It’s not a headline unless it Tweets

Lemon.The great Al Hampel once said, “It’s not creative unless it sells.” Thanks to Jennifer Campbell for pointing out that it was Al Hampel, not Leo Burnett whom I originally attributed. See her comment below) He was addressing the trend towards creative intended only to win awards rather than to achieve the goal the writers were being paid to accomplish.

Advertising has gone through many transitions during the four decades since the ground breaking creative headline of the “Lemon” ad changed marketing communications forever. There were periods when many ads had no headline at all, and times when headlines were so long they took up more space than the rest of the ad. In an effort to move away from what might be seen as ‘too traditional,’ it seems that many copywriters have forgotten the value of the headline.

Research has found that the headline represents 84% of the effectiveness of any communication. 84 out of every 100 people who read an ad, web page or E-mail message will do so only if the headline or subject line does its job. No doubt some people will say, “But what about [insert dramatic exception here]?” Of course there are exceptions. There are no hard rules in advertising. But there are patterns and realities of human behavior. Research is useful for finding out what is most likely to be effective.

I’ve seen many A/B tests where one headline would pull far better than another, when everything else about the message was the same. In one dramatic case, changing a single word in the headline drew four times as many responses. Headlines matter.

So, if the headline is as important as all that, it makes sense that copywriters should spend time on it. Far too many don’t give it enough thought. And far too many clients don’t think they should. In fact, you should actually spend four times as long writing the headline as the rest of the copy!

A great headline is short, concise, and powerful. But it rarely starts that way. It takes time to cut away and edit and painstakingly reshape until you have something that can’t be reduced any further without changing the message.

Carmine Gallo, in his excellent book “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs,” writes that the best headlines need to be short enough to fit into the 140-character limit of a Twitter post (known as a “Tweet”). It’s good advice. Twitter is an excellent tool for copywriters. It forces you to think in short sentences, compelling you to write copy that does the most with the least.

Gallo goes on to illustrate his point with real examples from Apple:

  • MacBook Air. The world’s thinnest laptop. (42 characters)
  • The iPod. 1,000 songs in your pocket. (37 characters)
  • Apple reinvents the phone. (26 characters)
  • The industry’s greenest notebooks. (34 characters)
  • iPhone 3G. Twice as fast at half the price. (43 characters)

You might think that these apply well to Powerpoint, but won’t prove as creative or effective as the headline of an ad or E-mail message. Not so. Apple actually ran these same headlines in all their communication channels, and even used them in interviews. They appeared on their website as the feature headlines found on the home page, in the subject lines of their E-mail promotions, in press releases and in their magazine ads.

The media found they couldn’t write more effective versions. This meant that editorial coverage on these product announcements ran with exactly the same headlines. When Apple introduced the iPod, the Associated Press ran their story with the headline, “Apple’s new iPod player puts 1,000 songs in your pocket.” When the iPhone was launched, PC World ran the headline that Apple would “Reinvent the Phone,” using language provided by Apple. It doesn’t get any better than that.

In his book, Gallo points out that this rule is equally important in other presentation settings. For example, your pitch about a business concept given to potential investors also needs to meet the “Twitter” rule or it won’t go anywhere. Google pitched its concept using the following headline: “Google provides access to the world’s information in one click.” Gallo mentions that one investor told him, “If you cannot describe what you do in ten words or less, I’m not investing, I’m not buying, I’m not interested. Period.”

If you write copy, create a Twitter account and start using it. You’ll be amazed at how it could improve your headline writing skills.

Since most headlines are short enough to fit within the limits of a Tweet, ask yourself if the headline will actually mean anything if that’s all you saw. When you strip away the graphics and other parts of the message, is it still compelling? How well do your headlines meet the Twitter rule? Will they stand out in the ever-changing stream of a Twitter feed? If not, they won’t stand out in the stream of consciousness that impacts all media.

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

  • Jennifer Campbell
    March 23, 2010

    Actually, “It’s Not Creative Unless It Sells” and the philosophy behind it is the brainchild of Al Hampel while he was with Benton & Bowles.

  • Writing Guide
    March 17, 2010

    What are copywriting classes like? I am thinking about minoring in copywriting at my school (I’m a fiction major) and I’d to know what sort of things are taught, what kinds of homework/practice/exercises there are, etc. Anybody here with experience?

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