What goes in a copy style guide?

A copy style guide doesn't need to be this complicated.Every set of brand standards should include a copy style guide to keep your writing team on track. Just as you define rules for how logos and other visual elements should be used, a style guide will help your writer(s) present your brand in the proper way.

A good copy style guide is especially useful if you’re working with multiple writers. It encourages a consistent “voice” that supports your brand strategy even if you have more work than one writer can handle.

But even if you only have one writer, it’s still a good idea to have clear standards. Freelancers and in-house writers who work on multiple brands will find it easier to stay on target. A guide helps maintain consistency over time, especially if there’s a lag between projects. Your guide will also make it simpler to bring new writers up to speed if you need to add or replace a team member.

Here are six tips for creating a great copy style guide:

Know your audience

Before you define anything else, create at least one audience persona that represents your target readers. Give this person a name, a photo, and a story that makes them seem real. If you have multiple audience segments, create a different persona for each one.

Define your style

The “voice” of your brand should complement its look by using a matching style and tone. If your logo is colorful and playful, you don’t want copy that’s stuffy and formal. A good voice should be distinctive enough that buyers will know it’s you even if they can’t see the logo. (Check out these five tips for creating an authentic voice.)

Show AND tell

Don’t just describe the type of writing you want. Back up your guidelines with specific samples. Most copy style guides include several examples of good writing that match the desired voice. Some guides also show copy that doesn’t fit the style, often followed by corrected versions. This “do this/not that” approach is especially useful when updating an existing copy strategy.

Document your quirks

Clearly spell out any style or grammar practices specific to your brand. One popular toy brand I’ve written for has a two-word name that can never be broken up by a line, column, or page break. Your writers will need to know how to deal with conflicts if your brand deviates from common grammar practices. (Should “eBay” or “iPhone” be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence?)

Depending on your brand, you might also list specific words to use (or not to use). This works best as part of a positioning strategy. For example, your brand may want to define everything it sells as “solutions” instead of “products,” or avoid terms that have strong associations with a competitor. Your guide probably isn’t the best place for SEO keyword lists, which need to be flexible enough to respond to changing market conditions and strategies.

Know your backup plan

Your guide can’t cover everything, and shouldn’t try. Instead, wrap up your playbook by designating a broader style guide as your go-to source for grammar and other style questions. Some of the most commonly used by marketing people include:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style. Published since 1906, Chicago is one of the most respected style guides used in the US. If you’re a professional editor or come from a publishing background this is probably your bible — and it’s almost as thick. It covers several different style formats and is great for squishing spiders too. Thankfully there’s also a searchable online version.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (usually called the “AP Stylebook”) is designed for professional journalists. It includes guidelines for writing about major organizations and brands. You’ll also find useful comparisons of similar words, such as when to use “it’s” instead of “its”. AP is updated every year to stay current with changes to language, usage, and law.
  • The Business Style Handbook is specifically for people who write on the job (as opposed to journalists), based on surveys of communications executives at Fortune 500 companies. It was last revised in 2012 to add best practices for online communication.

Keep your copy style guide current

Market trends, customer needs, legislation, and even the language itself are all moving targets. Effective marketing teams review their copy style guides at least once a year, adjusting as needed to keep their messaging on target.

You’ll also want to update your guide any time your own brand objectives change. One of my clients recently realized most of their buyers were outside their target age demographic. Part of their response was to create a completely new style guide to shift their marketing focus.

  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.

  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.

  Going Freelance? Project Confidence and Stop Apologizing!

confidenceLaunching a freelance career in the creative industry can challenge your confidence like nothing you’ve done before, especially at first. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. When I started my own freelance copywriting business more than 13 years ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it either.

Many things may feel new and uncomfortable, but you’ll need to get over these anxieties quickly to get your new freelance career off the ground. Here are six ways to overcome the urge to pre-apologize, boost your confidence, and build your credibility.

Read more on The Creative Group Blog.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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 to read, 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.