Are your headlines missing these precise psychological triggers?

January 05, 2010 | Writing

This is a guest blog post from Sean D’Souza, the driving force behind the PsychoTactics website and blog. He is an expert in using and understanding psychology to increase sales. His background includes a stint at Leo Burnett, one of the world’s most famous ad agencies.

Are you avoiding learning about headlines because you’re not a copywriter? Better not, because whether you make a PowerPoint presentation, write a sales letter or an e-mail, the last thing you need is a headline that will go glug glug and take your marketing strategy down with it.

Okay, belt up as we roller coaster our way into the science of how to recognize the power behind the headline. Find out for yourself the precise psychological reasons why headlines entice us so.

How we’re going to play the headline game: Let me play tour guide. First, I’ll give you three sets of headlines that really work. I’ll identify the trigger in the headline. Then I’ll tell you the psychological reasons WHY they work. Right after that you take over and implement these headlines in your marketing strategy. Comprende? Si? Let’s go.

Psychological Trigger No. 1: Question-based vs. statement-based headlines.

  • Do you make these mistakes in English?
  • Do you know where you fail in your marketing strategy?
  • Is internet marketing driving you crazy?

Ladies and gentlemen … presenting the question-based headline! A headline that beats the living daylights out of the straightforward statement-based headline. When tested, a question like Do you know where you fail in your marketing strategy? gets far more attention than This is where you’re failing in your marketing strategy. Which one would get your attention more: Don’t struggle to pay your bills or Are you struggling to pay your bills?

So why does the brain go wakawaka when faced with a question-based headline? The reason is simple. Questions irritate the brain causing your grey cells to do a neurological dance. The very sight of a question mark forces your brain to want to know more.

Do you have a statement in your headline? You do, huh. Well swap it for a question and then move to our next psychological trigger.

Psychological Trigger No. 2: Problem-based vs. solution-based headlines.

  • Struggling to get ahead in your small business?
  • Is your computer’s lack of speed driving you crazy?
  • Is your marketing strategy missing a vital link?

Now that you know the power of questions, these are double whammy headlines. They not only get your brain whizzing like a wind-up toy, but they also bring to the fore a pain in your brain. If your brain is doing mental aerobics right now, it’s because these headlines are causing you some real grief and you are the precise target audience.

You identify with these problems and are keen to solve them. The brain is fixated with solving problems. It’s a basic survival instinct kicking in. For thousands of years, the brain has been moonlighting.

While its primary function is to make sure the rest of your body parts do what they’re supposed to, its side job is to keep you alive. Therefore, it actively goes in search of potential problems you may have, and when it sees one in the headline, it says, “That’s for me!” and goes straight for the problem-based headline.

Yet look at most of the advertising around you. It’s all solution based. You see it, then you don’t. Recycle your solution-based headline into a nice problem-based power pack.

Done it? Okay, let’s go screaming in to the next psychological trigger.

Psychological Trigger No. 3: Curious vs. non-curious headlines. When this article was published it had the headline: Are your headlines missing these precise psychological triggers? Notice the headline construction. It has the word these in it. These implies there are certain psychological triggers. Now how the heck will you know which ones they are if you don’t start reading this report? Sure you might be the living guru of marketing headlines, but even you can’t be 100 percent sure.

You’ll have to peek, you think. A small peek. And you do, except it’s a very slippery slide once you get on, my friend.

A skillful communicator knows that he or she must get the curiosity factor to move bag and baggage into your headline. It’s the key to literally sucking in an audience. Then it’s really up to the quality of the content, flow and your ability to keep your audience mesmerized.

Headlines with curiosity work because the brain is intensely curious. Tell a person not to look behind the door, and they want to look. Tell them they cannot have something and they want to know why. Analysis is all part of Mr. Brain’s job.

Every question needs to be answered, otherwise it pounds in your head like a jackhammer with questions that incessantly go Why? Why? Why? When you create a curiosity factor, you are literally switching on every light in your customer’s brain.

Headlines with a HOW TO in them are typical curiosity-based headlines. They imply a problem that you might have and need to solve. And to prove my point, look at the next line and see how your eye goes wham, right into it.

How to construct headlines without making a complete mess of things: Let me show you how I’d go about it. For instance, I wrote a lot of potential headlines for this article. These were the final four:

  1. Psychological reasons why these headlines work like magic
  2. Which precise psychological reasons cause these headlines to work like magic?
  3. Is your marketing strategy missing these precise psychological triggers?
  4. Are your headlines missing these precise psychological triggers?

Let’s get these on the couch, shall we?

Psychological reasons why these headlines work like magic. This headline had only one of the features above. It had a curiosity factor. However, it lacked a question and it certainly scored a big zero on the problem factor. Needless to say, it soon backspaced itself into oblivion.

Which precise psychological reasons cause these headlines to work like magic? Ooh, this one was pretty powerful. It had the question. It was packed with curiosity, but it kind of fell flat faced on the problem audit. Goodbye, Monsieur Headline.

Is your marketing strategy missing these precise psychological triggers? This one scored on all points. Curiosity, problems and question sat merrily together, expecting me to be as pleased as punch. I was, until I noticed one little discrepancy. It was appealing to the wrong target audience. This headline would attract people who were interested in marketing strategy not headlines. They would come in, find themselves in the wrong room, drink a glass of wine and sneak out. I needed people to stay for the party. I needed people who were interested in headlines. People like you. Inevitably, I had to refine it just a little bit. And here’s what I came up with.

Are your headlines missing these precise psychological triggers? I personally believe this one was the most powerful of the lot. If it were a guy, I’d let him marry my daughter (if I had one) and give him my blessings. This headline not only encapsulated all the triggers above, but it was precisely positioned. It went for a niche audience and got their full attention.

What’s Abraham Lincoln got to do with headlines? Abe apparently said, If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the axe. Your headline is what you need to spend most of your time sharpening. You see, people are always in their own world, thinking about their own problems. If you don’t snap them out of their reverie, you don’t have the slightest chance of getting them to buy into whatever it is you’re selling.

There’s also another dimension to this sharpening gig. You can’t be totally satisfied with the headline if it merely fits these three parameters. That is the science, not the art. The art is getting inside the brain of your customers. You’ll find that a slightly different headline will bring in as much as 20 to 20,000 times better returns without any change in content.

The only way you can know which one works better is to test headlines. Testing isn’t as hard as you think. Put it in an e-mail and send it to a dozen friends and colleagues. You’ll soon get a pattern and probably some valuable feedback. Take it. It will help you carve a headline that will really get your customer’s attention.

Do you need all three psychological triggers working at once? No you don’t. A headline can work perfectly well with one or two of the above psychological triggers. In life, three may be a crowd, but in headlines it’s the more the merrier. Use the power of headlines in your marketing strategy, your PowerPoint presentations, sales letters, e-mails, newsletters, articles and reports.

Better headlines mean better bottom lines. Simple logic, eh?

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