Getting control of your content: The Language of Content Strategy

The Language of Content Strategy bookOrganizations acknowledge the tremendous value of their content — content being anything and everything customers encounter along the way to the product, from ads to websites to printed packaging and user manuals. Whether an organization’s product is an energy-efficient appliance or a soccer camp for kids, content is what helps people find it, buy it, figure out how to use it, review it, and recommend it to others.

Managing content — video, photos, audio, brochures, packaging, user manuals, sales training materials, and customer service documents — constitutes major work at any organization. Or at least it would if people did it.

In my experience, most companies don’t. Instead, various tribes within the company create pieces of content in the absence of an overarching organizational content strategy. This is why a company’s flagship product is called “Wonder Widget” in the video and “Widgetarama IIZ” in the catalog. It’s why the brochure, website, and tradeshow banner have the company name in three different fonts — one of which is Comic Sans.

CEOs often accept out-of-sync content as inevitable. Which is really sad because they could dramatically improve not just content but marketing return-on-investment and customer satisfaction if they had a content strategy in place.

Recommended reading: The Language of Content Strategy

The Language of Content Strategy by Scott Abel and Rahel Anne Bailie provides an essential tool for getting a grip on content and developing a content strategy. The 130+ page book from XML Press is a glossary of 52 key terms from the content management field. Each term comes with a definition from an expert and a succinct, one-page explanation of why a content strategist needs to know about it.

Some terms (like editorial calendar and style guide ) are familiar. Others (folksonomy and augmented reality) may have you raising your eyebrows. My guess is that you’ll recognize a lot of communications issues and problems you’ve encountered in your organization described in terms of content management solutions. These range from supporting a product simultaneously in several international markets (globalization) to developing content that can be used for a variety of projects (single sourcing) to determining who, internally, owns communications/content strategy (governance). I particularly liked message architecture, which is a key part of maintaining your brand’s tone.

The book is intended to enable content professionals “think big about content” — to engage with others in the content community, and sell their strategic plans to colleagues (and, one hopes, to management).

It can’t happen too soon.



Storytelling for Social Media

Perhaps the biggest challenge for PR professionals today is sharing the stage with all the other people trying to tell a version of the corporate story — from Marketing and Customer Service to employees, customers, and indie pundits.

social media geek
Social media seven years ago. How things have changed.

For the past seven years, I’ve been a guest speaker for the Certificate in Public Relations & Strategic Communications program at the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education division. I do a presentation on social media — which seven years ago consisted of talking about blogging on LiveJournal and Blogger and setting up a profile on MySpace.

How times have changed.

Tonight I talked about the institutionalization of social media. I suggested that social media has matured and become increasingly complex. Strategic analyses of audiences, organizational resources, and the current proliferation of social media platforms, are essential. So is investment in the technology and training necessary to take advantage of sophisticated social media tools.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for PR professionals today is sharing the stage with all the other people trying to tell a  version of the corporate story — from Marketing and Customer Service to employees, customers, and indie pundits.

I’ve posted a PDF of my Keynote slide deck “Storytelling for Social Media” for the students in Lee Schoentrup’s class.  Everyone else is welcome to take a look at the deck, though I’m not sure how much sense it will make without the accompanying song-and-dance.

Interview with a great marketer

This interview with Joe Hage provides insight into the discipline that underlies highly effective marketing.

Joe Hage
Joe Hage (having a bit of fun on Facebook)
There are many tricks and tips for marketing success, but most of us quickly get frustrated when what we try doesn’t yield results or doesn’t yield results fast enough. In fact, those tricks often work for great marketers because these folks are strategic in their approach, tireless in their experimentation, quick to bounce back from failure, and relentlessly honest with themselves and with their clients.

For the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with a leader in the marketing field, Joe Hage of Medical Marcom. I’ve seen Joe work with the CEOs  of established international companies and the founders of small businesses and business organizations. I’ve seen Joe harness the power of the ever-changing field of social media (including communities and crowd sourcing) and get down in the trenches to drive traditional marcom  projects like rebranding, conferences, and collateral.

If you’re in marketing and looking to improve your game, check out this interview with Joe on MedGadget (he’s currently focusing his work on the medical device industry, where marketing is a very high-stakes game).

If you’re outside the field and think marketing is a lot of fluff, this interview will give you an insight into the discipline and thought that underlies highly effective marketing. (You’ll also see some highly effective marketing at work in Joe’s answers to the interview questions. But of course.)

For social media, Facebook has the numbers

Pew Internet reports that Facebook is far and away the most popular social media site for adults.

Publicize blog to social media graphicIt’s cold and lonely on the cutting edge. But some people like to be there. Like my hip friend who sniffed that “nobody cool uses Facebook any more.” (Shades of Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”)

Cool be damned.

The latest report from Pew Internet shows that as of September 2013, 71 percent of online adults use Facebook. Compare that to adult use of other social networking platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Instagram), which Pew says hovers between 17 and 22 percent.

So we would like to focus our social media marketing efforts…where?

Actually, you can easily cover all the bases — Facebook and many more— by blogging your message. Then use your blogging software’s Publicize feature to send a linked excerpt of the blog post to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. Metrics software such as StatCounter, Google Analytics, or a built-in statistics program like the one in WordPress will tell you which social media platform brings the most click-throughs to your original content.

Just curious — did you come to this post from one of those platforms?

Decluttering your organization — taking the lead

Simplicity is not that simple. Some ideas on how to declutter your organization.

How scary is change? I wrote this post six months ago — but was reluctant to publish it.

Beth Comstock, CMO of GE, wrote a great post on simplicity. Last year she sold her house and most of her physical possessions to declutter her life — much the way that GE is attempting to make simplicity the hallmark of the company.

But simplicity is not that simple.

Whether it’s your company, or your personal life, you will need to deal with other people around the issue of simplifying and decluttering. I’d say the biggest challenge is not just doing it yourself (and that’s big) but motivating others to follow you in that direction.

Many people lug around huge piles of clutter that is not physical, but intellectual. The phrases “But we’ve always done it that way!” “What if something goes wrong?” and “What if someone yells at me?” are symptoms of that clutter.

businessman in red tape
“But that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

It’s tempting to dismiss these folks as too lazy to declutter. But, if you watch closely, many of these people are incredibly hard working. They are working extra hours, at a frenetic pace, to use old, cheap, flimsy and ineffective (but familiar!) tools to do things just the way they have always done them. Even as the world around them changes.

A great example of this is the newsletter editor who insists on printing and mailing a newsletter that 95 percent of your customers toss into recycling (noting, as they do, how you’re wasting paper, money — and their time). Meanwhile, the grudgingly produced electronic edition of your newsletter is a PDF that no one clicks to open — or, even worse, a poorly designed, seemingly endless email message. Soon you’ve trained your customers to automatically route any electronic communication from your organization to the Spam folder — even the fundraising appeal from your executive director. If your new marketing consultant dares to suggest an updated communications plan using postcards and short, frequent emails — out come the garlic and wooden stakes.

It’s not just the newsletter editor. It’s the nonprofit events person who plans the same old fundraising auction every year — even as more and more of your donors tell you it’s a pain to drive downtown to the same old hotel and park (for a small fortune) in the hotel garage. These days, they’d rather go to a more intimate event at the home of a board member in their neighborhood. You’ve gotten the feedback, but your events person gets the look of a deer in the headlights at the thought of doing Something Different. He or she will hurry to mention to you the name of one donor who “really likes the auction,” and trudge down the same old path, holding that person’s (extrapolated) dislike of board-hosted events in front of them like a shield.

The motivation here is fear — of failure and criticism. And it’s a huge barrier to decluttering.

You’ll see this most clearly when one of the Old Guard suggests that instead of decluttering your business processes, you add to the clutter by doing it the old way and the new way at the same time. That, they assure you, will keep everybody (meaning them) happy. It ignores the reality that it will double either your costs or your staff time to run the two processes simultaneously — plus have everyone in the organization (and customers) now interacting with two projects or systems instead of one.

If you want to declutter your organization, you, as a leader, need to take the responsibility for removing the fear of failure and criticism — theirs and yours.

And that’s the toughest decluttering of all.

See Comstock’s post for inspiration.

Some previous posts on organizational change:

Practicing change

Change, part 2

Why there’s nothing funny about your website’s photos

Tips for finding a corporate photographer for your company’s website and executive headshots.

The comic strip wife wants to replace the shabby living room set with all new furniture. Her cost-conscious husband proposes a compromise — why don’t they just freshen up the living room with a new coat of paint?

“Aieeee!” the wife shrieks at his cluelessness. “Then our old furniture will only look worse!”

Hilarious? Not if that’s what’s going on with your corporate website.

outdated COO photo
Is this your COO photo? Let’s hope not.

You freshened up your website with all that beautiful stock photography showing friendly customer service representatives, sleek professionals, and happy corporate customers. But on the website’s “About Us” page, you still have a off-kilter picture of your headquarters that looks like it was taken during the Reagan Administration. Let’s not even talk about the blurry headshot of the COO with a blow-dried pompadour and the grin of an axe-murderer.

Which brings us to the question: Why is it that companies are willing to spend thousands of dollars to launch new websites with the latest SEO and social-media bells and whistles but then go all Scrooge when it comes to spending $1,000 to get  one photo of their building and basic headshots of their four top executives?

The answer is simpler than you think. It’s because the web designer went out and got them the stock photography, but to get the building photo and executive headshots, they’d have to…well, what would they have to do?

  • Find photographers
  • Schedule their colleagues to get executive portraits

Apparently, they’ll do anything to avoid this.

What’s the real cost?

All too often, the marketing department deals with the photography issue by calling in the IT guy’s wife or the CEO’s nephew—someone who “just loves to take photos” and will do it for free. And that’s why so many company websites end up with a poorly-lit shot of the reception-area front desk with their (barely readable) logo on it—and the receptionist’s gym bag poking out from behind the desk. It explains “About Us” pages with a headshot of the CEO with his bald spot shining like a search light.

Really, isn’t it time to call the pros?

Tips for finding a professional photographer

For head shots, it’s pretty easy. You’ll find photographers by searching under the keywords “(city name)” “photography” and “headshots” (or “corporate headshots”). Ask for their pricing for “onsite headshots with backdrop and lighting” and tell them you want high-resolution digital copies and full rights to one or two images for each executive.

professional photo setupA photo session for four people should take less than an hour.

Two tips:

  • If you are trying to control costs, don’t start adding in photos of lots of other employees or setting up those ghastly, fake-looking group photos in the reception area or conference room. (Group shots are cursed: someone in the photo will quit within days.)
  • Schedule the shoot for a day when the executives are going to be there and dressed professionally (such as the day of a meeting or sales presentation).

For an exterior building picture, it’s a bit more difficult to find a photographer. That’s because most of the corporate photographers, even the affordable ones, fill their sites with dramatic “feature” shots from pricey shoots that required tons of equipment and lighting — the exact opposite of what you are looking for. Don’t panic. These same folks will do basic pictures of your building or lobby (or your company van) if you stress that you want something very simple, with two or three final shots with high-resolution digital files (and full rights). This way you’ll have what you need for trade show posters, brochures, and the website.

To find a good photographer, search under your city’s name and “corporate photography”—plus the magic keyword “affordable.”

I know this all sounds painful and time-consuming, but when you get those great pictures on your website, it will be so very, very worth it.

A tale of 2 testimonials — is one of them yours?

How much should you expect to pay a freelance writer to do a case study or testimonial?

Nothing brings more credibility to a B2B website than detailed case studies and testimonials from customers about how a product or service benefitted them.

Just about every  company I’ve done work for has asked me to interview a major client and craft a testimonial for marketing purposes. Before I start the work, they ask me what it’s going to cost. After six years of tackling these projects, I finally have an answer:

“Five hours of my time for a great case study or four hours of my time for no case study at all.”


I can explain with — what else? — a case study of two testimonial projects.

Case Study #1: Company A and their client WidgetSoft

Company A’s project got off to a great start. Even before they contacted me, their VP of sales called the CEO of WidgetSoft and asked if we could get a testimonial from their head of IT. The WidgetSoft CEO agreed.

Company A’s VP sent me

    • background on their product
    • the history of the relationship between the two companies
    • phone numbers for the IT folks WidgetSoft.

I studied the materials, set up two phone interviews (mentioning the CEO’s agreement when I called), conducted the interviews, and wrote a draft. After Company A reviewed my draft, I sent a revised version over to WidgetSoft for review, along with a request for a photo of Company A’s product in use at WidgetSoft. When the draft came back, I incorporated their comments and changes and submitted the final version to Company A — along with a bill for 5 hours of my time.

Case Study #2: Company B and their client Gadgetron

Company B’s PR person called me to say that one of their salespeople had a buyer at Gadgetron who just loved Company B’s product. They wanted me to write a testimonial after talking with the exuberant salesperson and his customer.

I set about contacting the Company B salesperson, with repeated emails and phone messages. A week later, he got back to me with

    • links to background on their product
    • some numbers on how many units they’d sold to Gadgetron at various times over an unspecified period
    • a phone number for the IT buyer at Gadgetron.

Dead end on the roadI studied the materials and called the number. Sure enough, the IT folks at Gadgetron did indeed love  Company B’s  product. But the buyer’s numbers for how many products they’d purchased were considerably lower than the numbers from Company B. I also found out, at the end of the 30-minute interview, that Gadgetron’s PR department does not let employees endorse products, so I couldn’t quote any of the nice things the buyer told me. When I reported all this back to the Company B PR woman, she said “Well, can’t you write something?”

It was downhill from there. I  called the Gadgetron PR guy, who’d never heard of Company B. He said I needed to send him all of my interview questions and he’d see if he could get an executive to comment. Emails went back and forth, and eventually he sent a feeble quote to the effect that “Gadgetron believes that every company needs to buy products such as those made by Company B and other companies.” A photo? Get real.

By now, the PR person at Company B was impatient and exasperated. She sent me the original email from the salesperson, full of vague claims and what I now knew to be overstated numbers, and suggested that based on that I should be able to write some sort of case study. When I suggested that she ask the VP of sales at Company B to call one of the executives at Gadgetron, her response was that she couldn’t “bother” the VP of sales with “that sort of thing.” They’d hired me because I write testimonials, she noted, so why hadn’t I written one? With a sigh, I emailed her the name of her PR counterpart at Gadgetron — along with an invoice for the four hours of my time spent failing to write her testimonial.

The Bottom Line

If the second scenario above sounds familiar, it’s time to make some changes. If you’re the PR person, take a lesson from Company A (or, better yet, look for a job at Company A). If you’re the writer, take a firm stand. Say that you’ll be happy to conduct and write up an interview with an executive at their client company — as soon as they line one up for you.

An inside look at SEO that outsiders can understand

Rand Fishkin talks about what SEO is and isn’t, and what people (rightly or wrongly) think about search engine optimization.

MozImagine trying to figure out what an airplane does by looking at one on display in a museum.

Now imagine trying to figure out what an airplane does by watching one that’s taking off. By catching something on the move, or in transition, so much more about what it does, and how it does it, becomes apparent.

So…I invite you to take a look at the blog post SEO thought-leader Rand Fishkin has written about the transition of his company SEOMoz to its new identity, Moz. Rand writes beautifully, and his decision to rebrand the company was all about what SEO is and isn’t, and what people (rightly or wrongly) think about search engine optimization. Think of it as an insiders look at SEO that outsiders can understand.

The “Mission & Vision” section of the post also contains a marvelously clear and unpretentious infographic. Infographics are the latest online communications fad and, predictably, about half of them seem to have been designed to communicate how trendy and clever the design firm is, with the actual client information being ignored or mangled in the process. As with many other aspects of marketing communications, the Moz folks know how to do things the right way.

Have a look.

And the next time people start whining to me that SEO is either confusing or inherently evil, I’m just sending them to this post.

It’s better than nagging: A technique for following up on introductions

It’s better than nagging: A technique for following up with qualified prospects.

In the midst of it all, I’m trying out a new technique for wooing customers. I’d been introduced to the MarCom manager at a large company that needs a blog designed, managed, and possibly ghost written — a very promising opportunity for me. I’d sent her a proposal and some samples. She’d responded with interest. But we were having difficulty setting up and doing an actual phone call. She’d cancelled because of some emergencies and didn’t reschedule.

Meanwhile, I was researching the topic of successful B2B blogs for another client and realized that one of the reference articles I’d discovered talked about exactly the marketing problem the prospective client is hoping to solve. (It examined the way that Manpower US had engaged B2B customers by tightly focusing a blog on the topic those customers were most eager to hear about.)

So, instead of whingeing to my prospect that we needed to schedule, I wrote her a note saying I’d been thinking about her project and thought she might like to see what Manpower US had done, providing links to the article.

We’ll see how it works. But I have a good feeling about the technique. At my end, it certainly feels better than nagging.

Update: Two months later I signed a contract with the prospective client.

Social Media Survival presentation

A social media program that makes perfect sense today is likely to be significantly out of alignment in 18 months.

Last night I spoke about social media at Lee Schoentrup’s class on public relations writing at the University of Washington. This is the sixth year I’ve done the presentation. I think when I started, with blogger Peggy Sturdivant, all we talked about was…blogging.

Six years later, the list of social media tools I cover goes on, and on, and on. While in the past I’ve focused on social media strategies for particular tools, this year I revamped the presentation to focus on the need for a social media strategy that can roll with continuous change. I pointed to trends affecting social media, including:

  • Crowds (crowdsourcing, etc.)
  • Increasing use of mobile devices to create and access social media content
  • The return of organic content after the recent obsession with SEO

It’s clear to me that a social media program that makes perfect sense today is likely to be significantly out of alignment in 18 months. Who knew two years ago that companies would be getting mileage out of Facebook and Pinterest? How many companies are providing a good experience for the growing number of people who visit their blogs (or Facebook and LinkedIn pages) using a smartphone? How many are even aware of the social media consequences (good and bad) of sprinkling “Like” and “Share” buttons around their web pages?

I changed the topic of the presentation from “Social Media Success” to “Social Media Survival.” It’s a jungle out there.

Members of the UW class who would like to download a PDF of the Keynote presentation will find it here: SME – UW – 2013.

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