Ask MarketingExperiments: How do I (quickly) write value-infused headlines?

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We frequently receive questions from our email subscribers asking marketing advice. Instead of hiding those answers in a one-to-one email communication, we occasionally publish edited excerpts of some of these conversations here on MarketingExperiments so they can help other readers as well. If you have any questions, let us know.

Dear MarketingExperiments: I read some of your articles and bought the value proposition course and testing course. I had a question about an article you posted about headlines a while back — Headlines on Deadlines (Part 1): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late.

I read some of your articles and bought the value proposition course and testing course. I had a question about an article you posted about headlines a while back — Headlines on Deadlines (Part 1): How to consistently write effective headlines without working late.

It seems like the four dyads (appeal, exclusivity, clarity and credibility) are used to make the headlines have more force.

But the question I had is would you go a step further and treat each headline or micro-yes almost like an individual process-level value proposition to increase the force of each micro-yes (headline, body copy, bullets, etc.)?

 Austin (McCraw) was teaching “Why should I read this headline rather than any other headline?” (Designing a Value Proposition to Attract New Donors). It seemed like he was treating each micro-yes like a derivative value proposition (at the process level) to increase the force of each micro-yes in the sequence.

I’ve had this question for a pretty long time. If I’m understanding correctly, I was wondering if you had a method or short cut to make it faster?

Take care,

Patrick Hill

Dear Patrick: Yes, you are correct. Each part of the page is essentially a micro-yes.

So when writing a headline, you should consider two things:

  1. What value should the headline communicate about the company, a product, to a specific prospect, or about a specific process (more on this below)?
  2. Is it communicating this value in a way that would encourage the reader to take the next action? This is the micro-yes you are trying to get from them. They should subconsciously think “After reading that headline, I now want to read the paragraph of text under it.”

Here’s why this understanding is so crucial. You’re not going to sell a car with a headline. Or even a bicycle. And you shouldn’t write headlines that are trying to sell them on everything in one fell swoop.

However, you can get the reader to see enough value from the headline so they choose the next step (read the paragraph below the headline), and then the next step (go to the URL listed at the bottom of the print ad), and after many more micro-yes(s) — eventually buy that car.

A shortcut to make it faster? Well, usually over time as you get more used to it, it gets quicker. At first, most people have to step-by-step think through it. And that step-by-step thinking is helpful. It makes sure you are writing headlines with right intention — the intention of communicating value and continuing the momentum of the prospective customer through the print ad or landing page. It makes sure you’re consciously thinking of the customer, what’s in it for them, and why they would want to take an action. It makes sure you are focused on their needs and not your company’s goals.

But after doing it a lot, it becomes intuitive. Here are a few things that might help:

Translating the primary value proposition into headlines that communicate a derivative value proposition

Actually, headline writing is an example of the benefit of having constructed value proposition codex that includes a clear primary value proposition complete with appealing claims and evidentials to back up those claims with credibility.

Without that, you’re leaving copywriters out in the wind to use clever wordplay to attract and engage a reader. Clever wordplay only goes so far.

However, when writing headlines based on a value proposition, the copywriter can focus on clearly articulating the value with the headline. The right value clearly communicated to the right customer results in a conversion.

You can further optimize your headlines by considering if there are derivative value propositions the headlines should address. Very few headlines will be about the primary value proposition of the overall company. For example:

  • Prospect-level: Based on the goal of the landing page, newspaper ad, email, whatever — should the headline be focused on a specific prospect set? For example, only B2B and not B2C, or double-income suburban couples with no children, or however else you segment your overall customer base.

  • Product-level: Much like above, is there a specific product or product set the headline is focused on, as opposed to selling the entire company?

  • Process-level: Should the headline communicate the value proposition for the customer of a specific action you are asking the customer to take? Again, focused on the customer, not the company. For example, Ferguson Enterprises changed “Exclusive Product And Event Information Delivered Right To Your Inbox!” to “Get The Ferguson Updates You Want, When You Want Them.” and got a 120% increase in form submissions. (Other changes were made too. You can see them all here.)

These derivative value proposition-based headlines should tie into the same elements of value of the primary value proposition, yet be context-specific. How tightly you tie them to the primary value proposition will vary based on the derivative value propositions. Everything might not apply — or it might apply differently. Let’s take a look …

Example: Prospect versus primary-level value proposition

For example, we were working with a company that had flexible payment options as an element of its overall primary value prop. So the overall communication at the primary value proposition level (and on the homepage, for example) has to do with flexible payment options.

However, if your customer intelligence is strong enough, when you get to the prospect-level value proposition you don’t want to communicate flexible payments, you want to communicate the payment option that matters to that individual prospect.

At the prospect-level, about 20% of the company’s customers wanted to buy on a payment plan instead of all upfront. This was unique, and something its competitors didn’t offer. So for that prospect-level value prop, the value element isn’t flexible payment plans, which does not have unique value; it is the specific monthly payment plan, which has an only factor that creates a strong value prop to the specific customer group who wants it.

Not to all customers. Some couldn’t care less. It’s not appealing to them.

And on the flip side, that specific prospect doesn’t care about flexible payment plans as a whole which include types of payments they wouldn’t engage in, but they do care that you have the type of payment they would buy with.

The benefit of this understanding is that it could guide a targeted ad campaign to try to find this specific prospect type instead of just communicating a more general “flexible payment plans” (which you still might have to do in some places, like an overall brochure or homepage).

Or, for another example, let’s say you work for a bank. Your value proposition is that your bank has the most branches in the nation. In a national newspaper ad, that might be your headline.

But when you’re sending out a direct mail piece, at the prospect-level, the headline might change to “We have a branch within walking distance of your home. Plus, the most branches in the nation, so we’ll take care of you wherever you travel.”

The biggest lesson is — begin with the customer — what matters to them and what value you can deliver. Focus less on clever wordplay for the headline. And put most of your energy into communicating that value.

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

Related Resources

Value Proposition Development Online Certification Course from MECLABS Institute (parent organization of MarketingExperiments)

The 4 Types of Value Propositions Every Business Needs

Value Proposition: 3 worksheets to help you craft, express and create derivative value props

Finding Your Value Focus, or Your Product’s ‘In’

Hidden Value: Curiosity Is the Most Powerful Tool in Marketing

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