The lost art of headlines

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but sometime in the last ten years or so it apparently became unnecessary to write proper headlines for trade publication ads.

Now, when you flip through any issue of any major b-to-b magazine, you mostly find ads with large, bold-faced words at the top, but they don’t express a complete thought or make any attempt to engage the reader in a dialogue of any sort.

For example, here’s one from Schlumberger, one of our leading energy suppliers: “Making Knowledge Work.” (I guess, like many other things, it must have been laid off recently.)

Here’s a similar incomplete thought from a leading geophysical company: “Knowledge Empowers.” If it was really empowered, I’m thinking it would probably find a job to do or a problem to solve.

In a construction industry magazine, I discovered: “When service counts, count on us.” I’m pretty sure service always counts, but it’s good to know that this particular safety solutions company will be able to come through in the clutch. Well, they didn’t actually say they would come through or provide any reasons why you should count on them, but we’ve got to give them credit for something, huh?

Why is it that creators of b-to-b ads today find it acceptable to write ads that look good, but fail to stop the reader with a powerful selling proposition? Isn’t that the main purpose of an ad? Are we so busy cranking out marcom stuff that we don’t have time to worry about engaging the reader’s full attention? Maybe we just don’t think it’s necessary anymore.

When I talk with publication publishers and sales reps about this sorry situation, they shake their head knowingly, but seem to accept it as inevitable. Holy Crap! It’s not inevitable, and it’s a trend that needs to be reversed immediately.

Advertisers who run lame ads without audience-engaging headlines are not likely to get much of any response to those ads. Will they blame themselves for the low response? No, they will probably blame the publication. In fact, many b-to-b marketers these days are moving away from print media because “nobody reads that stuff anymore.”

I’m sure attention-challenged youngsters struggle with print, but in my humble opinion, if a publisher can offer a tightly defined audience of readers with similar needs, that’s a communications bonanza. You will, however, have to make an effort to actually communicate! You can’t just list your name and insert a picture of your product and expect customers to fill in the rest.

Like everybody else, customers are super busy these days. They don’t have time to do your job for you. They want to know which product or service will do the best job solving their problem for the money they have to spend. If you can answer that question compellingly, you win the grand prize!

When a new issue of a trade magazine arrives on my desk, I sometimes like to kick back and imagine myself as a buyer of products and services. The “noise” level is incredibly high. The claims (if any) are very similar. Do any ads stand out? Is anyone making their case for my business persuasively?

Unfortunately, the answer all too often is no. But occasionally, a few good ones leap out.

In a recent issue I discovered an excellent ad for Emerson flowmeters that stands out. The headline is: “Every single flowmeter I calibrate interrupts my process. There must be a way to verify meters without putting my plant and people at risk.” Indeed there is, it’s called Micro Motion Smart Meter Verification.

Sometimes an engaging headline is simply provocative. One recent Halliburton ad said, “Residue-free fluid provides better fracturing results than guar-based fluid systems.” Considering the industry’s gone crazy for guar, that’s what you call a poser.

And it never hurts to combine a good headline with powerful graphics like the new ad series from Carhartt work shirts. The headline, “The shirt you have to wear now comes in the shirt you want to wear” is nicely paired with a gripping, emotional photo of two guys working at a gritty construction jobsite.

I bet many of the lame headlines we read in trade magazines come from non-advertising client types who had the so-called great idea that morning on the way to work. It takes guts and skill to sidestep those mandates and come up with something better – something that rings true.

It takes real backbone to smile, look ‘em in the eye and say “maybe” but they know you’re not likely to run with their fluffy idea anytime soon.

When you’ve had a chance to look behind the curtain to see how good advertising is created, you quickly find out that ideas are easy. It takes dozens of them to find several with real potential. You have to push beyond the obvious to develop one that can break through the clutter.

But that’s what our job calls for. That’s why we do what we do. And that’s why we make the big bucks. Okay, I’m dreaming again.

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