Up front with lessons from Down Under
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At the latest Content Marketing World conference in Cleveland, I had the privilege of leading the pre-conference workshop on “Web Writing 201.” Joe Pulizzi had pulled me in for the task, and my first hurdle was to think about what distinguished advanced web writing from basic web writing.

So I defined the basics as: storytelling, writing from/to the audience’s point of view, and developing a steady stream of relevant content.

The advanced, 201 stuff? To me, it’s about:

  • Learning how to tease, rather than please (that is, completely satisfy curiosity)
  • Applying strategies to communicate quickly to skimmers/scanners
  • Figuring out how to sustain those regular content streams

Fortunately, I don’t have to tell you more. Because one of the attendees, Peter Gearin of BrandTales in Australia, has done the heavy lifting for me–and for you. In his article summarizing the workshop, “3 Secrets to Writing Successful Content,” you’ll get an in-depth explanation of the 201 concepts, plus the cool kangaroo story (this is that “tease” thing I mentioned) that transformed the way I write copy, and became the justification for the image accompanying this post.

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Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products

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Want some practical approaches to marketing the really tough stuff? The boring product, the complex service, the “parity” or commodity product?

In the latest Salesforce Marketing Cloudcast podcast, I articulate the challenges and offer time-tested ways of overcoming them. My hosts, Joel Book and Heike Young, have called the resulting recording, “Genius Marketing for Boring, Complex, or Non-Differentiated Products.” Please note that “genius” is their word, not mine, but I am flattered.

When you tune in to listen, you’ll discover:

  • Why clarity can beat creativity
  • How to apply the “plumber’s magnet” approach to making urgent offers
  • Where “boring” becomes vitally interesting
  • What book you absolutely must read if you want to write compelling copy (aside from Writing Copy for Dummies, naturally)



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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part III: The Complex Service

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One of the paradoxes of my work is this: many of my most intelligent clients have the greatest difficulty explaining what they do. Why? I suspect it’s because, ultimately, what they really sell is intelligence itself, a difficult quality to articulate in marketing messaging. This is a common problem among service providers, like consultants, who sell an intangible service whose value is entirely wrapped in the subtleties of research, collaboration, thinking, and thoughtful execution.

The temptation, in these cases, is to promote your “secret sauce” formula that sets you apart from the competition. The problem? It’s really hard to get prospects excited about reading about yet another methodology.

Remember, they’re not interested in you — they’re interested in solving their own problems. That’s the key to resolving this marketing tangle.

Take a step back with me. We both know that your real value lies in your ability to streamline workflows, uncover new marketing opportunities, resolve internal conflicts, fulfill effective change management, etc. You never let go of the big stuff — that’s what you do and it’s how, in the long run, you make good money.

But don’t lead with the big stuff. Lead with something small, sharp and urgent. Think of this way: What kind of emergency can you address? What customer fire can you put out fast?

Think of the plumber’s magnet. Your local plumber makes the big bucks on new construction, renovations, heating systems, etc. But these are tough sells, really difficult ways to engage new customers.

So they give you a magnet with their name and phone number. Why? So one day when a pipe bursts and you need help fast, you’ll call that number and get their help. It’s not only about the immediate business; it’s about beginning a new business relationship.

If you have a complex service, can you make a simple urgent offer that can initiate your customer relationship? Example: I worked with a huge commercial real estate firm that helped banks maintain, market and sell properties they had received in bankruptcy/mortgage defaults. Selling this kind of big ticket work was hard. But they also offered a 24/7 emergency security service; as soon as a bank got a property, they could call this firm and within hours, the firm would change the locks and take all the other measures necessary to secure the property. This service was not a big money maker. But it was a brilliant way of getting in the door and landing big jobs.

What’s your “magnet,” what’s your emergency service? Target a small urgent need so that you can begin the conversation that brings you the larger, more lucrative work.

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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part II: The Parity Product

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Many years ago when I was preparing Writing Copy for Dummies for publication, I got into a bit of a disagreement with an editor over the issue of the “unique selling proposition.” I had written about what to do when you don’t have one. The editor, a 3rd party expert hired by the publisher to review my content, insisted there HAD to be one — you just had to work hard enough to find it. I held my ground: you can do all the handstands and back flips you like, but there are times when you have nothing distinct to offer.

Cue spooky Twilight Zone music: “Imagine a world in which your products are indistinguishable from your competitors’ products. A world, if you will, of parity.”

Brrr. Scary. But I still hold my ground. Sure, you can make stuff up — many marketers do — but buyers will always see the truth and then the only people we’re fooling are ourselves.

Painful as it is, it’s better to face the truth. But when you do, what can you do? What do you do when your product or service is pretty much the same as the competition?

You give up, collapse into a fetal ball, and weep yourself insensate.

Just kidding.

Here’s what you do. Focus on an aspect of your product or service that may not be distinctive, but has a great deal of meaning or value to your buyer. (Hint: a little research may be warranted here.) Once you’ve found it, “own” it. By owning it, I mean committing yourself to articulating or demonstrating that value more clearly and consistently than the competition. In that way, your proposition may not be unique, but it can be uniquely associated with your brand.

Case in point: I’ve been really impressed with Farmers Insurance’s “Know the Gaps” campaign. They’re focusing on a common anxiety many insurance buyers have: do I have enough coverage? Do I have the right coverage? Is there something missing, a gap, that could open up and bite me in the unwitting ass some time in the future?

Now, we all know that pretty much any insurer or insurance broker can help you figure out the right amount of coverage — they all do it. But it doesn’t matter. By going public with the issue, by giving it a name, Farmers now owns this whole “know the gaps” value proposition, giving Farmers distinction in a commodity marketplace. Today, Farmers is the insurance provider who helps you plug the gaps.

When you’re faced with parity, fight back with clarity. Find the issue that matters most to your buyers and shout it from the mountain tops so that it becomes indelibly associated with you.

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Tackling the Tough Marketing Challenge, Part I: The “Boring” Product

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I got a call out of the blue (a LinkedIn message, actually — yet another reason LinkedIn is my favorite social media platform for business) from Heike Young, the co-host of Salesforce’s Marketing Cloudcast. She’s invited me to participate (podcast coming soon) and in the meantime, our conversations have got me thinking about marketing.

But not just any marketing. Tough marketing. Marketing the bitch-ugly stuff. The stuff they never tell you about in marketing school. My kind of marketing!

There are lots of ways marketing can be tough, and I plan to write about them in subsequent posts. For this first one, I want to focus on boredom. The dull product. The unsexy service. The thing you think no one could possibly be interested in.

So what do you do with “boring” products?

First step, understand that the problem isn’t the product, it’s you. It’s not that the product is boring, per se, but that you’re bored with the product.

Solution: Understand that for a particular set of people out there, your “boring” product is not boring at all, but essential in some way. Perhaps it’ll never be exciting, but it may be important. As a marketer, your job is to identify who these people are–and then get inside their shoes. Or heads. Doesn’t matter. You have to get inside them and then see the product from their perspective.

Here’s a B2C example: trash bags. Specifically, the thickness of trash bags. Booorrrring. Right? But I’ll tell you this–you’ll save a dime and buy discount trash bags until that one day (and this one day will come, I promise you) when that thin, cheap-ass trash bag breaks apart under your hands. I can’t give you the date and time, but I can guarantee it’ll be when you’re late for a very important meeting and you’re dressed in your best duds.

Second promise: you’ll never buy a discount trash bag again. That’s why Glad ran a successful (and oh so boring) ad campaign that featured burst bags. Because if you’ve ever suffered one, suddenly bag thickness becomes a very interesting topic. “Come to me baby. Whisper sweet gauge figures in my ear. Oooohhh.”

What about B2B? Yup, there are even more opportunities for boring products here. Here’s one I learned about from experience: drill bits. The kind of drill bits oil rig operators use to extract…oil. Most of us lay people don’t know (and don’t care about) this, but there are actually many different kinds of bits designed for many different kinds of geologies and ground conditions.

Are you yawning yet?

But consider this: every day of delay on an oil rig could mean millions of dollars in lost revenues. This is not an exaggeration. Millions. Of dollars.

Once you put that drill bit in context, it’s not so boring at all, is it?

When you’re bored by a product, you’re thinking of it from the wrong point of view–your own. Think of the right people and the right context–think of what the products means in their world–and suddenly, most “boring” products can be pretty exciting things to market.

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One of Ann Handley’s top tips for creating a writing culture? Training!

Ann says training is a top ten priority.

As you might imagine, I’m tickled pink by Ann Handley’s recent article, 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Writing; there, at the climax of the list, at big number ten, is the concluding tip: Invest in Training.

You know I’m all about training in-house teams in marketing writing and content creation. And I’ve had the privilege of participating in MarketProfs writing bootcamps. But if you’re seriously considering writing training for your own organization, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Customized curriculum: The cliche is true–one size does not fit all. You should ask for, and get, a curriculum tailored to your objectives; your team should be trained in the skills urgently relevant to your company.
  • Hands-on exercises: Passively enduring a PowerPoint presentation is torture, not training. Real learning begins by doing real work. Live. In practice. In the moment. Demand writing exercises from your trainer, not a dog and pony show.
  • One-on-one attention and feedback: The true magic lies here, in the personalized feedback a skilled writing teacher can give to teams, small groups and, best of all, to each participating individual.

If you agree with me, you’ll understand that webinars and most other forms of digital “learning” have limited value; they can point to good ideas, but only direct engagement can actually inculcate effective writing skills. Live, hands-on training equals real learning.

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Does B2B vs. B2C really matter?

"Is this a high-consideration purchase? Or not?"

I found inspiration today from a Harvard Business Review guest blog post arguing that — surprise! — the “modern marketer” must be a skilled analytics person, like an engineer or architect. (Pity the poor modern marketer — this requirement would be, of course, in addition to being social, customer-centric, a storyteller and a content creator. No wonder modern life is so stressful.)

I thought to myself, well, maybe, sure; in some contexts, the marketer as analytics-driven engineer makes sense, especially in the world of mobile marketing to consumers in which its absolutely essential to design automated marketing systems that can respond effectively to behavioral triggers, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Me, I don’t do the kind of marketing that’s so heavily dependent on real-time whatever. And that brings me to the point of this post. For years now, when people asked what kind of copywriting I did, I’d say B2B, with a smattering of B2C in “complex” areas, like insurance, higher education or financial services — in other words, where the ability to translate complex information into compelling pitches really matters.

Now that’s still true, but I think I’ve found a better way of articulating that market segment by way of Adele Revella of the Buyer Persona Institute. In her presentation at CMW last September, she used a phrase that really caught my ear: “high-consideration.” Responding to an audience question regarding the value of doing interviews that dug into the purchasing decision, Adele said they were not possible in “low-consideration” contexts (like buying a bag of chips or clicking on a banner link) because the purchaser had put little thought, or consideration, into the purchase. The investigations become meaningful, very meaningful, when customers put a good deal of thought into what they have to buy.

Notice the crucial distinction: it’s not whether it’s a consumer or business purchase, it’s whether the purchase involves a significant amount of conscious thought.

Bingo! Buying a soda for personal consumption or a box of pens for the office is low-consideration. But buying an insurance plan for your personal estate or a CRM service for your office is high-consideration.

Back to the original inspiration for this story: what do modern marketers need to know? For me, the distinctive skill sets are no longer (if they ever really were) between those for B2C vs. B2B, but for low-consideration vs. high-consideration. If your business is in the former category, then you’ll need more background in awareness advertising, behavioral triggers, POS set-ups, etc. But if your business is in high-consideration turf, as mine is, you’re going to find things like content marketing and lead nurturance much more relevant.

At least, that’s what I think about thinking. I think…

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One of the 101 best copywriters in the world?

One of the elite 101?

This morning, I received an intriguing email from Miles Galliford, who gave me a free one-year subscription to PhraseHQ, “the world’s largest phrase thesaurus,” by virtue of my being, in his words, “one of the top 100 copywriters in the world.”

Is it true? Does it matter? In any event, I’ll take pleasure in the compliment. Why the hell not?

I don’t know how Miles compiled the list or what standards he applied in exercising his judgment, but whatever else, I’m certainly in good company. Some of the 101 are legends, like Bob Bly, Dan Kennedy and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Some of them are friends or acquaintances, like Diana Huff, Mike Stelzner and Steve Slaunwhite. Others, frankly, I’ve never heard of but that doesn’t mean anything — I don’t know lots of terrific people.

Miles asked, in his email, for constructive criticism (for which I may be rewarded with lifetime access) and here are a few points:

  • First of all, I think it’s a cool and necessary tool. Phrases can be confusing and/or ambiguous, so a helpful site/application like this is appreciated.
  • I’d like to see more phrases from foreign languages (especially Latin) that English-speakers are likely to encounter in their reading. Few things are as frustrating as an untranslated phrase that the author just assumes we should understand.
  • I’d also like to see special callouts or flags for nation-specific colloquialisms (U.S., U.K., Australia, etc.) that might be confusing to an English-speaker outside the country of the phrase’s origin.

Just my two-cents. (Do they say “two-pence” or “tuppence” in England?)


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How to ruin a great tagline

Published on April 24, 2013 by in blog, copywriting, WTF?

How to ruin a great tagline

Once upon a time, this brand's tagline wasn't stupid. Really.

Growing up in the New York metro area, I appreciated Strand Books as a thing of wonder. If you loved books, here was paradise — a dim, dirty and dusty paradise to be sure, but paradise. And back in that day, the store’s tagline expertly expressed its appeal: “8 Miles of Books.”

Wow. Eight miles! The line was perfect. It captured the store’s abundance. It conveyed a hint of adventure, of hitting the road for a journey. And it communicated something of the city’s blunt pride: “Yeah, we got your books. Eight miles of ’em. Right here.”

Years later, the store made a modest, reasonable and (if anything) more boastful update to its tagline: “18 Miles of Books.”

Double wow!

Then, I’m not sure when, but not long ago, the store abandoned its quantitative braggadocio for a line that might have saucered out of the sky, streaming kombucha, from Portlandia: “Where Books Are Loved.”

Are you freakin’ kidding me? Where books are loved? Aside from its twee, hippy-dippy stupidity, the tagline stakes a claim ANY bookstore can make. Of course it’s a place where books are loved. Isn’t that true of every single indie bookstore in the world? The same cannot be said of “eight miles” or “eighteen miles” of books: in either case, that’s a claim tough to match and even more difficult to beat.

What on earth happened? Did the owners drink the water from Jersey? Were they bought out by PE morons from LA? How did this communications travesty occur?

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Which writers get paid?

Published on March 9, 2013 by in blog, copywriting, WTF?

Which writers get paid?
Cartoon guy carrying sack of money.

This writer knows what to write and where.

As you might imagine, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of writers making money. That’s why this Gawker post, “When Writers Write for Free, Who Pays?” caught my attention (even though, I will confess, the post didn’t sustain it; I found it far too easy to skip paragraphs on my flight to its conclusion).

Yes, I feel genuine sympathy for young writers — or people with writing ambitious who are not quite young anymore — and I can empathize with the pain of their struggles and the temptations to write for free, for exposure.

But there’s an ugly truth this whole kerfuffle seems to overlook: as in any glamorous industry (like fashion, theater, film, art, publishing, etc.) there’s a glut of would-be talent and an under-supply of appealing opportunities. As a consequence, the opportunities are dear, while talent comes cheap: for those willing to exploit this market reality, finding willing creators who’ll work for nothing or virtually nothing is easy. Want cheap talent? Swing your elbows on any Manhattan street corner.

Part two of the ugly truth: there is money to be made in writing, but it’s not in the kind of writing most people find attractive. It’s not what Kerouac hit the road for, not the stuff of literary daydreams; it’s what I do, commercial writing. Creating “content.” Writing web pages, emails and brochures. Ghosting articles and white papers. Making ads and direct marketing mailers.

It an’t sexy, but the work I produce and the money I’m paid for that work is real. Hence ugly truth number three: if you want to make money writing, make writing that makes money.

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