Just write it

Document 1. Just write it.You sit in front of the blank screen. An endless sea of white, like the ice planet Hoth. If you could just write like Hemmingway — right now, please — life would be a lot less stressful.

You want the copy to be perfect — snappy, on target, compelling. But it’s soooooo hard. And the clock is ticking. And a million other things are clamoring for your attention.

If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many writers — even seasoned professionals — struggle with getting a first draft on the page.

The solution? Stop caring about getting it right in one go. Just write.

The perfection problem

I’ve argued in the past that writer’s block is a myth, and I still believe it. But sometimes writers get in the way of their own success by focusing too much on knocking out a perfect draft right away.

This is different from not knowing what to write, because the “perfection problem” often shows up when you already know much of what you want to say. What messes you up is agonizing over what to say when, or how to say it in the first place. You’ve got all the background information crammed into your head, but don’t know what to do with it. It’s crazy-making.

Stop worrying and just write

There are a lot of details that make writing great. Don’t think about any of them when you’re writing a first draft. Don’t think about SEO, how many units you need to sell, how well the last promotion performed, or how soon the deadline is looming.

The only thing to worry about, if you need to worry now, is this: will the reader keep reading?

To answer that question, you need to know who are you writing for. Try to get into their head and think like they do. What will motivate them to take the action you want them to take?

With that in mind, do a brain dump. Write down everything you think you want to say, in whatever order it comes to mind. If it helps, you can make an outline first, or re-arrange everything later. What matters now is to get letters on the page. You can make everything perfect in subsequent drafts. That’s what they’re for.

Don’t start at the beginning

It’s tempting to try and nail the lead (the first headline or sentence) before you write anything else. Yes, it’s the first thing the reader sees. And yes, it’s the most important part of the copy, because if it doesn’t catch their attention, they’ll ignore everything else.

Unfortunately, the first thing you put on the page isn’t likely to be your best work. Most human brains start to “warm up” as they begin writing, making the words on the page more compelling after you knock out the first few paragraphs. Often it’s best to just start a brain dump, then go back and re-arrange things later.

In fact, it’s often more effective to think backwards, or to quote Stephen Covey, to “begin with the end in mind”. When writing, this means to focus on the response you want your writing to create, then figure out how to lead your reader to the same conclusion.

I once took this idea to extremes by writing the first draft of an entire direct mail promotion backwards. First I wrote the final call to action, then the second-to-last paragraph, and so on, finishing up with the lead. I don’t recommend doing this every day, but this type of thought process makes it easier to stay focused on where your writing needs to go next.

Don’t be afraid to cut stuff that doesn’t work completely. I often delete the first two or three paragraphs I write in a given session, or move them later in the piece. There’s no shame, and no one will ever know.

I won’t tell your readers. I promise. 😉

  Retronym revival

Taco FlavorSometimes words wear out. Those that fall out of fashion get labeled “archaic,” such as forsooth, rapscallion, or thee and thou. But other words get stuck in awkward places by change. People still want to use them, but they don’t quite mean what they did before. Enter the retronym.

Birth of a retronym

Retronyms appear when an existing word is no longer adequate to describe something. The word “analog” is a good example. No one wore an “analog watch” until digital watches came along. The miniature clock on your wrist was just a “watch.” The need to distinguish old from new also gave us analog recordings, analog signals, and analog circuits.

Here are a few more:

  • “Plain” M&M’s (now called “Milk Chocolate”) didn’t exist until 1954, when Peanut M&M’s were first introduced.
  • “Manual typewriters” were “typewriters” until electric ones were invented.
  • “British English” was just “English” until rambunctious colonists started throwing tea overboard and writing their own dictionaries.

Where retronyms come from

Changing technology creates many retronyms. “Acoustic” guitars. “Hard” copies. “Landline” — and later “flip” — phones. The term “broadcast television” was coined in response to cable and satellite television. More recently, e-commerce has given us the “brick-and-mortar” store.

But retronyms can also be used as a branding and marketing tool. One of the most famous examples is “Coca-Cola Classic,” used to re-introduce something close to the original formula after “New Coke” flopped.

Pepsi went one step further a few years ago, using “throwback” as a kind of retro-retronym. These alternate and vintage versions of their products — from soft drinks to chips — appeal both to nostalgia (“This is what it tasted like when we were kids!”) and the modern preference for real sugar over high fructose corn syrup.

Some marketers try to slap retronyms on competitors’ products when pitching new ideas. “Traditional,” “old-school,” “conventional,” and “legacy” are just a few words that can make the competition sound so last year. The same strategy can be reversed to make your own product sound cutting edge, as in “Web 2.0.”

The language it is a-changin’

From a writer’s perspective, retronyms highlight the reality that language is not a fixed or rigid thing. It’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of humanity. And while changes to structure and grammar are often slow and gradual, retronyms show how new words can appear literally overnight — transforming the way we speak, write, and even think.

And that can be a valuable tool to anyone who wants to change the conversation.

  Marketing Blueprints for LinkedIn profiles

Marketing MentorIlise Benun of Marketing Mentor has unveiled the second episode of her Marketing Blueprints series, featuring Excellent Examples of LinkedIn Profiles of Copywriters and Content Strategists. While I confess I got a nice ego boost from being one of the featured “blueprints,” I also learned a lot from what my colleagues are doing. Check out the video here.

Designers — There’s no reason for you to feel left out! Ilise recently created a similar video just for you: 6 Excellent Examples of LinkedIn Profiles of Designers.

  Relevance still beats SEO

Analytics reveals the power of relevance!I recently started using Yoast SEO, one of the leading search engine optimization plug-ins for WordPress. I have to confess it’s making me a better writer. But it’s also validated something I’ve told clients for years: relevance matters more than anything else.

Many of you know that I think SEO has its limits. Still, clients and prospects keep asking about it. So lately I’ve been diving in and learning more about the art.

The proof is in the numbers

A month or two after I had a few super-optimized blogs posted, I did what every good marketing pro should do: I checked my analytics data. I was eager to see how the new posts were performing. To my surprise, my best-performing story since the beginning of the 2016 was something I wrote two and a half years ago.

In fact, nine out of ten of my top-viewed blogs in the last four months were pieces I had written before I started worrying about SEO. Some of them were written this year, but several dated back to the early days of my current website. Many were pieces I haven’t promoted or linked to in a while. And the SEO-optimized one? It ranked tenth on the list.

Relevance trumps everything

When I looked back over the top performers, I started to smile. They didn’t read like they were written for robots. There were no obvious focus keywords, no “optimized” subheads, and no dehumanized corporate-speak.

What they all had in common was relevance. Every one of them dealt with stuff my readers (mostly designers, writers, freelancers and other marketing professionals) care deeply about. How to get better clients with less effort. Why it’s okay for you to outsource your own marketing. Five ways to stick to deadlines. And a personal favorite: 13 Traits of a Great Ghostwriter.

The top performers were also pieces I really enjoyed writing. They cover topics my readers and I are passionate about, use personal stories, and they speak in my most authentic voice. I firmly believe relevance, not SEO, is the secret of their success — especially the older ones that have been on my site for 2–3 years. And the numbers back me up.

Now I’m not suggesting you throw SEO out the window. In fact, the content you’re reading now makes every indicator in Yoast SEO light up green.

But I will continue to plant my flag in the sand and champion the cause of writing for humans instead of search engines. SEO can lead people to your content, but it can’t make them read it, like it, or pass it on to their friends. The most important part of the process is still knowing your reader. All the hits in the world won’t do you any good if visitors don’t find content they care about when they arrive.

  Is your copy trying to say too much?

blah-blah-goldfishLast year, a study by Microsoft concluded that the average human being now has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Specifically, our ability to focus has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just eight seconds.

At the same time, you have more stuff competing for your attention than ever before — especially on that smartphone in your pocket or purse.

A lot of marketing copy fails because it ignores these two realities, but yours doesn’t have to.

There’s a natural tendency among people who make great stuff or provide awesome services to tell you everything — and I do mean everything — about whatever it is they’re selling. This typically happens for two reasons:

  1. They’re passionate about their stuff (or at least about making money from it), and
  2. They don’t know their customers.

Either way, overly-wordy marketing tends to fall flat when it comes to selling stuff, not because buyers are fickle, but because they’re busy, distracted, and being bombarded by thousands of other sales messages every day. Your goal when reaching out to new customers isn’t to overload them with information, but to encourage action. Here’s how:

Know the prospect

While your copy doesn’t have to be short and “edgy” all the time, you have to grab the reader’s interest quickly and motivate them to take action in a clear, uncluttered way. The more you know about what they want and need, the easier you’ll be able to do that.

Do your customers want to cut costs? Are they status-conscious? Do you sell something they typically buy on impulse or are they likely to be comparing multiple sellers? A little research now can save you a lot of cost and anxiety, both today and tomorrow. And the longer you ramble on, the more in tune with your audience you’ll need to be.

Know what you want them to do

The goal of any marketing piece isn’t to check off a box on your to-do list, but to encourage a single, specific action from a potential buyer. This might include:

  • Visiting a website
  • Downloading a free report
  • Requesting a brochure
  • Signing up for a mailing list
  • Forwarding your message to a friend
  • Voting for a particular issue or candidate
  • Entering a contest
  • Attending an event
  • Connecting on social media
  • Visiting a brick-and-mortar store
  • Making a donation
  • Placing an order

Once you know what action you want the prospect to take, the marketing becomes much easier. Don’t write a word until you know what it is.

Make the “buying journey” effortless

Good marketing copy does just enough to whet the appetite. The goal isn’t to provide all the answers, but to encourage action by demonstrating that you can satisfy the reader’s needs or desires.

If a lot of information is important to the buying decision, provide it in two or more stages, using the first contact to qualify prospects. That way, when they request more details, you’re giving them something they’ve asked for rather than bombarding them with something that isn’t relevant to their needs.

At the same time, look for ways to make it easy for the buyer to move through the process. Don’t make them click twice if one click will move them closer to a sale. Do your job right and they’ll come to you — asking for all the stuff you wanted to tell them up front.

 

  Contractions ain’t all bad

apostrophe-keyEvery now and then I run across a company that doesn’t want to use contractions. Their style guides are packed with warnings that writers can’t, shouldn’t, and mustn’t use them.

Personally I think that’s a crazy way to approach marketing copy. For all their sassy disrespect of formal grammar, contractions are a living part of languages as diverse as English, French, German, Polish, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, and even Uyghur.

They’re also a lot better at selling stuff.

Don’t know much about contractions…

To a writer who isn’t having a baby, a contraction is one or more words that have been shortened by dropping some of their sounds, with the gap typically signaled by an apostrophe. Many, like “let’s,” are mashups of multiple words (in this case, “let us”), while others are words with amputated letters, such as the implied “and” of “nuts ‘n’ bolts.”

Common examples include “don’t” (do not), “I’m” (I am), and the ubiquitous “o’clock” (short for “of the clock,” which nobody’s used for a generation or six). Lesser specimens include informal language hacks like “ain’t” — which depending on the context can mean “am not,” “are not,” “is not,” “has not,” or “have not” — and archaic gems like “’tis” (it is) and “’twas” (it was) which still play a role in keeping the holiday season jolly. There are even “consecutive” contractions — the true black sheep of this already-disreputable word form — such as “wouldn’t’ve” for “would not have.”

So what’s the deal?

The reasons why short-sighted companies ask for contraction-free copy typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Childhood trauma—Past criticism from overzealous writing instructors (i.e. “That is not proper English!”), whether in school or on the job, causes some marketing people to hunker down in fear of retribution from…well, they’re not really sure who now that Miss Grundy is retired, but there must have been a reason, right?
  2. Contractions are “too casual”—There’s a common perception that contractions are okay for daily speech but for not for anything that appears in print.
  3. Noble (but misguided) diversity initiatives—A desire to make copy more accessible to readers of English as a second language who, by this logic, don’t encounter contractions in anything else they read. How’s that again?

The trouble with hard and fast rules like these is they deprive language of some of the color that makes great marketing work. For example, listen to how stilted these classic slogans sound with their contractions removed:

  • I am loving it. (McDonald’s)
  • Because you are worth it. (L’oréal)
  • It is finger licking good. (KFC)

In each of these examples, adding just a few missing characters deletes a different and more vital type of character. It’s as if all the personality was suddenly sucked right out of ’em.

Not feelin’ the love? Here’s why you should.

Contractions highlight one of the main differences between marketing copy and formal English. They’re based on the way we actually speak instead of the way we’re traditionally taught to write. While they may not be at home in a PhD dissertation, it’s a whole ‘nother story when you’re trying to make a sale. Consumers are more responsive to language that sounds natural, like the recommendation you get from a good friend on the other side of a coffeehouse table. Ban contractions from your copy and it’s easy for you to come off sounding stiff, dull, and even arrogant.

That’s not to say that contractions are right for every audience or situation. “Isn’t” is welcome many places where “ain’t” would be turned away for not wearing a jacket and tie. But copywriters get more leeway to use casual vernacular. What ultimately matters in the marketing arena isn’t what’s “correct,” but what makes the sale.

So if it ain’t broke…

  Better Industrial Brands website

bib-thumbBetter Industrial Brands is a marketing collaboration optimized specifically for B2B industrial companies in Greater Cincinnati. As a co-founder of this new venture I’m partnering with Industrial Branding Consultant Victor Frances, plus a virtual team of talented designers, writers, programmers, and other experts. Our early launch tasks have included concept development, creating a brand personality, website copy, and digital marketing.

Visit the Better Industrial Brands website.

  Does digital marketing really work?

dm-crystalDigital marketing — from content optimized for mobile devices to social media to predictive analytics — continues to spark passionate debates between skeptics and true believers. The key question, often asked by those who’ve been in the industry since before the Dotcom bust, is “Yeah, that’s kind of cool, but does is sell?

According to a new report released in July by Adobe, the answer appears to be “Yes, if…”.

The critical part is the “if.”

The report, titled “Four Advantages of a Planned Approach to Digital Maturity,” summarizes the results of Adobe’s 2015 Digital Marketing Survey, conducted in February of this year.

Some of the results will come as no surprise, notably that most organizations aren’t taking full advantage of the latest tech. Only about one in five companies surveyed (19%) have achieved what the report calls “digital maturity.” Such companies make specific, ongoing plans for digital marketing and back them up with investments in structures, people, processes, and technology. Nothing earth-shattering here.

Where the data starts to get exciting is when the report begins comparing this “mature” group to the rest of the pack. In particular, near the end of page 6, the authors rather casually drop this little bombshell:

In fact, when multiple departments are involved in testing, average conversion was shown to increase by 14%.

This isn’t one of the statistics that gets displayed in bold type, but it deserves to be. It’s the point where you start asking “whoa, how are they doing that?” (which is exactly what the authors intended).

I encourage you to check out the results for yourself, but here’s a quick rundown of how the report claims these organizations are creating digital marketing that gets results:

  • Investing in people, processes and tools
  • Keeping the customer first by adapting to their needs and behavior
  • Integrating mobile devices into every strategy they create
  • Using analytics to refine strategy and create a competitive edge
  • Looking ahead, not just reacting to industry leaders

This isn’t the first time strategies like these have shown up as recommendations for the digital marketing landscape, but they highlight realities that are slowly becoming clear to a small but growing number of organizations.

They also contrast sharply with what isn’t working…occasional instead of ongoing digital efforts, throwing stuff online without a plan, pursuing inconsistent strategies, spending time without investing resources, failing to measure results, and many other half-hearted practices that remain all too common.

Underlying all of the data is a reminder that digital marketing isn’t an instant-win game. It’s an ongoing process that increases in value over time. This remains a daunting thought for those who are just getting started, but the results are well worth the investment. Check out the report for yourself, especially if you’re a digital skeptic. The numbers don’t lie.

  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.