After finishing yesterday’s blog post on headlines I realized it was all about the process of writing headlines – not so much about the substance and execution.

So today I thought I’d show you a practical example of the headline writing process in action.

Here’s an accelerated version of how it works  (accelerated because I only want to spend 2 hours  writing this article  – there’s a growler of Persephone beer in the fridge with my name on it).

Before we begin, we need a product or service to write a headline for.

Just a sec…

“Hey Rob!” I call to my husband as he surfs the Web in the other room. “Give me an idea for a product or service to write a headline for.”

“Realistic-looking horse-head masks,” he answers back.

Umm… Not exactly what I was expecting to work with.

horse head

But okay – I know such masks exist. And there must be a niche group of people who are actively seeking them out.

Realistic-looking horse-head masks it is!

1. Research competitors & customers

To write a great headline, you should have a crystal clear idea of who you’re writing for.

I’m guessing that people who want to buy realistic-looking horse-head masks are mostly guys in their twenties to early thirties.

To confirm this suspicion and learn more about my customers & competitors, I’m going to spend 5-10 minutes doing research on what’s already out there – and how other companies are speaking to their visitors.

(Normally I’d spend at least 1-2 hours on this step and hopefully also get a detailed customer profile from the clients offering valuable insight. But this one’s a race against the clock. 😉 )

Back in a sec!

Okay, I typed “realistic horse-head mask” into Google and scanned the first page of results.

Here’s what I learned:

Oh! There’s a whole Internet meme involving people wearing horse-head masks. No wonder Rob suggested them.

Wikipedia says that horse-head masks were “originally worn as part of a Halloween costume, or at other times to be funny, shocking, incongruous, or hip, or to disguise one’s identity. It has become an internet meme.”

That tells me a LOT about the audience I’m writing for: tech savvy, up on the latest cultural trends, probably enjoy feeling like they’re in on the joke.

Digging further, I came across this link on Know Your Meme with more information and links to videos where people in pop culture have worn these masks. Yep. Mostly guys.

In terms of competitor sites, there were several links to Amazon products in the first page of results – as well as one great page on Think Geek.

2. Look at the copy & angles your competitors use

Here are some of the copy blurbs and benefits I found on the competitor product pages:

  • “Keep it in your car for when the Google Street View van rolls by”
  • “You never know when some random event can be made awesome by the inclusion of a horse-head mask” (Ha! This person’s not a bad copywriter)
  • “Possibly the most disturbing mask you can wear”
  • Awesome conversation piece
  • Be the life of the party
  • Guaranteed to get you noticed
  • “Truly creepy”

Based on this cursory evidence, it sounds like the ideal customer for this product is a young, tech-savvy pop culture consumer who wants to get noticed and be popular – and has a slightly twisted sense of humour.

3. Brainstorm initial ideas

Normally I’d spend at least an hour or two on this stage but because I want to finish this fast so I can enjoy the rest of my kidless afternoon with my husband – and that growler of Persephone beer, ha! – I’m only going to spend 5-10 minutes on it. Wish me luck!

Okay, I’m back.

I told my internal editor to take a hike then wrote down every single idea that occurred to me, trying to get as many down as possible without second-guessing myself or thinking too much about them.

Here’s my list:

  • Be the life of the party
  • Get noticed at parties
  • Guaranteed to get you noticed
  • “Possibly the most disturbing mask you could wear”
  •  Be the dark horse
  • Unleash the dark horse within
  • It’s neigh-tastic
  • Let’s get neigh-sty
  • Be the guy everyone is talking about
  • Own the meme
  • Your ticket to awesomeness
  • Your ride to awesomeness
  • Unleash the awesomeness
  • Never be boring
  • Be the best horse you can be
  • A mask so realistic even Mr. Ed will think you’re a horse
  • A better way to be the creepy guy at the party
  • Be their nightmare
  • Make the fillies go wild

As you can see, I explored ideas around the most obvious benefits (get noticed, be the life of the party) – as well as ideas that played on the equine nature of the mask. I don’t think any of these are keepers but at least they’ll give me something to work with for the purposes of this article.

4. Evaluate ideas

Here’s that list again, this time with my thoughts on each possible headline idea:

  • Be the life of the party
    • boring, obvious
  • Guaranteed to get you noticed
    • meh
  • “Possibly the most disturbing mask you could wear”
    • This could work – especially if you make it look like a professional review to appeal to people who get off on the idea of freaking people out. Is it too creepy though? Does everyone who might buy this mask actually want to be seen as disturbing?
  • Be the dark horse
    • Curse you, Katy Perry. Now I have that stupid song in my head. How exactly does a dark horse “come at you,” anyway?
  • Unleash the dark horse within
    • Nah
  • It’s neigh-tastic
    • No
  • Let’s get neigh-sty
  • Be the guy everyone is talking about
    • Meh
  • Own the meme
    • Meh
  • Your ticket to awesomeness
    • Nope
  • Your ride to awesomeness
    • Nope nope
  • Unleash the awesomeness
    • Nope nope nope
  • Never be boring
    • Better but not great
  • Be the best horse you can be
    • I like this idea – has a satirical bent that would appeal to savvy culture consumers
  • A mask so realistic even Mr. Ed will think you’re a horse
    • Would people in their 20s even know who Mr. Ed is? Good grief, HOW OLD AM I?
  • A better way to be the creepy guy at the party
    • I’m guessing they don’t want to self-identify as the creepy guy

Of the ideas on this list, the only ones I think are worth exploring are:

“Possibly the most disturbing mask you could wear”


Be the best horse you can be

The first option could appeal to people whose primary purpose is to freak out people at parties and social events and/or to take pictures of himself wearing the mask in incongruous settings.

But I’m guessing that the idea of being disturbing might turn off some potential buyers – who might already secretly worry that they’re just a little bit disturbing already (wild hunch).

The second one has ironic appeal, which is good for this audience. This is the idea I want to explore further.

4. Expand and refine your best idea, exploring from all angles

Okay, so what are some different/better ways to express the idea of “Being the best horse you can be?”

Here are some ideas I just brainstormed:

  • Be the king of the herd
    • Meh
  • Be the magnificent stallion you’ve already wanted to be
    • I like the ironic appeal of “magnificent stallion.” Too wordy though?
  • Be the magnificent stallion you’ve always known yourself to be
    • I like the idea of them KNOWING they’re a magnificent stallion but this is too wordy. Also “be” is such a boring verb.
  • Release the stallion inside you
    • Getting better.
  • Unleash your inner stallion
    • Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner.

That last one is my favourite by far. It’s short, it’s powerful, it has ironic appeal that should attract the target audience, and it subtly flatters them even while making it obvious that they’re just joking about that whole “inner stallion” thing.

You could even play up the irony and “punniness” of it with a sub-headline like so:

Unleash Your Inner Stallion

The fillies will go wild!

Heh… 😉

5. Revisit and revise

So that’s basically how I go about writing a headline.

From there I’d go on to write the body copy, going into more detail about the benefits of the product and the experience it offers the user. In this case I’d probably add some tongue-in-cheek info about how the horse-head is “perfect for every occasion” to get another smile out of the visitors and then emphasize its construction and durability so they know it’s not going to fall apart on them after one use.

Over the next couple days, I’ll look back at this headline to see if it still works or if it’s not as good as I think it is right now.

(I have been known to think an idea is AWESOME – only to go back to it a day later and be all, “Aaaagh! Was I on crack when I wrote that?”)

So that’s what it looks like when I write a headline – albeit shrunken to fit a two-hour blog writing timeline. If I was writing for a client I would spend more time researching competitors to see what copy angles are already being used so I could be sure to come up with something that’s fresh and different.

But other than that, it’s the same process – and it works for every kind of product or service, not just realistic-looking horse-head masks. 😉


On the Think Geek product page, a commenter left this story:

[su_note]“This horse head brings back horrific/hilarious memories of Tekkoshocon in Pittsburgh. I got onto an elevator very late at night with a gentleman wearing this horse head, boxers, and flip flops. As we descended from the highest floor to the ground lobby, he did nothing but very slowly turn his head to face me, and then proceeded to not leave the elevator once we hit the lobby.”[/su_note]

That is TOTALLY the video I would film to go on the homepage for this product. This exact scene acted out. It would be hilarious and cheap to film. Imagine how funny it would be paired up with the headline: Unleash Your Inner Stallion.”

OMG. I just realized that I have more in common with guys who go around wearing realistic-looking horse-heads than I care to admit.

Now THAT is disturbing.