Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why There Is Such a Thing As Too Much Design

This weekend I'll be going to the annual Pleasanton Highland Games. It's a blast. The entire county fairgrounds turns into a spectacle of Celtic/Medieval celebration. Bagpipes, Celtic music, Scottish sports, animal shows, clan organizations, food food FOOD, and enough vendor booths to deck yourself from head to toe in period fashion.

I visited the website a couple days ago, because I wanted to see which events would be going on and what vendors will be there. From the Vendors page, I browsed around a couple sites to see what kinds of items will grace the booths this year. I found that many of the businesses had new products available, including some medieval leather garments that I may pick up.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because all the vendors' websites, and the Highland Games website itself, share a common characteristic. They're all quite, for lack of a better term, basic.

Center-framed pictures. No-frills HTML left-justified menus. Sometimes they even use frames (oh no, bad SEO!). Many of these vendor websites (especially the Games website) don't take advantage of 2006 web design methodologies.

And you know what?

Didn't matter to me. In fact, I appreciated it.


All of them had the information I wanted.

The Games website listed all their events, when they would take place and where they'd be held on a detailed grounds map. Each of the vendor's sites gave me pricing, some copy on each product's quality and what each could be used for. Some vendors even listed their sponsorship of the Games, and where they would be located on the grounds!

See, customers are forgiving on design if you have the information they want. Unless the design gets in their way of finding that information - which, let's face it, we've all seen happen once or twice. In which case they'll leave your site to get their information (and their products) elsewhere.

There IS such a thing as too much design. You reach that point when any customer finds themselves scratching their head, muttering to themselves, "How do I get around in here?" Good Web copy is designed to move the reader through the site in a specific progression, according to their specific informational need. When the design inhibits that progression, instead of complementing it, your structure is blocking your content.

Fortunately for us in 2006, the backend technologies like Web analytics will tell any webmaster exactly where their website might be tripping up their content. Anytime page views drop off for a certain area, but pick up after it or remain constant through other sections, you've either got poor copy or snarled design.

Test the copy first, since it's the easier of the two to modify on a webpage. If that's fine, it's the design.

The Web was designed, as we all know, with the intent to distribute information. That's what we want when we open Firefox or IE. We're willing to forgive a lot of snafus to get our info. But hey, we all have our limit. If you're any kind of business, focus on what really matters. Your site's design is there to present your information. That's all.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 8-28-06 - My Declaration: No Ad-Speak

This morning, like I do every Monday, I received my Monday Morning Memo from the Wizard of Ads. You can read it here:

I highly recommend signing up, too. Great way to start the week off. Especially with this one.

Today's Memo talked about one of the things I hate the most in the business world: Ad-Speak. I sometimes call it "marketing-speak" too. And to date, I've never talked to anyone that enjoyed seeing it.

Sadly, we all recognize it because Ad-Speak is just that rampant. Finance, technology, engineering, medicine, education, social services, government - it's in every industry! Go ahead, picture Ad-Speak. You're probably conjuring up some well-dressed guy sitting behind a desk, offering you a pen while he smiles so wide you could check how well his last dental appointment went.

It might seem a little contrite, but in light of the topic, I thought I'd make today's Tip a Declaration instead. I'm doing so because I agree with the Wizard. I loathe Ad-Speak. Marketing and advertising should never be about bamboozling the customer, making empty promises, or trying to confuse them with lengthy words.

My declaration is this - Blue Ferret Communications does not and will never use Ad-Speak. Never.

I tell all of my clients that I always proofread three times. The first proofread is for grammar, spelling, and flow. The second is for sentences that sound like Ad-Speak. (The third is for checking focus and audience awareness, in case you were wondering.)

I tell all my clients that my copy will be personable, direct, and have something to say. And I'll make you the same promise, regardless of what role you play in the business world. No Ad-Speak. Not in my work, not on my blog.

Say, anyone know of a campaign to stamp out Ad-Speak? I'll sign on!


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Do You Really Need a Copywriter for the Small Projects?

(Apologies on this one being late. I'm still getting over a back injury from last weekend. Makes it hard to sit down.)

The amount of copy needed to market on the Web is staggering, and growing all the time. Successful firms hire copywriters to wring the best returns out of their marketing projects - websites, direct marketing campaigns (on- and offline), landing pages, white papers, case studies, e-newsletters...

But what about the smaller projects? What about the copy that connects those big pieces together?

I'm talking about little writing projects, like e-blasts. Testimonials. AdWords ads.

These are very small bits of copy. All the way from 200 words down to 5. Easy to do, right? All they do is connect the important stuff, so they don't have much effect anyway. Doesn't make sense to hire a copywriter to handle something so trivial...does it?

Surprise - it does.

These are small spaces for your message to go through. But that's where readers' attention is grabbed and sent off to its destination. In truth, little projects like the ones I mentioned are some of the MOST valuable copy you'll show to your audience.

Think about it. You have something you want to say. You have to say it in only so many words. If you don't grab an online reader's attention within 0.5 seconds, you've lost the sale. That's only about enough time to read a headline on a landing page. It's enough time to read a few lines in an e-blast or testimonial, though.

I'm blogging on this because of a little episode that occurred the other day. I was at a mixer, talking with a VP from a small manufacturing firm. Nice guy, but he said something that really burned me while we talked about writing: "Oh, I just have my receptionist write up that stuff. It's only a little thing, not worth contracting for."

(I cleaned up his language a little in the quote - he'd had a few.)

In essence, he dismissed any and all value of writing. To a writer. I didn't take it personally, but it wasn't easy. His ignorance is common, so I don't begrudge him.

Moving back to my line of reasoning, let's talk a bit about what these little copy pieces do for your marketing. You'll get a good idea of why I feel even "small" projects like these should be handled by a professional copywriter:

1. E-Blasts. E-blasts generally don't go beyond 200 words, and 100 is much closer to the ideal. Most companies use them to make announcements of sales or events. They only cover one topic, and often lead to a signup form or a landing page.

In other words, they have to pluck the reader out of their email client and deposit them in their browser. You'll have to get interest fast and drive value hard. In 100 words. Only someone who knows words, and how to persuade with them, can do that.

2. Testimonials. The #1 most effective marketing tool you have is your own happy customers. Testimonials from them give validation to your claims, proof that your products get the job done. Your business looks more human. Testimonials are workhorses in the marketing toolkit.

Yet no one wants to write them. The company soliciting them doesn't even want to put together 40 words for their happy client to sign off on!

I don't generally write testimonials, but it's not because I'm bad at them. Nobody asks me to. Twice now I've even offered to write testimonials for a client free of charge, in addition to the work I'm getting paid for. Both times, the client said no, and valuable marketing help fell by the wayside.

3. AdWords. Everybody knows about the power of Google AdWords and its pay-per-click cousins. But did you know there's an entire sub-niche of copywriting that focuses on writing AdWords ads? I could find a dozen books on it with one search. Here's just one: Writing AdWords

Why would people pay to learn how to write ads that are only about 4-10 words long? Simple. Once an ad shows up in a relevant search, they need an extremely hard-hitting message in a tiny number of words. Once again, the only people who can do this effectively are the writers that know persuasive verbiage.

I'd get you some statistics, but the time needed to root them out would hurt too much. Put it this way - if AdWords wasn't so successful, would click fraud be the billion-dollar problem it is today?

The point I'm trying to make here is that "don't sweat the small stuff" isn't always applicable when it comes to copy. The small stuff - in this case e-blasts, AdWords and testimonials - can easily make the difference between a break-even return and a massive ROI. These are attention-grabbers, mood-shifters, and fast-persuaders. They should never be dashed off unthinking by someone whose real job is already overwhelming.

Trust the expertise of your copywriter on the small stuff. It will pay off big.



Monday, August 21, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 8-21-06 - Search B2Bs with

I was fumbling around earlier, trying to come up with an idea for today's BlogTip. Then I glanced over at my planner. I'd written a note to submit to a search engine I hadn't heard of until last Friday.

It's called, and it's strictly a B2B search engine. That's right, only business-to-business companies are listed on Jayde.

An entire ENGINE devoted to collecting B2B companies. For any kind of entrepreneur, this site's solid platinum! There's even directory listings, in case you want to browse instead of search (I like doing that - sometimes additional prospects will pop up from other categories). is sponsored by WebProNews, one of the most thorough and up-front tech news sites I've come across. Submission is free.

If you sell to businesses, you should be on Jayde. If you're a copywriter, a marketing pro, or self-employed, plumb Jayde's depths for leads. There are plenty.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

LinuxWorld - The Blue Ferret's On-the-Floor Report

Okay, I promised you Ferrety readers a report on the LinuxWorld Expo, so here you go. I've noticed much of the coverage by news outlets focuses on the presentations/seminars, and not so much on the expo floor. I know there's a good reason for that, but I'm there for the expo. So this is one visitor's account of the state of Linux. Take from it what you will.

I noticed some differences from last year right away. At least two companies had reps out in the entryway, passing out leaflets, attracting attention. I didn't think much of it at the time.

However, the behavior proved to be prophetic.

One thing defined the expo's attitude - commercialization. We've all been to tradeshows, where it's the exhibitors' jobs to bring in as many leads as possible for marketing campaigns. The same atmosphere, that of "more people, more leads, right away!" pervaded LinuxWorld. While walking around the floor, I was approached by exhibitors whose booths I honestly had no interest in, and each time had literature thrown in my face.

Now, I recognize that these companies need to make money to survive. I'm not contesting that notion at all. But I'm not going to do business with a company whose reps literally jump in my path and half-shove me toward their presentation area. I sat down anyway, to see how the presentation would go. I'm not going to mention this company's name, because I don't want to get sued (for telling the truth). Besides, it wasn't the only company that did stuff like that.

The presentation started with a canned "Why Company X Is The Best" starter. Being a copywriter, I instinctively went to picking at the presenter's language. He relied on what I don't hesitate to call stale, pushy, intentionally-vague sales tactics. The kind that make you fidget in your chair and look for an escape route.

For instance, "Company X is better at bringing virtual solutions to the desktop." Better than who? How do you know? Any studies/surveys/tests done? Any evidence to back up your claims? Nope, none.

Here's another one: "Company X brings you lasting value." I love this one. It's so empty it's laughable, and it's a sure sign that a speech didn't go through any sort of editing. At this point, I got up and walked off. Sure enough, a couple reps glared at me for leaving.

I felt that way - like the hard eyes of sales reps, hungry for yet another set of contact information. bored into my back - the whole time I milled about the Expo. To be fair, several of the companies present were very approachable, enjoyed talking WITH (not just talking AT) their visitors, and had the same we're-all-in-this-together spirit that attracted me toward Linux in the first place.

But they were definitely a minority.

The best advertising tactic I saw came from a company called FiveRuns. Exhibitors gave each visitor a small badge to clip under their expo registration card. The rep asked me if I'd like one. I knew he was asking if he could pin it on me, not if I actually wanted another badge hanging from my neck. But he was courteous and didn't push, so I agreed.

FiveRuns turned everyone who'd come by into a a mobile billboard. Sure stuck out in my mind. And I don't even have a need for their products!

Extremely valuable sales AND marketing lesson in there, folks. Asking permission to market to an audience is as well-known as Linux now. But wait for customers to give the permission before you jump at them like a dog with muddy paws.

I suppose the evolution of LinuxWorld, like Linux, into a commercial entity was inevitable. It IS a viable technology for business and communication. But its collaborative, let's-try-this-out spirit need not be crushed under the wake of The Bottom Line. If it does, events like LinuxWorld will become parodies of themselves. And the real genuises won't even get near the doors.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 8-14-06 - Convention Survival Tricks

Tomorrow I'll be riding into San Francisco, heading for the LinuxWorld Convention Expo.

This will be my third year attending. The expo is free, and it's always a blast. Lots of tech-people to talk with, big-name brands with latest-product news...and of course, lots of freebies. (Hey, we all like those.)

So today I thought I'd list a couple things I've learned about going to tech conventions. A few Things to Remember, should find an expo on the itinerary.

Things to Remember:
Wear VERY comfortable shoes. I don't know about you, but my work shoes are not that supportive. Spring for gel insoles if you need them. If you're sure nobody will look at your feet, sneak in wearing sneakers.

Check the weather. Even if you're in an air-conditioned convention hall, the weather outside could be hotter than you expect. A few hundred people wandering around will bring that heat indoors. Dress like you'd be comfortable walking down the street. Despite its cool bay winds, I never bring a jacket to San Francisco.

Pack light. I'm speaking only for LinuxWorld here, but I always walk out with at least one full tote bag. Papers, CDs, free stuff, booklets, etc. Make it easy on yourself, and only bring what you absolutely need to. Lugging one bag in only makes lugging two bags out much more irritating.

Nothing fancy. But remembering these things made last year's expo a lot more comfortable. I'm hoping the same is true this year.

I'll be back on Wednesday with a LinuxWorld floor report.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Phrases on My Wall

We writers need to remember too many things.

Motivational phrases, industry tactics, different page structures, communication strategies, themes, audience awareness, "power" words, approach tips, persuasion techniques...


I don't know how the rest of you do it, but I tend to put my most important tips, techniques and affirmations up on my wall. I've got most of the office's western wall covered in cork tiles, so it's easy to stick something up.

For today's post, I thought I'd share some of my Phrases with you. Some are a boost to my confidence. Some give me exactly the idea I need at a glance. Some are clever reminders of where my attention needs to be.

Take what resonates with you. Stick it on your wall. Write it in your planner. Glue it to your bathroom mirror if you have to. The important thing for a Phrase to impact you is to put it someplace where you will see it day in, day out.

Phrases On My Wall
  • Remember - write like you're talking to one person.

  • Don't use "we offer" on websites. Use "we deliver" and focus on results.

  • "What we think, we become." - Buddha

  • Why do I need anyone else's permission to create?

  • There is no shortage of clients in the nation/world for me.

  • While writing, stop and think. What's the reader thinking/feeling at that point?

  • Losers let things happen. Winners MAKE things happen.

  • "The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • What are you reserving time for? Time doesn't keep. Use it all now. More will come.

  • STAY FOCUSED ON THAT (right next to my monitor)

  • SEO copywriting: using writing to guide the user along a specific course of action through your site.

  • Money comes easily and frequently. (credit goes to the production team of The Secret for this one)

  • Blog Tip on Monday, Blog Post on Wednesday (I can count at least 9 times that note has helped keep this blog alive!)

  • The CopyBlogger Benefits Extractor (too long to reproduce here, so follow the link and see for yourself how powerful it is. It's at the "How to Extract True Benefits" subhead.)

What do you need to remind yourself about during the workday? What are your Phrases? Leave one or two in the comments. If there are enough, I'll put them together for a sequel post in a few days.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

NEW Blue Ferret White Paper Available for Download!

For fellow writers, looking for an edge in their marketing.
For marketing pros who need a confidence boost.
For small businesses, to make operations easier and marketing stronger.
For anyone who needs to convince their boss about adding value on the Web.

Available free for your reading pleasure:
What's the Value of a Freelance Copywriter vs. a Staff Writer? - From Blue Ferret Communications.


You'll also notice that the email subscription box to the right is different. That's because I've replaced my Zookoda account with a FeedBlitz account. Zookoda reported that my latest broadcast was set, but it's still giving me problems.

As a result, I haven't been able to import the subscribers yet.

Very sorry about that, Ferrety readers. I'll keep trying. In the meantime, don't forget to sign up with FeedBlitz.

Enjoy my new white paper - and spread the word!

(Comments encouraged, naturally.)


Monday, August 07, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 8-7-06 - The Wrong Way to Use Social Media

I was going to post my new white paper as today's BlogTip, but something zoomed across my radar this morning that begs attention:

Digg - PR Firm Hired by San Francisco to Delete Craigslist Postings?

I saw this on Digg's homepage while browsing news. Now, it didn't take long to figure out that it was a hoax. However, at the moment I saw it, it had 481 "Diggs" and 78 comments. Right now it's up to 651 "Diggs" and 83 comments!

That is what bugs me.

I keep thinking this little debacle is just like slowing to watch a car wreck, secretly hoping to see bodies. Dozens of commenters who know it's a hoax - yet hundreds of people decided to vote for it. They parade it around like an injured dog on a stick.

Social media, if we're not careful, will turn into another pit of human ridicule, a cesspool for our lowest instincts to flow rampantly.

Today's BlogTip? Be mindful of what you say and where you are. Social media sites may have a fleeting short-term memory, but is this really the kind of follow-the-crowd you want to be associated with?

P.S. - The new Blue Ferret White Paper, "What's the Value of a Freelance Copywriter vs. a Staff Writer?" will be posted tomorrow.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mini Status Update, 8-3-06

Update #1 - I'm afraid that Zookoda has not been working well. There seems to be some problem in the broadcast setup. I've tried emailing their customer service, changing my settings, etc. to no avail. The email hasn't worked in the two times I've made the attempt. I'm hoping the problem will be corrected soon. But in the meantime, I'm looking into another email marketing solution.

My apologies to those of you who have signed up for the Zookoda distribution. Something will come along soon enough.

Update #2 - Mike Stelzer made clear a side of my Monday BlogTip that I failed to address properly. He brought up the fact that (and I don't dispute this) the demographics between B2C and B2B are very different. Audiences are different. The problems are different.

What I should have stated was that I was referring solely to psychographic similarities. While big businesspeople have varying priorities depending on things like industry and position, they're still human.

They still want to impress others (their boss, co-workers).
They still want to avoid pain (getting fired).
They still want to maximize enjoyment (recognition, promotions).

These are true for every human, in every role. Nobody's capable of detaching their mind and their emotions 100%.

Write like you're talking to one human being first. Then add the demographic qualifiers in later. It'll work no matter who's reading.

(Thanks to Mike for this one - I can't believe I missed this qualifier! Go visit his excellent website and forum on white papers.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Personalization Screw-ups - Innocent or Harmful?

Today I'm going to talk about the drawbacks to personalization marketing.

Why, what could possibly go wrong with personalization, you ask? It's the wave of the future! It allows marketers to talk to every prospect, by name, in a one-on-one conversation. We can insert copy elements fitted to specific demographics, even specific personalities! How could there possibly be any drawbacks?

Simple. You can make a mistake.

In January, I mailed in my business license renewal form like always. I'd never had any problems before. But since then, I've been receiving lots of promotional mail. Must have gotten on a list or five. This wouldn't be more than a typical annoyance, but for one thing.

Most of the promo mail is addressed to "Ferret Blue Communications."

Now, I'm pretty sure I didn't write my own company name wrong. In fact, some promotional letters I've received are indeed addressed to the proper "Blue Ferret Communications" business name. But I'd say at least 80% are wrongly addressed.

I've even had telemarketing calls - to my HOME phone number - asking for "Ferret Blue Communications." Today was the most ostentatious example - a corporate gifting company sent me a very good-quality leather 2007 day planner. With (of course) "Ferret Blue Communications" emblazoned on the cover.

Behold - the downside of personalization. One tiny error, and direct marketing becomes direct facial tic.

I grant you, this is not some grievous mishap. Someone in the distribution process simply copied down two words differently. I know how easy that would be. As such, I'm not taking the error personally.

However, it would be easy for someone else, in my position, to do so.

That's where a personalization screw-up can have serious consequences. One person's clerical error - say, knocking the Name field matchup to the list address down by one - could lead to hundreds of companies looking foolish in front of thousands of prospects.

My guess would be that their rates of return wouldn't be so hot if a letter addressed to Sally began as, "Hello Jim!"

Why am I talking about this? Mostly because I wanted to put it out there for others. I can't be the only person who's noticed mistakes like these. Plus, as a writer, I'm aware of how potent the first few words are to a potential customer. Why else would there be so many books and blog posts dedicated solely to writing headlines and subheads?

In a way, small direct marketers can use this problem as a competitive advantage. Giant publishing firms have many eyeballs on each piece, but things still slip through. (In fact, most every messed up piece I've received has come from big-name publishers.) Smaller firms can illustrate value through meticulously inspecting their work before it goes to the mailbox.

Should you be planning to use personalized direct marketing campaigns this year, be very mindful of how you address your list. Triple-check the outputs before you head into mass printing, if you have to. You don't want to have a large chunk of your target market become irritated - and dismiss your efforts - because of something as avoidable as names being flipped around.


P.S. - I'm waiting on an email reply, expected later today or tomorrow. There will be a mini-update once I receive it on my Zookoda distribution, and an addendum to Monday's BlogTip. Be sure to check back!