How to connect with a stranger (or a prospect)

Beautiful interruptions, unexpected connections and shoes as a secret weapon

Connect with a stranger

As I settled into my seat on the London-bound Eurostar at the Gare du Nord early last year, I was feeling sad and happy in equal measure.

I was leaving Paris after three wonderful months, and would miss it terribly. But at the same time, I was returning to friends and family, and to my old familiar routine back in England.

I’d almost abandoned my madcap idea to temporarily decamp to the City of Lights, when I had a chance encounter online that changed everything.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was installed in Montmartre in a spacious des res, whose owner had fled south to the sun to escape the European winter. 

And so I spent three months meeting new people, following new routines, and exploring new possibilities. From the stranger I spoke to on the outbound Eurostar journey to the chap I bumped into in the boulangerie, from the South American translator to the reiki healer, my life had been full of chance encounters and mind-broadening experiences. 

Stranger danger

So when a woman came trundling down the aisle sighing heavily under the weight of her many bags, I somehow knew she was destined to sit next to me.

And so she did, after wondering (incorrectly) if I’d taken her window seat. She was clearly in a foul mood, muttering to herself as the train pulled out of the station.

Two-and-a-quarter hours of this, I thought. And then I decided to act.

“Vous aimez les mots croisés?” I asked her, pointing to her crossword book. “Ça m’a l’air vachement compliqué, celui-là!” And indeed the puzzle did look fiendishly complicated, with few black squares and mind-bendingly cryptic clues.

That was enough to get her to smile and start a conversation.

Two-and-a-quarter hours later, we pulled into St Pancras in London, still talking. We’d ranged across a wide variety of subjects, from teaching to city living, from happiness to startups.

As we entered the arrivals hall, she hugged her waiting daughter (an expat startup owner) and introduced her to me. Before leaving, she gave me her card and invited me to her farm in France.

And the moral of the story? Talk to strangers. Connect. Find a point of interest and use it as a springboard for a conversation. 

Not just on trains, but on your website. Not just in boulangeries, but in your e-books. Not just in alternative bookstores over the reiki titles, but in your newsletter.

Which brings me around to a TED talk I watched last week.

Kio Stark’s Why you should talk to strangers transported me back to my Paris experience, and reminded me that it doesn’t end when you return home. 

She’s not talking about marketing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply. She says we should use our senses instead of fears, perceptions instead of categories, and start thinking of people as individuals. She talks about ‘beautiful interruptions’ and ‘unexpected connections’, which is something we all hope our marketing efforts will do. 

You’ll find out why it’s easier to smile in Asia than Denmark, and why shoes (or their virtual equivalent) may very well be the secret weapon you’re looking for, hot on the heels of dogs and babies.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

The 10-step guide to creating a marketing e-book

It’s time to get those creative juices flowing. Here’s how.

[Image courtesy of David Salafia at Flickr Creative Commons]

They say everybody has at least one book in them – and in most cases, that’s where it should stay.

You only have to look at the self-published masterpieces on Amazon to realise that the bar has been placed so low, virtually anybody can get over it nowadays. 

If the Muse hasn’t yet struck, and you’re feeling creatively frustrated, you could always turn your attention marketing-wards, and consider writing a non-fiction e-book.

Gone are the days when you could just broadcast a sales message and your audience would flock to your door. Today, you have to engage and entertain them, inform and impress them. And e-books a great way to do that, letting you fly under the radar and connect with your reader.

They’re also easier than writing a lad-lit pot-boiler, or a triumph-over-tragedy family saga.

For a start, a marketing e-book is much, much shorter than a novel. Typically, it’s 2-3,000 words, which is only as long as a short story. You also don’t need to work your imagination quite as hard, as you know all the facts already.

It’s really just a case of arranging them in a way that captivates your reader. 

So how do you go about it? One step at a time.

Here are my 10 steps for writing an e-book that has them turning those pages faster than any bodice ripper. 

  1. Define your audience. Are they customers or prospects, and where are they in the sales cycle? Can you conjure up a typical reader? If it helps, try creating personas and supplying as much detail as possible to make them seem real.
  2. Set an objective. Is this a high-level piece that aims to give a broad overview of the market and issues? Are you educating readers and making them aware of the big picture? Or are you solving a specific problem? Sometimes, you’ll want to helicopter out and other times, you’ll want to zoom in, depending on where this piece sits in your sales funnel. 
  3.  Write an outline. This is a crucial step, and one that you don’t want to miss out (believe me, I speak from experience here). Creating an outline for your e-book will let you break the story down into manageable pieces, and move them around if you need to. It can be just headings and subheadings, or a little more fleshed-out. The important thing here is not to simply dive into the writing, without an overview of the structure.
  4. Keep it short and simple. We all have reduced attention spans nowadays, so make sure your book is broken up into small, easily digested pieces. If the total length is 2,500 words, then aim for sections that are 300-400 words. You should help the reader through the copy with headings, bolded text, bullet points and boxes.
  5. Include quotes. Nothing builds credibility more than input from third parties. They could be experts in your field, or industry commentators – or even clients. Weaving quotes into your copy also provides variety, so it’s easier to read. 
  6. Find the stats. There’s no shortage of figures out there to help you build your case. Whether you’re writing about the unstoppable rise of the Internet of Things, or the latest trends in customer satisfaction or mobile marketing, there’ll be a survey, a study or a slew of charts and graphs to help support your argument. 
  7. Say it with confidence. Whatever the message you’re getting across, and whatever the audience you’re addressing, nothing sells like confidence. Not swaggering confidence that’s just a bit too pleased with itself, but quiet, low-key confidence that keeps a friendly smile on its face. 
  8. Lead the pack. Try to find an angle and take an approach that shows you think differently. Tackle big problems and be bold in suggesting solutions. Thought leadership has become a bit of a hackneyed term over the last few years, but that’s really what we’re talking about here. Get out in front, and show them you know your stuff.
  9. Be human. Way too many e-books take themselves way too seriously. If you turn yours into a friendly chat with your reader, you’re far more likely to keep them reading to the end. Some of the most effective e-books are the ones that talk about complex subjects in a simple way, using language that’s informal and pared-down. They connect with the reader on a human level – which, when you think about it, is all any of us wants.
  10. End with a bang, not a whimper. Too many e-books simply fizzle out at the end. Remember step 2 – set an objective. Do you want your reader to register for more information? Set up a meeting? Attend an event? Join your mailing list? Contact a reseller? Just like a novelist knows how a book is going to end before they write the first sentence, so you should know what happens on the last page of yours before you start.

And when you’re finished, push your book out through every available channel. Put it on your website, either gated (fewer downloads, but more info on readers) or freely downloadable (more downloads, less info).

Publicise it on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Turn it into a Slideshare. Atomise it for blog posts, tweets and articles. Release it into the wild, letting anybody, anywhere put it on their site (with attribution, of course). 

Then start on the next one. Because when it comes to marketing e-books, we all have more than one inside us. 

And they definitely shouldn’t stay there. 

How far can you push transparency in marketing?

Playing the game and breaking the code

Joined-up service

When was the last time an advert stopped you in your tracks?

For me, it was last weekend, when I came across this poster on a bus shelter not far from my house.

Normally, I just walk past these ads without a second thought. They’re funny (that’s a given nowadays) and they’re slick, and they all end up looking pretty much the same. 

Except this one was different. We’ve got sales targets.

I gasped inwardly at the cheek of being so blatant about their motives. Forget being led by benefits, or selling the sizzle not the sausage. This was in-your-face honesty: you want a drink, and we want your money.

It’s not a relationship, it’s a one-night stand, they’re saying – let’s not pretend it’s anything more.

So it’s a bold departure. Can you just imagine how the marketing department at Coca-Cola, who produce Oasis, reacted when their ad agency presented the campaign? I’ll bet they thought long and hard before they gave it the green light.

Further down the road, and around a corner, I passed another bus shelter with another poster winking conspiratorially at me: You need a tasty refreshing Oasis. Trust me, I’m an ad.

Just a few hundred yards along, I spotted yet another: Merry Xmas. First Xmas ad of 2016. Take that, advertising. 

Telling it like it is

There’s nothing new about honesty in marketing.

Avis did it way back in the 1960s when it pushed the benefits of being the second-largest car-hire company (We try harder. When you’re not the biggest, you have to). Southwest Airlines famously has its Transfarency campaign (Low Fares. Nothing to Hide.) that helps customers avoid those ‘pesky fees’.

For 25 years, adverts for Stella Artois beer in the UK boasted that it was reassuringly expensive. And Domino’s Pizza tackled criticism head-on and ‘reinvented our pizza from the ground up’. 

I worked with one tech client who’s completely honest about their dashboards, admitting they aren’t the slickest or the sexiest out there. But they say that pretty barcharts don’t tell the whole story. If you’ve got ‘business intelligence at the speed of light’, who needs whizz-bang graphics?

So honesty in marketing can work very well when deployed intelligently. But this campaign takes things one step further.

So what’s going on here? And why is it getting people talking?

Through the looking glass

Well first, it’s genuinely funny – but it adds a twist to the usual advertising recipe. It’s gently mocking the medium, making other ads seem less genuine – and more like ad-like. It’s honest, but without being naive (they’re not doing a Ratner, which crossed the line into recklessness). 

It’s also getting people involved with their cleverly named #refreshingstuff hashtag, so people are tweeting their advertising and giving them more bang for buck.

But mostly it works because it’s different. And Oasis got there first.

If everybody starts using these self-referential ads, the spell will be broken for good. It’s a bit like an actor who steps out of character and addresses the audience. It works because it’s unexpected, and breaks the norms. If actors routinely did it, the effect would quickly wear off.

So (sun)hats off to Oasis for upending our expectations, and getting us to take a new look at an old formula. It’s a brilliant marketing move, but they know as well as anybody that it has a limited shelf life – a bit like a bottle of their Summer Fruits.

Let’s hope they hit those sales targets before autumn rolls around.

Business buzzwords: the good, the bad and the ugly

How far should you go to avoid a cliché?

[Image courtesy of Tom Newby at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Can’t we use another term instead of best practices?” said a client of mine recently. “Everybody uses it, and I feel like it’s become devalued. What does it actually mean anyway?”

And when you think about it, he’s right: everybody does use best practices all the time. So maybe it was time for change. And guess who was first in the queue to find an alternative?

“You’re the writer,” he said. “What do you suggest?”

So I went into thesaurus mode. Standards? Sounds too much like they’re imposed by a third party, or written down in a list. And they they seem less good than best. Industry-leading approaches? That sounded clunky, and replaced one buzzword with another. Latest ideas? Sounds too theoretical, as if the ideas haven’t been tested, as practices have.

The more I looked for an alternative, the more difficult it became.

I roped in my client, to see if he could help in the search – after all, he was the one who wanted to throw out the buzzword baby. But had the bathwater gone the same way? It was increasingly beginning to look so.

He drew a blank too, so I decided to go back to basics. How are best practices defined?

A procedure or set of procedures that is preferred or considered standard within an organization, industry, said

I started to get that sinking feeling. 

The search for original copy

The thing is, these buzzwords have become popular because they’re short, snappy and memorable. They’re instantly recognisable, and everybody knows what they mean – because everybody uses them. They’re common currency in the world of work, so they’re a quick way to get your message across.

But does that mean you need to avoid them? Perhaps.

But then you’re faced with an even bigger problem than using a cliché – finding an alternative that’s as short, snappy and memorable.

And that’s a big ask. (See what I mean?)

I’m as guilty as anybody else. Probably more, in fact. Because sales and marketing copywriting is chock-full of these buzzwords.

Synergy, solutions, leverage, thinking outside the box, doing more with less, cutting edge, state of the art. End-to-end, top-down/bottom-up and the ever-popular one-stop shop.

These handy little buzzwords are the very nuts and bolts that hold much sales and marketing copy together. Pull them out, and the whole machine falls apart. You’re left with limp prose and woolly words, lacking the bite of the buzzword.

To be or not B2B

It’s worth stating at this point that we’re talking here mostly about B2B. Because when businesses talk to each other, they adopt this buzzword lingo. If you’re talking to real people, it’s best to talk like a real person.

Does that mean you can’t do the same if you’re talking to businesses? After all, it’s one person in that business who’s reading the copy, and surely they like to think they’re a real person too?

It’s a simple question, but the answer is slightly more complicated.

Yes, they’re a real person, but they’re representing an organisation. They’re used to corporate-speak, which is liberally sprinkled with buzzwords, so ironically, if they don’t see them in your copy, they may think you sound less serious or even amateurish.

And if your competitors are throwing buzzwords around with gay abandon, you may not measure up favourably. So the informal, buzzword-free approach is best kept for B2C.

So how did I end up resolving my cliché crisis? Well I helicoptered out, got 360-degree visibility, and decided that the status quo was the way to go.

Because sometimes, best practices are just that. Best.

The elusive art of joined-up service

Online promise, offline reality and the case of the missing parasol…

Joined-up service

The Great British Summer has finally arrived (though if you blink it might disappear again). So last week, I decided it was out with the old and in with the new – and so began the hunt for the perfect garden furniture set. 

I started online, just to get an idea of what was out there. But I knew I’d have to go offline before buying – just like I do with clothes. I’ve had too many baggy jumpers, misshapen jeans and ill-fitting shoes delivered to ever want to buy online again.

Garden furniture is the same. The potential for lumpy cushions, rickety chairs, impractically small tables, and parasols that don’t provide adequate shade from the sol is enough to send me in store to check out the goods.

Which is exactly what I did, with chain A.

The illusion of choice

Of course they’d have less stock in store than online, but that was OK. I was sure to find something I liked, and could carry it off in my car. Instant gratification was just a short ride away.

And I did quickly find something I liked: a lovely mosaic table, wrought-iron chairs, and a generous parasol. I even used the in-store WiFi to have a video chat with a friend to get a second opinion. We were both agreed that this patio set with the seductively Italian name was the one for me. So I headed to the customer services desk. 

Naturally, they didn’t have it in stock.

They couldn’t order it in, they told me, for some complex systems-related reason. But I could order online. 

Now sure of my choice, I headed home, went onto their website and found the mosaic marvel. Delivery within 5 days, it said. Which was OK – at least I was sure of getting exactly what I wanted. 

But as I got to the payment step, the delivery window suddenly widened: delivery within 14 days. And when I confirmed payment, the confirmation email had no delivery date at all. Instead, I’d have to contact customer services.

Which is what I did, and they arranged a delivery within nine days. Not ideal, but I accepted that I’d have to wait. 

Then the very next day, I was browsing another website and up popped a targeted advert from Chain A. Summer’s here! it trilled, and invited me to buy garden furniture. The advert showed a really nice set for £100 less than I’d paid. 

So I went back to their site (without clicking on the sponsored ad, I now regret to say) to look at this cheaper offer. It was really attractive, so I checked stock availability at my local store. None. And the next nearest store? Bingo! I reserved it online, and resolved to drive the 15 miles to pick it up. 

Just one thing to do: cancel my online order, which was straightforward enough. And then I drove to the other store, with my reservation printout nestling in my wallet. 

Needless to say, there was a problem. Systems-related, again.

The garden furniture set isn’t actually a set, so the elements are picked by one of the warehouse staff individually. And though I had a confirmed reservation, the very last parasol had been sold earlier that morning.

The customer services lady said she was very sorry, but there was nothing she could do. Unless I wanted her to order in the parasol from the next store along in the chain, which meant I’d have to make another 30-mile round trip to pick it up.

I took a deep breath, smiled weakly and politely declined.  

Chain reaction

So I headed home, and went online again. Chain B caught my eye, with their stylish patio set, priced the same as the parasol-less one, and with next-day delivery. PayPal payment, instant confirmation, order tracking, email, text messages, two-hour delivery window.

Never mind trying before you buy. Chain B was sending out all the right signals, so I clicked buy now without a moment’s hesitation. 

The very next day, five days ahead of the original schedule, my garden furniture arrived. In a kit – that was actually a kit. In a big box, so there was no missing parasol, or missing anything in fact. And with the clearest, most well-written instructions I’ve ever seen. 

This was self-assembly, but not like I’d ever experienced it. In fact, it was so easy, it almost assembled itself.

And the moral of the story? That good service isn’t any one thing, but all the little things. That you either get it or you don’t. That your people and systems are either aligned, or they’re not. That you value your customer, or you don’t.

That you’re either Chain A or Chain B.

Naturally, now that I have my new garden furniture installed, the sun has gone in. So much for the Great British Summer.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying better weather.