The 100-to-1 rule: Creating the best headlines
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Nobody uses the first draft in copywriting — at least none of my friends do. This, of course, depends on their hangover. While I don't like to waste time writing copy that isn't going to be used, it's just as important to edit severely as it is to write succinctly.
What does this have to do with creating the best headline? It's called the 100-to-1 rule. It's the rule all copywriters use but don't tell you about. It's the reason great copywriters get paid so much money. It's the writing you never see — the 99 lines that never get published.
The 100-to-1 rule states:
For every line whose contribution to success is so crucial, for each line that is so important it can make or break your entire piece, for any line that is so pivotal that you place your bet on this single line and you win or lose everything on its strength, say hallelujah; the line that's so significant that the success or failure of your entire direct marketing package, mailer, ad or press release depends on its existence being close to perfection, say hallelujah again; so it is written ye must write that single line 100 different ways, then go back and pick out the best one. Amen.
Yep. Write 100 lines, pick the best one. The 100-to-1 rule. Hey, I didn't say you'd like it — I just said it would make your writing more effective.
Let's take a closer look at where the 100-to-1 rule is used.
1. Press release headline: The headline determines the success or failure of your press release. It starts by getting the editor's attention, then convinces the publisher to publish it, makes the correct segment of the audience read it and makes sure qualified prospects respond.
In a press release, the headline is the single most important line you can write. It's the ad for your press release. Recommended formula: New product offers benefit. Example: "New hammer is easier to grip." "New motorcycle has incredible acceleration."
2. The first line of your press release body copy: Here's how to sneak benefits into a release without editors cutting them out. Since editors cut from the bottom, place two or three of your most powerful benefits in the first line or two of the body of the release — and they never get cut.
Recommended formula: New product offers benefit, benefit, benefit. Examples: "New lawnmower is easier to start, quieter, yet still cuts lawns 40 percent faster." "New jacket is lightweight, waterproof and comfortable — at minus-30 degrees."
3. The headline of your ad: Unlike a press release — where the headline has to conform to the editor's need to fit in well with the rest of the editorial material, the headline for your ad is entirely up to you — so it can be more powerful and harder selling. Still, this recommendation may work for both press release and ad.
Recommended formula: Free booklet offers useful information. Example: A roofing company offers, "Free booklet shows how to find the leak in a leaky roof."
Why is this a great formula? It attracts only the specific market segment the advertiser is looking for (here in our example, people who need to fix a leaky roof), saving you money on literature and fulfillment.
Then it generates excellent response, but only from highly qualified prospects by offering something for free. Would anyone want a brochure on finding a leak in a roof besides someone who has a leak in their roof? Not likely. Are they really going to rip up their roof themselves to repair the leak? Nah, don't be silly.
The percentage of people who are going to repair their own roof from a free booklet is pretty darn small. And if they do, these are the people who are going to need even more professional help when they screw it up. Trust me on this one.
4. The first sentence of the body copy of your ad: The only function of this first line is to keep the reader reading. It is not to sell your product. Your most interesting line is needed to entice the reader to read the rest of the ad.
The rest of the body copy then sells the phone call by showing the product benefits and making a strong call to action. To hook the reader early, the first line must be electrifying. Yes, write 100, pick one.
5. The teaser copy on your envelope: If this crucial selection of a great line isn't perfection, your mailpiece goes right into the basket over which most people sort their mail. The sole function of envelope teaser copy is to get recipients to open the mail piece.
Unlike an ad or press release, you've already invested money to get your message delivered right into your prospect's hands. Make a broader appeal with this teaser copy — you wouldn't want anyone to get turned off by focusing it too tightly.
Recommended formula: "Free Gift Certificate Enclosed!" Gift certificates are incredibly effective response generators. They're inexpensive to print on one-third or one-quarter of a sheet of paper.
Since they're only good for the products and dates you select, they're cheap to redeem, and you can target them specifically towards merchandise you want to get rid of. Nice promotion. Variations on this: "Discount Coupons Enclosed!" "Free Gift Enclosed!"
6. The first paragraph of your sales letter: 99 percent of my sales letters start with a first paragraph consisting of one or two lines. And most are only one or two words. The opening of a sales letter has to be the most electric it can be, because the reader makes the decision in a split second to read, scan or toss.
Keep the opening paragraph short and electrifying. One line is best. Two lines are OK. Three lines only work if the entire second paragraph is shorter than five words.
Recommended opening lines: One of my favorite openings is, paragraph one: "Cough." Paragraph two: "Cough. Cough." Paragraph three: "Now that the dust is settling from the (name holiday) holidays, let me ..." Another favorite: Paragraph one: "You're invited." Paragraph two: "You're invited to our biggest event of the year ..."
Any way to circumvent the 100-to-1 rule?
No, not to any great extent. If you're good, you may be able to get away with writing 25, 50 or 80 lines, then picking the best one. But the 100-to-1 formula is a sure-fire winning solution to finding that single explosive line to make your phone lines light up.
The all-out winner may be that number 100, the 100th line you wrote. Of course it may be the first line you wrote, too — but you'll never know this until you finish. Most times, though, you'll know it when you write it. It's that ah-ha, eureka moment.
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