Monday, October 30, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 10-30-06 - Words a Writer Should Never Use

Because I'm feeling irritated and silly today (a weird combination, believe me), I thought I'd list out a few words no self-respecting copywriter should ever use in their work. They're an ideal way to confuse readers and drive off sales. Read, have a laugh, and go back to your day.

"Growth Cycle" - We're not pod people!

"Metro-" anything that's not a big train or a pink polo - Meaning runs away from this, screaming its little head off.

"Breakthrough" - Unless you're talking about Kool-Aid replacing coffee in your workplace, forget about this one.

"Empowered" - This is how your client's employees will feel when their coffee's replaced with Kool-Aid, so be careful.

"Going Forward" - To where? They never answer that one, do they?

"Middleware" - Does anyone actually understand what this means outside of IBM?

"Sustainability" - No, I'd rather read about a product that will break in 3 weeks and ruin my carpets while it's at it. Of COURSE it's going to last a while!

"Best of Breed" - I see this one with software products a lot. I always think the same thing: Does it sit up and bark?


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No, I'm Not Going to Vote for the Only Option

It's rare that I do a political posting on here. Usually because there's not a lot in politics I can relate to writing/marketing. However, my California absentee ballet had some interesting fodder for discussion.

Halfway down my sample ballot, there's a list of judge confirmations. "Shall So-and-So be elected to the office for the term provided by law?" State Supreme Court, appellate courts, 4 districts. It's just asking me to confirm a list of people in their respective positions. Yes or No.

The thing is, these names are the only option listed under each of their categories. There isn't a choice between people. No vote between candidates. Only Yes or No.

Now, I don't know these people from Adam. This is the first time I've seen any of these names. Justice appointments are run differently than political offices, I know, but I'm bristling at the lack of choice. Instead of, "Who should I vote for?" it's become, "Should I vote for or against?" Without my say.

No problem, right? They sent along a hefty information booklet (paid for by our tax dollars). All the bills are included for my perusal. Surely there's something in here about the judges. I'll educate myself a little like any smart customer...

Wait. There's nothing in here about the judicial appointees. Not a word. Again, I'm high and dry on what it is I'm being asked to buy. Does the state really expect me to vote sight unseen?

So I head to the Web, digging for information I should already have. Aah, here we go. Court histories, personal profiles, voting records...Google does not fail me. Half an hour, and I have enough to make an educated decision on Yes or No.

The problem here is that I'm being forced to make extra effort if I want to know about these people. Conscious or unconscious, that will shade my perception of them as candidates. They - and the state offering them up for election - didn't take the time to educate me on why they deserve my vote. They just shoved one option in my face and waited for an answer.

See the marketing parallel in all this? Whether or not they take it, customers do not like only one option. They like choice. Even if that choice is held within one sphere (one group of services, for instance), they want to choose. They don't want a single buying option dictated to them. Otherwise, they might not choose to buy at all.

How to reflect this in marketing copy?

Recognize that customers have (and want) choices. - You will always have competitors. I'm not just talking about other businesses - you're up against Apathy, Suspicion and Fear too. You'll never be the only choice (and you should never try to be), but you can position yourself as the best one.

Check your market. - Poll customers with online forms or emails. Not only to make sure you're speaking to the right audiences, but to hear what they're talking about. A new position you could jump on might be coming up in discussion.

Respect their objections. - There's always going to be at least one objection. Price, timing, lack of approval, etc. Don't ignore or downplay it. Acknowledge it in the copy, then explain how you resolve it. That kind of honesty isn't common. It'll work to your advantage.

Choice isn't an easy part of marketing. Companies don't like the idea that customers may choose to say No. But that's a customer's right, and it always will be. Instead of trying to box them into one option, trust them on an educated decision. If my experience (and that of many other, much more famous copywriters) holds true, they'll vote with their dollars in favor.


For those who've asked (thank you for your concern), the family member injured last week is still in the hospital. She's inching forward, but it'll be a long road.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 10-23-06 - What a Stubborn English Professor Taught Me About Writing Copy

In 2004, I went back to school to finish my English degree. The first class on my first day was an English Literature class, taught by one of the hardest teachers on campus. His name's Robert Coleman-Senghor. We called him Bob.

Bob's the kind of English teacher people think about and shudder, 20 years later. He makes your brain take the shape of an Escher sketch. He pounded things into your head about how to write, how to persuade, how to make a case.

After I finished the course with a B (I never heard him give an A, and a B was so rare I was floored), I realized some things Bob taught me were true for other types of writing beyond literary analysis. I've had this Tip in the blog list for a while now. Today seemed a good day.

Here are two nuggets I got from Bob's lessons. They're some of what a stubborn English professor taught me about writing copy.

1. I Don't Care - In a feelings-are-important world, Bob professed never to care. He demanded our essays force him to change that position. We had to figure out a way to make him care with our words.

Customers have the same amount of caring - none. You have to make them care. I don't mean threaten or trick; I mean present a solid case for your products. Back it up. Show readers every possible reason why you've got the best choice.

2. Stay On-Target - The word on campus said Bob kept the local red-ink store in business singlehandedly. I got my first essay back and vouched for the word. He's brutal. Funny thing, it was easy to see how off in left field I was over and over after I got the essay back. What did THAT line have to do with the point I was making?

If you veer off on any sort of tangent when writing, cut the whole section and start over. No, don't save "just a few words" for later. Rip it out. Go back to what you were saying before - the relevant part of the copy - and continue. You will have to do this many times. You'll hate it. But if you stick to the target message (and cruelly remind yourself again & again) your copy will shoot into readers' brains like a laser.

Thanks, Bob. You were right - we DID learn something. My writing is clearer and stronger because of those nerve-wracking classes.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Family Accident; No Post Today

Last night, my sister was hit head-on by a drunk driver. She was in surgery for 6 hours to put steel rods into her legs and refit the breaks. I have only an initial report, but it sounds like she'll be okay.

Needless to say, there's not going to be an article today. I'm heading up to Redding in a little bit. (Someone's going to have to handle the legal side of this; my parents are not very lawyer-savvy.)

I'll say this, though. I don't care if you have to punch your best friend Friday night. Get. The. Keys.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 10-16-06 - How to Keep Your Credibility on Paid Posts

The number of bloggers writing paid-for reviews - their own ads, in other words - will increase in the coming years. The controversy is already flaring up, as you can see in the comments to TechCrunch's post on pay-per-post outfits.

Personally, I don't like the idea of an independent blogger dishing out their credibility for a quick paycheck. But the whole point of blogging is the freedom to give out what information you want. I'm not going to speak against that.

So I thought, "Well Chris, if you could contribute something here - like some advice - what would it be?"

And my brain said, "What about a fast and simple way for these bloggers to fully disclose which posts are paid for?"

Good brain.

Now, there's no sense in assuming your readers are idiots. They'll figure out you've written an ad about ten seconds in. Identifying a post as paid for ahead of time does more for your reputation than their thought processes. "Oh, he's letting me know even before I start reading that he got paid to write this one. Very honest of him."

Without further ado - my suggestion for a 2-part credibility-keeping strategy.

ONE - Place a small graphic near the top of the post. It could state that the following post is an ad, or just have a specific symbol (like this: ) that you've previously indicated accompanies an ad.

TWO - Include a standard text disclaimer at the post's end. Nothing fancy. "The above post was paid for by my sponsor, XYZ Inc. All facts are verifiable. Contact Jeff at XYZ Inc. (email) for questions." Could be even shorter, if the sponsoring company doesn't want their name included.

This way you're covered on both ends. You're being completely honest, SEO is satisfied, you can categorize, your readers are in no way misled, and they have a choice. They can skip the post if they want, or go in with eyes open.

Credibility is a tenuous thing. You can lose it in a second, even though it takes a long time to gain. Don't lose all of yours for a few bucks. If you want to be paid for posting, make the effort to sustain your rep.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Power of Small Statements

We put a lot of power into small statements.

They're an end result of work. Oftentimes this work is an overwhelming amount of time. So much so that it can't all be described. It has to be encapsulated in a bold "small statement."

Months of study. Hours upon hours of coding practice. Constant fiddling around. Neverending knowledge upkeep.
Result = "I know C++."

Reading dozens of books for tips. Thousands of hours writing. Page after page of edits. Research days to check all the facts. Constantly fighting down the urge to revise one more time.
Result = "I wrote a book."

Their power comes from the effect they have. People nod their heads. If it's an achievement, they express congratulations. We subconsciously acknowledge the gravity of what's been said.

Sound a little metaphysical? It's really not. It's all a part of language. A part of the words we use. There's a shared headspace where people get their understanding. We all recognize such statements as following great amounts of work. Once our brain catches it, we assign value to what we're being told.

The same principles apply to copy. Small statements can and should hold incredible meaning behind them.

Think of them as sticking a dam into your copy. Behind it roils a torrent of factoids, data, timeclocks, sweat and brain-drain. But all you see is the dam. The end result. Holding back the tide with a quiet, stately presence. Customers recognize the level of work that went into your statement on its placid face.

I'll give you some example copy. Which sounds more powerful?

1. XYZ worked for 5 years to collect the right people and do all necessary development. We conducted 43 tests so we could be absolutely sure there'd be no problems. After 13 years in business, we've reached the #1 mark in California and stayed up there since 2001. You're sure to be satisfied with XYZ Software's amazing products.


2. Get #1-ranked customer service with XYZ Software. Zero complaints, 5 years running.

Pow. No ambiguity. Statement #2 punches you right in the face. And you can tell what it took for XYZ to get there.

The value of "small statements" come from letting the customer put their own meaning into what you've said. In one sense, you're telling them about the product they're interested in. In another, you're letting them sell themselves by filling in the subtle gaps. If their desires match to what your statements speak for, you've got a hot lead.

Now, a little test for you. Every part of this article has a "small statement" in it. Can you figure out where each one connects in your head? When you do, write those statements down. You've just profiled some of your desires. Try the same process in your copy and see what happens.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 10-9-06 - Columbus Reminds Us of a Sales/Marketing Truth

As most everyone knows, today is Columbus Day. Wasn't perfect, but he did something bold for what he believed, and reaped a sizable reward.

When he appeared before the rulers of Spain, do you think he talked about how he would only need 3 ships? How his course would only take so many weeks, as opposed to months the "traditional" way?

Nope. Those were features of his proposal. Parts. The nitty-gritty.

According to what I've read, Columbus instead addressed the benefits his journey would bring. He talked about spices. About gold and jewels. About how his route brought wealth back faster, so the court could enjoy it sooner.

The age-old sales/marketing truism, displayed once again. Focus on the benefits. The features will take care of themselves.

(I don't mean to diminish Columbus' achivement by looking at it from another angle, but let's face it, he convinced a king & queen to give him ships to go sailing off in a direction nobody went! The guy knew how to sell.)

Nothing you sales geniuses need to be told, I know. But it's interesting to note that some truths are timeless. We as human beings react to the benefits of a product more than we do its features. As true today as it was in 1492.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

How to Make Yourself Keep Blogging

You don't want to blog today. Anything but that. Cleaning the file cabinet (which has papers growing out of it like Mel Gibson's beard) seems preferable. Wait until tomorrow. Nobody cares if you don't update. Why'd you start this blog, anyway?

Yes, I've been there. I'm sure my fellow bloggers have too. Many times. When it comes, my fellow bloggers look for a way to kick themselves into gear. My fellow writers seek new ways to inspire themselves.

Fear not! The Blue Ferret has come with a formula to save you!

Okay, more like a potential solution in four aspects. Your mileage may vary.

A way to make yourself keep blogging is to generate an environment that promotes blogging interest. It's a little more specific than a "quiet space" or "meditation area," and there are distinct characteristics.

Your "blog-motivation environment" has to do two things:
   1. Rekindle your motivation to write and share ideas.
   2. Provide you with inspiration to create those ideas.

Four aspects of your blog-motivation environment - and hence your blog - are that it should be:

Digestible. Unless you're writing a novel via blog or putting lists up one number at a time (in which case your readers will hate you), your blogging is going to come in chunks. Each post needs to encapsulate a single idea or position.

These ideas have to be portable - your audience needs usable stuff. Tips, lists, tools. Whole concepts from beginning to end. Now, the best way I manifest this "chunking" idea in my thought patterns is to have my blog-motivation environment someplace I also use for other things.

Crash out in bed and stare at the wall. Go for a walk. Visit a store you like. The mental state of "I go here to do this normally, but now I'm here to do this other thing" seems to compartmentalize my thoughts. When ideas pop up, they're quickly bunched into a whole unit like a crumpled foil ball.

Writing copy isn't pretty sometimes, folks.

Regular. Updating once in a while - or worse, "when I feel like it" - spells death for blogs. A regular schedule, posting at least twice a week (4-5 posts/week seems to get even more attention), cannot be undervalued.

Frankly, this is the hardest part for me. And I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

I take two steps to nudge myself into keeping a blogging schedule:
a. Regular alerts. Automatically remind yourself of the days and times for blogging. Google Calendar can do this, along with your PDA, cellphone, Outlook, and automatic email reminder systems. I use my PDA - it has very noisy beeps.

b. Write up a profile of one of your audience's members. Marketers call this a specific target market. Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero wrote up an excellent method to determine this audience member's (or "tarket," as she calls them) profile in her Red Hot Copy Newsletter last year.

Print this profile out. Stick it someplace easy to grab. On the appointed day, refer to it. Ask yourself, "What can I tell this person today?" The answer(s!) might surprise.

Creativity good. Distractions bad. Might be self-explanatory, but I do want to add a caveat when it comes to blog writing. Don't focus too much. The mind should be free to wander around the topics it finds. Writing about writing every time will quickly get old without shaking your brain up a bit. That means not too many distractions, but some you're aware of beforehand are okay. They can nudge your brain into corners it might have avoided.

You'll definitely want to avoid the unfamiliar kind of distraction, though. Traffic, for example, is a distraction you can't predict. Guaranteed to get you off-track (no pun intended). Your blog environment should be clear of unforeseen elements. Lock your door.

Reading-based. Yep, the old paperback. Keep at least one book in your blogging environment. I prefer two, myself - double your chances for an idea. Plus, you can bounce concepts from one book to another and come up with a tangent.

As another reading example, observe my blogtip about assumptions to avoid when emailing. I read a lot of email - clients, newsletters, etc. The BlogTip arose from the mass of emails in my inbox like a ghost clawing its way out from the grave.

Your audience is helpful here. Like it or not, you're writing to a specific audience. If you don't define it, they will for you. For instance, my audience with this blog is twofold: fellow writers/marketers, and mid-market/enterprise company VPs. I make it a point to read what they read. Find what they like to read about. A little time and digging is all it takes. Ideas will burst out of their news, their commentaries, and even their silence.

Hmmm, maybe there's an easy way to remember all this. Acronym time? Digestible, Regular, Focus, Reading-based...DRFRb.

Drfrb. Sounds like you're shouting "deferred" through a gag. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

I can claim a small victory for these blogging-motivation procedures, though. The entire thing came to me when I woke up from a nap and scrambled for a notepad.

Why was I napping? I needed some motivation to blog that day.

See if they work for you.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Blue Ferret BlogTip 10-2-06 - Set an End Date For Your Business

Nobody wants to do the same thing forever. That includes self-employment. We've all had that day when we wanted to be doing something, anything other than run our business.

Here's something I've found relieves a bunch of will-I-make-it stress: Try setting an end date for your business.

Complete its life cycle in your head. And decide what form this end will take. Setting an end date, and what action you want to take after that, will give you a goal to work toward. It'll also give you peace of mind - you'll know you aren't going to be doing this for the rest of your life. You'll reach an end, your work will have its result, and you'll have change to look forward to.

Here are some options for that final action:

1. Sell the Business.
2. Start a New Business.
3. Retire (I like this one).
4. Move & Start Over.

What's a good end date to set? I'd suggest going in 5s - 5 years, 10, 15. Regardless, It's important to set the end relative to the year you began. That way you're immediately aware of how much time you have left to get to your final action. Nothing like a deadline for motivation!

In five minutes you can garner 2 benefits, a goal and a plan. All from deciding to set your business' end date, when it will be, and what you'll do afterward. Lot of value for only three decisions.