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Your 4-point headline checklist to grab attention fast

Years ago, back when I started at Money Week, we were taught the four ‘U’s of writing effective headlines. I’ll share them with you now, because they’ve stuck with me ever since:

1. Make it URGENT: People don’t buy preventatives. You want to present your reader with problems they must deal with now. Even something that’s on the cusp of happening could be too far in the future. This is the great challenge of writing copy. Hedging for a future crisis seems pointless, because it isn’t happening now.

There are two ways you can inject your copy with urgency. The first is obvious: make your offer urgent. Put your reader on a time-limit, so they have to act now. Alternatively, you could find some aspect of your product that’s urgent. Maybe you’re selling a medical investment, and an FDA test is due any day now. This trigger, whatever it is, may send your opportunity to the moon. Or you could take this same approach from a negative angle. Give them a reason to be afraid. Urgency is anything which, in the immortal words of John Carlton, “Lights a fire under their ass.”

Make it USEFUL: Your headline should suggest a benefit to the prospect. They should feel they’re going to get something in exchange for reading your promotion. Usually, when we talk about “benefits,” we mean discount offers and promises of what the product will do to improve the reader’s life. But there are other ways you can reward your reader.

During the 2020 “oil supply shock,” the price of oil went negative to -$37/barrel. Tankers were floating around in the ocean, packed with oil and with nowhere to go. Pipelines were filled to bursting. And since there was nowhere else to store this colossal surplus of oil being pumped, sellers had to pay buyers to take it off their hands. Many economists predicted the surplus would hit two-billion barrels. How much oil was that? In one article, I wrote: That is almost one-third of all the Allied oil used to fight World War II. It’s enough oil to drive your car non-stop for a million years.

Interesting passages like this give your reader conversational currency. It’s something they can take with them – to work or the pub – and share with others. Even if they don’t buy, they have benefited from reading your promotion. As David Ogilvy once said, “You cannot bore your reader into buying. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.”

Make it ULTRA-SPECIFIC: Specific details get attention and make your claims more believable. Suppose I told you, “How this stock could make you a millionaire.” You probably wouldn’t get too excited. You’ve seen thousands of empty claims before. You would immediately want concrete, indisputable proof. Now, suppose I said, “How this stock could make you $1,398,242.67.” This hopefully buys me some time. After all, 1,398,242.67 is a very specific number. So specific, in fact, it surely must be true. Rather than demanding proof, you’re wondering, “How and why?” Of course, to find the answer, you have to keep reading.

It goes without saying, specific numbers should be grounded in some fact. You can’t just pull them from thin air. However, do use them when possible. A cardinal sin of direct marketing is to round numbers up or down so they look neat and organised. (“How this stock could make you almost $1.4million). As a neat-freak myself, I understand this impulse well. But you must never give in to the temptation of rounding numbers. It squanders a valuable opportunity.

Make it UNIQUE:

Is there anything – anything – in your offer that’s classed as unique?

If so, is it something your reader cares about?

If your answer to those 2 questions is ‘Yes,’ you should definitely test a headline which highlights this unique benefit right from the get-go.

You don’t need all four “Us” in your headline. However, you should definitely have at least one, and you should probably aim for two or three.

Stick to this simple rule, and I’ll bet you’ll soon be writing top-notch headlines that haul in bigger returns.