Brand journalism, content marketing and storytelling

Why everything has changed, and nothing has. And why that’s good news.

[Image courtesy of Khalid Albaih at Flickr Creative Commons]

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of the moon, or in a cave somewhere, you can’t have failed to notice a seismic shift in the world of marketing over the last few years.

New terms have been coined, and they’re on everybody’s lips. Have you got into native advertising yet? If not, perhaps you should, since that’s the way everybody seems to be going.

Put simply, it’s advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. So it’s not in a display box, around which everything else flows. Instead, it gets right into the flow of things, and blurs the line between fact and faction.

We should be used to that by now.

After all, every time we do a Google search, we see sponsored ads either across the top or down the side of our search results.

It’s obvious that they’re ads, say Google. But is it? Many of the people I speak to say they had no idea it was an advert that led them to me.

But at least those Adwords ads do actually have a (small, admittedly) tag that says Ads. Native advertising takes this to a whole new level, slipping incognito into mainstream copy.

Next time you take a look at any newspaper site, cast your eye to the right-hand side, or below the article you’re reading. For that’s where you’ll see native advertising. Or brand journalism, which used to be known as advertorial, but sounds an awful lot more respectable under its new title.

Now you see it

So what is this seismic shift that’s taken place in the world of marketing? Why are ads no longer working? What changed?

We did. That’s the simple answer.

Cast you mind back 20 years (if you’re old enough – if you’re not, stay with me and you’ll learn something) and we were all sitting there like empty vessels, just waiting to be filled by advertising. Two-way communication was simply impossible, and joining the conversation was unheard of.

And then it all changed. It was back in 1995 that I remember an email plopping in to my In Box – from Bill Gates. Oh my God, I thought. I’ve only been at Microsoft five minutes, and here’s an email from Him.

And it was from Him, but it wasn’t just to me.

It was to all the tens of thousands of other Microsofties, telling us that we needed to get with the programme. The Internet Tidal Wave was the title of the message. Either we rode the wave, or we drowned. So ride it we did.

And when the wave broke on the shore, it changed everything. Not instantly, though, which made it even harder to notice the change.

But change there was.

Gone was the stuck-on-transmit approach to advertising and marketing. Now, it was conversations, collaboration and Web 2.0. And marketing that didn’t look like marketing. Advertising that didn’t look like advertising. And the word content would never be the same again. Not to mention storytelling.

Back to the future

The thing is, none of this should be a surprise to us. From time immemorial, we’ve been attracted to stories and fascinated by learning new things. By finding out facts and making discoveries. By identifying with the people in the stories we read, and by feeling involved.

So it’s hardly unexpected that advertising and marketing should move in this direction. The crude, standing-on-a-soapbox, megaphone-in-hand approach no longer works when you’re selling to sophisticated consumers – or savvy businesses.

They want to be part of the process, and get involved in the discussion. They want to learn something new, and feel as if you haven’t wasted their time.

So whether it’s a thought piece lurking on the edge of a newspaper site, or a podcast discussing the latest trends, a blog post that pulls them in and entertains or an e-book they share with friends or colleagues, value, interest and quality are the cornerstones.

In the digital age, everything changes but nothing does really. Whether it’s content marketing, brand journalism or native advertising, we’re talking about telling a story and getting back to basics.

None of this should surprise us. What is surprising is that we took so long to get here.

And now that we are here, as Bill said way back when, it’s time to get with the programme. So what’s your game plan?

Do passion and business really mix?

Getting up close and personal can have its downsides


[Image courtesy of Jacinta Lluch Valero at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve recently finished a thought-provoking book by Sir Ken Robinson.

He’s a British author, speaker and education advisor whose TED talk How Schools Kill Creativity I’ve recommended before. (If you haven’t seen it, you should – you’ll be one of a select group of over 31 million who’ve done so.)

Appropriately enough, as we head towards St Valentine’s Day, the book is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

The title says it all really. It’s about doing the thing you love, and how identifying that thing isn’t always easy. But it’s worth taking the time to find it, as it’ll ignite your passion and transform your life.

Don’t you love a story with a happy ending?

There are many inspiring stories, from John Lennon to Richard Branson. And if you’re saying ‘yes, but they were great talents waiting to emerge’, then Robinson heads you off at the pass by pointing out that for many of these people, there were nothing but obstacles along the way.

It’s only because we know that they were subsequently successful that we retrospectively see the signs. But at the time, it could have gone either way.

As Robinson says, there are lots of passionate people out there who never make anything of their passion. And others, who through sheer dogged determination, push mediocrity to the outer reaches of success.

How many people can you think of offhand who’ve made it but aren’t very good? (Go on, admit it, you do think that sometimes.)

Burning desire

But back to passion. Does it play a role in business? Should it be top of mind when you’re writing copy and designing marketing campaigns? Should you put your heart and soul into everything you do?

Let’s just take a quick look at the case for and against. First, for:

  • It keeps you interested and engaged.
  • That enthusiasm shines through in everything you produce.
  • It gives you an air of confidence and certainty.
  • You’re in ‘the zone’ so you’re more focused and sharper.
  • It gets your imagination going and fires your creativity.
  • You’re likely to stick at it for longer, as it’s something you hold dear.

And against?

  • Passion can cloud your judgement and make you take the wrong decision.
  • Everything is personal, from victories to defeats.
  • What you do and what you say are intimately tied up with who you are, so you’re exposing yourself to judgement, and possibly ridicule, every day.
  • It can lead you to say things that are inappropriate in a business context.
  • Passion doesn’t last forever.

From a copywriting perspective, passion has its place. I’m constantly reminding people that they’re writing for other people, so they need to connect with them. And that means putting feeling – and yes, passion – into their writing.

But no too much.

As with everything else, you need to exercise moderation. Too much passion in your writing will make it feel like being with somebody who inappropriately reveals lots of personal information on a first encounter. Who’s emotionally incontinent and can’t stop telling you  how they feel and what’s going through their mind.

Remember, this is business communication, not an affair. And your reader is not your new best friend. So get up close and personal, and let people see that you’re enthusiastic, engaged and confident. But always make sure you control and manage the message. Everything should be thought through and planned.

So passion, yes. But in a controlled, measured and… dispassionate way.

Find out more:

5 tips for responding to negative criticism

Grace under fire isn’t always easy – but it’s essential in today’s social world

[Image courtesy of Celestine Chua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently used a well-known holiday accommodation site for the first time. It has properties all around the world, from a simple spare bedroom in somebody’s home to an entire apartment or house.

And of course in the age of Holiday 2.0, guests rate the properties, and the owners… well they don’t go as far as giving stars out of five for the guests, but they can leave feedback about their overall impression. And they have the right to respond to negative criticism.

Several things struck me.

First, negative reviews outweigh positive ones. This is a well-known phenomenon, and I’ve touched on it here before. In fact a study showed some years back that one negative review carries the weight of 10 positive reviews.


Because it’s perceived as honest and realistic, in a world where review inflation is rampant. And where fear of reprisal encourages people to reach for the stars – all five of them.

And so it was with the search for my dream holiday apartment. 10 perfect reviews were outweighed by a single less-than-perfect one. ‘Watch out for the noise in summer’ influenced my decision, even in the depths of winter.

The good, the bad and the ugly

But what really struck me were the owners’ varying approaches to reviews. There were two properties in particular that attracted my attention.

The owner of the first responded to virtually all reviews, thanking those guests who were positive, and appeasing those who were negative. Her language was measured, calm and can-do. She came across as a warm, friendly, reasonable person who would sort problems out quickly and efficiently.

And even when a reviewer left an ill-tempered, nasty review, she responded with grace and aplomb. She was a shining example of how to handle criticism, and how to take the rough with the smooth.

The second owner was completely the opposite. She didn’t bother responding to positive comments, but zeroed in on the negative ones with deadly accuracy. She responded to negativity with negativity, and adopted a snide, self-righteous and pompous tone.

The thing is, the negative criticism was no worse than for the first owner. It was the way she reacted that really set her apart. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, she simply made it worse, drawing attention to the defects of the property – and herself.

So in this 24-hour, always-on social world, how should you deal with criticism? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. React quickly and positively. Don’t just let a criticism sit there. Get in fast, control the conversation and manage the message. Criticism always hurts, especially if you think you’re doing a really good job, but that shouldn’t stop you moving forward and focusing on solutions.
  2. Never denigrate the criticiser. A negative response is worse than none at all. Maintain the moral high ground, and never respond in kind to somebody who’s negative. Instead, why not ask for suggestions for improvement and engage the criticiser?
  3. Mind your language. Keep it positive, upbeat and friendly. Remember the first rule of copywriting: write as you talk. So don’t go all stiff and formal, if that’s not how you speak in person. Instead, adopt a conversational tone that clearly shows you’re a reasonable person who’s easy to deal with.
  4. Don’t take it personally – even if it’s personal. Remember that all opinions are subjective – including yours. And in our virtual world, people say things online that they’d never say to your face. They can be extreme because they don’t have to feel any embarrassment or emotion. So take the same approach, distance yourself from the criticism, and think about how to turn the situation around.
  5. Remember the audience. In the digital world, the line between private and public is blurred. You’re not talking directly to the client any more. You’re potentially talking to the world – and the competition is watching too. So weigh every word before you respond, and remember that each one affects your company image and your brand.

I’ve now completed the feedback for my weekend stay. Apparently neither the owner nor guest can see feedback until they’ve both submitted it. That way, neither one has the advantage of knowing what’s been said about them, making the whole process more honest and transparent.

I rated the property very highly, and the owner too. I haven’t yet checked back to see if he’s rated me.  I’m sure I’m a model guest, but then as I said, all opinions are subjective.

Perhaps I’ll give it another day. Or two.

Can you be funny in serious business copy? Yes, but...

Humour can be a minefield. Make sure you tread carefully.

I’m a big advocate of humour in copywriting. It shows that there’s a real person behind your business, that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and that you’re not afraid to let your guard down with your customer or prospect.

Connecting through the written word is no different to being with somebody in a social situation: you send out signals about what type of person you are what it’s like to deal with you. But you do need to exercise your judgement when it comes to humour. It should be really obvious that it is humour – otherwise, it’s likely to be taken the wrong way.

I was reminded of this recently by two things. The first was a sign I saw on the Paris metro :

It tells passengers not to board when the closing signal has sounded – otherwise, they could get hurt. And in fact, I saw this very thing happen, when a middle-aged woman tried to win a race with the closing doors. She lost, and ended up on the flat of her back on the platform, surrounded by concerned onlookers.

The important thing here is that the signals are clear. The cartoon rabbit sets the tone, and the use of the familiar French tu (instead of the more formal vous) shows that they’re taking a less-than-serious approach to a very serious question.

They’ve used the rabbit for years on the Paris metro. I remember another sign saying the same thing, warning that you could get your pattes (paws) caught in the door. Funny, charming – and effective.

Some you win…

The second example of humour was mine. Except in this case, it had less success than our bobtail friend.

I sent an email to a business acquaintance – not a friend, exactly, but not a stranger either. I’d met him in a social setting, and I thought we were on the same wavelength humour-wise.

But when it comes to humour, you can never be entirely sure. Which is why it’s always wise to err on the side of caution.

In this case, I should probably have put an emoticon to make it absolutely obvious that I was trying to be funny. But I didn’t, as I have innate reaction against unnecessary punctuation. If the words can’t tell the story and convey the tone, I say to myself, then you need to find other ones.

Except sometimes, you don’t.

And perfectionism – the search for the perfect word, phrase or tone of voice – is a failing like any other. Sometimes, you just need to bite the bullet and put in that exclamation mark or smiley. The belt-and-braces approach makes sure that your message comes out the other end as you intended it at your end.

And in my case, it didn’t. It took quite a lot of back-pedalling and borderline grovelling to rescue the situation. And all because I’m a stickler for grammar and the written word. As a former English teacher used to say to me, ‘when you know the rules, you can break them’.

I do, but I didn’t. My bad, as they say.

Handle with care

So what are the rules when it comes to humour? The bottom line is that there are none. Humour is entirely subjective, and what makes one person laugh can make another cringe – or worse.

The safest rule of thumb is to laugh at your own expense. Don’t make fun of your clients, prospects or competition –  especially not the competition, counter-intuitive as it sounds. That makes you appear defensive and insecure.

So laugh at yourself, and don’t spare your blushes. Keep it clean, make it obvious and don’t lay it on too thick. As with all things, moderation is the key.

And, unlike me, remember that rules are made to be broken. But do take the time to learn them first.

Top 5 New Year's copy resolutions

Spring cleaning in winter, planning ahead and just doing it…

[Image courtesy of bibliojojo at Flickr Creative Commons]

It’s that time of year again when the festivities are drawing to a close, the scales tell a sorry story of a few extra pounds or kilos, and the bank balance is considerably lighter than it was a mere two weeks ago.

It’s also when people decide they’re going to use that gym membership, learn Spanish, simplify their life or visit that must-see-before-you-die location. And if you’re going to use the New Year new broom to sweep clean your personal life, why not use it to dust off your copy too?

Here, in no particular order, are some ideas that might get you thinking about saying it – and writing it – better in 2015:

  1. Revisit old copy. This is especially relevant when it comes to websites, where copy has an extremely long shelf life. I often speak to clients who say they’re going to put up copy ‘for a year or so’ and will then expand/revise/review it. And guess what? They rarely do. It’s not their fault, and it’s not a criticism – it’s the nature of business. Resolutionsee what’s out there and make an inventory of it. If it needs changing, change it.
  2. Create a copy schedule. It’s the beginning of a new year, so why not take a new approach to your communication strategy? What are you going to be talking about on your blog in April? What direct mail campaigns will you be running throughout the year? Email marketing? Adverts? Don’t leave it all to the last minute, or leave yourself insufficient time. Resolution: Plan ahead – it’s always more upfront effort, but frees up time down the line, and gives you the peace of mind of knowing what’s coming next.
  3. Stop procrastinating. And yes, I know that’s general advice that’s applicable to almost any scenario, but it’s equally applicable to your copy. Stop and think for a moment: there’s something you’ve been putting off for a long time, isn’t there? Something that’s too much effort, that seems too difficult, or where you can’t even see how to begin? Resolution: just make a start. Never mind if you don’t know how it ends. The simple fact of making a start – any start – will make the process easier.
  4. Ask for those case studies/testimonials. This is related to the last point, because everybody I’ve ever worked for has a plan on the back-burner to ask clients for testimonial quotes. And they’re also going to – one day, sometime in the future – get down to writing those case studies. Resolution: make that day today. Or at the very least, a day this year. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold, as they’re somehow perceived to be more credible and trustworthy. Likewise case studies, which have the added benefit that they usually describe  a scenario that the reader can identify with.
  5. Cut it down (and take a break). This is an eternal resolution, and one that I can’t stress enough. I always start off with a lot more copy than I end up with. It’s the nature of the game, so don’t fight it. The first draft will always be wordy and include too much detail. Leave it overnight, or over the weekend, or the holidays. When you come back to it, you’ll soon see what needs cutting. Resolution: Don’t just cut – pare it back to the absolute essentials. Be ruthless, and write like an impatient reader (which is just about everybody nowadays).

There was a sixth resolution (Always focus on the benefits) but you know what? Five is a magic number, and six isn’t. And in any case, I don’t need to explain that one, apart from saying this: benefits = client, features = you.  That’s an equation that everybody can work out, and one you should apply to all copy.

Happy New Year.