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What's your biggest fault? And what are you doing about it?

Why a little-self analysis is always a good thing

[Image courtesy of Simon Cunningham at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice than to take it? The thing about dispensing words of wisdom is that (a) they don’t cost you anything and (b) you’re often stating what’s obvious to you but not to the other person, and (c) it’s not personal. 

And (c) is what it’s really about.

Because when it’s not your life, our your loves, or your business, you can see more clearly and be more objective. But when the spotlight is turned on you, the view is very different. 

I recently saw a SWOT analysis carried out by an agency I work with on a client of theirs. It was brutally honest, laying bare the weaknesses of the company, its service and its competitive position. At times, it made for uncomfortable reading. 

On the plus side, it was unashamedly upbeat about strengths, and concluded that on balance, the organisation was in a strong position.

We’re all happy to blow our own trumpets, but highlighting our faults is a bit more of a challenge. But if we don’t identify and acknowledge them, it’s difficult to address them.

And when I say ‘we’ here, I’m thinking more professional than personal. That said, if you’re a small-to-medium business, it often still feels personal. 

So how do you go about finding your faults and fixing them? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Dare to compare. If critiquing yourself in isolation is too much to contemplate, then take one of your competitors and do a side-by-side comparison. Take your website and theirs, and create a grid with form, content, approach, tone, structure and so on. Some things you do will be better, others will fall short. The same is true of your competitor. And if they tick all the boxes and you don’t, then at least you have a standard to aim for. 
  • Press the button. You know that elevator pitch you’ve always meant to write? Do it. Sit down and write something that you could deliver in 60 seconds or less. You’ll end up with very few words, but it’ll probably take you a considerable time to arrive at them. That’s because you’ll be forced to focus on the absolutely top-line things, which can often get lost in the detail of everyday busyness.
  • Outsource – but accept the outcome. A friend of mine is a management consultant. She the nicest, friendliest, chattiest person you could hope to meet. In a social setting. But when it comes to business, she morphs into another being entirely: someone who’s dispassionate, objective and unemotional. She’s able to bring her steely gaze and unforgiving approach to bear on the knottiest of problems. But here’s the thing: she always prefaces the process by telling clients that they’re going to find out things that will not be easy to accept. But accept they must. In business as in life, without acceptance there’s no moving on. 
  • Start small. This works for everything, whether it’s overhauling your marketing or changing your diet. If you look at the problem as a whole, it seems big and unwieldy. If you break it down into chunks, it suddenly becomes manageable. Fix the tagline. Rewrite that email. Update your segmentation regularly. Improve your response time to customer emails. Rethink your newsletter, so the content isn’t just me-too recycled factoids. But what about an overarching plan, I hear you say? Yes, that’s fine. But not the point where the hunt for perfection actually prevents you from taking the first step.
  • Focus on the journey, not the destination. Finding and fixing faults isn’t a one-time exercise. It’s an ongoing one, because the competitive landscape is constantly changing. Just last month, I was talking to somebody who said he’d let his lead in the market slip because he’d got complacent. “When you’re number 1,” he said ruefully, “there’s only one way to go.”

And do I practise what I preach? Sometimes.

Because I’m as guilty of the next person of dispensing advice that I don’t take myself. But it’s right at the top of my list of things to address.

Just before the one that says I should stop making lists, and actually start doing what’s on them.

Want to make sure people read your case study? Try this.

Telling a good story in the age of attention-challenged readers

[Image courtesy of Sebastien Wiertz at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Yeah, yeah,” said my friend recently. “Problem, solution, benefits – I’ve heard it all before. Case studies are so yesterday. Nobody still read them any more, do they?”

Maybe not. And maybe there’s a good reason for that.

The problem-solution-benefits structure you can’t do anything about – because that’s what a case study is. But the formulaic way of relating the story hasn’t changed much, so perhaps it’s time to give it a makeover.

Here are some ideas for case study 2.0: 

  • Loosen up. So many case studies read like dry academic papers. Now there is a serious point to them, but that doesn’t mean they have to be serious themselves. The best stories are the ones that you tell with a light touch – so don’t go all stiff and stilted. Use everyday language and an informal approach. Tell the story as if you’re talking to a prospect over a cup of coffee.  (But don’t get too informal and slouch on the table.)
  • Take a back seat. Often, the best way of telling a story is not to tell a story. Not by yourself, that is. If you can get your client to recount a tale with a happy ending, it’s much more powerful. So include quotes throughout, and don’t be scared to make them long. In the past, I’ve written case studies just by transcribing interviews with clients’ clients. (But don’t tell anyone.)
  • Run the numbers. Let’s face it: when you read a case study, the bottom line is all you care about. How much did a similar client save/make/achieve? Were sales up? Costs down? Efficiency levels improved? If so, by how much? Your readers are exactly the same, so make sure you highlight the headline figures and make them easy to see right from word go. 
  • Chunk it. This applies to all copy. It’s one of the reasons these bullet points are bullet points. As well as having problem-solution-benefits sections, put quotes in boxes, set figures apart from body copy, and make it easy for the reader to thread their way through your text. 
  • Involve your audience. Again, something that applies across the board. But how do you do it with case studies, which are essentially about you and the client you helped? Simple. Just pull the reader in by talking to them direct (If you’ve ever wondered how to protect your margin in a competitive market, you’re not alone. Acme Inc faced just such a challenge…). Nothing hooks a reader and keeps them reading more than that one simple word: you.
  • Dare to be different. Who said a case study has to be copy-heavy? If you want to shake things up, try changing the format. Make it an infographic that gets the story across in pictures as well as words. And remember, less copy doesn’t mean less work: if anything, it means that more than ever, as each word has to pull its weight. 
  • Put a smile on your face. A case study is always – repeat, always – about solving a problem. And yes, we can dress it up as an issue, or a challenge, but when the tide goes out and it’s standing naked on the beach, it’s a good old-fashioned common-or-garden problem. Which means it’s innately negative. But you can’t be, so when you’re sketching out the problem, do it fast, and focus on the upside. Spin positive, said a client recently. Quite. 
  • Upsize and downsize. OK, so you’ve made all the right moves and have the perfect case study, but there’s no guarantee that people will read it. So why not increase your chances and get more than one bite of the cherry? Create several versions – infographic, PowerPoint slide, regular version, long version. Turn it into a blog post. Include it in your newsletter, and record a 30-second version for your on-hold message. Slice, dice, recycle and reuse.

As you can see, when it comes to case studies, there’s life in the old dog yet. And to answer my sceptical friend’s question – yes, people do read them.

As long as you make them worth reading.

Give something away that's free - but not worthless

Getting the balance right between value and cost isn’t always easy

[Image courtesy of Ryan at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you discovered Udemy yet? If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that back in January, I decided to splash out on lots of online courses to skill myself up.

My super-memory isn’t quite there yet, partly because I’ve forgotten to put the techniques into practice as often as I should have done. But my coding skills are coming along nicely.

Yes, that’s right. Like just about everybody nowadays, I’ve been bitten by the coding bug.

Well if truth be told, I was bitten by it long ago, but haven’t seriously pursued it. I know my way around HTML and CSS, and have picked up enough survival PHP to hack WordPress. But serious coding has always been at the back of my mind as a project I should pursue one day. 

Now that day has come, and Udemy was my first port of call.

There are all sorts of courses on every imaginable subject, and I snapped up a whole host of them at the bargain-basement price of $10. One was a heavy-duty Bootstrap and WordPress course, which assumed a certain knowledge of PHP. So before tackling that, I thought I’d make sure my PHP skills were up to snuff.

And as chance would have it, there was a free PHP course by the same instructor.

Now in this day and age, free anything usually comes with an asterisk: either a real one (endless terms and conditions apply) or an implied one (free means worthless). So I was a little circumspect about the quality of the course. But since it was free, what was there to lose? 

Well apart from my time, nothing much. So I took the plunge.

I’m happy to say, the course was excellent. Paced fast enough to be interesting, but not so fast it lost you at every turn. It was practical, focused and easy to follow.

The instructor, a genial Canadian called Brad, kept it lively and entertaining. And at the end, I felt I had a thorough grounding in PHP – enough to tackle his Bootstrap and WordPress course.

For once, free didn’t mean cheap – or worthless. He’d obviously spent a huge amount of time and effort developing, writing and filming the course (in case you didn’t know, Udemy courses have hours and hours of video).

So it was a major undertaking on his part, and the end result was something of undeniable value. 

Brad is my new best friend. And I’ve been singing his praises to all and sundry. People only have to mention the word coding to me, and I’m unstoppable. And I’m sure the army of students he has around the world have been spreading the word far and wide too.

And all because we got something of value at no cost to us. 

Give and you shall receive

The key word here is value. Nothing irritates a reader, a student or a prospect faster than having the promise of a freebie turn into a bait-and-switch operation.

You give all your contact details, and find that the free e-book is just a collection of recycled factoids. You sign up for a free trial, only to discover that you don’t have access to all the features. Or you take a free course, and realise too late that you’ve wasted your time on low-level knowledge combined with a sales pitch for its expensive counterparts.

If you are going to give away something for free, try applying these simple guidelines and it’ll be a better experience for you and your prospect: 

  • Do it without any ulterior motive. Impart knowledge because you enjoy doing it.
  • Don’t worry about them not signing up, or buying the paid version, or becoming a high-grossing client.  Focus on what you hope will happen, not the downside of nothing happening. 
  • Put as much effort into it as you would into something you’d charge good money for. And if that’s too much of a leap, then take something you sell and give it away for free for a limited period. 
  • Don’t forget the knock-on cost of a freebie that doesn’t live up to the promise: you’ve disappointed a prospect (or worse, an existing client) and caused reputational damage. 

So what’s free and worth it?  

You could offer a how-to guide that’s practical and achievable (How to simplify your document management in just 2 hours).  Or a thought piece that talks about the issues your prospects face (Why technology is transforming small businesses, and how you can ride the wave).  Or a quick-reference guide that they can print out and consult (10 copy tips for busy people). 

Or a targeted course that’s waffle-free (Business writing bootcamp for marketing professionals) and skills people up for their job.

Name your own priceless

The common denominator for all of these ideas is value. But it’s more than just what people would have paid for the course. It’s showing them that you’ve put thought, effort and time into the freebie. And that their time and effort won’t be wasted if they download the book or take the course. 

So it should be valuable, real and useful. And one last thing: shareable.

Because if it’s one thing people like more than finding a freebie, it’s telling somebody else about it. Why? Because they get the gain (here’s something for free) without the pain (somebody else did it). 

Much as I’ve done with my Canadian chum. 

So what are you waiting for? Get creating, give it away, and wait for karma to do its thing.

The easy way to find constant content in an always-on world

How to be everywhere, all the time (and still retain your sanity)

[Image courtesy of Sally Wilson at Flickr Creative Commons]

I read this week of an interesting experiment that’s happening at a school in Cheshire, in the north of England.

BBC School News Report challenged Year 10 students (that’s 14-year-olds to you and me) to do without social media for a week. The digital detox includes Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, as well as YouTube and any of the other tools that have teenagers – and many adults too – glued to their screens to the exclusion of all else.

The results are as you might expect: these digital natives have had a difficult time weaning themselves off social media, but have actually discovered that life doesn’t stop.

In fact one of the encouraging things for me was that they rediscovered the power of the written word, when it’s not limited to 140 characters and abbreviations. The Tarporley High School librarian says that she has never seen as many books borrowed as during the week the experiment lasted.

Digital detoxes aside, social media is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s not going away anytime soon. If you run a business, you need to be on it. But what exactly is ‘it’? Facebook? Twitter? LinkedIn? What about forums and blogs?

The answer is everywhere, and all the time. Which leads to the inevitable question – how on earth are you going to to find the content (quite apart from the stamina) to keep such a communication drive up and running? 

The content challenge

The answer is: much more easily than you might imagine. All it takes is a bit of lateral thinking, and a dash of creativity. 

Let me give you en example.

Recently, an agency contacted me on behalf of a client of theirs who wanted to start a blog. They’re in the high-tech sector, and know that content is king in a market that’s constantly moving. They wanted to position themselves as a thought-leader, and the go-to company for the niche they operate in. 

They also thought an e-book might be a good idea. And that they should probably do something on Twitter, and maybe LinkedIn – though not Facebook. But even without Facebook, they were facing an uphill struggle finding readable, valuable and shareable content.

The challenge was big, resources were limited, and the sheer number of elements seemed daunting. But I never say never, so I jumped in feet first.

I started small, researching half-a-dozen possible blog posts. One of the subjects gave me a great idea for the e-book, and when I started digging deeper, I discovered a goldmine of material that could later be turned into a whitepaper. 

Research, rework, repurpose. Rinse & repeat.

When I’m in ‘sponge mode’, I’m just looking for lots and lots of inputs. Sometimes, I have no idea where they’ll take me, but for the moment, that doesn’t really matter. Here, we’re looking for volume, not details. 

And if you’re thinking that all of this takes lots of time, it doesn’t. Skim-read headings and the first line of each paragraph (that’s a hugely valuable tactic) and you’ll very quickly get an overview.

Based on my digital digging, here are my top tips: 

  • Note down everything, even what doesn’t seem important.
  • Refer to your list often, and let it be the springboard for new ideas. 
  • Use MindMaps to cross-reference ideas and approaches.
  • Stop trying to be original (and I’m a serial offender, so take it from one who knows). If everything has already been said, then accept that you’ll just have to find a new spin on an old story.
  • Always think ‘How can I reuse this content?’ Can the same material be an e-book, a blog post, a whole series of tweets, a short, punchy Did you know? item?

Also, remember the saying ‘good artists copy – great artists steal’.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that you filch somebody else’s copy, but there’s no reason why you can’t use it as model for yours. After all, chances are that they used somebody else’s as a model for theirs.

You may remember I recently read a biography of David Cameron. It was hugely entertaining and had me hooked from the very first page. And yet it relied very heavily on other books, newspaper articles and written sources.

Yes, there was original research, but much was simply repackaging facts, quotes and opinions from elsewhere in an engaging manner. Drawing conclusions that nobody else had, and adding value by analysing afresh. 

You know how, when you learn a new word, it suddenly starts popping up everywhere? Content is exactly the same.

As soon as you searching, it emerges from everywhere. And you can scale it up so it’s a whitepaper, scale it down so it’s a tweet, make it serious and share it on LinkedIn, make it light-hearted and share it on Facebook.

Combine it in different ways, and put a different spin on the same story, and you’ll never run out of things to say. Or places to say it in.

And remember, that goes beyond the always-on, bite-sized world of social media. If you’re a teenager in Cumbria, it might be something you easily forget. But all it takes is a few days of digital detox, and you discover there’s a whole wide world out there. 

And now, you’ll have content to fill it. 

Want to connect with your reader? Here's how...

Bicycles, hot-water taps and changing your point of view

[Image courtesy of Mark Nicolson at Flickr Creative Commons]

Close your eyes and remember the last time you had a difference of opinion with somebody. Or a full-blown argument, for that matter.

Were you convinced you were right? Probably. And was the other person similarly convinced that they’d seen the light but you were stubbornly hanging onto an indefensible position?

Again, probably. And all of this hinges on one thing – as does almost all marketing.

Point of view.

I quietly cursed a cyclist the other day for threading through cars and cutting in front of me – even though I was stationary. And then, I began to laugh. For I remembered that when I’m on two wheels, it’s exactly what I do, blissfully unaware of cursing motorists.

So it really depends which side of the glass you’re on. And if you can get to this realisation, it transforms everything.

It’s something I learned when I read in a self-help book (if you’re a regular, you’ll know I’m something of an addict) about ‘reframing’.

That person isn’t angry with you in particular; they’re just under a lot of pressure and you happened to be in the line of fire. Your friend didn’t mean to snub you; they were just so pulled in all directions they didn’t remember to put you on the To line of the email. The world hasn’t conspired against you and your emailshot; 2% really is the response rate, and even then, you’ll be lucky.

Reframing allows you to take the facts and see them in a new way. And usually from somebody else’s point of view. So you can move from cyclist to motorist just by flipping a simple mental switch. 

And if you can do that, you can write like a reader.

Technical tangles

Imagine you’ve created a software solution (I hesitate to call it app, and program doesn’t quite cover it, so the ubiquitous solution it is, though it raises some people’s hackles).

It’s built on cutting-edge technology, and is robust and reliable. You’re proud of your baby, and you can’t stop talking about it. It has lots of bells and whistles, and you want to ring and blow all of them. 

And the people who will ultimately use the software are quite technical too, so you think tech-speak is the way to go.

And maybe it is. But only after you’ve carefully positioned it. Why? 

Because the people who are using it won’t necessarily be the ones making the buying decision or signing the cheques. They’ll need to persuade those who do of the business value of your solution. They’ll need to convince them that the savings justify the initial outlay, and that the short-term disruption isn’t going to outweigh the long-term benefits.

So when you produce your marketing materials, they really do need to be marketing materials. Yes, the tech needs to be there, but it also has to convince non-technical decision makers. 

And there’s another consideration: techies may well be technical (the clue’s in the name) but they’re also ordinary people, just like you and me.

They’re influenced by the the same words and phrases as everybody else – even if they say they’re not. They’re hooked by headlines, and captivated by stories. They’re also busy, and pulled in all directions, so promising to make their lives easier is a surefire way to get the attention.

So thinking like a reader doesn’t mean making general assumptions (they’re technical! they want to see tick-boxes of technologies! they don’t want marketing fluff!). Thinking like a reader means picturing where they’re coming from, and trying to imagine what they’re looking for from somebody like you.

It’s like creating word-picture of what it’ll be like once they’ve bought from you. And word-pictures can be hugely powerful. 

Tapping into emotion

A friend told me a few months ago about his instant boiling-water tap. At first, I was sceptical and failed to see why he couldn’t wait a few minutes for the kettle to boil. The cost – close on £2,000 – seemed disproportionate to the benefit.

And then he did something wonderful.

He created the most vivid word-picture I’ve heard in a long time. (He’s not a copywriter, but maybe he should be.)

It was early in the morning, I was in my dressing gown, walking across the kitchen in my bare feet – with underfloor heating, of course. Birds chirping, sun rising. Only thing missing was a piping-hot cup of tea to ease me into the day.

You get the picture. And so did I. In fact, I felt as if I was actually there.

You see what my friend did?

Knowing my aversion to shelling out hard-earned cash on pointless gizmos, he went in under the radar and appealed to my senses. He knows that I don’t function without a cup of tea in the morning.

He also knows I like to understand how things work, so the technology might also interest me. But it was the sensory experience of a mug of English breakfast – accompanied by a good book – that he chose as a way to penetrate my defences.

And it worked: I was almost ready to fork out the two grand for the tap. Until I remembered that it was a tap, and we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

So here’s the takeaway: if you want to connect, stop being you. Be them. Forget about the technology and the price tag, and focus on the experience – whether it’s boiling water or a whizz-bang CRM.

If you want to be in the driving seat, get out of the car and start pedalling.

It’ll get you where you want to be a whole lot faster.