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May 6, 2010

5 Tips to Avoid Writing that Reeks

I hate spam, but not just because it's uninvited and I get a lot of it, though both are true. I hate spam because of the way it reads. Whether it's spam email, snail mail, web copy, or otherwise, spam stinks. It reeks of falsehood. When you read spam, you think, "No one talks like this." And it's true, they don't.

But normal people, people who hate spam just as much as me, often write words that read like spam. Even if those words don't come uninvited, they still irritate our senses because they have that same malodorous, unnatural quality as spam.

Writing that is imprecise, stiff, or awkward is a guillotine ready to snuff the life out of our messages. As individuals and as marketers we cannot afford to be anything but clear, honest, and compelling. Fogginess and facade are both deadly, and will bore your readers as much as spam.

Whether you're wrestling with articles, web copy, emails to clients, or blog posts, here are five simple tips that will keep your writing fresh and fragrant -- ready to impress, persuade, and make amends on your behalf.

  1. Read it aloud. If it doesn't read well aloud, it doesn't read well period.
  2. Avoid jargon, words you wouldn't normally use, and long sentences.
  3. Write for your audience, not for you.
  4. If you're unsure of the mood, shoot for business casual.
  5. Pick up a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style; consult it often.

These tips will help you avoid the smelly quagmire of inhuman writing and propel you towards a place of clear, compelling communication.

P.S.

Bonus tip from Hemmingway (hat tip to Copyblogger): Recognize that 90% of what you write needs to be rewritten. Don't be afraid to take the time and effort to thoroughly edit everything, even emails and internal memos. Put the shit in the wastebasket.

April 29, 2010

One to One Doesn't Scale, And That's Okay

The internet has done a lot of good things for brand communications. Talking to and hearing from your customers has never been easier. But faster, easier communication isn't a one way street. You get to reach customers faster and easier, and customers get the same. Sounds great, right? But there's a threshold after which this trade off can no longer be maintained at a one-to-one exchange. The good news is, despite what many social media gurus will tell you, one-to-one dialog is not the holy grail of marketing communications.

Social media is a powerful tool for one-to-one communication, but it really only works that way for small businesses. Brands like Saddleback Leather who intentionally limit their audience and establish a premium position are primed to take advantage of using social media as a conversation mechanism. Larger businesses can't keep up with the size of the conversation, and so they really have two options: pretend to be one-to-one, or stop worrying about trying to talk to everybody.

Brands like Apple, Delta, Google, or Coke have no need to use social media to have conversations with all of their customers or potential customers; they're much too busy building better products, increasing awareness, and making sure their companies are ready for the future. These companies use social media to provoke conversations amongst their customers (customer-to-customer, not customer-to-company) in order to increase awareness. They also use social media to listen to the market, finding problems and opportunities in their marketing strategy and in their products. What they don't do is try to respond to every brand mention.

In between the small business and the mega-brands are a slew of mid-sized businesses who are also trying to figure out how to use social media. If you're not Saddleback Leather and you're not Coke, then there are still opportunities to use one-to-one conversations (customer support, rewards programs, expanding into new markets), but there is also significant value in letting your customers do the talking for you; whether you unleash a creative engagement to stir something up or simply monitor the pre-existing social media landscape, there are plenty of opportunities to benefit from the one-to-one conversations your customers are having without being a chatterbox yourself.

April 21, 2010

Why Nobody Cares That Your Product is Better

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” But a better product is only half the story. History is littered with products that were superior to their competition, but never made a dent in the market place.

Take for example the Dvorak keyboard. In the 1930's, Dr. August Dvorak designed the Dvorak keyboard with the sole goal of building a better keyboard. The dominant keyboard at the time was the purposefully awkward QWERTY keyboard (the reason the QWERTY keyboard has such a strange arrangement of keys is because it was designed specifically to slow the typing speeds of early users in order to prevent early typewriters from jamming).

But, Dvorak was fed up with this non-sensical arrangement of keys. He wanted to make a keyboard that embodied the popular idea of efficiency. He re-invented the keyboard by placing frequently used vowels on the left side and frequently used consonants on the right side; this commonsense arrangement dramatically decreases hand movements.

This makes the Dvorak keyboard not only more efficient, but also decreases hand stress and lowers the likelihood of carpel tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury. Three quarters of a century later, modern professionals could still benefit greatly from using a Dvorak. Unfortunately, the Dvorak keyboard never replaced QWERTY as the standard, and to this day we're still stuck with a keyboard that was designed to be inefficient and hard to use.

The reasons the Dvorak never spread are simple. Most people are comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard. There's no pain point to cure. People are perfectly content using a less efficient keyboard, because they already know the QWERTY layout. The relative advantage of switching isn't worth the pain you'd go through as you relearned how to type. Even if it would only take a few weeks to learn, people are generally reluctant to switch to another product if it requires significant work.

Furthermore, the Dvorak keyboard isn't a highly visible product and has little social status attached to it. Visibility is directly correlated to how quickly a product/innovation spreads. Typing is largely a personal activity and keyboards are therefore a low visibility product. This means that there is little social motivation to buy a Dvorak. Even if one person is committed enough to use the product for its practical benefits, they are unlikely to spread the product to anyone else because no one will see them using it in a noticeable manner.

In order to succeed, it's not enough to just have a product that performs better than the competition. Consumers don't care about performance if the product is hard to adopt and use. If the product isn't easy to adopt and highly visible (along with being a better), chances are it won't spread.

April 20, 2010

The Art of Curation: An Interview with Maria Popova from BrainPickings

As more and more people and brands take to producing digital content, a group of individuals has arisen with the goal of filtering the wheat from the chaff. I had the pleasure of interviewing the curator of the popular site Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, and picking her brain on this topic. The role of people like Maria will only become more important in the future, and her insights are well-worth consideration. If you have questions for Maria, feel free to leave them in the comments or send her a tweet. Enjoy.

April 13, 2010

The Only Way to Succeed in a Crowded Space

Like a room packed with strangers, a crowded industry can be daunting. It's intimidating wondering how you can possibly get all these people to notice you.

The truth is, you won't. At least not at first.

If you want to get to know people at a party full of strangers, your best bet isn't to stand up on the table and announce your entry -- it's to find one of the circles of three or four people and start a conversation. That's your chance to give them a reason to remember you, to relate to them through mutual relationships or interests. By the end of the night you won't have the attention of the whole community, but you'll have a few new friends who can introduce you to others.

Unfortunately, many brands are impatient; they want everyone's attention, and they want it now. In the classic marketing book Positioning, the authors call this folly The Everybody Trap.

The Everybody Trap is deceptive because of its apparent logic. More people means more sales. Niche marketing means niche sales. Go big or go home.

But this line of logic leads to failure for everyone besides the already established leaders. Companies like Google, IBM, or Coke can afford to pander to everyone, and they often do. The rest of us are challengers, and the only way to succeed is to build our business one niche at a time.