What social media marketers can learn from David Ogilvy’s “Perfect Headline”

David Ogilvy wrote a lot of headlines.

Of course he did. As one of the most influential ad men in the history of the industry, that seems like a no-brainer. But it’s worth noting because the Rolls-Royce headline you just read was said to have been the best one he ever wrote.

As writers and social media marketers, we’re always in hot pursuit of that elusive perfect headline. From where I sit, there are two reasons:

  1. It’s the gateway to content

A great headline draws the reader in. It’s engaging, clickable (note: NOT clickbaity) and the keystone to a well-constructed social post.

  1. It’s really hard

Is it engaging? Does it draw the reader in? Is it intriguing enough without being too vague? Does it perfectly capture the brand as well as the tone of the content? Balancing all these elements in a single headline is extremely difficult.

Though the famous Rolls-Royce line Ogilvy seen below was penned almost 60 years ago is just 91 characters (I counted), it reveals to us the three pillars of social media marketing that we adhere to so closely in the 21st century.

Know your audience

“I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”

David Ogilvy was a research nut. In 1938 he came to the United States to work for George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute (author of all those Gallup Polls you hear so much about during election season). It was there that his affinity for understanding human behavior through data and analytical thinking began to germinate.

“The Rolls-Royce budget was less than two percent of the Cadillac budget,” according to Ogilvy. He knew he needed a headline that would speak louder than the money they put behind it.

Though this headline seems like a creative masterpiece, it demonstrates that the data didn’t just influence the body copy, which is essentially a list of well-worded features. He knew this was a working man’s luxury car, an artifact of decadence meant to be used and enjoyed by the person who owns it.

Social media marketing is full of noise. Hundreds of brands are pitching thousands of messages, all vying for eyeballs and clicks. But this Ogilvy headline proved back then, and reinforces today, that knowing your audience is far more than half the battle.

Headlines are powerful

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”

Despite a relatively small ad budget, the Rolls-Royce headline sold a lot of cars in 1959-60, thanks in large part to this ad. That’s, of course, great news for Rolls-Royce. But it was also a win for Ogilvy. Shell Oil, another one of his marquee clients in the 1960s, only considered his agency “because they were impressed by the advertising Ogilvy did for Rolls-Royce,” according to Referral Candy.

Once a month, Brandpoint’s entire writing staff meets in a conference room to discuss all of their best and worst headlines with their Publisher Distribution Manager. That’s in addition to our weekly Writer’s Meeting.

No, we don’t do this for our health. We do this because we understand the significant impact headlines have both on how our clients’ content performs and how well (or poorly) that reflects how we’re doing as content creators.

“A good headline is like a delicious piece of candy. You want your readers to gobble it up without even realizing they’ve done it. If you succeed, they’ll crave more,” says Elisa Bernick, Brandpoint’s Managing Editor.

The same is absolutely true for social media. With an astronomical number of brands publishing content on social, attention is at a premium and the right headline can help grab it the same way it has in journalism for decades.

Be genuine

“The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

Humor, unless grossly inappropriate, almost always sells. It always has and it always will. Of course, it’s because people love to have a chuckle every now and again. But it also provides a frictionless entry into your brand’s personality and makes your content all the more accessible.

Though Britain’s humor is a little dryer and more subdued than America’s, it still has the exact same effect. And while Ogilvy’s Rolls-Royce headline isn’t (to use today’s vernacular) “LOL” funny, it has a very quirky, charming British wit. Read the headline again. It’s like a tweet that was written 47 years before Twitter even launched.

Being genuine is both a gift and a skill. If you can employ humor and data creatively in one headline to foster authenticity, social actions are soon to follow.

Old news on a new page

Perhaps these aren’t new revelations in the world of successful social media. Knowing your audience and being authentic have been a part of the recipe the whole time. But to think that Ogilvy was teaching us lessons about media that wouldn’t even exist in his lifetime is quite remarkable. While the perfect headline can be daunting, practice makes you a whole lot better. For every time you repurpose a piece of content, come up with a different headline. For every blog post you write, think of two or three. Who knows? Maybe one day 60 years from now, you’ll have something to teach the advertising world as well.

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