5 Ways to Shorten Copy

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) Lettres provincials

 

It would appear the challenge or writing concise communications has been with us for a long time.

Today, shorter copy is needed more than ever. Just look at the success of Twitter, the “ultimate” short copy communications platform. Messages are mostly limited to 140 characters per tweet, requiring a new mastery of short communications.

Upon reflection at my own writing, I probably could do better. So I came up with five reasons why my communications might be too long, to try and write with greater brevity.

 

  1. Too many examples – When presenting complex topics, the inclusion of examples to help explain a concept is sometimes necessary. If your objective is to teach, then providing more content may be right; in a business communication, perhaps it might better to offer a link or source for an example that already exists.
  2. Too long an introduction – Perhaps your topic or challenge being solved is complex, or there are different nuances to the business challenge, and you need to be sure to explain what variation you are solving, requiring a longer introduction. I can’t think of a shortcut here, other than trying to condense your topic down to a paragraph or less.
  3. Too many industry buzz words – This is tough when seeking to improve Search Engine Optimization. The more industry terms, the better your chance of showing up higher on Google. Links to other web pages might help address this challenge.
  4. Too many editors – This is a tough one. Often I have two or more stakeholders invested in my document with different points that must be included. More time to perform more edits is the solution, but, sometimes deadlines contradict this goal.
  5. Too worried about missing a key point – When tasked with writing an important document, such as a business plan, as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Considerable care must be taken to be sure all relevant points are included. Keeping a prioritized list can help address this challenge; if a point has already been made, perhaps it doesn’t require duplication in a later section. Alternatively, future communications can be added to address omissions.

In the end, the path to shorter copy is to spend more time … time planning to identify the most concise wording, and time writing more efficiently using shorter phrases that are edited several times. In the end, your goal is to make a lasting impression – getting your content read and understood – which is simply easier with a shorter message.*

 

*Note the first version of this post exceeded 700 words; final version has 450.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Express Yourself How You see Fit

Like so many of us that have been following the latest political scandals, such as that involving Anthony Weiner’s twitter escapades and resignation, I have been amused at how quickly a new word can make it into our English language. One of the recent AP news headline read: “Weiner to resign over sexting scandal.”

To the best of my knowledge, I have never seen “sexting” used in a news headline before, and yet, a pretty respected journalism outlet has used it in a title of a story. The joint combination of two known words is a great way to build a new word, should the opportunity arise where a new term is warranted. In this case, I would say that it was warranted, and the inclusion of this term was indeed appropriate, and highly descriptive. We all know what they are talking about!

Upon reflection, I would propose that the fluidity and strength of the English language is greatly helped by the fact that it is entirely acceptable to create a new word, based on the writer’s own perspective. If the market fails to recognize the word or doesn’t understand what it means, the simple consequence is that the term won’t be repeated, fading away into obscurity. No harm, no foul.

Interestingly, the French view their vocabulary differently, with a strict process for when a new French word is “approved” for general use, ultimately by the French Minister of Culture. With the recent explosion of IT related terms and technologies, the French “word police” have been quite busy. According to an article posted in the Wall Street Journal, before a word such as “cloud computing” (“informatique en nuage”) or “podcasting” (“diffusion pour baladeur”) receives a certified French equivalent, it needs to be approved by three organizations and get a government minister’s seal of approval, according to rules laid out by the state’s General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France. The process can take years!

Imagine if the same set of rigid rules existed here in the United States. I think our IT industry would be at a loss for words as to what we do. One might even argue that our innovation might even be curtailed, at least with regards to how we talk about new products or services. One thing for certain, those of us tasked with marketing communications or business plan writing would be in for a real challenge when talking about a new start up offering a new service.

Fortunately, it is still the “wild west” in America, at least with regards to coining a new word. And, with all the social media outlets today, the opportunity for a new word to be recognized and go viral is pretty good … so feel free to express yourself how you like, without worry that you will be found guilty by a Minister of Culture, at least for all of us living in the land of free speech and writing!

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

The Age of Communications Transparency

Often the true impacts of technology innovations are not immediately recognized or understood. It took decades for the discovery of electricity to widely impact how we live in a world where electricity and light is readily available. The Internet is no different. Still in its infancy, new social behaviors have already been embraced and adopted, including how job searches are conducted, travel arrangements are booked and social networking through sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

Another not so obvious change involves the ownership and privacy of information, specifically our own identities and reputation. Today it is much harder to have privacy or lead a “secret” life. A recent example is the congressman Anthony Weiner twitter scandal. Another is the photo showing Michael Phelps taking a bong hit nearly three months after he wrapped up a record haul of eight gold medals in Beijing. The list goes on and on. Today’s social media venues coupled with smart phones that all now include cameras have made privacy more difficult to maintain.

Marketing communications transparency is a smart choice in today’s world that lacks privacy

This lack of expected privacy has a big repercussion for marketing communications, business plan writers and investor prospectus authors, among others. In just the same way that the truth has a way of getting out to the public, unsubstantiated or exaggerated marketing claims will most likely be discovered or revealed. Today it is critical to communicate with complete transparency. Spokespersons for companies and their products must be genuine. Product claims must be documented and proven.

Third party recommendations have always been important to drive sales. The challenge, however, is that it used to take a bit of effort to find someone who has just purchased the product or service you were contemplating. Often the effort didn’t justify the work, so purchases were not necessarily “qualified” by a third party reference.

Today, a referral is as easy to find as going to Yelp or launching one of the many different smart phone applications with an interactive “rate this” or “comment on this” feature. Buyers don’t expect every review to be perfect … in fact, they might suspect a lack of transparency if every review is perfect. They want to see who had what issues, to then make their decision accordingly to pursue the purchase, or not. The point is that there is now a very efficient, active venue for voicing concern or issues with a product … a “horror” story could take on a life of its own and spread like wildfire.

There is still a role for preparing corporate collateral, but its role should not be to try and “sell” the product, but rather, provide details that a company can prepare best, such as specifications, product performance as well as documentation on what can be realistically achieved.

But, it better be accurate and current, as a fair representation of your product’s capabilities. If not, it is now a reasonable expectation that you will be found out, and you will pay the price with a loss of brand integrity for not practicing transparency in your marketing communications.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

The Role of Pricing in Messaging

“If you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can’t afford it”

– JP Morgan

According to Google books, the origin of this quote is a conversation JP Morgan had with a neighbor regarding the purchase of a yacht. The quote has been made famous by Henry Royce, when applying it to the purchase of his Rolls Royce automobiles.

Importance of pricing on messaging and marketing communications
If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford this toy.

From a marketing communications perspective, the concept is actually quite compelling – a message that rings loud and clear to your prospective customers. If you must know the price before purchasing, then it is probably too luxurious for you. A purchase decision that falls into this type of classification is clearly high end, something that only the wealthy need consider. As a business strategy, if you are selling a high end product, this type of positioning could be just right.

Pricing plays a critical role in your messaging and marketing communications surrounding not only the quality of your goods or services, but also on your focus on customer satisfaction. Do you deliver consistently superior results that your customers can justify spending more for your product? If so, then you should be charging more, and your customers will pay more, helping you to preserve your brand integrity. It is all part of a consistent message that you, as a marketer, need to convey to each of your current and future customers.

Alternatively, if your product is “me too” (non-differentiated) or if you are the low price leader, then you have no claim to charge a premium and shouldn’t. If you do, your customers will be confused, and will likely not justify the higher price, preferring instead to purchase from your competitors.

BMW is an excellent case study on how to leverage pricing as part of their messaging. Back in the 1970s, the brand was not considered premium, akin to the likes of Volkswagen. In the 1980s, however, they made a decision to dramatically increase prices across all products at a time when their marketing communications shifted towards positioning the brand as premium. It worked.

I had an interesting experience with the AAA club of Southern California about a month ago. I inquired about purchasing their premium service, which included expanded towing coverage. They refused to sell me the service, stating that I must first purchase their standard service for a year and not use it before having the “privilege” of purchasing the premium service, for more money. Needless to say I was infuriated. Here I thought they were eager to offer expanded, higher margin services. They, on the other hand, see themselves as a “country club” of sorts, where I have to pay my “dues” for a year before being considered for an upgrade, like they are doing me a favor. Talk about a confusing messaging strategy!

How does AAA get away with it? Well, it turns out they have a bit of a monopoly in the Southern California market, so there really isn’t a viable competitor. Clearly, not only is their pricing calculated incorrectly, but their view on customer service is that of a monopolistic organization, such as the US Post Office. In other words, it isn’t a priority. Even to a customer of 31 years!

To conclude, pricing plays a critical role in your marketing communications – the story you want to tell. Are you customer friendly? Are you premium? Or, are you a generic product with no differentiation other than price? Pick your story and be sure to set your pricing to support that message.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Avoiding “Article Vomit”

Q: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?

A: No, if no one is there to hear it.

In the same way, you may have the greatest product or service, but if no one knows about it, then all your work has been for nothing (and your marketing prowess could be called into question). As a marketer today, you must incorporate the Internet in your marketing communications … which means you need to understand Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

As a concept, it isn’t hard to comprehend. Your prospects will typically go to an Internet browser when considering a product purchase, performing a search by keywords of what they seek. Some will already have an idea of what your product is called or what your industry terms are. Some will not, so will search by the challenge they face. It is up to you to know which is relevant, and then build search engine optimization into your marketing communications to match these search profiles.

Search Engine Marketing
Keep SEO a top of mind item when preparing marketing communications

The challenge is that you are competing for these words with often hundreds or even thousands of other sites, many that have dedicated staff working every day to improve their rankings. This is an onerous task to those just getting started. There is a first mover’s advantage. Those building their keywords and search phrases first tend to secure the top rankings and can defend them effectively. The best offense to a well placed competitor is to further refine your keywords to be more specific to a smaller sub segment of the market you are trying to reach. And, create a lot of new content.

There is another angle … game the system, known as “Black Hat SEO.” A recent approach has been to post a lot of content on different sites with links to your site, to help increase your ranking. This is against Google’s policy – it is artificially raising your rankings. JC Penny just got busted for it (read more here), and now their site has been black listed from Google. Just last week Google announced they are changing their search engine algorithms to put a stop to this type of behavior, penalizing sites that really are only comprised of “Article Vomit,” as Chris Knight, CEO of Spark-Net Corp coined, as stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

There is really no substitute for continuing to add new content. New information, commentary or announcements – especially with links coming from other websites – is a great way to demonstrate to Google, Yahoo!, Bing and the others that you are an authority in your field. This is one of the biggest reasons why blogs have become so popular. They are a great way to show frequent new content that is specifically tied to the needs of your target market.

So, next time you are writing a press release, web page or piece of collateral, think carefully about how your document might be found on the World Wide Web. What need you are serving and what problem are you helping to address? What words would be used in a keyword search on that topic? Then, go back and finish your piece. After all, if no one finds it or reads it, it might as well have not existed!

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

When Taking a Step Backward can Yield an Innovative Business Plan

Carbon-free Landscape RemovalI read a most interesting article today in the Wall Street Journal about a business start up in Chapel Hill, N.C. called Rent-a-Goat.com. What they offer is a completely environmentally friendly way for home and business owners to clear fields of unwanted shrubbery, grasses and any other prickly plants that need to be removed. What is remarkable is that this company has figured out a way to execute upon a business plan first launched thousands of years ago, and still make money today.

As I read further, I learned that Google has hired a similar company to clear their corporate campus of un-needed plants. Other end users include the Vanderbilt estate, where goats were hired for $9,000 to clear seven hilly acres, according to Dave Hayes, the estate’s natural-resource program manager. See the video. Apparently this price tag was two-thirds the cost to hire workers to do the same job … with a zero carbon footprint!

This story is an excellent example of how technological progress and innovation can sometimes take a “U” turn, especially when the social green movement is involved, despite the typical technology innovation cycle we so commonly see and write about (see my prior post on how technology innovation can be treated as a constant). Goes to show that there are no true constants in life, but some highly probably outcomes!

When seeking a business plan writer or preparing a strategic marketing plan, at times it can be helpful to take a completely opposite perspective with regards to what your new service or product should be. This strategy can be quite effective in markets and industries where a growing backlash is starting to gain momentum.

A good example of a business plan that has taken advantage of going “against the mainstream” is the latest offering from Knock Knock, a Los Angeles-based company that sells specialty paper products. They are now offering paper tweet pads, which limit you to a message of 140 characters that you can write down on a piece of paper. Their messaging in the product descriptions is quite good:  “Get on the social networking bandwagon with a cutting-edge notepad! The wireless miracle of pen and paper will have you expressing your mundane, or even pressing, thoughts anytime, anywhere!” In a way, they are making fun at all the notoriety and excitement around Twitter, and becoming just the opposite, pointing out that good old fashioned pen and paper is not a bad communications medium.

It turns out that maybe change is the only constant, rather than always counting on technology to drive innovation. Taking a step backward after several strides forward gives us a pause and time for reflection. People are always looking for something new and improved; the “new” maybe simply an old idea that has now gained new awareness and a fresh perspective.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Applying Humor to Your Business Communications

“Computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

When considering the question of “How do I improve my business communications?”, humor may be the answer. The decision should be based on what type of communications you seek. There are several roles humor can take … to grab attention, to make a lasting impression or to build a longer term relationship with your readers. Alternatively, a more serious and “professional” sounding message may be better suited to a more formal communications, in which case humor may not be appropriate.

Let me explain. It might not be the best idea to use humor when talking about a financial institution’s lending practices, or the way that a customer’s money is managed.

When we write or speak to an audience, often we are really trying to build a relationship with our audience in order to convey a thought, a message or a suggestion to purchase a product r service. As part of establishing that message and gaining credibility, it can be quite effective if you are communicating more as a friend or advisor. In that case, humor can definitely play a role in helping to build the relationship, earn trust and communicate on a more personal level.

South West Airlines (SWA) is an excellent example. They have effectively used humor in their verbal communications. Each flight attendant was clearly encouraged by their peers and supervisors to include humor as part of their pre-take off, FAA required announcements at the beginning of every flight.

In today’s YouTube age, there is another incentive: to become the next big hit.  Watch this video for an example of a video that has gone viral, with nearly 1 million hits so far. Interestingly, SWA’s practice began before the age of the Internet. Now these videos are actually a form of advertising, helping to increase brand awareness – and might even generate a ticket sale or two. Clearly, humor can lend itself to social networking marketing quite nicely.

While SWA’s topic is serious, the message has been effectively conveyed in a joyful, playful manner, with short one-liner jokes intermingled with information on what to do in an evacuation, and how the seat cushions also works as a life vest. In the end, passengers felt more relaxed and at ease, trusting that SWA had things under control in the passenger’s best interest while helping to pass the time during the boring announcements that business travelers all know by heart.

TD Ameritrade is an example of when a more serious communications was best. Their selection of Sam Waterston as a spokesperson conveys a serious message that TD Ameritrade is a secure institution you can trust, based on our associating him as being a District Attorney for Law and Order, even though it is just a character he plays on a television show. But don’t expect Sam to crack a joke during his endorsement during the ad.

Similarly, if you are writing a business plan to demonstrate intimate knowledge of your industry or market opportunity, it is trust that you are trying to build. As you might not have the opportunity to build a relationship over time with multiple interactions of your readers and prospective investors, you might only have one chance to make a first impression. In this case, your tone should probably be authoritative and professional, demonstrating you are serious about your business plan and the investment funds you are requesting. Probably not a good place for humor in your communications.

Each of these examples offers best-in-class leveraging of humor – or a lack of it – to accentuate and exemplify business communications. Deciding whether or not to use humor, however, is harder and riskier. Your message must indeed BE funny, or else the opposite effect will occur, possibly even alienating you from your target audience, and clearly hurting your communications objectives.  As it is more riskier to use humor, the choice is often to simply avoid it.

Next time you ask yourself whether humor might be appropriate in your next business communications, the answer won’t come from a computer.  It should be based on your subjective decision, half-based on theory and half-based on a gut feel if it really is appropriate.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Sometimes The Best Marketing Communications Can’t Reverse a Brilliant Contract Agreement

I can feel the pain the marketing team for the wireless division must be dealing with at Verizon, even more so now the news was just announced that AT&T had indeed signed a 5 year agreement to distribute Apple’s now infamous iPhone.  So, Verizon is locked out through 2012 before they can think of carrying the now icon status phone.

Of course, this was a risky move on Apple’s part, to lock in a distribution partner for a relatively new product in an untested market.  But, clearly each party recognized the importance of helping each other out – from the development plans and specs to which features should be offered or not.  In the end, it was a brilliant move.

So, what do you do if you work in the marketing communications department at Verizon?  As a marketing and business plan writer, I can relate.

First thing is to bridge the “product divide” by offering as close to a product replacement as possible, which they clearly have done with the Android.  But, for those of you who have actually gone into the store and tried using the Android followed by the iPhone, you know that there really isn’t much of a comparison.  In the end, I personally chose the iPhone based on ease of use, product design and the simple fact that my 3,000+ song library will seamlessly connect with my new phone.

What do you do next?  One option is to re-define the debate.  For example, a new importance or decision factor could be introduced into the mix that might cause a reconsideration of the purchase.  For example, the network coverage of Verizon could be argued as being more comprehensive – clearly this is also a strategy they have pursued.  Further, I would suggest that this strategy could be exemplified by noting that all the data traffic that the AT&T network now has is starting to clog it up, such that iPhones are now not being sold in New York anymore.  But, the downside to this type of strategy might lead some to conclude that “everyone is now going to AT&T, so what am I doing at Verizon?”

New features is another angle, to them message that “if you want X, then you need to go with Verizon.”  For example, perhaps there is some type of value added service or partnership that could be established to offer a new value to those with Verizon, such that the loss of not using an iPhone is less of an impact.  Then, plaster the market with this new offer.  How about advance, limited screenings of new movies that can be seen on your Verizon phone through a special user interface that is securely offered to just Verizon customers?  Or, perhaps there are a series of local events that could be sponsored by Verizon that their customers are exclusively invited to?  The communications could then be focused on the fact that the phone company you choose should be based on more than what a particular phone they offer.

But, in the end, it is a long, uphill battle for the Verizon marketing communications team for now, at least until the end of 2012, or until when that contract can be ended.  My guess is that considerable efforts are now being done to try and “woo” Apple into breaking their AT&T contract, and that AT&T is spending an equal amount of time to ensure the agreement is air-tight … which is probably an excellent use of their time.

 
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.

Try to Avoid FUD in Marketing Communications

I find it interesting how one industry trend / improvement can often lead to new problems.  Growing globalization of manufacturing systems is a trend that has been in place for well over a decade.  It has put a new threat on the table that isolated plants never faced – the threat of a cyber attack from remote locations.  This is a threat that will undoubtedly catch some manufacturers off guard, but, theoretically, this threat has been around for at least 10 years.

Having a perspective from working in the network security industry, administration and implementation of a new security system typically doesn’t just happen on its own, given the tight focus on improving bottom line results.  Often, it takes a cataclysmic event to warrant the additional, new expenditure on a security measure.  It takes a global “black eye” on the industry to get serious traction and attention by those not yet impacted by the event.

For Visa card merchants, it was the TJ Max high jacking of information from at least 45.7 million credit and debit cards.  Hackers accessed customer information in a security breach that the discount retailer disclosed back in 2007.  See the story here. After this event, security became a top of mind event.

FUD_hammer1From a marketing perspective, there is no tougher topic to communicate and try to influence purchase behavior. The gatekeepers seem to have only a vague connection between what is happening to their competitors and what might happen at their own firm. With everyone over-worked today – often for less pay in our current recession / post-recession period, not many managers are looking to take on a new job or responsibility.

One thing for certain, the FUD approach doesn’t seem to work. Trying to use Fear, Uncertainty or Doubt to “hammer down” a purchase decision seems to backfire more often than not, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for those prospects you reach out to.  It is almost as if your reader doesn’t believe it, doesn’t want to believe it, or, if the numbers are so bad, can’t believe it. I have found that the best approach is to simply lay out the facts whenever possible, pointing to the probability of a serious event occurring, and how that likelihood of happening might impact that person’s company and job, as a “soft selling” message approach.

As an example, security is really a preventative purchase rather than a “threat” one. So, perhaps it should be viewed as an insurance cost to manage or mitigate risk.  Therefore, the right person to speak with is not the IT manager whose job will be harder to implement a new system, but rather, the one who is responsible for managing the company’s risk.  This might instead be the CFO or controller, but most likely, will be someone in the corporate office, rather than an IT or single plant manager.

The first key to effective marketing communications is to understand who the best person to speak to is.  With that settled you can then figure out how to write with the appropriate message, tone and wording to get their attention.  This can be the first step to building credibility as a trusted adviser – a company that your prospect wants to do business with. A trusted adviser doesn’t try to scare their client into doing something. Instead, they try to offer insights to trends and analytical support to help them make the best decision given the current environment and knowledge available.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.