If there are two feedback comments that are guaranteed to get a direct response copywriter’s hackles up, his teeth clenched and his knuckles gripping the table edge whitely, it’s these two. (In fact, if you know a copywriter who doesn’t get intensely annoyed when he hears them, he or she is clearly not a direct response writer.)
1 The headline’s too long
2 The copy’s too long
Just typing these makes my heart beat a little faster, a small bead of sweat pop onto my brow. My fight or flight instincts immediately switch to red alert. Or at least orange. I’ll save red for when I have to deal with these ludicrous assertions face to face. In fact, to save my anger boiling over right now I’ll just deal with the first one in this post, lest I resort to unwarranted profanities and turn the keyboard blue.
So, here we go, deep breath.
What does The headline’s too long actually mean? Is there some intergalactic law of science discovered by Newton or Hawking that dictates how many words one may use in a specific context? You know, an immutable law like “nothing can travel faster than light” or “if you’re in a wheelchair and speak with a synthesised robotic voice people will think you’re as clever as Einstein”.
Naturally if there’s a physical restriction on the space you’ve got to print your headline, like the character restrictions in an email subject line or an SMS message, then of course, your headline can indeed be too long. Because it won’t fit.
Other than that, I can’t think of any sensible criteria for making such a judgement.
Clearly a headline that’s 100 words long might be hard to read or follow. But, having said that, there are endless examples of hugely successful multi-layer headlines which are simply split into overlines and underlines. I’ve written a good few in my time for proper DM clients who understand the real rule about headline length, which is this:
A headline should be as long as it needs to be
I appreciate this is a bit glib and prompts as many questions as it answers. But it’s true, too.
So, Simon, how do you know how long it needs to be? Well, in a direct response environment you can test alternatives and see which generates the most response: DM, EDM, Google Ads, Banners, DR press ads and inserts, for example. Easy.
And of course, if you’ve got someone like me writing this stuff for you, you’ve got a vast amount of experience to draw on to get you off on the right foot.
Your headline says whatever needs to be said to a) catch the reader’s attention and b) interest him enough to carry on reading. Your beautifully crafted body copy and subheads then takes over and whisks him forward on a magic carpet ride of persuasive magnificence until he (or she) is practically begging you to sell them the doodah you’re waxing lyrical about. Hopefully.
So if your offer is a bit complicated, then your headline might need to be a bit longer. If it’s a simple sell, your headline can be shorter.
In an awareness environment your headline might serve a slightly different function. Often it’s simply about impact and memorability. Direct response is about making the sale, awareness ads are simply about getting your name lodged in the potential buyer’s brain.
Here are a couple of interesting examples of awareness type headlines.
One of the most famous headlines ever (why???) was in a press ad for Rolls Royce by big Mad Men style agency Ogilvy & Mather. I’ve written about this in a previous blog. The headline (which was actually “borrowed” from a similar ad by Peugeot) was: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.”
This headline is 18 words. And there’s a secondary headline directly underneath it, adding another 29 words. That’s near enough fifty words. Is this too long? If you think so, tell me why. I’d love to know.
I suspect that the people who say the headline’s too long these days are looking at the piece as a work of art, not a piece of sales material. Or more likely it’s simply one of those silly, handed-down-from-generation-to generation ‘rules’ that nobody stops to question. (Like Nobody Scrolls.)
Which brings me to the second example for your perusal. The VW press ad headlined:
Is this too short? Probably not. Firstly, because it didn’t exist by itself. Unlike the Rolls Royce headline, Lemon works totally in conjunction with the picture. Of a cute ickle Beetle.
Lemon, means a bit of a failure, a bit of a klutz. So you see the car, you see the headline. You ask yourself “why are they slagging off their own car?” And so you read the ad. Job done. The body copy rewards your interest by telling you that it’s a lemon because VW do loads of quality checks and this one didn’t pass.
So if your picture and headline are working together they can share the burden of the communication. Arguably, the Rolls Royce line doesn’t need to say “In this new Rolls Royce…” but who am I to criticise The Greatest Headline Ever Made (again)?
But the conclusion we draw from these two examples is a simple one. The headline needs to be as long as it needs to be.
In short, there are only two sorts of headlines. Ones that work and ones that don’t.