We could talk for hours about the effect the Internet has had on public relations (how it has altered our media targets, changed our communication channels and the frequency of our communications, distorted our perception of what constitutes news, etc.), but one area that has been impacted greatly but hasn’t been talked about as much is the art of headline writing. Yes, PR pros write a lot of headlines — from the obvious, like press release headlines, to the more subtle, but equally important, like email subject lines. Blog posts, bylined articles, pitch letters, marketing brochures, tradeshow booth signs and even 140 character “headlines” on Twitter are also a big part of our work.
One major way the Internet has affected headline writing is with search engine optimization (SEO). Using the right keywords in a headline will make that piece easier for search engines to find, thus giving it more visibility on the web. But how do we balance the need to attract search engines with the need to attract human readers? CopyBlogger offers some great advice on using specific, niche keywords to attract both in this post in its Magnetic Headlines blog series.
Speaking of keywords, my friend Norman Birnbach thinks the use of the word ‘kill’ by copywriters over at Newsweek is, ahem, overkill in recent headlines.
As someone who has worked primarily in B2B public relations, where the emphasis in headline writing is on being factual and concise, I’ve struggled with writing more creative and attention-grabbing headlines. What worked for one audience, say a B2B technology firm, won’t fly with a different audience in the consumer retail industry. It’s important to know your audience before trying to write your headline.
Whatever audience you’re writing for, your headline should make an intriguing promise but also be credible so that readers will want to read more. For example, shifting a question that is important to your audience (“How do I write a good headline?”), into a strong statement (“How to write effective headlines”) will offer readers an intriguing reason to read the rest of the article. Adding more specific information (“Five Easy Changes to Make Your Headlines More Attractive to Customers”) gives the reader more information about what will be revealed in the rest of the text to know whether they want to continue reading.
Another tip from CopyBlogger is to study headlines that have been proven to work and to learn how they work. Brian Clark wrote on CopyBlogger that “if you understand how headlines work, you don’t need to try to write a homerun headline for every blog post. But you will end up writing snappier headlines off the top of your head, even for the more day-to-day mundane posts.”
Direct advertising headlines are great examples to learn from. They work if they get people to open their wallet and make a purchase. Along these lines, Dylan Boyd offers these guidelines for writing better email marketing subject lines:
- Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with length and characters
- If you want to grow a mature email program, spend considerable time and energy testing a variety of offers
- Avoid using your sender name as a repetitive part of the subject line, and personalize only where it makes sense
Headline writing is an important part of business writing and critical to getting your full message across. What are your tips for writing eye-catching headlines?
Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on LindsayOlson.com. You can find her at www.kprcommunications.com. Learn more about Alison Kenney.