The Ethics of Hiring a Writer

I’ve occasionally run into business owners who object to hiring a freelance writer on ethical grounds. They find something dishonest in allowing someone else to write for them. They believe they should write their own website, blog posts, case studies, brochures and business letters because otherwise they are misrepresenting themselves.

Ethics are important to me, which is why I will not write anything that I know (or may suspect) to be false, misleading or harmful. How do I justify being a freelance or ghost writer on an ethical basis?

First, writing may not be among the business owner’s strengths. As a result, instead of offering content that clearly states the benefits and achievements of the company, the owner inadvertently slips into false, confusing, misleading or harmful statements through mistakes in word choice, grammar and organization. Everyone loses when bad writing leads to false information.

Second, an outside perspective is often valuable. Business owners may not know what to say to attract customers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Or they may know exactly what to say but not how to say it. Or they may emphasize obscure features of their products while ignoring real benefits their customers need to know about.

Third, a business owner can be a great communicator on many levels and still prefer to let someone else write his or her marketing materials. This is called “delegation” and it is something business owners do when they hire employees and professionals to work for them. No one considers it unethical to have a sales team, help desk, accountant or graphic designer on staff. Business owners could handle everything themselves, down to making their own gasoline from crude oil for the car they drive, but most business owners prefer to concentrate on their core business.

There is nothing about delegating business writing that somehow makes that choice less ethical than delegating any other business function: it can be done well and professionally or badly and amateurishly. I like to write well and professionally.

Professional writers are professionals for a reason. Years of experience and training, plus an instinct for the just right word, make us more efficient and more likely to achieve the business owner’s goals.

I work with a variety of B2B and B2C business owners and nonprofits, in every field from home renovation through clinical trial research and from executive coaching through organic farming. Contact me today and let’s talk.

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.

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. Do I have any idea what this company is/does/sells?
  2. Do I have any reason to use this company rather than its competitor?

If the answer to both questions is no, you are reading fluff. Sometimes that fluff is generated by the company itself for a variety of reasons (for example, no one on board is a professional writer or the company is frightened that customers won’t understand its technology if more specific information is given). Sometimes the fluff is bought as a package from a content-generating company or from an extremely low-cost writer who relies on imagination rather than reality.

Because 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?

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.
  • Make yourself known. Step up and give your own 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 hire to bring reality and passion to your company’s content. I hope to hear from you soon.

 

Blog Posts: Blah Versus Woohoo!

If you visit LinkedIn, you have probably seen many blah, generic blog posts automatically generated by agencies. And you’ve seen Woohoo! blog posts you can’t wait to read. What makes the difference?

  • Headline: The title of a Woohoo! post grabs you in a few short words.
  • Personality: When you talk to a bore, your whole attention is on escape. When you read a bore, the only difference is that escape is a lot easier. Woohoo! blogs connect you to the person and the team behind the company.
  • Uniqueness: If you search the internet for a blah post, you will find its exact twin (or triplet or quadruplet) at many sites. Blah posts are often massed produced by generic agencies for any company in that field. Wahoo! posts have company-specific content, including client testimonials and photos of actual projects.
  • Excitement: Even generic posts recognize a client problem and solve it. But “Woohoo!” blogs show that a company cares about the problem.

Why do people hire me to write their blog posts? Because I can deliver that “Woohoo!” According to one of my clients, posts for his company “have recently been noted as a ‘best practice’ in the…industry and are now being used as an example for others to follow.”

Yes, those blah, generic blog posts will pack your website with the keywords that search engines love (for the moment, anyway, until the next algorithm change). But when real people are searching for real solutions to real problems, they require headlines that grab, personalities with interest, uniqueness of content and the excitement of a meaningful connection.

Or do you want your clients to look for you? You need blog posts that make them shout “Woohoo!”

Sharon writes blog posts, success stories, website content that delivers the Woohoo! for small- to medium-sized companies across the nation. Contact her through LinkedIn or her website.

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.

The TWP Story: Three Words, Three Rules

Words are such powerful, flexible, rich tools for building a link between one person and another. You need millions of dollars, thousands of people, and expensive materials to build a bridge: you need three words to say “I can help.”

I work as a marketing and technical writer because I am passionate about people communicating with people. I want customers to understand where they can find a solution for their problem, whether a reputable building contractor or an expert in regulatory compliance. And, bottom line, I love writing.

I write and edit website content, blogs, newsletters, success stories (case studies), and every type of marketing content for technical and nontechnical companies of vastly different sizes and in vastly different industries. My clients include the MIT School of Science and sole proprietors; Microspec, who needed a website devoted to medical tubing, and resume writers who need proofreading; companies in my hometown of Peterborough, New Hampshire, and companies across the United States, including New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Georgia.

Here are three rules of marketing and technical writing that I never break:

  1. Tell the truth. What use is communicating if you are breaking trust immediately by telling lies?
  2. Keep it simple. It is always possible to find the words to explain something so that someone else understands. Communication is not a contest on who knows the biggest words or the hardest way to explain things.
  3. Find the story. People like stories. If you want to communicate, you need to keep your audience engaged.

All of the people I work for are skilled in their area of expertise. After more than 20 years of experience in Fortune 500 companies and as a freelancer, my area of expertise is clear. I write. Copy writing involves research, interviewing business owners and their customers, editing, proofreading, and rewriting–and I love every minute of it.

Whenever you find yourself struggling to say what you need to say, please remember TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. I have the words: I can help.

Finding & Telling Your Marketing Story: Part III

In my last two blog posts, I spoke about telling your marketing story by appealing to the senses, using visuals and incorporating characters. There are other techniques that great story tellers use to draw in their audience, but in this Part III post I’d like to address how to find your marketing story.

I’ve given some hints along the way but here are a few details about the best sources for writing unique marketing stories:

  • Your former customers are the first and best source for marketing stories about how you helped them. Often customers aren’t forthcoming if they are speaking directly to the business owner or the business owner assumes the answers to basic questions instead of asking or the business owner feels awkward about taking on the role of interviewer. If you have any of those problems, the solution is to ask someone else (a freelance writer like me, for example!) to handle the interviewing for you.
  • Your staff is an excellent source of marketing stories about tricky jobs they’ve successfully tackled or advice they wish they could give to customers or tips and techniques they have used. Let them share their advice and their triumphs in a newsletter or blog or in articles. They don’t need to be great writers, just good talkers.
  • Your current marketing content can provide clues to marketing stories. Do you use “state-of-the-art” techniques or equipment? Why are they state-of-the-art? Do you offer “the best customer service”? What makes it the best? Are you “an industry leader”? How did you achieve that position? Your customers don’t know; they aren’t mind readers. Every time you come across a vague statement in your marketing copy, you’ve found a story that needs detailed telling.
  • Every customer wants to know if you can solve their problem. A great marketing story exists in your approach to problem solving and the standards you apply to make sure a problem is solved to the customer’s and your own satisfaction. You are an expert in your field. If your customers were experts, they wouldn’t need you. Share some of that expertise by writing FAQs, Q&As, articles or blog posts.

When you find your story and write it, you are making a connection with customers that is more powerful than any stark list of tasks or services that you provide. Stories create a bond that no amount of facts can equal. I would be proud to help you find and write your story.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications has helped business owners find and tell their marketing stories in the technical, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, construction and service industries.

Finding & Telling Your Marketing Story: Part II

In a previous blog, I wrote about the importance of appealing to the senses and using visuals (photographs, videos) in marketing stories. In this blog, I’d like to focus on another aspect of great story telling: characters.

All stories have characters, even if the only character is the narrator. But as a business owner you have access to a slew of characters:

  • Yourself
  • Your staff
  • Your former customers
  • The audience you are writing for (past, future and/or current customers).

As I’ve often mentioned before, the most powerful phrase in marketing is “we can solve your problem.” That one phrase includes two strong characters, the “we” (the business owner and staff) and the “you” (the customer). Give that “we” more personality by writing blog posts or articles or online biographies that introduce you and your staff. Let your character shine forth in Q&A (FAQ) pages. Even if they aren’t customer-facing, let your staff make their presence known in photos and Meet the Team pages.

As for your former customers, they are truly “well rounded characters” and a great source of marketing stories, especially case studies and success stories. Please interview them! When I interview customers for my clients, I am always amazed at the generosity of the interviewees in sharing their time and their experiences to help another business. They recount experiences that make more positive, more detailed and more compelling stories than the business owner could have imagined.

Every story benefits from characters that seem to step right off the page; and your customers, staff and you are just such characters. Let your marketing story benefit from characters that lift your dry recital of facts to another level, where people are communicating directly with each other. I’ll be happy to help.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications provides freelance writing services for companies in New Hampshire and throughout the US.

6 Biggest Writing Mistakes

1. Turning your writing into a vocabulary test. Most small words have more energy than big ones and communicate faster. While some multi-syllable words can’t be avoided (“multi-syllable” being a good example), many of them are simply barriers to clear, passionate writing–for example, utilize, capability, and actionable.

2. Forgetting your audience. You have a goal: to write about everything your company can do and has done, so that the world will be impressed enough to beat a path to your door. But your customers are not looking for a company that does everything for everyone; your customers are looking for a trustworthy solution to their specific problem. When you write, write to meet your customers’ goals.

3. Giving your audience too much credit. If your customers were as knowledgeable as you are, they wouldn’t need you. You have skills, experience, and tools that your customers lack. Slowly guide them to understanding what you offer, using words, pictures, examples, and comparisons they can easily grasp.

4. Failing to recognize the power of pictures. Use graphs, illustrations, videos, and photographs whenever you can to replace paragraphs and pages of description. A great layout can add just the right emphasis and eye-candy to attract customers; a professional graphic designer is well worth using.

5. Overlooking the need to organize. Websites are divided into pages; blogs into posts; white papers into sections; manuals into chapters. Each of those divisions should have a single subject. If, for example, I shifted gears mid-way through this blog post to explain how to write a press release, you would be justifiably confused. It’s okay if your first draft is a brain dump. But then you have to organize the material so that it flows–and delete what doesn’t belong.

6. Falling in love with your own words. Set aside anything you write for at least 24 hours, then proofread, proofread, proofread and edit, edit, edit. Until you examine what you wrote with a fresh eye, you have no way of knowing if you truly communicated.

Sharon Bailly is the founder of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications which helps companies reach their customers online and in print. Our words mean business.

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.