Headline writing tips from David Ogilvy

You don’t expect to find great advice for writing online headlines from a book over 50 years old – and yet that’s exactly what I found while rereading Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

His first headline tip is the most important: never write less than 16 headlines before picking the best one. When I used to teach university students, I’d always tell them to write at least seven. Most would groan, but the ones who wrote seven or more always – and I mean always – came up with the best headlines.

Having said that, 16 is definitely better – and many copywriters will push themselves to write 32. They’re the ones I would want to hire.

Be specific

Ogilvy then recommends writing headlines that are specific. If you’re selling a remedy for bladder weakness, for example, then have the words “bladder weakness” in your headline. This is also what Google recommends (not that Google talks much about bladders per se) – namely that a headline needs to explain what the copy is about.

It’s interesting that while many print journalism headlines were often vague (especially when trying to be witty), it was always known – if not followed – that great advertising headlines needed to simply tell the reader what the product was about.

Put the user first

Ogilvy says every headline needs to appeal to the reader’s self-interest. If the benefit of a facial cream is to make someone look younger, then the headline needs to say that.

I suspect most online usability experts would agree – after all, great online copy needs to put the user first.

That’s not to say all Ogilvy’s tips from 1963 work online. For example, he recommends using words such as “amazing” – and although they still work for clickbait, these days people are so jaded by spam that extreme adjectives will often backfire in email marketing. Yet, for the most part, Ogilvy’s advice is still solid.

Write long headlines

I’ll end this article with another of his tips: namely to write long headlines (and as I’ve written before, long headlines can work well online).

Ogilvy says the best headline he ever wrote was: “At sixty miles an hour the loudest noise in the new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Automobile technology might have changed since then, but it’s still a great headline.

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