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Simple techniques for writing strong headlines

By Kim Harrison,

Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

My first full PR job, 30 years ago in a consultancy in Melbourne, Australia, largely comprised writing media releases and other material in journalistic style – like most PR at the time. But these days, isn’t the need for these skills fading fast? Don’t the web and social media mean news writing skills are going the way of traditional news media – dying out in front of our eyes?

Quite the opposite! Strong headlines and intros/leads (first paragraphs) are even more crucial to good writing on websites, in social media and in mobile technology. Research shows that readers these days scan text most of the time rather than read it. Therefore, for example you have to capture their attention instantly on websites, Twitter and in emails, or they will just move on. Readers are so overloaded with information that they ruthlessly filter out what they don’t want.

As a result, you have to get to the point immediately. No leisurely intros and key points buried in para 4. This applies especially in marketing communication – in email marketing, brochure copy, Twitter and, indeed, media releases promoting products and services.

The American Writers and Artists Association recommends being guided by the 4U rule:

  • A headline should be unique. What's so different about your news?
  • A headline should be urgent. Why does your news matter to me right now?
  • A headline should be useful. How will your news help me?
  • A headline should be unambiguous/ultra-specific. What can I learn just from the headline?

The headline of the media release (or any other content you publish online) is the most important part. Journalists see the headline first in newsroom material, RSS feeds, and email inboxes. News aggregators like Google News often show only a headline (as a link) and a lead sentence – from which readers need to decide whether it is worth clicking to the story. Search engines place extra weight upon the text at the top of web pages, and it’s the first thing your reader sees. When someone shares your media release in social networks, again, it’s the headline that is front and center – attracting more potential readers to your message.

Sarah Skerik from PR Newswire says the firm’s research has identified the ideal characteristics of a media release in attracting readers, search engines and social interaction. These are:

  • Length – Headlines should be 90-120 characters maximum. Many experts advocate writing only 55 characters, including spaces. Headlines this length are also automatically suitable for tweeting.
  • Keywords – Put your most important keywords at the beginning of the headline – within the first 65 characters to suit SEO.
  • Include numerals in the headline, where applicable. Figures are easier to absorb when written as numbers.
  • Use a subhead to add more detail.

Headline SEO: the first 65 characters are key

  • Headlines play an important role in informing search engines about page content, and as mentioned earlier, the engines put more weight on the content that appears at the top of the page.  Also, many web masters use the headline in the title tag on the web page hosting the media release. Optimizing your headline for search engines can give a media release a nice visibility boost.
  • Search engines only index the first 65 characters of a headline. Therefore it is vital to put the most important keyword or phrase at the beginning of the headline.
  • Important – it is not necessary to pack your headline with keywords. Search engines are good at recognizing natural language, and they are quick to bury keyword spam. SEO tactics work best when you focus your media release on just one or two keywords.

Strong headlines

So what are some basic ideas for writing strong headlines? Here are several suggestions:

  1. Basic. “Office furniture for sale at bargain prices”
    This could not be more basic, but people on the lookout for office furniture would immediately be interested.
  2. News angle. “New desks with remote-control height adjustment here in March”
    Simple and straightforward. You need to highlight the key selling points up front. This is “news” only in a narrow marketing sense.
  3. How to. “How to select the best office chairs for your needs”
    “How to” is a powerful motivator for buyers.
  4. Question. “Is your office chair giving you back pain?”
    This is an invitation for buyers to solve their problem.
  5. Directive. “Go to Office Furniture Galore for the best deals”
    A directive or command grabs attention in any sort of advertising or marketing. Align it with the target audience’s wants and needs.
  6. List. “Five things to check in a new office desk”
    People like numbers. This is specific and sounds like you know what you are talking about.
  7. Testimonial. “I got a great deal on a new office desk”
    Testimonials are powerful. Make sure they are genuine and sound genuine, ie even leave in spelling and grammar mistakes. Running several testimonials increases trust.
  8. Teaser. “The most important office purchase you will make this season”
    Don’t test your credibility. Only use teasers when the product lives up to the implied value of the product.

Keep it brief

The longest headline above is 10 words or 65 characters with spaces. This is for a reason – people scan these days rather than read a line in full. So keep it short and always check to see if you can cut the number of words. And, of course, it is SEO friendly.

SEO friendly

Try copying and pasting your favored draft headline into Google. If others have already used the headline, try to change some of the words so your headline is unique and doesn’t get mistaken for the competing headline.

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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