Tag Archives: Cuesta Park Consulting

Freelance horror stories: Undead projects

Here’s the latest installment in my “freelance horror stories” – “undead” projects. If you’re a freelancer, you know that these are frighteningly real.  And if you hire freelancers, this may help you understand that fleeting look of fear when you first start working with a freelancer – we live in a dangerous world.

The Zombie: Not quite dead, it just keeps lingering on – for just a few more revisions. Defenses against zombies: Putting a fixed number of review cycles in the project scoping.

The Disapparition:  You send it to review and it is never heard from again. This is the most frequent type of undead project – and it’s a problem if you are waiting for project completion to invoice. Defense:  A fixed time for final invoicing on the project scoping.

The Shape-shifter:  This happens when the project shifts mid-course. For example, the senior person who hired you leaves the company mid-stream, and the new person wants to take the project in an entirely different direction. This is all fine unless the new direction is far outside the negotiated scope of the project.  A well-defined project scope is the only defense – but the process is never fun.

The Vampire: This is the one we all fear – the project that lives forever and sucks the life right out of you.  One sign of a vampire project? A client that cannot scope the project and wants hourly billing with a firm time commitment from you.  (Not every client like this has vampire projects, of course, but it’s a warning sign.)

Even great clients can have the occasional undead project. In nearly every case, careful project scoping and definition is the freelancer’s silver bullet (or wooden stake). Sometimes it takes courage to use that bullet, particularly if you fear damaging the client relationship. It’s not easy being a vampire-slayer.

I’d love to hear from others on the ‘undead’ project types I may have missed!

In case you missed it, the first installment can be found at Freelance horror stories: The consulting contract.

Survey says: Don’t trash those white papers yet

I love it when research comes out to back up my positions.

A couple weeks back I posted a blog called Old Marketing Channels Never Die – the premise being that with all of the buzz about social networks, videos, infographics and other content formats and channels, the traditional channels cannot be abandoned.

So now I find that Everything Technology Marketing did a survey of B2B marketing professionals on the LinkedIn B2B Technology Marketing community to identify the top marketing formats and channels.  If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you peruse the data.

The point that jumps out is that the content formats that are rates as most ‘effective’ are old familiars:

  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Live presentations
  • Online articles

And live events, websites and email are still the most effective channels.

Yet there may be an inherent bias built into the survey if participants can only judge the content formats with which they have significant experience. Some of the newer content forms (blogs, podcasts) have a high number of ‘neutral’ ratings. I have to assume that is because the marketing professionals who answered the survey hadn’t yet worked with those channels. And no one is really effective right out of the gate with a new format.

Also, look lower on the chart and you’ll find many marketers having success with newer channels and formats. Video in particular is deemed effective by two-thirds of those who responded to the question, blog postings nearly 50%, and eBooks about 30%. You can either take comfort in the strong performance of familiar forms, or pay attention to the success that others are having. I’d suggest the latter.

What’s the take-away?  Don’t abandon the tried-and-true marketing methods like live events, and white papers, but find ways to leverage these efforts in other marketing channels and formats –  make a video from your live event, or a series of blog posts from your papers. At the very least you’ll start learning what works well in the new formats and channels.

Old marketing channels never die …

Bolton Abbey Graves Graveyardphoto © 2008 Pamla J. Eisenberg | more info (via: Wylio)
According to various reports, everything you’re doing in marketing is out of date.  Email marketing? Dead.  Blogging? On its way out. Public relations? Why bother.  Print advertising?  Whew, that’s so 20th century.

And yet…

I still read the New Yorker every week – in its physical magazine format. There are television ads through which I do not fast-forward.  Being quoted in the New York Times would still make my heart beat faster.  And here in the heart of Silicon Valley, I still see billboards along the highways; Apple has a whole series for the iPad.

I’m not alone in this. Deloitte recently released its 5th annual State of the Media Democracy Survey.  Highlights show that print and television advertising are still quite relevant:

  • More than 70% of US consumers enjoy reading print magazines, even if the same content is available online.
  • Most people prefer to watch their favorite TV shows live, rather than prerecorded on their DVRs or online from sites like Hulu.
  • TV advertising is the most influential advertising channel

It goes to show – old marketing channels never truly die. They just lose their ‘buzz factor.’ And, you may have to work harder to get the same results with them.

The report also covers new channels and media taking hold. Social media is influencing purchase decisions, and smartphones are obviously becoming more important than ever.

If your marketing efforts rely solely on more traditional marketing channels, you already know that you need to consider newer options like social media marketing.  But you don’t have to abandon older ways of doing things. Use newer channels to magnify the impact of existing marketing efforts, and use your older channels to get more mileage out of new efforts like blogging, Twitter and Facebook.

For example:

  • Pitch an interesting blog posting as a contributed article for a relevant publication in your industry.
  • Use Twitter and/or paid search to send traffic to published articles in influential media.
  • Use Facebook fan pages and Twitter to promote your physical tradeshows or events. And post updates or video interviews from the event to social media sources.
  • Take a white paper and turn it into an informative eBook that you give away to blog subscribers.

Do you have any other great ideas of how to do this – particularly in the technology market? I’d love to hear them.

Content templates pit consistency against creativity

Is it a good idea to create content templates for marketing collateral? Or do they stifle creativity and create boring papers and web pages?

I’m not talking about Word templates or formatting templates. I’m referring to writer’s guidelines that indicate how a piece should be structured, how long sections should be, and so on.

Templates and guidelines have been much on my mind lately. One client recently presented me with a 5-page document outlining the company’s guidelines for writing a ‘strategy’ white paper. It included very detailed instructions, including a word count for the introduction and the overall outline and topics to cover.

How much is too much when it comes to predefined content guidelines for marketing collateral like white papers, customer stories, data sheets and web pages?

The case for content templates

As a freelance writer, I welcome guidelines and style guides, as they help me deliver what the client wants more quickly. And I recognize that templates and guidelines can bring welcome consistency to content marketing efforts, particularly if many people are engaged in creating content. This especially important for marketing content such as:

  • Website text: consistency in navigation, style, and content structure helps visitors find what they need most effectively.
  • Data sheet or spec sheet materials – particularly if customers might need to compare across them.

Yet, let us not forget the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The case against content templates

Very detailed guidelines can actually  slow the content creation process by forcing the writer into a path they may not want to take.  Good writing is never just ‘filling in the blanks’ in a template.

Sometimes, following a set format or template is an excuse for not rethinking or evaluating how the format is working.  This is why you see uninspiring, “cookie cutter” customer stories on many websites.  To tell a customer story, you have to find the narrative thread, and following a fixed format creates a fill-in-the-blank-and-it’s-fine mentality.  Some stories need a different format or approach.

White papers are another case.  You’ll want different formats, styles and approaches for the different audiences you’re trying to reach, at the various parts of the sales cycle. Sometimes a checklist or table will be the most appropriate way to deliver content, other times a narrative or instructional approach will work.  It’s hard to imagine one white paper format that will meet all of your needs.

I know that I’ve just argued both sides of the ‘content template’ question.  The best advice I can come up with is this: experiment, test and measure the results of your content marketing pieces in different situations.  Templates and style guides are useful, but they are no substitute for creativity and good writing.

Content marketing: What’s your subtext?

In theater, subtext is the message that the actor is delivering beyond or behind the explicit dialog. It’s an important core of so-called method acting.

What does subtext have to do with content marketing? Everything.

One of the core tenets of content marketing is to generously give content of value to the reader – by giving you will build relationships. In his blog What type of content should my company produce? Mitch Joel refers to this as value-based content.

Or, as the Content Rules book so aptly puts it, “Share or solve, don’t shill.”

But … content marketing isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Behind every generous best practices white paper or actionable e-book, there’s a subtext. Readers will feel or sense the subtext. It’s not cheating, it’s what makes content marketing work.

Examples of good content marketing subtext
The exact subtext will vary with every piece and with the stage of the prospect in the lead lifecycle. Here are a few examples of explicit value compared subtext:

Customer story:

  • Explicit message: Here’s how company X solved their problem, and some lessons learned along the way that might be helpful to your business.
  • Subtext: We’re helping companies like yours – maybe we could help you.

Best practices white paper:

  • Explicit message: Here are useful best practices that you can act on to solve a real business problem.
  • Subtext: We understand the business problem – you might want to talk to us when you’re ready to take action on this problem.

In every piece of content you generate, it’s worth identifying that subtext, to be sure that it comes through loud and clear. Sometime it’s as simple as “We’re good people here, not just corporate shills.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, as in “Our approach is really better than what you’re doing today.”

Beware of inadvertent subtext
Think of the bad actor who inadvertently sends the wrong messages (I’m not sure of my lines… is that my uncle in the second row?) The same thing can happen to your content marketing.

For example, a best practices white paper that’s filled with jargon and unclear might give the reader the following message: “I’m not even sure what our solution does – only the engineers get it. You should buy our stuff anyway.”

Website content that is rife with “all about us” text and with nothing about the business problem sends the following message: “It’s more important that I make the CxOs happy than that I serve the you, the reader.”

And a poorly researched paper tying your technology to current “hot topic” (compliance initiative, cloud computing, etc.) may communicate the following: “I don’t think you’re smart or attentive enough to research this on your own, so if I just mention this buzzword enough I can scare you into at least talking to one of our sales guys.”

Do you have other examples of inadvertent subtext in marketing content misfires? I’d love to hear them.