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.

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.

7 Unmissable Blogs for Writers and Marketers

The key to strong writing is plenty of reading. Plan to waste some time on the internets today? Make that time productive by checking out some blogs that’ll help you improve your craft.

Copyblogger

Copyblogger is THE go-to blog for copywriting tips, tricks and best practices. Rooted in WordPress, the company features a slew of different tools for content marketing. But the content on the blog features some of the best stuff for writers. It goes beyond copywriting to cover content marketing, blogging, SEO and general communications.

Content Marketing Institute

The brainchild of content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi, the Content Marketing Institute is one of the web’s premiere resources for up-to-date how-to content. Beyond knowing their craft, it’s important for writers to understand the vehicle they’re driving with their writing. CMI does exactly that. BONUS: You may see some of my own writing popping up here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Problogger

Everything you need to know about blogging, organized in one place. Copyblogger is an extremely popular resource for bloggers of all shapes and sizes. It’s all about visibility and making money at Copyblogger, where you’ll find tons of resources on how to do both effectively.

Cracked

Where to start with Cracked. If you need an intellectual, fact-based and hilarious break from work, Cracked never fails to deliver. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the resources on this list simply because it doesn’t offer tips for writers. I think it’s a strong study for writers looking for applicable examples of strong publishing on the web. It’s a great place to find some inspiration and get a good laugh.

Make a Living Writing

Carol Tice is a successful freelance writer who shares tons of great insights on freelancing through Make a Living Writing. Another great feature of this blog is her guest-blogging policy; submissions that get published earn $50 for their work. That’s a breath of fresh air in a world where your guest posts will get you squat.

Men with Pens

Men with Pens is a great resource for freelancers and copywriters alike. It contains similar material to blogs already mentioned on this list, but you’ll find a unique flair here.

The Rant

The Rant is entertaining writing laced with informative content. Not your typical writing blog, John Carlton’s personal vehicle for sharing insights is still a great place to learn from the best.

Attributes of Killer Case Studies

A strong story is one of the best ways to sell your company, service or product. Also known as a “success story”, a case study is one of the simplest and most resonant techniques to build compelling storytelling content.

Case studies are 1-3 page stories of how one of your customers/clients found success with your product or service.

This type of content gives you an opportunity to showcase some lively, descriptive writing as part of your marketing collateral. You can also add SEO, promote the story with a press release, use it to pitch reporters, turn it into a webinar or sales deck and feature it in a brochure.

Why are case studies effective?

A good story draws people in, creates an emotional connection and entertains the reader. Of course, those are only three things a story is capable of. They’re crucial to the success of your marketing.

One of the most important things a case study can do for a marketing program is temporarily take the marketer to an outside perspective. Whenever I write a case study, I make it a priority to talk to the person the story is about, rather than the client the story is for. The interview and resulting copy offer a unique view into the benefits of your products or services.

Case studies:

  • Engage customers/clients with a compelling story
  • Inspire empathy from potential customers
  • Illustrate how others applied your products/services
  • Showcase endorsed validation that your product/service works.

Before you get started, consider the structure.

The typical case study format

Successful case studies vary in terms of how they approach the story. But the basic structure is the same. Even if you plan to create a sequential narrative, you’ll still need to follow the guidelines of strong case studies if you want it to land.

The basic case study structure consists of:

  • Background: Here, you’ll explain who the customer is. This area should be short and sweet. Even a well-crafted boilerplate (if your client is into press releases) should suffice.
  • Problem: In this section, you’ll want to detail exactly what caused the client to seek out your services in the first place. In most cases, it’s usually some sort of business problem. For consumer case studies (and some B2B), perhaps there was no problem. But there’s always a catalyst prior to your business building a relationship with the client. Detail the catalyst if it isn’t technically a “problem”.
  • Solution: Now, it’s time for your brand to swoop in and save the day. If the previous section detailed a problem, how did you solve it? Be sure to dig deep. Ask the right questions to find the features or angles that offered the biggest impact for your client.
  • Benefits: Finally, if you can find ways to quantify the benefits, you can detail them in the last section. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle this section with qualifiable benefits as well. But make sure to tie in some hard metrics (even educated guesses) to create a basis in reality.

What else can you do to craft an effective case study?

Tips for creating case studies

Building a strong case study will take a bit of time and energy. Done often for a single client, you’ll get into a groove that’ll greatly speed up the process. (Writing case studies for ecommerce software provider 3dcart has become pretty formulaic for me.)

Here are a couple of bonus tips for writing case studies.

  • Quote often: You’ve interviewed someone who gave you a glowing testimonial! Use that information so the audience knows this is coming from a valid source. (Hint: I usually craft quotes based on my notes and ask for permission from the client before the case study is published.)
  • Find the angle: If you have a narrow audience, writing case studies can get stale. Spice things up a bit by focusing on a different angle every time you write a new one.
  • Be descriptive: Get creative with it. Use saucier language and create a setting. Tell the story almost like you’re writing fiction.
  • Ask and answer questions: Ask the reader a question about what will happen next. Answer the question in the next section. But be careful: this can get cheesy if you take the wrong approach.

Watch Your Tone: 5 Tips on Brand Voice

Everyone has a unique voice.

Some voices are simple.

Some voices are terribly verbose and sometimes boisterous!

Some are confident bordering on cocky. Others are gentle and sympathetic. But whatever your brand’s voice sounds like, it must be consistent. It must fall with impact upon the ears of your target audience.

Easier said than done. How do you define your tone and ensure it resonates with potential customers?

No no, not a voice that irritates. One that resonates.

The answer to that question is complex. To get started, take a look at five tips on brand voice and tone.

1. Carefully defining your audience is central to ALL marketing. How do you know how to talk to potential customers if you don’t understand them? Narrow your audience down to people who actually have use for your product. Once you know who you’re targeting, you’ll have a better grip on how to talk to them.

2. As always, keep it human. You know…unless you’re targeting robots. During some sort of robot apocalypse.

3. Keep it simple. Planning to tell a story? Keep it short. Include the details that resonate most with your audience. Simplicity is the best policy for the diction you use, too. Just because you’re targeting a group of rocket scientists doesn’t mean they want to waste precious brainpower reading clunky words, phrases and sentences.

4. Speak like a peer. Companies that speak down to their audiences tend to lose them. Yes, you have the solution to your customer’s problem. But you’ve been in their shoes. What they do is just as important as what you do. And don’t you forget it.

5. Get specific. You can speak more effectively to a narrower audience. Use words, phrases and inside jokes that only your readers understand.

Is Outlining Really Necessary?

As a young writer, I struggled with the concept of outlining. If you already have a strength and passion for writing, you may struggle with this, too. You feel that you need the purity of the creative process undisturbed. You tell yourself that truly creative thinking follows no form.

Of course, if you get anywhere in your writing career, you’ll soon realize that this is hogwash. Yeah, that’s right. I said hogwash.

Hogwash.

Professional writing requires structure. And the longer the piece, the more structure you’ll require. The more detailed your structure, the less you have to fill in during the writing process. Outlining eliminates frustration and writer’s block while easing drafting and revision.

If you decide to write without outlining your concept first, you may be in for a huge headache. Outlining forces you to:

  • Organize your thoughts in a fluid but visible way
  • Make a simple-to-follow reference sheet
  • Order thoughts in the sequence that makes the most sense
  • Ensure you have enough content to deliver a complete message
  • Get a high-level view of your piece and make sure you don’t forget anything
  • Understand how to weave any themes into the narrative.

Before you sit down to write a piece, take five minutes to jot your thoughts down on a blank page. Put them in a logical order for your reader and craft stronger, more coherent pieces.