5 Tips on Writing Clickable Headlines


It’s always been true: the headline is the most important element of a press release, blog post, article, or downloadable collateral piece (white paper, PDF, brochure). Like the subject line of an email, it’s what determines whether someone clicks to learn more, or hits Delete immediately.

SEO-optimization and search engine page rank (SERP) are among the primary purpose for most content marketers create, including press releases, headlines are more important than ever. If it’s not interesting enough, people won’t bother to read it – and if it isn’t search engine friendly, it gets lost in the crowd instead of delivering clicks and traffic for months (or years) to come.

I write a lot of blog posts, press releases, and white papers for clients, and I try hard to keep the headlines for all of them short and simple. Whenever I can, I use a numeral in them.

More importantly, my headlines are always pretty short — less than 65 characters if I’ve had enough caffeine when they’re written.

Why stick to a formula? Because it works for me. Here are the five headline writing strategies that have worked best for me in writing clickable, SEO-friendly headlines for press releases, blog posts, and other digital content.

Include a Keyword

Before you write your next press release, review your keyword strategy. If you don’t have a clear strategy for using a small group of keywords in your digital marketing and PR, take some time to go back to the drawing board and identify the keywords that are most important to your audience.

Picking keywords is typically as simple as using one of the free tools that help you identify the keywords your customers search for most often. Vertical Nerve, Inc., offers a free online tool that will help you identify the keywords that are searched for most often by web users in your geographic area, nationally, or globally.

This post isn’t about keyword marketing, but one important point is that just adding keyword(s) to your headline won’t work. The keyword must be relevant and meaningful to the content you’re publishing – the subject of the press release, in other words.

Any SEO expert will tell you that it’s very hard to earn a high page rank on some competitive “short-tail” keywords. For example, the word “insurance” is one of the most expensive pay-per-click keywords, and one of the hardest to “rank on” in the search engines. So a local insurance agency or broker would be well advised to focus on “long-tail” keywords like “motorcycle insurance in Bangor, Maine”.

Long-tail keywords work in your overall strategy – but they do NOT usually work in headlines. In fact, Google and other search engines may penalize you for using keywords that don’t flow naturally in your content. So add a keyword or two to your headline, but don’t write a headline so stuffed with key phrases that it’s meaningless.

Once you’ve used the keyword in your headline, be sure to use it exactly the same way, at least twice in the body of your press release. If your headline keywords are “writing” and “headline” (as mine are for this article), don’t switch to “write, to write, create” or “headlines, PR copy, releases, news release” – all perfectly acceptable words for the same thing – in the body. Why? Because the search engine “spiders” may not be smart enough to credit you with the relevance that determines page rank unless the phrases match up exactly.

Add Numerals or Percentages

Content with numerals in the headlines get read (and shared via social media) much more often than those with vague headlines, so write headlines that are as specific as possible about what the reader should expect if they click on the link.

Small numerals, and high percentages, get noticed more often. For instance, a 20-step guide to writing press releases makes the process sound difficult and convoluted. Five tips for writing headlines that get better results sounds like something a busy marketer might take time to read. (It works — you are reading this, right?)

Press releases that offer actionable information draw more traffic, and get picked up by the press, more often. For example, MyPRGenie conducted a study last year on how journalists and bloggers use social media, and what they thought about the way PR people used social media. The study found that 70.6% of the 2,400 journalists and bloggers who answered the survey followed PR people on social media and had written about something that a PR person posted in social media.

With an attention-getting number like that in the results, you can bet that the press release on the survey included the percentage in the headline.

You don’t need to be writing something based on original research to use a numeral or percentage, of course. Won an award or been named to a list of top businesses? Instead of saying “XYZ, Inc. Wins Chamber of Commerce Prize”, try the headline, “XYZ Earns Top 10 Ranking in New KEYWORD Report”. Where this example uses “keyword”, substitute the keyword that’s most important to your business – the search term your audience is most likely to include in a search. “XYZ Earns Top 10 Rank in New Dallas Business Report” or “XYZ Named in Best 25 Restaurants List” will get more readers than the more generic, “XYZ, Inc. Wins 2012 Top Business Prize”.

Ask a Question

One of the most widely picked up press release carried on the MyPRGenie service last year had a question in the headline. That release, from The Distributed Marketing Blog, carried the headline, “Who Owns Your LinkedIn Contacts?” The subhead read, “Hint: It Might Not Be You According to 3 New Court Rulings”.

The release, which linked to a blog post on several court cases over the ownership of social media contacts, profiles, and accounts, was picked up by hundreds of news outlets around the world, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of visits to the client’s blog.

People like answering questions – or, when they don’t know the answer, they like learning new things. Perhaps more importantly, Bing, Google, and Yahoo are working towards making friendlier search engines. This means that they’re searching for content that answers common questions.

The search engines benefit, after all, from advertising fees whenever someone types a question into the search engine. And web users benefit from getting the most relevant information quickly. So a press release, blog post, or other form of content (white paper, PDF, video, etc.) that answers a simple question is a valuable marketing asset.

Writing headlines that ask a simple question – and answering that question succinctly and clearly, using the same keywords in question and answer – helps enormously with search engine page rank (SERP) and SEO. It also helps you build your brand, and deliver information your customers and prospects want. If that isn’t the definition of thought leadership and great PR or content marketing, then how should it be defined?

Keep the question simple. Complicated, multi-part questions confuse the search engines and your readers.

Consider Name Dropping

Whenever possible, consider name dropping when you write your headlines. No, we’re not talking about slipping the name of the starlet of the week into your headline. But if you are working to build your brand and your company, and you have the opportunity to link yourselves to a better-known brand or company, do it.

Every industry has its own famous personalities, whether they’re people, conferences or trade shows, industry associations, or authors who write about the industry. One of the best known incubators for business-to-business technology start-ups is Dallas-based Tech Wildcatters. So when it picks the 10-12 companies it backs each year, they’re encouraged to put out a press release that includes the Tech Wildcatters name in the headline. “Socialyzer Selected for Tech Wildcatters Class of 2012” might be the first headline for the start-up, but it gets an instant boost by linking to the better-known brand.

What names can you drop in your next press release headline? As with keywords, make sure that it’s relevant to the body of your release. Also, make sure that you have the legal right to drop the name you want to associate with your brand. You’ll find some useful tips on the legal issues in name dropping in these articles – Why We Won’t Publish Some Press Releases and 5 Legal Issues PR People MUST Understand.

Write Timely, Newsworthy Headlines

Too many companies send out press releases when they get the necessary approvals, without considering whether the timing is right and the subject is newsworthy. There’s a news cycle in almost every industry. What’s the news cycle in yours?

Are there specific industry conferences or events that take place at certain times of the year? If so, decide whether to send out your news in time for the event – or to avoid it. The choice you make depends on a lot of factors, and there’s no hard and fast rule except that if you don’t know what the news cycle is, you’re likely to make a bad mistake.

Controversy and national or international news are also powerful reasons to write a headline in a specific way. A well-known back-up software vendor writes press releases and downloadable white papers every year, and then publishes them to coincide with the first major hurricane, tornado, or blizzard of the year.

Hurricane Highlights Emergency Data Planning for 5,000 Gulf Businesses” is a powerful, attention-grabbing headline that lets the company offer its products and services, position its executives as knowledgeable, quotable experts – all while delivering valuable information to people who need it at a specific time.

What can your business offer? Holiday money saving tips? Recipes for “problem” meals – such as Thanksgiving with vegan and meat-eating relatives at the same table? Tips on organizing a tool bench for winter safety? Whatever it is, look for logical, practical “news hooks” that will let you deliver that message at the right time.

Photo credit: morgueFile offered this photo under a Creative Commons License.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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One Response to 5 Tips on Writing Clickable Headlines

  1. Tiara Mancuso says:

    Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading
    and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

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