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.

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.

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.

Read Good? Write Gooder

There’s no understating the importance of a healthy, balanced diet of strong reading material.

Seriously. It’s one of the best things a writer can do to keep those fingers pumping out fresh material. Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our generation, says that good writers read four to six hours a day.

Sound overwhelming? Just a tad. That doesn’t mean you can’t set other goals that are perhaps a bit less lofty but still ambitious. These days, we’re trained to think “unwinding” requires you to crash in front of the television with a bag of pretzels.

The next time you plan to do that, imagine Papa Hemingway is standing at the entrance to the room, judging you. Were he alive today, he would be.

On second thought, he’d probably be out wrestling a bear. Or in his study, reading and writing.

Zoning out in front of the television–turning your brain “off”–is a total myth, and one that you don’t need to buy into. Sure, the occasional episode of Breaking Bad may help you hone your storytelling skills. But that’s intelligent TV (or a quick mental break). Zonking for four hours before bed is as unproductive as it is unhealthy.

Wherever you want to succeed in writing, you must read. Lively fiction, engrossing academic, practical how-to–whatever the discipline, it’ll have a positive impact on your writing.

Start small. Schedule an hour a day for reading. Then, scale it up.

To help supplement my reading, I like to try and catch myself whenever I wander to a mindless site. When I do, I shut the tab and read a couple of pages out of whatever book I’m working on.

What kind of books have an impact on your writing?

Why the Hell Are You Blogging?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Seems like it should answer itself.

The unfortunate reality is that it doesn’t. So I ask again, why the hell are you blogging?

One of the toughest things to do in business (as in life) is to turn an introspective eye. You either understand your own goals and motivations or you don’t. And if you say, “Because everyone else is,” then maybe you should reconsider.

Who am I?

Not one single person in the history of business made a real name for herself by following the crowd. Justifying your actions based on groupthink is inexcusable. How often do we question our own motives?

Primarily, I’m writing this blog to establish my brand as a freelance copywriter, simplifying how I attract new clients. There are tons of secondary motives, including some that are slightly less narcissistic (emphasis on slightly). The main point is that I understand exactly why I’m doing this.

So why are you doing it? Maybe you’re using it to improve your organization’s credibility and visibility. In some cases, you may be trying to make money directly through advertisements.

Identifying your motives is the first step. Don’t forget: it’s also important to understand how your motives align with the goals of your audience.

Some Writers Take Advantage

The internet is rife with misinformation. It’s the era of pageview journalism. Publishers across the web are more concerned with making a quick buck than providing useful, timely and accurate information.

Which side are you on?

If you write for an organization, you’re competing for pageviews too. But you’re writing for a narrow audience. Some people need or want your product or service more than others, and that’s who you’re after. Because you’re looking to (perhaps) form a longer lasting business relationship, you and your audience both benefit from high-quality content.

Unfortunately, pageview journalism doesn’t work quite the same way. I’ve written about why it’s important to be wary of what you read online. Dissected, the reasons for this danger are pretty clear. Writers who make money through advertisements want to draw in any and every eyeball they can get. As a result, you get sensational headlines, coverage that doesn’t fit their format and poorly written or researched articles that no one should be reading.

I ask you again: what are your motives? Which side are you on?

Someone somewhere will read your blog. In my opinion, you have a responsibility to even that one reader to create accurate, helpful content.

It’s time to turn the mirror on ourselves. Figuring out your motives gives you a real opportunity to align them with your audience’s goals and desires.

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.