Summary: There are 3 important lessons for public relations professionals in crafting effective press releases and other digital messages to be gleaned from the Financial Times’ launch this week of FastFT, a short-format news service.

A news summary on the site grabs attention and creates a perfect tweet.

A news summary on the site grabs attention and creates a perfect tweet.

The Financial Times this week launched FastFT, a nimble and ultra-short-form news service publishing extremely short (<250 word) stories.  The reasoning behind the new service?  While the 140 character limit on Twitter is a bit too confining, nonetheless, it’s clear that readers prefer short snippets rather than long-form.  The FT is adding the short-format service to their mix, in order to, according to an interview with FastFT’s chief correspondent Megan Murphy that was published by PaidContent, “Create more portals and routes for readers to consume the publication’s content.”

The idea of using alternative content formats to create portals leading readers to other related content is an excellent idea.

Global PC & tablet shipping data, from the KPCB 2013 Internet Trends deck

  • For one thing, short stories are mobile-device friendly.  And in case you missed it, as of the fourth quarter of 2012, more tablets shipped than PCs and desktops combined – just three years after the launch of the first tablet.  FastFT is, by its very nature, designed to render well across devices and platforms.
  • The short format also caters to online reading behaviors, which differ significantly from how people interact with print content.   Online readers browse content quickly, scanning pages and following links to rapidly hone in on what is interesting to them at that moment.

Fast FT is going to be a winner for the FT, and there are important lessons here that PR pros need to pay attention to when crafting press releases and other messages.

Focus your message on the reader’s interests, not the company’s agenda.

Let’s be brutally honest.  Your audience doesn’t care about the fact that your company is unveiling a new product or announcing a new venture.   They care about how these announcements will impact them.    Does the new product solve a problem or enable users to capture a new opportunity?  If it does, lead with that angle, and reflect it in your headline and lead.

But don’t stop with just the headline and lead.  Allowing the story to wander off course will cause your readers to exit the page.  Keep the pedal to the metal on the key story, and ruthlessly edit out all those attempts by others to hitch a ride on your message.    This is not the time to try to appeal to every potential vertical market.  You’ve undoubtedly heard the old adage “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  Don’t let you press releases turn into a confused pile of messages that lack a central focus.  Every paragraph and every quote need to support the core message.  If they don’t, chop them.

Consider employing a news summary.

Many news sites and blogs are now providing readers a short summary of articles and posts, highlighting the key points of interest and offering a bit more detail than the headline, subhead and lead traditionally do.   While purists might balk at summaries and complain about how they interrupt the flow of a story, in reality, summaries provide great functionality for the reader, and provide one more element that can hook the reader.

Summaries must be short.   If your summary requires more than a single sentence or a few short bullet points, the content itself may need a bit more focus, because there may be too many stories or angles packed into the content lead the readers to the course of action you’ll prescribe.

Pro tip: To ensure correct rendering of your content, if you do employ a news summary and plan on sending the press release over a newswire, place the summary in the text of the release, after the dateline.  Do not attempt to replace your subhead with a bulleted summary – doing so could play havoc with how the story appears on the thousands of web sites that syndicate PR Newswire content.

Move the call to action to the top of the page

Last week we spoke to a client that was disappointed that their press release hadn’t generated the hoped-for boost in web site traffic.  Upon inspection, the underlying reason became clear – the release was almost 1,000 words long, and was bereft of any links for readers to follow.  The only URL to be found in the press release was at the very end, in the boilerplate.

How do people read on the web?  According to Jakob Nielsen, a leading expert on web usability and a principle of the Nielsen Norman Group, they don’t.

Nielsen’s research on how people read on the web is 16 years old, but its findings are as true today as they were when originally published.  Our reading behaviors are different when consuming digital content, and this means that many readers won’t make it to the mid-point of your press release, much less the bitter end.   To get the best results for your message, it’s crucial that you channel the reader’s action, and you do that by placing calls to action (“CTA”) strategically in your message.

To create the outcomes desired, the calls to action need to be placed near the top of the press release.  The CTA can be subtle, offered in the form of an anchor text link from a descriptive phrase within the first paragraph.  Or, when the CTA is an event registration or access to a free download or trial, the CTA can much more overt, in the form of an actual link placed directly below the first paragraph, and accompanied by a clear invitation to the reader – something like “Download the free white paper” or “For a free 30-day trial.”

Employing these tips will result in a press release that looks a bit different, but our bet is that it will perform differently as well, attracting more readers, keeping their attention longer and ultimately driving more of the desired actions and outcomes the organization hoped to achieve with the message.