8 Ways to Write Effective B-to-B Headlines

Read this and never stress about writing an effective headline again.

Here’s a helpful article by Robert Bly on Target Marketing. The good news is that how to write successful headlines has already been developed and tested by the best. That includes David Ogilvy, John Caples and Claude Hopkins.

By Robert Bly

I recently came across an article in a marketing trade publication (not this one) praising some top B-to-B ad agencies for supposedly creating great print ads. I was blown away—but not in a good way. Just look at a random sampling of their awful headlines and you’ll see why:

  • ROO
  • Growmentum
  • Wake Up
  • Make What Matters
  • The Legend Continues
  • Bring It
  • It’s Tougher Than the Leading Competition
  • The Hear Yourself Think Space
  • Work Will Never Be the Same
  • Nobody Said You Couldn’t Have It All
  • Outta Here.
  • Connect With Investors on a Different Scale.

If I handed in copy with these headlines, my clients would summarily reject it. Yet, these headlines are from ad agencies handling big-name accounts including American Express, WebMD, Teledyne Controls, Honeywell, Corning and dozens more. A few things that make most of the ads I saw ineffective:

  • Weak headlines that state no specific benefit and no unique selling proposition (USP).
  • Ads with no headlines.
  • Single-word headlines not related to the product—or a made-up word; which, therefore, said next to nothing.
  • Impossible-to-read body copy in tiny type, wide paragraphs and printed against a color background instead of white.
  • Weak offers or no offers.
  • The prospect has no incen­tive to act now.

You’d think any good copywriter would be a godsend to these agencies. But I fear not: I believe they are incapable of either writing or recognizing good copy. It’s a crying shame. David Ogilvy , John Caples , Claude Hopkins , and Scotty Sawyer are turning over in their graves.

Let me share with you eight proven headline formulas that can help you write stronger B-to-B copy:

1. How To
The phrase “how to” may be shopworn. But it’s still tremendously effective, because prospects want to know how to solve their problems and improve their business results.

One of the most effective ads I ever wrote, for a pollution control device, had the simple headline “How to Solve Your Emissions Problems at Half the Energy Cost of Conventional Venturi Scrubbers.”

The USP is this alternative type of scrubber operates at half the cost of the widely used venture scrubbers. The half-page, two-color ad was the No. 1 inquiry producer in four consecutive issues of Chemical Engineering magazine.

Tip: When you are stuck coming up with a headline, write the words “how to” and then just fill in what your product does. Example: An ad I wrote for filters used in pharmaceutical manufacturing had the simple headline “How to Keep Your Products Pure.”

2. Numbers
Any time you can put a number in the headline, consider doing so. Reason: Numbers get attention. Numbers in copy should be numerals, and not written out as words.

When writing an ad for software that monitors network performance, I asked the client what the major problems were that the monitor detected. He came up with five, and I used this fact to good advantage in my headline: “How Can You Stop the 5 Biggest Problems That Wreck Productivity and Performance in Your Mainframe TCP/IP Network?”

3. Questions
Question headlines work only when you ask a question to which the reader wants the answer. Ted Nicholas had enormous success selling a do-it-yourself incorporation kit with this headline: “What Will You Do When Your Personal Assets Are Seized to Satisfy a Judgment Against Your Corporation?”

4. Reasons Why
Like how-to, reasons-why is a great starter when you are struggling with the headline. First, put a number in front of the phrase. After the phrase, introduce either a benefit or identify the audience.

5. Now You Can
Another phrase I like in headlines and copy is, “Now you can,” for two reasons. First, “now” adds a sense of immediacy, and second, “you” is recognized as one of the most persuasive words.

An old ad for a math software product had the headline, “Now You Can Calculate on Your PC With the Same Freedom You Have on Paper.”

6. Use the Imperative Voice
Headlines written in the imperative voice are also known as command headlines, because they tell the reader to do something. A light bulb manufacturer ran an ad with the headline “Stop Burning Profits.”

My favorite B-to-B ad of all time was for a fireproofing compound. The ad was printed on a sheet of paper treated with the compound and bound into the magazine. The ad had a coupon, the headline read “Try Burning This Coupon,” and the visual was a hand holding a lit match. If you put a match to the ad it burned, but if you took it away, the fire immediately stopped.

7. State a Benefit
Although many practitioners say the purpose of the headline is to gain attention and lure the prospect into the body copy, many readers never get past the headline. To appeal to them, you can put a complete benefit in the headline that makes clear what the product does. For a firm manufacturing color measurement systems for the automotive industry, the ad headline read: “Color Control from Bumper to Bumper.”

8. Be Uncreative
Ad agencies, as indicated in the headline list reprinted at the beginning of this column, strive to be creative. But if you offer a product or service in short supply, you are better off being straightforward and clear, rather than clever or funny. The late B-to-B ad man Scotty Sawyer once said that if he were writing an ad for boilers and was only permitted one word in the headline, that word would be “Boilers” in 72-point type.

Bob Bly  is a freelance copywriter and the author of 80 books, including “How to Write and Sell Simple Information for Fun and Profit.” Find him online at www.bly.comOpens in a new window, via email at rwbly@bly.com or phone (201) 505-9451.

DRM be damned: How to protect your Amazon e-books from being deleted

Amazon recently erased all of one Kindle users’ e-books. Ars shows how to stop it.

Ars used Calibre, an open-source freeware app, and the DeDRM plugin to convert all these e-books from Kindle format to iBooks.
Cyrus Farivar


If you buy e-books from Amazon and want to engage in a bit of digital civil disobedience—by stripping the files’ DRM and making sure that Amazon can’t deny you access—we’re about to show you how. Yes, many parts of the Internet have known about this technique for some time now, but we feel that it bears mentioning again here.

Over the past week, the tech world has been abuzz with news that—surprise, surprise—Amazon can remotely wipe any Kindle, at any time, for effectively any reason. (The company did it before, ironically, with George Orwell’s 1984back in 2009.)

This week’s case involves a Norwegian woman (Google Translate) named Linn Nygaard. She bought a Kindle in the United Kingdom, took it home to Norway, and bought UK e-books on the Kindle. This week, Amazon suddenly disabled her account, taking away her access to an e-book library of 40 books. That move was reversed (Google Translate) about 24 hours later, with access to her Kindle account restored.

“I have not heard anything from Amazon about this, except that I got a very strange phone [call] earlier from someone with a hidden number,” Nygaard told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “They claimed that they worked in Amazon.co.uk and would give me a new Kindle, but they would not talk to me about my account.”

Many speculated that because she was buying content licensed for the UK from Norway, Nygaard somehow ran afoul of Amazon’s licensing deals. (For two years, my wife and I regularly bought e-books for our US-bought Amazon Kindle while we were living in Germany—I can’t believe that we just got lucky. More likely, Amazon turns a blind eye to most people who fall into this category.)

Amazon declined to respond to media queries (including those from Ars) as to exactly what Nygaard, an IT consultant, had done to prompt the company’s wrath.

Many other websites also lamented that many digital retailers (Amazon, Apple, and plenty of others) are not selling digital goods, but rather license them. It’s a distinction many Ars readers may already understand, but it’s less apparent outside the ranks of the tech-savvy. (After all, those purchase buttons usually say BUY, not BUY A LICENSE.)

Fortunately, though, there’s an easy way to ensure you can avoid the same fate as Nygaard. By downloading a free and open-source e-book management app known as Calibre, and a corresponding plugin that cracks Amazon’s DRM encryption, you can convert any Kindle e-book into an iBook format, or pretty much any other format that you like.

We will offer this caveat, however: it’s quite possible the technique we’re about to outline violates not only Amazon’s Terms of Service, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as well. We are not advocating breaking the law, but we are demonstrating for non-American Kindle users how this technique can be used to safeguard against remote deletion tactics. Related laws may differ in countries around the world, so be sure to check your local situation if you’re unsure. In short, follow these instructions at your own risk.

Ex Calibre, electronica librae!

Zac West, a San Francisco-based iOS developer wrote up his instructions about a year ago. We used his directions on a Mac (although repeating the same trick on Windows is likely quite similar), and found they worked well transferring books to an iPad 3. But the program should allow you to load DRM-stripped books onto your Kindle, Nook, Nexus 7, or other device as well. Let’s dive right in:

You’ll need to download Calibre, which is available for OS X, Windows, and Linux. The software describes itself as a “free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books.”

Then, download the DeDRM plugin and unzip it. That’s the actual piece of code that, as the name implies, cracks Amazon’s DRM scheme. Once Calibre is installed, open its Preferences (under the File menu). At the bottom of the screen, in the lower left-hand corner, click “Plugins.”

Then, “Load plugin from file,” and choose the K4MobileDRM plugin’s zip file—it’s a zipped file inside of the DeDRM zipped file you downloaded. Don’t decompress this second file.

A note for Windows users: it might also be necessary to install both Python and the PyCrypto precompiled binary in order to be able to decrypt some e-books. The easiest way to get Python for this purpose is to download and install Active Python from here, and then get the matching version of PyCrypto from here (either 2.7 or 3.3, for 32-bit or 64-bit Windows, whichever is appropriate). Thanks to forum user krimhorn for the suggestion!

Now, be sure to download Kindle for Mac (or the Windows/Linux equivalent), and connect it to your Amazon account. (If you have the app already installed, go ahead and skip this step.) Download all your e-books—open them up from “Archived Items” in the top left of the app. Once done, your “Archived Items” count will go to zero and “Downloaded Items” should show a number greater than zero.


As West notes, Kindle e-books come in the MobiPocket format, while iBooks requires ePub, so we’re going to be converting from one to the other. On a Mac, open up ~/Library/Containers/com.amazon.Kindle/Data/Library/Application Support/Kindle/My Kindle Content/.

Note: this does require the Library file found under the “username” directory. An easy way to open that folder is by holding the Option key while clicking the “Go” menu in the Finder. (On Windows, you can find the “My Kindle Content” folder under My Documents.)

Now we have to drag the .azw files (each Kindle e-book) into Calibre—why not do them all?

Converting Books: the waiting game

Next, click “Convert books” in the app’s toolbar. When the “Bulk Convert” window pops up, make sure that EPUB is selected in the upper right corner of the screen. Then click the third item on the left-hand side, “Page Setup,” and configure the output profile to whatever device you want to export to—we’re working with an iPad 3, so that’s what we chose. Similarly, choose Kindle as the input profile.


Click “OK” to begin the conversion. Depending on how many books you have, it may take a little while. Our 44 books, including some Lonely Planet travel guidebooks, took around 10 to 15 minutes. You can monitor Calibre’s progress by clicking the “Jobs” button in the lower right-hand corner.


On a Mac, Calibre defaults to creating its “Calibre Library” file under the username directory. If everything has gone correctly, you should have a bunch of sub-folders, organized by author’s name, complete with cover art and a converted file in EPUB format. Drag all of those folders directly into iTunes, which should open them all under “Books” (found in the upper left part of the app, between “Podcasts” and “Apps.”) Then, when you sync Books with your iPad, you’ll have all your Amazon e-books for your own use in iBooks, safe from Amazon’s whims.

As West himself noted, these files are for your personal use only—they’re not meant to be distributed anywhere. Enjoy!