Category Archives: Marketing & Communications

3 reasons I love the three-question survey

1. It’s an easy ask. Who can say no to answering three questions, especially when it’s about a service you already use or a product you’ve purchased before? Some marketers like to use phrases like “take a brief survey” or even “a three-minute survey”, but brief is entirely subjective. After all, my cable company calls at least every other week to tell me they’d like to have a brief conversation about my TV habits in order to save me money, but what they consider “brief” I consider “too damn long to spend on something I neither need nor want”. Three questions, on the other hand, is three questions – period.
2. It forces you to focus on what matters. When you’re holding yourself to three questions, there’s no room for fluff. You’ve got to figure out what you really need to know from your clients and prospects. What information do you have to have in order to grow your business? I’m hardly the first writer to observe that writing a short piece can be far harder than writing a long one. Winnowing out the BS and the weasel words can be a real challenge. But when you’re creating the survey equivalent of a haiku, you’re forced to cut the fat and get right to what you really want to know.
3. It makes next steps easy to see. A survey is at heart a tool for gathering information. But in the information age, with all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips 24/7, too much information can be as big a problem as too little. With a three-question survey, you only ask for the information you have to have. That makes is crystal clear what steps you need to take next. Did you ask your clients where they first heard about you? Then focus more on those marketing channels. Did you ask what clients loved about your service? Then do more of that stuff, or make those benefits a bigger part of your advertising.

When you design a three-question survey, you’re giving yourself an immediate, actionable roadmap for the next steps your business should take. If you’ve been considering surveying your clients but balking at devising the questionnaire, now is the time. You’re just three questions away from your next marketing idea.

Marketing Lessons from the Shark Tank: Get your story straight

Thanks to my new Hulu subscription, I’ve got thousands of hours of TV shows at my disposal whenever I want them. With all those options, I’ve found myself hooked on one show: Shark Tank. The premise is probably familiar to you: entrepreneurs go before a panel of “Sharks” (read: venture capitalists) to try to convince them to fund the entrepreneurs’ fledgling businesses.

I’m hardly the first to pull marketing lessons from the show, but it truly is a fascinating look at how businesses start and grow. Aside from the fact that every entrepreneur needs to read Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start before going on the show, I’ve noticed a common thread among people that don’t do well with the Sharks: they don’t seem to have gotten any outside perspective on their business idea.

So many fledgling business owners are savaged by the sharks when they go on the show because it’s the first time they’re telling their story, and they are under the mistaken impression that they’re in control of the message.

They almost certainly think they’ve told their story before. Indeed, most of the show’s entrepreneurs have the patter down, have little quips and anecdotes they’ve woven into the theme of How Their Business Came to Be. But to truly tell your business’s story, you have to have a conversation – not perform a monologue. You need to understand what your audience cares about, why they came to you, what they want to get out of the interaction.

Most people quite naturally start out with a new business by discussing the concept with family and friends. But telling your story to family and friends gives you the illusion that you’re in control of your message. They won’t ask you the hard questions, and they’ll always take whatever you say in the best possible way. After all, they already know that everything you do is just great. They love you and want you to be happy and to succeed.

Too many companies approach their marketing materials as though they were still speaking to an audience composed of their friends and family. They recite their polished story, complete with smiles and self-deprecating jokes for a softer touch. What they don’t do is think about the questions a skeptical audience might bring to the table.

In the real world, when prospective customers encounter your story for the first time, they’ll be skeptical. They’ll have questions. They’ll have baggage from businesses like yours that they have encountered before, from the bad apples in your industry, from all their experiences, good and bad. If you don’t begin to counter those objections even before they raise them, your prospects will simply walk away.

You see it all the time in the Shark Tank. The entrepreneur contestants have never even considered that someone might not love their breakthrough product. When the sharks start asking the hard questions, they sputter and cough and try to evade the issue. And what happens, every time? The sharks walk away from the deal. Even a good business can be capsized by a bad story, when the business owner forgets that the story is not the thing.

How Zombie Content Keeps Your Blog Alive

You’ve seen them, shuffling across television screens and groaning in the pages of teen romance best-sellers… the walking dead… the formerly alive… zombies! They’re everywhere! And while hordes of undead monsters generally spell bad things for the neighborhood, having some zombie content on your blog is a great way to keep your site alive.

Now, I don’t literally mean content that tries to gnaw on your readers’ brains (although I suppose that would be a great metaphor for blog posts and articles that are so thought-provoking they just can’t be forgotten…). I’m talking about content that just Will. Not. Die. Some call it epic shit. Journalists used to refer to it as “evergreen” – material that’s always relevant, as opposed to topical material that’s a big hit today and is a moldy oldie tomorrow. Zombie content is the older material on your site — pages, news clippings, articles, blog posts — that continues to draw new visitors to your site month after month.

Bloggers often focus on writing topical posts, in the hopes that they will bring in new readers who are searching for trending topics. And certainly, that should be a part of your strategy – you don’t want a blog that’s completely irrelevant to, or unaware of, what’s going on in the world today. But the problem with only writing topical posts is that they quickly become old news. How often are you going to get people finding your blog by searching for information about the 2004 Olympics, or about Britney Spears shaving her head?

Characters in a zombie movie almost never know what it is that’s causing the dead to stalk the living. Is it a plague? Is it some kind of advanced bio-terrorism? Zombie content is equally mysterious. You can make guesses as to how it came about or how to create more of it, but there’s no surefire recipe for creating content with an unnaturally long lifespan. You’ll just know it when you see the results. When all is said and done, visitors are the only true arbiter of what content will be valuable for the long haul.

So if you want to create zombie posts that keep on going, bringing new life – and new readers – to your blog, you’ll have to put out a lot of BRAINS … er, thought-provoking material. Answer your readers’ Big Questions. Tell them how your product saves them time. Show how your service helps them make more money. Find out what they’re searching for (do your keyword and keyphrase research!), and give it to them.

One last cautionary note about your zombie content – even a really well-made zombie can’t last forever. So don’t just put out a bunch of great stuff and rest on your laurels. Keep the great content coming on a regular basis, and you’ll find yourself carried to success on the shoulders of a horde of undead posts.

How to use a brochure as a lead generation tool

The humble brochure is the Dodge Caravan of today’s direct marketing environment. It’s old, it’s boring, it’s a relic of times long gone. Who looks to a brochure to generate leads, let alone to help sell prospects on a product or service?

All too often, we see brochures as something to skip over — perhaps a rack brochure at a rest stop will catch your eye on vacation, and you’ll skim quickly through it, looking for exciting pictures or to see if there is a coupon on the back flap. Then you set it down, or toss it in the trash can, and never think about it again.

But are brochures really a thing of the past? I don’t think so. The old standby 8×11 trifold brochure may be commonplace, but its simplicity is its strength. As is so often the case, the content makes all the difference.

Too many small businesses are guilty of trying to use a single brochure to tell their whole story. They believe that because their marketing budget can only accommodate a single brochure, they should cram into it as much information — or more accurately, generic marketing speech — as they can. In a pre-internet world, this might have made sense. These days, it’s nothing but a lack of planning.

A valuable brochure should whet your prospects’ appetite. Nothing more, nothing less. You need to offer enough specific information that people become intrigued and want to find out more, then give them a way to contact you for the extra information. That might be a web address, or a QR code, or a free report, or a coupon – there are a lot of options, but they all involve getting your customers to take the next step and interact with you further. If your bland brochure leaves them feeling like they know — and are already bored by — everything you do, why would they want more?

Want to write a brochure that will really leave your prospects hungry for more? Try these simple steps:

Start with a catchy title that offers a benefit prospects desperately want, or asks a question that’s been plaguing them.
Instead of asking your brochure copy to offer a superficial view of nearly everything your business can do, use it to tell an in-depth story about just one of your strengths.
Provide a call-to-action and a way for prospects to get in touch – a QR code, a web address, a phone number.
Finally, follow up! Mail your brochures to targeted prospects, and follow with a phone call or email a week later to see if recipients have any questions.
The next time you’re searching for a simple, cost-effective way to get people interested in your project, consider the humble brochure. With some solid copywriting and a focus on telling a great story, it can go from a marketing afterthought to a lead-generating dynamo.

Target marketing: If you’re talking to everyone, then no one is listening

One of the first things I do with every new client is walk through a pre-project questionnaire, which gives me a lot of insight into their business in general and their goals for the specific project I’ll be working on. Most business owners love talking about their business and what they do well, and I love listening.

The problem arises when we get to talking about their target market. When I ask, “Who is the intended audience for this project? Who is the ideal customer?” The answer I get back is, almost invariably, “Everyone.”

It’s easy to see why this is a tempting answer. No one wants to feel like they’re turning away business or limiting their market. But if you think your target market is everyone, then you’re confusing “who you would accept money from” with “who you want to spend your time and money marketing to”.

Imagine you’re selling a line of skincare and cosmetics – something like Avon or Mary Kay. Both of these companies sell a huge range of products, from perfumes to lotions to lipsticks to aftershave. Because of that, independent resellers will often tell you that their ideal client is – you guessed it – “Anyone with skin!” In other words, everybody.

But is it really? Avon lipsticks range from $7 to $10; Mary Kay from $12 to $14. Both companies offer great products, but the teenager running into her local Walgreens to pick up a $2 tube of Wet N’ Wild lipstick is not likely to be a good customer for either one. And what about the woman who never wears makeup? Or the man who is currently using Dial soap to shave with? All of these people have skin, but does it make any sense to spend time and money trying to sell to them?

It’s a lot more effective to focus your efforts on marketing to your true ideal client – the person who is out there right now, desperate for your product or service (and able to afford it). Think of everything you can about the person who is the absolute best fit for what you’re offering. Is it a man or a woman? How old? What does he do? Where does she live? What keeps him up at night? Where does she go to find information about new products?

Let’s look at one more example of target marketing in action. Imagine you own a tutoring company, and you’re trying to market to local parents. With such a broad idea of your target market, you could have an ad that reads, “Do you want your kids to do better in school? We can help!” Or you could get a lot more focused: “Parents: Do you want your high school sophomore or junior to get into a good college? Our ACT tutoring is guaranteed to raise your child’s score by at least 2 points, boosting their admissions rate and likelihood of getting a scholarship.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide which ad offers prospects a more compelling reason to give you a call.

Curing advertising ADD: The power of single-message marketing

As a freelance copywriter, it’s my job to help companies turn leads into loyal customers. In the course of my networking activities, I meet a lot of small business owners who are going it alone, trying to act as a marketer, sales person, accountant, and CEO all in one. With limited time and budget for creating marketing pieces, they often commit the cardinal sin in advertising: trying to market to everyone at once.

It all starts out innocently enough. You decide to create a simple business brochure, maybe do a little bit of email marketing. You want to tell prospective customers about what you do and hopefully drum up some new business.

Unfortunately, it goes wrong quickly. You’ve only got the cash to create a single brochure this year, so you want to make sure it covers everything you do and everyone you want to market to. There’s so much material that you end up with nothing but a giant list of bullet points, with no elaboration or benefits in sight.

The key to creating more effective marketing materials and campaigns is market segmentation and message differentiation. That sounds far more complicated than it is: all it means is that people only care about what’s important to them. If you want to show prospective customers why they should do business with you, you have to focus on the benefits that they care about.

Let’s say you run a catering company. There are a ton of potential markets you could serve: weddings, corporate events, private parties, annual conventions. But if you create a single brochure to try to address all these markets, you’ll end up with something so broad that it won’t appeal to any of these audiences.

Instead, think about where the customers spend their time, and how you want to address them. Most young brides these days are doing the majority of their wedding planning and research online, so that’s where you should focus your efforts to market to that segment. Create a great Pinterest profile with lots of enticing wedding design and catering pictures, and link it to a blog filled with keyword-rich wedding content with a local focus, and you’ll draw who understand exactly what it is you do and why you’re a great fit for their wedding.

For your business customers, a piece of printed collateral like a brochure or sales letter is a better bet. Focus on why you’re a great fit for their events (good value, flexible menus, simple ordering system, available on short notice, etc.). Send it to prospects within a company who will make the actual purchasing decision on caterers for business events, and you’ll be able to follow up in person or by phone with a prospect who already has a solid grasp of what you can offer their company.

No business, small, medium, or large, has an unlimited marketing budget. We all want to do the most we can with what we have. So make the most of your advertising dollars by creating a focused message for a clearly defined audience. And if you need help figuring out what to say or who to say it to, give me a call. I’d be happy to help.

The 4 people who shouldn’t be blogging

I’ve talked before about the importance of a business blog, and how businesses of all sizes can use blog posts to demonstrate their value and pull customers to their website. And if you’ve spent any time lately on marketing blogs or websites, you’ve almost certainly seen the proclamation that “Content is king!”

I firmly believe that every business can benefit from a blog. But that doesn’t mean everyone is cut out to be a blogger. Here are five people who shouldn’t be in charge of your company blog. If you recognize yourself (or your blog) on the list, it might be time to get help!

The spammer – Often spotted popping up in LinkedIn groups, The Spammer is the blogger that everyone loves to hate. They start discussion after discussion with nothing more than a link to their latest blog, regardless of how relevant it might be to the group or whether anyone has expressed interest in reading what they’ve posted. Spammers can also be seen joining online forums in order to broadcast their posts to the world, without bothering to provide value or get to know the community. Repent your spammy ways! If you recognize yourself in this description, remember that the goal of building a business blog is to get organic search results by creating great content – not to fool uninterested people into increasing your pageviews.

The TMI guy – A little personality isn’t a bad thing, but for the most part a business blog should stay focused on business topics. After all, it’s really part of an ongoing conversation between you and your customers. The TMI guy, on the other hand, writes about anything and everything on his blog. Personal anecdotes, political rants, holiday recipes – it’s all there, mixed in with the legitimate business topics. Keep it “need to know”! Focus your blog on providing valuable information your clients need to know, and let your brand identity shine through the writing style and (very!) occasional non-business posts.

The plagiarist – Creating great content is hard work, and it takes time. But stealing great content is a lot faster and easier. Plagiarists like to hide behind the label of “content curator”, intimating that all they’re doing is helping people find the good stuff. But posting the good stuff without crediting your sources is outright stealing, and a blog with nothing but links and other peoples’ content – even if you’ve credited your sources properly – doesn’t do you much good when it comes to SEO and impressing your customers. Time to get original! If you’re struggling to write content that offers real value, you can always hire a copywriter to write your blog. No one said you have to be an expert at everything, just at doing what you do best.

The “just because” blogger – The “just because” blogger writes blog posts the way you don a lime-green reindeer sweater your Aunt Millie knitted you – half-heartedly and out of a sense of obligation. Nearly every business can benefit from a blog, but if all you know is that you “should” be blogging, you probably don’t have a very coherent strategy in place for what to write about. As a result, your company blog is a confusing mix of lackluster posts, without any kind of theme or focus to keep readers interested. Get a plan in place! Your business blog is a part of your overall marketing strategy. You should have an editorial calendar and a content plan in place to help you figure out what to write about when, so you can create great content without feeling like you’re coming up with ideas on the spot.

Do you want to defend your blogging style? Leave a note in the comments about the great things you’re doing with your company blog! And if you need help creating individual posts or an overall business blogging strategy, get in touch! I’d love to help get your business blog off the ground.

Should your company have a business blog or an email newsletter?

Think of your company’s email newsletter as a nice frosty glass of delicious craft beer. It’s quick, it’s refreshing, and you can enjoy it at home as easily as you can at a bar or restaurant or friend’s house.

Your company blog, on the other hand, is more like a gourmet pizza (and if you’re in the St. Louis area, that pizza should come from the wood-fired ovens at Peel in Edwardsville) – it’s best when it’s fresh and hot and right from the source.

Beer and pizza. They’re both great on their own, but they’re so much better together. Your company blog and email newsletter should complement each other the same way. One pulls prospects to your site, the other keeps them engaged in an ongoing relationship.

A business blog is a great way to draw search engine traffic to your site. It gives you a platform to address your customers’ questions, discuss the features and benefits of your products, and position your company as a knowledge leader in the industry.

Even better, your blog will build a backlog of valuable information that new prospects will be able to locate through keyword searches for years to come. Once they’ve landed on your site, you can entice them to sign up for your newsletter with an offer of a free white paper, special report, or informational autoresponder series.

An email newsletter, on the other hand, helps you to keep your existing customers engaged. You want your blog and website to offer valuable content that inspires prospects to sign up and get more from you. The company newsletter should provide more great content in a quick, informative burst that reminds customers of why they like and trust you.

Most customers don’t make business blogs a regular part of their reading material. Take advantage of that and get most of your newsletter content from the material you’ve already created, drawing customers back to your website and making the process of newsletter creation a lot less taxing. You can include special offers and sales in your newsletter, but remember to keep the focus on giving your customers content, not getting their money.

If you need more convincing that a company blog is a great way to give your customers what they want while generating valuable search engine traffic, check out my free report, Blogging for Business: 9 Great Ways to Capture and Keep Customers with a Company Blog.

Is your company’s “About Us” page suffering from TMI?

TMI – Too Much Information. It happens when a colleague tells you all about her gallbladder operation while you’re trying to enjoy your lunch, or when a friend recounts his most recent basketball game in such excruciating detail that the retelling takes as long as the original match did. No one likes being subject to tons of information that isn’t relevant to their life or interests. So why do so many companies fill their “About Us” page with paragraphs full of details that their customers couldn’t care less about?

The “About” page is one of the most-visited pages on any company’s website, and visitors often head there as soon as they hit the home page. Customers want to know more about the company they are considering doing business with. This is especially true for service providers and businesses operating in the financial or technology sectors. People want to know that they’re giving their money to someone with credentials and experience they can trust.

Unfortunately, too many business owners see the “About Us” page as a excuse to talk about themselves, and end up going on endlessly about their path to entrepreneurship, or every last aspect of the company’s history, or overly-detailed biographies of employees that most customers will never interact with.

Your customers don’t care about any of that. They care about themselves. How does your history or experience benefit them? Why are you positioned to offer them exceptional value? What does your company offer that your competitors don’? How do they know your employees are the best in the industry?

When you’re creating the copy for your “About Us” page, think about the goals you laid out for the rest of the site copy. Does the “About” page support those goals? Does it reassure prospective customers that they can be confident in doing business with you? Does it offer them a clear next step once they’ve finished reading the page? If not, it’s time to revamp the copywriting – this time with customer needs, and not company details, as the focus.

And if you’re not sure whether your “About Us” page needs a revamp, send me an email at shelby@sbscopywriting.com for a free About page analysis.

Rich Burlew’s million-dollar free comic: How giving away the milk can make the cow more valuable

On Jan. 22, 2012, Rich Burlew, creator of the popular webcomic Order of the Stick, opened a Kickstarter funding drive with the goal of raising $57,750 to reprint one of the comic’s compilation books that had been out of print for months. A month later, on Feb. 21, the drive closed, having raised $1,254,120 – well over 2000% of the original goal.

All of this for a comic which has its entire run available online, free of charge. How does this happen? Why do people pay good money for something that they can get for free? And what does it have to do with your business blog?

The rise of the “free information” mentality of the internet has been a mixed bag for creative works, giving people much broader access to small-scale independent artists while at the same time giving them more ways to get those artists’ work for free (legally or not). But what seems to be happening more and more is that when people find value in a work, they’re willing to vote with their wallets. This isn’t true of everyone – there will always be people who steal content – but it seems to be true for most people.

Business owners in knowledge-based fields – CPAs, attorneys, financial planners, and others – often end up with generic blogs that don’t tell prospective customers anything useful, for fear of giving away the house. Never be afraid that your business blog is offering too much free information. Your blog is the place where you prove your expertise to potential customers.

The benefit here is twofold: first, when customers visit your website, an extensive blog filled with valuable content is immediate proof that you’re a professional who knows what she’s talking about. Secondly, your backlog of blog posts serves as a cache of business information that can help prospects discover your website when they’re searching for answers. For example, let’s say that you have a CPA blog on your tax firm’s website. Every week, you offer advice on a typical question that your clients have, like the tax implications of switching from a traditional to a Roth IRA. All that advice will bring up your site when someone goes searching for relevant keywords.

Small business owners often worry that if they have a business blog where they’re giving away free advice, potential clients won’t need their services. And it’s certainly true that some people will find, say, a CPA blog that seems relevant to their situation, and attempt a DIY solution. Realistically, these people weren’t going to pay your fees anyway. The vast majority of people recognize that sure, they could learn to do their own taxes, or act as a pro se litigant, but it would take ages and they’d have no guarantee that they were doing everything right.

What it comes down to is this: people are happy to pay when they know they’re getting value in return. A business blog that shows you have the expertise to handle their issue correctly – along with benefits-driven copy throughout the rest of your site which drives home the value of your service in saving time and money for your client – will make it clear to prospective customers that your business is the right one for the job.