Did I get your attention? That was the plan. An effective headline is the most important aspect of any successful print ad.

And it is only fitting that I pay homage to the first-person-story appeal made famous by John Caples more than 75 years ago when he penned the headline: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play!”

Arguably one of the best copywriters of the last century, Caples blended creativity with scientific study and tested every aspect of the print ad.

Most print ads are composed of three fundamental parts: an image (or images), a headline, and the copy. I will attempt to shed some light on the most critical aspect of the three—the headline.

I've seen experts rate the importance of the headline anywhere from 50% to 90% of the advertisement. Regardless of the percentage, one thing is very clear: if your headline does not interest the reader, your copy will never be read.

The Purpose

The purpose of any print ad is to get the reader to act: call a number, mail a reply card, buy a product. A successful print ad will cause the reader to

  1. Notice the ad

  2. Read the headline

  3. Read the copy

  4. Act

Within this progression, the purpose of the headline becomes simple and clear—compel the reader to continue reading the copy. It's a simple purpose, but not so simple to execute.

In fact, a great number of print ads fail miserably at this. All you have to do is pick up a magazine or newspaper, and you'll notice the scores of ineffective headlines. You'll know them because they will lose, not gain, your interest.

The Golden Rule

By far the most successful headlines are those that promise the reader some personal benefit. In other words, create a headline that directly relates to the needs and interests of your target audience.

If you're selling trombones, make sure your headline shows the benefit of your trombone to a trombonist. This means getting in the head of your target audience and understanding the benefits that matter most to them. Here is an example: Wider Seats and More Leg Room Than Any Other Airline.

I'm an air traveler over six feet tall, so this is a huge benefit and would surely get my attention. Or how about this: Get the Router That Pays for Itself.

You can bet that if it were my job to buy routers for my company, I would continue reading.

Two Other Concepts

In addition to providing a personal benefit, if possible you should try to achieve two other objectives in your headlines:

  • Provide news.

  • Pique curiosity.

Analysis has shown that these two concepts dramatically increase the effectiveness of your headline (and again I must stress that you always must provide some personal benefit to your target audience).

Having your headline contain news can be anything from announcing a new product to improving an old one. An example would be this: Announcing a New Way to Make Money at Home.

Notice how this headline offers news and a personal benefit to those looking to earn additional income. Piquing curiosity is self-explanatory. An example: How a Strange Accident Cured My Insomnia.

If you suffer from insomnia, you no doubt would feel compelled to read further to see what that strange accident was, with the hope of finding a way to cure your own insomnia.

So in addition to the golden rule, try to include one, if not both, of these concepts. You will find that your headlines are far more compelling and more people will be reading your copy than ever before.

The Hit List

All right, I will now quickly list some valuable “tricks” to writing successful headlines. These have been proven time and time again through testing and research. I hope you find them useful:

  • If you can put your company name or product in the headline (and still follow the golden rule), then do it. If your prospect never reads your copy, at least he or she will know what you're selling.

  • Beginning your headlines with one or more of the following words has been proven effective: Introducing, Announcing, New, Now, At Last, How, How To, Why, Which, Who Else, Wanted, You, This, Because, If and Advice.

  • Put your headlines in quotes. They are more memorable to the reader.


  • Have your headline ask a question directly to your target audience.

  • Don't get tricky with headlines—the reader has a split second to decide whether he or she will continue reading your ad or turn the page. Be as clear and concise as possible.

  • Never, never, never run an ad without a headline. (Ever.)

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John McMahon Mr. McMahon(jmcmahon@solid-impact.com) is the founder of Solid Impact (www.solid-impact.com), a firm that helps its clients improve sales.