Let Me Be Told a Story…

Product! Product! Product!

Sale! Sale! Sale!

Look how great we are!

That’s how a lot of companies position themselves in front of customers.

And how do customers respond?

They buy. For a while. Until some better offer comes along.

Why? Because who cares?

The only connection those customers have is the price of a product and maybe a few features and benefits. That’s it.

And it’s fleeting.

For centuries, companies have struggled with the L word: Loyalty.

How do you get customers to keep coming back? And how do you get those repeat customers to bring friends?

Let’s jump on the Star Wars bandwagon for a moment here. Yeah, I know, it’s an easy out right now, a convenient play, but bear with me a minute.

Why is Star Wars so popular?

I’m old enough that I watched the original (now called A New Hope) in the theater when it came out in 1977. Granted, I was only in second grade, but I still remember it like it was last week (which is when I took my 7-year-old son to see The Force Awakens – how cool is that?). If you’ve seen the original, you probably remember the opening scene, right after the yellow letters go scrolling off into space.

It starts with the small rebel ship dashing forward from behind you and red laser blasts coming from off screen. As the small frigate races away, it is replaced by a low rumble, followed by the nose of an Imperial Star Destroyer in pursuit coming over the top of the screen. The massive ship slowly fills the screen with its enormity until its girth extends beyond the edges, finishing with the giant blue engines.

What a way to open a movie!

But even more impressive is what comes next.

George Lucas takes us immediately from outer space into the interior of the rebel ship, where we meet two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, and are introduced to human characters that happen to be made of metal.

Why has Star Wars been so successful?

It’s all about the characters. We cared about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, the droids, and everyone else. It mattered to us when Darth Vader announced he was Luke’s father (Noooo…!). We cried when Yoda died. We hated the Emperor and cheered when Darth Vader killed him. The Millennium Falcon is a hero’s ship.

Star Wars was originally all about connections – between the characters and each other and between the characters and us.

Now think about Episodes I, II, and, III (if you can bear it). Instead of stories about characters we loved that just happened to take place in outer space with special effects, the prequels were stories about special effects that happened to have some characters, but who really cared about them? (Think Jar Jar Binks – and shudder!)

What does any of this have to do with content marketing?

Moviegoers also consume other goods and services (not just popcorn), including ones you offer.

You want to connect with them the same way good movies connect with viewers.

How do you tell your brand’s story?

How do you get consumers to connect with your brand in a way that they can’t help but come back time and time again?

I had the pleasure of attending Content Marketing World the past two years. Every year, the expo wraps up with a keynote speaker. Last year it was Kevin Spacey.

Now, if you’re at all like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “What in the world would Kevin Spacey know about content marketing? He’s an actor!”

I thought that, too.

So I was thoroughly – and happily – surprised when he took 45 minutes and showed us how content marketing is really all about storytelling, communicating your brand message to customers in a way they can relate and connect.

(BTW, if you have a chance to attend CMWorld, do it! Campaign, beg, cry, wash cars, do whatever you have to do. It’s worth it!)

While I can’t recreate Spacey’s speech, here are three of his key points as derived from his long tenure as an actor and director and mostly recently as a main character and producer of the Netflix original series House of Cards.

Understanding storytelling and audience connection will help your company increase customer loyalty and turn your customers into brand advocates.

What’s Backlinking? And Why Should I Care?

Here’s a statement today’s youth will understand: SEO is the bomb!

Okay, so once again I dated myself, but you get the point.

Maybe it would be better to quote an older popular song: SEO is where it’s at! (Pardon me while my inner grammarian cringes.)

As we talked about in a post last week, SEO can make or break your site’s ranking and, therefore, your business’ success.

Good SEO = high ranking and lots of visitors

Bad SEO = a need to rethink your content strategy before you have to look for another job.

Of the many components of SEO, one of the most overlooked is backlinking.

What’s backlinking?

Quite simply, backlinking is exactly as it sounds: linking back to your site.

It can happen two ways:

  1. An internal backlink from one page on your site to another
  2. An external backlink from an outside site to your site

An example of an internal backlink might be an article on your site that contains a link to a product related to the article topic.

Let’s head outdoors to learn more.

Outdoors expert REI is a master at this sort of backlinking. (BTW, see that link in the last sentence? That’s a backlink.)

REI not only provides outstanding outdoor equipment, they also offer great advice on how to use it. In fact, it’s what they do best.

Consider this article by Julie Eiselt on caring for your carabiners.

(“What’s a carabiner?” you ask. It’s that little metal loop thing that your climbing rope runs through. REI explains it better.)

The article is all about how to inspect, clean, and store carabiners to keep them in good working order, which is pretty important since your life may depend on them as you’re hanging precariously from a cliff face.

Not only does the article backlink to product pages featuring REI’s extensive selection of carabiners (who knew there were so many options?), it also suggests additional reading on how to choose the right carabiner for the type of climbing you do.

That’s a great example of an internal backlink.

This blog post is an example of an external backlink because I refer to them here so you can click over and learn all sorts of things about carabiners and other outdoor equipment.

How does backlinking affect SEO?

Remember in the post from last week when I mentioned that Google looks for keywords? That’s not all it looks for.

Google also cares about page authority.

In other words, does the content on the page really know what it’s talking about?

One way Google determines that is by the number of external backlinks. How many people are heading from other sites to your site for information? How many outsiders consider your page an authority on a given topic?

If you are a major brand site, you’re lucky because Google considers those sites as automatic authorities on a topic.

But what if you aren’t? What if you are a small retailer that is just getting started?

The folks at NewsCred have some great ideas about that. Check out their suggestions on how to take your site from newbie to authority in a few fairly simple steps.

SEO, the agony!

SEO used to be easy. Just throw in a few keywords that Google can magically find and bingo! You’re at the top of the rankings!

Ah, the good ol’ days…

Those days are long gone now. Sure, keywords are still important and probably always will be. Google (and Bing and Yahoo and other search engines) still look for them, but they search them differently now.

But let’s stop here for a second to make sure we all understand what we’re talking about.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. (Most of you probably knew this already, but let’s bring the rest of class up to speed just in case)

The purpose of SEO is to display your site higher on the page when someone searches Google for products or something related to what you do.

For example, if you sell running shoes, some of your keywords might include: running, shoes, cushioned outsoles, cushioning, men’s shoes, women’s shoes, and any trademarked technologies your shoes offer, to name a few. The list could include a ton more, and that’s just for the products themselves.

If your site also includes additional information they would find helpful – and the best sites do – for running-related activities, then a keyword list should be built around terms commonly associated with the running lifestyle and any ancillary activities associated with running.

Most of this extra content is typically housed in CMS and appears as additional pages kind of buried behind the main content pages. The fun part (yes, that was sarcasm) of CMS SEO if you run an e-comm site is the challenge of tying the extra goodies in the CMS content into the products you’re trying to sell.

Why is it a challenge? Why not just use the same keywords in both a product description and an article where the product is mentioned?

Because Google is smarter than that.

Google isn’t fooled by double references to the same keyword. It used to be. In fact, that’s how SEO worked back in the good ol’ days I mentioned at the top. You could dump a whole bunch of keywords onto your page and you appeared to be the authority on that subject.

But not anymore.

What Google realized was that content marketers were getting smarter and trying to bilk the system by randomly inserting keywords in key places just to get Google’s crawlers (the little e-spiders that crawl the web looking for content) to latch onto their site and raise the ranking in search results. In a way, sites were being rigged to fool Google. Needless to say, Google didn’t take too kindly to that.

But it was more than just Google’s ego at play. What the really smart folks at the search giant realized was that the system was hurting truly authoritative sites, such as brand-sponsored sites and officially licensed retailers, and artificially raising the rank of bad sites that really had nothing to offer for consumers.

So they messed around with the algorithm (the mathematical magic behind the search process, although I’m still convinced it’s elves) and added some new rules to make sure the right sites got the right search treatment.

For example, duplicate content (using the same phrase with a keyword more than once) hurts your SEO because Google now views that as more or less trying too hard and therefore dings the site for trying to fool it.

Also, the new algorithm reads sentence structure more like a human, so it judges whether the use of a keyword sounds forced or too much like a computer wrote it.

This is great news for writers. And for consumers.

For writers, it means more liberty in composing copy that will sound more natural and still rank high on the search page.

For consumers, it means they are getting what they ask for: real results for their searches, finding exactly what they ask for faster.

For marketers, it means a mindset change, which can mean trouble for an organization that refuses to budge from the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. The times, they are a changin’!

The new rule changes weren’t driven by Google. They were driven by consumers. Consumers want good search results. And any company that refuses to play by the new rules can kiss their bottom line goodbye.

So how do you optimize your site?

Here are some basic rules, brought to you by Kissmetrics, that every site manager should follow when working through SEO issues.

SEO is critical to any organization’s success. Learn it and succeed!

Big Content on Little Mobile

Remember the days when “powering up the computer” meant flipping a big red rocker switch on the back of a big white box and going to get coffee while the computer churned and whirled to wake itself up?

ibm-pc

No? Well, that’s how it was when I was a kid, so clearly you’re younger than I am. And clearly you don’t have the level of appreciation my generation enjoys for the true microdevices we have today.

In my day, the computer I described above was a microdevice, mostly because before the invention of the PC, computers took up an entire room. Really.

old-computer-image

And they did far less than your smartphone. Heck, they did less than a dumb phone. In fact, today’s tablets perform far more calculations per second than the most powerful room-sized Cray computers at the headquarters of the CIA!

No, I’m not old enough to have worked on any room-sized computers, but I certainly remember when you couldn’t carry that kind of technology around with you.

Of course, that’s all changed now. Today we carry our lives in our pockets. It’s how we stay connected, not just with our friends but with the world around us. Need something? Click an app.

And if you’re a content marketer, you better understand that or you’ll go the way of the vacuum tube.

In the last few years, social media and content marketing have evolved faster than any other industries.

Facebook and other social media platforms started out as just a desktop or laptop based service. No mobile. Back then, smartphones were still in the development phase. Tablets? Maybe, but most folks couldn’t afford one, and they had very limited online capabilities.

Then along came – the smartphone. Ah, bliss… you held in your hand the power to talk, text, email, Google, photograph, video, and send everything to everyone either directly or through social media.

Society bowed its collective head to the Facebook god. (Or was it just because the screen was down there?)

Anyway, we all discovered social media and BOOM the world was e-connected.

How connected is it? Fox Business reported this week that Americans look at their mobile devices over 8 billion times a day.

Go back and read that again. 8 billion — with a B — times a day!

Nearly half (48%) of the survey population check their phones up to 25 times per day. With about 185 million smartphone users in the U.S., this is where the “8 billion” figure comes into play.

If you’re a content marketer, you want a piece of that action!

And you want to do it right, capturing as many likes, followers, customers as possible.

All of this mobile use can be a blessing and curse if you’re not prepared.

Is your site optimized for mobile?

Have you ever pulled up a website on your phone and had a tough time reading the text?

You pinch and scroll ‘til the screen is covered with prints and smears, but you still can see it.

You double tap to make the text larger, but now you have another problem: sideways scroll. Even if you turn your phone 90 degrees, the words still won’t fit. It’s like you’re reading a piece of paper rather than a screen.

Why is that?

It’s because the developers didn’t use responsive design.

Don’t be those developers.

With so much emphasis on mobile devices now, coding your site without responsive design can destroy the interaction with your users and ruin their experience. And drive them away.

Bad move.

How important is responsive design?

Lack of responsive design can destroy your site.

In a follow-up post, I will detail not only how a non-responsive site can drive away existing users but also how it can affect SEO to prevent you from getting new ones. Yes, Google really is that smart.

A History of Social Media – and its Future?

Have you ever wondered how we got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms? Like so many other phenomena, social media didn’t just spring up overnight.

Certain factors had to be in place for us to accept it.

But who invented it all? And what were those factors? Why was the world so eager to embrace these new techie goodies and share everything they ever do with everyone they know?

Did we really need to see that amazing meal you just ate at the pricy restaurant? Apparently so, because those pics are everywhere!

For Millennials and anyone younger, it’s always been there. My kids – ages 2, 7, and 9 – will never know a day when social media and all its accessories didn’t exist. They constantly ask to use my phone, but not for calling anyone.

Their very first pictures, when they were freshly hatched, popped up on Facebook within minutes of that glorious event. Within an hour, everyone had seen their chubby little pink cheeks, many on their mobile devices.

Like everything else in life, social media has changed over the years. What’s different? And what was it like before you discovered it and signed up?

Content marketing giant NewsCred has put together a brief chronology of how social media came to be. And, of course, as this is December and a new year is fast approaching, they made some predictions of how social media may change in 2016 and beyond. Enjoy!

The Big Battle: Short Form vs. Long Form

Writers are asked to write a lot of different things. Some write books, others write articles, even more write blogs.

For those of us who are lucky enough to write advertising and marketing copy, we get to play in two sandboxes:

  • Short-form content
  • Long-form content

What’s the difference?

Here is a crash course.

Short form content is quick hit content that typically consists of three basic elements:

  1. A headline
  2. Brief body copy, no more than a few sentences, if that long
  3. A call to action (CTA)

Short-form is designed to be down and dirty, a fast read that gets the job done fast so the reader can instantly take action. Examples include:

  • Onsite banners
  • Google ads
  • Paid search ads
  • Email banners

The biggest mistake marketers make with short form content is trying to cram too much into one message, as if they have to tell everything they know in the opening statement.

But that’s not what short form content is designed to do.

Think of short-form copy as the online equivalent of a highway billboard: you have 3-5 seconds to read it and decide whether to take action. Any longer and the message is lost. Gone with the pasture of cows that just whizzed by.

Short form content is not designed to tell the whole story.

Its main purpose is to offer a taste, just enough to whet the whistle and entice the reader to dig deeper.

It is NOT the entire story. And shouldn’t be.

The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, comes in the long form.

Lessons Learned from Steve Martin (Yes, that Steve Martin)

Comedian Steve Martin is an amazing writer. Did you know that? In addition to his own comedy career, he has written material for other comedians, as well as numerous columns for New Yorker magazine. In my opinion, he’s a better writer than comedian, and I love his movies.

If you get a chance, grab a copy of his book Pure Drivel, a collection of his New Yorker columns.

(By the way, I don’t make a dime off his stuff. I just like him.)

Remember the other day when I mentioned that ad copy needs to sound like dialog? That’s great in theory (and 100% true), but how do you do it?

In his essay “Writing is Easy,” Martin answers the nagging question of how to write dialog, a dilemma that has for centuries vexed writers who want to make verbal exchanges sound convincing, the way people talk in real life.

Martin’s answer? “Simply lower your IQ by fifty and start typing!”

Clearly, he’s kidding, but what Martin means in his obviously tongue-buried-deep-inside-his-cheek proposal is: don’t overthink it.

Dialogue that sounds natural comes naturally.

While there is an art and a science to wordplay, one that I have studied for decades and have still not mastered because I don’t think it’s possible, there is a beautiful simplicity to words that seem to spew out on their own, like a casual conversation between friends. Nobody thinks too hard over exact word choices.

Short-form content needs to be down and dirty, but long-form copy rules are different. And the same. Let me explain.

Long-form content is things like this blog. Or CMS copy that is sometimes buried below product content on ecomm sites.

Long-form content is often used to support sales pages, either as more supporting evidence to convince you to buy the product or as an endorsement, often by a celebrity or other well-known, to show you how amazing you’ll be when if you own it.

Obviously, the name “long-form” tells you there will be more words. Duh. But what it doesn’t tell you is how to write them.

Go back for a minute to Freshmen Comp. Yeah, remember that class? Fun times. Remember how it was drilled into your head to break up your essays into the basic five paragraph layout? Intro, three supporting points with the most important coming first, followed by a conclusion to wrap it all up? It was a formula that applied to any topic.

The same basic outline applies to long-form copy.

But wait, there’s more!

Because today’s readers don’t have the patience to read long paragraphs, and because mobile devices often don’t display heavy text very well, it is best to break up long-form content into what appears to be short-form.

Like this.

By making those two words into a separate line, you read them and moved effortlessly onto the next paragraph.

Just like a script.

Or a scene from your favorite TV show.

Even though long copy is not the same as two characters talking, one idea is expressed, and then the next beat is a new thought, which makes it a new paragraph.

So whether you’re writing a short-form email or banner or billboard, or you are elaborating in long-form content, keep it simple and easy to read.

Whichever you write, be sure it’s the right length for what you’re trying to accomplish.

Your readers will thank you. And be more likely to buy what you’re selling.

7 Tools of the Trade

Content writers don’t all work for the companies for which they write. Some work for themselves.

Freelancers make up a significant portion of content contributors.

Typically, freelancers get very little support from their clients. Not that the clients don’t care; they just expect freelancers to work autonomously and do their jobs as the experts they purport to be.

But sometimes freelancers do need help. Not because they don’t know that they are doing. They usually do. But because we don’t know everything (shocker!) and might need some help organizing our work.

Finding resources in general is easy, thanks to the omniscient Google machine. Finding the specific resources you need in particular might be a bit more daunting.

Staying organized can be a challenge, especially remembering where you put all that excellent research you just did on the article that is due Friday.

Fortunately, there are plenty of companies dying to help you!

Here is a great list from my friends at The Write Life to help keep you organized and put the research you need right at your fingertips.

Enjoy! And happy freelancing!