What makes a great headline?
Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Open a word doc. Think about a headline. Give up trying to write a headline. Write copy. Go back to headline. Hastily write something descriptive, perhaps with a bad pun. Finish.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Headline writing is one of the most popular topics in our workshops because people are so intimidated by it. Should it be bold and catchy? Funny? Informative? Insightful? As the first thing people read, a headline is one of the most important things you can write. But it doesn’t have to be the hardest.
There are lots of different bits of copy that could count as a headline – a title for a book, a hashtag for a social campaign, an idea for an ad. But in the end, the process of writing them isn’t much different. It’s all about having a host of techniques that will help you quickly come up with some options.
Here are our picks of the most useful.
It might have been an exclusive boys club with some very ruthless characters, but the Mad Men era definitely gave us some good headlines to learn from.
This David Ogilvy example is one of the classics. It’s so effective because it combines two powerful elements: surprise and intrigue. You don’t expect to read about the electric clock when the headline starts with ‘At 60 miles an hour’. Where other brands might have focused on the performance, this ad gives off a sense of understated luxury.
And then when the headline has sunk in, you want to read more about the car – why is it so quiet?
The surpriser works particularly well in two part-headlines, like this Porsche ad.
The benefit highlighter
Few headlines come as close to perfect as Norwegian’s 2016 ad for flights to LA. It’s short, funny and was perfectly timed, immediately after Brad and Angelina split up. As well as mentioning a number (always good in a headline), it uses another powerful headline technique: highlight the benefit.
Flights to LA for £169 are cheap, but instead of talking about the cost, Norwegian focused on what flights to LA might mean for you as an individual. It doesn’t matter how cheap the flights are if there’s not a good reason to travel.
Although it’s unlikely anyone actually bought the flights to go in search of Brad Pitt, the headline gets you thinking about what else you could do.
While it’s a bit depressing, Timberland nailed the tone with this ad targetting millennials. Asking a question forces the reader to think, and the more you think about this ad, the cleverer it is. Boots should last a long time – that’s the least you deserve if you’re going to be working until 90. Besides, you won’t have any money to keep buying new pairs, so you may as well get some that last.
The problem presenter
Besides humour, this ad actually uses another clever headline technique: problem/solution. The problem is that people often use very similar passwords, the solution is to see the list of common passwords and get advice on how to make a good one. The writing at the bottom of the ad says: ‘shit is the 16th most common password in Sweden. See the full list and get a new one at ssf.nu'.
While it doesn’t depend much on the copy, this KitKat ad uses a well-established headline technique: exaggeration. Obviously nobody’s calendar actually looks like this, but we can all feel the pain. And it makes the KitKat break seem all the more essential.
When an industry is going one way, it can sometimes pay to go the other. Banking is becoming friendlier and more personal, but Hyposwiss have taken the opposite approach with a refreshingly unapologetic set of ad headlines.
This works particularly well if you have lots of close competitors – just see what they’re saying and say the opposite.
If you have a particularly interesting story to tell, a descriptive headline might be the way to go.
Newspapers summarise their stories in the headlines so people are intrigued enough to carry on reading. Read any paper or browse through any journalism and you’ll come across plenty of examples. The same technique works equally well for case studies, blog posts or research findings.
Try a few for your next headline
We could endlessly list headline techniques – it’s such a big part of copywriting that we’ve come across a fair few in our time. But the ones you’ve read here are some of the most effective to get you started.
The most important thing to remember when writing any kind of headline is to keep trying ideas. The more you do, the more likely you’ll have something that will end up in a future blog post we write about headlines.
p.s. don’t forget, our sharper copywriting workshops are packed full of creative techniques to help you write persuasive headlines in a hurry.