3 reasons why this headline sucks

22 Feb

One of the first lessons I ever learned as a copywriter (from Simon Hayward, a far better writer than I) was that I should never, ever, under any circumstance, begin a headline with: 3 reasons why….

Nor 5 reasons why. Nor 10. Nor whatever the number of reasons why.

His position was that this would announce to the world that there was nothing at all special about the product I was selling because I had chosen the most conventional and overused headline to try and sell it.

Lately I have become aware of the 3-Reasons-Why approach creeping into my blog post headlines. Social media mavens Jay Baer and Michael Gass have both recommended this approach to me. (To be fair, they have recommend other approaches as well.)

But for a copywriter, it feels like a cop-out: The blogosphere is awash with 3-Reasons-Why type headlines, just as advertising used to be in its infancy.

It’s hard to create a distinct voice for your brand when you’re doing what works for everyone else, whatever the medium.

Guess this post needs a new headline then, huh.


14 Responses to “3 reasons why this headline sucks”

  1. GV February 22, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    I would have gone with one reason, not only with the Headline but the photograph as well and lowered the to outside fingers in the photo, but that is just me.

  2. Shane February 22, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    I think the difference is the comparison of a print ad (an ad) to a blog post (content).

    The “top x…” headline works well for me online when I’m mindlessly surfing, looking for a quick, light read. For print ads, to your point, the headline is too unoriginal and sales-y to pull me into an ad that I’m predisposed to avoid in favour of content.

  3. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    I like that idea GV. Good one.

  4. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    Shane, to me blogs and ads work in much the same way. You don’t read the newspaper looking for ads anymore than you go on Twitter looking for blog posts. You have to get people’s attention. If every blog post is entitled “X ways to….” you will just tune them all out. My 2 cents.

  5. Reg February 22, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    I think you’re right, Doug, and yet I can’t help wonder if there’s any evidence of the effectiveness (or not) of this approach. I don’t think it’s popular just because it’s convenient for writers — I wonder if the public really likes these, because they bring order to a concept, or enumerate a list that’s easily digestible, or…???

    But you’re right, they are prevalent — and yet they’re prevalent not just in marketing — witness David Letterman’s top 10 lists, and other, er, popularity contest type listings like the now-very-popular Maclean’s University Rankings, or e.g. Vancouver just listed again as the world’s most liveable city: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2011/02/liveability_ranking (note, however, that The Economist apparently does not take into account affordability, where Vancouver places 3rd to last, after Hong Kong and Sydney: http://www.demographia.com/dhi.pdf — but I digress…). Perhaps these latter lists are more about ‘competition’ and the Olympic cult of “Gold-Silver-Bronze”, etc., but they still do draw interest and readership.

    My point is that maybe lists are not so dull or boring, but an OPTION for presenting information — that all then depends on what are the options and, ultimately, best way to “tell the story”, and keeping in mind it is, ultimately, a creative exercise to draw eyeballs, interest and, of course, action. I defer to the creative writers and designers on that front, but from my POV lists aren’t taboo, or a ‘cop-out’, necessarily.

  6. Renee February 22, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I’m interested in the other alternatives that Jay Baer and Michael Gass have recommended.

    I agree with your assessment that the number in the headline simply won’t snag my attention. Actually, it was your use of the word “sucks” that got me looking, as well as previous knowledge that your content is consistently worthwhile.

  7. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 11:17 am #

    What I worry about Reg is that going the tried and true route inhibits creative thinking. Yes, lists can work. Should we be opening our minds to other ways of presenting information? I think so, especially ad agencies. Or else we will see the same conformity creeping into other areas of our creative output.

    Thanks for the links and the thoughtful comment.

  8. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Renee, Jay also advocates interesting lines that provide some hint of the content, whilst grabbing people by the short ones. His blog posts bear that out. Although he does use the numerical approach too.

    Headline writing is an art and a science, just like advertising itself. 50% what you know, 50% what you feel.

  9. maureen blaseckie February 22, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    It may suck but it’s a tad snappier than “A deconstruction of enumeration based captions and the problems they give rise to”. (pardon my dangling modifier)

    I think people use “# reasons…” or “The top 10 list of…” headers because they want to cut to the chase and, also, avoid the other, and to my mind worse, mistake of deliberately obtuse/cute headlines designed to lure the reader in and reveal it’s meaning somewhere in the middle of the piece: “The potato goes in front” or “Better then Penguins” or the ever popular “Tits” followed by “now that we have your attention”…I guess that last one falls under the grand old advertising tradition of bait and switch…

    I may not like trite or hackneyed but most days I think I’d prefer the bland number approach to someone trying to dazzle me with their inventiveness and incredible creativity by underestimating my perception and intelligence… I guess it’s a matter of being a bit bored versus feeling ripped off. I’d rather listen to a young Orson Welles read a grocery list than watch Lady Gaga suck, er, hatch out of, an egg…

    I just wanted to add one wee story this made me think of; a parable about another huge writing mistake – starting the lead too big. It has to do with a reporter found having shot himself at his desk. There was no suicide note but in the typewriter (yes, this story is that old) there was a piece of paper with this opening sentence:

    “Not since the birth of Jesus Christ ”


  10. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    We do not get nearly enough of this woman’s comments on our blog! Thank you Moe – very entertaining. And true. My only point of departure would be that it’s entirely possible to write a great headline that actually leads to correspondingly good content. A cleverly written line isn’t always a ruse to lure you into a pile of dog crap. Cheers!

  11. maureen blaseckie February 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    aw shucks…*blush*

    now, what was we talkin ’bout….oh right…of course not, Doug…but like the “Man bites Dog” rule, we tend to notice the exceptions. Blogs like yours and radio programs like Mike Tennant’s Age of Persuasion, show just how much thought, professionalism, a lot of heavy lifting and a little polish go into the largely unappreciated everyday media around us.

  12. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    aw shucks…*blush* right back at ya Moe.

  13. Amy February 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    But, lists are a blogging basic. Not just a convention, but a tried and true way to spark ideas and grow your readership. Or, at least that’s what all those “how to blog” articles tell us.
    I was drawn in by the “suck” (great minds do think alike) and stayed for the entertainment. Cut yourself some slack. Everyone is allowed to be lazy every once in a while.

  14. dougbrowncreative February 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    I could no more be lazy about a blog headline than I could about a headline for an ad. You have to keep pushing for something better. Convention is just getting by. I like the idea of trying something that evokes a response beyond “Oh look, another list.” But I appreciate you cutting me some slack Amy! And not chucking stones down at me from above. 🙂

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