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.

How to Source, Organize, and Publish Quality Social Media Content (Without Losing Sleep)

Amount of content

Don’t make your audience drink from a firehose. Focus on quality, not quantity.

What if I told you that you could publish a steady stream of quality social media content without:

a) pulling all the hair out of your head
b) quitting your “real” job
c) sharing content that you didn’t really read

You’d probably point and laugh. “Ha ha — that silly Andrea. She thinks that she can actually fit social media management into a workflow?” Well, yes — I do. And so can you.

When The Spark Mill asked me to present this topic I thought about myself circa 2006, when, as a freelancer, I was first trying to wrap my head around how to use social media and still find time for useful things like billable work. After seven years, and a whole bunch of useful apps later (I LOVE YOU BUFFER!) I finally figured out how to participate authentically in social media without being “on” 24/7.

Check out the presentation on SlideShare or Prezi. Hopefully you can learn from my frustration and set yourself on the path to social media sanity more quickly than I did.

To your success,

Andrea

Does Ugly Duckling Branding Work?

ugly ducklingI recently had lunch with a friend who said,

“I don’t want my non-profit to look too polished. Then people will think I don’t need the money. We go for the ugly duckling effect.”

This got me thinking. Does the ‘ugly duckling’ effect work?

First of all, let’s think about what branding is.

Branding is the way people interacting with your organization perceive you.

A polished brand is:

  1. Consistent
  2. Visible
  3. Unique

But wait — you might ask — where are the things like websites and brochures? Isn’t that branding? Well, yes and no. Branding elements, or tactics, (websites, brochures, public service announcements, social media, etc.) are extensions of your brand and combined give an overall impression about your organization. This impression is your brand, not the individual components themselves. Think of it like your reputation. If you generally punctual, prepared, and turn in assignments on time, it’s fair to assume that people will perceive you as responsible. It’s the consistency of these actions, together, that create your reputation (or personal brand, but that’s a whole other post).

So, when you talk about having an ugly duckling brand, you’re saying you don’t want a polished brand. You’re saying that you’d prefer mismatched materials, that no one sees, and you just want to be like everyone else. If that’s your goal, no doubt, it will be difficult to raise money. Think about non-profits that you admire. Is this how they present themselves?

I believe what my friend (and anyone else who believes in this philosophy) was trying to express was the fear of being perceived as not being good stewards of the money that was entrusted to them. Fair point. It doesn’t make good fiscal sense to spend $30,000 on a beautiful, custom-designed website, when your operating budget is only $100,000. But good branding doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

Here are some ways that you can achieve a polished brand without blowing your budget. All of these can be accomplished on your own, without spending a dime on consultants. But, should you find yourself stuck, there are definitely people out there (insert shameless plug here) who can help you out.

Conduct a Brand Audit (Consistency and Uniqueness)

The word “audit” can conjure images of grey-suited CPA’s threatening to shut you down. That’s not what we’re talking about here. An audit is just an objective lay of the land. There are two steps. 1) Gathering materials, and 2) Making an assessment. When you conduct a brand audit, you look at ALL your marketing materials: letterhead, business cards, social media, brochures, press releases, and a whole lot more. Then, you look for places where you can improve. Are your materials consistent? Is your logo easy to identify?  Does your writing convey the personality you’re going for?

Create a Style Guide (Consistency)

We use guides all the time. Think of traffic signals, flow charts, and “this end up” stamps on boxes. Guides are ways to help communicate how something is done. They prevent accidents, ensure progress, and help make sure that lamp your godmother gave you in college doesn’t get smashed in your next move. Style guides do the same thing, but for your brand. Typically, they’re broken into two different sections: visual and voice. Visual style guides will address things like which colors to use and how your logo should appear, while voice explains how the personality of your brand is conveyed in writing (along with nit-picky grammar topics like whether or not to use the Oxford comma). If you do a lot of work online, you might also choose to have a style guide just for the web. Nancy Schwartz has a great post called, “How to Create a Nonprofit Style Guide” that you might want to check out.

Study Guerrilla Marketing Tactics (Visibility)

Maybe you’ve heard of guerrilla warfare? Small groups find ways to capitalize on their flexibility when they don’t have a lot of funds. In war, this means ambushes, raids, and sabotage. I’m in no way suggesting you engage in unethical practices, but if you don’t have a lot of budget how can you make the most out of what you DO have? Jay Conrad Levinson literally wrote the book on guerrilla marketing. On his website, you’ll find tons of articles about direct mail, telemarketing, and email (hey, those sound like marketing tactics that you probably rely on). Most of the content is written for an entrepreneurial audience, but the core message certainly applies to the non-profit world, too.

So, what do you think? Are you ready to turn your ugly duckling brand into a beautiful swan? Or, do you still hold true to the idea that a brand that’s not quite polished is more effective? It’s a great topic, so I’d encourage you to leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.

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.

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