Senior Copywriter Steve Lynch confesses to a dubious past in order to share his thoughts on the impact of powerful headlines.
When I was a student I used to stand outside tube stations flogging the Socialist Worker. Honest. While being part of the self-proclaimed ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ definitely had its advantages (not least impressing ‘Sarah’, a beautiful firebrand feminist from my Italian history lectures) getting people to actually buy the thing was nigh on impossible.
In fact, in a 2-hour shift I’d be lucky to ever sell more than 2 or 3 copies, which is about 1 copy for every 10 ‘get back to Russia’ heckles I’d receive.
But then, one glorious weekend in the early 1990’s, everything changed. Not only did my ‘comrades’ and I sell out of papers in about 15 minutes, we got hundreds more delivered and they went too.
So what had happened? The paper’s content was much the same as any other week – fight this, down with that, etc. – but, crucially, the headline on the paper’s front page was a stroke of genius.
I can’t find a copy to show you, but basically, alongside a (very poor) cartoon of just-resigned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, stood a devastatingly simple, one-word headline.
For anybody who wasn’t around at the time, it was based on this.
For many of us who grew up under Margaret Thatcher, this infamous Sun headline represented all we thought callous and inhuman about the times we lived in. It had crudely celebrated the death of 100’s of Argentinian conscript sailors whose warship the General Belgrano had been sunk while sailing in international waters during the Falklands conflict. That event, and headline, became synonymous with what we saw as the evils of Thatcherism.
So when Socialist Worker used that same word to celebrate the PMs resignation, it struck a chord. A big one. People who in normal circumstances would have sooner sold their children into slavery than buy a Socialist Worker, were queuing up to get a copy. The headline was relevant, spoke to people about their own lives and, dare I say it, perfectly captured the feelings of the millions of people who were overjoyed to see her go.
In fundraising, writing the perfect headline probably won’t improve your ROI as dramatically as it did the Socialist Worker’s, but it’s still critical. Without wishing to state the obvious, people read the headline first, and if it can inspire them, divert them or speak powerfully to them about their own lives, they’re far more likely to engage with your proposition.
Just look at this…
And there’s something else the fundraising headlines above have in common with Socialist Worker’s. Simplicity. The strongest headlines aren’t weighed down with qualifications, with ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, ‘maybes’, ‘coulds’ or ‘woulds’. They’re direct, get straight to the point and inspire people to take action.
Spurious Socialist Worker fundraising lesson No.2.
Even better than the above was my once selling a copy of the paper to the infamously ‘tired and emotional’ songwriting genius Shane McGowan. I don’t know where he’d been, but as he came out of Camden tube it was clear Shane had been living up to his reputation.
After he’d tottered over and asked for a copy, Shane struggled to extract the 50p cover price from the huge amount of coins he’d heaved out of his pocket in order to pay me. Exasperated at the difficulty of performing such a demanding task, the Pogues frontman soon decided he couldn’t be bothered and suggested I should just ‘have the f***ing lot’, before thrusting the mountain of change into my hands.
Obviously, I protested. There must have been a tenner there at least. But Shane, a true gentleman, assured me it didn’t matter because, after all, ‘I’m a f***ing popstar’.
The spurious fundraising lesson (and pathetically transparent excuse for telling you my Shane anecdote) being that some people can afford to give more than others, and if we want to maximize our income we need to know that one person’s 50p is another person’s tenner, and not be afraid to ask for the right amount.