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The way to get attention in your direct response emails, ads, social media posts, and so on —even in your speech—is a killer headline (direct response copywriters are big into headlines for a reason).

A headline grabs attention by

  • Conveying a primary benefit … or
  • Offering news … or
  • Arousing curiosity

(Or some combination thereof).

And a headline selects your audience. In “sales speak,” this is known as “qualifying” your prospect, i.e., making sure you’re speaking to the right people for your product or service. People able and willing to buy. At the price you want.

These are some of the basics of great direct response copywriting.

Let’s begin at the top.

  • Convey a Primary Benefit

One example of a real headline that conveys a primary benefit is, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” How does this headline convey a primary benefit—and why is it so effective?

First of all, Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of the most popular self-help books of all time. The ad that sold the book—with the same headline, written by Victor Schwab—sold a million copies of the book in just three years.

One of the best things in life is friends. It’s one of those things that makes life worth living. Almost everyone wants more friends. And almost everyone wants to influence people. This was the primary benefit of this product: information on how to win friends and influence people.

People don’t buy a product because of what that product is (its features).

They buy because of the benefits they’ll get from the product.

By conveying a primary benefit of your product or service in the headline of the ad, email, letter, etc., you tell the reader she has something important to gain from continuing to read. That’s why it grabs attention. But it needs to be a benefit that the reader truly desires.

This is why it’s so vital to know your audience. If you convey a benefit that doesn’t mean much to readers, you haven’t won their attention. For instance, say you’re offering a way for them to reduce their health insurance by 30%. Great benefit! But if that benefit is conveyed to 20-year-olds still living on their parents’ health insurance, that message carries no weight at all.

How do you convey a benefit that’s meaningful to your audience? You do it by getting a clear view of your buyer. Who are you aiming your message at? Know your audience thoroughly. All the ins and outs. What’s important to them? What are they afraid of? What do they crave? What do they do?

Figure out what’s really important to your audience. Now you can think up a good benefits headline.

Let’s return to our 20-year-olds. If you’re marketing to 20-year-olds, the headline, “Save 30% on Health Insurance” will have no pulling power. But

“3 Easy Ways to Better Dates”

will get their attention.


“How to Save up to 30% on College Textbooks.”

These are headlines that relate to the target market. 20-year-olds are very concerned with dates and college textbooks! You could think up hundreds of possible headlines appealing to this demographic.

The key is to think of what’s important to the target market—and convey that in a headline

  • clearly,
  • simply,
  • and specifically

Vagueness or ambiguity here is bad (though we’ll talk later about “arousing curiosity” in a headline). Make the benefit very clear. Very simple. And as specific as possible.

“Easy Ways to Better Dates”

is a decent headline.

“3 Easy Ways to Better Dates”

is better.

“How to Save on College Textbooks”

is a decent headline.

“How to Save up to 30% on College Textbooks”

is better. In fact,

“How to Save 30% on College Textbooks”

is probably even better than that. Because it’s even more specific. 30% is more specific and concrete than “up to 30%.” If you can honestly write the headline with the more specific number, do so.

Specific means credible.

  • Offer News

One example of a real news headline is “Hitler Dead.” It grabs attention (or at least grabbed attention at the time) because of the significance of this news for the reader. A world war was started by a madman. And that madman is now dead.

Never underestimate the capacity and desire for news.

The desire for news is unquenchable. People always want to find out new things happening— with their family and friends … in their industry, neighborhood, city, state, country, world, and on and on.

As long as the news is fascinating … or thought-provoking … or sensational … or shocking … or otherwise relevant to the audience, it grabs attention. News can be a killer headline.

Consider this headline for a fictional information product:

“Attorneys Infuriated Over This One New Law
That’s Changing the Way They Run Their Practice”

This headline combines news with curiosity. Attorneys would want to know what this new law is that’s causing such a dramatic change.

One way to advertise a product or service is the “advertorial.” An advertorial is a disguised advertisement that looks like an article delivering news. Of course the goal of the advertorial is to sell a product or service.

If there’s something ingenious or novel about your product or service—and especially if you can capture a human element in the story to sensationalize it—then a news headline might be the way to go.


  • Arouse Curiosity

A killer headline can arouse curiosity. And this is often the kind of headline we see on the internet.

“10 Spelling Mistakes You’re Probably Committing”

“What Women Really Want”

“4 Things Never to Say to Your Child”

The key is to make the headline so relevant to the target audience they just have to find out the answer.

Another way of going about this is to reveal in the headline the problem the product or service solves—without revealing what it is:

“Sprinkle a Little of This on Your Carpets—and Eliminate Allergies Virtually Overnight!”

You could also pose a seeming contradiction, a paradox:

“How Losing 10 Dollars Saved Me 10 Thousand!”

Something vital to realize here:


If you can’t deliver on the headline in your ad, forget it. Don’t even think about using it. You can be creative with this though. And find ways to naturally work the suspense into the product or service.

People Want to Have Their Curiosity Aroused …

But They DEMAND It Be Satisfied!