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Never mind getting to 'yes' - try getting to 'no' instead

How you find out what you like by knowing what you don’t

[Image courtesy of Henry Burrows at Flickr Creative Commons]

Wouldn’t the world be a very dull place if everybody agreed with you?

The older I get, the more I realise that it’s important to focus on the things that matter. To accept that other people don’t necessarily see the world as you do, and that you’re on a hiding to nothing if you try to win them over.

Over the weekend, I was talking to a friend about a book we’d both read. He’d loved it, but I had some reservations about the style: in my view, a first-person narrator who wrote so lyrically about his experiences wouldn’t make random grammatical mistakes.

What I thought we were actually seeing was an author attempting to rework his eloquent prose so it had a few hiccups here and there. He ain’t, he don’t, they done.

Not consistently, mind you – almost as if he’d done a search and replace, and had decided on a light sprinkling of colloquial speech to make it feel a bit more authentic.

Except for me, it didn’t. And my friend? He was having none of it. The book was a masterpiece of storytelling, handled with a deft touch. Pitch perfect, he said.

So we agreed to disagree. 

Likes and dislikes

Knowing what you like – and more importantly, what you don’t like – is a valuable way to save time and focus your efforts.

So I might choose not to read a book by the same author, or eat snails a second time (a French friend has just offered to cook them for me, which will be a first). 

Knowing what doesn’t appeal moves you – and me – closer to what does. But it’s peculiar then that what works in our personal lives often doesn’t translate to our professional ones. 

Because by identifying what you don’t  like or what you’re business isn’t trying to do, you move a step closer to eliminating the time-wasting, soul-destroying job of chasing leads and pursuing directions that are taking you nowhere.

Something I often ask my clients is what their ideal customer would look like if they walked through the door. Their character traits, their company profile, where they are in the decision-making process, what they already have in place, who else they’re looking at, and why they walked through the door in the first place.

And it’s all very useful as it helps us both to focus on the target audience with more precision.

But an equally useful exercise is to identify the customer or prospect who’s at the opposite end of the scale. Because if it’s true that 80% of your conversions come from 20% of your prospects, then it’s worth taking the time to recognise what the majority looks like – so you can focus on that lucrative minority.

Say hello the anti-client

So recently, I’ve been asking people what their anti-client would look like. Company size, budget, current setup, decision-making process, sector and barriers to sale. 

It’s really useful because it enables us to eliminate people who just aren’t going to respond the message we’re sending out. It helps me focus the copy on the people who will respond, and it helps them recognise the warning signs when they’re dealing with prospects. 

Saying no is often very hard, but if you know why you’re doing it, it becomes much easier.

Recently, I read a book on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and got some great tips on how to handle and reframe the emotions and reactions we feel.

One was to examine whether feeling something negative (anger, shame, resentment) helps advance you towards your goal. Mostly, the answer is no. So it’s best to move on from it and focus on something that does advance you towards you goal.

The same, I think, applies to directly to sales and marketing. Does this activity or communication piece advance me towards my goal? If not, scrap it. 

From no to yes

So it’s worth asking yourself some tough questions: 

  • What’s the opportunity cost of focusing on the 80% who don’t actually give you business?
  • Which prospects (or even clients) can you afford to lose or alienate if you put a stake in the ground? 
  • If your time, budget and resources were slashed, who and what would become your top priority? And why are you not prioritising them now?
  • What do you want your brand messaging not to be? What sector of the market do you not want to appeal to? 
  • If you suddenly had to cut your website in half, which pages would you and your audience not miss?
  • If you could only talk about half (or, given the ubiquity of the Pareto principle, just 20%) of your products or services, which ones would you not choose? 

Ironically, far from being negative, this ‘getting to no’ approach has a very positive result.

Having recently disposed of books, clothes and other ‘invaluable’ objects, I can highly recommend the process of dejunking. And this is nothing more than dejunking for your business.

You’ll end up knowing what you really value, and what you can’t do without. And in my case, that doesn’t include the book my friend was raving about.

But then, he don’t need to know – and I ain’t gonna to tell him. 

Why framing the message makes all the difference

Tell people what to see – and they’ll see it

User-generated content

I was chatting a few months back with a recruiter chum of mine.

He was complaining that an ex-colleague of his (they both subsequently set up on their own) has a much higher interview hit rate after sending a CV.

For him, it’s one in five. For her, it’s closer to one in two.

And yet they’re both operating in the same market, with mostly the same clients, and the same pool of candidates. So what’s the secret of her success?

It turns out that it’s something really simple: she’s framing the story and setting expectations.

So when she sells a job to a candidate, she highlights why it’s a good match and how it’ll advance them along their career path. Which she already knows because she’s quizzed them in depth, and taken lots of notes. 

And when she’s presenting candidates to clients, she does exactly the same. Not only does she write a short overview at the beginning of the CV, but she also includes a few lines in her covering email to reinforce the message.

That’s a crucial step, because she knows from experience that the CV will be forwarded internally to everybody involved in the hiring process.

So if she simply writes ‘CV as discussed’ or ‘here’s that candidate we talked about’, it only makes sense to the original recipient. The framing email makes sure that subsequent recipients are sufficiently interested to click on the attachment and check out the candidate in detail.

She continues this approach throughout the interview process, filtering feedback and handling queries quickly and efficiently, so neither side is left wondering what the other is thinking. 

What she’s doing is carefully managing the message to ensure that candidate and client share her vision. Because without that, they’d see things very differently.

In vino veritas

In an age of knee-jerk TLDR, those who get to the point fast get heard first. And when they’re talking about a complex subject – from the relative merits of job seekers to the intricacies of leaving the European Union – if they simplify the message and summarise the pitch, we pay attention.

The fact is, most of the time we don’t really know what to think, so we look for clues to help us out: usually something we can relate to a previous experience that’s comparable. And in that, we’re heavily influenced (and easily swayed) by what we think we see.

In a now-famous experiment back in 2001, Frédéric Brochet, a PhD candidate at the University of Bordeaux, organised an experiment among 54 oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me). The 27 men and 27 women were asked to taste a white wine and a red wine and describe them. 

The white wine inspired words such as “floral”, “honey”, “peach” and “lemon” – much as you might expect. And the red wine tasted of “raspberry”, “cherry”, “cedar” and “chicory”.

A week later, he brought the group back and carried out a similar exercise. Except that this time, both wines were actually same white wine used the previous week, but one was dyed with red food colouring. 

The result was an eye-opener: the red was described in just the same terms as in the first experiment. Not one single wine expert realised they were actually drinking white wine. 

It’s not surprising, really. We see what we expect to see, and are influenced by visual cues. 

Other experiments have been carried out with very similar results.

People can’t tell a cheap wine from an expensive one when the bottles are switched. In one Dutch study, people were told they were going to watch a programme on an HD television, though it was actually SD.  They subsequently marvelled at the crisp, high-definition images.

And microwaved meals served in an upmarket restaurant on china plates with fancy cutlery had people thinking they were eating cordon bleu cuisine. 

Welcome to my world

So the message is clear: we humans are very easily influenced, and faced with complex situation, we fall back on simple indicators. We see what we think we’re seeing. We taste what we think we’re tasting. 

And we read what the writer wants us to.

Which is why it’s really important that you’re on top of the message, and guiding the reader gently to the point where you want them to be. 

So what could you frame better? Could you nudge people further along the sales cycle? Encourage more signups to your newsletter, blog or marketing programme by stressing the benefits? Rewrite that web page or email so it’s more on-message? 

My friend reluctantly admitted that his competitor (and occasional collaborator, as they swap candidates and share placements) was on to something with her at-a-glance emails and snappy summaries. So he’s taken a leaf out of her book, and has recently been polishing his prose and framing everything that moves. 

And already, it’s paying off – his hit rate is now one in three. 

His friend had better watch out. 

Are you making the most of user-generated content?

Sit back and let your users do the talking

User-generated content

Just the other day, I noticed something odd at my gym: a large, rectangular piece of white card, with the centre cut out. It was placed on the wall-to-wall mirrors by the stretching mats. 

It looked like a frame – and as I got closer, I realised that’s just what it was. Branded with the PureGym logo, it had motivational messages and a cut-out on the side of ams with flexed biceps.

But it wasn’t until I saw a hashtag that the penny dropped. I was supposed to take a selfie in the mirror, surrounded by the frame, and post it on Twitter.

The problem is, I’m one of those rare individuals who don’t take their phone into the gym. When I work out, I prefer to do it uninterrupted by WhatsApp, email and all the other digital disruptors.

I did once take my phone with me to listen to music while I exercised, but realised to my horror when I got home how high the volume had been to drown out the already-blaring music in the gym.

So in the locker it stays.

It’s content – but not as we know it

PureGym, like so many other brands nowadays, has jumped on the UGC bandwagon.

User-generated content is all the rage at the moment – and for good reason. It’s free, there’s an almost limitless supply, and it’s perceived as being more trustworthy. 

That last one is probably the most important. In a digital world of low trust and overblown promises, companies are trying to adopt a softer approach. UGC helps them be less salesy, and brings with it two vital ingredients: authenticity and transparency. 

The fact of the matter is that if you blow your own trumpet, it’s not nearly as believable as if somebody else does it for you.

And the younger the audience, the truer that is. 86% of Millennials say that user-generated content is ‘generally a good indicator of the quality of a brand, service or product’. 

Share and share alike

UGC is all about making a connection, with companies and with each other. It’s about creating a sense of community and shared experience. 

And it works.

When Starbucks launched its White Cup Contest back in 2014, encouraging people to doodle on their cups and post photos, they received over 4,000 entries and generated lots of social media activity.

Coke did the same thing with Share a Coke back in 2013/14, with personalised bottles that got people snapping and posting. The campaign apparently led to a 2% increase in sales, which probably explains why they give it a second outing earlier this year, this time with holiday destinations on the bottles, just in time for the summer season.

Apple’s ‘shot on iPhone’ campaign was a UGC master stroke. To date, over 1.4m photographs have been posted in Instagram, and the best ones have been featured 10,000 billboards globally.

Just think about it: they’ve created a worldwide buzz, got people actively involved and gained the rights to some stunning photographs. All for next to nothing.

All that’s fit to publish

Apart from coffee cups, cola bottles and smartphone shots, there are lots of other more mundane UGC avenues you can explore. Reviews, recommendations, blog posts, ratings and comments are all great ways to get the message out through users.

Research by Reevoo reveals that 70% of people value user-generated content over in-house content. Another study shows that a whopping 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation

So UGC is the way to go – but it’s not without downsides. User-generated often means it’s out of your control, and that’s fine if it’s good, but not so fine if it’s bad. Once the message is out in the wild, you can’t control it.

So you should do all you can upstream to make sure the users are generating the right kind of content downstream.

That said, user-generated doesn’t necessarily mean unprompted: it could be testimonials that you’ve asked for, or case studies you’ve commissioned. People share their thoughts and tell their stories, but you’re curating and filtering the content so you can manage the message. 

But you shouldn’t try to exercise too much control. The best UGC is spontaneous and unpredictable. So you’re living (a tad) dangerously, but you have nothing to worry about if you’re doing all the right things. 

So what could you do to get users talking and sharing, liking and promoting? With a little creativity, you could tap into a rich seam of content that’s highly effective, virtually inexhaustible and blissfully cheap.

As for me, I still haven’t snapped my selfie at Pure. I think perhaps I need a few more user-generated muscles before I dare to share. 

Need more content? You already have it.

Irma, blog posts and the never-ending search for more ‘stuff’

[Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at Flickr Creative Commons]

Do you ever get the feeling of déjà vu when you’re watching the news?

Don’t we all. 

This week, hurricane Maria is sweeping through the Caribbean, wreaking havoc in its path. The news coverage is very similar to what we saw just two weeks ago with Irma, complete with reporters battling to stay upright as they’re lashed by rain and buffeted by gales.

The whole format is one that’s been used many times, right down to the weatherman/weatherwoman in the studio explaining how hurricanes come about and where the current one is headed.

Then there are the shots of bumper-to-bumper traffic, live interviews on dodgy Skype connections and first-hand byte-sized accounts on Twitter. And maybe even some library pictures to remind us of the last hurricane – or Katrina, if that can be woven into the mix.

It is new and it is news, but it feels as if we’ve seen it all before, and we know how it’s going to play out. But that doesn’t stop us watching it. Somehow, the novelty value keeps us glued to our screens and clicking in our apps to find out the latest.

It all seems familiar, but it’s repackaged in a slightly different way – which is enough to keep us engaged. 

Out with the old, in with the new

By coincidence, I’ve been doing some repackaging of my own recently.

I’ve been working on a client project that’s taking existing content and giving it a new lease of life. Or in the jargon, repurposing

The source content is mostly blog posts, and mostly, they’ve done a good job: attracting  traffic, encouraging blog-feed signups, and promoting other sections of the website. But they’ve got a limited shelf life – either because the information is out of date, or they simply disappear below the fold and are lost in the digital hinterland. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re no longer useful – far from it.

As I’ve been discovering, much like the remains of last night’s meal and other assorted scraps in your fridge, they can be reworked and combined to make a very tasty offering.

And there are some great reasons to repackage existing material: 

  • New content is hard to find and time-consuming to produce.
  • People may not have seen it the first time around – or if they did, they may not have read it to the end, or been receptive to the messages. 
  • You can break it down so it’s targeted at niche audiences, who see a specific spin that’s relevant to their situation or needs.
  • It helps improve your SEO efforts. 
  • You establish yourself as an authority on a particular subject. Remember that ‘just showing up’ (as Woody Allen famously said) is a big part of success. 
  • You can use one piece of content to promote another, so you keep people engaged for longer.

A sense of (re)purpose

So what should you repurpose? Anything you like. 

Blog posts are a great place to start. Dig around in your back catalogue and see what you can reuse. Take your most shared or read posts and use them as a springboard for a new piece of content.

If posts are out of date, that’s actually good news, as it gives you the perfect excuse to write another one that incorporates all the latest developments. 

So one blog post leads to another. But it can also lead to other formats: e-books, slideshares, infographics and even videos.

And don’t get too hung up on the idea that you’re repeating yourself. Remember that repackaging content means you get several bites of the cherry with the same audience – or even with different audiences.

The marketing funnel is really useful when you’re deciding how to reuse and target content.  From high-level thought pieces (TOFU) to mid-level solution pieces (MOFU) to bottom-level product pitches (BOFU) you have lots of ways to slice and dice existing material and make it appealing again.

Because just like tropical hurricanes, novelty is what keeps people interested.

But don’t take my word for it: just wait until Nate, Ophelia, Philippe and Rina hit, and you’ll see how we never tire of the same story. 

With a slightly different spin each time.

15 top tips to help you edit your copy (or anybody else's)

Cutting, summarising and tweaking. And knowing when to stop.

[Image courtesy of Benson Kua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve always tended to dodge copy-editing jobs, as they can be frustrating.

In case you’re unclear on the difference between copywriting and copy-editing, the latter involves taking somebody else’s writing and giving it the once-over to make sure it’s in the best possible shape.

The trouble is, it’s often like trying to fix a dress that’s been badly cut, sewn or finished. Or taking a decorating or building project that’s been handled by an enthusiastic DIY-er, who just wants you to check that everything’s OK. Except it isn’t – wonky walls, mismatched colours and shaky foundations mean it would be better to start all over. 

Only starting all over isn’t an option. The budget’s been spent (or near enough) so it’s a case of pressing forward and making the best of it. 

It reminds me of the joke about the tourist who asks a local for directions. “Now if I were you,” says the old man learning on the wall, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

But sometimes you have to start from here. So how do you get to your destination?

Here are my top tips for knocking that copy into shape – whether it’s yours or somebody else’s:

  1. Get to the point sooner rather than later. Don’t waste the reader’s time with long, detailed intros. Think about how you react when you’re looking for a quick solution on the web and find a page that gives you three long paragraphs of background info. It may well have the solution further down, but that doesn’t much matter, as you’ve already clicked on the ‘back’ button.
  2. Go shorter. The last thing you want is for your reader to get lost in an interminable sentence, or a paragraph that packs in too much content. So don’t ‘do a Proust’. Instead, cut your sentences down and make sure each paragraph contains one idea. 
  3. Don’t chase the numbers – if you’ve written to a word count, you’re almost certain to have padded out your copy. So check each sentence and make sure it actually adds something to the story. If it doesn’t, be brutal and get rid of it – because quality always trumps quantity.
  4. Decide what the most important point is. Prioritise that and make all other points subservient. And if they’re really not that crucial, cut them out entirely.
  5. Read fast, then slow (aka zoom out before zooming in). It’s best when you’re trying to get a sense of the copy to skim first for an overall impression. Then do a second pass more slowly, to see if your impression is confirmed – and to identify what can be changed.
  6. Eliminate circumlocutions (aka long ways of saying something short). This goes for all copy, but especially copy that you’re trying to cut down and tighten up. So replace in spite of the fact that by though. Do the same with at this point in time (now), in the near future (soon) and time and time again (repeatedly, or often).
  7. Include more headings (and subheadings). They break up the copy and allow you to break your story into manageable chunks. And they give the reader visual stepping stones
  8. Bullet-point content. This is a really easy way to transform copy and make it more readable. Make sure that your bulleted or numbered points have a consistent approach – such as starting with a verb, as this list does. Readers may not even realize what you’re doing, but the consistency creates a rhythm that makes it easy to move from one point to the next. 
  9. Look at the copy as if it were a picture. So you’re not seeing words, but shapes. Is here enough white space? Are the paragraphs balanced? Is there enough variety to make the copy appealing?
  10. Read it backwards. This is an odd approach – and it really works best if you print out your copy – but I’ve used it on many occasions. Start with the last paragraph, and then read the one before it and so on. (If that feels to odd, then read section by section backwards.) It’s a bit like looking at a painting in a mirror, which is a trick artists use to see where they’ve gone wrong.
  11. Make your point and move on. Too often, when we’re speaking and writing, we repeat ourselves to ensure we’ve been understood. You may have heard of the term mansplaining – what men do when they patronise women with over-detailed explanations. Make sure you’re not writersplaining.
  12. Summarise everything. Everybody is time-poor and overwhelmed by inputs these days. Ever heard of ‘bounce time’? It’s how long somebody will spend on your web page before clicking somewhere else. Same goes for printed copy if you waffle. So summarise and make it easy to read.
  13. Act as if you’ve never seen it before – which is easy if it’s somebody else’s copy and you really haven’t. But I mean more than that: look at it as you’ve never seen an example of this type of copy (web page, brochure, blog post, report, white paper, case study) before. Forget your preconceptions and look at it with fresh, innocent eyes.
  14. Read it out loud. I’ve been using this tip (and banging a drum about it) for years, but recently an amateur Thespian friend give me a new spin on it. Be an actor, he said. Adopt a voice that suits the tone of the copy. Now do you like the person you’ve become? Do you like the way your copy speaks to your clients? You’ll be surprised at how effective this technique is.
  15. Print it out – and edit with a highlighter pen. Don’t make a first pass on screen, as you’re bound to miss something. In an age when everything has gone virtual, having a hard copy in one hand and a pen in the other creates a sensory perception that fundamentally changes the way you interact with the words.

And lastly, when you’ve done your best, call it a day and move on. There’s no such thing as perfect copy, and good enough is good enough. 

And there’s always something else that needs your red pen.