9 Effective Sales Letter Headlines and Why They Were So Profitable

by Ernest W. Nicastro

Advertising great David Ogilvy said that unless the headline of your ad sells your product or service you have wasted 90% of your money. So how can you learn to write more effective headlines? By studying response-producing headlines from past ads. And this article is a great place to get started.

"The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest...For the entire return from an ad depends on attracting the right sort of readers...The best of salesmanship has no chance whatever unless we get a hearing." - From the timeless classic, Scientific Advertising, by legendary adman Claude Hopkins.

Make no mistake about it, as a copywriter or marketing professional your ability to write or identify compelling, attention-grabbing headlines that get prospects to read your ads...is one of the most valuable skills you can possess. Because the simple truth of the matter is this: You have absolutely zero chance of closing the sale unless you "get a hearing" with the prospect. So a good headline, an effective headline, should capture and hold the prospect's attention and give you an opportunity to make your case.

How You Can Learn To Write More Effective Headlines

Whatever profession you're in, no matter how good you are, you can become better at it by studying the methods, techniques and mechanics of people who are the best at what they do in your line of work. And this is especially true if your line of work includes writing effective ad copy. There are books and magazine articles aplenty that have word-for-word, picture-for-picture reproductions of highly successful (i.e. profitable) ads and sales letters. In virtually every case there is also expert commentary about what it was that made the ad or sales letter so effective.



With this article I humbly offer my contribution to this body of work.

1. "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano...But When I Started to Play!"
The granddaddy of great advertising headlines; often imitated but rarely equaled. Is there anyone among us who has never longed for or relished an opportunity --- when people doubt our ability --- to prove them wrong? As the author of this ad, the late John Caples, once said: "Learning the piano is tough. You can't sell that. But you can sell the idea of social success and overcoming whatever deficiencies you have in order to become popular."

Plus, people love to root for the underdog as the main character of this ad so obviously is. An action-oriented headline that promises an uplifting story, we're compelled to read further. Note also that the before-and-after angle can be effective in many headlines.

2. "A Little Mistake That Cost A Farmer $3,000 A Year"
A highly successful ad that ran in a number of farm magazines. An excellent idea of how sometimes the negative idea of offsetting, reducing or eliminating the "risk of loss" is even more attractive to the reader than the "prospect of gain."

Barry Freed, a fellow copywriter and good friend likes to illustrate this point with the following analogy: Imagine it's 3 o'clock in the morning and your best friend comes banging on your front door.

"Bill, Bill, wake up! I know how we can both make an extra $500 apiece today --- guaranteed!" Chances are, this would be a severe test of your friendship. On the other hand, let's say that same friend came banging on your door at 3 o'clock in the morning except this time he's saying, "Bill, Bill, wake up! Somebody's in your driveway stealing the hubcaps off your car!"

You wouldn't mind that at all would you? In fact, you'd probably rush straight for the baseball bat you keep hidden behind the refrigerator...and in a matter of seconds you'd be charging out the front door, risking life and limb. All for the sake of $300 worth of hubcaps. Because that's basic human nature. The fact is, people will fight much harder to avoid losing something they already own than to gain something of greater value they don't presently have.

Another key factor that makes this headline successful is the attraction of the specific. Note that it wasn't just a mistake; it was a "little" mistake. What farmer could pass up reading the copy under such a headline? What farmer wouldn't be compelled to find out: "What was that little mistake? Am I making it too? If I am making it how much could it be costing me?"

3. "How To Win Friends and Influence People"
Yes, the title of the book was also the headline for the ad that sold a million books via mail order in less than 3 years during the latter part of the Great Depression. The key to this ad's success is its strong basic appeal. Who doesn't want to know how to win friends and influence people? The key words are "how to." Without these two words the ad lacks power, punch and most importantly the promise of a benefit.

Certain words and phrases are inherently involving and attention grabbing and can be used effectively in just about any headline. Such words and phrases include:

  • How To, How, Here's
  • Why, Which, Who Else, Where, When, What
  • These, This, Which of These.

For better advertising results look for ways to use these and other effective words in your headlines.

4. "I'm impressed --- Shell's Caprinus R Oil 40 keeps my EMD's in better condition than any other oil I've used in 20 years."
"They say" advertising copy has substantially greater impact than "we say" advertising copy. That's why the above testimonial quote makes a highly effective headline for this business-to-business advertising effort. Above the headline is a 4-color photo of the man who provided the quote.

He's standing in the engine room and he's identified as A. E. "Bud" Dacus, Chief Engineer for the company. And the first 2 paragraphs of the ad's body copy continue in the same vein as the testimonial headline. Do you think we have some believability and credibility working here? You bet we do!

Testimonial headlines can help your ads generate a high response, particularly when they come from recognized experts in well-known companies. So be sure you stay close to your customers and regularly spend time reading the mail they send you. You just might find an excellent headline, a natural and highly believable spokesperson and the basis for a very profitable ad campaign.

5. "If you were given $4,000,000 to spend -- isn't this the kind of Health Club you'd build?"
This headline is an excellent example of a "self-incriminating" (and highly adaptable) technique for having the reader help specify what he or she would value most in such a product. The copy follows through along these lines: Surely you would put this feature into it. You would be sure that it brought you this advantage --- and so on. The payoff to the ad is...we've already done it all for you.

Interrogative headlines help entice readers into the copy and there are many ways they can be put to effective use. Here are some more examples of effective interrogative headlines:

6. "Do You Make These Mistakes In English?"
This headline is a direct challenge made provocative and effective with the inclusion of one vital word: "these." "What are these particular mistakes? Do I make them?" Notice also its promise to provide the reader with helpful information.

7. "Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?"
This headline is similar to number six as it preys on our insecurities and makes us wonder, "Which "ten" are they? Do I do any of them?" The bottom line is, "I better read and find out."

8. "How Much Is "Worker Tension" Costing Your Company?"
Headline eight takes the same approach as number seven, this time from a business perspective. Notice the quotation marks around the words "worker tension." Don't they add a certain element of intrigue?

9. "Six Types of Investors -- Which Group Are You In?"
And finally, headline nine appeals strongly to our innate curiosity about ourselves. How many of us, upon seeing this headline, would not want to know exactly which group we are in?

These last five headlines all have similar characteristics. One key factor is that they are all written from one primary viewpoint: "The point of you." Each of them, in fact, contains some version of the word "you." Case in point: Make sure you always keep your prospects and customers at the front and center of any and all advertising you do.

The Bottom Line On Headlines Is The Bottom Line

Five times as many people will read your headline as will read the body copy of your ad. How well it attracts not only readers but the right kind of readers will largely determine how well it succeeds.

In short, your ability to write or identify targeted, compelling headlines will greatly impact the response your advertising generates and, ultimately, your company's bottom line. One easy, simple way you can hone your skills in this important area is by studying the time-tested, proven headlines of the past.

© 2006 Ernest Nicastro

About the Author:
Ernest Nicastro, a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and lead-generation specialist, heads up Positive Response, an award-winning marketing firm specializing in B-to-B marketing and lead-generation. He also publishes a free monthly newsletter, AIM For Positive Response. For more information visit http://www.positiveresponse.com/. Contact Ernie directly at ENicastro@positiveresponse.com or by phone at 614.747.2256.
 
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