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.

Some Direct Mail Is So Eye-Catching, It Borders On Fine Art. But Does It Generate Business?

By: Natalie Engler

Starting A Conversation

Some direct mail is so eye-catching, it borders on fine art. But does it generate business? 

A year ago, Brea Olson, a marketing manager in Denver, received a direct mail postcard that caught her eye. Promoting an offer from online shoe retailer Piperlime, the card was designed to look like the green citrus fruit. Olson doesn’t recall her exact response to the message — but she knows that she couldn’t ignore it. A year later, that lime-shaped postcard still hangs in her kitchen.

Lin Ennis knows this experience well. A decade back, she stumbled across a direct mail postcard with the word “create” printed across it. Ten years later, its offer long since expired, that card still adorns her office wall. “It’s tattered now,” she says, “but I seem unable to part with it.”

Olson and Ennis aren’t alone. In offices and homes across the country, mail pieces initially designed to pitch an offer or service have become something more than just another piece of business communication. For many recipients, these pieces are something deeper, richer, more inspiring. No longer just an ad, they are also viewed as art.

We’re not talking just a crude illustration or generic stock photo designed to elicit a passing chuckle, either. Rather, many of the pieces that endure are created by respected artists and fully intend to do more than just prompt a purchase decision. While almost any mail piece can catch someone’s eye for any reason, the pieces that last due to sheer artistic brilliance are almost always intended to do so.

Writer and designer Alison Macmillan has kept several direct mail postcards because they provide inspiration for her own marketing campaigns, she says. Among them is an ad for a water filter, with a photo of a girl in 1950s-style clothing; a nursing services piece celebrating art and soup; and a mailer from an eyewear store that she saved because “the colors draw me in, as does the sultry look of the model in dark glasses.”

What recipients also see — weeks, months and even years after the marketing message has lost relevance — is a constant reminder of the company that sent them this irresistible bit of mail. And while evidence about the influence of highly artistic pieces is largely anecdotal, it’s still clear that a brand can get an unexpected boost by having its name or logo affixed to a wall for years purely because of the aesthetic appeal of a mailer.

There are plenty of companies that invest in visuals that they hope will outlast the immediate message of a mail piece. Some are companies you’d expect — such as art houses, graphic design companies and other visual-arts businesses. But there are also other major businesses, from retirement communities to big-city dance troupes, hoping to win over consumers with visuals that go beyond just a generic stock photo or crude illustration.

Return on Artwork

The first, most obvious payoff from the use of high-level artistry in a mailer is that the piece becomes more likely to capture potential respondents’ attention. The right images can help differentiate a direct mail piece from competitive mailings, says Kacy Cole, vice president of marketing at Corbis, a Seattle-based resource for advertising, design and media professionals worldwide. “Using imagery in direct mail campaigns helps convey a complex concept or idea in a glance,” she says. “Using quality imagery helps a campaign stand out.”

Recently, Corbis launched an initiative it calls BrainBran, which includes both an online and hard-copy component. The direct mail piece consists of a pack of 24 cards, each featuring a single and thought-provoking image along with a brief statement (“Remove the technology”) or question (“What’s the emotional motivation?”). The cards, which can be ordered from the company’s Web site, are designed to help stimulate ideas among creative professionals while also promoting Corbis as a fount of smart thinking, resourcefulness and eye-grabbing art. Just as significantly, they are designed as keepsakes.

Of course, you’d probably expect an art supplier to invest heavily in direct mail images that art lovers would want to keep. You might not, however, expect a popular retirement community to make a similar stake.

That’s what happened, though, when strategic marketing agency Creating Results launched a campaign for Westminster at Lake Ridge, a continuing-care retirement community. Creating Results sent 10,000 double-sided, full-color postcards to retirees. The 6-inch by 10-inch postcards spotlighted two resident artists — a photographer and an award-winning painter/sculptor — and displayed images of their work along with details about their lives. “Getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing your passions,” says Karen Pitts Baugher, director of public relations for Creating Results. “The vibrant artwork helped us show that Westminster at Lake Ridge gives you the time and freedom to live a vibrant life.” The campaign even inspired a reporter for a local paper to write about each featured artist.

In the weeks after each mailing, visitors to the Westminster Lake Ridge Web site roughly doubled, Creating Results reports. Calls from new leads surged as well, and the community’s occupancy rate of 96 percent was the highest ever.

Individual artists can benefit from an artistic approach to direct, too — especially when they are savvy about their mailing lists. When a Houston-area dance company showed the artwork of internationally recognized artist and designer Pablo Solomon in connection with an April performance, Solomon advertised the show with a postcard displaying one of his sculptures.

But he not only sent the mailer to prospective attendees, he also used it as an opportunity to reach out to past and potential business associates, gently reminding them of his existence. This targeted mailing resulted in several new opportunities, he says. For example, when he sent it as a “thank you” to the company that makes the particular product with which he sculpts, the company made him a spokesman.

And a mailing to critics he met several years ago when he did promotions for an art-related television series as well as a few local fine arts institutions and retail establishments led to several new artistic collaborations. Meanwhile, a poster-sized version of the postcard was hung at the theater complex where he was the featured artist. As it turned out, Houston Grand Opera shared the complex that night, so he also received inquiries about doing graphics work from opera-goers.

Different Strokes

But can a direct mail piece be too arty? Although beautiful mailers catch the attention of creative types, does investment in eye candy make sense for everyone?

Not necessarily, caution direct marketing experts. The value of aesthetics hinges on the industry, the audience and the message, they say. “We are a visual society,” observes Thomas Lamprecht, creative director of Hacker Group in Seattle. “We rely on our eyes more than any other sense, so visuals in marketing are important.” But he points out that we are also an Internet society, accustomed to finding pertinent information immediately — so if the visuals are fabulous but the message is muddy, your beautiful work may end up in the trash.

Hacker Group, which has created campaigns for numerous brand-name companies, occasionally compares the impact of an art-intensive execution of a campaign with a plain version. What they’ve found: Art tends to produce more bang for the buck when marketing an “object of desire,” such as real estate or motor vehicles, Lamprecht says.

Among the firm’s successful art-driven campaigns was one for a motorcycle manufacturer. Each direct mail piece displayed a digitally enhanced view of a motorbike, but in full and detailed view. The imagery focuses on “romanticizing” the product and is aimed at intense fans of the machines. In this case the art, says Lamprecht, “is purely about the product’s aesthetics and sex appeal.”

Appearance-related industries also benefit from pronounced artistry, says Joy Gendusa, founder and CEO of PostcardMania, a direct mail marketing company in Clearwater, Fla. Among those industries: dentists, day spas, art galleries, plastic surgeons, high-end landscaping, salons and home improvement companies. “Any time you are selling beauty, you have to have a beautiful card,” she says.

Some high-end services companies may benefit from beauty as well, but for different reasons. Tammy Mangan, director of marketing for Sterne Kessler Goldstein & Fox PLLC, an intellectual property law firm in Washington, D.C., says, “We’ve made superior design a part of our normal course of business because we believe it defines and reinforces our brand.” She adds that by using inventive imagery the firm aims to mirror the creativity of its clients, which are often tech companies.

Corbis’ Cole notes that for some health care and financial services companies, lifestyle images, showing people conveying emotions or connecting with friends and loved ones, can engage customers and help them identify with the product or service.

But for other financial planners, physical therapists, cleaning services, plumbing, appliances and other services firms, gorgeous design may be counterproductive. In these industries, humor tends to be more effective, says Gendusa, who has produced over 688 million postcards with around 70,000 designs over the past 10 years. In addition, she says that anyone trying to reach a financially conservative or low-income audience should be especially wary of coming across as slick or snobbish.

“Gilding the lily is one of the pitfalls of direct mail,” contends Steve Goebel, the creative director for MassMedia Inc., which is based in Las Vegas. “If you focus too much on the art and not enough on the call to action, you’re just making art for art’s sake. There’s a place for that.”

Of course, if you manage to make that great art relevant to your message, the place for your mailer just might be on someone’s office wall.


USPS Launches Eye Catching New Mail App

USPS surprises CES with eye-popping app that brings mail to life (video)

The Post Office is starting to grasp the enormous potential from integrating direct mail and a digital experience.

January 10, 2013 7:00 AM


When I think of innovation, one of the last places I think of is the United States Postal Service. So color me surprised when USPS debuted a new app this week at the Consumer Electronics Show that works well and could increase a company’s interest in sending mail again.

USPS has had a lot of trouble over the past decade, with email eating away at snail mail usage and UPS and FedEx taking customers from USPS’s package delivery services. But with this new app, the organization might be showing at least some signs of life.

The app, developed with Aurasma, scans a piece of mail and uses augmented reality to make the paper an interactive ad. Ideally, companies that want to engage with potential customers could do so with a new kind of advertising — one that merges digital and physical ads.

“We worked on this to show companies that hard copy mail can be a part of their editorial content,” Chris Karpenko, head of USPS outreach, told me on the CES show floor. “It’s all about the customer experience. And there is a measurable ROI on click-throughs.”

Karpenko said the app will likely be released “before the end of 2013.”

Check out video of the app below.


Top photo via Sean Ludwig/VentureBeat

Read more at http://venturebeat.com/2013/01/10/usps-augmented-reality-app/#emdAOuSdZ92Xrks8.99