Academy for Wayward Authors: Gene Schwartz’s Timeless Advice on Crafting Compelling Headlines

Revisiting Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising

If you can find one, copies of Gene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising will sell for hundreds of dollars.

Crappy scanned copies will float around on the internet (steer clear), and recently Titans Marketing has been reprinting his book (legit but $$$).

Gene sold billions with direct marketing. He became so good at studying other copywriters that he developed a system.

He was sought after as a marketer and advertiser and eventually moved into only projects where he got a cut of the sales. He was so confident in his work that he wanted to participate in selling what he marketed.

In his book, he discusses his various techniques but opens with three overarching ideas that inform what methods to use and why to use a particular technique.

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Mass desire

Schwartz suggested that you position your product to fulfill an unmet need. The goal is not to convert people but to help those with an unmet desire to see that your product fulfills that desire. This is what writing to market is all about. You don’t necessarily need to mimic what everyone else writes, but you have to get those who commonly read a genre to see that what you write is what they seek. This should be demonstrated in a succinct brand promise—a concise entry phrase connecting the unmet need with your offer.

State of awareness

When Gene discusses market awareness, he refers to how aware the market is of your solution and competitive solutions. How much do they know today about how your book meets the genre expectations? The other important factor is how many other products have been presented to them before yours.

This begs the question: What should happen in the headline? Schwartz claims that the headline doesn’t even need to mention your product. Its only job is “to stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence of the ad.” The headline’s job isn’t to sell; it’s to earn the attention of those with the mass desire.

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The sophistication of the market

Sophistication refers to the prospect’s understanding of the overall market and your product’s position. In terms of publishing, are they an occasional reader who doesn’t even know your genre exists or an avid reader who is familiar with it?

Most advertising by authors doesn’t think about addressing anyone but click-and-buy readers. Of course, this is the tip of the unmet desire spear, but for newer authors, you need to get the market to understand that you meet that desire in a way that will not risk wasting reading time. You see, that is what they fear. If I invest some of my precious reading time with you, it will be a poor return.

How much have you thought about the headline of your advertisement and how it works with mass desire, state of awareness, and market sophistication?

If you advertise, look at your headline through this filter and ask yourself how many of those headlines you feel do the job Schwartz demands of his headlines. Would you risk a year of advertising on any of them?

Read: David Ogilvy’s Iconic Hathaway Shirt Campaign and the Magic of Story