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How to create a marketing plan in 15 minutes (or less)

Blitz marketing, lateral thinking and a revolutionary seed-tray

[Image courtesy of Matthew Wynn at Flickr Creative Commons]

In the spirit of New Year, New You (a jaded old cliché, but one that works unfailingly every year – at least for me) I decided to sign up for some courses in early January on Udemy.

One of them was tantalisingly entitled Become a SuperLearner 2: Learn Speed Reading & Boost Memory-learning.

Isn’t that just irresistible?

Not only the promise of reading faster and remembering more, but the reassuring ‘2’, which suggests it’s better than version 1. I signed up immediately, encouraged by the $10 promotional price. It was a no-brainer (so to speak). 

So far, it’s proving very interesting indeed.

I’ve learned how we learn, why we forget, and how we can improve our retention. Plus the importance of creativity, imagination and visual imagery. And I’ve discovered a whole galaxy of memory champs like Joshua Foer (you must watch that TED talk) and Nelson Dellis (thanks to whom I can now name the 10 highest peaks in the world). 

But it’s not all about memorising decks of cards and other party tricks. There’s a serious purpose to all of this, which is to tap into the incredible power of our brain, and use it to the full. Or if not that, at least a little more than we currently do (not 10%, by the way – that myth’s been busted). 

Mind the gap

The SuperLearner course gets you to do all sorts of weird things to expand your mind, so you can step outside the limitations you imagine your brain has. 

Suddenly, I found myself remembering 20 random words, or random images.

Or taking a household object and listing as many uses – practical or zany – as I could think of. I chose a framed print in my living room.

Apparently kids come up on average with 20 uses for any given object. Adults are lucky to think of half that number – unless they ‘unlearn’ what they know and open their minds up to unexpected possibilities.

My list came in at 16, which means I’m more child than adult, I suppose. Or more creative. One of the uses was as a seed tray, as the frame is deep enough to fill it with earth, and germinate flowers. I was particularly proud of that one.

The great thing about all of this mind-bending is that it has a knock-on effect on everything else. Freed from the bounds of conventional thinking, you suddenly start making connections.

And those connections start happening faster.

It helps if you can combine this left-of-field approach with the one-minute rule that I talked about last year. If you can do it right now, in less than one minute, do it. And if you can’t, start anyway and see what happens.

No time like the present

What’s the one thing you’re putting off today? The thing you just know you won’t have accomplished – though you should have – by the end of the day?

Chances are you think you need just a little more: time, reflection, information, feedback, evaluation, research and so on.

You don’t. Because when you’re under pressure, you can produce great things fast. Or even good things fast, which most of the time is perfectly adequate.

Just this week, somebody I often work with asked me if I could contribute to a marketing proposal he was putting together. It would involve branding, design, strategy and content marketing. The thing is, the proposal had to be submitted in a couple of hours, and I was already under pressure on another job. 

My contribution didn’t have to be long, but it did have to add value. It couldn’t just be waffle. 

I grabbed a pen and paper, and went into seed-tray mode.

Fifteen minutes later, I had a top-level marketing outline, with 10 strategies, an activity calendar, and over 20 articles spread across three categories.

When I finished, I looked at this list in wonder and amazement. How had I done that? 

The answer is simple: when you have to, you can. Strip away all external distractions and let your mind run free.

Just like I did with the framed print. It was a fire-guard, a drinks tray, a draught excluder and a sunshade. A fan, a blackout panel, a seat and an umbrella. Not to mention a seed tray.

It may sound like a frivolous exercise, but all this lateral thinking helps you see things differently and come up with truly novel ideas.

Which in marketing terms is pure gold dust.

And what about my super-learning skills? Well I can’t memorise a pack of cards yet, or read read War and Peace in an afternoon. But I can come up with marketing plan (or an outline for one) in under 15 minutes. 

So that was $10 well spent. 

Copywriting and the ever-changing art of web design

Does one size fit all in the age of multiple devices?

[Image courtesy of Jason Weaver Flickr Creative Commons]

I had a very interesting discussion late last year with a web designer friend of mine. He said I was old-fashioned. I said he was jumping on the latest bandwagon, with little thought for the destination.

But it was all good-natured and in the end we actually both conceded that, as with almost everything, there’s no ‘right’ choice.

We were talking about the trend that’s sweeping web design at the moment for long, scrolling pages with big blocks of text and graphics. Instead of having Home/About/How it works/Find out more/Products & Services/Contact links at the top of of your home page, you have sections on one long page.

Some sites even retain those navigation links, but simply take the reader to the relevant section on the same page.

My friend’s argument was that this makes navigation and reading simpler and more straightforward. You reduce the work that visitors have to do, and with fewer distractions, they can focus on the content.

My reservation was – and still is, to a certain extent – that it can be a little overwhelming, and at times feels like those horrible long-sales-copy pages we know and hate (But that’s not all! You’ll also get a FREE e-book worth $199…).

The pros and the cons

Now I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I did decide earlier this month (though not on the first) to let go of what I think I know, and entertain other viewpoints.

After all, if other people believe things as strongly as they do, and as strongly as I do, they must have some basis for it. At least I’d like to think so.

So maybe my natural aversion to long, scrolling pages is a general prejudice based on a few specific examples. Maybe I need to let go of my long-copy preconceptions and see what the advantages of the new layout are.

And I have to admit it – my friend was pretty convincing. He said:

  • It makes browsing easier, with no complicated hierarchy or confusing navigation.
  • It works better across devices, especially tablets and smartphones, which are beginning to dominate the market.
  • It forces you to focus and keep your message simple.
  • Reviewing and updating are much easier, as you don’t have endless pages to trawl through.
  • It can improve your SEO, depending on the focus of the main page (this comes with lots of caveats and qualifications).
  • Conversions can be higher, as you steer prospects to a close with fewer obstacles.
  • Bounce rates are lower, as everything is there on one page, in a sequential, story-like way.
  • It costs less. This is an an advantage for clients, not necessarily for my web designer friend.

So there are some really convincing arguments in favour of pared-down, or even one-page, websites. So what about the arguments against?

Well here are some:

  • They take slightly longer to load, as you’ve put so much on them.
  • If you have a range of products/services/messages, long pages can feel too detail-heavy.
  • If you do have that range, it’s probably better for SEO purposes to have separate, dedicated pages.
  • They don’t work well if you’ve got a blog, as you can’t easily slot it in to a long, scrolling page.
  • If you need to scale – and most companies do eventually – you’ll probably hit an upper limit, where longer is actually too long and you pass the point of diminishing returns.
  • You may have different audiences, so you’re faced with a choice of going generic or sending out mixed messages.

So there are some definite downsides too. But whatever design you opt for, the rules of good copy still apply.

More of the same (only different)

You should chunk your copy into meaningful sections, summarise what you’ve said/are going to say, and organise your content logically.

Every section – just like every page in the old paradigm – should serve a purpose or else it shouldn’t be there.

The great thing abut the new layout is that sections are generally shorter than pages would have been, so you’re forced to be concise and waffle-free.

This new design is bigger, bolder and less detailed. Which means copy is more top-level and needs to get to the point faster. It also has to work with, not against, the design.

And it needs to bear in mind that smartphone and tablet readers are a more impatient bunch, used to the economy of words and ruthless focus that apps give them.

So in the spirit of my New Year’s non-resolution, have I come around to my friend’s way of thinking?

Well I still don’t think there’s a right and a wrong in all of this. Complex, multi-page websites will always be around, and larger organisations will probably never move entirely to the long-page layout. It simply may not make sense for the way they operate. And more importantly, it may not make sense to their visitors.

As always, flexibility is the key – in layout as in everything else.

And as my friend reminded me (as if I needed it) the audience always comes first.

Always.

Three festive lessons you can learn from in 2016

Language wars, simple stories and eternal happiness

Over the Christmas period, I listened to a BBC podcast that made me realise once again just how powerful and subtle language can be.

They were talking about the press coverage of migrants fleeing the Syrian conflict. The presenter was joined by a media commentator who also writes for the Daily Mail, and by the author of a report that says coverage has focused too much on fear of migration and security concerns.

But let’s stop there.

I was immediately struck by the language used. For ‘migration’ has now almost completely replaced the word ‘immigration’.

I can still see my geography teacher all those years ago walking menacingly around the classroom with his cane (this was back in the days of corporal punishment) just waiting to catch somebody out.

But he never caught me out. I knew that immigration was into the country, emigration was out of the country, and migration was within the country.

Except it’s not, any more. Migration is now a catch-all term to describe the movement of people in virtually any direction, whether they have the required travel papers or not.

The reason is quite simple: immigration has become a loaded word, and is verging on the toxic. You can’t use it without dragging some heavy cultural baggage into the conversation.

So just as issue has replaced problem, migration has replaced immigration.

But back to the podcast. The report’s author made her case eloquently and at some length, at which point the presenter asked the media commentator what he thought of her argument.

“Mostly complete rubbish,” he said without a moment’s hesitation.

And so the battle lines were drawn for a heated debate in which neither saw the other’s point of view. She said there was no such thing as ‘illegals’ because people weren’t illegal. He said it was tabloid shorthand for ‘illegal immigrants’ (he didn’t use the word migrant, interestingly), but she still disputed the term.

When the presenter asked her if she accepted that some migration was illegal, she conceded the point. But moved quickly on to thicker ice, and continued her assault.

In the end, neither won the debate, and neither changed their mind. But it was a fascinating example of terminology and ideology.

Lesson 1: Language matters, as it helps you frame the debate. Viewpoint matters, as it dictates how you project yourself.

Yule never walk alone

The second story is actually related to the first, as it again focuses on migration. But this time the setting was Christmas lunch.

Now I know they say you should never discuss sex, politics or religion, but on Christmas Day we managed to cover all three between the prawn cocktail and plum pudding.

At one point, the debate moved inevitably to the EU, and this time to legal immigration (or migration – take your pick) from east to west.

I’d recently read an article that said there were 850,000 Poles now in the UK, most of whom had come since the expansion of the European Union in 2004. If you add to that number the people who’ve come from other former Eastern-bloc countries, you’re probably looking at 1.5 million. 

That inevitably affects public services, I said. Hospitals, schools, doctors, dentists. Even the number of cars on the road and people on the Tube. To pretend otherwise would be to deny reality. I wasn’t saying it was a good or bad thing, but simply pointing out that it’s unprecedented and unplanned-for.

“I like Poles,” said one person round the table.

I stared in disbelief, and with a sudden sense of unease. Was I being cast in the role of Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen? I backtracked, saying that I wasn’t talking about Poles, but about numbers. We could be talking about Martians. 

But the debate was derailed.

Why? Because simple trumps complicated. When I said that most new arrivals were in their 20s but most of those departing the UK were of retirement age, somebody else said, “That’s perfect. We ship out all our old people, and get young people in to contribute to the system.”

“And when those young people are old in 40 years’ time? Who pays their pensions?” said somebody else. “Aren’t you just kicking the can down the road?”

“I still like Poles”, said the first person.

Lesson 2: people like a simple story. Don’t complicate yours.

Shiny happy people

The third lesson is one that I’m still learning. And it comes courtesy of a friend whom I visited just before Christmas.

Scanning the shelves in his living room, I spotted a book that immediately caught my attention. The Happiness Trap, it was called. The subheading was ‘Stop struggling and start living’.

“That looks interesting,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he replied, “a friend of mine read it and now he’s buying it for everybody. He said it changed his life and he wants all his friends to have it.”

He hadn’t read it, he said. Slightly glumly, I thought, so maybe he’d fallen into the trap.

I was intrigued, and later downloaded a sample of the e-book. I was so hooked I subsequently purchased the full title.

As a serial self-helper, I can tell you that it’s absolutely compelling. Its central premise is that all other self-help books having actually been making people miserable over the years by forcing them to chase happiness. Forcing them to banish negative thoughts and feelings, and think themselves happy.

True happiness, it says, comes from just acknowledging those negative thoughts and making space for them. Perhaps even from naming them (“Aha. This is the ‘I’m a failure’ thought.”) and seeing what happens.

One exercise gets you to take a negative thought and sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday. You’d be surprised how quickly it defuses that thought and makes it sound ridiculous.

As I read on, I realised that all of this isn’t just applicable to our personal lives. It’s equally true of all our marketing efforts.

My website isn’t good enough/my campaign is full of flaws/they’ll know I’m a fake/the competition does this way better/I’ll never succeed in a crowded market place/my copy will never be perfect.

Those are just some of the things that we all say to ourselves now and then. And chasing those thoughts away just make them come back boomerang-style. It’s better simply to live with the uncertainty, accept that nothing’s ever perfect and move on to the next project.

Lesson 3: stop chasing happiness – aka perfection. Good enough is good enough.

Happy New Year (but not a trappy one).

Is the 'cult of likeability' damaging your marketing?

Peer pressure, virtuous robots and the reputation economy

[Image courtesy of Facebook(Let) at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently read an article by Brett Easton Ellis that set me thinking about the social world we live in and the effect it has on how we communicate in business. 

Ellis, you may remember, shot to fame back in the 1980s at the tender age of 21 with his international best-seller Less Than Zero, chronicling the lives of privileged youngsters in LA. But he’s best remembered for the cult novel American Psycho, which came out in 1991. 

He’s no stranger to controversy and has been familiar with the concept of ‘reputation economy’ since before the term was even coined.

But now, he says, the whole thing has gone too far. Everybody is rating everybody and everything, so we’ve all become reviewers.

That might sound like a good thing – crowd-sourced opinion is probably more reliable than marketing messages, after all – until you realise that it’s a two-way street. When reviewers are being reviewed themselves (think Airbnb) they’re less likely to say anything negative. 

Or Ellis puts it, “Now all of us are used to rating movies, restaurants, books, even doctors, and we give out mostly positive reviews because, really, who wants to look like a hater?”

Not me, that’s for sure. 

So instead, we become ‘virtuous robots’ who ‘Like’ everything, for fear of being branded negative – or even reviewed unfavourably ourselves.

If you’re a Facebook user, even an occasional one like me, you’ll have experienced the pressure to be positive about everything. Even Facebook themselves realised that a ‘Dislike’ button would be counter-productive and sow discord among users, so they quietly dropped the idea. 

The result is a bland rush to the bottom, as everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the Like stakes. So what started out as something positive ends up just a saccharine mess of sweet platitudes guaranteed not to get us into trouble. 

Dare to be different

All of this has a direct effect on how organisations interact with their customers. And on how they communicate with them. Just as people don’t want to be seen as haters, or even mildly negative, so companies want to be seen as the good guys.

So they play it safe by playing the game. 

The thing is, that makes it very difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you’re going to innovate, you need to make mistakes. But then you run the risk of not being liked – or worse, not being Liked.

Ellis says the reputation economy’s real crime is “stamping out passion” and “stamping out the individual”. The same is true of corporate passion and corporate individuality. 

Because making mistakes can often be hugely positive. Another article I came across this week at Lifehacker.com confirmed this idea, this time in connection with a summer programming course:

By the end of the summer, the stronger students were those who had made more mistakes: they’d tried more things, compiled more bad code, hit more runtime errors, and confused the REPL more soundly.

REPL just stands for read-eval-print loop, by the way. It allows you to check a chunk of code to see if it’s OK or needs revising.

The point here is that the ones who tried hardest made the most mistakes – and the most progress. Just imagine if there had been a ‘Like’ button at each stage of their journey. Or reviewers constantly picking apart their efforts and rating it out of five stars. 

Treading a fine line

Now I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind here and put out any old message written any old way. But there’s a huge pressure when to marketing to be like everybody else. And that in part is driven by the tyranny of the ‘Like’ button. And for marketers, it means we: 

  • don’t do anything controversial
  • hide our weaknesses, or play them down
  • pretend we can do everything (even when we can’t, and shouldn’t even try to)
  • over-promise and inevitably under-deliver
  • use bland language, devoid of any passion 
  • don’t demarcate ourselves from the competition

The most important one, of course, is the last.

Because in a market where price and product – and sometimes service – have become commoditised, setting yourself apart is no easy task. You have to dare not to be liked, and that takes guts. 

To take a current example, just look at Donald Trump.

His hugely controversial comments have brought a chorus of disapproval from the political class, press and bloggerati across the globe. And you know what? He doesn’t care. He’s raised issues – albeit in an outrageous way – that have touched a nerve with people. He can’t be dismissed as a complete irrelevance, as he’s streaking ahead in the polls. 

And he more he’s criticised, and the more he responds, the higher his poll ratings go. He’s blind-sided his opponents, who don’t know how to handle the political hot potato he’s lobbed their way.

Now we can’t – and shouldn’t – all go shooting our mouths off and offending people across the globe, but we might just think what positive take-aways there are in this mostly negative story.

And here, I think it’s that if you really, truly believe something, you should just go ahead and say it. (It does help if you’re armour-plated by unimaginable wealth, but all the same, the principle still stands if you’re an ordinary mortal.)

Winners and losers

So are there any upsides to the reputation economy? Of course there are. Not everything is as black-and-white as Donald might imagine. Here are some:

  • Companies become accountable to their customers.
  • Bad service is exposed and eliminated.
  • Standards are inexorably forced up.
  • Openness and transparency become integral to business.
  • Potential customers can get a balanced, impartial view of companies, products and services.

But the cult of Liking shouldn’t stop you daring to be different. You don’t need to do a Donald, but you might consider revisiting your marketing communications to:

  • Modify your tone of voice so you sound distinctive and stand out from the crowd.
  • Experiment with new channels and new approaches.
  • Admit your weaknesses upfront (“we do this really badly, but we do that really well…”).
  • Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time by staying firmly in the middle ground.
  • Narrow your focus to talk directly to your prospects or…
  • … expand your focus to talk to new people.
  • Do something without constantly worrying what the reaction/reception will be.

Once upon a time, I went on a course, the content of which has slipped through the sieve of my mind, all except for one frightening and thrilling challenge

Do something every day that scares you.

In other words, push back the boundaries and live dangerously. It’s something we should all try now and then – whether we ‘Like’ it or not. 

Merry Christmas.

10 tips to make your writing better (and your readers happier)

Saying what you mean, assuming nothing, and learning from others

Last weekend, I was in London and saw this poster at King’s Cross underground station.

I was walking along the platform left to right as you look at the poster. So the first thing I saw was not the logo or the tagline, but the copy on the left: My home helps fund my startup.

I was confused. I vaguely registered ‘Camden’ in the next line, and was left with the impression that home helps (i.e. people who are paid for by the local council to assist with household chores) were funding this woman’s startup.

How very generous of Camden Council, I thought. But that was just for a second.

I read on, saw the URL, doubled back and a light-bulb of comprehension flickered on. What they meant was: My home helps to fund my startup. 

The addition of the word ‘to’ would have avoided any ambiguity, and prevented me – and many others, I imagine – having to re-read the copy to make sense of it. With the word help, it’s optional – but advisable here to avoid misunderstanding.

It’s so easy to develop blind spots when it comes to our writing. We know what we mean, so we assume that readers will too. But often, as I was on the platform of the westbound Piccadilly line, they’re left scratching their heads.

So here’s Tip number 1never make a reader double-back. Make sure they get it the first time round. Because there might not be a second time. 

Here are my other top tips (learned through years of trial and error – lots of error, but then see tip 10): 

  1. Avoid jargon. If your readers are not in the know, then don’t pepper your copy with technical terms, acronyms and buzzwords they’ll struggle to understand. If you must use them, then explain them clearly and quickly. The last thing you want to do is alienate a reader by making them feel ignorant.
  2. Use jargon – if you’re talking to an audience who expects to see it. If they’re part of a closed circle (developers, accountants, gamers, techies) they’ll have no problem navigating a sea of specialised terminology. And it may be vital to establishing your credentials and credibility with your target audience. 
  3. Take it one step at a time. Many years ago, my parents assembled a greenhouse from a flat-pack kit. At the end of the day, we stood back to admire our handiwork, only to realise with mounting horror that it was completely askew. Yet we’d followed the instructions to the letter. When we reviewed those instructions the next morning, we saw that some steps had been omitted and others were ambiguous. All of which led us astray. So make sure you don’t end up with the copy equivalent a wonky greenhouse. Assume nothing. Proceed one step at a time. 
  4. Don’t imagine everybody sees it your way. Recently, a client asked me if I could replace the term ‘IT’, which I’d used to reduce the repetition of ‘technology’ elsewhere. To him ‘IT’ was computer repairs, cabling and configuration. To me it was interchangeable with technology – as it was to another client a few months back, who hadn’t batted an eyelid at the use. But it was this latest client’s audience that mattered, nothing else. What you write isn’t necessarily what I read and understand. And vice versa. So always remember the reader, and see it their way – if you can.
  5. If you promise, make sure to deliver. I bet you’ve clicked on a search-result listing recently and landed on a page that didn’t follow through on the promise of the link. It happens all the time with link bait, of course, but also with genuine content. The headline should accurately represent what you’re talking about. It should grab readers, pull them in, make them read more and give them what it promised. Then, you can get them to take action. Give first, take later. 
  6. Do it fast. Made it this far? Frankly, I’m surprised. As I’m sure Farhad Manjoo would be. In 2013, he analysed people’s behaviour on Slate magazine. 38% opened an article and didn’t read it at all. Of those who did actually read it, only 25% got to the end. And 5% of people read the headline and clicked away. The message is simple: make your point fast, and move on.
  7. Cut everything in half. Recently, I had a briefing call on a straightforward piece of copy. It took an hour, and even then we almost ran overtime.  Later that week, the client and I had another call on a much meatier piece, but we only had 30 minutes because of scheduling clashes. And you know what? We achieved more in less time on a far more complicated topic. Because we had to. Because there was no choice. So cut meeting times in half, cut copy in half, cut the detail in half. You’ll end up with a sharper, more focused message that does a better job in less time. 
  8. Get to the point quickly. Google just about anything (How do I stop my iPad photos syncing with Google Photos? was a recent frustrating example for me) and you’ll find endless waffly articles that take ages to let you know they’re not actually what you’re looking for. You’re still struggling through the big-picture intro when you should be getting the low-down on what you searched for. So write like a busy, impatient reader and cut the waffle.

Tip number 10 is a great one that applies to anything, but which struck me as particularly relevant when it comes to writing. It’s courtesy of my daily inspirational email from Arina over at Seven QuotesIt is necessary for us to learn from others’ mistakes. You will not live long enough to make them all yourself.

Yes, it’s amusing, but there’s also a serious point: whenever you read, look out for those errors, and make sure you don’t repeat them. It’ll save your readers unnecessary effort, and help you get the message across quickly and effectively.

And it’ll also save those hard-working home helps beavering away in a North London kitchen.

Which can’t be a bad thing.