, it's social needs (e.g., the need for affection, to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging). The need for attention, to feel valuable or respected are esteem needs. And finally, at the top, is our need for self-actualization.

A similar principle, based on Maslow's findings, is called the "pain-pleasure principle." In essence, it states that people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. In anything we do, we want to either move away from pain (i.e., solve a problem) or strive towards pleasure (i.e., gain an advantage). But when given the choice between the two, the avoidance of pain is the stronger motive, because our need to survive and to be safe takes over. The emotions attached to pain are far superior.

Therefore, a headline that communicates a problem (i.e., a painful situation or a potentially painful one that could arise without the benefits of one's offering) will have more emotional impact than a pleasurable one. It also instantly communicates to those who associate to its message and thus isolates the serious prospect from the curious visitor.

For example, when I work with plastic surgeons I often tell them to use as a headline, "Are you suffering from wrinkles?" Immediately, prospective patients who can instantly relate to the headline will more than likely read the ad further. They do so for two reasons. First, the headline appeals to those who have wrinkles. But second and more important, the headline appeals to those suffering from wrinkles (i.e., people who not only have wrinkles but also want to do something about them).

Therefore, think of a negative situation that is now present, or one that will occur without the benefits of your product or service. It would also be wise to add the main benefit of your website in the headline, following the gapper. By doing so you show the prospect that a solution does exist in the site, thus compelling them to read further. In other words, you reinforce a painful situation (i.e., capture their attention) and then highlight the solution (i.e., arouse their curiosity).

Look at the way it is done at http://successdoctor.com/partners/imc/. While the headline is a positive one packed with benefits, it starts with the words "Zoom Past the Confusion," which is a negative gapper.

Headlines That Drive People's Actions

Incidentally, the last headline uses another readership-enhancing technique: It begins with a verb. In other words, it directs visitors and takes them by the hand. Other examples include headlines that begin with the words "learn," "discover," "find," "get," "read," "see," "earn," "visit," "surf," "join," "sign up," "order" and so on.

But go a step beyond that. Don't stick with mere verbs. Use action words that help paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the headline will be. For example, rather than saying "Poor management leads to financial woes," use "Don't let poor management suck money right from your bottom-line." People can picture the action of "sucking" more than they do "leading." (Now you understand why we say "zoom" past the confusion.)

Ultimately, don't let visitors guess what they must do or what they will get from your site. Tell them in the headline.

Headlines that communicate something worth visiting will cause people to surf deeper into your site -- which, in most cases, is where online sales are made. But before your site instills a certain level of interest in your visitors, always keep in mind that the attention factor of your first page headline is the most important element of your site. You only have a mere few seconds to capture your visitors' attention.

People are extremely preoccupied these days. In our fast-paced society, their busy day-to-day lives are filled with thoughts and activities that either cloud their concentration or could very easily whisk them away at the drop of a hat. But when surfing the web, they are more so for a variety of reasons:

  • They are looking for something specific;
  • They are browsing until something piques their curiosity;
  • They are browsing another site in a separate window;
  • They are multi-tasking, such as reading or sending email and, by chance, they happen to glance at your site;

... And so on.

Your front page and especially its headline must grab people's attention, almost "by the collar." Therefore, while developing headlines for your website here's a thing to consider: Before you do, first try to create what is often called an "elevator speech" for your site. It's a brief introduction -- almost a pitch -- about your site and your business, and about what your company does or offers. Typically, it's about thirty words or less -- very short, very brief and very concise.

In my hometown of Ottawa for example (the high tech capital of Canada, also affectionately known as "Silicon Valley North"), there was an interesting show once. Young, aspiring ecommerce entrepreneurs were given a soapbox (they stood on empty milk crates, actually), a microphone and thirty seconds to pitch their ideas to a crowd filled with venture capitalists.

That thirty-second limit was strictly enforced. If a speech happened to pass that limit, the microphone was immediately (and mercilessly) turned off. Nevertheless, as the crowd began to mingle after some twenty aspiring entrepreneurs pitched their ideas, one could instantly tell, by noticing where most potential investors were gravitating, who were successful.

While I could certainly appreciate the majority of ideas that were proposed during that event (in fact, I thought that about eighty percent of them were really good ideas), only a small handful of entrepreneurs were able to successfully attract investors. Why? Their elevator speeches were successful not by their messages but by the way those messages were conveyed.

Like with a person you've just met in an elevator, such as a potential client (or a potential investor, like the preceding example), you only have a few short seconds to make an impact until you or the other person finally leaves the elevator. The important thing to note is that your elevator speech must be good enough and concise enough to capture, in just a few short moments, the attention, curiosity and interest of the person to whom you're introducing your company.

In terms of your website however, your elevator speech signals to your visitors the main advantage they receive from it or at least in browsing further. Once you've developed your elevator speech, try to cut it down to a single sentence of five to ten words (or less). This may not be an easy task. Try to distill your speech to the very core essence of what you offer.

Think carefully. There should be only one important benefit that encompasses all others -- something that immediately captures the essence of all that you are. But if you're stuck, look at all the other benefits: Is there a common thread? If not, even the nature of your site or company can be used in this case. At any rate, ask yourself, "What's the single, most important quality, benefit or characteristic of my site?"

Once you're done, those few words (between five and ten) with which you end up should become your front page's headline.

Sometimes, headlines need a little push. And it's true that certain words are proven, based on several studies (like those conducted by the Direct Marketing Association, for example) to increase the attention factor. In fact, countless studies have shown that a simple technique in advertising that can double and sometimes even triple the readership of an ad is the use of a single, four-letter word: That word is "free."

It's no different on the web. People are and will always be attracted to freebies. In an ad or on a website, the word "free" can generate a lot of response. But in a headline however, it can multiply the response rate exponentially.

If your site offers anything for free, and if it is clearly indicated in the front-page headline, your site will be more compelling to surf. Consequently, offer a free trial, sample, product, information kit or service of some kind. It could be a free download, online service, screensaver, chat room, email account, ebook, ezine subscription, script, membership, etc.

Inviting people to subscribe to a free newsletter or download a free tool, among others, should therefore appear in the web browser, "above the fold." Of all freebies however, the free report is my personal favorite. While adding more content does increase the "stickiness" of a site, people love to soak up new information for the same reasons expressed in the "gapper" (see above for more information on gappers).

Since learned experience is more cost-effective and less time- consuming than that which has been learned *from* experience, offering free information, particularly "how to" information, is always an effective motivator. Based on the pain-pleasure principle, people love free reports because they want to either avoid making mistakes or learn how to solve them.

Let's say you're a computer consultant to large offices. Your website headline can state: "Free report! The 10 biggest computer mistakes businesses make." Or you can use: "Browse this site and learn 8 surefire strategies on how to improve paperflow efficiency by 67% ... Free." Another is: "Are your computers bug-proof? Read my free article on ways to find out if the recent surge in computer viruses can cost you thousands in lost revenue -- and how to avoid them!" (Incidentally, the last example contained both gapper and freebie. Obviously, this headline would therefore be more effective.)

By the way, remember when I discussed the headline at http://successdoctor.com/partners/imc/? While you can "Zoom Past the Confusion," the headline also mentions that you can do so and become successful within ninety days "Or Thousands Of Dollars In Online Marketing Consulting Are Yours *Free*!"

I often teach about the necessity of creating top-of-mind awareness in this fast- paced, hypercompetitive world. But top-of-mind awareness is not limited to a brand name. It also includes the process of bringing a specific need, desire or problem to the top of a person's mind. If your site's front page increases that top- of-mind awareness the moment people hit it, the chances of your site being navigated -- as well as the chances of people taking some kind of action later -- will be far greater.

Headlines That Help To Qualify People

Erroneously, many webmasters and online business owners often look at their visitors hitting their front pages as qualified patrons. And they tend to do so by considering their visitors as being "physically" inside the store once they hit the front page -- with headlines that begin with those hackneyed words "welcome to." (While they may or may not be targeted, they're still not qualified. They are what they are: Just visitors.)

Have you ever walked by a retail store whose sign in the main window said "welcome to [name of the store]"? Not likely. But you've probably seen such a sign -- or were welcomed by staff (like Wal-Mart's signature front entrance "greeter") -- upon entering a store. And there's the problem: In both cases, you had to walk inside the store first before you were welcomed.

What attracted you to enter the store and browse inside could be a variety of things. For example, it could be the showcase display in the window, possibly an outdoor sign touting some special pricing, a banner announcing a special sales event, a store catalog or sales flyer you received in the mail earlier, or a friend heralding the benefits from a product she bought at -- or some special deal she received from -- the store.

Websites are no different.

A front page is like the store's front window or entrance -- people are not *inside* yet. Look at the web as one, colossal shopping mall. When people surf the web, they're browsing the mall. When they hit your front page, they are only seeing the "outside" of your store. So why use some plain introduction or a headline that begins with words like "welcome to"?

While a browser is not a client, a visitor is not a browser either. In fact, a visitor is more like a "window shopper." Agreeably, your website's design, graphics and layout are like your store's "window display." But your headline is definitely part of that mix -- and it plays an even greater role, for the words you choose can turn a "window shopper" into a "browser."

Think of the people that hit your front page as people merely walking by your store. Your headline must be effective enough to instantly capture their attention and compel them to enter your store (i.e., to browse further). And never forget that, inside the world's largest shopping mall, you have an enormous amount of competition with which to contend -- in addition to all the other stores on the Internet, that includes the fierce competition for your customer's attention ("window shopping" in the world's biggest shopping mall is far more prevalent).

Understandably, a salesperson's ability to instantly capture the attention of her busy and incredibly preoccupied prospect is easier in the physical realm. Most of all, her enthusiasm for, and belief in, her product are easy to convey in person. Her ability to instill confidence and create trust, as well as her unique set of sales and people skills, product knowledge, personality and expertise, are equally advantageous offline.

But online however, these abilities are nonexistent.

Like a salesperson in the bricks-and-mortar world, a headline must qualify the visitor, and it must do so by communicating those ideas and emotions that empower people to at least enter the store. The responsibility therefore rests almost entirely on the words one chooses. And words used in the headline (and opening paragraph) particularly can make all the difference.

Words should appeal to specific buyer motives. Common wisdom dictates that the first rule in doing so is to stress benefits over features. I know ... You may have been told this time and time again. It all sounds so simple, right?

But it's not, for if it were the web would be literally filled with successful websites -- and copywriters like me would be out of jobs. But during my experience as a copywriter, I have found that the commonest error committed by most webmasters and Internet marketers alike is to look at one's site unilaterally. Stated differently, many tend to look at their product, write their content and describe their offering from *their* perspective.

Here's an example. I recently copywritten a site for an online retailer. The owner was trying to sell the benefits of joining her affiliate program. She wrote the content in way that only describes the program and what she thought were benefits (in other words that the program is superior, professional, of high quality, unequalled in the industry, blah, blah, blah).

I asked her to expand. What does "quality" really mean? What do "superior" and "unique" mean? She explained that she offers a competitive commission structure, an online admin interface, several banners, marketing tips and so on. But those were not the answers I wanted. So I asked, "Why are such things unique or superior TO THE CLIENT?" She then commented that there are no other programs offering such a combination of tools in the industry. Again, her answer was poor. I bluntly told her that all of those things mean absolutely nothing to the affiliate.

Astonished, she asked me why. I told her that, bottom-line, what affiliates want are benefits. But benefits alone are not enough. Affiliates want benefits that appeal to their unique circumstances and specific motives -- such as the moneymaking and timesaving benefits such programs provide (e.g., the time they save as well as the money they make, even the speed at which they make money, with the help of the admin interface, prefabricated banners, promotion tips, etc, etc, etc).

Why are benefits alone not enough?

Quality, superiority, uniqueness and so on are vague words. How do you quantify or measure things like quality, uniqueness or superiority? You can't since they mean different things to different people. To one person, quality could be regular and consistent payouts while, to another, it could be selling an in-demand product. Thus, if features are not explained (i.e., they're not translated into equivalent, ego-driven, customer- focused benefits), they mean absolutely nothing at all.

Consequently, I told her to look at it from the affiliate's perspective. I asked her, "If you were to join an affiliate program, and if you were to join this program specifically, why would you?" Sure the program and the reputation and the product and the company and the commission rate and the site (and whatever) are all important aspects. But the main reason you would join is to make money. And if there were a second reason, it would be the time saved in making that money.

Keep in mind this important point ...

Based on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs and the "pain-pleasure principle" (explained earlier), most people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. They want to fulfill their needs -- from survival needs to self- actualization needs. But "pain" and "pleasure" mean different things to different people.

So the trick is to translate the savings or gains in words people understand and appreciate. So developing and describing mere product benefits is never enough. One must look at the specific buying motives to which those benefits cater. Admittedly, this is probably the reason why trying to develop benefits is a very frustrating task for some people. So in an attempt to provide you with guidance, here's a tool to help you in developing compelling benefits.

Benefits usually consist of four principal levels. They are, specifically:

  1. Features
  2. Advantages
  3. Benefits
  4. Motives.

Each layer has its own set of qualities, attributes and characteristics, which varies depending on the product type and the market to which the product caters.

To illustrate, here's a brief description of each layer:

  1. Features are what products have. (For example, a feature of an accounting software package is an application that provides financial statistics quickly and easily.)

  2. Advantages are what those features do. (Continuing with the same example above, it's the ability for such an application to provide real-time, updated, easy-to-access mission-critical information to key business managers.)

  3. Benefits are what the features mean. (For instance, one could say: "With needed, on-demand statistical data, your key business managers are able to keep the finger on your company's financial pulse at all times, thereby saving countless hours needlessly searching and calculating.")

  4. Motives are the motives that these features satisfy. (These include elements like cost-savings, time-savings, control, efficiency, self-esteem, advancement, etc.)

So take a sheet of paper and write down in one column all of the features of your product. In the next column, write down the advantages associated with each feature listed. In a third column, write each feature's equivalent benefit (i.e., the benefits of taking advantage of those features). Finally, in a fourth column, determine the specific motives (those of your specific target audience) that such features REALLY satisfy.

In the end, you might end up with quite a few benefits and, if you created an elevator speech for your site (as explained in part two of this series), you might be thinking at this point: "Gosh, that's a whole lot of headline!" True. But realize that the headline does not need to be alone in communicating the benefits of your offering -- let alone of browsing your site.

The opening lines are just as important. But they too are not limited to the first few lines of the body text. In fact, a headline can be comprised of three different parts:

  • The surheadline
  • The headline itself
  • The subheadline.

All three elements can add life, impact and a sense of urgency to your website's opening statement. In fact, surheadlines and subheadlines help to capture a reader's attention, qualify the reader, emphasize the importance of what the main headline is saying and instill a sense of urgency in reading what follows.

Generally, the surheadline (the headline ABOVE the headline) is a caption that's smaller in font size, which explains the headline and helps to prepare the reader. For instance, if you decide on using the "gapper" headline (see the first part of this series), the surheadline is the perfect place for it.

The subheadline however (the headline AFTER the headline) is a statement that qualifies the headline and instills a sense of urgency. It's a good place to add a "grabber" (i.e., a word or expression that pulls readers into your copy). For example, if after reading the headline a person is not compelled to read any further, the grabber can then pull her into the copy.

Grabbers include words that add a sense of urgency, scarcity or curiosity to the headline -- such as with those magic words "free," "guarantee," "limited" or "deadline." (For example, if you visit our site at http://successdoctor.com/partners/imc/ you will notice the grabber we use in our subheadline. As Jim Rohn once said, "Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.")

However, here's an important note: Grabbers alone can appear misleading. How many times have you been given a time-limited or quantity-bound offer, but with no apparent justification? You probably thought, "I'm sure that offer will be there when I come back." (And more than likely, you never did go back.) So as long as you justify your grabber by backing it up with a truthful, logical and provable explanation, you will be more credible, increase desire and pull more people into your copy.

A Final Word (And Two Quick Tips)...

Finally, here are two extra pointers for headlines.

First, try to be as specific as possible. Use very specific, quantifiable descriptions. For instance, use odd, non-rounded numbers instead of generalizations. Odd, non-rounded numbers are more credible and have pulled more than even or rounded numbers. "Amazing new system helped me earn $3,956.75 in 29 days!" is much more credible than "$4,000 in 1 month!"

That's why, for example, Ivory soap was marketed as being 99 and 44/100% pure. If Ivory said 100%, it would not have been as believable. If one of your benefits is the fact that your offer helped to improve the results of over 1,000 people when it has really helped 1,163, then use the number 1,163 instead.

And second, use quotation marks. Research (and some of the top copywriters) suggest that quotation marks in a headline seem to improve readership. While the jury is still out on why this is so, a plausible reason is that quotation marks can make a headline appear as if it were a quote. It's human nature: We believe more what a person says than what a company says.

So let's put it all together. To illustrate the application of most of the tips mentioned, let's refer to the example above (the accounting software). A headline could be like this:

(First, the surheadline in small font.)

"If you're like one of our customers, you could be losing as much as $136,779 every year through slow or inaccurate financial reports! You can stop the hemorrhage NOW ..."

(Next, the main headline in large, bold font.)

"Keep the finger on your company's financial pulse at all times, and save hours and dollars wasted in needlessly searching for important statistical information, with blazingly-fast Accountant's Best Friend 5.0."

(Finally, the subheadline in small font again.)

"Test-drive our software for 30 days. And within as little as 14 minutes, you can turn your accounting system into a super-fast, easy-to-use, real-time statistics generator. Add cash to your bottom-line within 30 days -- GUARANTEED!"

In conclusion, ask yourself: "Does the opening statement beg for attention? Does it arouse enough curiosity? And does it genuinely reflect and cater to the needs, motives and emotions of my target market?" Most importantly, "Is the language easy to understand, especially by that market?" Contrary to popular knowledge, benefits are not means for creating hype or blatant puffery. They are vehicles through which customers can fully understand and appreciate a site's true purpose, because ...

Different words mean different things to different people.

About the author
Michel Fortin is a direct response copywriter and consultant dedicated to turning sales messages into powerful magnets. Get a free copy of his book, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," when you subscribe to his free monthly ezine, "The Profit Pill." See http://SuccessDoctor.com/ now!

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