04 Jan 2013

How to write great headlines in 55 characters or less

Signage 55 speed limit

This approximates the length of a 55 character headline. (minus the period)

That’s how much space you have to tell part of a story intriguing enough to convince a reader to open your email, read your press release, or tap on a story on their mobile phone. How do you cram that much goodness into so small a space?

Start with the 4U rule recommended by the American Writers and Artists Association:

  • A headline should be unique. What’s so different about your news?
  • A headline should be urgent. Why does your news matter to me right now?
  • A headline should be useful. How will your news help me?
  • A headline should be unambiguous/ultra-specific. What can I learn just from the headline?

Let’s look at a couple of examples using SHIFT clients. For example, InfiniteZ makes a product called zSpace that makes a virtual holographic display intended for use by any complex application that requires highly detailed manipulation. You could write a fairly bland headline that goes something like this:

zSpace pioneers new medical imaging system for surgeons to perform remote work in virtual holographic environment.”

  • Is it unique? Maybe. It’s hard to tell.
  • Is it urgent? Definitely not.
  • Is it useful? Maybe, maybe not.
  • Is it unambiguous? Again, maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether the words mean anything to you.

Let’s try a second pass at the headline.

zSpace lets your surgeon phone in your surgery.”

  • Is it unique? Yes. The thought of a surgeon not showing up in person is definitely unique.
  • Is it urgent? If you’re about to have surgery, you bet it is. You’re wondering if your surgeon will be there.
  • Is it useful? Yes. It conveys the idea that a surgeon doesn’t have to be there to be effective. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a value judgement you’ll have to make.
  • Is it unambiguous? Definitely. It’s also incredibly clear and paints a picture in your mind that will compel you to start reading the news.

We also came in at 46 characters, well under the 55 character recommended limit.

Here’s another example. SilkRoad is an enterprise HR software company that makes a suite of products to help make HR easier. If you go into the technology and software section of MarketWire, you’ll find dozens of press releases that all sound like this:

Such and Such Software announces revolutionary new version of software as global leader in the industry.” Let’s apply the 4U test again.

  • Unique? No. In fact, this headline and unique dine at completely different tables.
  • Is it urgent? No.
  • Is it useful? Definitely not.
  • Is it unambiguous? Not at all.

This is a failed headline, and depressingly, it’s one you see all the time on press releases. Let’s break free of this textbook bad headline.

SilkRoad tells you who needs a pay raise in 2013.”

  • Unique? Yes.
  • Urgent? If you want a pay raise, chances are you’ll find some urgency in reading this software, because you’re hoping you can send it to your boss.
  • Useful? Unquestionably.
  • Unambiguous? Definitely – and again, if you think you should be getting a raise this year, chances are you’ll read this, even if you don’t work in human resources.

The headline almost forms a subconscious response in your mind as you read it – “Hey, I need a raise this year!” – and that subconscious response starts creating a story in your head about what you want to achieve in 2013. We’re in at 48 characters, too.

The best headlines help the reader start to create a story of their own in their heads or inspire a question in their minds that compel them to want to read more. Apply the simple 4U test to every headline you write, and watch as people start to read your press releases, blog posts, email newsletters, and more.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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2 comments
Dnowlan16
Dnowlan16

Writing interesting headlines is one of my biggest struggles. I know I need to get the information I need but I struggle at times putting it in the most interesting ways, so that the readers look at my piece. Urgent, useful, unique, and Unambiguous are great things to consider when writing headlines. Definitely will be sharing this with co workers and saving it for later use.

Akweskin
Akweskin

Excellen!t I will share this with my PR students. Thank you.