Headline Writing Rules: Improve Them With This Ridiculously Simple Formula

Posted by Devon Moore
Devon is the content marketing manager at BAM.

Controversial college basketball coach Bob Knight was famous for more than just his success on the court. Exploits included throwing chairs, screaming at players and officials, and the occasional hot soundbite directed at an inquiring sports journalist.

Ok. So what the hell does this have to do with copywriting?

We’re getting to this. The thing is, Knight was old school, and a stickler for fundamentals. He often lamented highlight reel culture — the perils of his young players watching their peers make spectacular dunks in game recaps. His premise was simple. 99% of the highlights we see on Sportscenter comprise about 2% of what actually happens in a game. What’s ignored is a great pass. Or a perfectly structured rotation on defense. Or a player hustling back to alter the angle of a shot.

As communicators of wordcraft, writers often fall victim to this same concept. We see an example of a great headline or a flashy campaign with whimsical writing. We forget that rarely does any result become successful in a vacuum. In copywriting, it’s the small details and simple fundamentals — the things you don’t always see — that ultimately win the heart of the purchaser.

Sure, successful shots in the dark happen with copywriting — and can work. But if you want to achieve a modicum of consistent success, you win going back to the basics — again and again.

This Aldi ad is a great example of ad copy that is so amazing and creative it’s unlikely to be replicated.

The Rule Of The 4 U’s: Where Great Headline Copy Starts

The approach begins with famous copywriter Robert Bly’s “Four U’s” In The Copywriter’s Handbook:

  • Urgency
  • Unique
  • Useful
  • Ultra-Specific

Your headline ideally scores high in three of these categories — though don’t put up a fight if you can only hit two — especially if you’re writing for digital.

Useful: Help Me Help You!

This is simple. How can this product or service help? What is the value. How can you solve my problem, with an apt description? Put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and ask, if they were to complement a product or service, what would they say about it?

Ultra-Specific Targeting

Choose your audience. Or better yet, a way to appeal to their self-interest. So what are we thinking about? Moms? Married people? Homeowners?

Easy targeting: Is your business geo-specific? Use this to your advantage

For example: what headline are you most likely to click on if you live in Pittsburgh and have a peanut allergy?

  • If you live in the United States, this new crazy discovery will interest you.
  • If you live in Pennsylvania, this new crazy discovery will interest you.
  • If you live in Pittsburgh, this new crazy discovery will interest you.
  • If you live in Pittsburgh and are allergic to peanut butter, this new crazy discovery will interest you.

Urgency – NOW!

Limited time, only, today, rush, last chance, deadline, now, right now.

And yes, you can shamelessly reference George Carlin’s “advertising lullaby” if you need inspiration.

Unique: Fascinate Me

Focus on unique if you have a great value proposition — but don’t force it. The value proposition gets the reader’s attention more than anything else.

Attention-getting words begin and end with FREE. But also could include — sale, quick, easy, bargain, last chance, guarantee, proven, results, introducing (if it’s something new).

Always ask: what’s the value proposition, what’s interesting about this, what would make them talk about it…if you can’t find one…do research!

Why Research Is The Backbone Of Good Headline Writing

Advertising mogul David Ogilvy said “a great full-time copywriter spends an hour a week, if that, writing.”

This is true. Most of billed time in copywriting should be spent with a notepad in research. And it doesn’t have to be scientific research. Start off with this:

  • Look at testimonials
  • Consumer insights: Reddit, Quora, Consumer Affairs. Google (your product/service/brand) in + reviews
  • Industry articles
  • Look at competitor ads
  • TALK to customers!

And please, always try to come up with something better than Save time and money with this great offer! Ad nauseum! It’s too broad, people hear it too much, and it won’t register unless your product/service is a hot commodity.

Headline Writing For Digital Versus Print

For better or worse, the execution of writing a good headline has become lost in the digital world, due to the ability to test multiple ads with multiple targets. But the research never changes — there’s simply new and improving ways to find what people love and make any piece of copy appeal to their self-interest.

Coach Knight’s temper eventually caught up with him. He was fired. However, you don’t need to get upset and throw chairs if you’re having a hard time finding that perfect headline. If it passes the test of “The Four U’s”, you are probably on your way to great results.