Write for Today–and Make It Positive

If you want your marketing material to have a long life, then write for today. Let’s say your website or brochure talks about what you will do next year or what product or service is coming. Then the moment that future arrives–next year or whenever the product or service becomes available–your website content or brochure is outdated and must be rewritten.

The simple past and present are also much easier to both write and understand. People who write in the future tend to tangle themselves into weird sentences: “We would have been offering this service earlier if we had known how many clients might have been interested should we have offered it.” Those convoluted sentences make it difficult for customers to know what you are driving at.

Moreover, writing in the future leaves you vulnerable to negatives. If you spend too much time on all the bad things that could happen (in the future) if customers do not use your product or service, you are likely to turn them off.

Everyone likes to feel they have a choice. Fear tactics (“if you don’t use our product, your house will fall down and your teeth will fall out”) lose their power pretty quickly. People hate to be badgered and would rather deny the problem. Hope has a much longer shelf life.

So the better, present tense, positive message is: Our product keeps your house structurally sound and your teeth healthy.

When you rewrite sentences to emphasize the present and the positive, you guide your readers to immediate, positive action. Every salesman knows that you want your customers to be thinking “yes” long before you ask them for the buy.

Finding the positive words to motivate customers now is one of the specialties of TWP Marketing and Technical Communications. Contact us today.

 

Story-Telling: The World’s Best Marketing Content

From The Three Bears to The Hunger Games to Julie & Julia, good stories grab our attention. When we remember our story-telling roots, our marketing efforts take wing. Good stories appear in many guises:

  • Case studies celebrate a hero (your company) saving a customer in distress. A good interviewer draws out your customer’s original fears and frustrations, details the efforts of your company, and celebrates your success.
  • Videos are like love stories. Video testimonials give customers, employees, vendors, and subcontractors a chance to show appreciation for your company. Informational videos give you a chance to show appreciation for your customers, including sharing some of your subject matter expertise.
  • Photographs, graphs, and line drawings fall into the comic book or graphic novel tradition. They tell a good story that is quickly and accurately “read.”

Hearing stories about your business not only entertains prospective customers, it reassures them. Great marketing stories teach prospects about your company in a relaxed, appealing format. Reading or hearing about the problems you solved for previous customers gives prospects an incentive to call you. Each new story enlivens your marketing content and keeps old, new, and potential customers engaged.

An example of a story: I was once asked to edit the manual for software that helps private airplane pilots fly into airports. Three geographically dispersed software engineers had developed the software and each had drafted information about their portion of the project. But without consulting each other, they had also each decided to use Ctrl F for a function. One engineer used Ctrl F to scroll through a screen; another used it to switch screens; and the third used it to shut down the system completely. I was the first and only person who read through the entire draft manual–so I was the first person to notice that a pilot who hit Ctrl F and expected to simply scroll through a screen might end up shutting down his entire system just when he needed it to land! The moral of the story? Always have one writer for a project involving many people.

Whether you are writing website content, blogs, press releases, video scripts, or case studies, keep looking for and sharing the story. Your stories are one of the biggest differentiators between your company and the competition: No one shares your exact same story.

If you need help finding and telling your story, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Writing Marketing Content: When to Stop

Today’s trend in websites and other marketing content is to pare words down and make quick connections with customers and their problems. That’s a trend I welcome and support. How do you know when you are writing too much marketing content and need to stop?

  1. If you find yourself writing list after list
  2. If you repeat the same information (other than contact information) on several pages
  3. If you read the content aloud and get tired of speaking
  4. If adjectives take up more than 10% of the content
  5. If acronyms take up more than 10% of the content
  6. If you could distill everything to a few tweets–but you haven’t done that
  7. If you can’t figure out where to add subheadings or how to name pages on the navigation bar (an indication that the content is confusing)
  8. If you can’t remember where or if you wrote something important to your business
  9. If you haven’t looked for opportunities to explain content visually, with tables, graphs, photographs, and videos or with downloads.

Most business owners over-write from fear; they’ve heard that customers have short attention spans so they try to cram as many words as they can into that first minute when customers find the website. Unfortunately, customers are more likely to leave a website if they have to search through a mountain of words for the one diamond of information they are seeking.

Another motivation for writing too much is confusion over the business’ strengths and primary focus. If a business is defined too broadly (“we fix cars, weave textiles, and write operas”), then naturally the website content will be confused and unfocused.

Finally, some business owners believe that customers cannot possibly understand their business unless it is described in minute detail. Most customers have one primary interest: finding someone to solve their problem. If you approach your website from a problem/solution viewpoint, you will naturally tighten up the language.

Clear, concise, and customer-focused are the gold standards for marketing content. If you need help with any one or all three, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Writing is what I do and I know exactly when to stop.

 

10 Biggest Writing Mistakes

As a professional writer and editor, I see many writing mistakes repeated. Here is my list of the top ten.

  1. Not knowing your audience. Writing is a form of communication. You need to know who you are communicating with.
  2. Giving your audience too much credit. You know your product and service better than anyone. You’re the teacher; your customers are the students. Everyone appreciates a teacher who takes the time to explain.
  3. Giving your audience too little credit. Your customers are tired of empty claims. For example, every company in the world has great customer service. Prove you deserve that claim through testimonials, case studies and awards.
  4. Using language poorly. Are you sure that’s what you meant to say? Are you sure you cannot say it clearer, more accurately, more concisely or with more conviction?
  5. Listing features before benefits. Everyone wants to know “can you solve my problem?” All the features in the world will fall flat if the customer’s problem remains a problem. Start with benefits.
  6. Burying your message. You would not read every word of a 50-page computer manual to find the ON switch. Your marketing message is the ON switch for potential buyers. Make your strongest, most important points first.
  7. Not delivering your message. Are you agonizing so long over a brochure that the opportunity is lost? Are you sending tweets to people who don’t use Twitter and writing rack cards for people who never pick them up? Marketing writing can only work for you if you send it out on time and on target.
  8. Ignoring basic grammar and spelling. Okay, I admit it: one of my pet peeves is using “that” instead of “who” to refer to people and using semicolons (;) where commas (,) are correct. But I care about those things because they actually do make a difference in how your message is perceived. When you say “people that” instead of “people who,” you turn people into things.
  9. Being concise before you are clear. People have less patience than before with long messages; but if the message isn’t clear, your customers will give up on it even faster. First be clear, then try for concise.
  10. Using a professional writer who is not a native speaker of your audience’s primary language. A professional writer will help you avoid mistakes 1-9. That writer should be a native speaker of your audience’s primary language to avoid mistakes of culture and nuance in your message.

As founder and sole proprietor of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, I have a long history of helping B2B and B2C companies deliver a clear, concise, accurate and passionate marketing content to their customers. I’m ready to help you.

Happy Halloween! Overcoming Your Marketing Fears

You don’t believe in ghosts anymore but you still understand fear–and how it keeps you frozen in place, even if that place isn’t where you want to be. Here are the top five marketing fears and what you can do to overcome them.

Marketing Fear #1: Missing Out on Even One Potential Customer

This fear leads business owners to pack so much information into their brochure or website that not even the ghost of a customer can slip through. Another response is to create reams and reams of marketing material without any analysis of how it will reach customers. Unfortunately, real customers refuse to mine copy for that one well-buried reason why they should be interested. It’s time for a deep breath and the realization that, no, it isn’t possible to attract all of the people all of the time. However, a focused, clear, accurate, concise message will lure those customers you want the most.

Marketing Fear #2: Not Standing Out

On Halloween, hundreds of little ghosts travel around, yet every parent recognizes his or her own child. There are hundreds of companies that do what you do but your company is still unique. Perhaps that uniqueness comes from your specialized education or knowledge; your perspective on and approach to common customer problems; your willingness to share closely guarded industry “secrets”; or your location, size, inclusiveness, exclusiveness or commitment to Lean, Green or something in-between. I’ve worked with many that offer the “same” products and services, and found a unique message for every one of them.

Marketing Fear #3: Not Sounding Big Enough

Most sole proprietorships and small companies use “we” instead of “I” in marketing copy and that’s fine: the royal “we” is accepted business practice. But many business owners are afraid that their small size means they won’t be taken seriously by potential customers. Instead, they should treat one-on-one service, close geographic proximity or focus on a single aspect of a large industry as assets. Are you a sole proprietor? Let customers refer to you by name in testimonials: “Andy is an expert in choosing window coverings and immediately understood what we needed.” Quickly establish that personal connection that large companies struggle mightily to match.

Marketing Fear #4: Writing/Talking Down to Customers

This fear begins with one of two convictions: either no one can understand what you do or they are so knowledgeable in the field that you have to prove you can communicate on their level. Both fears are easy to overcome if you remember one thing: when it comes to your product or service, you are the teacher and your customers are your students. You must describe your product and service in terms your customers can quickly grasp–analogies are one way to do that–and you must take ownership of the fact that your customers are coming to you because they need your expertise. If they could do what you do, they wouldn’t need you. You’re the teacher. Teach.

Marketing Fear #5: Having Nothing to Say, No Time to Say It and No Budget

This is where hiring a freelance writer (and major fear buster) like TWP Marketing & Technical Communications really pays off. First, I will interview you to draw out the information that your customers want to hear from you. You do have something to say; you merely need help in recognizing it. Next, I will deliver the marketing materials you need most when you need them. You concentrate on your business; I concentrate on your marketing copy. Finally, after your first writing project is complete (say, your first website or brochure or success story), you can wait for the next project until the budget is right–a month later or a year or even two years. I’ll remember you and I’ll still have your old project on hand so that the learning curve for your new project is fast and seamless.

Contact me today and let’s get started on overcoming those marketing fears!

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.

 

How Not to Create a Website: 8 Website Content Mistakes

Congratulations! You’re about to update your website or create one for the first time. If you want all your efforts, money, and resolve to disappear fast, do this:

  1. Assign a committee to write the content. 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 commas, so that your grammar, spelling, and emphasis changes from page to page.
  2. Let your website designer write the website content. Designers are excited by design projects; most designers aren’t excited by writing. Give them a brochure, they’ll plug in the brochure. That isn’t a website. That’s paper copy masquerading as content.
  3. Decide that your website is going to pull in customers you never had before for services you never performed before. A website alone cannot transform your business. The content has to speak to your audience, acknowledge their pain, and provide solutions that you believe in.
  4. Mimic the competition. As with any marketing materials, your website content needs to differentiate you. I’ll never forget the local New Hampshire company that posted photos on its website of New York-style skyscrapers, something with which New Hampshire is woefully under-supplied. I’ll never forget them because I would never trust them. If they want my local business, they have to be honest about being local–differentiation is a selling point.
  5. Say too much. If you pack that first website page with one endless rush of words, your audience will run. At the very least, provide headlines, bullets, and graphics to break up the text. Modern website content tends to be sparse, not overwhelming, but sparse content is difficult to write. It is easy to be verbose.
  6. Refuse help. You may benefit from an objective opinion on your choice of photos. You may believe you are writing clearly when, in fact, you know the subject so well that you are leaving out critical information. You may miss spelling or grammatical or linkage errors because you expect them to be correct. You don’t need a website review committee (see item 1) but you do need at least one reviewer.
  7. Talk to your customers. I’m not advocating talking down to customers. But refusing to answer basic questions (because “everyone knows that” and “no one ever asks that”); turning your website content into a vocabulary test; or writing with lots of acronyms and jargon will all guarantee that you lose your audience. If everyone knows as much as you know, why do they need you?
  8. Keep putting it off. You need to finish writing. The nicest quality about websites is that they can be updated. Content Management Systems are easy to learn and give you the chance to tweak your website over time. But marketing material can’t work until you send it out. Send out the website.

When you need help to start that website, create the content, review it, or finish it, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. It’s what we do.

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.