There’s an interesting debate going on in my copywriting forum, about copy cosmetics and specifically the formatting of headlines and subheadlines.

My post here is not to discuss those issues directly. I’ll reserve that for another article.

However, I do want to add my thoughts on one issue that seems to keep coming back in the forum — the issue of using long-winded, excessively wordy headlines that are prevalent on websites nowadays.

One extremely talented member, JayKay, is a graphic designer with a flair for direct response. His thoughtful — and often thought-provoking (and sometimes controversial) — posts are a wonder to read. And a breath of fresh air.

Here’s why.

He’s a solid proponent of clean, pithy headlines. An Ogilvy and direct response enthusiast, he often makes sarcastic remarks about (and often creates parodical graphic caricatures of) these long mega-headlines, in an effort to ridicule the already ridiculous nature of these chapter-sized headlines.

(And he does so while many others argue that long, mega-headlines are the way to go. “They’re proven,” they say, “because they’re taught to be so according to the ‘guru du jour’.”)

So JayKay often refers to Ogilvy, in which he states that headlines should be no more than a few words only. He also added this timely (and brilliant, I might add) comment:

It’s interesting to note what is considered a short headline and what is considered a long headline. Less than 2 decades after “Ogilvy On Advertising” some (Internet?) “guru” who read his book comes up with the idea that if long headlines (6-12 words) are better than short headlines (1-5 words) ergo MEGAheadlines of 30, 40, 50 or 60 words have to be three, four, five or six times better! This “guru” (or “gurus”) forgot what the basic purpose of a headline is supposed to do.

Well, I agree with him. But since I’m a proponent of long headlines, I felt the need to explain because there’s room for misinterpretation.

A lot of what people are told to do in copywriting is based on heresay and/or interpretation, such as assuming that a rule enunciated by some guru (or a test result, for that matter) is universally applicable.

As a result, a lot of rules and tests are erroneously extrapolated to other industries, markets or media.

Granted, some of them are tested numerous times, and the likelihood that the results are statistically significant enough to be applicable to other areas is quite high.

(But never universal.)

For example, I’m not only a copywriter. I’m also a fanatical tester. And a lot of what I teach stems from the results of those tests.

Not one test. Not two. Not one type of test or two.

But the result of many, many tests.

However, some of these tests are very specific and have too many variables that, making assumptions and cross-pollinating their results to other areas, may be premature or misguided.

For instance, my tests show that long headlines do work. But my tests are not, and should never, to be treated as gospel. Every market, every product, every offer and every piece of copy is different. (And every manner in which a market is targeted and qualified before they hit the copy is different, too.)

I write copy primarily for top marketers who have devout, eager lists of people who will read and gobble up anything they say. It would be different than copy for a brand-new website visited for the first time by a new market.

Dan Kennedy is the one who talks about, and extols the virtues of, long headlines, to which JayKay vehemently and skillfully protests.

But what I think has been misinterpreted is not the fact that long headlines are bad (or good, for that matter), it’s that they’re overused. And more often than not, they’re grossly misused, too.

Kennedy is a self-professed technophobe. And he’s referring to salesletters for direct mail or to prequalified lists. (He often talks about “gathering the herd.”)

Thus, he’s not referring to newspaper display ads like Ogilvy did. Nor does what he say applies to the Internet and all websites, especially first-time visited websites.

Based on my tests, I truly believe that “backend” websites (selling to an audience or a list that’s prequalified, targeted and presold), long headlines do work. (Kennedy often refers to this as “message-to-market match.”)

Why do they work? Because people expect it. And people want to read what the salesletter says because they are told — and sold — to do so, often even before they hit the website in question.

(Take major product launches, for example, by some top marketers out there. Mike Filsaime’s Butterfly Marketing is one of them, whose long headline I wrote, incidentally.)

Agora, the large publishing and direct mail company who does a lot of Internet promotion, uses long headlines all the time with their lists. (And they are fanatical testers, too. So if they use long headlines, then it tells you they’re profitable.)

However… and it’s a big HOWEVER

… Brand-new, first-time visited websites, especially those whose audience’s frame of mind is to strictly gather information, as most first-time audiences are, I am of the opinion that long headlines are bad.

First, they scream “salesletter!”

When you visit a website for the first time (for information or browsing only, and without the intent to buy or considering buying what it offers, which applies to 99% of websites out there), then long headlines are going to kill your sales.

More importantly, the vast majority of these long headlines, when they are used, are done all wrong. I mean they’re terrible. Often, back-asswards. They blabber on and on. They say too much. They’re not just long, they’re long-winded.

Why? Is it because the copywriter did a poor job? Is it because the copywriter doesn’t know any better? Not entirely.

Quite often and in my experience, the copywriter is trying to say as much as possible to cover all the bases. But doing so stifles readership. They tell rather than sell. Specifically, a headline is meant to sell the reader on reading the copy in the first place. It’s meant to CREATE readership.

(I’ll come back to this later, as it is important.)

There’s a difference between being pithy and being brief. A difference between being straightforward and being curt.

You can be pithy in a long headline. Being pithy means being relevant and straight to the point with the least words possible. Using long headlines is feasible only if it’s proven to be the optimal approach for the market, and there’s no other way to say the same thing with less words.

(Often, it is not the optimal approach, or it is simply untested. In fact, 99.9% of marketers out there don’t test. And that’s the real shame.)

My friend and top copywriter John Carlton said it best: pithisize.

In other words: Edit. Edit. Edit.

As my friend Peter Stone, another top copywriter, said: “Write fearlessly, but edit ruthlessly.”

Look at your headline and ask yourself: “Can I say the exact same thing in less words?” (And do so only after you decided on the headline, which is in itself a strategic and thought-intense task.)

If you can say what you need to say in the least amount of words, then do it. But if you can only say it in 20 words or whatever, use 20 words. The point is not to be short or “not long.” The point is to be pithy or “not long-winded.”

There is a big difference.

Another top copywriter and friend, Clayton Makepeace, said it best: “Be newsy rather than benefit-oriented, since benefit headlines create lackluster response rates.”

In other words, rather than saying:

“How to Lose 40 Pounds In Just 6 Weeks!”

(Or worse yet, “How to Lose 40 Pounds In Just 6 Weeks Using My Accidental Diet Discovery That Took Me From An Overweight Blob of Fat To a Fit, Trim and Toned, Never-Go-Hungry Mother of 3 (And It’s Easier Than You Think When You Learn How)…”

Say:

“Most Americans Are Only a Hamburger Away From A Major Heart Attack, Doctor Reports.”

The reasoning is simple: benefit-oriented headlines scream “salesletter!” They drive people away. More importantly, they sell the reader on topic of the salesletter, rather than selling them on the need to read it. (Again, big difference.)

The idea of the headline (well, its very job in fact) is only to do one thing: to get people to read the first paragraph. That’s it. That’s all. No more. No less. End of story.

If accomplishing this requires 3 words, then great. But if it really does require 20 words or more, then fine.

But the question is, do you really know? And that’s the rub: people don’t test. Or they mimic other websites and copywriters, or listen to what some guru said, and assume that the application of one strategy in one medium is applicable to another.

Whether it’s Ogilvy or Kennedy, or any other guru for that matter, people take their advice at face value and apply them to other industries, but do so prematurely or, as JayKay stated earlier, erroneously.

When their response rates tumble (or when the results seem to be good but are less than what they can truly achieve), they often blame the copy, the offer or the market.

Sometimes, the problem is the market, the offer or the copy. But more often than not, the problem is the headline (and just the headline).

Just testing and tweaking headlines, I’ve seen dramatic boosts in response, anywhere from 40% to 700%. Why? Because headlines can either induce readership or deter it.

I see this all the time when I do critiques. Some of the salesletters I see have awesome copy. But their response rates are low simply because the headline is weak and what causes the bottleneck.

If people can’t read past the headline in the first place, then who cares about the rest copy?

If the headline doesn’t get the reader to start reading, then they won’t read the rest of the copy, no matter how good the product is or how well-written the rest of the copy is.

Now, I’m about to make a controversial statement.

Hang on tight.

You see, a lot of copywriters say that online copy is no different than offline copy. They say that the Internet is just another medium, and that writing copy for the web is the same as writing copy for offline media.

Well, that’s bull.

I don’t buy the notion that they’re the same. I do believe that the principles of direct marketing and direct response are the same, yes. But not the writing itself, the cosmetics and, more importantly, the psychology and state of mind of the reader.

Online copy in many ways, is VERY different. Sure, the Internet is just another medium. Sure, most of the rules of copywriting apply to the Internet. But there are some important and critical differences.

For one, the state of mind one has while online is different than the offline world. People watch TV to be entertained, not to be informed. People may read the newspaper to be informed, but they often do so almost exclusively, reading one thing at a time.

People browse the web to be informed, too. But they do so as their first and often only goal, and not to buy. Buying online is almost always an afterthought.

Moreover, they’re click-happy, and they search for information online at the speed of electrons all with the attention span the size of a subatomic particle.

Look at it another way:

You don’t show salesletters on TV, do you?

You don’t read out a salesletter, exactly as it’s printed, on the radio, do you?

You don’t open and read emails the same way you open and read direct mail salesletters, do you?

And that’s my point.

People online surf. They browse. They skim, scan and scroll.

And on top of that, they’ve got 12 browser windows open. They’re downloading and skimming 53 emails. They’re responding to the 2 or 3 instant messages they’ve received from a friend on Skype and AOL Instant Messenger. They’re sifting through 118 feeds in their RSS feed application for some interesting piece they feel is worth reading.

And on and on.

Plus, they do all this at the same time. Some simultaneously, others consecutively yet in a piecemeal, scattered fashion.

Above all, people don’t go online to shop or to buy something from the onset. They want information, first and foremost. So they search for it. They browse for it. They unconsciously scurry through hundreds of different online messages, only to quickly stop and glance at one that catches their attention.

That’s why the Internet is different than, say, TV or radio or direct mail. Any kind of marketing message in those types of media are interruptions at best. Often, forced interruptions.

But online, however, they’re more than just interruptions. They’re easily ignored “neglible nuisances.”

So if small headlines increase readership because they’re easier to skim and catch people’s attention, then great. But when targeted to an already identified, selected and pre-qualified market, that’s a different story.

However, a caveat.

Some copywriters write long headlines in an attempt to increase readership, when this often backfires. Their long headlines are ostensibly weak, even though they are filled with seemingly benefit-laden, power-packed statements and promises.

Copywriters resort to long headlines when they fail to use headlines properly or ignore the goal of a headline in the first place. And that’s where I have a HUGE problem with long, mega-headlines — because they are often done wrong, and not because they are too long.

You see, poor, long headlines exist for 2 reasons:

1) Copywriters are lazy.

2) They attempt to tell the entire story in trying to cover all the bases in the headline, hoping to capture as much of the audience as possible.

I know this. I’ve been guilty of these.

As far as #2 is concerned, here’s the thing: copywriters try to put all the big benefits in the headline with the hope that one of them will hit the target.

Problem is, it never does, or such long headlines obfuscate the one benefit hidden deep within the headline that might be the one trigger that’s needed to get them to start reading in the first place.

Remember the rule: the headline is meant to create readership that leads to a sale. Not increase it. And certainly, not create the sale itself, as well. Get people to start reading your copy. That’s your job. And once they do, then — and only then — you can tell them what they need to know by covering all the bases.

But not until you’ve got them reading first.

In fact, #2 is often the fallback position because of #1.

Copywriters are lazy.

They say what they want to say without too much thinking. They ignore other variations of the headline that can be used, namely how less wordy they can be to say the exact same thing they want to say.

Granted, finding out what to say that forces people to start reading the copy is a tough job. It requires a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of thinking and a lot of creativity.

And perhaps, a lot of headlines, too, to finally discover the one that truly works.

(Stories are plenty of many a top copywriter who would spend days on the body copy, but then spend weeks on the headline itself. Ogilvy was one of them. Gene Schwartz was another.)

While coming up with the best possible headline first is tough, pithisizing and trying to edit your headline ferociously to bring it down to the least number of words possible is even tougher.

The job of coming up with a great, solid headline is onerous, which is why many copywriters are lazy and tend to flake out.

Brian Keith Voiles once noted that you should write 50-100 headlines or even more before you choose the headline for your ad. I agree. Coming up with the first 10 or 20 is easy, because you’ll write down what comes to mind right away. The next batch, however, is what requires a lot of work.

And often, it’s where the best headlines are found.

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Workaholics4Hire.com, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Workaholics4Hire.com.

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