What Your Customers Don’t Know…And How It Helps You

I recently visited a website for a company selling beeswax candles. On one web page, the company explained how their candles were made. The information fascinated me. I’ve melted crayons to make candles and simply assumed any candle was made with the same technique. It isn’t.

The beeswax candle company made a smart move: they asked themselves what their customers might not know and supplied it. As a result, customers like me stayed on their website much longer.

If you have been telling yourself that “Everyone in the industry does it that way” or “Everyone knows that,” it may be time for a reality check: never underestimate what your customers don’t know.

  • Do your customers know information that is common in your industry? Probably not. Your customers have their own special interests, which is why they are coming to you. Share your knowledge, educate your customers and you’ve hooked them. 
  • Are your customers comparing you to your competitors? Most certainly. So make sure you include information on industry standards, industry regulations, awards, and baselines that you meet or exceed. Provide testimonials, before and after photos, and case studies that confirm your expertise.
  • Do your customers know what they don’t know? For example, you assume they know what you mean by “extremely precise measurements.” But in reality, there’s a big difference in precision between 0.0003 cm and 0.00003 cm. Be specific and ensure you are both working with the same data and assumptions.
  • Do your long-time, highly educated customers like intellectual challenges? Why push them? Even the most savvy customers get tired of constantly translating acronyms and industry jargon. Make it easy on your customers to understand what you are saying. The faster they read, the faster you can convert them to a sale.

Knowing what your customers don’t know–and want to know–helps you meet their desire for information and makes you stand out from the competition. Need help in figuring that out? Contact me today at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your marketing message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

Writing by Committee

I once proofread a proposal where the word “huge” was spelled throughout as “hugh.” (High marks for consistency, though.) I edited the descriptions of presentations for a major industrial conference where presenters used the same acronym for entirely different meanings over a dozen times. 

When any document is written by committee, it seems that no one is responsible to check that it actually makes sense. Basic facts change from chapter to chapter or page to page, including product and service names. Cross-references go nowhere, as everyone assumes that someone else is providing the cross-referenced content. Some writers believe their readers are knowledgeable and the rest believe their readers need detailed information–which means the actual reader is either lost or bored.

You can avert and fix the problem of writing by committee if you:

  • Create a short style manual for writers to reference. A style manual is a brief description (2 pages maximum) of format, grammar (use of the serial comma, for example), spelling, acronyms, and use of copyrighted or intellectual property.
  • Decide early on about tone and audience. Do you address the audience as “you” or “they”? Is content highly technical or relaxed (think the “for Dummies” series)? Who is your audience: executives, purchasers, installers, users? Don’t switch audiences mid-page or mid-sentence.
  • Limit the number of reviewers. Aim for a maximum of three reviewers; say, customer liaison, technical, and executive.
  • Assign one person to read the entire document. With multiple writers and reviewers, sentences become edited into nonsense, words are dropped, and even firm requests by the customer for specific information are overlooked.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. The smallest change or mistake in even a standard document can turn the rest of the document into scrap paper.

As a professional technical and marketing writer, I’m often called upon to provide a uniform voice and structure for documents that undergo writing by committee. That outside perspective not only ensures that mistakes are caught, it also helps to resolve conflict when writers re-write each other.

If your company, division, or group is used to writing by committee, please contact me.

12 Reasons for Hiring a Freelance Writer

After 20 years as a freelance writer, I have discovered 12 reasons why business owners hire a freelance writer. Regardless of the business owner’s industry, years of experience or overall marketing expertise, hiring a freelance writer addresses one or more of these concerns:

1. I don’t have the time to write.

2. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it.

3. I need someone who isn’t full time but is dependable; will handle my writing projects when they come along; and understands my business.

4. My products or services or solutions are complicated and/or highly technical, and I need a better way to explain them to potential customers.

5. I’d like to standardize my replies to customer inquiries, my marketing collateral or cold call scripts so that my brand is clear.

6. My proposal (or report or manual) writing team needs someone to unify the content and figure out what’s missing, repetitive or contradictory.

7. My business has changed; I need a collaborator who can clarify what I should be writing now and then write it for me.

8. I’m writing a blog and I’m out of ideas for posts.

9. I need more publicity online/in print but I don’t know how to go about it.

10. I’m not detail oriented–at least, not with writing. I need someone who actually enjoys grammar and spelling.

11. My current marketing collateral sounds exactly like my competition’s; I need a way to differentiate myself.

12. I hate writing.

A professional freelance writer is adept at clear and accurate communication, organizing information, collaboration, addressing customer concerns and priorities and providing creative content.

Why would you hire a freelance writer?

If you recognize yourself in any of the top reasons for hiring a freelance writer, please contact me. At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, our words mean business.

Words That Show, Not Tell

Recently, I replaced the carpet in my downstairs with maple flooring. I had a very difficult time deciding the type of flooring (hardwood, laminate, maple, oak), until a flooring professional showed me photos of maple flooring he had installed for another home owner. Seeing the flooring in place–not just a square sample–made all the difference.

We all know the power of photography to show, not tell. But what about the power of writing to do the same thing? How do you show, not tell, in words?

  1. Don’t create bare lists. When you simply list your products and services, one after another, you are telling. That list may be important to you; but is it compelling for your customers?
  2. Do think about what your customers want. You might offer 30 different products or services but–and I cannot say this often enough–customers want to get fast to the product or service that interests them. On a website, that means easy navigation; in a brochure, that means a clear and consistent layout; in an article or blog post, that means focusing on a single problem/solution each time.
  3. Build trust. I had a budget for my new flooring. One flooring rep turned me off by giving me an outrageous price (what, he thought I didn’t research on the internet?) and then offering me a “special discount” that brought the price within reason. Games like that are a lose/lose. I paid more to work with someone I trusted.
  4. Let your current customers speak for you. Like photographs of past jobs, success stories (case studies) bring your product or service to life. Testimonials are also great; but success stories provide a larger context and everyone loves a story.
  5. Use exact words. Your writing should build a picture about you and your company that is as singular as a photograph. The more exact you are, the more that picture will truly represent you and set you apart from your competition. Everyone has “dedicated staff” but not everyone can boast: “Our dedicated staff of 15 has 300+ years of experience between them.”

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, based in Peterborough, New Hampshire, helps large and small businesses reach out to customers and keep them engaged through clear, accurate, concise, and passionate writing. Please contact me through the TWP website or through LinkedIn.

More Words? Less Power.

There are two things that great marketing copy is not:

  • Sesquipedalian
  • A vocabulary test.

“Sesquipedalian” is one of those vocabulary test words. I could have easily chosen “wordy” or even “verbose” and made the same point. Yet, many writers of technical or marketing copy believe in using long words, no matter how obscure.

By contrast, professional writers know:

  • You can reach more readers faster with everyday language.
  • Unnecessary 4- and 5-syllable words (functionality, maximization) slow readers down even when they do understand them.
  • Clear is better than concise; if it takes 3 extra words to be perfectly clear, use them.

All writing is communication. Even the most difficult content is trying to communicate. So if “difficult” is not your priority, why make your audience work hard for what you desperately want them to know?

Small Words

I challenge you to take any marketing or technical copy and circle every word over 3 syllables. Now replace those words with words of 3 syllables or less. You will be amazed at the power your words achieve when most of your writing relies on 1- and 2-syllable words. And your readers will understand what you have to say faster, a major benefit in turning them from prospects to customers.

Short Sentences

Once you have simplified your words, you should shorten your sentences by aiming for an average of 18 words per sentence. Shorter sentences are fine; very few if any should exceed 24 words. For this purpose, a colon before a list counts the same as a period–just make sure you are using the colon correctly.

Short Paragraphs

Now that you have small words and short sentences, review your paragraphs. Most paragraphs should be 5 sentences long (or 120 words) at most. Any document that contains 10 paragraphs would benefit from subtitles; as shown here, you can also use subtitles for shorter documents.

Alternatives to Words

Finally, consider the alternatives to words: graphs, photos, illustrations, video, graphic design. Words are not the only way to communicate, and it is absolutely true that a picture is worth 1000 words–if it’s the right picture.

With these techniques for writing marketing and technical copy–using small words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and graphics–you will communicate with more power, more speed, and fewer sesquipedalian failures.

Sharon Bailly founded TWP Marketing & Technical Communications 20 years ago to help large and small businesses communicate with their clients through articles, case studies, insight papers, newsletters, and blog posts. She can be reached through LinkedIn.

Telling Your Story

A memorable marketing story resonates with your customers. Your customers have a problem they must solve (whether fixing a broken vase or launching a satellite into space). They want to know why they should turn to you for a solution rather than someone else.

The best blog posts, website pages, and other marketing content respond to customer concerns by telling your story.

The story reassures customers that:

  • You understand their pain.
  • You can solve their problem.
  • Your solution brings benefits to the customer (value added).
  • You would like the customer to…(contact you, read further, buy, etc.).

But baldly stating those facts (“I know what’s wrong and I can fix it cheaply and quickly, so call me today”) makes you just another pushy provider in the crowd. How do you stand out?

A good story is:

  • Honest. Any service or product provider can boast, “I’m the best and cheapest in the universe”–even the worst and most expensive. In telling your story, first explain why you are the best and cheapest (how you add value), then make your claim.
  • Specific. The customer wants to know that you have the equipment, education, staff, convenient location, awards, years of experience, client testimonials–whatever combination makes you uniquely you.
  • Interesting. A point of view or an insight into your industry or helpful hints all connect you to the customer as a real person. 
  • Helpful. You must guide the customer to take the next step, including when and how to contact you, use a coupon, find your physical location, and so on.

Let’s say you are a car mechanic trying to bring in customers with stalled cars. The following is one way to tell your story:

“Cars that stall repeatedly are a danger. Before you take your car to a mechanic, you can try these solutions…When you need professional help, my experienced staff and I quickly analyze the problem using [equipment, method]. You can depend on me to keep your car maintained so that it doesn’t stall again. Call me at 555-1212 today.”

Information like that is clear and compelling; it comes naturally to any business owner when speaking to a customer. It should also come naturally in writing marketing content. Having trouble telling your story? Contact TWP. When it comes to writing, we do what comes naturally.

Decision Paralysis: Helping Your Customers Commit

I like to think of myself as a decisive person but I once took so long to decide between rolls of linoleum that I was accidentally locked into the shop at closing. That’s decision paralysis.

Your printed and online marketing materials play a major role in reducing decision paralysis and helping your customers commit:

  • Reduce the number of decisions that have to be made. On a website, that might be as simple as reducing the number clicks to move from one topic to the next. But more important is to clearly direct customers to the page that addresses their main problem/pain point. If Amazon can do it, you can.
  • Give clear, concise, and accurate information. I become really annoyed when a letter tells me to visit a business’ So-and-So promotion which is actually labeled online as the This-and-That promotion. Or I am directed to a telephone line with 49 million choices, half of them using jargon I don’t recognize and none of which match my problem. Try out your directions, following them exactly as given, and make sure you get where you want to go.
  • Confirm customers in their decision-making abilities. Post success stories and testimonials from customers who have already chosen your business. Provide potential customers with decision trees, comparison tables, or infographics that aid them in evaluating their own needs and help reduce decision paralysis.
  • Concentrate on value. If you can provide (and regularly update) prices, do so–but even then, explain in concrete terms (not vague adjectives) why your product or service is worth paying for. What standards do you meet or exceed, what options do you offer, what different techniques do you use? If you cannot provide current prices, explain instead how you determine price and the ways you ensure that the client receives full value for moneys spent.
  • Give customers something to remember you by. Informative blog posts, newsletters, sales events, downloads–do whatever you can to keep your business in the forefront of customer attention. I finally picked flooring and a flooring provider because he followed up with an email simply asking what was making the decision difficult and if he could help. That followup email, with its attention to my needs, was what turned me from decision paralysis into his committed, happy customer.

By addressing decision paralysis, you are helping your customers commit to your business–and improving your own bottom line. I have the words you need for website content, blog posts, insight papers, and other marketing materials that help your customers commit. Contact me today to find out more.

How to Know When You Need Help with Your Content

I’ve often written about the qualities of great content, but how do you know when you need help with your content? Here are five big danger signs:

  1. You are writing or reviewing by committee. Nothing good ever gets written by committee. Committee members contradict each other; they argue over every comma; or even worse, they don’t care about details, so that your grammar, spelling, and emphasis changes from page to page. Your content should help create your brand. You don’t want your brand to be “chaos.”
  2. You are writing too much. If you pack that first page with an endless rush of words, your audience will run. At the very least, provide headlines, bullets, and graphics to break up the text. Modern content tends to be sparse, not overwhelming, but sparse content is difficult to write. It is easy to be verbose.
  3. You are writing the same thing over and over. Repetition helps reinforce a message; but if you repeat yourself too often, your customers will be bored. Even worse, you may give up writing entirely. You have a lot more content than you realize–you just haven’t properly mined what you have.
  4. You aren’t sure what makes you different. You are convinced that every business like your own is identical and, therefore, you can’t possibly have anything to write about. Or you are afraid to admit that your competition might know more than you do and, therefore, you shouldn’t write because it will expose your limitations. Sometimes we find it difficult to see ourselves as we really are, and celebrate that.
  5. You keep putting it off. You need to finish the writing project that’s on your desk now, and you need to write regularly. Your content can’t communicate with customers until you send it out. Similarly, if you write once and never another word, you are missing opportunities to connect with past and future customers–because your business, industry, and marketplace are changing even as you procrastinate.

As a freelance marketing and technical writer, I help companies create a cost-effective, time-sensitive balance between writing by committee and writing by totalitarian decree; between writing too much and too little; between copying the competition and striking out into unfamiliar lands; and between never starting and never ending. Contact me today and let’s work together to give you help with your content.

Which Customer Are You Writing For?

Among the questions I ask potential customers of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, the following ranks highest: Who is your customer? Which customer are you writing for?

All too often a company owner has thought only about what to say in marketing or technical copy, not who is going to read it. In addition, the company owner might have several potential customers in mind (“people who install our software and people who want us to manage their computers”) or, even worse, aims for the elusive and nonexistent “everybody.”

To determine which customer you are writing for:

  1. Identify and separate customers who will spend money, use the product/service, and operate/service the product. Sometimes the spender will also be either the user or the operator/service technician but very rarely are all three functions performed by one person. For example, people who install your software will often have different priorities from people who use the program–and different levels of fluency in computer jargon.
  2. Speak to the real issue each customer faces: how will you solve my problem? In our example, installers and users face different problems; different users also face different problems. Your job is to cater to those differences. Yes, your product or service may solve multiple problems for multiple customers. But no customer wants to search through pages and pages to find the solution to their problem. Think, instead, of how a car dealership website separates new car buyers from used car buyers and also has separate brochures for each car; or consider an online retailer with separate areas for books, computers, and file cabinets.
  3. Ask your customers. Interview your current or past customers to determine what they were looking for when they chose your company; why they chose your company rather than a competitor; and what you achieved for them. Do not assume you know the answers to these questions from the customer’s perspective. Information from your current customers allows you to more precisely target future customers. Plus you gain some great material for testimonials and case studies.
  4. Ask the publication. If you are writing for a publication, make sure you know who the publication’s customers are. The publication will expect you to follow their guidelines on content, style, and length and will reject any article that refuses to conform.

Once you know your audience–once you know which customer you are writing for–each marketing and technical writing project becomes easier because your writing is focused.

Need help in identifying and focusing your writing on your true audience? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Relations.

Squelching Fluff in Writing

Fluff in writing is fairly easy to spot. You hold your hand over the contact information for the company website, blog post, newsletter, success story–and then ask yourself two questions:

  1. How can this company help me?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

Does the marketing content fail to answer those questions? You are reading fluff.

The Reason for Fluff

Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company because no one on board recognizes what it is or because the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given or because the company hasn’t settled on an audience. Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who doesn’t ask important questions or research answers.

Reality is what makes content stand out: the reality of your company, your leadership, your relationship with customers, your experience. Think of it this way: if you were hiring a new employee, would you appreciate a resume full of lyrical praise and generalities or would you prefer a resume describing experience, skills, and passion clearly detailed and supported by accomplishments? Why should your customers be any different when they are hiring you?

How to Squelch Fluff

The four easiest ways for squelching fluff in writing are:

  • Watch those adjectives. If you load your writing with adjectives like “state of the art” and “unique high-value” and “finely engineered,” you are missing the opportunity to explain why your product or service is state of the art, unique, valuable, and finely engineered. You are writing fluff that any company can duplicate, even your least skilled competitor. Throw out the adjectives and rely on verbs and nouns instead.
  • Give the details. Testimonials are wonderful if they are specific. Success stories (case studies) are even better because they show exactly how you helped a customer like the customers you hope to attract. How-to instructions are always helpful to customers. Before and after photos, videos of a project in progress, examples of how your products could be used–they all connect with your customers and distinguish you from the competition.
  • Share your perspective on your industry. Share your techniques. If they are the same techniques everyone else uses, be the first to embrace transparency. Share your passion for what you do.
  • Hire the right writer. The right writer talks with you about your goals and the future of your company; researches your industry and your competitors; grows in understanding with each writing project, no matter how far apart the projects are scheduled; and absolutely hates fluff. Whether in-house or freelance, you need a professional writer like that.

Now read through this blog post and count the number of adjectives, check for details, including how-to information, consider whether you have found out anything about my priorities and passion (no fluff!), and then decide if I’m the type of freelance writer you would want to write your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.