Always Use a Benefit Headline

December 9, 2008 by

My #1 Tip for the Most Critical Part of Any Advertisement

A couple of months ago, a client showed me the trade magazine in which an article I’d written for her had been published. She seemed pleased.

I felt sick.

Unbeknownst to me, and to my client, the magazine’s editor had replaced the headline I’d written with a much shorter one of his own. Probably to match the magazine’s “design-driven” style.

Why did that upset me?

It wasn’t a matter of ego. Instead, I felt deeply sorry for my client. She’d been robbed. In my opinion, that editor had cut significantly the number of inquiries the article was likely to generate.

Because as just about every advertising expert will tell you – an attention-getting headline is the most crucial element in any advertisement.

And let’s face it, even though they’re meant to inform rather than make a sales pitch, an article placed by a company in a trade publication is still an advertisement.

Famed copywriter and ad executive David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather, had this to say about headlines in his book, Confessions of an Advertising Man:

“The headline is the most important element in most advertisements. It is the telegram which decides the reader whether to read the copy.

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

“If you haven’t done some selling in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your client’s money.”

So today, I’d like to give you my #1 tip for writing effective B2B headlines…

Always use a benefit headline, never a teaser headline.

Headlines can basically be divided into two types: benefit headlines, and teaser headlines.

A teaser headline tries to do what the name implies: tease you into reading the ad, email, sales letter, or whatever. Here are some examples taken from a recent issue of Aerospace Testing International (ATI):

We Go Above & Beyond. [Ad for piezotronic sensors.]

Time Flies. [Ad for vibration, pressure and shock sensors.]

We’re Driven! [Ad for RF/microwave instrumentation.]

As you can see, these headlines are virtually meaningless without the underlying body copy – or at least the visual. The copywriter is hoping you’ll be intrigued enough by his clever (or clichéd) turn of phase that you’ll keep reading to discover what it means.

“Do teaser headlines work?” asks copywriter Steve Slaunwhite in Secrets of Writing for the Business-to-Business Market. “They do – sometimes. But all too often, it’s a long shot. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes for a moment. He’s a busy manager. His desk is piled to the ceiling with work. The phone is ringing. His in-tray is overflowing. He has 44 unread e-mails, and it’s only 10 a.m.! Does he have time to decipher your witty headline? Probably not.”

“I believe that teaser headlines suffer from a fatal flaw,” writes copywriter Ivan Levinson in his e-zine, The Levinson Letter. “They are essentially a bet, and a bad one at that. The writer bets that the reader will check out the body copy simply because the headline is so darned intriguing. Sadly, this is a bet that is often lost.”

So unless you enjoy rolling the dice with you marketing budget and career, I’d suggest you spend your time crafting the other type of headline. The type of headline that sells consistently. The benefit headline.

A benefit headline implies or expresses a benefit to the reader. Here are some examples of benefit headlines from the same issue of ATI:

Wiring Fault Found. [Ad for a portable wiring tester]

Measure Strain Without Stress [Ad for strain testing instruments]

Effective cost savings by replacing film [Ad for x-ray inspection systems]

Headlines like these say to the reader, “Hey, read this and you can improve productivity, make your job easier, save money, get things done faster, get an edge on the competition, comply with regulations, etc.”

Notice how the benefit headlines above, unlike the teasers, seem directly related to the products they promote. Benefit headlines help prospects “identify themselves” by offering them something they’re looking for. They tell the prospect, right up front, what’s in it for him.

How to craft a benefit headline

One tried and true technique for crafting headlines is to determine which benefit your product or service provides is most important to your customers, and use that benefit as the crux of your headline.

But the benefit doesn’t always have to come from the product itself.

Professionals are always looking to gain useful knowledge that will help them do their jobs better and more easily. So if your marketing piece offers helpful information, say so. Use phrases like, “How to..”, “7 Reasons Why…”, “5 Great Strategies…” and “Free Report” in your headlines. They signal that specific information is available, and will lure prospects into your body copy.

If your product or company has a unique strength that sets it apart from the competition, emphasize that in your headline. Don’t use generic ‘corporate-speak’ like we saw in those ‘teaser’ examples above.

Why advertisers (misguidedly) use teaser headlines

Now, you may be asking yourself, “If teaser headlines are so risky, why do I see so many of them in ads and other marketing materials?” Slaunwhite says, “I suspect it is because many copywriters and ad agencies are under pressure to be ‘creative’. They want to demonstrate their original thinking to clients and colleagues. And what better way to do that then to come up with a mind-twister of a headline.”

My own theory is that many companies leave their advertising in the hands ad agency art directors or graphic designers who believe people don’t read. To them, copy is just another design element. The result is often a short, generic headline that ‘blends well’ with the opening visual…but does little to sell the product.

But if you really want to boost leads and sales and get a good return on your marketing budget, use a headline that works…not one that’s just ‘creative’. Because as Ogilvy is often quoted as saying, “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.”

Take-Away Points

If you want your advertising and other marcom to generate leads and sales, use benefit headlines not teaser headlines. Insist on them from your ad agency or PR firm.

A Little Extra Added Value

Here’s a list of idea-starters for coming up with attention-getting, benefit-oriented headlines of your own.

3 Comments

  1. [...] I’m going to give you another list of proven formulas (different from last month’s) for quickly coming up with effective headline [...]

  2. [...] talked before about benefit headlines and how to make them as powerful as they can be in previous essays, so I won’t go into details [...]

  3. [...] we’ve talked about why you should use a benefit headline, rather than a teaser headline (click here to review that article). And how to refine a headline using the “4 U's” formula. So today, I thought I’d give you a [...]

Leave a Comment