By David H. Martin

Many years ago my first boss, a creative director for a major advertising agency, handed this then-young ad copywriter a bootleg copy of “Winners and Sinners.” This was a decidedly irreverent “occasional internal newsletter” written by the city room editors of The New York Times, a plain, mimeographed sheet saluting well-written items and scorning badly penned ones among recent appearances in the prestigious newspaper.

My favorite regular feature in this unofficial dispatch was a column called “Trophies for a Headhunter.” The “trophies” were provocative story headlines that grabbed your attention, piqued your interest and commanded you to “read on.”

We in the marketing business know that the headline of an ad, brochure or flyer is representative of perhaps 80 percent of your response. Hence, it’s vital you write headlines that work or, more importantly, headlines that sell.

Eight successful heads
Here are some time-honored rules for the eight kinds of headlines that have been proven in millions of ads for all kinds of products and services. They apply to water improvement products as well.

Keep it simple and direct
No cleverness. No cuteness. No jokes. No wordplay. Just get right to the point and say what you have to say. This works particularly well with strong offers, solutions to clear problems, recognized brand names and product or service types the reader is familiar with:

  • Save 25% on a WaterRight Water Softener!
  • Give your family the gift of pure water on tap from EverPure
  • Only three to sell at this low price!

State ‘the big benefit’
This is the kind of headline that helps select your ideal audience and relays your main selling point. If you’re offering a small discount, say it. If you’re offering “half off” or two-for-one, yell it. If you’re offering something free, scream it.

• Now! Drinking water on tap at a fraction of the cost of bottled water!

• Free filter changes for first three years!

• Save hundreds of dollars on household cleaners this year!

Announce exciting news
Casting your headline in a way that suggests news, rather than just advertising, can have the same powerful appeal of a feature story in the morning paper.

Key “newswords” include:

  • New
  • Discover
  • Introducing
  • Announcing
  • Now
  • At last:
  • Finally

A Yale University study identified the 12 most powerful words in the English language. Savvy advertisers use these words in headlines and ad copy to improve advertising performance: You, Save, Results, Health, Love, Proven, Money, New, Easy, Safety, Discovery and Guaranteed.

Appeal to the ‘how to’ instinct
We all have an instinct to improve ourselves and our lives. The secret is to focus on a need or want of the reader and promise to fulfill that need or want quickly or easily.

  • How to drink more water—drink better water
  • How you can improve your energy and lose weight
  • How to eliminate mineral stains in your bath and sinks

Pose provocative questions
Asking a question directly involves your reader. However, your questions cannot be random or clever. They must relate directly and clearly to the major benefit of the product. They must also prod the reader to answer “yes” or at least, “I’m not sure but I want to know more.”

  • Concerned about the water your family drinks?
  • Can we help you better understand your “Consumer Confidence Report” on city water?
  • Have you ever had your water tested?

Bark a command
Many ads fall flat because they fail to tell the reader what to do. This headline type allows you to be direct, relay a benefit and take a commanding posture simultaneously. It’s not conversational—it’s dictatorial, but in an acceptable way that readers have come to expect in clear writing.

Take charge of the water quality in your home!
Do something to protect your home’s plumbing!
Ensure your children aren’t exposed to lead in your household drinking water.

Offer useful information
Today people swim in a sea of facts, but more data isn’t necessarily what they’re really looking for. They want order and predictability in their lives, to feel a sense of power or control over their world. Therefore, people seek out the secrets, tips, hints, rules, laws and systems that promise to help them gain control and make sense of things.

  • Let us test your water for hardness at no obligation.
  • The things you don’t know about water and your health might hurt you.
  • Why water quantity and water quality are both important to you.

Relate honest, enthusiastic testimonials
A testimonial headline can do two things for you. First, it presents your reader with third party endorsement of your products and services. Second, it capitalizes on a consumer’s desire to know what other people say by drawing more attention to what’s inside the quotation marks.

“WaterRight answered our questions about water softeners. They’ll answer yours, too!”
“I was confused about water filters, until I talked with EverPure.”
“We thought ‘water was water’ until we talked with Quality Water.”

After the headline
While the headline is the hook, the words immediately following are the clincher. Make sure they pay off the premise of the headline and provide more information that leads to the sale in a clear and logical progression. Offer clear customer benefits as well as product features. Include words of “urgency” that explain why it pays to “buy now.” Finally, include complete information on your location, business hours and phone number.

Even in the age of electronic information written words continue to be the most important way we communicate to customers. Make sure you communicate sales and promotion messages clearly and with maximum impact. Follow these proven guidelines for writing headlines that sell, and take proper time and thought when writing an ad headline, realizing this important “lead-in” message represents up to 80 percent of the impact and persuasiveness of your ad, flyer, brochure or e-mail message.

About the author
David H. Martin is a marketing consultant and partner in Lenzi Martin Communications, a Chicago-based marketing firm focusing on products which protect people’s personal environment. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404, (708) 848-9062 (fax), or email: [email protected]

How to Spot Bad Ad Copy
Take your last ad and ask one of your sales team if s/he would read it aloud to a prospect. Good salesmanship and good copy should sound about the same, almost like one person telling a friend about a good thing. When advertising copy starts sounding like… well, advertising copy, you can bet your salesman will be awkward when repeating it. And it will lack credibility when your prospect reads it silently.

Here are some phrases from some actual ads. Read them aloud and see if they sound like real people talking:

“While we humbly acknowledge nature’s leadership… ”

“Sharing a vision of company pride… ”

“If reaching the summit of performance is your goal… ”

“Experience durability beyond belief.”

“Our development team worked diligently… ”

“We are at the forefront of evolution… ”

“…we acknowledge the sense of wonder that remains.”

It’s easy to find ad copy like this in almost any business magazine. But if you start finding it in your ads, maybe it’s time to get on the road with your top salesperson and start taking notes.

Source: Alexander Marketing Services, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Famous Last Words: About ‘taglines’
While a headline must capture attention and make you want to read on, the last line in your ad should be devoted to creating “urgency” to act now. The “tagline” is never as large as the type used in the headline, but it should be bold and brief. It should also complement the offers made above. Here are a few time-proven taglines used by retailers of every stripe:

• Only 7 to sell at this low price! Hurry!
• This weekend only! Don’t wait!
• When they’re gone, they’re gone. Hurry in!
• This is our best sale of the year. Don’t miss it!
• The first five callers will receive a FREE GIFT. Call now!


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