Do your headlines pass the critical 4-Task Test?

December 20, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

writing headlinesThe headline is the heavy hitter in any piece of copywriting.

It’s the salesperson’s opening line, the foot in the door, the first and most lasting impression. A headline wields the power to attract, repel, or slip by readers unnoticed.

The question you must always ask yourself when writing a headline is, does my headline pass the 4-Task Test?

To write effective headlines, you must understand how words affect people and generate action. Specifically, most effective headlines perform four critical tasks: they attract attention, select an audience, deliver a complete message, and draw the reader into the body copy.

Don’t look at these four tasks as a sequence of events. A headline performs them all simultaneously and immediately.

1. A headline attracts attention to your copy.

If no one notices what you’ve written, you’ve wasted your time. Therefore, every headline must attract attention.

It can do this by appealing to your reader’s self interest, by announcing news, by offering useful information, or by using powerful words such as “FREE.”

The size and placement of the headline can also help to stop the eye. In nearly every case, your headline should appear at the top of the copy and be relatively large and bold. If it’s just a little annoying for your designer, you’ll know it’s about the right size.

2. A headline helps select your best prospects.

It would be simple to attract attention with a headline that screams “Full Frontal Nudity!” However, if you’re selling a new edition of the Bible, this headline will certainly backfire. This is called bait and switch — a sure way to irritate, confuse, and alienate your readers.

Just attracting attention isn’t good enough. You must attract the attention of the right people for the right reason. You do this by including in your headline key words and phrases that flag the reader. For example, look at this simple headline:

We’re looking for people to write children’s books.

With two words, “write” and “books,” it selects the appropriate audience (would-be writers) for the ad’s message. Here’s another:

GOURMET KITCHENWARE FOR 59¢ A PIECE!

The word “kitchenware” selects those interested in cooking and baking, while the word “gourmet” selects those wanting only the best quality kitchen tools. The offer, “59¢ a piece,” further selects those looking for a bargain.

Using key words to select readers sounds like a no-brainer, but look at a few dozen ads and see how many of them violate this simple idea.

3. Ideally, a headline delivers a complete message.

Headlines are another example of the all-purpose 80/20 rule. Studies have shown that 8 out of every 10 people will read absolutely nothing but the headline of any particular advertisement.

That means that your headline alone carries 80% of the responsibility for success or failure, while your body copy, by contrast, carries only 20% of the load.

That’s a powerful argument for avoiding clever headlines that only tease the reader and focusing instead on headlines that communicate a clear, complete message. Look at how these headlines deliver a complete message that you can immediately grasp:

Own one of these leather-bound books for only $4.95 …

Increase sales. Motivate. Reward. With gifts everyone wants — from The Sharper Image.

You can make big money in real estate right now

Logically, it also follows that you should spend less time nit-picking body copy and more time testing and perfecting powerful headlines. In fact, you should be prepared to spend up to 80% of your time developing your headline (including your background research) and a mere 20% fleshing out the rest of your copy.

4. A headline pulls your reader into the body copy.

Despite the fact that only 2 out of 10 readers will take the time to read past your headline, you should strive to improve the odds and draw as many readers as possible into your body copy. This is the only way to deliver a full-dress sales presentation.

To draw in readers, your headline can arouse curiosity, ask a question, make a provocative statement, promise a reward, give news, or provide useful information.

Do your headlines pass the test?

No one ever said writing copy was easy. And I’m willing to bet that you spend more time futzing around with body copy than crafting a crackerjack headline.

Admittedly, the more experience you have, the easier it is to come up with the right headline for any given product. But it’s a good idea to keep this little 4-point test in mind whenever you’re brainstorming headlines.

And the moment you hit upon the most brilliant headline you’ve ever imagined, take a deep breath and write 20 more. It’s worth the extra effort.

Related posts:

  1. How to write snappy headlines that make sales
  2. 117 tested advertising headlines that made money

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