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All my ads say the same thing: call, write, or come in. If a customer hasn’t done any of these, we didn’t get his business. At one point the advertisement has to stimulate this response, or the ad fails.

The process of writing every ad starts exactly the same way: Write your objective in the upper right-hand corner of a blank sheet of paper. Nothing kills an ad faster than having no objective. It should say one or more of the above: call, write, come in. This is a reminder that the response you are seeking is the reason for your ad. Draft your entire ad with your objective in mind. Every line, every word, every graphic—does it increase your response?

The importance of writing the objective of the ad can be demonstrated best by example. I was once called in for a consultation by a large real estate company whose sales were slipping. After an hour’s discussion with the owner, who had over 50 years of experience in selling real estate, I outlined the consulting agreement: We’d meet for 10 hours or so, and I’d outline a plan to increase his sales. Disbelievingly, he flatly stated, "I have over 50 years of experience selling real estate—do you mean to tell me in 10 hours of meetings you’re going to show me how to sell more houses?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Sir," he said, in continued disbelief, "I have forgotten more about selling houses than you will ever learn in your life."

He was right; it was true. Too bad the reply, "Sir, I have forgotten more about advertising than you have learned in 50 years of selling houses," didn’t come to me till months later. Isn’t hindsight wonderful? It always lets you know you could have said something more clever, now that it’s too late.

We spent a good deal of time reviewing the listings for houses in the real estate sections of the local newspapers. When I asked him the objective of the very expensive one-third-page ads he ran day after day, month after month, he told me quite sincerely, "To sell houses." When I asked him the purpose of the individual listings within these ads, again he replied, "To sell a house."

He was partly right: he had forgotten even more about selling houses than he thought. The objective of the ad was not to sell a house. No one sees a four-line listing and buys a house. The objective of each listing was to generate a phone call. The objective of the entire ad was to generate phone calls. I’ve never known anyone to see a listing for a house in a newspaper and send a down payment. They see the ad and—if it works—they pick up the phone. Rule number one: The ojective of an ad is generally not to sell the product. The objective is to generate phone calls.

Triple Your Response

So I proposed a format change in each listing. Call now, the new ads said. Call for an immediate appointment. For information call! And we gave the phone number in a multitude of places. After customers read our ads, with all the boxes saying CALL NOW! and the phone number showing repeatedly, my client’s phone calls tripled in the very first week. That’s the value of first writing the objective of the ad, then writing the ad to fulfill the objective. (This lesson was much more expensive for him than for you.)

An axiom in writing direct mail copy also holds true for advertisements, and even more so: AIDA. Attract attention, generate Interest, stimulate the Desire, and ask for Action.

You have about two or three seconds to entice the reader to stop, look at your ad, and read your headline. Which brings us to the second rule of making an effective ad: The headline is by far the most important line in the ad.

Get Ten Times Your Response!

Use a headline that will stop the reader dead on the page, capture his attention, and force him to read the rest of the ad. The headline is the ad for your ad.

If you work on writing your ad for 25 hours, make sure to spend 10 of them on the headline. Ten hours on one line? You bet; it can be worth it. The difference between the effectiveness of an ad with a poor headline and one with a great headline can be 10 times. Ten times!

Imagine that you take out an ad and get 100 responses. Then, keeping all the other elements of the ad the same, you just change the headline, and now you get 1,000 responses. That’s the difference. Don’t write just one or two headlines and pick one. Don’t write a dozen. Write 80 or 100. Yes, that’s what I do. Write even more if none looks good.

Ask friends to write snappy headlines. Better yet, tell them they’ll have the pleasure of seeing their words in print in a magazine if you select their headline to use. If that doesn’t work, offer to pay them if their headline is used.

Types of Headlines

The most powerful headline you can write contains your biggest reader benefit. One of the best ways to write a benefit-oriented headline for your direct marketing ad is to ask: "What is the biggest benefit of using this product?" In the answer lies the headline of your ad.

For example, if you are selling lawnmowers and yours is the fastest-cutting, cuts the widest path, or has the most horsepower (these are features), you might write in the headline: Mow your lawn in half the time!

What is it that makes your product unique and different? This is called your Unique Selling Proposition or USP, and it can be an effective headline if you can show it as a reader benefit. Benefits are an effective way to merchandise your product or service in an ad. A headline that shows the biggest benefit is my first choice, and the safest way to write a headline.

"How To"

Another safe—yet effective—headline style is the "How To" format. How to prepare over 80 meals in under 20 minutes! How to buy any airline ticket at a 50% discount. How to make terrific dinners using only one pot. If your product lends itself to the how-to-do-it market, even people with mild curiosity will read the ad if the headline shouts "How To!" How to specify printing to get the lowest price. How to set type without a computer. (Whoa! Remember those days?) Effective? You bet.

Attention Arrester

An attention-arresting headline makes an incredible statement. This is called "teaser copy" when it’s placed on the outside of an envelope.

Use copy that stirs the reader’s interest to such a degree that it forces him or her to read the rest of the ad. Make your headline soooo irresistible people have to read the body copy to see how you support it.

A perfect example is our lawnmower ad with the headline, This Lawnmower Makes Cutting the Grass So Fast and Easy, I Bought It for My Wife! The copy that follows says that she is a professional landscaper, and I bought her this mower to make her job easier. Since it’s an unusual occurrence for a man to buy a lawnmower for his wife, it will attract attention and "dare" people to read (or not read) the rest of the ad.


Another great formula for success in an ad headline is New! New is always exciting. Is there a new idea, part, feature, or benefit you can show as new? "New" and "Now" are two favorite words of every copywriter, and with great reason: they work. Just check out the shelves of laundry detergent in any supermarket. How many detergents say new? How many really are? Everyone likes a new model, or a newly improved old model.


Some words really are magic in advertising. The word "free" in the headline (or in the subhead) beats anything else in attracting attention and getting people interested. For additional value, also include it in the first line of the copy, and again in closing. This is probably the best single word you can use in a headline. A free offer increases response. Although overplayed and overused, this remains one of the most effective ways to generate a response to an ad. Just be careful to make sure you get qualified responses when offering something for free. Don’t wind up sending out mountains of free merchandise or literature and getting back no sales. Ugh. When making free offers, make sure you are advertising to the correct market and that your audience has the money and the authority to purchase your product.

Think of the brilliance of this: A moving company offers in its headline, Free booklet shows you how to pack your house and valuables for moving. It offers (1) a free book that (2) directly benefits its ideal audience: people who are moving. I’m sure it produces a ton of the highest-quality and most well-qualified leads.

The formula for the safest, most successful ad headline is simple: Free booklet offers benefit, benefit, benefit. This is my personal recommendation when you are writing any ad. It’s particularly helpful when you are having trouble writing a great headline.

One of the lowest-cost ways to raise your response rate is to create a valuable and useful free gift. Probably the most inexpensive way to do this is to create free literature. Paper is cheap. Create a data sheet that is informative, contains "how to" information, or explains something practical about your industry, product, or service. A safe variation on our free offer can be to give away an educational booklet on the subject. Can you find some "how to" or useful information related to your service or product that potential customers will want? Make your material as useful as you can, so your free gift has a high value to your audience. In your ad, make your offer sound so great that customers will feel they are missing something if they don’t call right away to get it. Use Free! liberally throughout your ad. If you create a useful gift of lasting value, customers will call you for years to use your services. As a lead-generation device, an informational product is an excellent marketing tool. Probably the best.

When drafting your ad, kindly remember you aren’t in a contest to see who can be the most unusual or win an award for being the most different. You just want to make money; so create a good, solid ad, built on a traditional format that has proven time and time again it will pay for itself by generating maximum response (your objective). Ads that draw the greatest number of qualified responses have the best chance of success.

This article is ©

This Marketing Contributed Content article was written by Jeff Dobkin on 3/1/2005

Jeff Dobkin is the author of How To Market a Product for Under $500 and Uncommon Marketing Techniques. He is also a speaker, writes response-driven sales letters, engaging web content, persuasive catalog copy; and exceptional direct mail packages. He also is a marketing analyst for direct marketing packages, ads, catalogs, and campaigns. To place an order, or to speak with Mr. Dobkin call 610/642-1000. Visit him online at
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