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.

  Writer’s Block is a Myth

Writer's block is bad for pencils.You’ve heard the “writer’s block” story hundreds of times. Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself. It usually goes something like this:

  1. Writer sits at desk to create amazing masterpiece.
  2. Nothing happens.
  3. Writer stares at a the wintery wasteland of a blank, white piece of paper/screen.
  4. Nothing happens.
  5. Agony/weeping/gnashing of teeth.
  6. Nothing happens.

There are few things more miserable for a writer than not knowing what words to put on a page, especially when there’s a deadline looming.

Yet despite its infamous reputation, “writer’s block” isn’t some wordsmith’s disorder that strikes without reason. In fact, it’s not what’s “causes” the block at all. It’s a symptom that appears when you haven’t done your pre-writing homework.

Writer’s block: fiction vs. reality

There’s a common misconception that writers just go into their lonely writer’s garrets, sit down, and start plopping words onto the page. This can work if you’re a fantasy novelist who practices “discovery writing,” but it’s a different story when it comes to marketing copy.

Writer’s block, then, is a sign that your brain needs you to do one or more of the following things before you hit the keyboard:

Listen to the client

What does your client want to communicate? If you’re working with someone who already has some marketing savvy, you’ll probably get a creative brief with background on the topic and some strategy guidelines. If not, you may need to ask the client for more details. Try to think like a member of the target audience when the client is filling you in. This will help you spot information the client may not have thought to provide because of their intimate familiarity with what they sell.

Identify the desired action

Every piece of marketing copy should focus on encouraging the reader to take one specific action. Download content. Request a consultation. Attend an event. Make a purchase. Make sure you know what it is before you write a single word.

Do research

Writer’s block sometimes strikes when you don’t know a key piece of information. For example, if you’re dealing with a very specialized or technical subject that you’re new to, you might need to learn about it before you can write about it. You’ll also want to learn as much as you can about the people you’re writing for. Who are your client’s buyers? What do they want and need? How do they talk? Do they think like your client, or do they have different motivations? The more you know about them, the more effectively you’ll be able to communicate your client’s message and encourage the action they want.

Focus

Another common cause of writer’s block is being overwhelmed with information. When this happens, your job is to get organized. First, figure out what you don’t need. Compare your material to the goals of the project, and set anything that isn’t relevant. Next, organize the remaining information in a logical order for the reader’s action journey. Stuff that attracts and excites their interest needs to appear first. Everything else should build on that, with each additional point of information guiding them one step closer to the desired action.

Low-tech solutions often work best here. I frequently tackle complicated projects by making 3×5 cards with summaries of all the key copy points. I spread them out on the table, move them around to find the most compelling flow of information, then gather them up into a stack and use them as my guide for the finished piece.

Outline

Still not sure where to begin? Try mapping things out in outline form. Once it makes sense there, you’ll literally have a roadmap that tells you exactly what to write. All you’ll need to do is add a little polish and detail.

If you’ve done the 3×5 card exercise described above, you’ve essentially built your outline already. Just pick up the stack and start at the top.

  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.

  International Freelancing

international freelancingThanks to the Internet, international freelancing is easier than at any time in history. Here are a few tips to help your business reach across borders.

A world of opportunity

I never set out to become an international freelancer, but over the years I’ve attracted clients from many corners of the globe without ever leaving my office in Cincinnati. I’m currently serving clients in Canada, Spain, Italy, and Dubai. I work with partners in Great Britain, Eastern Europe, and India. Last month I even had a Skype call with a prospect in Sydney, Australia.

International freelancing can be exciting, challenging, and highly satisfying all at the same time. It offers new opportunities. It expands your horizons. It makes you feel like a connected global citizen. While it’s not without a few risks, it’s easier than you might think. And just about any creative pro can do it with a few simple tools.

You don’t have to know the language

Knowing more than one language is an advantage in international freelancing, but it isn’t necessary. Many clients come to me because they want copy written by a native English speaker. They know local partners will help them look and sound more natural while avoiding cross-cultural embarrassments.

Make sure you know who the client’s target market is, and how they prefer to communicate. For example, some of my international clients want American English (“the trunk is organized around the spare tire”), while others prefer British usage (“the boot is organised around the spare tyre”).

Managing communication

Inexpensive ways to communicate have been one of the biggest revolutions for international freelancing. While I still get the occasional long-distance phone call, most of my international clients are savvy about Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts and similar services.

When scheduling meetings, pay close attention to time zones. I’ve found the World Clock on my phone and iPad to be invaluable, especially when there are people in three or more places on a call. Be particularly respectful when someone has to dial in early or late in their workday. You’ll also want to take extra care in spring and fall when some countries have time changes. Not every country switches to Daylight Savings Time on the same weekend, and some don’t have a time change at all.

Finally, make an effort to be aware of cultural practices and holidays that may affect when international clients are available. In the Middle East, for example, the work week typically runs Sunday through Thursday.

Getting paid for international freelancing

There are numerous ways money moves between countries. I find the easiest way to handle international payments is via services like PayPal, Freshbooks, or Wave. You’ll pay a fee for these transfers, but they handle currency conversions for you and give you access to the funds quickly. If you have merchant services set up, they’ll also give your clients the convenience of paying with a credit card.

Checks in foreign currencies are a hassle, and you’ll pay a fee for the conversion that’s typically higher than what PayPal or a merchant service firm will charge. Direct bank transfers are another option, though some clients don’t want to go to the trouble. Once I even waited in line for a payment at a Western Union office, but I prefer to avoid that.

Make it clear up front what currency you’ll be working in. I quote most jobs in US dollars regardless of the client’s country of origin. Be particularly clear if multiple countries use a currency with similar names. For instance, despite occasional parity, US dollars and Canadian dollars usually have a very different value.

  How to write what you DON’T know

Question“Write what you know” is one of the most common bits of advice given to new writers, but it isn’t always the most useful. True, an inexpert writer can quickly lose an audience by saying something that strikes readers as ignorant or inaccurate. But what if you want — or need — to write about something you know nothing about?

There’s no question that personal contact or observation of something gives you an advantage when writing about it. That’s why many clients look for writers who specialize in a particular field or market. There are also some fields — such as science, finance and medicine — where a certain amount of technical expertise is practically a prerequisite — even if you’re writing for a lay audience.

Still, there are plenty of times when a professional writer has to start from scratch…

  • Sometimes the client can’t get (or doesn’t want to pay the higher fees of) an expert writer.
  • There are some things that no one living has directly witnessed, such as what was said between two generals after a historic battle.
  • You might be asked to write about a new product or other invention that is initially known and understood only by its creator.
  • Writing a story requires you to create characters who don’t exist, whether they live in a science fiction/fantasy world or are much like the folks next door.
  • And most common of all: you want to connect with and generate response from people who aren’t like you.

Here are three strategies that will help you sound like an expert quickly enough that you can still make your deadline.

1. Learn fast

If it’s possible to actually get the experience you need quickly, do it! For example, if you’re writing about a product, try using it. I was recently asked to join the creative team for a local pizza chain that had just opened a new store near my home. Guess what I had for dinner that night? Many clients are happy to help you learn more by providing samples, demonstrating a prototype, letting you shadow a professional for a day or two, and other “discovery” experiences vital to the pre-writing process.

If you’re working for a client, ask your contact plenty of questions. They may know useful information that didn’t end up in the creative brief, and may be able to explain concepts that don’t initially make sense to you. Many clients are also willing to put you in touch with subject matter expert or “SME” (pronounced just like the name of Captain Hook’s sidekick) to help you get up to speed on specialized information.

If that’s not enough, hit the web, the library or your own network of contacts to get additional insights. This will help you get the facts you need, as well as insights into how they’re interpreted. This kind of research is also critical when no one living has direct experience with something, such as how canals were built in ancient Egypt.

Pro tip: Make friends with a good reference librarian. You’ll be glad you did when you have to deal with tricky stuff that can’t be resolved with just a Google search.

2. Channel your passion

While it’s not impossible to write what you don’t know, doing it well does require extra work up front. A strong personal interest in the subject is a big asset when it’s time to buckle down.

I use this as my personal litmus test whenever I’m asked to write about something new. If I’m intrigued by a topic, I’m more likely to take it on so that I can learn more about it. If not, I try to recommend a colleague who’s a better fit for the project.

Passion can be a two-edged sword. As you make discoveries, be careful not to get carried away to the point you try to include every little detail you discover. Word count limits can be a big help here.

3. Get a reality check

Once you have a draft in hand, try to run it by someone who is closer to the topic than you are. For example, if you’re writing specialized copy, try to get feedback from a SME or other specialist.

This type of review is especially important when you’re “writing the other” — using the voice of someone who’s a different gender, ethnicity, culture and so on than yourself. Have one or more people who match the characteristics of your intended voice review the copy, and pay close attention to their feedback. This simple step can easily mean the difference between connecting with your audience or unintentionally turning them away.

  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…