The One Headline Tactic That Has Worked for 75+ Years

I was out with a client last week and happened upon a few very old magazines that were sitting out on a table.

Their pages were stiff and crusty with age and water damage, but they had held up relatively well for being 76 years old.

In 1939, the advertisements in a particular women-oriented magazine I flipped through were focused around the common pain points of its key demographic.

Baking. Beauty. Keeping a clean house and a happy family.

But what really struck me was that the headlines looked a lot like the ones I see on Twitter and Facebook today.

They were the same anticipation-driven, Fear of Missing Out style that we’ve come to associate with sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy.

Take a look:


Amazing, right?

Now here’s one I just pulled from Upworthy:

Same. Formula.

So what gives? What makes these headlines so incredibly successful that we’ve been using them since 1939 (and probably before then)?

There’s been lots of research and studies conducted that illustrate the point in a very scientific manner. But let’s just talk human to human.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. People want problems solved. If you put a solution in front of them that speaks directly to an issue they are struggling with, there’s a good reason for them to read on.
  2. People don’t like being left out. Whether it’s a baking secret or a great coupon code, if you know the information is right around the corner, it’s hard not to proceed and discover for yourself.
  3. People trust advice from friends. When a headline incorporates social proof, it becomes more relatable.
  4. People want a quick fix. Time is precious — and always has been. That’s why we love finding shortcuts — so we can have more time to do the things we really want to do.
  5. People have a mental picture of how they want to project themselves. If you can help them model after a certain type of person or do something the way a trusted expert does, they’ll listen.

The ads in Farmer’s Wife Magazine were competing for read time much in the same way the deluge of content on the Internet competes for our attention today. Readers are skimming, and if you want them to pause — you’d better give them a good reason to.

Does every headline need to be sensationalized? No. But a simple title that sounds good to you isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t back then, and it doesn’t now.

My best piece of advice for people struggling with writing headlines: Put yourself in the shoes of the ideal person you are writing for. Think about what is frustrating for them and where your service or product can make their lives easier, better, and simpler. Package your headline around that solution and then write about that.