Creative Corner: “The ticket on the meat”

by Andy Edelstein on January 16, 2013

Let’s talk about headlines. In advertising, as in journalism, headlines are your best shot at flagging down your prospects, at grabbing their attention and seducing them into reading more. Copywriters live or die by their headlines — and they stress over them endlessly.

Law firms give almost no thought to their headlines. And why should they? After all, most law firms don’t advertise, so why should a headline matter?

It matters. Leaving aside the larger question of whether law firms should advertise (many should), let’s consider the idea that all marketing communications — whether we’re talking web pages, brochures, blog posts, case studies, thought leadership pieces, whatever — are, in effect, a form of advertising. Your firm spends time, money, and effort to put them out into the marketplace for the expressed purpose of attracting prospective clients. They all have a selling agenda, so let’s admit it — they’re advertising.

Once we accept this, it’s not hard to see the importance of an effective headline. On Madison Avenue, the headline has been famously called “the ticket on the meat.” It exists to catch the eye. Few readers will be tempted to wade through a dense block of body text without first being given a reason to do so. A good headline gives them that reason. It stops them. It piques their interest. And it delivers a message, albeit a brief one, in its own right.

Your firm’s name is not a headline. Yet it’s amazing how many firms — even those paying good money for advertising — seem to think that in a field with precious little differentiation, all they need to do is “get the name out there.” Advertising people know better. They are taught from day one that their job is to create differentiation, even where there isn’t any — and that starts with a good headline.

So what makes a good headline? Here are some of the essentials:

  • Be brief — While there is no firm agreement about the ideal length of a headline, there is no question that you have to get it over with in a hurry. Set a limit of, say, six to ten words and you can’t go too wrong. The idea is to say a lot by saying a little.
  • Crystallize the idea — Whatever point you’re trying to make in the piece as whole, make sure the headline is a fair encapsulation of that point. If your headline says one thing and your body text says another, you’ll just confuse your prospect. Confusion is not a sound sales strategy.
  • Focus on the prospect — While the temptation to talk about “we” and “us” is sometimes overwhelming (and sometimes unavoidable), marketing communications generally work much better when talking to “you,” the target audience. The Madison Avenue crowd focuses obsessively on putting the “consumer benefit” out front — law firms would do well to emulate this practice.
  • Be interesting — At the risk of repeating myself from a previous article, the great ad-man David Ogilvy once said “Nobody was ever bored into buying anything.” Your headline is the ideal place to not be boring. Interesting is the very least it should be. A good headline will be provocative, intriguing, beguiling, or all of the above. A great headline will be like a brick thrown through the window of your prospects.

Of course, even a great headline is of limited use if it isn’t paid off in the body text. If, as we’ve said, the headline crystallizes the idea, the body text must then develop it. The headline states your case, and the copy drives it home.

None of this is easy. The demand for good headlines far outstrips the supply of writers who can provide them. Madison Avenue has traditionally paid its copywriters quite well for exactly that reason. But even if you can’t write headlines yourself, it’s important to recognize a good one — or, more likely, a bad or non-existent one — when you see it. Especially if it’s in your own marketing materials.

Andy Edelstein is a copywriter specializing in law firm advertising and marketing communications. Reach him at andrew.edelstein@verizon.net

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