How to Write Better Ads

writing with a fountain pen

Image via Wikipedia

In last week’s post about how to design an ad, I promised that I’d tackle how to write better ads.

The first thing you need to consider when writing ads is the headline. Some prefer to write it first, others last.  I tend to put in a placeholder headline and then go back to it later.  Sometimes, I just get a great idea straight off; other times I need some headline writing inspiration.  Whichever you do, spend more time on the headline than anything else.

Copy before design

Write the copy before you tackle (or hand off) the design.  It’s much easier to adjust copy to fit design (say too long for the space) than the other way around.  Get it as final as possible before the design stage.  If it’s going online keep it in plain text.  Microsoft Word makes an awful mess when you upload it to the Web.  And, never, ever use the text to HTML feature – that makes an even bigger mess.

Make a dummy

This is called a copywriter’s rough – it’s just a rough indication of where different elements should go (headline, illustration, etc).  Be sure to indicate where the headlines and subheads are so that the designer can emphasize them.

It’s not about you

Readers don’t give a fat rat’s fanny about you.  When you write your ad, focus on how you can help them with their problem (not how they can help you by buying).

Paint pictures when you write

Not literally, but with words.  Show them how your service or product solves that problem.  Use emotional triggers, then support the emotions with facts.

Prove it works

Write your ad with testimonials, demonstrations, or other social proof, like millions sold or thousands of subscribers.  People don’t want to be “sold,” but they do want to buy.  Make it easy for them to decide that your product will help them.

What’s Wrong with These Headlines?

Toppling of Saddam - newspapers

newspapers by Dan Brady via Flickr

Do you know one of the most important headline writing rules? And have you been breaking it?

Let’s try a quick test.

Here are some random headlines I took from Google News this morning:

Hunter Mahan wins Bridgestone Invitational with final-round 64


Rwandan president expected to win election handily


The Other Guys’ Captures Audiences at Weekend Box Office

What’s wrong with these headlines?

There’s a common problem with each of these headlines.  In fact, every one of them has broken the first rule of writing headlines.

What is that rule?

The primary function of a headline is to arouse interest, entice the reader… and encourage them to keep reading.

Each of these headline writers has failed that test.  They’ve all given the entire story away right up front.  You can tell instantly who won the tournament, the outcome of the election, and the box office leader that weekend.  Anyone seeing the headline already knows what happened, without bothering to read the entire article. There’s no reason to click on the link or read further.  That also means there’s no reason to go to the site and read more articles.

Why headlines matter

The purpose of a headline is to get readers thinking or wondering.  It piques curiosity.  In other words, a good headline is the flag that waves down passers-by and says, “pay attention, you’ll want to know more about this.”

Five times as many people read the headline as the body copy. Five times.

A bad headline depresses interest in reading further.  An article or post with headlines like these will get fewer clicks. That also means fewer ad impressions, fewer readers, and fewer potential subscribers or buyers.

Before you write a headline for your ad, or your blog post, think about whether you’re giving the whole story away in that headline.



10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work Every Time


Test tubes and other recipients in chemistry lab

Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr

Do you know how to write a great headline? Believe it or not there are sure-fire headline formulas that will grab your readers’ attention every time.

Why does this matter?

Because without a great headline, nobody will read the rest of your ad or your article. The headline is the first thing people see.  Write a great one and you’ll pull them in to read more.  Write something dull and  you’ll scare them away before they’ve read a single word.

And, of course, the fewer people who read your article or ad or post the fewer subscribers you’ll have and the lower your sales will be.  Not good.

It can be hard to be brilliant every day though. For those times, when your brain is stuck in neutral, try one of these never-fail headlines.

1. Write a headline with a contradiction

Eat More and Still Lose Weight

Heat Your Home (Without a Furnace)

Something that doesn’t seem to make sense will attract more attention. We think that if we eat more, we’ll gain weight, not lose it.  Since most people want to eat more, they’ll read on.

2. Make an exclusive offer

Dinner with Michael Jordan (Diamond Card Exclusive)

Something that people can’t get elsewhere. Of course, a “diamond card” (which I just made up), also promises exclusivity.  Not everyone can have one.  Especially if there are real diamonds in it.

Pick an offer that that your audience actually wants  though.  Don’t promise a free colonoscopy.

3. Offer an irresistible guarantee

Create Websites 5 Times Faster – or Your Money Back

This promises a big benefit (get more done in less time) and also reduces the perceived risk in buying the product.  If you don’t like it or get the results you want, you get a refund.

4. Make something hard look easy

The Lazy Employer’s Guide to Hiring

Take something that’s difficult and promise to show readers how to do it without a lot of hard work.

5. An unmissable value

$300 in Free Gifts with Your Order

Not only do you get what you are actually paying for, you get an extra $300 worth of gifts.  This is the thinking behind those informercials that make a double offer (not one, but two sets of ginzu knives).  Pile on the value, so people would be crazy not to take you up on it.

6. Help the reader get something they want

You Can Have a Dazzling Smile

Get the Best Price for Your Used Car

Show readers how they can be more attractive or earn more money, or save time.

7. Promise inside information

Little Known Ways to Lower Your Taxes

This offers both secret tips and a clear benefit. Nobody wants to pay more.

8. Appeal to their curiosity

20 Tricks You Didn’t Know Your Dog Could Do

You can’t find out what the tricks are unless you keep reading.

9. Ask a question

Do You Make These Common Marketing Mistakes?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Make sure it’s a question that they can’t answer right away.  Or, a question that poses a challenge.  People may think they know what the common mistakes are, or they may have no idea.  The only way to find out what the mistakes are, or the error in the picture, is to keep reading (sense a pattern here?).

10. Answer questions

7 Questions to Ask Before You Hire a Copywriter

If someone is hiring a copywriter, and isn’t sure how the process works, this headline promises to help sort that all out, and avoid making the wrong choice.

How to Make Your Software Registration Process Foolproof

This one promises more signups, and fewer people abandoning your demo or purchasing process.  It’s appealing because it offers the promise of more sales and higher revenue.

Three Proven Headline Formulas and Why They Work

magazine headlines

Image thanks to:  Robert Couse-Baker

Friday, I gave some examples of killer headlines that grab your attention.

Sure, they’re formulas. They’ve been used over and over since the days of John Caples and Eugene Schwartz.

The question is, why do these headline formulas work so well? What makes us keep reading (or clicking)?


Some of these formulas work by arousing your curiosity.  They make you wonder how something could possibly be true, or what the connection between two unrelated things might be.

For example, “How a Pebble on the Beach Changed my Life.”  We expect a new job or a move or other big events to influence our lives, but not a pebble.  The only way to find out what happened here, and how it happened, is to keep reading.

Other headline formulas work by setting up a contradiction.  The headline “Eat More and Weigh Less.” doesn’t sound right.  We all “know” that to weigh less you have to eat less, right?  Or do we?

Sometimes the headline asks a question, such as “Do you make these common marketing mistakes?” The only way to find out what those errors are, and whether you are making them, is to read more (or click).


Other headline formulas offer an easy solution to a tough problem.

If your readers are struggling with their weight, or setting up a blog, or getting rid of weeds, a headline that offers to fix those things (and even fix them easily) can be very powerful.

If you’ve got bugs, a headline that says, “Get Rid of Bugs Forever in Just One Step” is going to definitely attract your attention.

Promises and inside information

Another proven formula is a headline that makes a big claim or promise.  The lure of learning secrets or inside tips can be nearly irresistible.

Headlines such as “Retire Early Without Being Rich” or “Secrets the SEO Experts Don’t Want You to Know” promise access to information that other people don’t have. And, it’s information that can help you earn more, be more comfortable, and happier.  That’s a powerful inducement to read or click.

Who wouldn’t want to know how to do those things?

What makes you stop and read a headline?

Write Great Headlines Without Writing

magazine stand image

Image thanks to Mannoobhai

Writing headlines is hard.  You know (cause I’ve gone on and on about it) that the headline is what gets attention. Why is writing better headlines important?

Write a bad headline, nobody reads your article. Give everything away in the headline and there’s no need to read further.

A headline that says, “Fed Raises Interest Rates One Percent” has told you the entire story.  On the other hand, a headline that says, “How the Fed Rate Rise Affects Your Savings” promises to explain how that action will affect your wallet (and your savings).  Big difference.

Good headlines engage your readers’ emotions; they become charged up, excited, curious, and suddenly alert.

They’re interested and they want to read more!

But sometimes  your brain is just stuck on neutral.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.

Luckily, there are some tips you can use to write a great headline with very little work.

Have Google do it

Search for your topic and check out the sponsored links and ads.   This tells you if there are a lot of other pages and posts on the topic and if it’s worth pursuing further.

Then, use Google’s keyword tool to see how many searches are made with those words.

Use a headline tool

Try the linkbait generator.  Type in a topic and get a catchy headline. You may have to revise it a bit (it’s a robot and sometimes the combinations it comes up with are a bit silly.  But silly or not, it helps to get you thinking.

Fill in the blanks

(OK, this requires some writing, but very little)

Who Else Wants to _______?

Little Known Ways to ________

Get Rid of [Problem] Once and For All

The Lazy [Bloggers/Developers/Designers] Way to [Get More Traffic/Code Faster/Get More Clients]

_____ That Wow

There! You’ve just written a week’s worth of headlines without writing very much.

On Monday, why these headlines work.