Another Book Review of Everybody Writes

You don’t have to be a reluctant writer to get value from Ann Handley’s latest book, Everybody Writes.

ann-3dWith content marketing gaining ground, more people are now on the hook for creating content through blog posts, articles and other written pieces. The book is useful for anyone who finds themselves writing for work, and particularly on behalf of brands.

The blogosphere is awash with rave reviews – there’s no need for me to add another. (Read Doug Kessler’s entertaining review of the reviews of Everybody Writes – that’s how many reviews there are.)

This review is for the subset of writers who feel they are beyond the need for a ‘how to write’ book – people who are already comfortable with writing mechanics and their own personal styles. These are the writers who:

  • Are more comfortable composing a written email about a complex subject than calling someone on the phone
  • Are happy to engage in discussions about the pros and cons of the Oxford comma with like-minded individuals
  • Shudder when they see typos on billboards or in newspaper headlines
  • Majored in English or journalism
  • Are the ones that everyone goes to in the office before posting a blog or sending an important email
  • Leave comments on blogs to point out grammatical errors to the author

If you fit any of these descriptions, you might ask yourself why you need a book on writing. You’ve already got The Elements of Style, right?

I had those thoughts, too. But I bought Everybody Writes when it came out for two reasons:

  1. I enjoy Ann Handley’s writing, so I knew the book would be fun to read.
  2. As a writer, I always have room to improve.

After her earlier book Content Rules (which she co-authored with CC Chapman), Ann once again produces a book that is a joy to read and earns its place on the bookshelf.

Here are a few of the reasons I found the book valuable:

Well-articulated rules for the next time I have to explain my edits to others
Some grammar rules I know by intuition rather than by rote. Ann offers pithy explanations of those. For example,  you don’t hyphenate a compound modifier if the first word is an adverb ending in ‘ly’. Here’s how Ann illustrates the rule:

“Not cool: This is an extremely-simple rule to understand.

Cool: This is an extremely simple rule to understand.”

She’s gathered data on the ideal length for website text lines and paragraphs. You may find this helpful when justifying your ruthless edits.

Fun new words and facts
I did not know the terms mondegreen or eggcorn (misheard terms that gain a life of their own). My life is richer for the existence of these two words.

New tools and resources
Ann has done a great job of curating a collection of tools for writers. I have only started exploring these resources. For example, did you know about the site 750words.com to help you write at least 750 words each day?

Validation and support
The final take-away for the professional writer is this: people do care. When writing for industry, it’s easy to get sucked into jargon and industry-speak. Swimming against the tide can become difficult after a while. Throughout Everybody Writes, the unifying message is that it does matter – because everybody is also a reader.

I love the concept of having “pathological empathy” for the reader. It’s a guiding principle in content marketing and beyond. Here’s how she describes it:

“…empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all of your content, because having a sense of the people you are writing for and a deep understanding of their problems is key to honing your skill.”

I’d recommend this book to writers at all phases of their careers and capabilities. Because while everybody writes, we all can find ways to do it better.

Improve Your Customer Focus with 4 Simple Questions

The better you know your customers, the easier it is to create the content that they find valuable and engaging.

The recent B2B Content Marketing: 2015 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends—North America study by MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute asked B2B marketers about their challenges. What’s the #1 problem? Creating engaging content.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 5.48.34 PM

Read more in the MarketingProfs article.

The first challenge of creating engaging content is to understand the audience. “Engaging” is in the eye of the beholder.

Focus on your target audience

Content marketing practitioners talk about developing buyer personas.  It’s a great practice. But in reality, many businesses skip that step in their content marketing strategies.

In all the companies I’ve worked with, I can count on one hand the number that have shared customer personas with me. Maybe the process of developing personas is too time-consuming?

So let’s make it less daunting and narrow it down to four simple questions. The questions get progressively more in-depth – the more you answer, the clearer your focus on the customer.

1 – Who are your target customers?

This first question is the most basic customer targeting. In the B2B sale, what type of business are you targeting? Who are the buyers within the business? Who will use the solution? You might have several different answers to this question. See if you can answer the following questions for each different target customer.

2 – Where are your customers?

In the B2B context, where do your buyers work? Where do they hang out during the day – either physically or online? Where do they look for answers to their questions or problems relevant to your offering?

3 – What are they doing today?

What are they doing related to what you offer? Do they realize they need your solution or do you have to educate them about the problem? Are they using a competitor’s product or nothing at all? Do they feel any urgency about the problem?

At this point, the target customer has come into sharper definition. But don’t stop yet – see if you can answer the following question.

4 – Where do they want to go?

What are your customer’s larger or longer-term objectives? Can you help them achieve those longer-term objectives? What are their values? How can you align your solution with their values or objectives?

I said the questions were simple – getting the answers takes time and work.  But the payoff is big. If you can answer these four questions for your target customers, you’ll know just what you need to do to create engaging content.

3 Reasons to Love Long-Form Content

 

Someone asked me recently, “Do people even read white papers anymore?”

The question is understandable, especially if you’re not in B2B technology. The trend in content marketing is towards short, “snackable” content that’s easy to share. And I applaud that trend – to a point.

Longer papers still have a role to play in lead generation, thought leadership and lead nurturing. The traditional white paper has other, long-form cousins that are equally useful, such as:

  • Recorded webinars
  • Ebooks
  • Research reports

Your content marketing strategy should include lengthier content for three key reasons:

1. Improved SEO
Search engines love long-form content – the more words, the better they can analyze.
According to Andy Crestodina at Orbit Media, the ideal length for a blog post from an SEO perspective is 1500 words.

(Thanks to Ann Handley for sharing this fact in her wonderful book Everybody Writes.)

My blog posts aren’t that long, so I don’t practice what I preach in this regard. And I certainly don’t advocate writing massively long web pages. Always consider human readability first.

The content marketing take-away: Put a longer paper up on your website so web crawlers can find it, and see what happens to your organic search results.

2. The psychological pay-off
Here’s a fun bit of research I found in the book Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in an Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen:

“When we deliberately seek information, we are more likely to use it.”

When I read this, I started thinking of the content marketing implications:

  • You create an informative or actionable piece of content and make it easy for your audience to find.
  • Your audience searches it out, downloads it, and invests time to read it (paper, ebook) or watch it (webinar).

The fact that they deliberately sought out the content makes people more likely to use that information. If the content was good, then you’ve already delivered value to the audience.

The content marketing take-away: Figure out what questions your audience has and try to answer them. Do original research or interview experts if necessary.

3. Generating more content 
One long piece can result in many other content assets. Repurpose a white paper or report into multiple blogs or infographics. Use it as the basis for videos, a webinar, or a SlideShare presentation. And by all means create those snackable tweets and quotes.

For inspiration, here’s a post I found today by Justice Mitchell on the Maximize Social Business blog on how to take a five-minute video and turn it into multiple pieces of content.

The content marketing take-away: Find one paper or video on your site that has useful insight for prospects and customers. Now try to generate four or five new content pieces across different channels from that single piece of content.

Minimum Viable Messaging for Startups

Few things make a content developer (aka writer) happier than a complete product messaging roadmap. For details, see What the Writer Wants from a Product Messaging Document. We know that content development and review cycles will be smooth sailing if there’s a well-developed product messaging map at the start.

But as with any rule, there’s an exception – the early stage startup.

Product messaging is critical in any business, start-ups included. But in an early startup, product messaging has a shorter shelf life than a peach in summer.

In the early stages of a product or solution’s life, messaging is bound to change, no matter how much work and research you’ve put into the messaging process.

What’s your minimum viable product messaging?
In The Lean Startup, Eric Reis recommends coming out with a minimum viable product and seeing how the market reacts. This protects you from spending a time (and money) on the wrong strategy.

Marketing teams can take a similar approach, even when the solution is ready for production. Come up with a minimum viable messaging platform, then test and perfect it based on its reception.

The elements of the minimum viable messaging map
An ideal messaging document is concise, so you can change it easily. Most startups go out the gate with the messages that their founders and investors feel are most important. If those messages don’t resonate with buyers, you want to know quickly.

The startup messaging map includes all of the main points of the standard product messaging map in a condensed version. Doing research is good, but experience with real customers is better.

Here’s what the product messaging map might look like for a startup:

  • Target markets/buyers: Start with just one or two, and assume there are others you don’t know about yet.
  • Key pains addressed or problems solved: Identify the key issues you’re trying to address and what people are doing about them now. Continue to listen to the market to validate those pains. Your solution may solve problems you don’t even know about. Did Apple know that the iPad would be a hit with octogenarians? No, but my mother is one of its biggest fans.
  • Top benefits: Identify what you think the top two or three benefits are, then let early customers tell you what they think based on their actions. They may surprise you.
  • Competitive differentiators and unique value proposition: Start small and test the messaging about why you’re different. Things you think are critical may be unimportant to customers.
  • Key features: Choose a few essential features and see which are most interesting or important to early users.

Put the most energy into testing the target market and top benefits. The key features and value propositions depend heavily on the value that people perceive they are getting from the solution.

You can track what people think about your messaging in several ways:

  • Use your content:  structure the website by benefits and features, and track where people click and read.
  • Track which kinds of content they download from your site or which blogs they read.
  • If you have insight into product usage, identify which features people are using.
  • Use customer research for additional insight.

Be ready to rewrite and revise the content produced in the early days, because it almost always changes. Revision isn’t a sign that you failed in your messaging – it’s a sign that you’re learning.

If you have other strategies for handling messaging in the fast-changing start-up world, please share them in the comments.

Content Marketing: Past, present and future

Want an illustration of how far content marketing has come as a practice? I was at a wedding a few weeks back, speaking with someone who does video for brands. Just to try it out, I described myself as a “long form written content developer” and he knew what I meant.

I’m not a writer anymore, I’m a long form written content developer. Try to tweet that!

How far we’ve come
When I started this blog more than five years ago, I had to define the term “content marketing” to people when I met them. Now it’s one of the hottest topics in marketing. See the Google Trends graph for content marketing in the last five years.

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 4.39.03 PM

Content Marketing World is in its fourth year as a content marketing conference. It had more than 2,500 attendees this year.

Content is part of many job titles: Director of Content Strategy, Chief Content Officer, Content Marketing Manager, etc. Content marketing is mainstream.

Where we’re going
On one end of the spectrum, some marketers feel left behind by all the hype. At a marketing meetup in San Francisco a while back, someone asked me in hushed tones, “What does content marketing really mean?”

I gave her a quick answer – it’s about understanding what your prospects and customers need and then making sure you can help them at all points of their journey with content. If you’re in this camp and want a fuller explanation, I’d recommend that you read Joe Pulizzi’s book Epic Content Marketing. I’ll review that in a blog soon.

On the other end of the spectrum are the expert practitioners who use content not just to drive sales, but also to add value to their brands and solutions. These people understand that content is itself an asset of value.

For inspiring examples, see this blog that Michael Brenner posted recently about branded content hubs that are becoming valued destinations: 20 Amazing Examples of Branded Content Marketing Hubs.

In these examples, content marketing does more than simply driving leads through a sales cycle – it is adding value to the overall brand and strengthening relationships with existing customers. And that, in my humble opinion, is where the future of content marketing leads.

What’s your True Story? (Book review)

truestory-coverDavid Meerman Scott’s New Rules of Marketing and PR came out in 2007, which seems like a lifetime ago. Now it’s a “marketing classic.” As the world continues to evolve, marketers need to be lifelong learners to stay current.

In the interests of continuous learning, I’ve been reading a wide range of books and want to share the more interesting ones here. Ty Montague’s book True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business is a good place to look for marketing inspiration.

While marketers everywhere realize the importance of storytelling, Montague suggests that we take it further, committing instead to Storydoing™.

The strategy requires an organization to craft its own metastory. Doing so requires a deep understanding of the participants and the stage, as well as the business’ own capabilities. The fourth key component of the metastory is the “quest” – or the higher purpose of a company beyond simply making money.

To move from storytelling to storydoing, you need to let the metastory guide actions. The book offers illustrative stories of the theory in practice for inspiration.

The key takeaways are relevant to every marketing organization:

• Make sure you truly understand your prospects and market participants.
• Honestly assess your own capabilities and personality.
• Have a vision or purpose – and make sure it’s authentic.
• Let that purpose and story inform your messages and actions.

For another inspiring book, see the earlier post on Empowerment Marketing discussing Jonah Sach’s Winning the Story Wars.

Content marketing and online courseware

Content marketing aims to educate and inform. And what’s more educational, at scale, than Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOC)?

I was struck by the content marketing possibilities of online courseware after completing an online class on Sustainability and Business Innovation presented by Peter Graf, former Chief Sustainability Officer for SAP, on the OpenSAP platform.

Fake diploma by gadgetdude, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  gadgetdude 

The class had all the hallmarks of traditional courses, including lectures, quizzes, discussions, assignments and a final exam. It spanned six weeks. More than 17,000 people enrolled in the course. That’s a pretty incredible response rate considering the time commitment.

The marketing payback for online education

If done right, an online course can have a have a significant impact on marketing objectives, including:

  • Brand value: Depending on the course topic, you can strengthen brand perceptions. For SAP, the course linked the brand with the values of sustainability and business innovation – both powerful attributes in SAP’s market.
  • Lead nurturing: Foster a deeper connection with attendees, particularly if you deliver information of real value that helps attendees in their jobs or daily lives.
  • Customer retention: Customers who invest time and effort in training are more likely to remain customers.

Making online education/training work for content marketing

Preparing and delivering an online course is a larger undertaking than a webinar or even a webinar series. But if you already use online courseware technologies and have experience in creating courses, consider using training as an advanced content marketing strategy for lead nurturing and customer retention.

Make sure that the attendee comes away with useful and actionable information, not just a sales pitch. From a marketing perspective, online training is another way to practice empowerment marketing that helps people advance their own objectives.  (See my blog post on Empowerment Marketing.)