Nov 17, 2011

4 Essential Tips for Writing Effective Press Release Headlines

The headline of the press release (or, arguably, any other content you will publish online) is some of the most important real estate on the page.  The headline is what journalists see first in news room wires, RSS feeds, and their email in-boxes. Search engines place extra weight upon the text at the top of the page, and it’s the first thing your reader sees.

And when someone shares your press release in social networks, again, it’s the headline that is front and center – attracting more potential readers to your message.  For these reasons, I’m prepared to argue the headline is, unquestionably, the very most important piece of the press release, bar none, period, end of story.

Given the importance of the headline in attracting readers, search engines and social interaction for the press releases PR Newswire issues, I think it’s worth sifting through the current data to identify the tactics that will make press releases and other online content most effective.  In a nutshell, these are:

  • Length – Headlines should be between 90-120 characters.  (Characters, including spaces. Not words.)
  • Keywords – Put your most important keyword at the beginning of the headline – within the first 65 characters.
  • Include numerals in the headline.  Readers like data points.
  • Utilize a subhead to add more detail.

Length matters.

Our findings suggest that headline length plays in important role in both attracting readers and encouraging social sharing of press releases.   The ideal length is right in the neighborhood of 90 – 120 characters.

Why is length important?  First and foremost, the optimum headline length also happens to be perfect for sharing via Twitter.  We’ve long advised clients to write “tweetable” headlines. I’m pretty sure the fact average length of the most effective press releases happens to correspond with the ideal length of a Tweet (remember, you need to leave some room for handles and short links) is no coincidence.   Other research PR Newswire has done with Crowdfactory indicates that each social share triggers two more views of a press release.  Ensuring press releases are Twitter-friendly should be a no-brainer for everyone.

Headline SEO: the first 65 characters are key.

Headlines play an important role in informing search engines about on-page content, and as mentioned earlier, the engines put more weight on the content that appears at the top of the page.  Additionally, many web masters (PR Newswire’s included) use the headline in the title tag on the web page hosting the press release. The title tag is another important piece of SEO real estate.  Optimizing your headline for search engines can give the press release a nice visibility boost.

Headline optimization isn’t too difficult; however, it may require some organizations to re-think how they structure headlines, because search engines only index the first 65 characters of the headline.   To capitalize on the important real estate the headline occupies, it’s vital to put the most important keyword for phrase in the headline – and right the beginning – well within that first 65 character space.

One important note regarding headlines – 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.  So don’t go overboard.  When it comes to keywords, you can definitely have too much of a good thing.  SEO tactics work best when you focus your press release on just one or two keywords.

Use numerals in the headline (when it makes sense.)

One of the most surprising facts to emerge from this research was the finding that press releases with numerals in the headline performed better than releases that were digit-deficient.  If your press release cites numeric facts such as survey results or performance data, or if it (like this blog post) offers the reader X immutable truths in [insert subject], tell your readers about that in the headline. Numbers in the headline convey either immediacy (such as  date) or facts, boosting your message’s credibility.

Use subheads to add more detail

Given what I see cross the wire each day, many organizations (my own included!) might find the recommended 90-120 character headline length pretty restrictive.  The solution?  Use a subhead to supply the additional but-not-quite-as-important details that you’d normally stuff into a long headline.  You’ll find that doing so makes your press release visually more appealing, and splitting long headlines into shorter headlines and subheads makes it easier for readers to scan the copy, giving them incentive to read on.

Rethinking the press release

We’ve talked a bit lately on this blog about the need to rethink some long-standing PR tactics, and the press release is no exception.  Today’s audiences – including the journalists and bloggers at the top of your pitch lists – consume content digitally.  They find it, share it and interact with it differently than they did just a few years ago. Social networks enable people to find and share content, opening up new opportunities for brands to communicate directly with their audiences.  And search engines are using social signals in their ranking algorithms, meaning that social sharing can have a lasting effect on the online visibility of a message.  In order to fully capitalize on these opportunities, we need to rethink how we write press releases – starting with the headline.

Related reading:

Rethinking Press Release Tactics to Meet Evolving Audience Preferences

Press Releases Shared More on Facebook, But Twitter Drives 30 Percent More Views

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

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