Everyone in financial marketing writes headlines, whether they like it or not. This professional how-to guide gives you 10 easy ways to sharpen your skills, and includes a bonus cheat sheet with over 300 words to jump-start your creativity.
Here’s a fact: If you work in financial marketing today, you are writing headlines. Lots and lots of headlines. That’s the reality of the content-driven economy we are all now a part of.
A good headline should arouse curiosity, and encourage people to either read further or take action.
When people think of a headline, they commonly think of those big, bold blocks of copy that sit atop ads. But just because you didn’t come up with the catchphrase for the last big ad campaign or the company slogan doesn’t mean you aren’t writing headlines… every day, in every email, every press release, every internal memo, every Facebook update, every Tweet, every blog post, and even the titles of your YouTube videos. These are all effectively headlines — summaries of information intended to capture people’s attention and ultimately elicit a response.
1. Convey the benefit
Customers don’t buy features. They buy benefits. A benefit explains what the feature gives them, like “lasts longer, so it saves you money.” Benefits explain how the product or service improves the customer’s situation. It’s about them. Consumers only care about themselves. Too many marketers dwell on features instead of benefits. A feature is a descriptive phrase about your product of service. The trouble is, sharing facts about measurements, colors, costs and capabilities usually do not sell a product. Features are the logical reasons people use to justify their emotional decision to purchase something.
Feature-focused headline (wrong):
“Our loan reps have over 100 years combined experience.”
Benefit-focused headline (better):
“Eliminate stress with a ‘Worry Free’ home loan.”
2. Spend most of your time writing headlines
Eight out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only two will read the rest. If you agree with this hallowed advertising maxim, it should be obvious why you need to sweat your headlines. Write, and rewrite, then rewrite again. If you’ve got four hours to write an ad, you should spend around three of them on the headline.
3. Keep it short
Simplify your offer or message. Edit it down to its bare essence. Delete any superfluous or redundant language. Be ruthless, and boil it down to its most basic form. If you write a great headline, you might not need any body copy. Don’t be afraid of one- and two-word sentences.
Unnecessarily long headline:
“We are committed to helping you save more.”
Short, edited headline:
4. Use verbs generously. Use adjectives sparingly.
According to legendary advertising man, Leo Burnet, “Dull and exaggerated ad copy is due to the excess use of adjectives.” To prove it, he asked his staff to count the number of adjectives in 62 failed ads, then compare those to the number of adjectives in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other exemplary pieces of writing.
Here’s what he discovered: Of the 12,758 words in the 62 failed ads, 24.1% were adjectives. By direct comparison, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address contains only 35 adjectives out of 268 words — only a 13.1% adjective-to-total-word ratio. Winston Churchill’s famous “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech rates even lower and has a 12.1% adjective ratio (81 adjectives from 667 words). Similar ratios applied to great works such as The Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
Remember, every adjective you use is an unsubstantiated claim that might spark skepticism in your audience, especially if you stretch too far. Verbs, however, generally increase the pulling-power and believability of ad copy. Two of the most famous headlines in advertising total five words with no adjectives: “Got Milk?” and “Just Do It.”
All nouns and adjectives:
“Better rates, fewer fees and great service.”
“Earn more, save more, get more.”
5. Get your pronoun perspective straight
Too many marketers use the word “we” to collectively represent the organization — e.g., “what we believe.” This pronoun reflects a self-centered perspective. You’re emphasizing what you think, what you feel, when really it’s the audience you should be caring about. What do they think? How do they feel? That’s why it’s better to shift the perspective around from “we” to “you.” Instead of saying, “We treat people right,” you should say, “You’ll be treated right,” or “Treating you the right way,” or just “Treating you right.” It makes the message more personal, and helps the audience identify with the message more smoothly. Bonus tip: If you’re talking about product features, you’re talking about yourself, but if you’re talking about benefits, you’re talking about them.
“We listen. We understand. We make it work.”
“You deserve a banker who listens, understands and makes it work.”
6. Break the rules
Really, there are no rules. As a marketer, your job is all about communication. Whatever it takes to convey the message is fair game. Grammar? Puh-lease… Correct spelling? Not required in advertising land — inventors of words like “lite” and “thru.” Foreign languages? No problemo, compadre. Proper sentence structure with a noun and verb? Bwaahahaha… If you apply AP Style rules to your marketing communications simply because “that’s what you’re supposed to do,” you’re limiting yourself and the potential impact of your messages.
7. Piss someone off
If you try to write an ad that appeals to everyone, it will end up appealing to no one. To capture people’s attention in today’s marketing-saturated world, you’re going to have to make some waves and rock the boat. In the good old days, direct marketers used to talk about a “2% response rate.” The Financial Brand says screw that! If you want to get noticed, you have to be edgy. That means you should shoot for a “2% offense rate,” where your ad offends 2% of those who see it (presumably those outside your target audience). If you get thousands of letters protesting your ad campaign, you’ve probably pushed it too far. But if you get a couple complaints, don’t be afraid; it means your message is cutting through all the clutter.
8. Turn your subheads into headlines
Often when people try to be creative, their creativity gets in the way of the message they want to communicate. In other words, creativity becomes the goal instead of communicating. Here’s a clue: If someone has to read the body copy to figure out what your ad is about, you may be pursuing “clever” versus “clarity.” You’ll frequently see ads that require subheads to provide the context, payoff or offer. In many cases, these should have been used instead of the headline, which should be tossed away entirely. So be honest with yourself when you review your marketing materials, and ask, “Would this subhead make a more effective headline than the seemingly more ‘creative’ headline above it?” Sometimes just delivering your offer/message straight is the best approach. Here’s an example:
Headline: “It’s Time Again For Our Summer Loan Sale-a-Bration”
Subhead: “Refinance your mortgage at an unbelievable 2.85%!”
In the example above, the headline doesn’t offer the reader much useful information — there’s a sale… and what else? The subhead would make a much better headline. It’s got a verb, a rate, an attention-getting adjective and a call-to-action.
9. Avoid puns, idioms and clichés
Using puns, clichés, idioms and other common expressions in marketing materials is a cheap shortcut to “creativity.” They are a lazy man’s way out — a cheap, easy solution that slides through the approval process simply because it uses a slight turn of a familiar phrase. The context for most puns is in advertising is spurious. And there are cultural and language concerns: is everyone in your intended audience aware of the expression and its meaning?
“Saving more is easy as pie.”
“Here’s how ridiculously easy it is for you to save more.”
10. Write the headline last
Sometimes it helps to unclog your thoughts by flushing all the mandatory material on paper first. Write the body copy — the offer, the call-to-action, the disclosure — write all that stuff down and whittle it to the fewest words possible. Now step back and look for creative opportunities to provide context with your headline. How can you creatively frame your message? This approach might feel a bit backwards, but once you’ve got the core built, you have the clarity of message you need to concentrate on the headline.
Headline Keyword Cheat Sheet
When used correctly, consumers find these words irresistible. Most great headlines will incorporate at least one of these words (or a related theme).
Inside Information: Secrets, Tricks, Confidential, Tips, Cheat, Sneaky, Expert, Serious, Professional, Unlock, Master, Skiil, Revealing, Bible
Smart Advice: Clever, Brilliant, Expert, How To, Learn, Practical, Start, Important, Plan, Shrewd
Answers to Questions: Why, How, When, What, Who, Facts, How Much, Reasons
Cost & Value, Free: Bargain, Discount, [x] Off, Save, Savings, Earn, Sale, Cost, Buy, Budget, Cheap, Give, Get, Offer, Gain, Gift, Take, Lowest, Only, Complimentary, Refund, Rebate, Extra, Bonus, Plus
Urgency & Time: Only, Limited, Expires, Earlybird, Hurry, Time, Rush, Urgent, Today, Before, Fast, Faster, Accelerate, Immediately, Instant, Never, Quick, Lifetime, Direct, Sudden, Last, Last Minute, Snappy
Exclusivity: Exclusive, Invitation, Personalized, Custom, Private, Selected, Confidential
Events & Contests: Extravaganza, Bonanza, Celebration, Event, Sale, Sweepstakes, Giveaway, Win
Surprise & Delight: Exciting, Amazing, Unreal, Stunning, Phenomenal, Incredible, Mind Blowing, Awesome, Unbelievable, Insane, Crazy, Fascinating, Magic, Miracle, Interesting, Sensational, Surprise, Wonderful, Cool, Hot, Impossible, Beautiful, Startling, Jaw-Dropping
New & Unusual: Fresh, Strange, Creative, Innovative, Now, Weird, Announcing, Breakthrough, At Last, Introducing, Odd, Latest, Unique, Unusual, Rare, First, Explore, Find, Discover
Shock & Awe: Dangerous, Ridiculous, Killer, Explosive, Dynamite, Shocking, Unbelievable, Drastically, Outrageous
Size & Strength: Mega, Powerful, Extremely, Tremendous, Huge, Massive, Monster, Humongous, Gigantic, Exceptional, Strong(er), Mammoth, Colossal
Quantity: Additional, More, Unlimited, Complete, Full, Maximum, Everything, Enormous
Best of Breed: Perfect, Utlimate, Top, Ever, Absolute, Essential, Biggest, Most, Outstanding, Superior, Best, Coolest, Hottest, Fastest, Quickest, Easiest, Greatest, Cheapest, Lowest, Smallest, Highest
The Real Deal: Authentic, Genuine, Real, Honest, True, Unconditional, Natural
Effectiveness: Guaranteed, Proven, Results, Safe, Successful, Tested, Profitable, Reliable, Trusted
Ease & Simplicity: Easy, Easier, Easiest, Simple, Effortless, Breeze, Automatic, Simplify
Temptations: Sexy, Imagine, Dreams, Opportunity, Wealth, Money, Cash, Fortune, Win, Exploit, Willpower, Attractive, Beautiful, Lavish, Famous, Popular, Celebrity, Irresistible
Power Verbs: Love, Believe, Gain, Boost, Grow, Increase, Accelerate, Cut, Protect, Create, Drive, Fuel, Overcome, Unleash
Things to Avoid: Dumbest, Worst, Hate, Painstaking, Excruciating, Fail, Death, Bad, Wrong, No, Warning, Caution, Mistakes, Stop, Avoid, Eliminate, Prevent
Affirmations: Yes, Absolutely, Victory, Approved
Fun & Creative: Zinger, Ca-ching!, Zip, Zilch, Booyah!, Hocus Pocus, Ginormous, Woof, Phbbbt…, Phooey, Ugh, Fuhgeddaboudit, lolz, #hashtag