How to Capture and Captivate Attention

direct mail

One morning, you go into your mailbox and discover there’s an envelope waiting for you from an unknown source. You bring the package into your living room, tear open the envelope, pull out what’s inside, put on your reading glasses, unfold the letter, and begin to read the contents.

After completing all of these steps, you then quickly glance at the letter to decide if the letter is worth reading.

If not, you throw it in the garbage.

But if the envelope looks like junk mail, there’s copy on the envelope and it screams “hype,” or the printed address label just says “dear occupant” as the addressee, chances are you won’t even think about opening it and you’ll just throw it away.

However, let’s say the envelope works, curiosity takes over, and the letter does get opened at this point. Once unfolded, though, if it looks like some kind of sales pitch at first glance, not even a single word will likely be read. So into the round file it goes!

Your website is the envelope. What does it say about you?

In offline direct mail marketing, the message is not the first element to be read. There are several extra steps one must go through in order to finally reach, react to, and ultimately read the sales message. However, all of these occur in a matter of seconds.

Actually, studies show that it’s less than one.

There are many aspects, beyond copy, that will cause a letter to be opened and read. Does it look “cartoonish,” with garish-looking typestyles and colors? Does it look like a typical salesletter? Does it seem to come from a trustworthy source?

In other words, is there a logo? A real address? Maybe even a picture of the author? Is there any eye gravity, such as attention-capturing photos or graphics? How does it make you feel? Does the letter make you feel good? Or does it make you feel uneasy?

All those things are important in a direct mail salesletter.

But once you’ve passed that hurdle, then in order to capture and keep people’s attention, one of the important elements of direct mail copy is the headline.

Albeit a crucial component of sales copy, the headline is the last in a series of attempts to get the reader’s attention and “pull them in.” Scientific tests have proven that people make a decision (often called the “halo effect”) within a quarter of a second.

It means that, within literally a fraction of a second, people will make a decision whether to open, read, believe, and buy from your sales message. And that’s true, regardless if the letter is targeted, the copy is topnotch, and the offer is fantastic or not.

That’s why the envelope, the label, the picture, the fonts, the quality of the letter, and any “grabbers” (such as any inserts, liftnotes, gifts, etc), even the overall appearance of the package, are all elements that often precede that all-important headline.

Online, those things are still there.

It’s more than just the look of your website. It’s also the “feel” of it. When people say “the look and feel,” people don’t quite appreciate the latter. Looks are important, true. But how does it make people feel the moment they hit your website? You can’t ignore this.

People make an unconscious decision about you, your website, and your products based on many things — from the logo, the photos, the layout, the color scheme, the typography, even the loading time, to the ease of navigation. And everything in between.

I’m not saying copy is not important. Of course, it is. What I am saying is that the headline, which is the first element to be read and the most important element in copy, is really the last in a series of things they see in this brief attention-getting process.

But when people click on a link or visit a website, and after they’ve gone through this extremely rapid appreciation process, then they immediately see the headline. If you’ve managed to keep them there to this point, then and only then is the headline important.

Online, it happens even faster. There are no mailboxes to go through, no envelopes to tear open, and no unfolding to do before reading it. These steps are nonexistent. The sales message and especially the headline are right there, in their faces.

Those same tests I mentioned earlier discovered that the “halo effect” occurs not within 1/4 of a second, as originally thought, but on the Internet it happens within 1/20 of one.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

Look at websites as newspapers instead of unsolicited direct mail pieces. Most often, you actually seek the newspaper out. You see it on the newsstand, glance at the headlines, and make the effort to pick it up. The web is the same to a large extent.

Whether you’re visiting a website by intentionally clicking on a link or entering the address into your browser, you are directly visiting the message with the full anticipation of reading it once you’re there. You’re eager if not at least curious to digest it.

You’re in a different state of mind when reading the newspaper than when reading a direct mail piece. (Even when the piece is solicited, the steps one must go through, from mailbox to sales pitch, is the same. In other words, there are more of them.)

A newspaper, on the other hand, is already open, with the front page, above-the-fold message right in front of you. It’s filled with photos and bold news headlines, ready to grab your attention, build your interest, and persuade you into buying it.

Like the newspaper, if the first-screen, uppermost section of a website’s home page doesn’t pull you into the copy (or cause you to scroll further), you will click away.

And you would do so faster than you would throw a direct mail piece into the garbage!

And like newspapers, you don’t read websites. Instead, you scan. If you’re like most people, you skim through the newspaper to look for stories that interest you. And you do so by quickly checking the headlines, pictures, and any headers the newspaper contains.

Plus, you can manipulate a print publication in order to fit your reading style. You can spread it out on a tabletop, where stories that interest you are easily and quickly accessible. That way, you can scan an entire piece or newspaper at a single glance.

Online, to read further you can only do one thing: scroll. So the desire to skim and scroll a website is greater than a printed piece. Therefore, once you’ve passed that important “envelope” hurdle, the need to capture the reader’s attention is exceedingly faster.

Crafting a great headline that immediately captures the prospect’s attention is critical to your message’s success. It may be the last in a series of attention-grabbing steps, but since there are less of them it is therefore important your headline works harder online.

In other words, online the headline’s role is ostensibly greater.

If the prospect hits your front page and does not immediately “feel” a need to read any further, she’ll leave at the single click of a mouse. No second thoughts. No wasting time. No hesitation. The rest of the AIDA formula goes straight down the tubes.

Writing headlines is the most important — and oftentimes the hardest — part of salescopy to write. There are as many ways to write great headlines as there are salesletters. So for the sake of brevity, let’s stick to the top three most important ones.

They are three sets of human qualities to which you can cater in order to increase the attention factor in your copy. Use them, and your readership will increase. They are…

The Three Greatest Human Goals

Everybody wants more time, money, and energy. From the headline to the opening copy of the letter, one effective way to capture attention is to focus on three core goals almost all humans have, which are to either save or make 1) time, 2) money, or 3) effort.

If your headline instantly communicates something that can help your reader to make money, save time, work less, make things easier, get things done faster, spend less energy, and so on, your chances of having your copy read will be greater.

The Three Greatest Human Desires

This should be the most important one of the three, but it’s second since it may not appeal to everyone. However, this particular set of “three’s” is very potent. And that’s not an understatement at all. Reason is, it appeals to dominant emotions, desires, and fears.

For example, take supermarket magazines. You’ll notice headlines on the cover or front page almost always cater to any of these three. Take a moment to read the cover of Cosmo, Men’s Health, Vanity Fair, National Enquirer, etc to see what I mean.

Headlines and even ads in these types of newspapers, which are often long copy advertorials, more often than not cater to the three human desires. They are 1) greed, 2) lust and 3) comfort. If you incorporate any of the three, you will boost your attention-factor.

Here are some examples:

  • “How to make $1,678 with my system!”
  • “How to save thousands usually wasted on utilities.”
  • “How to melt away those ugly, unwanted pounds fast!”
  • “How to make him/her fall in love with you all over again!”
  • “How to build a web business in only 14 days.”
  • “How to write breathtaking copy in minutes!”

By the way, you may ask, “Mike, isn’t ‘comfort’ similar to ‘less effort’ you mentioned earlier under ‘goals’?” In terms of desires or feelings, look at comfort as the opposite of fear. Avoidance of fear is a powerful desire. Think of it as a need for security and safety.

Your aim is to instill fear in the minds of your readers, or to bring it to the top of their minds, in order to offer them a solution that will comfort them and allay those fears, such as the fear of loss, the fear of death, the fear of failure, and so on.

Granted, there are other core desires. These are simply the top three. Plus, these three may seem somewhat general and categorical, but there are also many variations, too. Don’t limit yourself the direct definition of these three. Think about what they imply.

For example, “greed” may not necessarily involve money. It may include prestige, ownership, pride, options, etc. “Lust” may be to feel good about oneself, such as a lust for life and not just sex — like health, well-being, advancement, sociability, esteem, etc.

Nevertheless, if your headline contains a hint or a slant of any of these three, you’re a step ahead. You can cater to any of these three in a number of different ways. If you want some help, simply think about Maslow pyramid of human motives to get you started.

Finally, the last three are…

The Three Greatest Human Teasers

Of all the attention-capturing devices out there, these three are often the most effective. Why? Because the first three cater to human needs, and the next three to human motives. But these three cater to human nature. Good ol’ human psychology.

I call them the three provokers or arousers, if you will. These three elements stir. They pique, push, and prod. They mesmerize and hypnotize. They fire up hormones and tug heartstrings. Why? Because they cater to three fundamental human characteristics.

They are: 1) curiosity, 2) controversy, and 3) scarcity. Try to add an element of any of these three and you will boost your chances that the reader will be sucked into your copy will increase substantially. Even better, mix them with any of the above six.

In terms of curiosity, don’t mention everything to your readers at the beginning — give them ample information to pique their curiosity but not too much so that it pulls them in. People are intrinsically curious. So use this to your advantage.

Leave some interesting tidbit out or keep them on the edge of their seats, hanging onto every word, eager to read further. Be intriguing, fascinating, puzzling, etc.

For instance, say, “Discover these nine most closely guarded secrets for tripling website sales in less than 26 days!” People will then wonder, “What are these nine secrets? I want to know what they are!” And they’ll read your sales letter, intently, to find them.

Second, controversy is something that works extremely well. If your copy addresses something that stirs people’s emotions or causes certain “lights to go off” in their heads, you can pull them into the copy just as effectively as any of the other elements, above.

Howard Stern, a well-known radio “shock jock,” was one of the first to break many of the rules while on the air. In his semi-autobiography, “Private Parts,” the story goes that people who loved him had a tendency to listen to his show for about an hour.

But people who hated him listened up to two or three hours, or more.

Maybe it’s because they wanted to see what he’ll say next. Maybe it’s because they wanted more ammunition to bring the guy down. But whatever the reason is, Stern’s highly controversial approach undoubtedly made him extraordinarily rich and famous.

While you may want to stay away from the more sensitive topics (politics and religion come to mind), you can use milder forms of controversy — such as piggy-backing on current events, hot issues, popular trends, newsworthy topics, etc.

Using a bit of controversy in your approach will help build your case and create an almost instant desire to read your copy. You can add a shocking news item, make an outrageous claim, offer an unique twist, or make an unbelievable statement.

There are many ways to be controversial without being rude, condescending, or unethical. The key is not to make people hate you or love you, but to get people to read your copy. The body copy is where you can substantiate, explain, clarify, etc.

Often, brilliant copywriters will tie their copy to a recent event or some controversial subject. Sometimes, the angle they choose has nothing to do with the overall topic discussed in the letter. Not directly, anyway. But it’s quite effective to pull them in.

Now, I’m not talking about those infamous ads that start with the headline that says “SEX!” And the first line goes on with, “Now that I have your attention, keep reading…”

No. I’m talking about a headline that’s relevant but not necessarily the focal point.

Not long after 9/11, many ads, commercials, and websites have surfaced that capitalized on that recent, tragic event to sell security equipment, self-defense products, public transportation other than air travel, home alarms, and the like.

Another caveat: I’m not talking about profiting off the misery of others. I’m talking about using copy ethically to take advantage of your market’s current level of awareness about a certain hot topic. As the blacksmith says, you hit the iron while it’s hot.

Controversy can also be something significant or slight, or simply funny or different, such as with the use of a personal story, a unique angle, or an original twist.

Think of the times you’ve seen a story about someone starting an online business. While that may sound a little trivial (and usually, it is), it isn’t if that person suffers from some kind of disability or is raising 10 children at home. The odds seem to be against them.

Years ago, a client of mine, an inventor, was trying to promote a backpack with special straps he created. These straps made carrying backpacks a little more comfortable, distributed the weight more evenly, and were less strenuous on the shoulders and back.

After some research, I realized that his invention was born from a personal need. He was an amputee and lost one leg in a car accident. But he didn’t want that seeming disadvantage to hinder his love of hiking. So he created his special backpack straps.

I told him to use his lack of one leg as being the inspiration behind his creation. So, the copy’s headline opened with: “One-legged man lightens people’s loads!”

Finally, adding an element of scarcity to your copy is to somehow limit the offer by making it time-sensitive, quantity-bound, urgent, or scarce in some way. Naturally, the easiest way to do this is to add a deadline or put a cap on the number of sales.

But don’t just limit yourself to quantities or time. You can even make the offer something that’s secretive, exclusive, unheard of, inherently scarce, or otherwise unavailable to the general public, which can arouse stronger motives in the psyche of your readers.

It’s about adding a realistic sense of urgency, and not making it urgent in itself.

But in order to give your added sense of urgency some credibility and believability, never just leave it as a plain limit. Always back up your deadline, limitation, or scarcity with some kind of logical, commonsensical justification, lest it make your claim suspect.

Ultimately, remember that your headline is the most important element in your copy. Try infusing it with any of the three elements above, and you will improve the attraction factor, instill credibility, and increase your copy’s readership and response.