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Self-Help Articles on Psychological Marketing 

How To Write An Effective Ad
Part 1: The Headline
by Gary Witt, Ph.D.

Refer to other articles on how to analyze your product and your customers, then position your product through messages to customers which will take maximum advantage of their strongest "hot button" motivations to buy. Most businesses use advertising to reach customers, especially print advertising.

Advertising is a way to "speak" to your buyers, to stimulate their Hot Button motivations, then promise to satisfy them with your product or service. Each day you are competing for people's attention with thousands of other advertising messages. Unless your customers wake up thinking, "I've got to buy a widget today," they probably will not seek out your message in the clutter. In fact, they'll probably try to ignore it, along with most of other ads in newspapers and magazines.

The first step in any print ad is to figure out (a) what you want to tell customers, (b) what customers want to hear, and (c ) an approach or theme for your ad. For help on (a) and (b), refer to "What Are You REALLY" selling?" and "Meeting Customer Needs Is Not Enough."

Many creative advertising professionals come up with innovative, entertaining approaches for presenting a message. For example, Canon created a series of print ads which equated large copy jobs to other monumental tasks, like mowing the grass on a country estate with a push mower. Having created a feeling of an insurmountable task in the reader's mind, the ad then offers the new Canon copier as a solution to insurmountable copy jobs.

If you aren't skilled at creative advertising, you will probably be better served with a straightforward approach. Even this approach will demand creativity and a good deal of thought to select the best words, graphics and photos to get your ideas across.

After you have decided on your theme or approach, and what information will be included, begin by devising your headline.

To present your message, you must first get your readers' attention. That is the primary job of your ad's headline. Legendary adman Claude Hopkins said, "It is not uncommon for a change in the headline to multiply returns from five to ten times over." That's the power of a good headline at work. We'll look at some proven psychological techniques to grab a reader's interest. In later columns we'll look at how to create effective pictures and body copy.

The headline is like a barker in a carnival side-show. It's the barker's job to get people to stop, listen, and want to go inside. Your headline should strive to stop readers, and convince them to examine your message. How does a carnival barker pull people in? "Step right up. For just one thin dollar you can see this Freak Wonder of the Mysterious East with your own eyes -- the Amazing Giant Rat of Sumatra! You'll be amazed, you'll be terrified, you may even go crazy!"

Notice, the barker isn't really selling the Giant Rat. He's selling emotions -- awe, wonder, excitement, and fear. The Rat is just the means by which to deliver those feelings to the paying crowd. The carny barker knows what he's really selling -- and tailors his headline accordingly. If he used a pitch like, "Come see our giant rat!," he wouldn't sell many tickets. His buyers want to buy emotional stimulation, while he'd be trying to sell them a rat.

Your headline should try to stimulate some motivation (a strong need, want, fear, or desire) in the reader, then offer to satisfy it. Obviously the exact words will depend on your product. But here are some tips to help you decide how to select those words for your headline:

(1) Ask a question. We're programmed to respond to questions. "Have you seen an elephant in your kitchen?" A silly question -- but your automatic response was probably "no." Headlines in the form of questions make us think a bit about the subject. "Need credit?" "Are Your Teeth Clean?" "Will the Market Crash?" The reader's unspoken answer will often encourage him/her to seek more information in the text of your ad.

(2) Use the words "How To" in your headline. People love to learn how to do new things. We're always fixing something, from a screen door to our body. We especially like to fix our social shortcomings. Dale Carnegie knew that when he titled his book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Another twist is to add a "fear" appeal: "How to Avoid Prostate Cancer." "How to Stop a Blowout Before It Happens." Many products and services can help buyers feel safer, or more secure. Stimulate a fear response -- then offer to make it go away.

(3) Make a promise. "Lose 10 Pounds in a Week!" "Feel Better Tomorrow!" Such headlines offer us something we want -- but we can't find out how to get it without reading the ad. Famed adman David Ogilvy said, "The headlines which work the best are those which promise the reader a benefit."

(4) Report some interesting news. Advertising research suggests that headlines containing news are remembered over 20% better than those without news. "Red is the Color of Summer." "Vertical Blinds Making a Comeback." "Scientists Find Cause of Insomnia." Your headline's "news" can be anything -- as long as it is interesting to readers, and relates to your product. If it won't grab their attention, THEN pull them into the body of your ad, it isn't the right headline.

(5) Offer "Inside" information. People love to know secrets. Offering to let the reader in on a secret is a powerful lure. "Warren Buffett's Secret Stock Picking Rules." "Cindy's Beauty Secrets." "How the Pros Buy A New Car." "Who's Hot. Who's Not." These headlines will pull an interested audience right into the body of your ad. Nearly every industry has some little-known information which could interest the right set of readers.

(6) Give a Test. People want to learn more about themselves and what they know. "Test Your Investing IQ." "Check your Danger Signs for Stroke." Offer a simple, short true/false or multiple choice quiz. People tend to like these ads because they are perceived to be of higher value. That is, readers believe they've gotten something of value -- information about themselves -- in exchange for the time they've given to your ad. Be sure to put your product's name and message in a prominent place. Otherwise, readers may take the test, appreciate the information, but never remember what company provided it.

(7) Use the word "You" or "Your." We want to read ads which are relevant to our personal needs and desires. "Your Financial Future Can be Rosy." "You May Be a Winner." Headlines which stimulate a fear by using this technique can also be powerful. "You Can Beat Cancer." "Saving Your Job, Before It's Too Late."

Using "You" encourages readers to see themselves in that situation, enjoying that benefit, or facing that problem and needing some help. For example, "You Can Stop an IRS Audit -- Here's How" is a headline that will grab many people's attention this time of year.

These are only a few of many techniques you can use to grab your readers' attention. Use them to stimulate your advertising imagination. Be creative, but use common sense. Try to put yourself in your customer's place, reading the ad through his/her eyes. And always try out several of your ideas on other people before selecting one to go into print. You'll not only gain an outside perspective, but it could also save you some embarrassment.

Here's a final tip. The one word guaranteed to stop more readers in their tracks than any other is -- "Free!"

>>>> DON'T MISS THIS: These are just a few of the tips and techniques for creating a print ad that gets results. Click HERE to see how you can get several hundred similar tips to help your advertising and brochures bring in more customers. Specially written in practical language for businesses. <<<<

  • Are your current marketing materials your Secret Enemy? Do they contain hidden problems that are losing sales for you? Click HERE to find out what to do.

For more information about the psychology of good advertising:
To read Part Two (Selecting a Picture for Your Ad), click GoTo2
To read Part Three (Writing Effective Body Copy), click GoTo3
To read how to analyze an ad or brochure, click AnalyzeAd

(c) Gary Witt, 1998

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