What Comes First When You Have Too Many Great Ideas?

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is figuring out what to say first. If you dump everything you want to say into one web page or one article or one blog post, you are likely to end up with a mess that no one understands. And yet, how can you let those great ideas slip away?

The first rule of organizing any writing is that there is always another sentence, paragraph, and page. You do not need to cram everything into one opportunity. What you need is focus.

A Basic Structure for Organizing Ideas

Let’s say you run a car repair shop and want to draw in customers by performing annual car inspections.

  • First write a “thesis“–a central idea–that takes this form: You (the customer) should (do this) to get (that). In this example, the thesis states, “You should have your car inspected every year to make sure it is running properly.”
  • Next write the reasons why this thesis is true: “The inspection checks for problems with safety equipment, such as brake lights, and for violations of regulations, such as emission standards.”
  • Next write a conclusion based on the information you have given. “If your car passes inspection, you will know it is safe to operate for another year.”
  • Finally, call the readers to action. “Sign up for a car inspection today and we will give you a 20% discount.”

When you are finished, look through the content to make sure your opening sentence is as strong as it can be. Sometimes opening turns out to be buried in the conclusion–by then, you’re thought out exactly what you want to say. But this structure keeps your thoughts on track–in this case, you stay focused on car inspections.

Other Ways to Organize Content

Here are a few other ways to organize your ideas:

  • Write about three benefits/features of your product or service (Our car inspection service covers three safety concerns…). Three is usually the optimum number.
  • Create a list (10 ways to keep your car safe).
  • Set up a Q&A. Create a question (“I’m afraid to have my car inspected. What should I do?”), building up a scene that might have prompted a real customer to ask that question. Then answer it.
  • Tell a true story (“One of our customers wanted to buy a car that had no record of inspections. We suggested…”).

Get Help from TWP Marketing & Technical Communications

You have lots of great ideas for marketing content. If you find your writing wandering all over the universe and back, contact me. I’ll make sure your marketing content is always organized to show off your best ideas.

A Bill of Rights for Your Reader

Sometimes I wish there were a bill of rights governing content for customers! Readers have the right to content that addresses their problem, offers a clear solution, is written logically and clearly, and explains what to do next.

You try your best. You’ve produced reams of online and paper content describing your products and services. But sheer volume isn’t enough. Here are the four biggest reasons a marketing message violates the bill of rights:

  • Nobody cares. You’re excited by your achievements. I once had a client whose entire brochure focused on her artistic philosophy and growth. But her customers weren’t interested in her personal triumphs. Their immediate concerns were, “What are you selling, what does it cost, and why should I buy it from you?”
  • It’s confusing. When you cobble content together from old content or have multiple authors writing independently, mistakes enter. For example, I often encounter both marketing and technical content where measurements shift from metric to English and back again; in this case, I recommend giving both measurements at all times: “approximately 10 feet (3 meters).” When customers receive information that’s inconsistent, outdated, or simply wrong, they begin to mistrust whatever you tell them.
  • No one understands it. Your customers expect content written in the plainest possible English, information they can understand quickly and thoroughly. One of my clients stated that “our chemical research has created an absolutely inexhaustible wealth of forms, phenomena, and possibilities.” What they meant was this: “our research has created a wealth of chemicals and new ways to use them.” If you consistently write with 4- and 5-syllable words, business jargon, acronyms, and tech speak or if you skimp on explanations because “everybody knows that,” you’re in trouble.
  • No one can find it. If you dump everything you do or provide into one huge list–or worse, one huge sentence–for the customer to sort out, the customer gives up. I remember a client who wrote a three-chapter proposal: 10 pages in the Introduction, 5 pages in the Conclusion, and 277 endless pages of actual information in the middle. Organize your content so that customers are guided directly to the information they are looking for.

When content aligns with the bill of rights, customers recognize themselves and their problems in your message. They understand that you have the solution they need and how to acquire that solution. And they don’t have to fight for the information because your writing uses everyday, straight-forward, consistent language in a format that is easy to follow.

Having trouble establishing your own bill of rights for marketing content? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Our words mean business.

Why Can’t I Finish My Website?

Q. I’ve been writing my website content for weeks–okay, for months–and none of it makes any sense. I should know my business better than anyone, right? Why can’t I finish my website?

A. Right now, your competitors are flaunting their websites (and other marketing collateral) everywhere. If you want to compete with them, you have to finish writing. If you can’t finish your website, you are probably facing one of these problems:

  • Your content is being written or reviewed by committee–even if the committee is in your own head. Committees, whether real or imaginary, quarrel over every sentence, demanding a better, different, more creative, briefer way to say the same thing. There are thousands of ways to write good copy; thousands of ways to write this very sentence; and committees will argue until doomsday over a single comma.Stop the endless self- or committee-editing, and let your website compete in the real world.
  • You are hoping that if you gather enough information, it will magically coalesce. Unfortunately, lots of information may actually operate against a coherent website. You have to focus and prioritize. View all that information from the perspective of your customer–and decide on your most important message. You cannot appeal to a vague “everyone” or properly deliver dozens of competing messages on your website’s first page.
  • Your vision of the future or success in the past is preventing you from describing the business you have now. You know what you want in your future, you know what you offered in the past, but you’ve lost sight of what your customers want now, in their present. Websites can always be modified; in the meantime, customers want to know what you can do for them today. They won’t search for the information with fingers crossed; you must clearly tell them.

Is it time to let go of the stress of being a business owner and a writer–and let a professional writer take over? If your website (or other marketing collateral) is bogged down by self-editing, too much information gathering, or wishful thinking, contact TWP Marketing and Technical Communications. We’ll give you words that energize your marketplace and start your website working hard for you!

A Website Review Leads to Great Content

Let’s call them ABC Company. ABC’s new website looked wonderful–attractive pictures, clear navigation, opportunities to update through blogs, news, and videos. They had written their own content, however, and were a little nervous about launching. They asked me to conduct a website review.

During a website review, I don’t write new content. Instead, I concentrate on the existing content: every link and every word. I look for typos and grammatical mistakes; check for consistency from page to page; consider my first impression as a visitor; make suggestions about strengthening message; and search for lost opportunities to connect with customers. On the surface, every new website looks perfect, so I’m always nervous about starting a website review. Will I actually find a problem?

My job isn’t to nitpick ABC’s website content into oblivion. My job is to make the content as good as the company thinks it is–and to help ABC engage its customers. Once my detailed analysis is complete, the company is free to follow through themselves with rewrites and edits. They are the final judge of what to update and what to leave be.

What did my analysis of ABC’s website turn up?

  • Inconsistencies in the names of navigation buttons (Service, Services, Our Services) and the pages they led to (“page not found”)
  • Misspellings (productivty)
  • Grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies (serial comma or no serial comma?)
  • A blog that stopped being active in June 2016 and a news page where the most recent item promised a new product launch in 2015
  • A major statement about an Important Product on the home page; but no further reference to that product in the entire website except for a minor footnote (is it an Important Product or not?)
  • Statements that hedged on what the company provides (“we are capable of delivering…” rather than “we deliver…”)
  • An announcement of an additional location but no corresponding change in the contact information
  • Photos that did not show what the caption said they showed.

On other occasions for other clients, I’ve found pages dedicated to products or services that were no longer offered; changes in how the customer was addressed or perceived (technically savvy on one page and a complete novice on the next); price schedules that changed from page to page; and other problems.

ABC embraced the website review and its own team is currently revising the website.

If you have a new website or are wondering whether a new website is in your future, please contact me about a website content review.

 

 

Little Words That Change Content in Big Ways

Once upon a very real time in New York City, an environmental official removed the word “not” from a report determining whether a road should be built along a river. The report emphasized this project should not be allowed because it would pollute the water; but the official said, “I’m not going to stop this project because of one little word.” So he deleted “not.”

Little, simple words can have a lot of power. In fact, the word “simple” itself is one of those words. The actions or instructions that you tell your customers are “simple” will baffle at least some of them. Then they have to decide if they are too dumb to follow simple instructions or if your instructions and product are terrible. Guess what choice they make? To check whether your instructions are clear, accurate and complete, follow what you’ve written down to the letter. If you find your hands doing something that is not written down, then you have to add that step to your instructions. And avoid saying anything is “simple.”

Another word with a lot of power is “only.” When you misplace the word “only,” you also change the meaning of your content. Consider “we only designed one product” versus “we designed only one product.” In the first instance, you only designed (you didn’t manufacture or distribute); in the second instance, you designed only one product (instead of many products). The difference in meaning is significant. Be careful where you place your “only.”

I once heard a story about lawmakers who wanted to ban the importation of fruit trees. However, they placed a comma between “fruit” and “trees” and thereby went without fruit for months before they could change the bill. A misplaced comma can drastically change your content. Consider the difference between “we pay attention to details, generating quality” and “we pay attention to details generating quality.” In the first instance, the act of paying attention to ideas generates quality; in the second instance, you’re paying attention to just those details that generate quality–all the other details you ignore. Where you place commas, periods, semicolons, and colons is important.

If you are worrying whether your content is saying exactly what you mean, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We make sure content is clear, accurate, and compelling, down to the smallest detail.

 

Your Writing Questions about Content, Tag Lines, Writer’s Block

Today I’m sharing a few writing questions that have come across my desk in the last 6 months.

Q. I have a limited budget for marketing. Should I spend it on website content, a blog, articles in print or online, case studies–where is it best to start?

A. If you don’t have a website, then building one–even three pages–is your first priority. Articles are generally free. If you have news (for example, the fact that you now have a website), most newspapers and online news organs are happy to publish it for free. After that, your priorities for writing content depend on the answers to three questions: who are your customers; where are you in most contact with them (for example, online, in person, in print); and what resources (time and people as well as budget) do you have to dedicate to reaching them? Every business is different.

Q. How important is a tag line?

A. A good tag line gives customers a snapshot of your company. My own tag line is “Our words mean business.” Combined with the name of my company (TWP Marketing & Technical Communications), it tells customers everything they need to know. When you are developing a tag line, consider if it will add information to your company name; whether it will distinguish you from your competition; and whether it is easy to include on everything from business cards to the sides of a truck, if need be. Once you have a tag line, stick with it. You don’t gain more recognition with a half dozen tag lines. You simply confuse customers.

Q. How do I begin writing when I don’t know what to write?

A. Among the services I provide clients are two that help with this dilemma.

The first is the interview, where we discuss your company’s goals, your customers, your personal style, your resources (time, people, budget) and other relevant information, such as geography and competition.

The second is the first draft–I tell clients that I am thrilled if they like the first draft but they should be willing to tear it apart. Often it is easier to know what you want after you see what you don’t want. If that first draft delivers on the “don’t want,” I am prepared to make a 160 degree change and give you a second draft that is everything you do want.

If you need a little DIY encouragement, I always suggest talking to a chair. Pretend your ideal customer is sitting in that chair and explain to your customer why he or she should buy your product, service or solution. What problem will you solve or what pain will you alleviate? That explanation is the content you want to write.

Who Benefits?

In the murder mysteries I love to read, one of the questions that constantly comes up is “Who benefits?” Who will receive property, money, power or favors as a result of the murder?

Now in marketing, oddly enough, the same question arises. Who benefits?

As a professional content writer, I always try to determine at the start of a project:

  • What customer is the company trying to reach?
  • Why is that customer looking for that company?
  • What should that customer do once they find what they want?

I’ve often discussed the first question in these blog posts: knowing your audience. The last question is the “call to action”–guiding your customer to contact you or complete the sale, for example. But the middle question is the one that provides the most insight into who benefits.

As a business owner, you should always be asking, “Why are customers looking for my business?” That question leads to the problem that customers are facing, the problem that you want to solve and the problem that your marketing content must address.

Somewhere, marketing content has to explain how the customer benefits from the company’s products, services and solutions. Yet, far too often I see marketing materials that never ask, “Who benefits? How do they benefit? What can we do to make that benefit as clear as possible to the customer?”

It is easy to convince yourself that you are interested in helping anyone who responds to your marketing materials for any reason–and therefore the question of who benefits is irrelevant. But if a lumberjack is looking for new shoes, that lumberjack won’t go to a company specializing in ballerina slippers–unless the company can make a strong argument that ballerina slippers benefit foresters. If a customer sees the benefit of listening, the customer will stay to listen.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes content that attracts the customers you want most–and when we do that, everyone benefits.

Websites That Drive Customers Crazy

The other day I had nearly finished purchasing an item on a retail website, and I couldn’t find the Continue or Next (or even Purchase) button. The only button on the page was labeled Add More. I didn’t want to add a second item; I wanted to purchase my first item.

When I called the store for assistance, they explained that the Add More button had the exact same function as Continue or Next. I always encourage creative content, but not when it interferes with the expectations of customers who are sure to believe that “Add More” means…add more.

One way to find out if your website is driving customers crazy is to ask yourself if you would patronize a company whose website worked and sounded like yours. Another way is to ask your customers what bothers them. Yet another way is to ask your help desk staff because they must answer the same questions from irritable customers all day long. Here are four sure ways to drive customers crazy:

  • Use popups that pop up right over the item the customer is most interested in. If the dismissal button is obvious, irritation is short lived; but many video popups are impossible to exit until the entire video finishes. Customers might very well decide to leave the page and the site rather than be held captive. Constant music or sound effects also risk driving customers away.
  • Don’t check your internal and external website links. Customers are driven crazy by links that don’t work. If you haven’t checked the links on your website for a while, please check them now. Please.
  • Change your content midway through the website. On the website for one IT service company, a free offer changed scope from page to page. Inconsistencies confuse customers but also send the message that you overlook details, even important ones like what exactly you are giving away.
  • Refuse to communicate. First, hide your contact information. Then give the phone number as a word (1-800-DONTCALL) that has to be translated into numbers. And when the customer calls the number, provide only three or four extremely narrow options, with no possibility of selecting “other.” So by the time the customer reaches a live person, the customer is already livid.

When you drive your customers crazy with your website, you lose money, whether through constant calls to your help desk, lost sales, costly mistakes in content, lost repeat customers or high employee stress and turnover.

A website review by TWP Marketing & Technical Communications examines your website page by page, item by item, to make sure that the content is clear, accurate and interesting and that everything works. This cost-effective solution helps keep your relationship with customers positive from first click to last. Contact us today.

 

Technical Writing Lessons from Marketing

Unlike many marketing writers, I started my career as a technical writer. After dozens of years as both a technical and marketing writer, I’ve found that certain writing maxims apply regardless of the type of writing:

  • Clear, everyday language is key. Yes, your technical audience understands what fractionation means; that is no excuse for pummeling them with unnecessary 50 cent words like utilization (when “use” will do) or simple wordiness like “it is during the process of fractionating that…” (“while fractionating…”).
  • Pictures are more useful than words. If you can show a procedure, show it. If you have a photograph of your client, office or staff, use it. If a table or diagram or other graphic will get your point across, let the graphic convey the information; don’t repeat it word-for-word in the text. Hire a professional graphic designer or photographer or illustrator. Professionals are worth every penny.
  • Know your audience. Often a website, for example, is written for someone with a very strong technical background but meant to attract C-level or financial visitors with fairly weak technical background.
  • Give your audience a break. Include step numbers for instructions; break up large blocks of text with headings and subheads; control the cross-references so the reader isn’t forced to constantly flip back and forth from one paper or online page to another.
  • Answer the reader’s big questions first. In a technical proposal, the reader’s first question will likely be: “Can you solve my problem?” Save  for later your list of reasons why your company is outstanding; first tell readers that you understand their problem and can solve it.

These five rules for writing apply equally to technical content and marketing content. Clear writing directed to the audience, broken up with pictures and headings, and speaking to the reader’s primary interest is writing that communicates.

TWP Marketing and Technical Communications is dedicated to helping you reach and engage your audience. Contact us today.

Website Review: 5 Common Website Problems

Successful websites are constantly evolving: new pages, new blog posts, new success stories. But that new content opens the door to errors and inconsistencies. I have reviewed many websites and always discovered at least some of these 5 problems:

  1. Links that go nowhere. Of all the content that changes on a website, active links are the most likely to go wrong. The link was entered wrong to begin with or the page being linked to no longer exists. Links should be checked often.
  2. Inconsistencies in content from page to page. Whether the inconsistency involves serial commas (comma before the “and”) appearing and disappearing or variations in product and service names and prices, pages written at different times seldom match up. When any page is added, updated or deleted, then the entire website should be reviewed for inconsistencies in content.
  3. Changes in mission. As your business progresses, you may find that the products and services your customers demand differ from the products and services  you originally wrote about. Newly important information may be buried on secondary pages or may not appear at all. You need to periodically review and rewrite your to highlight the products and services your customers want most.
  4. Errors of spelling and grammar. Your original website may have been letter-perfect but chances are several people have had their hands on it since then. In addition, you may know your website so well that you fail to see mistakes, reading what you think should be there rather than what is. Typos happen. Make sure they don’t happen on your site.
  5. Abandoned pages. You may have started your website with great intentions to write a blog post every week and a news item every month, but now the dates on the posts and news are two years old. The staff you praised on your “About Us” page no longer works for the company. The product you introduced has been replaced twice over. Those abandoned pages are better off removed than standing as a constant reminder to you and your customers about your lack of follow-through.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications offers cost-effect reviews of websites, providing a fresh eye to seek out problems with links, inconsistent content, mission, spelling, grammar and abandoned pages. Contact us today.