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.

  7 questions creatives should ask before investing in SEO

Yellow-pages-SEOA generation or so ago, a certain type of business owner made it a priority to choose a name that started with the letter “A” (or preferably multiple “As”) so that they would be listed first in the Yellow Pages. Thus were born a host of companies with names like “A All-Valley Plumbing” (yes, that’s a real business in my home town), “AA Financial Enterprises” (ditto), and one of the best-known examples: “AAA” (the American Automobile Association). How much this strategy contributed to their success is open to debate. Some of these companies have survived for decades, others haven’t. Meanwhile, many businesses that don’t start with “A”, “B”, or even “K” are thriving, including alphabetically-challenged firms like Wal-Mart, Verizon and Zappos.com (though to be fair, Zappos succeeded well enough to be purchased by A-list giant Amazon.com).

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the modern equivalent of this marketing ploy, albeit a far more complicated and expensive one. The moving target of SEO is to “own” certain search terms so effectively that you show up first — or at least on the first page — when a user types in the magic keywords.

There are compelling arguments for certain brands to invest heavily in SEO, but is it worthwhile for a solo creative professional or small design firm? Here are seven things to consider before you dive down the SEO rabbit hole:

Is quantity or quality your goal?

Fans of SEO are quick to point out that it generates more web traffic. But is it the right kind of traffic? A “successful” SEO strategy can end up wasting a lot of your time if it simply spawns a lot of low-quality leads. People who search for creative services using nothing more than a Google search are often looking for the lowest price or the quickest fix, and frequently fail to recognize the value of a professional’s talents, experience, unique perspective or specializations.

Can you compete against companies with deep pockets?

If a solo creative’s SEO efforts can be compared to a fishing rod, the corporate equivalent is a fleet of trawlers operating further offshore. Stated more simply, if the search terms you’re angling for are also coveted by a big-budget brand, you may not be able to afford the SEO game. Big companies have big bucks to invest in paid search ads and can afford to hire dedicated SEO teams. You might be able to beat the big guys by selecting your keywords carefully. Maybe. Even words like “freelance”, “designer”, “copywriter” and “independent” are being played by web services that want to be the middleman between companies and solos, so you may need to start your keyword search somewhere else.

Are you faster than Google?

Google’s search algorithm changes 500-600 times a year — sometimes as often as 2-3 times a day — to keep their search results as relevant as possible and foil those who try to game the system. This makes many SEO strategies vulnerable to change at any time. What gets you on page one today may not work tomorrow, or even later today.

Can you entice search engines without discouraging buyers?

Remember those radio ads that mentioned the product name five times in 60 seconds? I don’t either, because this kind of “numbers game” mentality handicaps even the best copywriters. SEO methodologies can create similar risks by shifting your writer’s emphasis from persuading a potential buyer to persuading a search engine. This can be particularly damaging if the result is unreadable by the people you want to reach most, because even if they find you they’ll move on just as quickly. Never forget that you’re writing for humans.

Are you willing to do the follow-up work?

Counting hits, opens, likes or whatever isn’t enough. You’ll need to track the quality of your SEO results. Is your SEO campaign attracting the right customers? Are they just clicking, or are they actually reading, sharing, using and best of all buying as a result of your efforts? If you don’t have a way to follow this data or the time to commit to tracking it, you’re leaving most of the value of SEO on the table.

Are you willing to keep up with technology?

As the web becomes increasingly mobile and app-driven, consumers are loosing patience with the need to tap text into phones and tablets. That’s already driving big innovations in voice recognition, photo search, and anticipatory computing systems like Siri and Google Now. Facebook recently acquired voice-recognition start-up Wit.ai for the same reason, anticipating more voice recognition demand not only in phones and tablets, but in vehicles, appliances, and smart homes. These trends are likely to spell changes for the SEO game in the near future.

Are there better investments for your time and money?

Whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to manage it for you, SEO is probably going to cost you time, money or both. The cost may be worth it, but consider the value of other options before you commit. Is SEO likely to be a better value than targeted or localized content marketing? What about networking at events that attract high-potential prospects? Consider too, the very best SEO strategy, recommended by Google itself: posting useful, highly-relevant content on a regular basis.