Clever Doesn’t Sell

3min read
Newspaper headlines
Multi-passionate Creative

If you’re brainstorming clever headlines and taglines for your ad or website landing page, you may be wasting your time more often than not. Clever lines may grab attention, but you need to explain how your product or service provides value immediately after this in order to get a sale later in the funnel.

Name the last time a clever headline made you say “Wow, that’s clever. I want to buy [that] now.” The reality probably looks more like this: “Wow, that’s clever.”…and you continue scrolling the page, watch the next commercial or scan the next page of a magazine. Or maybe worse it looks more like: “Huh? I don’t get it.” That’s a nice punch in the gut to your brand.

“People do not buy the best products. They buy the ones they understand the fastest.”

Donald Miller

The tactics of clever advertising used many decades back is difficult to use in today’s environment where our culture is constantly filled with more noise than ever before. We retrieve media and information from an exponential amount more channel mediums than the past, and this only continues to grow by day. Research indicates that humans now have the attention span of a goldfish, which is about six seconds. You’ve heard this, right?

With all the noise that exists comes greater confusion to a consumer in terms of what products and services to choose, and you have a very small window to do your pitch. If you’re going after prospective customers, you’re better off clearly explaining what you do rather than leaving room for confusion to be made. As the marketing leader Donald Miller of Storybrand would say, “If you confuse, you lose.”


What Not To Do With Headlines

Let’s look at some fictitious headlines inspired by some seen in the real-world. From the perspective of a new customer unaware of the company, can you identify what they do through their clever headlines?

  1. Ready for Success?
    This could be promoting a job fair, a conference, a university, or a suit tailor.
  2. Get Curb Appeal
    This could be promoting a lawn care, brick paving, exterior painting, or windows installation service.
  3. Live with Peace of Mind
    This could be promoting a household security system, credit card protection, or a meditation app.

It’s easy to see in these examples how messaging can be skewed. If someone didn’t know anything about your company and read these headlines, would they be that much more informed?

These headlines don’t express what the company actually does. It’s just clever writing trying to be clear. There are very few scenarios where something like this may work, like if contextual design elements are provided in close design proximity. For example, perhaps the company logo is next to the headline of which informs the reader what they do; or maybe a large photo paints the picture. However, you want to be careful of not making the reader think too hard. It’s not their job to put the different pieces together in order to figure out what you do. That’s too much brain energy. It’s best to skip this step and just state what you do.

One thing to notice about these headlines is that they indirectly state the value of the company product or service. The byproduct of working with [x company] is success, curb appeal and peace of mind. It’s great to show this value, but how do you help people get there?

what plus value plus how

Instead, State What You Do and the Outcome

So let’s revise these headlines to:

(1) state what the company does,
(2) state the value that those clever headlines tried to convey, and
(3) add a call-to-action below it. So the final copy may look something like this:

  • We sell quality suits so you’re dressed for success.
    Get Fitted Today
  • We provide painting services that help your house have curb appeal.
    Get Your Estimate
  • We provide credit card protection so you can live with peace of mind.
    Buy Now

See the difference? We took full advantage of the six-second attention span window to state what you do, why it’s of value and tell the viewer to take action. That’s a pitch, and it can be used in your ad copy, website, business cards and print collateral, video intros, social channel “about” descriptions and more.

People don’t have time to guess, and they don’t want to invest the brain energy to do so. Make it simple. Don’t be cute and clever. Be clear and direct.

Maria Gosur is a multi-passionate creative who loves to learn, design, make a difference and inspire others to do the same. With education and experience in all areas of creative work, Maria is passionate about sharing her knowledge and encouragement to others who are trying to expand their skills, pursue big goals, and be a resilient creative.