Writing effective headlines – the secrets copywriters keep to themselves
Whether you call them headlines, first lines, captions, leaders or even screamers, the opening to your copy, whether it’s print or online, does more work than the whole of the rest of the text. In other words, if you don’t get your headline right, the rest of your copy is pointless.
Copywriters know exactly what generates a response but they don’t always tell their clients what the key features are – because if they did, they might be out of a job! But smart writers, and designers, tell their customers what works and what doesn’t so that the copy has the greatest possible chance to succeed. So measure your proposed headline against this list of effective details to make sure it will work.
Fifty shades of black
The darker your headline, the more impact it will have, particularly in print form. Black is best, navy is nearly as good, anything that you wouldn’t immediately describe as a dark colour should be avoided. Bright headlines can look childish and anything too pale is likely to be illegible. Red, which many people think is ideal now conveys one of two messages: ‘we’re cutting prices’ or ‘danger’. If that’s what you want to express, fine, go ahead, but if you have any other message red may not be ideal for you.
Don’t punctuate but do ask questions
Full stops turn people off. Literally. They say, ‘stop now, it’s over’. So people don’t read on. Can you see how difficult it was to read those four short sentences? It probably felt pretty odd, didn’t it? But question marks inspire people to answer the question for themselves and then they want to read on, to see if they got the ‘right answer’ so here’s a bonus tip – if you ask a question, make sure you answer it!
It’s great to be provocative, or funny, or play with a current popular phrase or meme, like our fifty shades of black headline. Catching your reader’s attention is vital if they are to read on, so you should put a lot of work into defining your headline. But don’t be so clever that people can’t work out what you’re writing about. As a rule of thumb, copywriters spend about half their working day crafting headlines. Your copywriter should know your audience well and write for that audience with confidence and authority. So, for example, the fifty shades of black headline probably wouldn’t work for an Islamic audience, and we’d look for something with more Maslaha.
Capitals belong on maps, not in headlines
Capitals do not add impact to your headline. They are just SHOUTING in print and that is rarely attractive. There’s a lot of nonsense suggesting that writing entirely in capitals is inherently more difficult to read but recent research shows this is nonsense. However, we do know that people don’t like to be shouted at. Ever. So headlines that are all in capitals often cause people to turn the page or click away.
Keep it simple, stupid
Have you ever been handed a business card by somebody and when you glanced at it, been unable to read their company name, or even their own name? The information is what you’re trying to get across, not the beautiful font that you’ve found, so keep elaborate calligraphy for Christmas cards, if you must use it at all. The message should be simple, and a simple message should be easy to read. Too much detail can stop people reading, which means you’ve wasted your time. There’s an exception to this rule though – for an Islamic audience, fine typography has a special resonance and choosing a slightly more elaborate font for your logo may resonate with those who have an affinity to the beautiful calligraphy of khatt.
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