Is Your Brand Borg or Borzoi?

For nearly a decade, it’s been my personal mission to “rid the world of corporate babble one concise sentence at a time.” Almost nothing gets under my skin more than a brand that actively disconnects itself from its audience through poor communication. To me, these brands are like the Borg from Star Trek; an attempt to channel the collective consciousness of their entire workforce. They try to do good by appealing to everyone, but their efficiency trumps empathy and personality. “Resistance is futile!” Their jargon and their corporate-ese make them seem like a formidable enemy. So I put on my super hero cape, take off my black-rimmed spectacles, and transform into Content Girl.

In my adventures, I’ve learned that underneath these bureaucratic brands are good, decent, hard working people that really do care about their customers. It’s a challenge — finding a way to empower the individual while still adhering to a consistent brand voice. One step to this side and you’re wrangling cats. One step to the other side is what Jon Lovett, former presidential speech writer, calls the “culture of bullshit.” As he described in his Commencement Address to the graduates of Pizter College:

We are drowning in [bullshit]. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.

When I read this, I want to jump up and start a rally cry. How did we get here? And how can we change?

Let’s look at an example, shall we?

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American Airlines is a big, big brand that manages a massive amount of customer feedback. So when @DHH complains about their missing baggage, they reply with what feels like a very automated response. The result? The exact opposite of what they wanted. Their customer is even more upset and is pushed even further away from their brand. And, chances are that behind this tweet, there’s a customer service rep who really, really wants to help but feels bound by bureaucracy.

Brene Brown, a research-storyteller who specializes in shame and vulnerability touched on this in her popular TED talk from 2010.

Whether it’s a bailout, an oil spill, a recall — we pretend like what we’re doing doesn’t have a huge effect on people. I would say to companies, “This is not our first rodeo people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, ‘We’re sorry. We’ll fix it.'”

So how does a brand shift from a Borg mentality to being authentic and real?

They focus less on the collective and more on one distinct and specific person. Like dogs, brands often share character traits with their owners.

Be less like the Borg. Be more like the Borzoi.

Be less like the Borg. Be more like the Borzoi.

For alliteration’s sake, be less like the Borg and more like a Borzoi.

Another example? I’m glad you asked.

Virgin, the brand synonymous with Sir Richard Branson, is a trailblazing, forward-thinking, sophisticate — just like its owner. This isn’t a shiny veneer applied at the last moment by some snazzy design. These traits are part of their culture, and it permeates through every aspect of their business; from branding to operations to legal. Virgin Atlantic, has set itself apart from the monolith American Airlines by recognizing the humanity of their customers. The result? Virgin Atlantic doesn’t just have customers, they have raving fans.

So, which type of brand are you? Do you try to be all things to all people, thus ending up boring and Borg-like? Or, do you have the courage to be authentic? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Beach Reads for a Business Owner

In one week, I’ll be at the beach. My out of the office message will be set on my e-mail, but like many business owners, my mind will be still very much focused on my passion — building my business. So in addition to sunscreen and sandals, I’ll be packing a stack of books that I’m hoping will inspire me. Here’s what I’ve picked, and why. Have tips for others? Leave them in the comments below. Happy reading!

Rework
by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

No venture capital. That’s how 37Signals has built their business, and it’s how we plan on building ours. We’re already avid readers of the 37Signals blog, and use this humbled-beginnings software company as a beacon for where we want to go.


Do More Great Work.
by Michael Bungay Stanier

This was a recommendation when I purchased Rework, but the subtitle got me — “Stop the busywork, and start the work that matters.” Having just come back from my corporate-world stint, I haven’t quite shaken the busywork bug. I feel compelled to be doing something all the time, almost like I have  a looming mid-year review over my shoulder. I’m hoping this book will give me ideas of taking control over my own schedule, and to, well, do more great work.


Making Ideas Happen
by Scott Belsky

When I freelanced, it was simple. If something needed to get done, I did it. In corporate, the team was so big that I knew my myopic role and did just that. But now, we have a small team, and a long list of things we want to do. I’ll be looking to this book for ways to get our ideas off of our index cards and into the hands of our customers.


The Official Scrabble® Brand Word-Finder
by Robert Schachner

One of the first things I do every morning is play a game of Scrabble on my iPhone. I find it’s a great way for me to wean in the day (I’m naturally a night-owl). Lately, I can beat the Normal setting without a challenge, but I’m stuck when it comes to Hard. I plan on using this study guide to beef up my Scrabble skills not only for my own enjoyment, but to ensure that I win at family game night (I have a slight competitive side, too.)


Ladies First: History’s Greatest Female Trailblazers, Winners, and Mavericks
by Lynn Santa Lucia

Stories of others who have risen to a challenge are most inspiring. So what better fodder for dreams than a collection of women who have changed the course of history. From Christine de Pisan, Europe’s first professional female writer, to Dorothy Levitt, the first woman to compete in a motor race in 1903, I can’t wait to read the seventeen mini-biographies and maybe find a piece of myself among them.


Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung

Mindful living has had a profound impact on my life. It helps me make better decisions in both business and in life. One aspect of mindfulness is around how we consume our food. Too often, I find myself gobbling down a breakfast bar because I’m running to a meeting. This book, written by one of the world’s preeminent Buddhist authors, shows how you can maintain a healthy weight and attitude simply by paying attention to your food.

7 Tips to Instantly Give Your Content Personality

Content with personality sells. Brands spend big bucks developing a distinct voice that makes them stand out. Conversational words engage your prospects instead of putting them to sleep, or worse, buying from someone else. This idea of copy that is personable and professional at the same time is what I built my career on. And here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help your brand stand out from the pack.

1. Keep words and sentences short.
Big words do not make you sound smart. (I actually had to re-write that sentence. Originally it said, “Big words make you sound pretentious.” I have to keep even myself in check.) Long sentences make you seem boring. Readers, especially savvy web-oriented ones, don’t actually read — they scan. Short sentences keep these scanners more engaged, which leads to more sales. I try to keep most of my sentences to one thought, or clause. Sometimes two. More that that, and I try to break it up into separate sentences. Another way to put this idea is, “write like you talk.”

2. Use contractions.
When we’re talking casually, we use contractions — those “shortcut” words like can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc. We say – “I’d love to join you, but I can’t. Maybe next time, when I don’t have a conflict.”  In conversation, we’ll use the non-contracted form when we need to clarify or make a point. For example, “Joe, for the last time, I will not go on a date with you. Please, do not ask me again.” Using contractions instantly lightens the tone of your communications, and (you guessed it) makes your readers feel more engaged with your content.

3. Choose the “sparkle” word.
Which has more personality? “We’re happy to announce…” or “We’re thrilled to announce…” They essentially mean the same thing, but “thrilled” jumps out just a little more because it’s more exact. Happy is generic. It’s probably the first word you’ll reach for. Stretching just a little bit for that vibrant word can make your copy sing.

4. Write in the present tense, active voice, second person.
In non-academic terms, this means – avoid the words “have” or “been” and use the word “you”. Writing in this style is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader. It puts them in the here and now. It makes it feel like you’re having a conversation with them through the screen. Compare, for example, these two sentences: “We have enjoyed working with wonderful clients like you.” Versus, “You are a wonderful client. Thank you for your business. It makes ours more fun.” See the difference?

5. Know which (few) grammar rules you can break.
On occasion, I’ll start a sentence with “and”. I sometimes end with a preposition, too. That’s because these grammar rules help facilitate the conversational style. But there are some rules that when broken, make you look silly, or stupid, or ignorant. Here’s just a small sampling.

  • Your (you own it) vs. You’re (you are)
  • There (not here) vs. Their (it belongs to them) vs. They’re (they are)
  • Assure (give support) vs. Insure (to buy or sell insurance)
  • Affect (verb) vs. Effect (noun – can you put “the” in front of it?)
  • “A lot” is two words.

There are plenty more, and feel free to vent in the comments below. To keep your writing neat and tidy, try typing your opposing words in a search engine with “vs” between them. You can also check out The Grammar Girl.

6. Accessorize with styles.
Not to sound like your high-school English teacher, but rhetorical styles such as alliteration, metaphor, similes, rhyme, and repetition are marks of great writing. So use them. A word of caution though; too much of any of these styles, and you can easily swing to the other side of the personality pendulum (the one where you sound like an amateur and we don’t want that). It’s best to think of these styles like an accessory — add enough to accentuate your content, but not too much where you overwhelm the message.

7. Read out loud before you publish.
And by “out loud”, I don’t mean “really loud and slow but still in my head”. It means with your voice, at a natural volume. In addition to catching typos, this form of editing is perfect for making sure your content is conversational. Does it sound natural? If there’s a sentence that just doesn’t flow, work with it until it sounds right. Then, give your content to someone who hasn’t read it yet. Ask them to read it out loud. Then, massage any phrases that tripped them up.

With these simple tweaks, you can transform writing that’s bland and impersonal, into content that brings your readers closer to your brand. These are great tips for all sorts of business communications in both print and web. Have a question about how to implement these styles? Have a story about how you turned your copy around? Want to vent about your grammar pet peeves? Put it in the comment below.

Thanks, and happy writing!

Reconciliation

Since coming to Capital One in December of 2007, I’ve struggled to find a balance for this blog. For the past year and a half, I used this blog as a marketing tool for my freelance business. Now that I’m not building a business, I found it difficult to see why I should bother continuing to post. Hence the sabbatical.

Here’s the realization I’ve come to over the past few weeks.

1. I have a passion for small businesses. I genuinely believe that small business is the coal that keeps the American economy blazing. My (and lots of other marketers’) ideas and experiences can help small businesses thrive.

2. I’m proud of where I work. Capital One is a world class brand filled with smart marketers that I learn from every day.

3. Even though I work at a company, doesn’t mean I can’t still help small businesses. In fact, I’ve learned more since working here than I did in the years I freelanced. My experience is more valuable than ever.

4. Thanks especially to Brian, Juli and Becca for helping me see the value of my writing. I’m so inspired by your initiatives.

5. In the changing economic landscape, GREAT marketing is more important than ever. ROI, ROI, ROI!

How to Get More Customers (Even If You Hate Selling)

www.gardenplantmarkers.comMy mother created what I think is a purple cow. An avid gardener, she was frustrated with the market’s lack of a quality garden plant marker, so she set out and created her own. Every gardener she’s shown it to flips over how great these things are – so simply showcasing the product should be enough to create a selling frenzy, right? Wrong.

“If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, but if you as an entrepreneur embrace this laissez faire philosophy, prepare to watch the product to which you’ve dedicated so many hours die on the vine. Selling is a simply a critical skill to success.

However, if you’re like my mother – the thought of selling is overwhelmingly intimidating. Over homemade chicken soup on Sunday she expressed how, “I’m simply not wired that way. I get nervous and the words just don’t come out right.” Sound familiar?

If so, read on for ideas on how you can pitch your product without feeling like you’ve underminded your integrity.

Enthusiasm Makes the Difference
Norman Vincent Peale was right – if you can’t get excited about your product or service, who will? Do you believe you’re the best? Deep down in your gut do you know that someone’s life will be just a little better because of what you’ve created? Then let those feelings show. Passion is contagious. When you’re genuinely happy and wholeheartedly believe that your product is the best on the market, that confidence can help your conversion rate.

Action: Often when we get excited our hearts beat stronger, we talk faster, louder or softer. However, these are signs of being nervous and uncomfortable – not self-confidence. Set up a video camera to record yourself. Sit down, stare directly into the camera and answer this question – “Who is someone special in your life and what are the qualities that make you love them.” Pause. Get a glass of water. Sit down and stare again while answering this question – “What is your product/service and why should someone buy it.” Then watch the tape. Do you notice a difference in the intonation and inflection of your voice? Chances are you were more comfortable talking about your someone special than your product. Continue recording until you are equally as comfortable with your product.

Use a Net – Not a Pole
If your product is fulfilling a specific niche (which it should) blasting your message and seeing who bites may not be the most effective use of resources. Instead, go to places with a high density of potential customers. Think of catching fish in the ocean with a single pole versus catching fish in a barrel with a net. The “barrel” might be a chat room, blog, forum, conference, or event where people are saying “Help – I have this problem and need a way to fix it.” When they ask for a solution and you provide it, you’re not selling – you’re solving.

Action: Brainstorm places where your potential customers might hang out in high numbers. Think beyond the tried and true and attempt to uncover unconventional places to market your product or service. Then go there with your I’m-here-to-help-you attitude.

Sell by Referral
Form relationships with other entrepreneurs who offer a complementary product or service and cross-pollinate your prospects. For example, when I was a freelance writer, I spent a fair amount of time meeting with graphic artists and graphic designers. Why? I knew that a potential client would most likely seek out their profession first when a project arose. By educating my partners on the value I brought to the client, they happily recommended me when a client needed help with their writing.

Action: Who are your potential partners? Write down a list of products or services your customers use in addition to yours. Then, seek out places where these referral sources congregate, go there and begin to make friends. Often time these relationships take time, so be patient and give these new relationships the care they deserve.

Related Links

7 Lies that Prevent Your Great Idea from Becoming a Real Business – by Greg Go

How Sales Techniques Work – by Lee Ann Obringer

Marketing For the Deer-in-the-Headlights Crowd – by Dawn Rivers Baker

Increase Brand Awareness with Clever Copy in the Nooks & Crannies

Hiding in the corners beneath the bold headlines, under the compelling benefit statements, and around the action-packed verbs are bountiful opportunities to inject your brand with personality. A recent trend is “nooks & crannies copy” as I’m calling it, because it often pops up in unexpected places. Here are three examples:

1. Yahoo Chat

Yahoo Chat Screenshot \

While it may be difficult to see in this picture, Yahoo has brilliantly introduced humor into their chat feature. Between the conversation above and the text box below is the status report indicating if the other person is typing a message. However, instead of a plain and boring “Apple123 is typing a message….”, yahoo has sprinkled clever anecdotes such as:

  • Apple123 really should learn to type with more than two fingers…
  • STAND BY FOR A MESSAGE FROM APPLE123
  • Apple123 is about to drop knowledge…
  • Apple123 is hammering out a wicked comeback…
  • Bate your breath, Apple123 is typing…

among a plethora of others.

While not directly selling anything, introducing conversational wit in this unexpected place allows Yahoo! to showcase their brand’s personality. It gives the user the impression that Yahoo! is a fun, easy to work with company that doesn’t take itself to seriously.

2. Verizon Wireless

Verizon Highspeed Internet Loading Icon

Located directly before a purchasing decision, this otherwise overlooked loading page has been transformed into a mini flash ad that reinforces the product’s effectiveness right before the sale. The ad shows an animated film strip loaded with a series of technological leaps. The last one, “From Dial Up…To High Speed Internet” subtly suggests “You wouldn’t live in a cave, would you? Then why on earth would you have dial up?” An effective suggestion, I would imagine.

3. You Need a Budget (YNAB)

YNAB screenshot

Jesse Mecham, the developer of YNAB, tells the story of how he and is wife needed a personal budgeting system. They developed a simple excel spreadsheet that over the years has developed into a sophisticated yet user-friendly budgeting tool. While the site has been dramatically improved on the design side, Jesse still maintains the heartfelt honesty in his conversational copy, as evidenced by the “Download Update” screen for his product. He is an accountant, and occasionally a grammatical error will pop up in his copy, but it doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to the bottom line. His conversational style is obviously effective due to the growth and endorsements of YNAB.

Related Links

Three Tips to Make Your Copy Conversational – by Mila Sidman

How to Make the Online Sales Copy for Your Website More Conversational – by Evelyn Lim

The Right Way to Write Sales Copy – by Anthony Vicenza

10 Tactics for Top-Notch Testimonials

Testimonials – the magical way to turn boasting into evangelism. Sure, they’re effective – and their use is hyped in every corner of marketing communications. But just how do you go about gathering them? Here are 10 ideas:

1. Have something worth talking about. Having a mediocre product that simply meets expectations encourages silence. People talk about something that is either 1) really awful or 2) really amazing. The closer you are to the middle, the less chatter you hear.

2. Put a feedback button on your website. Encourage your customers to send you their opinions – regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad”. In truth, they’re all good.

3. Give to get. The networking organization BNI hypes the benefits of “givers gain”. And it’s true. Give colleagues a well-written testimonial and ask for one in return.

4. Use LinkedIn. Log in to your LinkedIn account and under the “Service Providers” tab at the top left click on “Request a Recommendation”.

5. Paraphrase & e-mail. When a client gives you a verbal testimonial, send a friendly e-mail thanking them for the conversation, paraphrasing what you heard and requesting permission to use their testimonial.

6. Give stories the spotlight. Weight Watchers encourages participants to submit success stories. Stories sell. Bragging bores.

7. Market research sweepstakes. Give respondents a prize for completing a survey about your company. Prizes encourage response rates.

8. Ask for specifics. When writing a survey, break down large, open-ended questions into bite-sized, directive questions which are more likely to receive a response.

9. Give credit. Did a great idea come from customer submitted feedback? Share the credit to entice readers to share their opinions.

10. Strength in numbers. When requesting testimonials, ask for quantitative data. For example, “After hiring Randy, my profit increased by 20%” or “Gina helped reduce my production time from 2 weeks to 3 days.”

Related Links

Fastread: How to Get Testimonials for Your Product by WorkatHomeChannel

How to Get Quality Testimonials by Mike Williams

5 Tips for Getting Freakin’ Awesome Testimonials by Brent Hodgson