Is a neglected blog a good sign?

Possibly, depending on what you consider to be good.  My blog has been neglected because I’ve been spending all my working hours (and then some) working for clients. My own website comes second. In English, we often refer to this situation as ‘the cobbler’s shoes’.

In case you don’t know it, the full phrase is ‘the cobbler’s children have no shoes.’ It means that the cobbler, the person who repairs shoes, is too busy doing paid work to see to his own family’s shoes.

A posh name for this phenomenon is ‘vocational irony’.

Cobblers (plural) has other meanings in British English which you can discover here.

 

 

Direct marketing formulas sell words as well as products

Or how to get your writing read using direct marketing (DM) rules

Some leading DM copywriters have been kind (or astute) enough to share their knowledge and writing formulas over the years. I’m thinking about the works of such luminaries as John Caples, Drayton Bird and Denison Hatch, for example.

You could say direct marketing has traditionally been the sharp end of copywriting; it’s not funny, clever or cute, it’s about getting results that can be measured. And, thanks to the internet and online marketing, we can now measure the effectiveness of copywriting a whole lot more than used to be possible.

Apart from the odd foray into direct mail and coupon ads, I’ve spent most of my career at the other end of the spectrum, writing newsletters, articles and brochures, often explaining difficult concepts or  delving into technicalities rather than selling an actual product.

All writing needs to be ‘sold’

But no matter what the piece of writing is, I believe that the principles of DM  copywriting can be applied to increase its appeal.

Take the headline, for example, which is vital for getting a reader’s interest and ‘selling’ the copy, whether it’s an article, web page or whatever.

Not all copywriters are able to get as much feedback or measurement on the effectiveness of our copy as we’d like for various reasons and this is something I”m working on.

But let’s do a little experiment here with these pretend web page headings to see if I’m right….

Was it the first, using the tried and trusted DM ‘how to’ headline formula? Did the other two fail to appeal? Which made the information to follow seem most valuable?

I know some writers find this type of copywriting cheesy and would rather throw in the towel than stoop to these levels. But I think they’re missing the point. The aim is simply to appeal to people’s self-interest. Otherwise, why should they bother?

Writing is only part of the story

You might think a marketing copywriter spends most of the working day writing.  Actually, I find that writing accounts for less than 50% of the time spent on a job.

And that’s not because I sit staring at a ‘new blank document’ in Word or suffer from writer’s block; it’s because so much more goes into copywriting than just writing.

Let me explain.

To be in a position to start writing a project, I need to know a lot. I need to know  what needs to be said, to whom, how and most of all, why. I need to understand the purpose of the writing project and what it needs to achieve, whether it’s a website, newsletter, brochure, article or other communication tool.

Getting agreement on the purpose, tone and content at the outset gives me a much better chance of being closer to the mark with the first draft.

If I’m writing online copy, search engine optimisation (SEO) brings in a whole extra layer of research into keywords.

Whatever the project, the content needs planning. Sometimes I’m involved and other times I just replace the ‘lorem ipsum‘ placeholder text with real words.

Being a copywriter can also mean leading projects, whether for print or online. The administration of following processes, driving a project, circulating drafts, chasing comments and getting them approved takes yet more time away from writing.

Too much information

There are always time constraints, but I like to find out as much as I can about the relevant subject. What are competitors saying? What is the target audience interested in? How do regulatory or industry bodies talk about the subject? Then I can start making notes of ideas.

The other major area of research is the business, product or service itself. There’s a lot to learn if it’s technical or involves heavy regulation.

The writing process

So having established that the first stage of writing is research, you can expect a copywriter to ask lots of questions – some might sound a bit daft; some could be really penetrating.

Then I have to spend time thinking (and chewing my lip).

Sometimes it makes sense to ‘road test’ a portion of the text before launching into a magnum opus. Similarly, large jobs are better broken down into smaller ones.

Once the writing has started, it’s hard to tell where writing ends and editing/checking begins as I keep going over and over a draft until I’m happy.

Then there’s more checking, editing, rewriting, proofing and checking again. Finalising copy always seems to take longer than I think it will.

When I’m sending out a first draft, I always explain that it’s just a starting point, or a framework. So if the feedback from a first draft is just tweaks and no major rewrites, it’s a victory for me!

When words don’t work

If I’m reworking existing copy or editing, I might spend a lot of time cutting out words in the interest of plain, simple language. It’s called ‘writing tight’.

There are times when I try to avoid words altogether, as they’re not always the best way to convey information. Visuals, infographics, lists, bullet points and tables can be much more effective ways of getting across messages or complex information.

Deconstructing information and getting it into a table or some other format really is my idea of fun!

So why am I telling you all this?

To explain why there’s more to copywriting than meets the eye!

Don’t you just love newsletters?

Newsletters, magazines or news updates are great marketing tools. You can use them to talk to your customers, contacts, members or employees, whether you’re promoting your brand or business, or strengthening the relationship between you and the readership.

But (and this is a big but), key elements of the newsletter have to be right and, most importantly, it must be interesting to the targeted readers.

Newsletter content, format, distribution and frequency

News is good! If your newsletter contains genuine news, it will:

  • make your organisation appear dynamic and interesting
  • give you a reason to contact people
  • give the readers a reason to be interested

Features, articles and comment can also make interesting content. If you don’t think you have any news that you want to tell the world about, you can provide comment or analysis on current issues that are relevant to your business and  readers.

Sometimes, features explaining a change in the law, for example, or a ‘how to’ article can provide a genuine service. These types of articles also show that you are knowledgeable and expert in your field.

If negative news has been reported in the media, you can use a newsletter to provide explanations and background information.

Format and distribution depend on who you’re trying to reach and the best way to reach them. Whether you go for a paper or electronic format – or both – you’ll need a well managed, targeted distribution list and a visual style that reflects the brand or corporate image.

Frequency very much depends on your organisation and audience.  Often, less is more, not only because of the hours and cost involved in producing the newsletter, but also to maintain a high standard of newsy content. We all know what it’s like to be frequently bombarded with emails and letters we never open.

If your business is a small to medium size enterprise (SME), I don’t believe you should be too rigid about the frequency. You can issue vaguely dated newsletters (e.g. Autumn 2011) as and when it suits you. Nobody will mind if you don’t stick to a rigid schedule.

You can also produce short updates or bulletins whenever it suits you.

 Marketing tools

If you need some marketing collateral to hand out at exhibitions or conferences or to send out  in response to enquiries, newsletters can be a useful option.  You can include marketing information in a less ‘salesy’, more relevant and possibly more interesting way than in a marketing brochure.

Some of your newsletter’s content can be ‘re-purposed’ i.e. repackaged for other uses – and vice versa. A news story from a newsletter could be turned into a press release, or a blog from your website could be repackaged for the newsletter.

If you know enough about your target audience, you can also experiment with segmenting your newsletter recipients and testing different versions of the newsletter. This type of honing will enable you to improve readership levels over time.

Help with newsletters

If you think your organisation could benefit from a newsletter, but don’t think you have the resources to create one, please contact me (debbie@deborahlamb.net).  I can provide writing and editing services for newsletters, as well as design and layout (using InDesign).

A word about enewsletters

To email newsletters successfully takes considerable expertise. A major hurdle is distribution and getting past spam filters. Then there is the web page build. In addition, having pictures, graphics, etc. on the email itself involves building a special web page.

The key to building a good quality email list is the ‘double opt in’ mechanism.  This process requires people to subscribe twice: first, on the initial request form and secondly by replying to a confirmation email.

Personal reasons

On a more personal note, the reason why I love newsletters is because I can use my experience in both marketing and journalism to bring it all together. And InDesign is such fun!

Editing English for non-native speakers (I’m really sorry, but…)

Some of the work I edit is written by people who are not native English speakers. And my heart goes out to them, it really does.

Sometimes,  it seems that the piece of writing in front of me must be the result of a huge effort involving several people and numerous redrafts. I feel genuinely sorry to have to change it, especially if the vocabulary, punctuation and grammar are pretty much correct.

The main problem in these cases is that the author has not written as a native English speaker would. And how could they, without spending years in an English-speaking country? English is notoriously nuanced.

What’s even more difficult is that the author might have conveyed a very precise meaning, but the wording or phrasing will come across as odd to a native English speaker. And sometimes there’s no way to get exactly the same meaning in English that ‘sounds’ right.

Here’s a typical example: while abroad on holiday, I came across a sign saying “Please cast your rubbish in the bin.” There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, except that a native speaker would say ‘throw’ rather than ‘cast’.

So, if you’re someone who has learned English as a foreign language and whose work I’ve rewritten, I’d like to offer my apologies now!

ELF vs EFL

These days most conversations and written communications in English are between non-native speakers. English as a lingua franca (ELF) dispenses with the standards and correctness required by English as a Foreign Language (EFL). 

A recent BBC radio programme on English as a lingua franca  looked at this and asked whether EFL courses should be focusing more on making oneself understood and less on correctness. The answer was that correctness was easier to test, since understanding depends on others.

According to researchers interviewed for the BBC programme, the same English ‘mistakes’ are common to people from all different parts of the world. This suggests to me that a standard for ELF might evolve in future to create a simplified, more practical language that is quite separate from the culture of English-speaking countries.

Bad English is bad for business

For now, though, correctness does matter from the point of view of making a good impression, whether or not you’re dealing with native speakers.  And if you’re planning on marketing to native speakers, standard English is essential.

Poor spelling and grammar can actually make companies look untrustworthy, according to some recent research. A BBC report on how poor English affects sales estimated that websites with bad spelling were losing millions of pounds in revenue.

These findings are quite surprising given that spelling is the easiest part of English to check and amend.

If you would like help with your communications, please contact me: debbie@deborahlamb.net

Breaking up text isn’t hard to do

I’m quite amazed by the amount of really dense text I see in publications. From local press to the magazines of schools and other organisations, I keep coming across page after page of virtually unbroken, impenetrable looking text with excruciatingly long paragraphs and wide columns too!

It’s bad enough that professional writers produce this stuff, but what the Dickens are the editors doing?

Most people are busy. Nobody, other than the extreme enthusiast, is going to have the time or the will to read difficult, long, boring and unappealing blocks of text.

Maybe the writers and editors are ignorant of the reader’s needs or maybe they’re too lazy to edit the copy properly. Perhaps they’re under the illusion that they’re following in the footsteps of great writers like George Eliot, Jane Austen or Tolkein, who do, actually, let paragraphs run on. And on.

Make text inviting and somebody might read it!

As a writer and/or editor, it’s really important to make it easy for people to get what you’re trying to convey quickly and easily. Text has to look inviting and be easy not just to read, but to skim-read too.

Breaking up text is so effective and so easy to do. I’ve produced three newsletters in the last couple of months and because I do the layout as well as the writing and editing, I try to make all the elements on a page work together.

I aim to get people’s attention with visuals, pique their interest, give them the gist and, hopefully, encourage them to read the whole article, story or report by using these techniques:

  • Short(ish) sentences and paragraphs of usually 2 or 3 sentences
  • Sensible column widths – theories differ as to the exact number of words/characters/picas, but I know when it looks right
  • Sub-headings (though not too close to the bottom of a column)
  • Pull-out quotes to highlight an important or humorous point
  • Boxes/sidebars and tables wherever possible to replace repetitive text
  • Pictures/illustrations not just for visual appeal, but because research shows that captions are often the first thing people read on a page

Publishing made easy

And all this is so easy with today’s technology. There’s really no excuse for not having visually appealing pages – no matter what the budget.

It’s not just the brilliant software like InDesign (which I love) that enables us to achieve great layouts, it’s also the fact that pictures and images are now so easy to access on the web.

Gone are the days of leafing through stock photo catalogues, when motorbike messengers would whiz around with transparencies. There’s no need to visit picture libraries, or stick strips of galley proofs onto dummies or mock-ups and as for Letraset… Actually, I’ve just discovered it’s still going strong.

Don’t waste money on marketing

I hate to see money being wasted on marketing. But it often happens, simply because the words aren’t right.

Sometimes, it’s the lack of words that’s the problem. Or else there’s too much text in large blocks that nobody will want to read. Other problems can be confusing information or content that’s just plain boring.

And the really sad thing is that very often, the organisations wasting the most money are the ones that can least afford it.

If you don’t have in-house copywriting expertise or if you find agencies too expensive, an experienced freelancer (like me) is an ideal solution. You get the benefit of professionally written copy for a fraction of the cost.

Clearly, not everyone enjoys writing (as I do).  If you’re the type of person that excels at doing business face-to-face, you might well find writing to be a chore.

These days, well-written communications are a must for any business. Whether you’re thinking of updating your website, introducing a newsletter, or simply looking at routine customer service letters, they all represent opportunities to build a relationship that ought not to be missed!

I understand about tight budgets and how to use them effectively. I’ll make sure your marketing and communications work for you. Please contact me if you’d like to know more. Thanks.

CONTACT: debbie@deborahlamb.net