In search of the perfect headline

John Foust
By John Foust, Advertising Trainer

Years ago, a keynote speaker at a local Ad Club meeting asked us to put ourselves in a consumer’s shoes. “Let’s say your name is John Doe,” he said. “One day you’re turning the pages of the newspaper and see an ad with a headline that reads, ‘The truth about John Doe.’ Wouldn’t you read every word of that ad?” Everyone in the room responded with a resounding “yes.”

That was one of the simplest and most dramatic examples of perspective I’ve ever seen. John Doe doesn’t care much about the advertisers in his town (unless he works for one of them). He’s not concerned about the profit margins of his local newspaper. And he doesn’t worry about the sales commissions of the salespeople who work there.

In other words, it’s human nature for John Doe to care primarily about himself. The products which attract his interest are those that can solve a problem or make life easier and more enjoyable for him and his family.

While “The truth about John Doe” is the perfect headline – for John Doe – it’s impossible to reach that level of perfection in the real world of advertising. Ad copy can’t be personalized to that degree. The best we can do is to address our messages to smaller demographic audiences within a larger readership group.

Once a target audience has been identified, it’s important to look for connections between what the audience needs and how the advertiser can meet those needs. To get in step with consumers, focus your attention on their self-interest.

Then think about headlines. A headline can make or break an ad. Research shows that, for every five people who read a headline, only one will read the rest of the copy. This means that the John and Jane Does in your audience rely on headlines to tell them whether to keep reading.

There are some ways to spark headline ideas. One of my favorites is the “how to” formula, because these two words set the stage for a benefit headline. To illustrate, consider book titles. Let’s say you want to build a piece of furniture, a rocking chair. You need step-by-step instructions, so you go online and browse through book choices. Woodworking and Woodworking Basics are too general. How to Build Furniture is better, but your interest is in rocking chairs, not other types of furniture. Then you see How to Build a Rocking Chair. That’s the most enticing title of all, isn’t it? And it promises a specific benefit, without resorting to puffed up claims or exaggerations.

It’s the same with ad headlines. Use the words “how to” to put you on the right path. Then with your knowledge of the audience and the product or service your client is promoting, fill-in-the-blank to create a selection of benefit headlines. Pick the one you like best and build the ad concept from there.

It’s all about giving people a reason to read beyond the headline.

 (c) Copyright 2020 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information: