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Excellent Headline Writing – Art or Science?

June 16, 2011

Recently I saw a tweet from @caroljsroth about the art of writing a headline. In Carol’s blog post, she showed some great examples of creative, funny and snarky headlines. While I agree with Carol that the creative aspect of writing a headline falls squarely in the art category, there is some science behind this function and I thought it would be good to highlight some of, what could be considered, “commandments” we abide by at Emerging Media when we write press release headlines for our clients.

Thou shall keep it short and to the point

Don’t say in 6 words what takes 3. Headlines are meant to grab your attention, not tell the full story. This is probably the biggest area of contention when writing a press release with a client. If a new piece of software has three major benefits, don’t put all three in the headline. Tease and grab the reader’s attention with the best feature in the headline, explain the rest in the body of the press release. There is another reason to keep the headline short, it helps optimize the press release for search engines. Many times the headline of the press release becomes part of the page title, also known as the “title tag.” The page title becomes the large, clickable link when your content shows up in search engine results. For example:

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To optimize a headline for the search engines, the maximum length we shoot for is 65 characters including spaces. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for fluff!

Remember to keep holy the key words

I have spoken many times about good messaging and its importance to the foundation and success of any PR program. Headline writing is no exception. Whenever possible, incorporate the most important search engine terms (primary key words) you use to direct traffic to your website. This way every press release becomes not only a news engine but also an organic search driver as well

Thou shall never quote thyself in the headline

I once had a client that insisted on using quotes in headlines. This is not a good practice for several reasons. First, this go against the first two rules above and can kill your organic search optimization. Secondly this will fail at the primary objective of the headline, catching a person’s attention. And finally, quotes in headlines are notoriously linked to negative images. For example, Nixon stood out with, “I’m not a crook,” and former President Clinton and current NYS Governor Paterson shared similar headlines with “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Favorites

One of the good things about being a New Yorker is the exposure to a multitude of daily newspapers. We are surrounded by news almost everywhere you look, but we are always busy and in a hurry. Getting our attention is difficult and its my opinion that New York news outlets have some of the best chops when it comes to headline writing. If NY City is the major league, then the NY Post is the Yankees and time and time again they blow the competition away when it comes to eyeball-popping, stop-you-in-your-tracks headlines. Here are a few examples of some of my favorites over the last 10 years:

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