What Makes a Great Post: When You’re Writing for More than “Cuz You Should”

During the first 10 minutes of Jeff Julian’s interview with Ardath Albee, I literally started to sweat. Then Ardath Albee asked a question that gave me great pause   “What makes it different and more compelling?”  By it, she means content and I started to sweat because I do not have an answer for that at present.  What I do have, are a few major takeaways from this interview and a map for what I need to do.

I have three major “takeaways” from this interview:

  1. You better have compelling, well-written content
  2. Your content better be nurturing the customer every step of the purchase cycle
  3. You better be timing that content so that it is clear you know where they are in the purchase cycle as well.

Well, dang, Ms. Albee!  “What if I am a one-woman marketing department or have limited resources to data?” I ask aloud trying to apply these brilliant insights into my own endeavors.  It was then Ardath Albee asked another really important question,

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“What about all the content you already have?”  

It was at this point that I stopped panicking and the sweating abated a bit.

So it was with great pleasure that I took to task writing this post about Jeff Julian’s interview with Ardath Albee for Enterprise Marketer because it’s great content that has plenty of life left to live.

But what makes the content compelling?  Lots of data?  Nope.  That’s not what captures me and I am pretty sure it isn’t what captures the average bear or the key decision maker.  Dont’ get me wrong, I am a “dataphile” like most marketers, but data is great for making a strong case during a meeting, not engendering interest and loyalty from customers.

So I did a little digging and came across the timely presentation by Geoff Colvin, Editor at Large for Fortune magazine.  On November 30, Mr. Colvin delivered IPR’s 55th Distinguished Lecture on November 30 in NYC. In Colvin’s presentation “Lessons for Communicators in an Unpredictable World,” he explains how communicators can still make an impact through face-to-face interactions and storytelling in a world overrun with technology.

I have now completely stopped sweating and am holding Aradth Albee’s phrase “more compelling content” close to my heart.  Near the end of his presentation, Geoff  Colvin says, “People rarely change their minds based on data.  It’s stories that move them.”  That got me thinking about a story that tracks the customer all the way through the purchase cycle.  The visual that came to mind was actually the Marcus Mumford cut, “When I Get My Hands on You” from The New Basement Tapes that features a female figure walking through a city and through gorgeous imagery, tells a sweet and heartfelt story.   If you haven’t seen it, check it out not only because it’s beautiful but because it is makes for a wonderful visual of tracking the customer through the entire purchase cycle.  Apologies to Marcus Mumford as I know he did not intend to reflect the consumer purchase cycle with this video.

This visual is helpful to me because now I have a visual that I am comfortable with and moved by rather than a stock photo of a “persona.”  I realize that’s quirky of me but whatever gets you through the night, right?

I am now imbuing said walking girl with all of the characteristics of my primary target persona and I can now see her all the way through the purchase cycle.  Now, all I have to do is tell the story of her journey at strategic points along the way.  As a creative writer when I have the time and inclination, I found the challenge of developing a compelling story for walking girl at strategic points not only an achievable task but an exciting task as well.  I realize I have to be in the story or awfully close to it (perhaps third person, omniscient narrator) to be able to tell it well.

Ardath Albee tells Jeff Julian during the interview that, “If we stop thinking about what we want first, we can think about what our customers want.”  I can liken this concept to great storytelling!  The art is in the unfolding of the story that keeps the reader in mind first and foremost.  A little foreshadowing here, a little alliteration there, some killer personification, and you have the reader hooked.

While storytelling is clearly by no means a new notion for marketers, I think compelling is.  Let’s look at the formal definition of this word:

com·pel·ling
kəmˈpeliNG/
adjective
 
evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.
“his eyes were strangely compelling”
synonyms: enthralling, captivating, gripping, riveting, spellbinding, mesmerizing, absorbing, irresistible

My favorite synonyms (per Google) are riveting, spellbinding, and irresistible. While I am still working on the story, I am doing so with a handful of new rules that I learned from Albee and Julian:
1.Know your persona and personify the dickens out of them so you know them almost (or better) than you know yourself.

2. Do not patronize this persona by telling weak, uncompelling stories that are clearly motivated by “storytelling” more than a true and thoughtful understanding of the consumer as a human being with a soul.

3. Once you get it right, replicate it and use this content over and over as you acquire new customers.  While the story may get a little old for you (like the Little Mermaid does for me because I lived in Copenhagen and took WAY too many tourists to see that less than mammoth statue of her in the harbor) and remember that they are hearing the story for the first time.

This feels authentic.  This feels right.  Walk on walking girl, walk on…

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Bold Move: Tell Your CEO She Needs to Listen to her Customers

In addition to being the author of a truly killer resource,  The Content Formula, Michael Brenner is a leader.  How do I know?  Because I listened to the interview Jeff Julian conducted with him and I could hear the calm, deliberate, and assured tone with which he spoke about content marketing, our role as digital marketers, and how to approach the bold move of telling your CEO that she needs to listen to her customers more and in a different way than she has been.

summer-2011-097Let me get more specific: the subtext of what Mr. Brenner proposes is the phrase, “Um hey, I get that you’re really excited about your latest brainchild, product, and/or service but it’s actually not about you.”  Yikes.  That’s a tough and bold statement but it’s also extremely important to say for these reasons:

  1. There is a dynamic tension between what CEOs want to communicate and the results they expect from content marketing.
  2. If that dynamic tension is not addressed, it leaves the CMO and her team in a position to fall short of the CEO’s expectations or even fail.
  3. Unless the realities of the respective (and different) roles the CEO and the CMO play are addressed and shared goals are established, objectives will not be met.

Heck, I get it and it actually makes sense that the CEO would focus on new and shiny things that she herself is excited about but that is precisely why she needs a sharp, honest, authentic CMO who will tell her that there will be time for the shiny new thing just as soon as the customers tell us it’s time.  Meanwhile, we need to be walking in the same direction on customer-focused content.

Natalia Angulo notes in her article, “10 Digital Marketing Trends to Watch in 2016 and Beyond“, that “smart marketers will focus on the consumer experience.” Well, yes and of course everyone at the table will agree with that statement but ensuring shared understanding and shared goals requires a deep dive, an intensive conversation, hopefully, conducted regularly and not just during the monthly report meeting.  Of course CEOs know that focus on the customer is important but what they may not understand is that the customer not only now has a voice, the voice of the customer is actually more important and can say more about a brand than the brand itself.

Perhaps it’s helpful to “tee-up” this conversation by offering up a couple proposed talking points:

“We need to keep our finger on the pulse of what the customers want from us.” 

“We need to actively address them and interact with them and that means letting the customer dictate the conversation.” 

Neil Patel nails it in his article,“8 Brilliant Content Marketing Innovations from the Worlds Best Brands,” by commending Whole Foods who “has worked hard to establish itself not just as a grocery store, but as a lifestyle choice. The brand embraces healthy living and earth-conscious eating.” They have done so by putting the customer first in their content.  And while one might think that encouraging shoppers to save money on groceries is counter-intuitive, Whole Foods does just that.  Patel tells us, “Whole Foods does a great job of living those brand principles in its content marketing. Articles about how to save money but still eat healthy or tips to change your diet for the better make Whole Foods’ products and lifestyle more inclusive. On top of that, it uses a lot of proactive language (“I want to learn/do/both” as a search option in its navigation bar) which makes the audience feel like they have an active role in the experience.”
It’s funny how much difference the use of a customer-centric pronoun can make!  There are numerous studies that support the use of “My” over “Your” and “I” over “You” and it’s basic psychology at work.  Use of the more customer-centric pronoun signals to the customer that they really are understood.  It’s a basic and time-tested use of language but it absolutely works.

So if Ann Handley is accurate in her prediction (and I believe she is), that “content marketing will truly “grow up” in 2016, as content strategists tell “bigger stories with a braver focus and a bolder voice” then all the more vital that leadership and marketing are aligned about what that precisely means and how customer-centric it really needs to be.

Michael Brenner is also a man of his word, having just launched his own enterprise of which he is the leader.  He is also getting started on his next book.  But don’t trust me about that, listen to the full podcast to hear about his new book as well as his tips for becoming a better writer.

Writing for the Audience Rather Than at Them

Every time I drive past this gas station in the Ozarks (yup, weezums in Missoura like people to say what they mean ana mean what they say) I smile–not only because it’s funny as heck but because clearly, the proprietor knows her audience.  She  does an excellent job of speaking their language and relating to them which is what is at the core of good copywriting.

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Listening to Jeff Julian and Jonathan Kranz discuss copywriting at CM World 2016 in Cleveland was a huge treat and a pretty much made my day because they confirmed what my instincts have been telling me: it’s good to be empathetic.  Jonathan Kranz (author of Writing Copy for Dummies) does a fantastic job of walking us through his learning curve and poses a series of hard questions that prompted me to re-frame how I think of copywriting.  Many of us start a project with the end goal in mind (if we’re going about it strategically, anyway) and oftentimes in copywriting, that goal is to sell.  But what if we conceive of the end goal not by asking the question, “did you sell?” but rather, as Jonathan asks, “are you real?” and “will you tell the truth?”  Of course, selling matters but the whole point of any communication with our customers ought to be relationship development.  Long term relationship development.  Would you want to be in a long term relationship with someone who was always and only trying to “sell” you or would you prefer to spend your time and energy on someone who offers intrinsic value by being authentic, compassionate, and in the end, helpful in solving problems?  Kind of a “no brainer,” right?

The approach Jonathan Kranz advises for copywriting, applies to consulting as well (incidentally, you should Google Jonathan Kranz and click on the second link that you see).  As Jonathan and Jeff note, we are far more likely to place trust in someone who admits they are not perfect, have made mistakes along the way, and most importantly, learned from those mistakes than we are likely to trust someone who is blustery and claims to be infallible.  The takeaway from this for me is that copywriting as well as client meetings need to be real conversations, meaning we are actively listen and empathize to understand as well as converse openly about mistakes and learning experiences.

When I was teaching, I often utilized a neat feature of McGraw Hill Textbooks: case studies.  I found carefully examining the case study to understand what happened behind the scenes of some of the biggest PR events in my lifetime was incredibly illuminating.  We got to examine how and why Johnson and Johnson took immediate action during the Tylenol scare of 1982 and what the creative process was for the “Got Milk?” campaign.  These case studies (because they were written for textbooks) always included a lesson–what the professionals learned along the way and better still, how they learned from their mistakes.  I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Kranz and Jeff Julian on the statement that being honest and forthright about one’s fallibility and the lessons learned from being fallible is far more endearing than the pretense of perfection.

I got further confirmation on the power of listening and being empathetic from  Marketing Prof Ann Handley, who points out in her article, Why “targeting” customers is the wrong approach, that use of the word “targeting” is an indicator that we may be going about it all wrong.  img_0934Ann asks, “What if we didn’t target customers, but instead sought to serve them?” Oh yeah!  The customer is always right, even when it comes to what words we use to communicate with them.  That means we need to be pathologically empathetic with the customer.  Along with that empathy, there also ought to be, as Jonathan Kranz puts it, “something of intrinsic value for the customer,” meaning we need to literally put the customer first and by doing so we find the copy becomes more real, more authentic, and hopefully, a lot like talking to a friend.  As someone who possesses what could arguably be too much empathy at times, I was delighted to read that empathy is a great asset to the copywriter and concurrently to the marketer as she talks to clients.  Turns out wearing my heart on my sleeve isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

Trial and Error Even in the Big Leagues: This is How We Learn

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Note that my friend “Accident Andy” here is smiling.  Sure, he has a couple of cuts and a splint but he’s smiling because he’s proud of his of trial and error.  Andy sits on my desk and encourages me as I develop the site for my budding small business(es).  I put Andy on my desk after listening to Jeff Julian interview Nicole Smith on Getting Scrappy at Dell.

Nicole Smith blew my mind when she told me that there were only eight people on the team that launched Tech Page One at Dell.  Incidentally, I have spent some time on Tech Page One and it is truly a wealth of information from education to entrepreneurship and, obviously, tech.  Here I sit, day after day, developing sites for various purposes, beating myself up, thinking (at times) that I have no idea what I am doing and then I hear Nicole tell me that she and the team developed Tech Page One on WordPress!  Holy cow!  They did so because they could test more effectively in that environment and essentially earned their way to success (and budget) through trial and error when they developed the highly customer-focused Tech Page One.

That was my other big takeaway from listening to Nicole–always be customer-focused.  I need Accident Andy on my desk (no reference to super-dude Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media here, I just like alliteration) to “feel heartened,” as Nicole Smith puts it, regarding my trials, tribulations and errors.  

More importantly, Accident Andy helps me to remember to focus on the customer and not my ego.  I liken the problem of being overly focused on my own business objectives and not putting the customer first to a server, who upon coming to the table to take the order, turns sideways and asks the customer, “Does my butt look big?” rather than taking their order.  A silly analogy sure, but I think it makes clear how easy it is to get myopic when developing a site and site content.

For example, I am getting really hung up on UI patterns.  My knee-jerk response is to develop something unique and user-friendly all at the same time.  I am beginning to see that really isn’t realistic for someone at my skill level (which is quite honestly, a tetch lower than basic).  Heck, the reason that certain UI patterns have become so commonly used is that they are user-friendly.  It is here that I have an opportunity to stop thinking about how special and unique I think my business is and start thinking about the customer and how they will be able to find what they need as quickly as possible.  It is likely that customer really doesn’t even think about the UI pattern at all.  What the customer does think about is getting the information they need and/or the product they want as quickly as possible.  As Jerry Cao puts it, “…we’ve changed the way we consume the web, which has resulted in a lot of common UI design patterns. Design patterns have matured and as such, there’s little in the way of innovation when it comes to UI patterns…There’s no real reason to reinvent the wheel. UI patterns must guide users through a smooth experience.”

Clearly, the time I devote to trial and error should not be wasted on UI patterns that others have determined work and work well, but what type of design is going to best feature my business and enable customers to navigate quickly and easily.  The other thing Accident Andy reminds me to think about is the path to purchase (for retail sites) and the path to donations (for non-profits) because if there are too many clicks or (ugh) dead ends that take the user in a loop, they’re going to leave.  Jerry Cao provides a great overview of 6 Web Design Trends and I used his article to spur some additional thinking on micro-interactions and what the best, most customer-focused micro-interaction will look like on my site.

Micro-interactions open up a world of questions from, “When should there be a pop-up to sign up for the newsletter?” to “What is the best language to use when allowing a customer to opt-out?”  Thanks to Google Analytics  the the genius of Nicole Smith’s advice, I get to try, test, determine error, and try again.  And silly me if I get too complacent and think that I can do that only once a year!  Website improvements need to be ongoing so as to effectively keep up with the demands and expectations of our customers and how lucky we are to have that kind of instantaneous feedback as well as the ability to make adjustments and changes based on our customer’s needs.

Here’s the thing: I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet.  My site is far from perfect right now.  But like one of my friends in Web Development once told me. “That’s what the undo button is for.  There’s nothing you can’t undo.”

 

 

 

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