Evaluating Headlines: Microscope or Kaleidoscope?

[July 25, 2012]

What makes a good headline? It’s not an open and shut case—no matter what school of thought you subscribe to. That’s because, contrary to conventional wisdom, a headline is not an object, like a gear or a transistor to be stamped out to engineering specs on demand. Instead, it’s the end product of a thought process, and it’s the quality of that thought process, rather than any extrinsic standard, that’s the true foundation of a successful headline. 

As a result, effective evaluation of a headline requires you to set aside abstract notions of word count, diction, “style” and—most important—the presence or absence of puns, alliteration or wordplay. Forget your slavish devotion to the gods of Simplicity, Strength and Speed—and just listen.

Listen to the headline in the broader context of the actual communication in front of you. It might take practice. In a world fairly dripping with marketing, it’s easy to forget that headlines have different structures and functions in different advertising media.

Whereas a headline in a magazine has to do almost all the heavy lifting to keep users from flipping away, on TV, a host of other elements, not the least of which is motion, are available to grab and hold attention. In the multidimensional landscape of digital space, on the other hand, a headline needs to be tightly integrated into an intricate network of reference and cross reference. 

That is, of course, unless the site in question is the hapless assemblage of off-the-shelf design and programming elements typical of many digital retail environments. Not that more than a handful of Web sites manage to strike this balance at any one time. 

Approximately 15 years into the digital era, the exact role of creative copy—as opposed to “content”—in digital communication is still poorly defined. That’s why, in so many cases, what passes for a headline is merely the topic sentence of an article or advertorial, propped up on a giant font like a circus clown on stilts. 

Get your specs on straight.
So, having correctly adjusted your sights for the medium in question and sent Prescriptive Ideology to its room with no supper, what’s a sensible, efficient and creative way to evaluate a headline? 

Start by realizing that, all other considerations aside, a headline can be either literal or allusive, but not both. Nothing bogs headline development down faster than sending a copywriter on a quixotic quest to say everything about the brand in one sexy, dynamic, witty, trendy and culturally sensitive phrase, preferably of no more than four words—five, if the latest TED video says it’s OK. 

Unfortunately for everyone involved, initiating such a quest sets contradictory forces in motion and adds another chapter to an epic saga: The clash between the explicit and the implicit. For while some people take it for granted that a headline’s only function is to proclaim a product feature, benefit factoid or discount offer, others seek to encapsulate an entire brand promise in a catch phrase open to multiple interpretations. 

Adjust your focus.
Which approach is correct? As I see it, that’s the wrong question. In evaluating a headline, what’s relevant is, again, the thought process at the heart of the endeavor. Though classic promo-copy, generally speaking, makes my soul weep for the fate of humanity, there are times when it’s the only way to go. 

After all, if the only thing on your mind at the moment is 


…there’s no point in beating around the bush. By the same token, if your messaging strategy is all about discounts, I have no incentive not to jump from one retailer to the other—whoever has the best deal. 

So if, to compensate, you want to capture my loyalty, you’ll need to do some relationship building. That’s a different thought process and, necessarily, requires a different sort of headline, which must meet a different set of criteria.

What this points to is the exaggerated pressure put on copy execution, and creative execution in general, to move product and boost brand awareness. It suggests that, instead of sweating the small stuff through 21 rounds of revision, it’s more profitable to do the heavy lifting upfront. How? By working out a branded thought process for each quarter and developing effective materials to express it. 

Not, mind you, with stencils punched out of the latest Best Practice Activity Book, but with real insight into what your audience—a group of people just like you in every meaningful detail—needs to feel motivated, honored and entertained by your brand. It’s a goal you can accomplish only when you stop burdening the creative process with microscopic micromanagement and open your mind to the kaleidoscope of human emotion.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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