How to Write Powerful Headlines

January 7, 2009 by

How to Grab Your Prospect by the Eyeballs and Focus His Undivided Attention on Your Sales Message In 3 Seconds or Less.

You’ve just drafted a handful of benefit-driven headlines for your next space ad. You’ve picked out two or three that look fairly promising.

But each…just seems to lack something.

You’re wondering to yourself, “Will any of these really work? Can I be sure? How could I make them better?”

Well, just keep reading and you’ll never have to ask those questions again. I’m about to introduce you to a proven 4-point process for turning any ordinary headline into a response-driving, blockbuster headline.

Plus, I’m going to give you another list of proven formulas (different from last month’s) for quickly coming up with powerful headline ideas.

Why you need a hard-working headline

Your prospect has just sent off an important proposal. Now he’s got 10 minutes before his weekly staff meeting. He picks up the trade journal that’s been waiting for him in his inbox the past four days. He begins leafing through it. He comes to the page with your ad.

You now have 3 seconds to capture his attention.

Remember, your prospect’s in a hurry. He wants to dismiss your ad and move on. He’s only going to read things that seem important to him.

Plus, there’s another factor working against you. Your prospect is bombarded by hundreds of sales messages every day. And he’s seem most of them before. So, like the rest of us, he’s trained himself make a quick decision on whether or not to read your advertisement.

His brain wants to categorize information – so he can make that quick decision. Bill Bonner, president of Agora Publishing, calls this tendency the Categorical Imperative. It means that if your ad looks similar to others your reader has seen, his subconscious mind will quickly say, “Oh, this is just another one of those…”, and prod him to move on.

And studies show he’ll base that decision largely on your headline. As advertising legend David Ogilvy pointed out, “On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.”

So how do you make sure your headline will break through the clutter and grab your prospect’s attention?

A 4-Point Plan for Crafting Killer Headlines

Master copywriter, marketing consultant and entrepreneur Michael Masterson has identified four ‘ingredients’ that make for powerful headlines. He calls his formula ‘The Four U’s’ – because powerful headlines are useful, unique, ultra-specific and urgent.

Let’s look at each of these four ingredients briefly. Then I’ll show you an example of how to use them.

Useful. As we discussed last month, the best headlines are those that offer your prospect some kind of benefit. You want to appeal to his self interest. You want to answer his subconscious question, “What’s in it for me?”, immediately.

Unique. A powerful headline says something new. Or, if it says something the reader has heard before, it says it in a fresh, new way.

Uniqueness helps you get around your reader’s Categorical Imperative filter. By saying something new to your reader, or in a way he’s never encountered, you stymie his brain’s ability to categorize it immediately. This creates intrigue and draws him into your copy.

Ultra-specific. Fine details also create intrigue. And credibility as well.

If you just say your product is “the best” or your company is “the world leader”, it sounds like hype – you offer the reader no reason to believe your claim. But if you say your product “reduces vibration by up to 53%”, or “extends MTBF by a 75% or more”, you’ve made a statement of fact – and you’ve implied you’ll reveal evidence to back it up. Details in the headline give your prospect specific reasons to delve into your copy.

Urgent. Adding urgency means giving the reader a reason to act now rather than later.

If your headline makes an offer, you can create urgency by adding a deadline, or noting supply limitations. “Offer ends May 30”, “for the next 60 days”, “to the next 50 customers” and “while supplies last” are examples of urgency elements.

In B2B, urgency is often induced by warning of potential loss of productivity, ROI, sales, precision, effectiveness, opportunity, etc., if the prospect fails to adopt your solution or chooses one of your competitors’.

Urgency can also be expressed in terms of savings or profits that can be accumulated over time using your product or service. For example: “After over half a million hours of air using AVBLEND, we’ve had no premature camshaft failures.

Applying the Four U’s

The Four U’s technique works best when it’s used to strengthen and refine a headline – after you’ve come up with the initial idea. And the best way to show how you how to use it is to work through an example.

Let’s say you’re selling a new lubricant specifically formulated for high-speed machine tools. It’s primary advantage is that it makes these expensive tools last far longer than any other lubricant currently on the market. You want to get that benefit across to your reader immediately. And the basic headline idea you’ve come up with is:

New High-Tech Lubricant Makes Machine Tool Parts Last Far Longer

So that’s our starting point. Now, the first thing to do is score our headline against each of the four U’s on a scale of 1 to 4 (1 = weak, 4 = strong). It’s usually not possible to make a headline rate a 4 on all four U’s and still be easily readable. But if your headline doesn’t merit a 3 or 4 on at least three of the tests – it’s probably not as strong as it could be.

So how does this headline stack up?

You set out to capture the product’s main benefit, making expensive machine tools last longer. That’s pretty important to your target prospect. So for Useful, let’s give it a 3 for the moment.

Is it Unique? Hmm…hardly. It looks a lot like the type of claim made thousands of times every day for thousands of different products. There’s nothing that really makes this claim stand out. For uniqueness, I’d give it a 1.

Is it Ultra-specific? Well, it does mention that it’s a lubricant for machine tools. We’ll give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and rate it a 2 on specifics.

And how about Urgency? Is there anything in this headline that gives the reader a reason to act – or even read the ad – now rather than later? I don’t think so: 1 for urgency.

Obviously, our headline needs a bit of work. So now let’s see what we might do to make it stronger, focusing on one U at a time. We’ll start with Ultra-specific.

I’d say the ending of our headline, “…Parts Last Far Longer”, is pretty vague. How much longer? If we don’t know, we should probably find out. But let’s say we have extensive test results showing that, over a wide variety of operating conditions, our product has made machine tools last anywhere from two to six times longer, compared to the leading brands. We might change our headline to:

New High-Tech Lubricant Makes Machine Tool Parts Last Up to 6 Times Longer

That’s better, isn’t it? It immediately makes our claim seem more credible. Because we couldn’t make that statement unless we had some proof to back it up. What’s more, by being Ultra-specific, we’ve also made our headline more Useful. Our prospect now knows just how much he can save.

So with just one small change, we’ve elevated our headline to at least a 3 for Ultra-specific and close to a 4 for Useful. Not bad.

But looking at it again, it still isn’t very Unique. We’re still running the risk of our prospect filtering it out.

How can we fix that? Well, ‘High-Tech Lubricant’ is a phrase our prospect has probably read dozens of times. So it might be useful to think about what makes our lubricant ‘high-tech’ and try to include that in our headline.

Let’s say our product contains a metallic substance that causes it to form a magnetic bond with metal surfaces that experience a lot of friction. No other product has it. So we might turn this property into a new terminology no one has seen before. Our headline could then be:

New ‘Polarized Oil’ Magnetically Adheres to Wear Parts in Machine Tools
Making Them Last Up to 6 Times Longer

There. Now we have a solid headline that is strong in three of the four U’s. It’s unique, useful and ultra-specific. In fact, it’s a classic B2B headline, often used by Bob Bly (in The Copywriter’s Handbook and other books) to illustrate a headline-writing technique he calls, “Create a new terminology”. So I wouldn’t want to presume to improve upon it just to add the fourth U (urgency).

But that brings us back to a point I mentioned earlier. Often, it’s just not possible to make your headline rate highly in all four U’s – without making it so wordy that it loses much of its attention-getting power. But if you feel your headline still needs to be stronger, there are ways to get around this problem.

One way is to use a subhead under your headline.

If your product is brand new, you may want to offer a special introductory price to encourage customers to give it a try. Putting your offer in a subhead adds urgency without diminishing the readability of the headline itself:

New ‘Polarized Oil’ Magnetically Adheres to Wear Parts in Machine Tools
Making Them Last Up to 6 Times Longer

Special introductory offer:
Save 25% on orders placed before March 31.

Special offers can work very well as subheads. Because in the instant after your prospect has read your headline – while he’s deciding whether or not he’ll read on – you give him an added incentive to read now rather than later.

I encourage you to use ‘The Four U’s’ any time you need to write a headline. This focused, step-by-step method will save you hours of brainstorming, and help you turn mediocre headlines into powerful, response-boosting headlines…that lead to greater sales.

Take-Away Points

Every time you write a headline, use ‘The Four U’s’ formula – useful, unique, ultra-specific and urgent – to make it as strong as it can be. It’s a proven tool for grabbing the attention of more prospects and boosting response.

A Little Extra Added Value

To use ‘The Four U’s’, you need to come up with an initial headline to use as a starting point. So here’s another list of proven headline formulas to help you get your creative juices flowing. This one was put together by master B2B copywriter Bob Bly.

5 Comments

  1. [...] with headlines and subheads, you can increase the selling power of your captions with the Four U's, making them as Useful, Unique, Urgent and Ultra-specific as you [...]

  2. [...] should use a benefit headline, rather than a teaser headline. And how to refine a headline using the “4 U's” formula. So today, I thought I’d give you a list of 10 proven headline formulas you can try the next time [...]

  3. [...] should use a benefit headline, rather than a teaser headline. And how to refine a headline using the “4 U's” formula. So today, I thought I’d give you a list of 10 proven headline formulas you can try the next time [...]

  4. [...] 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 here. But if you missed those articles and would [...]

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