Before you get cracking on writing your own killer headlines, it’s critical to have a clear brief – so you know the target audience, you know the communication channel, and you know the essence of what it is you want to say. The project could be anything; you might be writing an email letter to encourage existing clients to renew their insurance policy. Or redrafting evidenced-based content for choosing the right career path into engaging copy that resonates with school leavers.  Or, in this instance, smashing out a blog on the secrets for writing killer headlines, which will take only a couple of minutes to read by the way, but can transform the way you approach writing headlines.
Regardless of the project, irrespective of how many hours you’ll spend agonising over the right words and phrases for the body copy, it all starts with the headline. Get this wrong, and you needn’t have bothered with writing any body copy at all – it just won’t be read.

You’ll have a couple of seconds to make an impact.

No-one is sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to read your witty, ‘oh-so-clever’ advertising copy. According to the latest research, your message is one of several thousand advertising messages the average person will encounter over the course of 24 hours. So whatever you’re wanting to say, you’ve got about two seconds to hook your reader with a compelling headline (repeat, TWO SECONDS!!!) In fact, many experienced copywriters consider the headline to be so crucial to the success of the campaign they’ll spend up to 50% of the project time exploring all sorts of headline ideas. Make no mistake, headlines are an invaluable and underestimated tool in your bag of tricks as a copywriter to sell products and services.

Now, in no particular order, it’s time to reveal the 9 secrets for writing killer headlines.

1. Always keep in mind the person you’re targeting

The aim of a headline is simple – it should entice the reader you’re targeting (ie, homebuyer, school leaver, insurance policyholder, holidaymaker) to move onto the story itself. Clearly, this strategic approach will not appeal to everyone reading, and that’s the point. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Instead, make your headline one great irresistible tease of information to a specific target.

2. Speak like your audience.

Use words and language your audience uses. If your message is directed to teenagers (and OMG – they’re a tough audience) then you’d use different words and phrasing than if you’re targeting a DIY home builder, or retirees looking to relocate. At the same time, be careful with jargon. Out-dated words and phrases are a red flag to your target audience, and once they think you’re a fake, they’ll quickly switch off from reading.

3. Teach your reader something useful

Human beings are thirsty for knowledge, especially if it’s something we think we can benefit from. We get a thrill from learning new skills that complement our goals and aspirations. For this reason, headlines such as ‘A Beginners Guide to’, or ‘Increase your superannuation nest egg in five minutes’ tend to work extremely well.

4. Use digits, not words.

Headline writing is a numbers game. It’s not just about generating lots of headline ideas for the one project (20 headlines is a good start by the way) but whenever you’re including numbers, use the actual digits themselves. For example, “15 Ways to Lose Weight’” is proven to be more effective than writing  ‘Fifteen Ways to Lose Weight’. Why? Because digits are easier for the human eye to scan on the page. Again, it comes back to the need to communicate quickly. Remember, you’ve got TWO precious seconds.

5. Big obscure numbers are even better

Oddly enough, big obscure numbers work even better. For example, if you write ‘93 ways to land your dream job’ this will outperform ‘6 ways to land your dream job. Why? Because the headline featuring 93 ways promises more value. Having said that, if you’re padding your story out with absolute tripe to get to ‘93 ways’ you’ll lose your reader very quickly, and so you should.

6. Here’s a tip – avoid the word ‘tip’.

Giving someone a tip is OK for the next race at Flemington, but it’s become a lazy, first-thought type of word for headlines. It’s over-used, passive and lacks punch. Instead, try more seductive words like ‘secret’, ‘insight’, or ‘reason’.

7. Create a sense of urgency

This classic headline approach transcends technologies and communication channels. Adding urgency in a headline usually requires adding the word ‘now’ or ‘today’ at the end of the headline. For example, ‘13 Ways to Grow Your Online Sales Right Now’ is more compelling than ‘13 Ways to Grow Your Online Sales’.

8. The best copywriters can think visually.

Research shows that people respond favourably to strong visual images, particularly if your message is competing in a crowded space (ie, newspapers, magazines, billboards). So if you’re a copywriter, don’t be afraid to think visually. Personally, I like to use a black marker pen and draw a series of rectangles on a blank piece of A4 paper. Inside each rectangle, I’ll often squiggle an image of something that springs to mind along with a headline. Then, after kicking the ideas around with an art director, we’ll usually arrive at a message that’s far more powerful than words on their own.

9. Write 20 different headlines in five minutes

Come on, let your mind go crazy. This is a fun way to get rid of all the crappy, boring and obvious headlines in one go. In my experience, the chances of writing a killer headline with your first 10 ideas are slim. By writing another 10, your chances improve, and then when you think you can’t come up with any more, give yourself a break, and then come back and write another 10. Of course, the more headlines you write, the better your chances of writing a ‘corker’ of a headline. That’s the challenge for copywriters in Hobart, Hanoi, Hawaii, or anywhere else. Embrace the challenge, apply the secrets I’ve revealed, and you’ll be writing your own killer headlines on a regular basis.