Basic Writing Tips for PR Pros

My friend Megan Parker of Finn Partners (also an ex-coworker at a PR firm) got in touch with me over email to ask for some PR writing tips. I haven’t had a lot of time to blog lately, so I figured I’d repurpose the content (which she’ll be presenting to her office) here on the old blog.

3 Cardinal Sins of Press Releases

  • Writing without the audience in mind. There must be a rhyme and reason to the release. Too often, press releases list information without forming a cohesive narrative. When you know exactly who you’re appealing to, it’s much easier to present information in order of relevance and tie it together into a narrative.
  • Big words and buzzwords. These can kill your release quickly. Taking a long time to make your point (or making it difficult for the reader to discover the point) is the best way to publish releases that fail. Cut the buzzwords. Use small, clear words. Make your point quickly and use the rest of the release to back that point up.
  • Your release is too long. Seriously, have you ever read a press release past the fourth paragraph? How often do you get past the third? I bet a lot of you don’t make it past the headline in most cases. Stop padding your releases because you think they’re too short. Write only what’s important to your audience and cut everything else.

3 Press Release Musts

  • Always lead with announcement and benefits in the first two paragraphs. This is the timeliness/relevance factor. You’ll only get eyes on the rest of the release if you can answer the questions “Why now?” and “Why should I care?” for the reader ASAP.
  • Bullet crucial points. A lot of readers will scan your release. Splitting important content into bite-sized chunks makes it more likely that scanners will actually retain something.
  • Simplify your boilerplate. Seriously, it’s the 21st century. Your goal should be to point the reader to your (or your client’s) website. If they’re really interested in the announcement or organization, that’s where they’ll go. Otherwise, you’re just cluttering the page with more words, muddying the announcement and increasing the chances you’ll lose the reader before they actually perform the desired action.

3 Cardinal Sins of Contributed Content

  • Longer is not always better. If an editor asks for 800-1,200 words, don’t fret if you just pass that 800 barrier. What’s more important is to have practical, useful content that isn’t padded with fluff.
  • Don’t sell your product, service or brand, ever. Seven times out of 10, the author will ask for edits or ignore you. The other 3/10 times, readers who came for informative content will see through your content and stop reading. Contributed content is only useful if you get the reader through to the end. Then, he may be interested in checking out the author’s organization, product or service.
  • Burying the point. What should reader expect to learn by reading your article? Out with it already! If you aren’t clear with your intentions in the beginning, you’ll lose your reader. A “big reveal” in business writing or journalism only happens in the first few paragraphs.

3 Contributed Content Musts

  • Know your audience to a T. Who does the publication target? Ask the editor if she has a reader persona. Speak directly to them in your post, as though you’re having a conversation. It’ll ease the writing process.
  • Get good at interviewing. If you’re ghostwriting for a client, you need to infuse their perspective. You’ll also be much happier if you have all the information you need right in front of you.
  • In most cases, work with a writer. Effective article writing, especially for well-established publisher sites, takes years of practice to get even a little good at.

3 Cardinal Sins of Pitching

  • Mass pitches. Just don’t do ‘em, even if you’re making it clear that you’re blasting out to an email list. This kills the exclusivity factor and often includes writers who shouldn’t be getting the email.
  • Too informal or formal. Keep in mind you don’t know this person. But also remember that writers are wary of formal pitches because they sound canned. A writer would much rather work with a PR rep who knows the product/organization/industry well. Too many formalities can convey the opposite.
  • Too long. Establish a connection, make your point and make it pop. You shouldn’t need anything else in your pitch. The quicker you make a strong connection with the reader, the better the chance he’ll follow up for more info.

3 Pitching Musts

  • A clear understanding of the writer’s coverage and a clear indicator that you’ve read at least one of her articles. Drop that info early in your pitch to stroke the writer’s ego and establish relevance.
  • A catchy headline. The writer/editor will make a split-second decision whether to open your email based on the headline. Experiment with subject lines and see what kind of stuff gets you the most traction. And for christ’s sake, use email campaign management software that actually tracks open rates!
  • Bold your most important point. Know what will get the reader’s eye? Simplify skimming and make it pop.

Any Questions?

Having PR writing pains? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

It’s Hard To Be Yourself Online

As the web matures, are we all facing an identity crisis?

Who am I?

Marketers and writers understand the importance of wearing a facade. To truly become the brand in your communications strategy, you must become the audience. It’s hard to be yourself in the world of communications. In fact, it’s absolutely imperative that you don’t.

Individually, we’re all facing the same conundrum online. Shit, I’ve had to deal with it on this blog. I have two Twitter accounts because I’m worried about alienating my professional audience by sharing content meant for my interest-based peers. Forget sharing literary websites and good reads on Facebook; three quarters of my real-life social network hasn’t picked up a book since college.

Want to please everyone? Only share universal content like funny YouTube clips and national news stories.

The Suffocating Nature of Social Media

Of course, universal content doesn’t go very far in shedding light on your unique personality — what makes you stand out from the crowd to employers and friends. Then again, there are certain personal traits you want a real-world relationship to reveal gradually.

And some traits are best unrevealed.

That’s why countless articles tell you to be careful what information you share online. You’re leaving information out in the open that could help people form a tough first impression. Some employers might not espouse the use of the f-word in every sentence you type. Others may not appreciate your lack of subtlety. Still others may be impressed by your openness.

In essence, social media has turned the entire world into marketers. What we share online is only as relevant as the audience to which we tailor it.

Of course, this role is extremely convoluted. Most of the time, we don’t make friends based entirely on shared interests. Facebook becomes a platform with limited sharing value beyond important life updates, inside jokes and the occasional universally valued piece of content. Twitter users find more value in appealing to a specific interest-, demographic- or industry-based audience.

Any attempt to be your true self over the web, without alienating some of the people in your network, is limited by where you share.

This Is Exactly Like Real Life

Duh. Did you think I’d argue that the web is some alternate universe?

Pictured here: Real life.

Unfortunately, the web is different in one very powerful way: it keeps an unflinching, unforgiving memory of everything you say and do, in a much more public format than most of what you’ve said or done in real life.

A unique voice doesn’t require you to lay it all on the table. Honesty is key, but subtlety is essential.

Trying hard to find yourself online? Follow three simple rules:

  • Know Your Audience: Take a good, hard look at who follows you over various channels. Limit what you share to content your audience finds valuable.
  • Stay Organized: Make sure you have a good, organized understanding of where you have influence.
  • Protect Your Reputation: Work hard to ensure you don’t undermine your reputation on each of your channels.

What Do You Think?

How do you define yourself online? Share some tips with us in the replies.

Yep, Your Sci-Fi Nightmare Is Really Happening

Skynet be damned.

Sci-fi novels and movies have gotten shockingly close to the actual evolution of technology. What we once considered a danger to our privacy and anonymity is actually beginning to become a useful tool.

Sort of.

For marketers, anyway.

And robots hell-bent on world destruction.

You may have noticed over the last couple of years that the web is returning eerily relevant results whenever you go out searching for something. These take a variety of forms like:

  • An advertisement for a brand you may have researched
  • Buttons that know you’ve already clicked a different call to action and replace it with the next logical step
  • Suggestions (like Amazon’s) tailored to your interests
  • Facebook ads that mirror your ‘likes’
  • Sidebar content that gets more specific the longer you browse a website

In some of these cases, we willingly provide information. In others, robots collect data without our permission. Most of the time, the latter assertion comes in the form of browser cookies that ‘remember’ certain actions you’ve performed.

It sounds scary. But evolving web security measures (albeit slowly evolving) may actually mean a browsing experience that isn’t cluttered with irrelevant advertising or hard-to-find content.

What exactly is happening on the web?

Part of the inspiration for this post is an article I’m researching and penning for the Content Marketing Institute about ‘content customization,’ also known as ‘dynamic content’ and a host of other labels. Adobe says it’s simply one part of ‘web experience management,’ a new push towards giving marketers a more connected web presence for their brands. This, of course, is a branding effort to own the next step in content management.

Whatever you want to call it, it has arrived, whether you like it or not. And if you’re in the marketing (or writing) game, you should be aware of it.

Content customization is important because it returns relevant results to the reader. Let’s look at an example.

Ken runs a large Chicago glass-blowing school. To draw in more leads online, he maintains a pretty strong content marketing program, writing articles and posting videos of cool glass objects, techniques for glass-blowing and behind-the-scenes coverage of school projects. But he wants more.

He wants to identify potential students by where they are in the sales funnel. He wants to weed out the irrelevant leads and present relevant next steps to potential students in Chicago. To nurture visitors from lead to student, he wants to deliver a simple path between the two.

He’s glad to get national recognition from his content. But if the reader’s location limits her potential to become a student, Ken wants to offer her a very different experience than that of a local visitor. In order to do this, he collects locational data. Visitors located in the Chicagoland are shown a call to action to sign up for classes, while visitors from outside Ken’s target area see more educational content.

That’s just one example of how marketers use dynamic content.

Avoiding silos is one of the biggest challenges

I’m concerned about the phenomenon for one giant reason: silos.

I’m sure someone is way ahead of me on this one, but I could be wrong. The challenge of delivering relevant content is overdelivering relevant content. When marketers slide you into a peg based on certain behaviors and interests, it doesn’t do much to open you up to new perspectives and ideas. You get stuck in a silo — and any good entrepreneur, psychologist, economist, physicist or sociologist will tell you that nothing happens in a vacuum. It could stifle innovation, polarize American politics further and create a general malaise of single-mindedness.

So, the question becomes whether or not organizing the chaos of the web is a good thing. That’s what we’re pushing towards. Can we have our cake and eat it, too?

Mm, cake.

Can’t wait for my full article tellin’ you all about this? Check out some of the wildly popular articles I’ve already created for the Content Marketing Institute. One even got 346 tweet-shares, which automatically secures my spot in the social media hall of fame.

Is Your Content Missing These Proof Indicators?

It’s so easy to speak your mind online.

In fact, it’s so easy that amateur writers are constantly sharing thoughts that have no basis in anyone else’s reality. You can visit the Huffington Post and flip through a dozen well-written and compelling articles until you find one that accurately cites real proof.

But wait…isn’t proof just for silly old bastards?

The internet is one big op-ed machine. Want to create content that really stands out from the rest? Find ways to prove your concepts.

Prove it.

Anyone can rationalize a theory. It takes proof to build it into a tangible one.

As far back as college (for those of us who remember it), we’ve been trained to present an evidence-based argument. Why have we abandoned this approach? Well…we can say whatever we want, whenever we want on the internet. It’s a whole lot easier to just speak your mind without putting time and energy into research.

A scientific approach to writing gives you credibility. It shows you’ve taken the time to do your research. The scientific method is in place for a reason; observation, measurement and experimentation explain behavior. For writers, truth seeking in journalism offers a great comparison for why evidence-based writing makes for a compelling argument. The Poynter Institute is among the many voices pleading for a science-based approach to journalism, particularly in relation to the web.

Sometimes, experts can get away with conjecturing on experiential theories. Of course, this requires you to prove your credibility on the subject matter. You do that by providing evidence of your experience and success.

Some things are just common sense. Anything outside of common sense — which is what your writing should cover if you want it to stand out — requires proof if you want to offer value to your readers.

Which indicators of proof work best?

On the granular level, numbers are perhaps the most important way to prove assertions. From a higher level, what shapes do these numbers take?

  • Academic experiments: Whatever topic you write about, science can help. Sociological and scientific experiments that apply to your topic can make your argument more compelling.
  • Surveys: A mainstay in the world of marketing, surveys help your credibility by presenting a popular belief or practice. The more the world agrees with you, the more credibility your writing has.
  • Case studies: More granular and specific versions of experiments, case studies offer proof that a strategy works the way you say it does.
  • Interviews & expert testimony: This is a narrower version of surveys. Interviews & expert testimony proves you know what you’re talking about by aligning your point with an established authority on what you’re talking about.

Sharing your perspective can be a powerful thing, but strong evidence builds an even stronger case. Rely on the right proof indicators and your readers will find a greater level of trust in your content.

Read This Now For Better Web Copy

Your web copy is missing something. But you just can’t put your finger on it.

It’s no coincidence that your reader is missing something, too. He isn’t sure what his next step is, so he abandons the page and gets lost for four hours on YouTube instead.

Readers desperately need their hands held. Think of them as suburban teenagers lost in an Amazonian jungle. If only the jungle had clear paths, with signs pointing the way to the next destination…

Here’s your chance to be a sign-maker. Your web copy can be compelling, thoughtful, informative, clear and concise — but it will never, ever convince someone to take the next step without a clear call to action.

A call to action is a command that pops. It’s a next step that drives readers through the sales process. And it’s the most necessary part of creating web copy that sells.

A few good examples of calls to action

All of the web’s most successful brands grab readers with a call to action, gently nudging them in the direction they want to go. Sometimes, they even corral readers with not-so-gentle commands.

Below are a few great examples of powerful calls to action.

Blogger’s Delight

If you visit Problogger.net and aren’t sure what to do next, you’re in the minority. Wherever you go on the site, founder Darren Rowse has placed a clear “subscribe to the newsletter” call to action first thing on the right sidebar. At the end of each article, you’re invited to share your opinion in the comments. Past the article, you have a clearly marked “What Next?” section, paired with related articles for further reading.

Social Community, Decoded 

Pinterest is a great example of the perfect call to action. At the top of the page, the online community tells you what it is, how to use it and what to do next in two short lines and a red “Join Pinterest” button. I’m sure there’s plenty that’s sticky about the community itself — still, they did a good job reducing any barriers to entry for new users.

Specializing in CTAs

HubSpot has grown quite the reputation for its digital marketing prowess. When you visit the company’s site, you can see that they practice what they preach; the homepage hits you with a handful of benefits and an orange “See The Software” call that works well.

Tips for creating your own call to action

We’re all capable of creating great calls to action. And we absolutely must create them if we want to be respected web copywriters.

Most of these tips are pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t hurt to see them on the page so you can burn them into your brain.

  • Clarity is key: Your call to action must stand out from the rest of the copy, whether it follows a thousand words of copy or three sentences. For businesses, this usually comes in the form of a colored, eye-catching button to direct the visitor to the next step.
  • Start with the benefit: If you can work the benefit of the action into the call, that’d be great. For instance, if you want to coerce users into signing up for an email newsletter about beets, you might say something like “Click here for secrets to growing the best beets.”
  • Make it timely: Using words like “today” and “now” can help snag the customer that may not return without a good excuse to opt in that very day. Create urgency so you don’t lose customers that will convince themselves to come back but will never return.

Check out more great tips for creating calls to action. 

Share with us

Do you have a “go-to” call to action that works like a charm? Share it with us in the comments.

In Defense of Content Marketing

It recently occurred to me that some people (and marketers) still aren’t completely clear on what content marketing is and isn’t. Yesterday, I got caught up in a discussion on Danny Brown’s blog about exactly that.

I’d like to address some of the points in the post, but first, I’d like to start from scratch and build a case for content marketing. So what is it, exactly?

Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action. (Content Marketing Institute)

The label is new. The tactic is not.

Because it’s a new term, we like to think of it as a new discipline. But it isn’t. Businesses have practiced content marketing for years. According to That White Paper Guy, white papers made their first appearance in 1922. They became most relevant to marketers in the 80s, pushed forward by the rise of the PC.

I said that white paper guy, not that white paper guy.

Entrepreneurs and other leading voices in business have always used books to help build their brands and the brands of their respective companies. Organizations release research papers. It’s all a part of standing out from the noise of competition and offering valuable information for free. This valuable information points back to your brand and drives new customers into the “traditional” marketing process of evaluating your products and services.

Content marketing manifests itself in many ways, none of which are product-centric, including:

  • Blogging
  • White papers
  • Books & ebooks
  • Research reports
  • Webinars
  • Forums
  • Conferences
  • Videos

What I think the rise of content, social media and conversation marketing in general does is call into question our old definitions of marketing. It turns out this isn’t such a black-and-white field after all.

The show & tell dilemma

Robert Rose’s definition of content marketing is the one that sticks out to me:

Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star.  Content Marketing is showing the world that you are one.

As a writer, this definition hits close to home. Showing always builds a much stronger case over telling. First, you gain the lead’s trust by offering them valuable but free information. Then, you drive them into the traditional sales and marketing process. Finally, you retain their business with a continuous stream of engagement.

One of the biggest questions I have for Danny Brown is the motivation behind writing his blog. Before finding this post, I’d never heard of him or Jugnoo, the company he works for. So, his blog increases brand awareness and connects him with potential customers. It raises the value of his own brand. It’s purpose isn’t to tell the world what he does; it’s to show the world that he does it with passion and insight. And that makes it an integral part of the sales and marketing funnel.

After much deliberation, I interpret Danny’s post to be a criticism of content marketing evangelists who say the practice is a standalone discipline. But I don’t hear anyone saying that. It’s an integral part of the marketing experience that acts in tandem with traditional marketing. It flips the old model of jamming your product or service down your lead’s throat by spoon-feeding the pitch.

Danny also appears to make the argument that content marketing has little impact on the post-sale customer. I have clients who would beg to differ. Sears does it. These non-profits increased brand affinity. Mint.com, HubSpot and American Express all maintain wildly popular content marketing channels.

The reason Danny came across 560 million Google results for content marketing is because the term helps businesses make sense of their digital communications. It’s also why “content marketing success stories” returns more than 77 million results of its own. I believe it will continue to be a strong, crucial descriptor for years to come.

Chime in

Think I’m an arrogant blowhard? Agree with what I’m saying? Share your content marketing success (or horror) story in the comments.

Above All, Pump Out Great Content Frequently

There’s a debate raging in the world of SEO. Some marketers believe Google’s Penguin update takes things too far. Others are just trying to stay afloat in a world of constantly evolving search best practices.

As far as I’m concerned, none of these arguments matters in the grand scheme of things — especially for blogs. Because there’s only one golden rule when it comes to creating a search-friendly web presence.

Create great content and do it often.

…said the blogger as he posted the laziest picture of all time.

For bloggers, I hold this to be a self-evident truth. Leave the really complicated white-hat SEO stuff to marketers.

You shouldn’t need to focus content around keywords. That negates the intrinsic principles of blogging: to cater to your audience above all. Wanna be found? Create high-quality content that people can share socially. Build links with other major publishers in your area of expertise. Guest post on other blogs. While not as simple as it sounds, it sure makes a lot more sense than starting with a list of keywords and trying to build content around them.

And creating that high-quality content often means constant reindexing in search engines.

The veil of competition

Of course, keyword optimization still plays a role for businesses. But businesses assume a level of competition that’s well above what you’re trying to do as a blogger.

Bloggers are only competing for mindshare. They’re competing for a few precious moments out of their audiences’ busy schedules. They aren’t directly competing with other bloggers.

Other bloggers are your friends.

They’re partners in the world of disseminating high-quality content to readers. If you have the time and energy, you can build relationships with other bloggers to help grow your own audience.

The best thing you can do for your own blog is make sure you’re posting often. With this in mind, you can grow organically. Sure, you’ll get a huge traffic spike when your post goes viral — but the readers that stick around for the next post are the ones that are most valuable to you.

In the long run, that’s all Google is looking to do anyway: reward high-quality, high-consistency content creators with high-quality, high-consistency readers. The system isn’t perfect. It’ll keep evolving. The only thing that must remain consistent is the search engine’s focus on delivering high-quality content to those who want or need it most.

Why you’ll be found anyway

What I’ve learned over my years of blogging is that it takes time to build an audience. The only way to speed that up is to post tons of content.

That’s exactly what’s happening here at Copywriting Is Dead. The more I post, the more people find me organically. I’ve never spent time on keyword research. Why spend time on keywords when you can’t guarantee they’ll return the traffic you want? Instead, you can spend that same time creating more content that your audience may find useful.

If you’re worried about slow traffic on your blog, have patience and post new content often. To keep their attention, your audience expects consistency almost as much as it expects quality.