Seeing as we all seek out information by hitting the web – frequently using a search engine as our guide — you can bet people other than the press are discovering and reading your releases.
Most PR practitioners, however, still write press releases in a rigid format specifically aimed at reporters. It’s a style developed long before the web came into being and best suited to the printed page.
Press releases posted online should be in web style
News flash: Web content should be written for the way we read web content. Or rather, how we glance over web content. Studies show when we first hit a web page we scan it. Our eyes skip around looking for clues to see if the page has information we can use. If it takes too long to figure out we hop off and scan elsewhere.
This applies to all areas of a website. Including the press section.
Press releases as information, plain and simple
OK, this is not groundbreaking news: Jakob Nielson, a pioneer of web usability, has beaten this drum for years. He’s posted numerous articles on the subject, including How Users Read on the Web.
Still, even companies that follow good web style elsewhere on their website often disregard it in the press area.
That’s a mistake. Usability studies by Janice (Ginny) Redish — as noted in her excellent book Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works — show the general web user is confused (and even frustrated) by traditional “wall-to-wall text” press releases that appear online.
And so, with hat tips to Nielson and Redish, here’s a handy list of guidelines for writing press releases for the web.
Best Practices: Writing Press Releases for the Web
1. Write short paragraphs
Keep it concise. Nielson suggests having one idea per paragraph.
2. Increase scanability with subheads in bold type
Subheads give instant clues about the full content of the release. Readers can know right away if the content is of interest, or not. Suggested length for headings is eight words or less.
3. Break up information with bulleted or numbered lists
Bullets act as graphical elements that stand out from blocks of text. Our eyes are naturally and psychologically drawn to lists with brief chunks of information.
4. Display data in tables and graphs
It’s difficult to digest lots of data rendered in paragraph format. You’re better off putting this information into tables and graphs that are more readily understood.
5. Use the same template as other informational pages
As noted, the general public does not make a distinction between press releases and other useful web content. A press release should have the same look and feel as other informational pages on your website.
6. Include hyperlinks and external documents for additional information
Provide more value to a release by linking to other areas of your site with related information.
If you need to go into more depth with statistics or research findings, create and post documents with these details. Write the press release as a summary fact sheet and put links to these documents in the release.
7. Include keywords
Use language that appeals to your customer base. Put special emphasis on terms and phrases someone might use to find your product or service through a search engine, a.k.a. keywords.
8. Be mindful of who’s listed as the company contact
Typical press releases list the person in your public relations/communications department who wrote the release as the contact for additional information. But is this the right person to respond to queries from the general public? And what happens when this PR flack leaves your company? Do you go back and changes all the releases?
Once a release is posted on the web you may want to list your main PR office number, and identify it as such, to better field calls that come in response to the release.
– Deni Kasrel
What do YOU think? Comments welcome.