The press release is extremely important—it’s how you get information quickly and clearly into the hands of journalists, and sometimes also the general public. But the press release title is a whole other level of important. Without a good one, there’s a decent chance nobody’s going to bother clicking on that oh-so-perfect release you spent days drafting.
For example, here are two headlines that are in my inbox right this second. I’m going to change some of the specifics so that I’m not embarrassing anybody, but otherwise these are word-for-word real-life examples. (I’ll be borrowing company names from [this hilarious fake startup name generator](http://tiffzhang.com/startup/index.html), by the way).
- Yousector begins big push into Europe.
- $300 billion opportunity for investors as banks fail, FriendshipInvest poised to capitalize
Which of those two headlines are you more likely to click on first? Most people would say the second one. Let’s take a deep dive into why.
Your brand as a selling point (it isn’t one)
When writing titles, people are often tempted to do exactly what Yousector did above: start the press release with their company’s name. After all, that’s the name you’re trying to publicize! And if you look at the press releases of big, established companies, you’ll see they do that all the time. Take a look at [Pepsi’s press releases](http://www.pepsico.com/live/content/type/pressrelease), for example, and you’ll note that virtually all of them start with a brand name.
But starting with your brand name is often the wrong choice for new enterprises, because nobody has heard of your company. Unlike Pepsico brands like “Pepsi” and “Taco Bell”, your company’s name isn’t eye-catching or interest-piquing yet. Starting a headline with a proper noun that people don’t recognize can be a turn-off; it makes people feel like the news isn’t for them or won’t interest them.
One reason the second headline above works better than the first is that it starts with something that interests everyone: a $300 billion opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to click on that? It’s definitely a much more interesting hook than “Yousector,” a name nobody is likely to be familiar with.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t include your brand name in the headline. Leaving it out is fine in many cases, but you can also sneak it in later in the headline the way that FriendshipInvest did. Unless your company is well-known enough that your name will turn heads, though, it shouldn’t be the first word of your headline.
Find the story
I’ve already written in another post about what makes a compelling story. Obviously, you can’t cram the entire content of your press release into your headline, but you do want to be sure you include a little piece of the story that serves as a hook to get readers interested in clicking.
There are a few elements to this. The very best headlines often use all of them, although just having one or two of these can be perfectly fine in many cases.
All good stories include some form of conflict. If you can work a little bit of this into the headline, it makes people want to click to learn more about what’s happening and see how the story resolves. In headline number one above, there is no conflict. But headline two does suggest some kind of struggle. Banks are failing, and FriendshipInvest is poised to capitalize on a big opportunity. It doesn’t directly say that this company is taking on major banks, but it certainly implies it. It sounds like a David vs. Goliath sort of story, and it makes me want to click to learn more.
Big numbers and superlatives.
People love impressive statistics and/or superlatives. Headline number two takes advantage of this by starting with a massive, eye-catching number, but superlatives like “world’s first” or “best-selling” work in a very similar way. They impress readers, who are then compelled to click so that they can find out the details.
A note of warning here: be careful with using superlatives. Be sure you really are the “world’s first” if you’re going to claim that, and avoid using long, ridiculously specific superlatives that could only ever apply to your company. If you have to qualify your superlative with a long string of words just to make it accurate, then it’s probably not worth bothering with at all. Nobody cares that you’re the the world’s first cloud-based real-time mobile-first octopus vendor. That’s way too specific to be impressive.
Here’s the creepy psychology hack that lies behind a lot of good writing: our brains are programmed to find the answers to questions. If you ask a question directly, or subtly plant it in a reader’s mind, they’re going to keep reading to try to find the answer. The second headline takes advantage of this via a subtle route. No direct question is asked, but it’s tough to read that headline without wondering *what* exactly that opportunity is, and how FriendshipInvest is going to beat the banks. The first headline, in contrast, doesn’t really suggest any questions or leave much to wonder about, so there’s not much impetus for anyone to click and read more.
Toeing the clickbait line
There’s only one problem with the suggestions I’ve laid out above: it’s easy to take them too far and end up in the realm of clickbait. You want your headline to bait in clicks, of course, but you don’t want it to be clickbait, as that generally suggests the content didn’t live up to the headline’s promises.
To some extent you can navigate the tricky waters of clickbait avoidance by feel, but especially if you’re just starting out, a few rules to follow will help:
- Be accurate. It’s one thing to pick and choose the juiciest bits of your story for the headline, but it’s another to exaggerate or straight-up lie. Do the former, not the latter.
- Communicate what the release is about. You want to entice readers, but press releases are still a form of professional communication, so you shouldn’t leave too much to the imagination. After reading your headline, a journalist should already have at least an idea of the basics of your story (industry, company, what sort of news is being announced, etc.)
Basically, you want to get the reader’s attention while avoid the common pitfall of over-promising and under-delivering.
In the context of headlines, remember our slightly modified version of the acronym K.I.S.S.: **Keep it short and simple.** Many companies, in an effort to cram all of the relevant details into a headline, end up firing off press releases with headlines and subheads that read like full paragraphs. That defeats the entire purpose of having a headline, and in the era of emails it’s also ineffective because most email client inboxes will cut off the title of an email after a set number of characters (for Gmail in my browser, that cutoff is around 90 characters).
Headline number two above is already a little on the long side at 91 characters, but in a pinch you could probably go all the way up to 140 if you really have that much to say. Anything more than that is definitely overkill, though, and the best headlines will be shorter. The more quickly and clearly you can convey what’s in the release and catch the reader’s attention, the better.
Take your time
Especially at first, you may find that writing the headline takes nearly as long as writing the release itself. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with writing a lot of headlines and then picking and choosing the best one—or picking the best bits from each and then cutting them together. Soliciting ideas from friends, family members, and team members can also help sometimes. What’s most important is that you take the time to find a headline that works well. The best press release on earth won’t help you get coverage if it’s buried behind a boring headline.
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