Thursday, September 28, 2006

What's REALLY Different About Your Company? Do You Promote That?

Marketers of all stripes know the value of a call to action.

I'm making one such call today.

Let's each find our real differences. Unique selling points we can use.

Let me tell you what I mean. Every company is unique. No, really. You might have to dig quite a ways to find something that truly makes you different, but you'll find it. The problem is, 90% of the businesses out there don't dig. They don't even want to think about digging. They just want to write up something identical to every other business out there, throw it on the site, and wait for the flood.


Let me give you a couple examples of real difference. Companies that found something about their operations or their services that made them completely unique. Which made selling themselves easy and genuine.

Example #1 - Contractual Differentiation
An IT firm I know offers service contracts. They're a lot like a retainer, with a set number of hours for network support available as clients need them.

I asked their VP about the setup. She didn't think it was unique, because their competitors did it too. I checked their websites. Turns out none of them mentioned this type of contract on their websites. They might offer such a contract, but they weren't promoting it. (See where I'm going?)

Since their service contracts were already mentioned on the website, I suggested to the VP that she promote them like crazy. I told her even if their competitors did offer contracts, they weren't listing or promoting them.

Because of someone else's slip-up, she'd been handed a powerful company difference.

Promote them she did. Many more contracts, she got. (Speak like Yoda I will stop now.)

Example #2 - A Different Story
I was at a mixer a few months ago, talking to a new entrepreneur. He'd worked for years in management for a moderate-sized B2B technology company. He left after a series of severe budget cuts wrecked his department. He felt bad because he couldn't get any resources for his workers. The employees felt bad because they couldn't get anything done.

Finally, he made the decision to leave and start his own company. Surprisingly, many of his former workers opted to join him.

The thing was, he had no idea how his company would be any different. He provided an almost-exact duplicate of the services, ordered products from the same manufacturers. He'd just emulated what he knew. How would he stand out? Service, reliability, all the tired attempts at USP left a bad taste in his mouth.

I smiled after he finished. I knew his real difference. Do you? (Some of you already guessed it.)

Yep. The story.

I suggested he tell the entire story on his website. Lay it all out on one page, cite it on every other. Let customers see how you decided to be different, what made you strike out for success on your own. The brightening on his face more than made up for the bad fish the caterers brought.

Predictably, his business is doing great.

Sales points like "Quality Service" and "Rock-Bottom Prices" don't work anymore. They'll even hurt your marketing if you use them, in fact. The real differences are in people, stories, circumstanes. Quirks, just like the ones that make us all individuals. Companies have them too.

Use these examples to think about what your company does differently. Use that in your marketing plan. Then you can truly say you DO have a Unique Selling Position. Nobody can contest it. Nobody can duplicate it.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 9-25-06 - Where do you get your best ideas?

What location or activity must you be in for the ideas to flow? It's different for everyone. It even changes often for the same person. When it comes to ideas, it pays to explore. In more ways than one.

For today's BlogTip, I'm listing the idea-generating locations/states of being I find common (and which tend to work for me).

Fairly common places include:
  • Lying in bed (this is why you should keep a notepad on the end table).

  • Jogging/Walking.

  • Eating.

  • While listening to music.

Some of the weirder ones I've been told:
  • While making love (I don't keep a notepad on the end table for THAT reason!)

  • In the middle of movies.

  • Sitting on a stack of paperwork. Literally. (Don't ask.)

Hipster PDA. Never be anywhere without it.

Leave a comment and tell us your favorite idea-spot.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Concrete Differences Between Print and Web Copy

There's an 800-pound cinderblock in the middle of conference rooms across the world.

When companies start thinking about what to write about their products - and to whom they're writing - a nagging concern pops up whenever it's inconvenient. Do we change our copy for the Web, or just lift it straight from print?

My readers know I've addressed this issue vehemently in the past. However, I feel the need to do so again. This time, I thought I'd take the "lay it all out" tact.

I'll list out my collected points of clear-cut divergence between print copy and web copy. Some come from me; some come from the books of eminent copywriters like Bob Bly and Nick Usborne.

There are several relative differences between the two, depending on the project type. Sales letters come to mind. But I'm not going to focus on those. (Why? We'd be here all day.) These will only be concrete, definite ways you can tell print and web copy apart.

Print Copy & Web Copy - The Concrete Differences
  • Print - formatted for reading. Web - formatted for scanning.

  • Print copy always moves forward. Web copy can stop.

  • Print must be a complete unit. Web copy is modular, pages linking between subjects.

  • In print, you control the output (nice clean papers). On the Web, you don't.

  • Print is more formal, and is seen as more formal. You wouldn't invite a host of big political donors to a dinner fundraiser via text-only email.

  • It's harder to keep attention online.

  • Use about 20% more subheads on the Web. This goes back to scanning - it's easier to keep customers' attention if you continually put up signposts.

  • What Readers Expect From Print Copy: harder sell, longer paragraphs, less information

  • What Readers Expect From Web Copy: shorter copy chunks, a softer sell, much more information.

  • Hyperlinks and permission marketing are the reasons why the customer is in control on the Web, NOT the seller.

  • Going off the last one, it's much easier to inform those who read on the Web rather than in print. It's due to economics - you don't need more paper to add a feature list to your website.

  • Print and Web copy SHOULD be equally valued, as both are responsible for differentiation, sales strength, and relationship-building. Unfortunately, words are still more valued in print than on the Web.

(Contained within these differences are lots of tips on how to make both kinds of copy stand out in the crowd. Can you spot them?)

I'm going through all of these now, because I see the need to remind people. The question of, "What's the difference?" has come up more frequently in the past few weeks. It's a parallel to a growing acknowledgement among businesspeople - they're realizing the power of online copywriting. I'm very glad for that, but as Newton said, for every action...

In the next few years, the value of writing online will crystallize. Businesses will put more effort into what they say on their sites & campaigns. Web copy may gain the same vaunted position print copy holds in the offline world. When that happens, some of these differences may fade away, or blur into each other's domain. I can't wait.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 9-18-06 - Double-Check What Business You're Really In

(Sorry this one's late - very bad traffic plagued me today.)

A couple weeks ago, the eminent Duct Tape Marketing blog posed this question to its readers - What business are you really in?

He gave four possible choices:
  1. The Information business

  2. The Community-Building business

  3. The Experience business

  4. The Transformation business
When I first read it, I thought John was talking about choosing one of the four (he really meant that any company could shape its image using all of them). So I thought, "I'm in the information business." Pretty easy, right? I produce information for companies marketing themselves.

But then I realized that's just surface thinking. What do I REALLY do? What are the benefits (something every good copywriter must focus on) of my services?

Then I realized transformation was more accurate. I'm in the transformation business.

What do I transform for my clients? Their copy. Their marketing campaigns. Their customer relationships. Their verbal image. Their ROI.

Which type(s) of business are you? Remember the benefits angle - how do you benefit your customers?


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Would an "Our Positions" Webpage Boost Value? (and a Blog Milestone!)

Today marks the 150th post on the Blue Ferret Communications Blog!

In honor of this milestone (hey, I'm entitled to celebrating once in a while), I've decided to do something big. But not yet. You'll have to wait...and check back, of course.

Now, on to the Wednesday post.

I'm beginning to think there should be another page added under the "website" umbrella.

We have the homepage, the FAQ, the About Us, the Products/Services pages...

What about an "Our Positions" webpage?

I'll explain what I mean.

I see an "Our Positions" page as a crystal-clear stance on what you as a company endorse, believe and practice.

Where'd This Come From?
It occurred to me the other day, when I was going through a few potential client websites. (The need for solid writing was, shall we say, abundant.) I couldn't even find public commitments anywhere in the copy. Everything twisted around itself, trying to avoid sort of point or position.

I thought, "I can't get a clear grip on what this company believes. I don't want to do business with them."

And that was a scary thought.

Corporate ethics are so furiously questioned nowadays, most people - consumers and businesses alike - expect to be cheated and lied to. There has to be a way to reassure them.

Like I always do, I looked for an answer in communication. Could a piece of writing do what I wanted? What message could a company truly stand on in every dealing they have?

After I thought of an "Our Positions" statement - a standalone, foundational spelling-out of how each individual in a business acts, how they operate, and what they'll support - it seemed stupidly easy. Why hadn't this been done already?

In truth, it has. Partially. Many companies think they're accomplishing this kind of honest communication with a MIssion Statement.

But be honest. How many of those have you actually read?

I've read a few. It's almost always the same - convoluted, achingly-P.C. language, desperately avoiding the potential for legal action. Continually combed through by lawyer after lawyer, I suspect. Any position, any profession that might possibly degrade their reputation in the future by some unforseen association is typically taken out.

Don't you think customers would appreciate direct honesty? Clear, unequivocal statements?

Okay, what would we put on there?
What to include? Recommendations. A FAQ tip or two. "What We Do." "What We Don't Do." Basic, straightforward information. You could detail how your company works day-to-day. Outline a typical client interaction. (I get asked how my work process goes quite often.)

Think of the things Customer Service gets asked often. Sales might want to tell customers a quick way to choose between available service options. Maybe Accounting would like customers to stop calling because they need to know a simple formula?

Here's an example: "BFC always works under contract. It protects us from lawsuits and undiscussed changes to our work. It's a benefit to you, as well - we can't 'sneak in' something to bill for that's not covered by the contract."

See? One whole idea, in just a few sentences. One of My Positions.

Why would we want to do this?
I know you could muddle around company websites and assemble a position. And each would probably look exactly like the others - "we're committed to customer service, our employees are our best assets, we promise complete satisfaction..." (Anybody remember that post I did on getting new language?)

I think spelling out positions and making concrete commitments to something tangible, like the way you (and only you) run a certain process, would go a long way toward:
  • Marking your company out as different. As unique.

  • Building trust - I know I'd be more inclined to trust a company that levels with its audience.

  • Reducing customer calls. Especially the trivial, answer-in-two-seconds ones.

I realize what I'm proposing is not in the "Standard Corporate Website Structure" manual. I realize it might seem a little redundant to some. Still, adding a page is simple. And who knows - if a customer searches for "honest business" and your "DEF Company Positions" page comes up, it might give a much better impression than "DEF (4-page-long) Mission Statement."

P.S. - Because someone's going to ask, yes, I'm putting together my own Our Positions page for the Blue Ferret Communications website. I'll make a note when it goes up. It's actually quite a mental exercise to put this together. Kind of fun.

P.P.S. - In case some of you are wondering, I wasn't able to post this yesterday because I couldn't get into Blogger. Nothing worked. I have no idea why. Luckily I save my post drafts!


Monday, September 11, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 9-11-06 - Get Around the 9/11 Elephant in the Room

Like most everyone, I took a moment to pause and reflect on the events of 9/11.

Then I got back to work.

Why? I don't see stopping our lives as an honorable reminder of those who died.

These people were not layabouts. They were professionals, all across the board. They did not stand around that day. Why should we now?

Others will disagree with me, of course. That's fine. I'm aware that it's my own opinion, but I think the best way to remember such events is to not let them paralyze the ways we make our nation great and our world better.

This is my tip for today: Don't stand still.

No matter what, have something going. Even if it's small, be productive whenever you can. Now is the only moment any of us has. It never comes again. Take it. Use it.

The past is there to remember, not hold us. Spring forward from it. You won't get another shot.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How Companies Can Respectfully Request Reviews from Bloggers

On Monday, frequent Lockergnome contributor Dave Taylor wrote in his blog about the issue of companies asking bloggers to review their products.

While I read Dave's post, I thought, "How would a business respond to this article?" If they were smart, they'd pay close attention to the ethical issues surrounding the whole topic of blog reviewing.

A thorny ethical dilemma, asking someone impartial to stick their neck out for your company. So I asked myself a question. "Is there a method businesses could use to approach bloggers for reviews, without stepping on ethical toes or risking severe offense to the blogger?"

Below is the approach my brain (and a lot of reading) fleshed out. Mind you, I'm not an expert reviewer - merely a communicator. Still, if my approach works for your company, more power to you! Use it widely and well.

The BFC "Respectful Review Request" Approach
1. Target Research
Any blogger worth getting a review from already has enough of a reputation (and a post archive) to warrant research. Read their blog, follow their trackbacks to what others say about them. Do this for each blogger you're thinking of approaching.

Time-consuming? Taking two hours to go through someone's work doesn't seem like much of a stretch when you consider that you're essentially putting your company reputation in their hands.

2. Have They Reviewed in the Past?
If your chosen blogger(s) has not reviewed products before, you're taking a gamble approaching them in the first place. Pay attention to #4 below. Do so only if their blog specifically addresses your audience, and they seem otherwise open to considering use of your products in their lives.

Bloggers who've reviewed products in your industry before are safer bets. Even so, your representative must treat them with appropriate respect. Having reviewed before means they're familiar with what you'll be asking for - and they'll know how they want to respond. Be prepared.

3. Brutally Honest Emails
Whatever company rep contacts the blogger had better be brutally honest about their request. Even attempting to hide that you're a business who wants a review effectively screams, "I WANT EXPOSURE AT YOUR EXPENSE."

Remember the aphorism about how a satisfied customer will tell three friends about your product - but an unsatisfied customer will tell 9 friends not to bother? Add a half-dozen zeros to both numbers and you've got an idea of how fast news can spread through the blogosphere.

So unless you want that news to be, "ZYX Company is demanding bloggers give them positive reviews on their products, or they won't talk to you further," better be honest.

4. Go for Quality, Not Quantity.
A review has to benefit the blogger, not just you. They won't have anything to do with a product that will damage their reputations or hurt their search engine ranking. Responsibility on making review requests into a win-win is on the business.

In theory, it's simple - blogger gets free product and (sometimes) a fee for their time, company gets honest review of their products with viral-marketing potential. However, practice never goes as well as theory. What this means is that even after doing your research and being sincere in your initial contact, some bloggers will say no. For whatever reason. That's okay. It's better to have three bloggers giving you honest mentions, than fourteen with reviews all over the map.

5. Be Ready For Rejection - Twice
There are two places a company's product could be rejected by a reviewing blogger - after the initial request arrives, and after they've tested the product.

Dave makes a very good point midway in his article - asking someone to review your product doesn't guarantee they'll give a good opinion afterward. Even if you get past the initial suspicion of an email arriving unsolicited, asking for a review, there's nothing that says they must agree to give a positive one.

Human nature says that if they're the type of person who would use the product anyway, they're more likely to agree to a review. And more likely to give it a positive rating. But that's no guarantee. If you've done the research, your rejection window is smaller, but not gone.

6. Move to the Next
Only after you get a definite response from the first blogger should you approach another. Doing so one at a time allows the company rep and the blogger to reach understandings one-on-one - slower, but much more personal. You're less likely to offend bloggers when you treat them as individuals. A bit ironic for the viral, community nature of the blogosphere, but it is what it is.

Like the research, this adds more time. Unlike the research, the resulting benefit is that your reviewer is likely to mention the personal address they got. The human touch is still not commonplace online; that extra effort to really work with bloggers will spread as fast as a glowing product review.


Now, giving contact methods for reviews in a copywriter's blog? Why am I talking about this, you might ask?

For one, I thought Dave's post was timely and well thought-out. He used a case study format, which I always enjoy reading. For two, blogging is riding a geyser wave of popularity and power on the Web. More than ever, strong copy with something to say matters. Anything I can do to encourage it, I'll leap at with both paws.

I can't guarantee this approach will work with all bloggers. Far too many factors - the company, the product, the blogger, the industry. But I can say that taking extra time, being completely honest and knowing your way is not done enough in the relationships between business and blogs. We're getting there. Let's try for the "unbiased, partner-based product reviews" step now.


Monday, September 04, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 9-4-06 - Use Labor Day to Plan

I originally wanted to spend today doing nothing. Using the time to completely unwind. And while I plan on doing that later, I'm spending part of this Labor Day doing some planning for the coming months. Mostly on my marketing campaigns. It's an ideal time.

That's today's BlogTip: use the day to plan where you want to be by year's end. Labor Day has become a turning point in business, between the lull of summer and the hum of holidays. After today, we swing into the fast lane. Plan out when and for how long you want to step up marketing in winter. Any new ideas sitting on the fence, waiting for an opportunity? See if now's the time.

That's all for now. Whatever you're doing today, enjoy it! Remember what Labor Day was founded for - a day to celebrate those of us who help keep our economy going, every day.