I recently came across an article in a marketing trade publication (not this one) praising some top B-to-B ad agencies for supposedly creating great print ads. I was blown away—but not in a good way. Just look at a random sampling of their awful headlines and you'll see why:
- Wake Up
- Make What Matters
- The Legend Continues
- Bring It
- It's Tougher Than the Leading Competition
- The Hear Yourself Think Space
- Work Will Never Be the Same
- Nobody Said You Couldn't Have It All
- Outta Here.
- Connect With Investors on a Different Scale.
If I handed in copy with these headlines, my clients would summarily reject it. Yet, these headlines are from ad agencies handling big-name accounts including American Express, WebMD, Teledyne Controls, Honeywell, Corning and dozens more. A few things that make most of the ads I saw ineffective:
- Weak headlines that state no specific benefit and no unique selling proposition (USP).
- Ads with no headlines.
- Single-word headlines not related to the product—or a made-up word; which, therefore, said next to nothing.
- Impossible-to-read body copy in tiny type, wide paragraphs and printed against a color background instead of white.
- Weak offers or no offers.
- The prospect has no incentive to act now.
You'd think any good copywriter would be a godsend to these agencies. But I fear not: I believe they are incapable of either writing or recognizing good copy. It's a crying shame. David Ogilvy, John Caples, Claude Hopkins, and Scotty Sawyer are turning over in their graves.
Let me share with you eight proven headline formulas that can help you write stronger B-to-B copy:
1. How To
The phrase "how to" may be shopworn. But it's still tremendously effective, because prospects want to know how to solve their problems and improve their business results.
One of the most effective ads I ever wrote, for a pollution control device, had the simple headline "How to Solve Your Emissions Problems at Half the Energy Cost of Conventional Venturi Scrubbers."
The USP is this alternative type of scrubber operates at half the cost of the widely used venture scrubbers. The half-page, two-color ad was the No. 1 inquiry producer in four consecutive issues of Chemical Engineering magazine.
Tip: When you are stuck coming up with a headline, write the words "how to" and then just fill in what your product does. Example: An ad I wrote for filters used in pharmaceutical manufacturing had the simple headline "How to Keep Your Products Pure."
Any time you can put a number in the headline, consider doing so. Reason: Numbers get attention. Numbers in copy should be numerals, and not written out as words.
When writing an ad for software that monitors network performance, I asked the client what the major problems were that the monitor detected. He came up with five, and I used this fact to good advantage in my headline: "How Can You Stop the 5 Biggest Problems That Wreck Productivity and Performance in Your Mainframe TCP/IP Network?"
Question headlines work only when you ask a question to which the reader wants the answer. Ted Nicholas had enormous success selling a do-it-yourself incorporation kit with this headline: "What Will You Do When Your Personal Assets Are Seized to Satisfy a Judgment Against Your Corporation?"
4. Reasons Why
Like how-to, reasons-why is a great starter when you are struggling with the headline. First, put a number in front of the phrase. After the phrase, introduce either a benefit or identify the audience.
5. Now You Can
Another phrase I like in headlines and copy is, "Now you can," for two reasons. First, "now" adds a sense of immediacy, and second, "you" is recognized as one of the most persuasive words.
An old ad for a math software product had the headline, "Now You Can Calculate on Your PC With the Same Freedom You Have on Paper."
6. Use the Imperative Voice
Headlines written in the imperative voice are also known as command headlines, because they tell the reader to do something. A light bulb manufacturer ran an ad with the headline "Stop Burning Profits."
My favorite B-to-B ad of all time was for a fireproofing compound. The ad was printed on a sheet of paper treated with the compound and bound into the magazine. The ad had a coupon, the headline read "Try Burning This Coupon," and the visual was a hand holding a lit match. If you put a match to the ad it burned, but if you took it away, the fire immediately stopped.
7. State a Benefit
Although many practitioners say the purpose of the headline is to gain attention and lure the prospect into the body copy, many readers never get past the headline. To appeal to them, you can put a complete benefit in the headline that makes clear what the product does. For a firm manufacturing color measurement systems for the automotive industry, the ad headline read: "Color Control from Bumper to Bumper."
8. Be Uncreative
Ad agencies, as indicated in the headline list reprinted at the beginning of this column, strive to be creative. But if you offer a product or service in short supply, you are better off being straightforward and clear, rather than clever or funny. The late B-to-B ad man Scotty Sawyer once said that if he were writing an ad for boilers and was only permitted one word in the headline, that word would be "Boilers" in 72-point type.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.