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?

20130504-061014.jpg

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

Make Your Message Bounce With a Game of Verbal Tennis

tennis_racket.jpgI’m currently reading Geoff Livingston’s New Media Primer Now Is Gone (a great read for anyone seeking practical advice on how to use new media in a marketing strategy). In the introduction, Brian Solis makes a point that really got me thinking.

“Conversations are driving the new social economy…Messages are not conversations. This is where most companies and PR people fall down. People just don’t communicate that way…Markets are not comprised of audiences…This is about speaking with, not “to” or “at” people.”

I couldn’t agree more and it got me thinking – what’s the difference between a message and a conversation?

Obviously, a message is one-way communication and a conversation is not. Rather, a conversation is like verbal tennis where words and ideas bounce back and forth between both parties.

Think of it this way…

A “message” is like playing shotput. You put all your effort into forcing information forward. It’s not about having the ball returned, instead it’s about pushing as hard and far as you can. The problem with verbal shot put is that there’s little room for feedback or interaction with your customers, which increases the risk of a missed message.

Shotput is not about being accurate, it’s about using your energy to blast your message far and long. While this strategy used to work when the landscape was less competitive, the goal of communication in this new paradigm is to make your message bounce.

How to do this?

1. Statements vs. Questions – A simple way to encourage conversation is by asking a question instead of a making a statement.

Example:
Shotput: You’ll save money and time with Product X
Tennis: What would you do with an extra 30 minutes a day? Use Product X, find out, and then tell us about it!

2. Yes/No vs. Open-Ended – The type of question also determines the game you’re playing. Yes/No questions solicit short and boring responses. While traditional sales training encourages the use of questions that “will always result in a yes,” I believe consumers are smart enough to pick up on this sales tactic and quickly pack up their attention and leave when they sense its use. Opting for honest and conversational open-ended questions is a successful strategy.

Example:
Shotput: Are you looking to save money and time? Then buy Product X.
Tennis: What would you do with an extra 30 minutes a day? Use Product X, find out, and then tell us what you did! (Imagine coupling this with a prize to entice customers to submit stories)

3. Go beyond WWWWW&H – Questions aren’t the only way to get the ball bouncing. Using “feeling” verbs is a great way to encourage your customer’s imagination. Try peppering your copy with words like “imagine” or “discover” and allow your reader’s mind to soar.

Example:
Shotput: Product X will make you feel 10 years younger.
Tennis: Remember how you felt when you were 10 years younger? Imagine feeling that way again. Product X can help.

Ready to return the serve? Just write a comment below. 🙂

Related Links

Why Great Copy Is a Conversation, Not a Soliloquy – Dan O’Sullivan

Beware of Self Congratulatory Web Copy – Laura Bergells

Ad Copy That Attempts to Say Everything – Sometimes Says Nothing – Marc Davison

A Potential Adieu

cat-out-of-the-bag-2.jpgWell, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I’ve accepted a position as a Senior Copywriter for a large Fortune  500 company and I’m super stoked about this opportunity.

See, landing a job as a full-time copywriter is sort of like a singer who makes it to Broadway. There are simply too few organizations who can afford a full-time position that most of us end up freelancing to make the best of it. I’ve certainly enjoyed freelancing and I’m looking forward to working with and learning from a team of top talent.

So….the question remains. What am I to do with my blog? I won’t have the time to dedicate like I did when I was freelancing. Yet, my readership is decent and I don’t want to disappoint. I’m considering continuing to post once a week or so as long as I have people who are getting value out of what I have to say. Like I said in my bio – I don’t want to be blogging just to hear myself type.

So, please, let me know your thoughts. What do you enjoy reading the most and how can I continue to serve you through this blog? Leave your answer in the comments below.  🙂

To your success,

Andrea

Build Your Own Credit Card – Captial One’s Card Lab

stuffed-mailbox.jpgWhen’s the last time you received a direct mail letter from a credit card company? If you’re like me, chances are you can’t remember the last time your mailbox contained only one.

Direct mail has traditionally been the cornerstone of credit card marketing and as we enter the era of customization, keeping up with the number of different offers means a mailbox full of direct mail letters.

Capital One is looking to change all that with their latest product – the Capital One Card Lab.

According to a Capital One press release, company spokesperson Pam Girardo commented how, “Consumers today want control and expect the ability to customize products to meet their needs. Instead of buying music albums in the store, people are compiling their own online – and rather than buying a car off the lot, people can now design and purchase the precise automobile they desire online. Capital One is pleased to empower our customers to build their own credit card online.”

The site is easy to navigate and intuitively designed. No doubt, we will still see a steady flow of promotional material in regards to this product, however at least now we can understand what we’re getting in plain English.

Related Links

Paymentnews.com

Mycardblog.com

Colloquy.com

The Empathetic Marketer

Here’s a riddle for you – what is the most important character trait a successful marketer must possess? Analytical skills? Shrewdness? Communication? While all of these are important, I believe empathy trumps them all.

Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy, which is simply feeling compassion or sorrow for another person’s misfortune. Instead, empathy is the unique ability to take the facts of a person’s situation and translate them into an understanding of their feelings and motives. In other words, stepping into someone’s shoes.

Empathy is the key to successful marketing.

1) Empathy will encourage you to listen to customer feedback so you can improve your product or service. Take for example Proctor and Gamble, who realizes the benefits of having customers give ideas instantly. Products such as the Swiffer and Crest Pro-Care Mouthwash were all inspired by real problems customers faced. P&G took this information, created a better product (a Purple Cow according to Seth Godin) and was able to better compete in a crowded marketplace.

2) Empathy will help you create a message that connects with customers. Are you struggling to move past the bland and generic world of messages so diluted and generic that they loose all impact? Then sit down and work on your empathy. Close your eyes and ask yourself the following questions:

If I were this person how would I….

– feel about the situation?
– attempt to resolve it given what is currently in the marketplace?
– react to a given message?
– search for information?
– tell my friends about something that is good or bad?
– want to be treated?
– be motivated to make a purchase (i.e. do I shop because something is inexpensive or because it’s high quality?)

Once you’ve stepped into the shoes of your target market, you’ll find the right message stands out bright and clear.

3) Empathy turns marketing into a field of service. For years marketing has been perceived as an industry that manipulates public opinion and as a result marketers have a pretty bad rep. I believe that marketers have the capacity to truly make a difference in the world by bringing consumers real solutions to their problems. When marketers adopt a stance of empathy, their approach turns from “how can I convince everyone that I have a better product or service when I really don’t.” (which doesn’t work anymore – again, read Purple Cow) to “how can I create a better world by identifying, developing and informing people of solutions to their problems.”

So how do you feel?

Attention All Real Estate Agents…

stopsign.jpgStop, I repeat STOP putting me on your weekly or monthly newsletter when I haven’t asked you to. Just because I sat next to you at a networking event and gave you my card does not mean that we have a relationship. Do you even know that….

1. I am currently receiving more than twenty newsletters that are just like yours?

2. I’m not even in the market for buying or selling a house?

3. My brother is a real estate agent so there’s little chance that I would even use you in the first place.

When you send me unsolicited e-mail it is not an effective marketing campaign – in fact – it’s the opposite. It irritates me and I don’t trust you from the start. It’s one thing if I’ve requested to receive your newsletter, but it’s quite another for you to go to events simply to compile a list of names for spamming. (Yep – you’re spamming.)

Do you have the guts (and the quality info) to make your newsletter opt-in only?