David Ogilvy’s 10 Rules for Headlines

Posted by on February 5, 2013

David Ogilvy

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

Why is a folk musician writing about famous copywriter David Ogilvy?

It might be because I have worked as a copywriter, and the practice is very interesting to me. The talents I nursed as a copywriter have influenced my songwriting and musicianship. Healthy wisdom, like that of David Ogilvy, can provide nourishment for many types of journeys.

Perhaps these headline rules apply to more than just copywriting.

David Ogilvy on headlines

In Ogilvy’s book Confessions of an Advertising Man, he states why headlines are the most important element in most advertisements: “It is the telegram which decides the reader whether to read the copy.”

If a headline fails to intrigue a reader – to awaken a curiosity and hunger for new information – the connection has failed. You will have to try again next time, if you indeed get another chance (which you most likely will not).

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Attract your desired audience

Let people know you are what they are looking for. And don’t scare them away.

If your content is targeted to a certain age group/profession/interest, use that group’s language in your headline to say “Hey, friend, this is for you.”

Appeal to the reader’s self-interest

We are selfish creatures – and you can use that.

Speak directly to the reader, and tell them why they need what you have. What is the benefit to their life?

Promote new information

Make sure to tell the reader something they don’t already know. We want to be the most knowledgeable kid on the block, and nothing gets the blood flowing like the promise of hot-off-the-press news.

The two most powerful words you can use in a headline are FREE and NEW. You can seldom use FREE, but you can almost always use NEW – if you try hard enough.

Catch eyes

Use words that demand an emotional response. Provoke controversy. Be exciting. Get sentimental.

Include the what

State the brand name, product or whatever. If five times as many people read the headline, make sure they at least see your name.

Say everything you need to say now, in your headline, because you might not get another chance.

Make the headline as long as it needs to be

Include your promise in the headline – and don’t be afraid of long headlines.

Ogilvy points to a New York University School of Retailing study that found headlines of ten words or longer, containing news and information, consistently sold more merchandise than short headlines.

The best headline I ever wrote contained eighteen words: At Sixty Miles an Hour the Loudest Noise in the New Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.

Lure the reader in

More people will read your copy if you arouse their curiosity. If you accomplish that, then they will be forced to read on.

Speak plainly

Do not get too tricky with puns, literary illusions and other obscurities. Ogilvy calls this a sin. Your headline is competing with every other headline out there – as readers scan through the jungle of information, a clear message will resonate best.

Your headline must telegraph what you want to say, and it must telegraph it in plain language. Don’t play games with the reader.

Don’t use negatives

Using negatives is a dangerous business. Readers rarely give one hundred percent of their attention to your headline – they may be misled. They may believe you are that which you are stating you are not.

I hope you didn’t misinterpret this subheading, as I am obviously breaking the rule myself.

Avoid blind headlines

If a reader has to read the body copy to understand the headline – they won’t.

At Portent, Ian Lurie presented this concept as the Blank Sheet of Paper Test – if you wrote a headline on a blank sheet of paper, would you know exactly what the body copy would look like? If no, throw the headline out and start over.

The mystery of a blind headline is not the type of intrigue readers are looking for. They will not wait around to find out what your story is.

Headlines, headlines, headlines

There is only one actual headline example in this blog post. Yes, that was intentional. If you really need examples, Google “headline examples.”

To write your headline, consider these principles, and everything else you have learned about copywriting and marketing. Then, think long and hard about your reader, and what you have to offer them. Then, write the headline.

The process is not complicated. But yes, doing it right is very difficult.

If you are a copywriter, I suggest reading David Ogilvy’s book, Confessions of an Advertising Man.

More famous David Ogilvy quotes

“It is important to admit your mistakes and to do so before you are charged with them.”

“Big ideas are usually simple ideas.”

“Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.”

“I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings.”

David Ogilvy’s biography in brief

David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy was born in 1911 in England. Irish mother and Scottish father. Fettes College, Edinburgh. Christ Church, Oxford.

Apprentice chef at the famous Majestic Hotel in Paris. Door-to-door stove salesman in Scotland.

Founded Ogilvy & Mather in 1948 with two staff members and no clients. Built it into one of the best advertising firms. Inspired copywriters and ad men for generations.

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