One of the most fundamental things you can do in a headline is to make a promise to the reader.

In fact, it’s probably one of the most often used techniques when it comes to writing headlines for direct response copy.

With financial copy I’m sure you’ve come across many headlines promising that if you buy stock Y you could make X per cent gain…

Bob Bly, Copywriter, AWAI, All Good Copy
Legendary American Copywriter, Bob Bly

And in health copy you’ll have no doubt come across a new vitamin supplement that promises to reduce arthritic pain.

Promise-type headlines are very much the ‘bread and butter’ of direct response copy.

But at a copywriting conference in the US, I was interested by a little nugget of advice – shared by copywriting legend, Bob Bly – that added a new dimension to promise-type headlines.

Why Bob Bly is full of promise

I was at the Marriot Hotel in Delray Beach, Florida to drop in on the annual copywriting conference held by the American Writers and Artists Inc., or AWAI.

During the week I was there I managed to catch up with lots of famous copywriters and it was a pleasure to meet a lot of people just starting out on their careers as copywriters, too.

There were a few interesting insights I took away, but one that sticks most in my mind is this relatively simple observation by Bob Bly.

I guess it’s the simple things that are always the most effective!

But anyway, what was this idea?

Well, in his talk Bob briefly spoke about promise-type headlines and covered the usual advice: they should be bold, they should be specific and – as much as possible – they should be unique.

Sure, it’s all good advice, but then he went on to speak about a ‘secondary promise’.

This is what caught my attention.

You see, Bob argued that when making a ‘big promise’ in your headline, you should follow it up straight away with a subhead that contains a secondary promise.

And he suggested that this secondary promise should be smaller than the promise you make in your main headline.

Initially you might think this possibly undermines your big promise?

But in actual fact, that is far from the case.

If you do it right, this secondary promise can make your whole headline a lot more effective.

For example, your big promise might be something like:

“If this penny stock company secures its patent on April 14th you could make a 500% gain overnight on every share you buy today.”

All well and good and a speculative investor might be sold on that.

But applying Bob’s theory, think about what would happen if you followed that big promise with something like:

“But even if it fails to get the patent, you could still make a 50% over the next 12 months.”

Now you can’t lose.

If the big promise delivers you make money, but even if it doesn’t you still make money. For the reader it’s a win-win situation and you’ve pretty much sold them in the first few lines of your copy.

The key to using this secondary promise is ensuring that the promise you make is smaller than the one you make in the main headline… whilst still making sure it contains a benefit that would make the reader want to purchase what you’re selling regardless.

I’ve already started looking at ways to incorporate this into my own promise-type headlines and have already increased response in one promotion thanks to this very idea.

I’d highly recommend you take Bob’s advice and do the same…

Next time you’re leading your copy with a promise, before you get to the business of proving your promise, offer the reader a win-win situation from the start by making a smaller but equally enticing secondary promise.

You’ll be very pleased with the results…

And that’s a promise!



Glenn Fisher is an author, copywriter, podcaster and speaker. After a number of years working in the local council, he left to become a copywriter and founded, a free online resource for direct response copywriters and marketers. For over a decade he worked with The Agora, a multi-million pound international financial publisher before leaving in 2018 to write freelance. His first book, The Art of the Click, has quickly become an Amazon bestseller and was shortlisted for the Business Book Awards. He is the host of the popular All Good Copy Podcast and regularly writes and consults for numerous businesses, brands and ad agencies. He lives happily with his partner Ruth and dog Pablo on the east coast of England.

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