They’re coming anyway

Facebook and Google are being pilloried for misusing the details of our private lives, but the silver lining is advertising that at last is something we can relate to.

Information in line with our interests – what an awesome notion!

This is after a lifetime of television viewing where the advertisers clearly don’t have a clue.

NOT MILES AWAY

Sure, online ads are sometimes out of date. We’ve already bought the goods or taken the holiday. Still, they’re not a million miles off. We appreciate the thought.

We’re also forewarned with cautionary pop-ups about intrusions on our privacy. Well and good, for we need to be reminded.

Who can object to cookies when they dish up ads that are startlingly knowing? The things are going to arrive anyway, so they might as well be apt.

Maybe it’s overdoing things to talk about advertising we can love. But accepting – that’s not too much.

The invisible mouse mat

Pens, diaries, key rings, coffee mugs, juggling balls.

We’ve all been showered with these promo giveaways that are emblazoned with the name of the supplier. The brand is in your face each and every day, so the advertising must be effective.

Or maybe not.

Back in the era of the mouse-mat, there was one on this desk promoting something or other. No idea what. After just a few days, the unchanging copy became unseen wallpaper.

Some giveaways such as t-shirts, baseball caps and pedestrian backpacks are undoubtedly effective. The brand names walk the streets and get in front of fresh sets of eyes every day.

They’re like newspaper billboards and headlines. Do we glance at them as we walk past? Of course.

FRESH WISDOM

A pawnbroker near this office has a whiteboard on which is scrawled some cock-eyed piece of wisdom that he refreshes every morning. Clever.

This leads to the question of how often we should change our marketing messages. Maybe a further question is needed, which is how often do your customers see them.

Daily exposure creates the need for frequent change. Which is something you can’t do with a coffee mug.

Axe that bidding battle

If you advertise using Google AdWords (and many of us do), avoid getting into a bidding war. Google loves these auctions, but you’re just handing them your money.

A fight for keywords means that there’s also disheartening competition for markets. Who needs that?

Instead, advertise in a niche where you’re the dominant player. Not sure how to do this? Keep on narrowing the scope of your market description until you’re in a position where you’ve shed most of your rivals.

You’ll have the relevant keywords all to yourself, which means they won’t cost heaps. You may even be able to dominate the sector with natural, unpaid search.

Google won’t be impressed with your parsimony, but your pocket will like the result.

Nine secrets of expert content writers

1. They start the story with a hook and end with a punch. If these two parts of the content are sound, the rest of the material will sit easily in between.

2. They treat words like goldleaf. Each one has its own glint. They don’t need to elaborate with adjectives or adverbs, or say the same thing in three different ways. People will get it the first time.

3. They know that writer’s block is a form of stagefright. Practice of your craft will give you the confidence to write under the toughest conditions.

4. They understand that writers also get stuck when they don’t have a clear picture in their mind of whom they’re addressing. Clarify that and the writing will flow.

5. They’re happy for their first draft to be rough. And the next two rewrites. After that, they’re getting close to the finished piece.

6. They find that reciting a story aloud is an excellent way of checking its flow. (That doesn’t apply if you’re writing for The Guardian, where tortuous prose may be a sign of cleverness. For every other media brand, it’s good advice.)

7. They never write on a per-word basis of payment, which is a blueprint for poverty. They charge per article or by the hour.

8. They understand that while everyone can write, few people can do it really really well. Most of us are able to cook a meal, but that doesn’t make us Gordon Ramsay.

9. They’ve found that working to a word limit is a tough but good discipline. Most online articles are fewer than 400 words. Any clown can add more. The hard part is leaving stuff out.

The pilot must be allowed to die

Marketing is often trial and error. If something doesn’t work, we should stop, change it, and see if that makes a difference.

Pilot programs and prototypes therefore make sense. We don’t want to pour resources into something that may not be effective. Better to start tiny, then scale up once there’s something that nudges the needle.

Evidence for success will show up at the very beginning. Most responses to advertising, for example, are revealed early in the campaign.

This is why advertising should be rested and restarted. And why it should be changed.

EIGHT EXPOSURES

There’s an oft-recited mantra that it takes up to eight exposures to a marketing message before the prospect is ready to purchase. Notice, Recognise, Discuss, Desire, Budget, Imagine owning, Plan delivery, Buy.

In practice, you’ll get indications of buyer interest long before the actual sale. These may be views, clicks, likes, leads, sampling, requests for a brochure, or visitors to your store. All evidence that the needle has moved.

The most frustrating result is one that isn’t big and isn’t small. Your messages aren’t a failure, nor are they a success.

The temptation here is to soldier away, hoping that the marketing will catch on.

KILL IT OR CHANGE

It takes guts to euthanase a pilot or prototype that isn’t showing early results. After all, we’re optimists, right? We believe that tomorrow will be better.

But let’s not kid ourselves that our new product will take off “next year”. It won’t. Now is the time to rework it or lay the babe to rest.

Brands with two faces and not a leg to stand on

We’re all encouraged to promote ourselves as brands, and this is facilitated by the self-publishing vehicles of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Products, including personal ones, plug their positive side and show themselves in the best possible light. This can create a disconnect between image and the real thing.

On a personal level, so-called friends will expose and denigrate you online, if they believe your online story is not an honest one.

At worst, this can result in the destruction of morale and even a total mental breakdown.

Businesses face the same danger, when the gulf between image and day-to-day actions stretches the trust of the public. Here in Australia, the banks and other financial institutions are under fire for exactly that reason. Chairpersons, board members and CEOs are resigning, while share values are plunging.

PERFECTION NOT NEEDED

Of course we’re permitted by cultural convention to put our best foot forward, and this applies equally to commerce as to personal life.

Neither are we expected to be perfect. A frank admission of faults or weaknesses in areas that are not crucial to the main offerings can usefully deslick an image and lift credibility.

Problems arise when this honesty is withheld from the sharp end of the operation – for fear of losing customers, hurting profits or shedding fans, as the case may be.

When the public finds out, we’re treated to the ritualised apology, managed by the publicist or PR consultancy who’s in charge of the reputation of the celebrity or company.

These days, the public are so inured to these standardised grovellings that they no longer appease.

By watching for a disconnect between image and reality, we can save ourselves from the pain of rejection and humiliation. And guard against becoming a two-faced brand.

Three Shades of English

There are only three types of sentences in written English.

  1. This is the first sort.
  2. This is the second sort, which has a number of clauses, normally separated by commas.
  3. This is the third sort that is separated by conjunctions and just runs on and on until it stops.

Good writing isn’t hard. Create variety in your prose by using a mixture of all three types of sentences so that the readers don’t get bored with your style. It’s simple, it’s attractive, and it works.

The previous paragraph is composed of these sentence types. See what we mean?

Break it up, thanks

Browsing online isn’t like reading a book, but is more like scanning a newspaper. Most newspapers (yes, they still exist) have short paragraphs because they’re easier to skim through without losing your place.

Online copy tends to be consumed in the same way. Most of it is free, so is often attracting an uncommitted readership. A simple format is therefore a key to holding people’s attention.

This means short paragraphs of no more than two or three sentences.

For proof of this, check the comments section of your favourite online forum. Remarks that are written in huge blocks of unrelieved type tend to be ignored.

Comments displayed in short paragraphs are the ones that get attention. So press Enter to make your copy friendly!

Twit or tweet

Twitter comes under fire for the inaccuracy of its information, for publishing rubbish, and as a mecca for trolls.

Yet the social medium remains popular.

Tweets are brief, often mercifully so. This is Twitter’s virtue. It forces writers to be concise with their messages.

Adding unnecessary words is the most common fault of amateur scribes. Their wordiness and length of copy bores people. Thus Twitter is less boring.

Of course, you can always spread your tweet across consecutive posts, but readers will hate you for it. As well, the messages are less likely to be retweeted or Liked.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” wrote Shakespeare. It’s also the pulsing heart of Twitter.

Catch the breeze

Marketing is like raising sails on a yacht or sailboat. If there’s no wind blowing, it doesn’t matter how much fabric you unfurl, your boat won’t go anywhere.

Might as well leave the sail in the locker.

Catch the breeze by finding a sector of the market that’s enjoying growth or soon will be. Find a favorable position within it. Once this is achieved, you can spend up big on marketing and the wind will carry you along.

Icecream isn’t hard

Next to our office is a coffee and food shop that is about to go bust. It’s the third to do so on that site. This is in a major suburban centre that already has about 100 coffee and lunch venues.

What’s the thinking behind these ventures? Perhaps it’s the notion that if they can make a go of it, so can we.

One hundred struggling casual restaurants.

In a different suburb that we visit, there’s also a surfeit of coffee and snack venues. As well, there’s a single tiny icecream vendor that is so swamped with business that it’s set up a purple velvet rope on the pavement to control the crowds.

Cut back to the dying coffee shop. Out of desperation, it has expanded its offering. The place now boasts breakfast, lunch and dinner with 20 dishes on the blackboard menu. Why miss out on a single potential customer?

But what do people crave after they’ve eaten lunch and coffee? A simple dessert, something sweet.

Such as an icecream.

Amazingly, nobody has set up in competition to this massively successful vendor. Yet.

The numerous restaurants in these two suburbs offer a free lesson in business success and failure to any member of the public who cares to take notice.

A chalkboard menu, the same as all the others? Or icecream and a velvet rope? The answer isn’t hard.

Say it loud, say it clear

If you’re unsure that your media release or blog post hits the right notes, try reading the first four or five sentences aloud, as if they’re an item in a radio or television news bulletin.

Do they sound okay? Are there any places in your flow of meaning that the listener would puzzle over?

If so, rewrite your opening paragraphs until the words are a golden, liquid stream of clarity.

Once these initial sentences are sorted out, the remainder of the story should flow along nicely until the end. You’ll have captured the reader, who is likely to stick with you.

Yes, there are a few stylist differences between media stories written for radio or television news and those in the print format – but not enough to negate the value of this exercise.

Write, listen, revise. It’s the mantra of good language.

Quality – or not

A client who is market leader in his category recently told me that he wanted to add the word “quality” to the company’s slogan, to reinforce just how good the products are.

Good idea?

Words like “quality” and “star” and the old-fashioned “de luxe” are used by brands that service the middle and lower end of the market. The purpose is to counter the impression that they are second rate.

Quality Inn, Quality Street (chocolates), Jetstar, De Luxe Motel.

Leading brands have no need for this perceptual trick and should steer well away from gratuitous endorsements of their own product. The market already knows that they are good. Labouring the point is gilding the lily.

So if you’re already tops, best to leave “quality” in its box.

Say less – and persuade more

The more words we use to say or write something, the less convincing we become.

Persuasive writers and speakers are succinct. They use the minimum number of sentences needed to convey their message. They know that using more will dilute the effect they’re seeking, or create an impression that they’re insecure in their verbal abilities.

Along with saying less, it’s also a good idea to slow the pace. In oral formats, this gives the impression of gravity and significance. Insecure speakers have a tendency to gabble and to blur their words, undermining authoritativeness.

In written formats, pace can be governed by appropriate word choice. Readers pause for thought over the correctly chosen word. They skim through material that doesn’t hit the nail.

The best writers and speakers say what they need to, then stop. Silence allows the message to sink in. It also gives readers and listeners the opportunity to respond, which they are grateful for.

Enough said.

Meet Mary. She’s real

Which are the more effective photographs for your website or newsletter? Handsome executives, purchased as a stock images, or a down-to-earth portrayals of actual staff?

Authenticity is a buzzword, but few of us have the courage to show our employees, uneven teeth and all. Some law firms do. A handful of engineering consultants. And one or two brave hardware chains.

How about the sales rep who has a nice face but is twenty kilos over the recommended weight for a person of his or her age?

Actually, it’s such incongruities that make people come alive and appear real.

The same principle applies to the photographs used with testimonial stories that encourage prospects to buy. An endorsement from “Susan of East Beach”, accompanied by a stock image, convinces nobody.

Companies that have the courage to show actual customers and supply their full names will benefit from this frankness.

This is us, the messages will say. Yes, we have flaws, but these are irrelevant to what our company is all about, which is great products and service.

8 more habits of expert content writers

  1. They understand that copy should be as short as it can be while properly conveying the desired meaning and tone. Experts hate waffle and padding.
  2. They never write ambiguously, leaving the reader to scratch his or her head. This is especially so when producing instructions, directions or guidelines. The HELP sections of WordPress and Amazon are great examples of clear instructions.
  3. Professionals understand that writing can be improved by leaving it in the computer and reworking it the following day. If they can put the writing aside for a week, so much the better.
  4. Spell check makes stupid errors, often mistaking one word for another. That’s why the pros always proofread their work. Twice.
  5. It’s easier to change copy than to write copy. Therefore giving it to five people to review will result in a mess that pleases nobody. One or two people is plenty.
  6. Expert writers are nevertheless grateful when colleagues find mistakes and point them out. It’s better to have these corrected before the boss or a customer stumbles upon them.
  7. They might be skilled at the written word, but they never criticise colleagues’ writing or make suggestions for improvement, unless asked to. You wouldn’t want these people denigrating your haircut or choice of shoes, no?
  8. The pros are experienced enough to know that writer’s block is a form of stage fright. Starting a piece of writing can be hard. The longer you practice, the more your acquired skills will carry you through.

How to complete an article, podcast or speech

If you don’t know how to wrap up your article or spoken piece, here’s a Mills Blog tip.

Re-read or listen to the opening paragraph. Then, in your final sentence or paragraph, refer back to what you said at the beginning.

This will create a nice start and finish. It bookends your content. You’ll feel satisfied, and so will your readers or listeners.