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!

McCain’s missing market share

I have difficulty understanding how McCain is targeting the millennial generation. When I look through my lens, it’s like he doesn’t even exist. His marketing campaign is so skewed that his presence is invisible to me.

Barack Obama on the other hand, is overtly present. Every time I log on to facebook, my sidebar is adorned with some sort of pro-Obama promotion. A quick 20 refreshes on my profile, and Obama’s presence was there a whopping 17 times, compared to McCain’s zero. And in case you’re wondering, I don’t indicate any sort of political preference in my information.

I, like most of my generation, rely heavily on social media sites. I’ll check facebook an average of 20 -30 times per day. When I watch TV, it’s digitally recorded, so I skip through the commercials. Actually, I get more of my entertainment from places like Netflix and hulu.

To me, it’s like McCain doesn’t even care about my vote. If he did, wouldn’t he want to interact with me? I’ve told you how to reach me. Now where are you? I’m an undecided voter, a prime target. But you’re spending your advertising budget in ways that I’ll never see you. Barack seems to care. He’s interacting with me. So you’ve essentially given my vote to him simply because you didn’t show up.

So just what does this impact mean? Well, there are 42 million members of Gen Y who could vote this year. According to a recent survey from MeriTalk, 73% of Gen Y respondents plan to vote in the next election.

That’s over 30 million votes that John McCain is ignoring.

Not smart marketing if you ask me.

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

Ditch the Pitch

phone.jpgWhen I was 16 my dad gave me a gift. Our neighbor had just opened an insurance office down the street and my father got me a job as a telemarketer. Granted, I wanted a new car. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the thought of calling people during dinner to solicit auto insurance quotes. But as I look back, this part-time job shaped my entire career. It’s where I learned that if I wanted to be successful in sales, I needed to ditch the pitch.

My first day of work our neighbor sat me down at my desk, gave me a stack of cards filled with names, addresses & phone numbers, showed me how to dial 9 for an outside line and gave me a pink piece of paper with “the pitch.” My job was simple. Call people and get them to agree to getting an auto insurance quote.

The “pitch” proved to be worthless. This sorry excuse for a script was probably written by some sort of insurance monkey at the corporate office who didn’t know a lick about sales. Here were my first 30 calls:

Andrea: Hi, Mrs. So-and-so. My name is Andrea from Blah Blah Blah Insurance Company.

Mrs. So-and-So: <hang up expediently>

or

Andrea: Hi, Mr. Someone. My name is Andrea from Blah Blah Blah Insurance Company.

Mr. Someone: Don’t you have anything better to do with your time? <hang up>

Andrea: (mumbling under breath so her new boss doesn’t hear) Of course I do. I’m sixteen and could be out partying with my friends.

People don’t want to talk to insurance agents. I was seen as a big fat waste of time. So I decided to try things my own way.

I tried all sorts of things, like:

  • Talking in a (very fake, but I tried so hard) British accent

and

  • Being blunt by saying “Hi, I know I probably just interrupted your dinner and I’m sorry. I’m just doing my job. would you like an auto insurance quote?”

After all sorts of trials and errors, I stumbled upon a method that actually worked.

First a little back story; I grew up in Ashland, VA which is a town so small we actually had a town song that we would all get together and sing at the town talent show each spring (true story). Think “The Music Man” meets “Leave it to Beaver” and you’re close.

So being from a small town I noticed that I personally knew half the people on the list – or at least their children.

I changed my sales pitch to something like this:

Andrea: Hi, Ms. Smith. This is Andrea – I go to school with your daughter Amy.

Ms. Smith: Hi, Andrea. How are you?

Andrea: I’m doing great. How about yourself?

Ms. Smith: Pretty well, thanks. Did you want to talk to Amy?

Andrea: Actually, I was calling to talk to you. See, I have a new job working at Blah Blah Blah Insurance Company. I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m just collecting information so we can send you a quote, followed up by a nice hand-written thank you card and then you can decide if you want to do anything with it.

Ms. Smith: (slightly taken aback) Oh. (usually a pause) How long will it take me to fill out?

Andrea: About 3 minutes.

Ms. Smith: Well, OK. Go ahead.

Yep, it was that simple. Eventually I outsold everyone in the office (and made darn good money).

So why did this method work when everything else failed?

  1. Establishing a personal connection. Once it’s established that you and your prospect have something in common – it takes your chances of closing to a whole new level.
  2. Removing the pressure. No one wants to be “sold.” When is the last time you went to a sketchy used car lot seeking the thrill of being pressured into something you don’t want to buy? Saying “you can decide what you do with it” signaled to my prospects that I respected their time and wasn’t going to pressure them into something they didn’t want.
  3. Cutting ties quickly. Occasionally I’d get the “No, thank you.” My reply was always, “Thanks for your time. Have a great day.” The way I saw it, it was much easier to dial more numbers than it was to convince someone that they really did want a quote. In the end, if a customer is sold because of pressure, the likelihood of them being a loyal customer is greatly diminished.
  4. Sincerely believing in my product. Most of the people who stuck it out to get a quote ended up saving money. I thought this was a good thing, so I felt like I was providing a great value. Later in life, I sold advertising in a low-quality and very expensive print publication. I knew the ads were a bad investment and learned quickly that you can’t “fake” belief in your product. And if you don’t believe in it – you can’t sell it.

Before & After

andrea-before.jpgandrea-at-ocean-city.jpgI’ve lost 95 pounds this year. Really – here are the pics to prove it. Size 20 to a size 6. But this post isn’t about me – it’s about your marketing.

See, marketing is a lot like weight loss. Everyone’s looking for the “magic pill” to make you thin or rich. And there are a lot of people who make a lot of money pushing the latest fad. Sometimes these fads work in the short term, but more often than not, they’re ineffective in the long run.

What does work are the fundamentals. For losing weight – it’s eating healthy and exercise. It’s simple. Yet, there is a multi-billion dollar industry out there to try to distract you. Yes, there are tools to help make that process easier (like joining a gym or attending Weight Watchers meetings). But in large part, your success will be whether or not you can master the fundamentals.

Same with marketing. If you don’t have:

1) a product or service that offers people some kind of real value (the ratio between price and quality)

2) a clear message that moves your audience into action

3) a channel to communicate that message to your audience when they are receptive to it

then the rest doesn’t matter.

5 Myths of Business Communications

Take a moment and think about all the words you send to your prospects and clients – all the content of your website, brochures, e-mails, letters, fliers, blogs, etc., etc., etc. Imagine all the vowels and consonants you’ve used to describe what you do piled high into an ever growing heap of words. Mind-boggling, isn’t it? In business, we communicate…a lot.

The ability to clearly describe what you do, how it is different from everyone else and why your prospects should buy from you is an essential part of the success of any business. From the smallest e-mail to the most expensive advertisement every piece of communication is an opportunity to form an impression in your customer’s mind (A.K.A. your “brand”).

But are we really clear when we write our business communications? Do we accurately convey the points we are trying to make so our prospects and clients can “get” our message? Take these 5 common myths of business communications and test your CQ (communication quotient).

Myth #1 – The more information I can cram in, the better.
Have you ever tried to find a needle in a haystack? It takes a lot of patience. Unfortunately, patience is not something readers of your business communications will have. Simply put, if your message is buried in mounds of text no one will take the time to search for it. Effective business communications focus on a singular message and eliminate everything else.

Do you pass the test?
Show your business communication piece to a stranger and give them only 5 seconds to look at it. Can they tell you the main message?

Myth #2 – If I use big words, people will think I’m smarter.
Prodigious colloquy induces an antipodal consequence. Using big words is like a guy with an expensive sports car – it can be perceived that you are trying to compensate for something. Instead, go for short, clear, easy-to-understand words that you would use in everyday conversation. Your tone will be friendlier and your readers will be more receptive to your message.

Do you pass the test?
Give your business communication piece to a 4th grader. Do they understand every word?

Myth #3 – By using buzzwords, jargon and acronyms I’ll prove my industry knowledge.
You might as well write in Ancient Greek because that’s about how many people will actually understand what you’re trying to say. Acronyms are especially deadly, so if they’re necessary – take the time to spell them out. As for buzzwords and jargon – save them for the water cooler.

Do you pass the test?
Have a friend from an opposite industry read your marketing material. Do they understand it?

Myth #4 – I’ll use adjectives like “best”, “excellent” or “outstanding” to set myself apart.
Have you ever been stuck at a party with a person who just won’t shut up about how great they are? Not only is it annoying – it actually turns you off. Instead of bragging about yourself, gather testimonials and allow your customers to boast on your behalf. You’ll find prospects intrigued and eager to learn more.

Do you pass the test?
Ask your best clients to give you a quote about their experience working with you. Did you replace your boastful comments with their testimonials?

Myth #5 – I’ll write in first person so it won’t be boring.
Most of your readers will have one question in their mind when reading your document – “What’s in it for ME?” That means, using the Y-O-U word – not the I (or W-E) word. Yes, there are times that a compelling narrative story can make an impact. But in general, business communications should be about the client – not about you.

Do you pass the test?
Take a piece of business communication and change “I” and “we” to “you” (also, change the tense of the verbs, etc.). Give both versions to a friend and ask them which is more compelling.

Hopefully by now your pile is a little lighter and your message a bit clearer. By taking the time to crystallize a clear and conversational message you engage your audience with your message. This can lead to longer loyalty, more referrals and ultimately increased revenue – and who couldn’t use that?

 

The ABC’s of Marketing Terms

abc-blocks.jpgIn the marketing world, everyone has their own personal definitions for the various terms we run into – and I’m no different.

Here are my interpretations of various words you may run across:

Advertising – Any activity that either 1) introduces your product/service to people who have no idea who you are, or 2) reminds people who know who you are that you still exist. Also known as the Pick-Up Line.

Branding – The art and science of making an impression.

Customer – A purchaser who you try to get to 1) purchase from you again, and 2) tell their friends to purchase from you.

Dissatisfaction – The result of not meeting expectations because you either 1) overpromised during the sale and couldn’t deliver or 2) you didn’t listen to the client’s needs or 3) a situational snafu occurred and you didn’t make up for it.

Experience – The perception the customer forms while purchasing or using your product/service. Remember: Your customer’s perception is your reality.

Focus Group – A potentially unreliable way to gather information about your product/service that is better than having no data at all. Due to group psychology it’s difficult to get objective feedback. Instead, listen to and reward your clients who complain.

Guerrilla Marketing – A term originally coined by Jay Conrad Levinson that has come to mean a cheap, generally unconventional marketing technique that yields a high return on your investment (so, duh – this should be part of your campaign too!)

Headline – A pithy phrase whose purpose is to call attention to the rest of the article and have people keep reading. In reality – we are all so busy nowadays that your headline may be the only thing that is actually read.

Idea – A solution to a problem. Although they may be wacky, quirky, outrageous, abnormal or otherwise off-the-wall the goal is to be effective, not cute or crazy.

Jargon – Words specific to an industry that ignorant people use to try to make themselves seem smarter. Little do they know that using jargon in their marketing copy is a sure-fire way to confuse the heck out of their customers.

Knowledge – Complete understanding of a subject which results in the belief that everyone knows/feels what you do. Smart companies try not to be too knowledgable.

Logo – A graphic image that represents your company. Note: a logo alone is not a brand (see branding)

Marketing – A series of activities executed on a continuing basis whose goal is turning people who have no idea who you are into people who may consider purchasing from you when the time is right.

New Media – The latest craze that “all the cool marketers are doing.” Come on – there’s no pressure. Just try a blog. I swear you’ll like it. Not your style, maybe a social networking site? Uploaded video? Podcast? RSS? We’ve got a ton of new ways to get your message out now that high-speed internet is available to the masses.

Opinion – The way someone looks at the world based on their individual experiences and belief systems. Like bellybuttons (or other parts of the human anatomy) everyone’s got one and we seldom think about how it got there. In terms of marketing – it’s a good practice to listen to opinions so you can continue to improve and exceed your customer’s expectations.

Prospect – Someone who is vaguely familiar with your product or service and you are engaging in the marketing process. Also known as your date.

Quality – One way to compete – the other is price. To be effective – you can’t do both.

Referral – A sale that occurs as a result of word of mouth. Due to the high conversion rate (chance of becoming a client) it’s a smart strategy to get clients to spread the good word.

Sales – The process of turning a prospect into a paying client. First you must propose by asking for the sale, then you enter into a formal agreement where you are partners – for better or worse. Also known as the marriage.

Tactics – Techniques for turning strangers into paying clients.

Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – A statement that showcases how you stand out from your competitors. A critical component to a successful marketing strategy.

Value – The ratio between price and quality. Different for every individual at every single transaction. Sometimes, people are willing to pay more for higher quality. Other times, price is what matters.

Word of Mouth (WOM) – Exceeding customer’s expectations to the point where they run and tell all of their friends how wonderful you are.

Xenophobia – Fear of strangers. Probably a fear that marketers don’t have. (Come on, it’s an “X” – I’m scrounging here.)

You – The prominent pronoun in marketing copy. If you see “I” – it’s time for a re-write.

Zealot – A customer who is so enthused about your product or service that they voluntarily sell it to everyone they can. Smart companies work hard to keep zealots zealous.

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Andrea Morris is the Chief Idea Officer of Write Ideas Marketing and specializes in helping visionaries, entrepreneurs, consultants and small businesses use high-ROI strategies to get the right message to the right people. For more information, please visit writeideasmarketing.com