5 building blocks of great copy

blocksTalent, originality, and flair can play a role in the creation of awesome copy that gets results, but they aren’t the core of successful writing. Five basic elements drive the motivation of readers, and whether your copy succeeds or fails will largely depend on how well you address them.

1. A well-defined audience

Who are you writing to? Don’t touch a keyboard until you know who they are (and know them well). If you’re selling to an audience of white male doctors born during the baby boom, you won’t write the same way you would for female millennials fresh out of a California art school. Resist the temptation to write for “anyone who will pay money for this” and make your audience as specific and targeted as you can.

2. A problem

Most sales happen when your buyers have a need or desire they want to satisfy. These run the gamut from the necessary (“we need to produce this year’s annual report”) to the strategic (“we want to refresh our branding to attract more young professionals”) to the impulsive (“we could sell temporary tattoos on FamousSocialMediaSite.com!”).

If you’ve learned your audience well enough (see #1 above), you’ll probably have some good ideas already about the challenges they’re dealing with. This is one of the best ways to identify what your buyers have a legitimate need for, which is usually more effective than trying to create a “problem.” Another good approach is to use your outsider’s perspective to spot challenges your buyers may not yet be aware of. For instance, many small businesses fail to recognize how inconsistent branding hurts sales, especially against competitors with more design savvy.

The best problems are those that need to be dealt with right away. For example, if you have expertise in responsive design, your copy might highlight statistics about how much web surfing has shifted to mobile devices, and how that trend is expected to grow rapidly in the next year or so.

3. A solution that suggests your strengths

The art called “positioning” by marketing gurus basically boils down to this message: what you offer will satisfy your buyers’ needs, fulfill their desires, or solve their problems.

Whether this message is handled in a “hard” or “soft” manner depends on where and how you’re communicating. A traditional space ad in a magazine typically takes a direct approach: “XYZ Webcraft is the best solution for mobile-friendly websites!” In a white paper or social media post, however, you’ll want to pitch a more suggestive message: “The challenges of mobile devices are best met by a designer with expertise in responsive design, user experience, and web analytics.” (Well golly, the author of this article clearly has those qualities and knows what she’s talking about — maybe I should call her.)

4. A single message

Great writing doesn’t try to multitask. Your readers already have many other distractions competing for their attention — which you aren’t likely to have for long — so trying to squeeze two or more pitches into a piece will only make both of them less effective.

But what if you have more one than message or audience? The answer is simple: create a unique piece for each one. I recently did an assignment for an organization that has five different types of prospects. They wisely chose to create five variations of the campaign, each targeted to the specific needs and desires of the segments they had carefully researched ahead of time. They could have spent a lot less up front trying to create a one-size-fits-all promotion, but they knew that approach would ultimately cost them a lot more because it wouldn’t be successful.

5. A call to action

Every great piece of copy wraps up with a clear statement of what you want the reader to do next. In many cases, the call to action is also mentioned early and repeated throughout the piece.

Just because the call to action is the last item in this list and the final part of your message doesn’t mean it’s the last thing you should think about. Knowing exactly what you want your readers to do before you start writing allows you to focus your entire message toward your desired outcome.

For best results, make your call to action as specific as possible, whether it’s calling to schedule a free consultation, downloading a free report, signing up for a newsletter, or clicking here to buy now.

  Celebrating Cincinnati’s Hometown All-Stars

hometown-all-starsMajor League Baseball’s All-Star Game came to Cincinnati on Tuesday, July 14, but that’s wasn’t the only thing we celebrated. Kroger and Procter & Gamble gathered a group of nine dedicated local volunteers, naming them “Hometown All-Stars.” These are truly amazing people, and it was my honor and privilege to interview each of them for features in Cincinnati Enquirer. Sharing their stories was one of the most satisfying assignments I’ve ever had.

The website created for the series is no longer online, but you can click the links below to see PDF versions of the individual stories.

  5 ways WordPress is changing my business

dashboard-menuEarlier this year, I mentioned WordPress as one of three major software tools every writer should know how to use. I don’t often encourage writers to delve too deeply into this sort of thing, but the more you learn about WordPress, the more you can benefit from advantages like these:

1. Simultaneous workflow

Knowing your way around WordPress makes it a lot easier for the writer and the design team to do their jobs at the same time. The whole “chicken and egg” debate is less of an issue, because the writer can respond in real-time to what the design team is doing and vice versa.

2. Improved accuracy

When I first started writing Web copy, I would send the design team a Word file, which they would then have to load into the site. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem, but I always had to check the results to make sure that formatting like subheads, bold type, or italics didn’t accidentally get lost in the translation. Sometimes entire paragraphs would disappear.

Posting your copy directly into WordPress eliminates one of the steps where ordinary human errors can occur. It’s especially helpful to the design team — and to you — if everyone agrees ahead of time about how style sheets and other structural elements should be handled.

3. Faster editing

This is an extension of the first two benefits that happens after the initial draft is submitted. If you can make editing changes yourself, you don’t have to wait for someone on the design team to do it, and you don’t have to worry about any of your changes being accidentally skipped or misinterpreted. This faster integration helps jobs get done sooner, which means everyone gets paid faster.

4. Happy design partners

Notice a recurring theme in these benefits? Everything we’ve mentioned so far makes things easier for the design team — which makes them very, very happy. This frequently leads to…

5. More Web copy gigs

Once you’ve earned the trust of a design team by demonstrating your WordPress prowess, you’ll find that they’re eager to keep you involved with regular updates to the projects you’ve collaborated on. And by enabling them to spend more of their time focused on the design work they love while you handle that pesky copy, you’ll also be more likely to get the call when new gigs come up.

  The Voice of a Brand

smile-150Part of a graphic designer’s job is to establish a consistent “look” for a brand — everything from the logo and typefaces to an approved book of colors and styles. When done right, a brand can be recognized wherever any one of its visual elements appears.

A good copywriter complements the look of a brand with a distinctive style of writing, known as the “voice.” You’ll frequently see guidelines for the voice defined in the same branding guide the design team uses.

Getting the voice right is a key part of the branding process, because it works hand-in-hand with your design. A good voice will:

  • Convey the tone and spirit of the brand,
  • Use language that appeals to your buyers,
  • Encourage connection between what you offer and what your buyers need or want, and
  • Distinguish your product or service from competitors.

Creative firms frequently use words like these to describe their voice:

  • Creative
  • Friendly
  • Artistic
  • “Fun, but professional”
  •  Hip / on trend
  • Conversational
  • Jargon-free
  • Bold
  • Environmentally responsible
  • Service-oriented

Your brand’s voice might also include guidelines on grammar. For creative people, this usually means which rules of formal English the writer is encouraged to break. It’s not uncommon for designers to use contractions, to start sentences with “but” or “and”, or to use other casual forms of language better suited for the local coffeehouse than a high school English essay. This approach might not work for a doctor’s office or a law firm, but hey, you’re an artist, right?

Five tips for creating an authentic voice

  1. Know what you want. Figure out who you really want to work for and define your ideal client as specifically as possible. Make sure the profile you develop is someone you like, whether it’s based on a real person or a fictional composite of traits you’re looking for. Your voice should “speak” to this person the way you would speak to a friend.
  2. Know your prospects cold. Learn the lingo of your best buyers so you can write in a way they respect and understand. Not sure how technical to get? Err on the side of everyday speech.
  3. Let your true personality show. Don’t try to fake a tone or style that comes unnaturally to you. Even if you manage to pull it off, the people who respond probably won’t be the best fit for your business. Being yourself will help you attract clients you’ll enjoy working for.
  4. Be professional. Being authentic doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk. So while you’re being yourself, strive to be the best possible version of yourself. You can suffer for your art, but your clients won’t.
  5. Be consistent. Once you find your unique style, use it everywhere you promote your business. Give your voice the same fidelity you would give your logo or other visual elements.You can be a bit more casual on some social networking sites to help followers feel closer to your inner circle, but don’t go wild with it.

Ultimately, your goal is to present a consistent voice and message no matter where your buyers see you. If your voice speaks to what they really need wherever they find you, you’ll be the first person they call when they’re ready to hire.

  5 Ways to Reuse, Reproduce, and Repurpose Content

recycled_copyMany of today’s most effective marketing strategies are driven heavily by content — the more useful and relevant to your audience, the better. That content requires time and effort to create, so it makes good sense to get the most from your investment. And since it’s unlikely most people are hanging on your every WordPress post, most of your readers won’t notice if you take full advantage of these “sustainable content” strategies:

Feed your blog or newsletter

Blogs and newsletters are notoriously hungry for content, and for falling behind schedule when the topic well runs dry. If you’ve taken the time to create a longer copy project like a white paper or ebook, look for excerpts that could stand alone in these shorter formats.

Feed the social media monster

Social media calls for smaller bits of eloquence, both because of character limits and shorter attention spans. Adapting longer copy for these formats requires a bit more editing than for a blog or newsletter, but it’s almost as easy. If your content is compelling enough, social media can simply be an entry point, teasing the reader with a headline that encourages them to click through to something you’ve posted outside the walled garden of FamousSocialMediaSite.com.

Create a book, eBook, or free download

The same tricks described above also work in reverse: a series of blogs or newsletters that share a common theme can be packaged together to create something bigger you can sell or give away. That’s exactly how I created my eBook The Writer/Designer Dream Team. There’s even a WordPress plug-in called Anthologize specifically designed to capture online content and publish it in print or common eBook formats.

Create a resource library

Even if it’s not the shiniest new thing on your website or blog, content you’ve created remains a valuable asset as long as it’s still beneficial to your clients and prospects. Once it’s had its time in the spotlight, keep it available in an easily-accessible archive. Your website is the best place to keep it around, because the combination of useful information and regular updates is one of the best ways to attract the Internet gremlins that determine search engine rankings.

It’s worthwhile to check in on your archive from time to time. Content that’s technical or tied to current events can become out of date, at which point it may be worthwhile to refresh it (generating new content for your pipeline) or remove it.

Publish on other platforms

A pre-existing “content mine” makes it easy for you to contribute to other websites and publications your buyers read. Some publishers are fine with re-using content in its original form, expanding your audience with a simple cut and paste. Others may ask you to expand or rework your content, either to create something unique or to make it more specific to their readers.

For example, I once wrote a blog for a publisher’s website, something I do at least once a month to build credibility and reach a wider audience. The post caught the attention of a magazine owned by the same company, which paid me to expand it into a longer print article. About six months later I received another check when the article was re-published in two of the company’s anthologies.

Final thoughts

The primary goal of publishing regular content is to increase your visibility, so your options for when and where you reuse it are pretty flexible. Some publishers prefer to let a little time go by before re-publishing content somewhere else, others like to post segments of the same content in multiple channels simultaneously to attract a wider audience. Either strategy is enhanced by an archive that automatically collects older content when it’s replaced by something new.

While all of these strategies offer effective ways to attract new buyers, relevance is still the king. If your content addresses the wants and needs of your readers, any combination of these strategies can be successful. If it doesn’t, none of them will work.

  The language of green

blusunThis Wednesday, April 22, marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s a special day for me since I spend a lot of my time writing about alternative energy and other so-called “green” topics.

The term “green marketing” has achieved buzzword status in recent years, but for many people its meaning isn’t clear. Many folks have a vague impression of something clean and organic-looking, featuring stock photos of the earth from space, a child’s hands planting a sapling, possibly with a drop of water or a solar panel thrown in for good measure. (The typeface? Papyrus of course.)

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find the green market isn’t just one demographic. People who value sustainability run the gamut from post-hippie entrepreneurs to the United States Military. You’ll find them in national parks, evangelical churches, architectural firms, coffee houses, government agencies, construction sites, and a growing number of mega-corporation boardrooms.

As a result, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to writing Green copy. Some of your customers may want a Greener world for the same reasons you do, but these kindred spirits may not be enough to keep you in business. Is their core motivation a love for the environment, self-reliance, healthy living, breaking free from foreign oil (or as some Middle Eastern countries are starting to consider, from an economy dominated by domestic oil)? Are your readers willing to pay more for a “Green” product? Research suggests about 4 out of 5 of them won’t be.

The days when a green focus made a company different are long gone. Today, everyone from small startups to major corporations is trying to talk the talk whether or not they’re sustainably sincere. That means you’ll need to do the same legwork every other smart company does to learn who your best customers really are. Where do they get their news? What causes do they support? What do they do in their spare time? And most importantly, what does Green mean to them?

  How to keep a content plan on schedule

final_deadlineOne morning last fall I woke to the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I had never had a kidney stone before and hope never to have another. Suffice to say I was incapacitated for several days.

Yet while I was out of commission, my blog posted right on schedule. The following week my email newsletter went out on time, even as I was scrambling to catch up on client work. I won’t say I wasn’t stressed, but I wasn’t worried about letting my content slide because I had “more important” things to do. I didn’t have to think about it at all because my marketing machine can run without me for a while if it needs to.

A consistent schedule is critical to any content marketing plan, whether you send just one newsletter a month to a small email list or blitz the world with a multi-channel campaign. And since your content plan works its most powerful magic over time, it needs to keep running even when you go on vacation, get the flu, or land that huge project from DreamClient, Inc.

That may sound like a tall order, but it’s not. With a little effort, you can set up a content plan that runs like clockwork even if you get sidetracked. Here are five tips to help you make it happen:

Release perfection

The biggest obstacle to regular self-promotion that afflicts creative professionals — and many other business owners — is the feeling that every newsletter, blog, or post on FamousSocialMediaSite.com must exemplify the pinnacle of their creative brilliance every time. This mindset invariably stalls the plan every time.

So take a page from the Frozen playbook and “let it go.” Pursue excellence by trying to make each piece you create a little better than the last within the time you allot for marketing, but leave it at that. You’ll publish a brilliant thing that grabs attention once in a while — usually when you’re not trying to — and that’s enough. Potential clients will be far more impressed when they see that you can stick to your timetable reliably month after month.

Create a content schedule

The question “what should I write about this time?” is a lot easier to answer if you’ve created a plan in advance. One of your first content development tasks should be simply to brainstorm the topics you want to cover for a certain period — about 2-3 months’ worth seems to work best for me. This saves you a lot of time because you always know the next thing you need to write about. When the topic list starts to run low, do another brainstorming session. It’s also a good idea to jot down topics whenever they occur to you. I use Evernote to capture ideas.

Your schedule doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I use a spreadsheet with four columns: publication date, format (newsletter, blog, etc.), topic, and deadline. If more than one person is working on your plan, add columns to indicate who’s responsible and the current status of each piece.

Work ahead

An incredible sense of peace and calm descends upon you when your content plan is scheduled well in advance. Try to have at least one month’s worth of material scheduled and ready to go at any time. When I help clients start a new content plan, I actually encourage them to launch with three months of material scheduled. The same strategy helped me keep my cool during the aforementioned kidney stone incident.

Having a stockpile of content doesn’t prevent you from responding quickly to current events. You can always drop a time-sensitive piece into the mix and re-schedule “evergreen” items you’ve already written for a later date.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Content generation consumes time and resources, so don’t use it only in one place. Last year I created my eBook The Writer-Designer Dream Team largely by collating a series of blog posts and adding a bit of new material. For several months, in fact, my content schedule bore a striking resemblance to the eBook outline, since I knew ahead of time that I would be using the material for both projects.

Get help

Still feeling overwhelmed? There’s no shame in bringing someone else in to help you out. A good designer can create the right look and feel for your marketing. A good writer can help you craft the right voice or run with a topic list. If you’re short on cash, you might even be able to work out a barter deal. Last year a designer friend and I swapped copywriting for web design, and both of us walked away happy.

  Photoshop team unveils “Living History Brush”

San Jose-based Adobe Systems has announced the addition of the Living History Brush, an innovative new tool for its Photoshop image editing software. The brush is specifically designed to simplify the retouching of images taken at historical reenactments.

“The Living History Brush is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series of market-specific image editing tools,” said Shantanu Narayen, Adobe president and chief executive officer. “It’s a creative spin-off of the same technologies behind the Clone Stamp and the Content-Aware Fill feature, but optimized for images that demand complete historical authenticity. And today that Photoshop magic is available to millions of users, thanks to Adobe Creative Cloud.”

The Living History Brush automatically eliminates modern elements such as power lines, airplanes, mobile phones and even hairstyles by substituting historic equivalents or removing them with content-aware retouching. The initial release of the brush includes presets for the American Revolution, War of 1812, and American Civil War. Additional eras, including Renaissance England and ancient Rome, are scheduled to be added in the next 3-6 months.

This stunning before and after comparison shows the Living History Brush in action.

This stunning before and after comparison shows the Living History Brush in action. (Photo: G. Smith)

“This will be a huge time-saver for both the design and the reenactment communities,” says Albert Roberts, a freelance graphic designer who also portrays a 19th-century British navy surgeon for HMS Acasta, a living history organization. “There’s nothing worse than getting a great shot of your reenacting buddies in painstakingly reconstructed uniforms, only to discover that someone was texting on his iPhone in the background.”

The details of the technology are proprietary, but Adobe has indicated that it combines specialized algorithms with databases of historical artifacts from leading museums, historic sites and academic partners, including the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery, Colonial Williamsburg, and Japan’s Kobe Fashion Museum.

The new brush is available to Creative Cloud users in the latest update of Photoshop CC, released this morning.

Narayen declined to comment on what other industries Adobe has under consideration, but widespread speculation on user forums suggests specialized brushes for healthcare, finance, and the hospitality industry could follow in the next 12 months if response to the Living History Brush is favorable.

The Living History Brush is an utterly bogus figment of Tom’s imagination. Happy April Fool’s Day!

  User manual for technical copy

greengearsMany people I work with have a regular need for technical copy. The industries are as varied as alternative energy, medicine, green construction and IT, but the basic need is always the same: helping bright, inventive people tell their stories without making the reader’s eyes glaze over.

The genie’s out of the bottle, but who’s rubbing the lamp?
Promoting innovative new technologies can be a challenging balancing act, but it basically boils down to two things:

  1. Knowing what your whiz-bang wonder is good for. (Note that this is different from knowing what it does or how it works.)
  2. Knowing your audience.

I like to identify the audience first, but this doesn’t always work with tech because innovation doesn’t like to travel in straight lines. The history of science is filled with stories of clever people who accidentally created a breakthrough product while they were working on something else. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra, Silly Putty, Coca-Cola, chocolate chip cookies, and even the color mauve all share the legacy of being discovered or invented “by mistake.” When this happens, your audience might not be who you originally expected it to be.

New isn’t enough
While there are always early adopters who crave the latest gizmo, there are many more who view new technology with skepticism and dread. Even those who are interested can feel a conflicting pull between the desire to be up to date and the fear of riding the wrong wave of the future.

The key to overcoming these concerns is to be a problem solver. Identify the challenges your technology will ease or eliminate. Will it save time or costs? Reduce the risk of injury? Improve quality? Ensure compliance with regulations?

“Why now” beats “how it works” every time
A critical part of your discovery process will be comparing the costs of using the new technology versus continuing with the status quo. How quickly will users to recoup their costs? If it’s going to take a while, you may need to consider other incentives to encourage buyers to act now. For example, many residential solar companies use a lease-financing payment plan to give their customers immediate cost savings compared to their current electric rates.

The many-headed hydra
If you’re only selling to one group, consider yourself lucky. Tech marketing often creates the need to communicate with people who have different levels of expertise. For example, the engineers who actually use a new software system will want more technical details than the CEO who makes the buying decision. You may also have to consider the needs of journalists and potential investors. When possible, try to direct different marketing efforts with appropriate “geek levels” toward each segment of your audience.

Remember: readers aren’t robots
In the discovery phase, it often takes fifteen minutes or more for brilliant technomancers to explain the significance of their creations. The inevitable PowerPoint accompaniment sometimes helps. Sometimes. (To be fair, this usually isn’t PowerPoint’s fault. For tips on how to cheat “Death by PowerPoint,” check out my colleague Laura Foley.)

Drawn-out explanations like this won’t work outside the lab, so distill the message as much as you can. If you can describe what it does and what it’s good for in ten words or less, you’ll have a major competitive advantage.

  The message they can’t delete

Post_itTrue confession time: I love paper.

I love the way it looks, the way it feels, the cool artistic effects that talented designers can achieve with rough, organic textures or slick, shiny finishes.

But what I love most about paper is its sticking power. I’m not talking about the glue on the back of a post-it note, but the physical presence that only paper can give to your message. And as any printer will tell you these days, there’s a lot more room in your snail-mail box than there used to be.

Say what you will about email, websites, blogs, and social networks: paper remains the only communication medium that can’t be vaporized instantly with the click of a button. Even if you take it directly to the recycling bin (you are recycling, right?), there’s still a good chance that you’ll LOOK at it. In that moment, I have a golden opportunity to communicate with you.

So what’s a business to do if it values sustainability? Here’s a few tips to get the most out of paper and still minimize your impact:

  • Go paperless whenever you can, especially for administrative stuff like invoicing, memos, and communication with clients.
  • Don’t print anything you don’t have to. When you do, be sure to recycle it when you’re done.
  • Reduce the default margins in Microsoft Word to a minimum. Do you really need an inch and a half of white space on every sheet? This sounds like a little thing, but I find that it cuts the number of pages in just about every document I prepare. It also helps my clients use less paper without even knowing it!
  • Watch out for invisible lines at the end of documents too. It’s amazing how often these will add an extra page at the end that no one notices until an extra sheet gets wasted.
  • If you must print, use every feature your printer offers to save paper. I have a default setting that prints double-sided with two pages on each side, cutting my paper use by up to 75%.
  • Master the commenting features in Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, and other applications you use so you can edit documents without printing them.
  • buy paper from companies committed to sustainability, and know the impact of what you’re buying. For example, responsibly-produced virgin paper is sometimes a more sustainable option because of the waste generated by recycling. (I’m not telling not to use recycled paper…just know the pros and cons of the products you’re using.)
  • Ask your printer about their sustainability practices. Are they certified by the Forestry Council or the Rainforest Alliance? Do they still use alcohol-based inks or other harmful chemicals? If they don’t have a green agenda, find one that does. (Want a really clean printer? Here’s mine. Be sure to tell them I sent you.)

I’m looking for more ways to reduce my paper footprint, but I still haven’t found anything else in my toolbox that can outperform it. Have you? If so, please drop me a line.