Monthly Archives: September 2013

How long should a headline be?

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.


Catalogues aren’t ads

More and more often, I see catalogue copy written as if it were in a press ad. (And get asked to write it like that, too).

This is very wrong.

If you’ve got as far as looking in a catalogue for a certain product, you’re already a good way along the path to forking out for it. What you’re looking for is information about the product or service that will convince you that you’ve come to the right place, and to reassure you that the product you’ve found meets your needs — whether it’s a table, a skirt, a case of wine or a Lego set.

So when you’re met with some glib, lame copy that the writer obviously thought was ‘creative’ or ‘clever’, instead of easy-to-assimilate facts about the product, it’s just intensely annoying. And it actually gets in the way of the sale.

Imagine if you’re looking for a new coat on the High Street. You’ve decided that, oh I don’t know, Next is the place you feel might have the very one you’re seeking. You go into the shop. You find a sales person.

You ask him to show you where the raincoats are. He tells you a joke before you’ve finished speaking. And laughs at his own brilliance.

You ask him whether they’ve got it in a large. He tells you another joke. Equally as unfunny and irrelevant as the first one. You realise the conversation is all about him showing off. Not about you proceeding to the till, a happy customer.

You ask him how much it is. He responds by quoting the company’s new TV ad, word for word. You  kill him with a swift chop to the jugular.

See what I’m saying?

I suspect this new trend for writing catalogue like this might be a horribly inevitable spinoff from the obsession with Tone of Voice as discussed in my previous blog. Dimwitted marketing folk think that all their communications must speak to you as if you were a fifteen year old LA punk, so that their brand is cool and edgy and all the other yawn-worthy adjectives that they hurl about.

Clarity is lost in a fog of bogus TOV-driven ‘creativity’. (As my friend and fellow practitioner Bill Fryer says, if it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.)

Again, it’s all part of their fundamental misunderstanding about what a brand is. Let me repeat. A brand is something that is created in the minds of customers who have experienced your product and formed an opinion about it. It is NOT something that you create through copy, design, advertising and all the other communications tools at your disposal. These things create an initial demand. But they don’t create a brand.

The same malaise is creeping into direct response advertising, too. A lot of this is to do with the gradual erosion of the distinction between what is ‘above the line’ (traditional media-based advertising) and what is ‘below the line’ — sales promotion, direct marketing, in-store and so on.

Most agencies now declare themselves to be ‘integrated’ and offer the whole lot in one lovely expensive package. (WIth a silly Brand TOV document thrown in for free, naturally.) Unfortunately this means that we’re losing the craft specialists.

So advertising people think they know all about direct marketing, and create and write it as if it were the same thing. So it’s usually very bad direct marketing.

And below the line people think they can do advertising. And it’s usually very bad advertising.

And, of course, the poor client who traditionally could quite rightly assume the specialist agency knew what it was doing, is left to make a judgment that he is possibly unqualified to make.