Category Archives: communications

Qualifying evidence customers: When the love isn’t there

Certain things you never want to hear from people. When a sales manager explained to me, “I’m a numbers guy and judge a lot from the dollar results I see,” I knew I was in for harangue about my poor performance. And when a boss asked me, “How can I help you,” I could see that this was the kiss of death in our relationship.

When you are managing and creating customer evidence, you never want to hear a customer ask, “What’s in it for me?” Sure, you can try to answer the question. If your brand is strong, customers might like to be associated with it. They might enjoy telling their story and seeing it published. Although, if that were the case, they probably would have thought of it themselves. If you hear this question, you are likely talking to the wrong person at a bad time.

I have managed a lot of evidence projects and written many case studies myself, as you can see in my portfolio. If customers don’t feel so enthusiastic about your product or service that they will gladly offer to support a case study, a video, or whatever it is you want to produce, they should not be in your evidence program. More often than not, the projects will fail. They never really get off the ground, stall in reviews, or the customers will have so many change requests that the result is watered-down and worthless. Really, you only want to produce evidence with customers who would never even think to ask, “What’s in it for me?”

Your customers don’t feel like this about you? Don’t even think about evidence. Make them happy first.

I know life isn’t really like that. Too many evidence managers are under pressure from their bosses, the marketing group, or the sales organization to produce a certain number of case studies, videos, podcasts, or what-have-you, often within a short timeframe. They get barely qualified evidence leads from the field or the channel partners. They may not have time to have an in-depth conversation with the customers, who don’t always know what to expect. Then it’s time for the case study writer or video producer to start working, and there is the question you don’t want to hear. Consider the project over. Find a graceful way to let it go without making the customer feel bothered and bewildered.

Companies spend many millions of dollars on producing customer evidence that doesn’t pay off because the results are just not all that interesting, credible, or fun to read and watch. Some enterprises make participation in evidence projects part of the sales contract, but that does not necessarily mean the outcome is any better. It’s just more difficult for the customer to turn down a request.

You really want evidence only from those customers who see so much value in your offerings and the relationship with your company that they will love you for asking them to support an evidence project and can’t wait to meet with your case study writers or video producers. It’s much better to have one or two credible, enjoyable evidence pieces than a dozen that lack strong proof points or sound like PR releases. If you’re an evidence manager, your job satisfaction will go way up. The customers will be even happier than before. And your company saves the exorbitant costs of producing poor evidence.

It’s not a dream, is it? We’ll talk more.

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Let your content include obituaries

I always read the obits. Article-length obits in the Guardian and the New York Times are usually very well-written, although the paid obits in the NYT are usually as pretentious and badly put together as anything you will see in a small-town paper. The Guardian’s other lives obits feature wonderful portraits of notable, relatively unknown people. The Seattle Times generally does a decent job and encourages people to get creative with pictures and stories in paid obits (which thereby become more profitable). When I’m away from home, I always buy local newspapers and magazines and, yes, I’ll read the obits every day. If I wouldn’t have paid attention to the obits, I still wouldn’t know about such incredible people as Patrick Leigh Fermor or Horacio Coppola.

A German “notification of death”

In other countries, the obits tell you a lot about how people feel about death and dying, who they love and what they fear. There’s nothing like the tense emotion, expressed in few well-chosen words, of the “Todesanzeige” (notification of death) in German newspapers. In Italian cities, you see obit posters on billboards and walls, often next to advertising, often with heartfelt messages and beautiful photographs of the deceased.

But when it comes to companies? Nothing, really. You find pictures, bios, and lists of the leadership group, key people, or even the entire team. Sometimes, a notice may commemorate a founder or past CEO who is no longer living. For the most part, nobody seems to die at work, or if they do, it’s a tragedy of which you don’t want to remind anybody. That’s too bad.

If I were apply for a job or wanted to choose a product or service, I would definitely read a company’s obits first. In doing so, I would look to get a sense of how the organization treats and values people. After all—let’s get real—people do die while they have jobs, and it will probably happen more and more. By choice or because of necessity, many of us will still be employed when we die, although probably very few of us will have this happen to them while we’re in the actual workplace—although that, too, is not uncommon.

So, why not publish obituaries along with your other content?

Italian billboard obits

They should be part of the “about” section. Recent obits would stay up for a certain amount of time, say 90 days. After that, they would be in an archive, where one could still access them. As employees get older and are not ready to withdraw from the workplace, you might even bring up the subject with them—maybe they would like to write their own. I know I’d take the opportunity.

What should be included in an employee obit? Here are some suggestions:

  • Basics of the employee’s biography and family
  • Role or roles at the company
  • Special accomplishments and awards, including unique contributions to the company
  • If you can state it authentically, how the person felt about working at the company—what the engagement meant
  • The employee’s unique style in leadership, communications, building relationships, serving clients and customers, designing innovation, and so on
  • How the deceased mentored and supported other employees
  • Quotes from colleagues and customers about this person
  • What the employee was known for—creativity, tenacity, sense of humor, efficiency, warmth, and other qualities
  • A photo portrait from early in the life of the employment relationship, and one from later

If you have a writer develop the story of a deceased employee with respect, elegance, and good taste, and publish it, I promise people will appreciate it—not just the employee’s family and colleagues, but also the customers and business partners you deal with. While death is a taboo subject for many of us, we all know it will happen to everybody without exception, it doesn’t help pretending otherwise, and we actually appreciate some assistance in facing reality. And, not to be crass, there is a business advantage to offering great obits on your site. If you honor your people in a beautiful, written appreciation, you will definitely stand out from the many companies that would never consider doing so. It shows that you are more mature, caring, realistic, and thoughtful than they are. Who knows, maybe even your products and services are more deserving of consideration than theirs.

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Three flavors of Nutella marketing

Do you like Nutella? I admit I do. I know it’s not exactly a health food. Nutella used to be a luxury item in our house, but by now I buy a new plastic container whenever we run out. Many years ago, Nutella came in glass jars and became dry and brittle if you didn’t eat it soon. And, if you can imagine that, it was even harder to wash off spreading knives than it is today. First brought to market in 1964, Nutella once was an artisanal, not an industrial, product. The original recipe was based on a dessert in North Italian “cucina povera,” the cooking of the poorer people.

On a slow day, I found it interesting to take a look at the Italian, French, and U.S. Nutella sites and informally compare them. Considering that Nutella is a simple breakfast spread, I found an astounding amount of messages and content to review. You may think people eating Nutella the world around are all about the same—they like the flavor, the smell, the sensation of spreading the product on warm toast, and how nice it feels if you don’t eat too much of it. But the marketers clearly don’t think so. A lot of this may seem trivial, but a lot of thinking and discussion clearly went into it.

The U.S. site presents a large, static picture of a woman and three children.

Nutella USA

They are all smiling. Each of the children has an untouched slice of white bread with Nutella, smeared with great regularity, no closer to the edge of the bread than about an inch. Links above and clickable graphics below take you to content about the product’s history, sweepstakes, merchandise, and Facebook page.

The Italian and German pages are much more fragmented—they look like European tabloids. They also have rotating content highlights at the top level of the site. Currently, the European soccer championship games are still going on. The German site offers Nutella-filled glasses with pictures of the national team’s players. In typical German fashion (I remember), there’s not a square millimeter left Nutella-free on the surface of the half bun that illustrates what you’re supposed to do with the product. Cookbooks are very popular in Germany, and so is authoritative research. The site lets you purchase a Nutella cookbook, read Nutella-sponsored research about German breakfast habits, and buy fine German cutlery from marketing partner WMF.

Nutella Deutschland

The Italian site plays you a video with opera-like, Nutella-praising vocals on the soundtrack. I’ve seen many times that Italian marketing has fun playing with opera-related clichés. The people depicted here are healthy-looking, youthful adults. No families with children, which you see on the U.S. and German sites. Italian Nutella wants to be cool and sexy, whereas U.S. and German Nutella aims for a happy family around the breakfast table. And, as you probably know, many contemporary Italians are reluctant to have children. With all the different graphical elements, I find the Italian Nutella homepage a bit too busy (but I’m from Germany, of course) and didn’t want to stay long, but it’s very typical for Italian consumer marketing.

Nutella Italia

As one might expect, the Italian Nutella site features the product’s history very prominently. You can review several sections with historical content and download a PDF if you’re really into it. The voice of the copy here is full of pride. If you are really serious about Nutella, read the surprisingly loquacious blog. The writing uses a personable, occasionally authoritative style, especially when it addresses parents who are to give their children a good, Nutella-enhanced breakfast. I did enjoy the entry about edible utensils—cups, spoons, and stirrers that slowly dissolve or can be nibbled. Probably not the best things to put into your body, but remember where we found this content. There’s also an entry about an iPad app that lets you keep your coffee warm by setting the cup on the device. Is that really a good idea?

The German site has a list of FAQs, but very little additional content outside of special and co-marketing offers. The U.S. site offers more material, including a page about Nutella and Family. The content is partly derivative of an entry on the Italian Nutella blog, but the tone is a little less formal and it’s more unabashedly a marketing statement. Do the Nutella marketers think of Americans as family types that can tolerate marketing messages and glean interesting content from them better than a lot of other people? The history section of the U.S. site is very brief, but it does show you a picture of Pietro Ferrero, who started it all. Somebody must also have thought that the American viewers like illustrations, but don’t want to see too much in the way of words and detail.

The treatment of social media is interesting, too, and maybe it echoes the maturity of Facebook acceptance. In many ways and over and over, the Italian site suggests you join and like Nutella on Facebook. The U.S. site is quite restrained about that—one hint in the southeast corner of the pages is enough. And the German site? It’s even more matter-of-fact than that, with a small-scale invitation at the bottom left.

I could go on, but won’t. But now I wonder if Nutella tastes different in Italy, Germany, and the U.S. There’s one way to find out.

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How to write badly (2): Think creatively about redundancies

We continue our series on writing badly, which started with minimal hyperbole a few days ago.

Marketing writers often think that the more they repeat their message, the better the impact. Often, they are also afraid of leaving anything unsaid—a reader might harbor doubts or even miss the point entirely, so it’s best to approach it from different angles. Distracted audiences might not even pay attention the first time they hear something, but maybe they’ll do better the second or third time. Apply this principle to writing content, and it will help you fill screens and pages quickly and result in the sort of labored prose that is a hallmark of accomplished bad-writing style. Thus: Recommended. If you want to stay within the healthy parameters of accepted writing behaviors and avoid surprising readers, you need to build redundancies into your copy.

As a bad writer, you need to guard carefully against your natural inclination to avoid redundancies.

Get creative in what you think of as repetitions and redundancies. You need to be bit subtle about it, or your readers will catch on to what you’re doing and think it’s some kind of gullibility or perseverance test. You need to keep your redundancies varied, or the audience will drift away. As you practice, start by creating redundancy within a sentence, using two or three similar expressions when one would suffice, be enough, or make your point. At the next stage, which requires a little more effort, you can elegantly repeat the content of entire sentences. Going beyond single words and short phrases, entertain your audience by rephrasing certain statements.

If you want to take redundancy to a higher level, you need to do a little planning. Have you seen those white papers in which the executive summary, introduction, and conclusion are alike except for some turns of phrase? That takes work. Or, consider case studies. Many times, a case study or success story introduces certain issues an organization experienced. Then, the writer tells you how the company used a product or service to address these issues, which can be happily recapitulated at that point. Finally, a concluding section presents what changed, giving room to restate the issues a third time. Even better, supporting quotes can echo the narrative with comparable redundancies. Customer evidence is practically the Holy Grail for writers who are dedicated to the pursuit of redundancy. I know some people are trying to move away from the gold standard, but many case study writers and their readers proudly and passively lag behind. You don’t want to go out on a limb, straying from the norm.

If your boss or client still has budget left to spend on your contributions, you can dream up entire deliverables that are completely redundant. Don’t try it with case studies—it’s too darn obvious when one company starts sounding like another. I’ve seen this done very well with white papers, where the risk of somebody reading more than one is low in any case. Also, with fact sheets, easy to knock off and quickly repeated for other offerings. A tip: If you want to test whether people actually read your materials, insert some completely off-the-wall content near the end and see if anybody comments. If they stay quiet, you’re free to repeat whatever you like, as long as you like.

Redundancy, already bad in itself in most writing unless it’s an opera libretto, can be worse if you apply yourself. Stay tuned as we explore complementary techniques. Mistakes will be made, again.

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How to hire a good editor and avoid the psychopaths in the business

Good for you. You want to keep the quality of your communications and marketing materials high by bringing an editor on. Times are tough. Many editors don’t have work. It should be easy to get a few folks in to interview.

But how do you find a good candidate? You want somebody who quickly learns your business, works well with your people, and makes your materials better, day after day. Is that too much to ask?

Sometimes it would appear so. Many editors will take a bit of time to find out what you’re about, won’t get along well with your other employees, and will make changes in your documents without improving the quality or consistency.

The editing role can bring out the worst in certain people. Some years ago, I worked with an editor who, starting with day two on the job, instructed writers to take certain approaches in their drafts and, at the next draft stage, demanded changes to be made just so. As writers immediately noticed, this editor didn’t really get what the technologies and supporting marketing pieces were meant to help people accomplish and understand. The editor’s approach was abrupt, evidencing a complete lack of social skills. Writers soon found a way to work around this person. Mercifully, after a few weeks managers made a change to restore editorial sanity and returned a previous contractor who knew the technologies well and had friendly relationships with writers.

Your editor candidates don’t need to be saints. But they should be able to demonstrate competence and collegiality.

Elsewhere, I’ve watched editors have highly emotional exchanges regarding their arbitrary preferences for capitalizing or hyphenating certain words. Editors have told me they make changes in my copy because of “pet peeves” or because they have an “aversion” to a certain expression. Maybe tempted by what they think of as power in their positions, some editors seem thrilled when they have a chance to lay down the law. Even James Kilpatrick, who enjoyed huge audiences as an ultra-conservative columnist and one-time racist, felt it was necessary to playfully assemble an imaginary law court to decide the language issues he also wrote about.

You don’t want any of this. Hiring editorial psychopaths can disrupt your marketing team, ruin the quality of your communications, and cost a lot of money. You want your editor to make copy changes because they improve the quality of the language—nothing else.

Do this. When you are serious about a potential editor, ask this person to spend a little time in your office to edit a page or two of draft content (and consider paying them for their time and trouble). Next, have the candidate take a few minutes to talk you through the revisions. If you hear about likes and dislikes or other personal choices, or if the editor gets testy, thank the candidate and move on. Your new editor needs to be able to justify every single change and explain how it improves the copy by strengthening its voice, making it easier to read, aligning it with your style guide, making it grammatically correct, and getting the target audience to enjoy it. What’s more, if you can receive these comments in a professional, even-handed manner, it’s likely that your candidate will also be able to communicate and work well with your writers and subject matter experts.

Of course, you will also do your due diligence and verify that your new editor is familiar with style sheets and contemporary tools of the trade. Do not take this for granted. A surprising number of hopeful editors avoid new editing software tools and will prefer to work as they always have. Reference checks will help in this area, although they won’t turn anything up if a candidate you consider has acted imperially or manifested other editorial pathologies in an earlier position. That’s why you need to have the test first and the talk afterwards.

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How to write badly: Keeping a healthy balance

Considering the popularity of bad writing in commercial and technical communications and marketing, it’s surprising that only very little credible guidance is available to help writers out. Most of the training and coaching for writers directs them toward excellence, not mediocrity. Is that really helpful? It seems to me that there’s way too much help available for a writer who wants to be good, but next to none for somebody who aspires to awfulness. Obviously, a lot of businesses, organizations, and public-sector entities prefer writing of poor quality. Writers need to be up to the task, and I’ll do my best to help us out. I know this will take serious effort and perseverance from you and me. Like anything that’s worth doing, bad writing doesn’t happen all by itself. I will get to the details of the discipline in an informal series of blog posts.

For today, let’s consider one important principle. Don’t overdo it.

You know why? Imagine a screen or page jammed with vague generalities, patronizing language, redundancies, jargon, passive voice, cute alliterations, puns, acronyms, clichés, very long sentences, recycled headlines, pronouns without clear antecedents, and so forth. Will anybody read it? Of course not. Viewers will stumble at the end of the second or third line, roll their eyes, and move on.

That’s not what you want. You need them to stay with you to the last miserable word, or they won’t get what you’re telling them, and your clients, if you are a commercial writer, won’t get their money’s worth. Readers expect to see what they know—some inarticulate, immature writing, but also some actual content that interests them and is not entirely what they’ve read before. Therefore, you need to learn to be disciplined in your pursuit of poor prose. A pun in the headline is fine, especially if it’s ambiguous. A ludicrous generalization in the first sentence, great—it will irritate some and make others curious. But after that, take it easy. Try to deliver at least a couple of sentences that introduce your subject in an attractive manner before you take a dive. At that point, think about offering a long, maybe not quite grammatical sentence that also includes a quote from a famous subject-matter expert. After that, try for a surprise—a clear, concise statement in fresh language. But be sure to follow that up with a non-sequitur generalization. See, you have already found your rhythm!

Many kindly readers know to expect and accept this writing style. Often, they don’t have a choice, because they have to make do with what they get from their bosses, vendors, business partners, even their friends and colleagues. And, in any case, a lifetime of exposure to poor writing works like anesthesia. It doesn’t really rattle you until you come out of it.

So remember: Your bad writing can’t be extreme. It needs to come across as genuine and unintended. Like it or not, you will have to sprinkle it generously with almost flawless, even luminous verbiage.

Mistakes need to be made, will be made—brilliantly. More soon!

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Sweet Tibetan Tea

I was thirsty and found myself at a PCC in Seattle. I wanted something to drink that was neither plain water nor some sugary juice. I saw a row of cans of Tibetan Tea and tried it. I dare you to match the copy on the side of the can for sheer over-the-top nerve and pretentiousness. If you do, I’ll buy you a cup of real tea. This what it says, missing article and all: “Our mission is to reveal raw truth of the world’s invisible. Every sip gives voice to the unheard.”

The invisible what, you wonder. Give it some thought and maybe it will come to you.

An empty can of Tibetan Tea

The can’s content provided me with 200 calories I didn’t need. It was extremely sweet; the second ingredient on a list that includes “natural flavors” is sucrose. Another is “tea”, but it’s not made clear what kind. I’m not sure how “Tibetan” this drink is. Probably about as much as bottled Italian salad dressing is Italian. The mention of Tibet here means to garner sympathy and, thereby, foster sales. Not that that’s bad, but it might seem jarring to people who associate certain values with the country. Intrigued by a detail I noticed in the manufacturer’s address, I strolled to the Tibetan Tea site when I was back in my office. Disappointingly, there weren’t any more dramatic marketing statements, just a couple of modern-orientalist touches in the copy.

But listen. There is another story here, too. I had met Penny Stafford, the owner, before. She used to have a fine, small coffee shop in Bellevue called I Belvi, which was supposed to be the Italian for “The Wild Animals” (and unfortunately included a grammatical error). She made excellent espresso that I drank many times. Penny always had a friendly word for her guests, and enjoyed sharing about the animal rescue efforts she was active in. Starbucks, which has several locations not far away, did its best to ruin her. Starbucks representatives even handed out samples of Starbucks coffee in front of her business. This was outrageous enough to come to the attention of the local media. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, still a going concern at the time, published an article about Penny and her determination to survive.

Eventually, I Belvi closed. But it wasn’t Starbucks that did it in. Construction projects across the street brought lot of workers to the coffee shop. Some of them treated the place like an extension of the job site, visiting in noisy groups, talking loudly on their mobile phones and Motorola intercom devices, leering at Penny, and making the place unpleasant for the rest of us. I quit going there and probably some other people did, too. At some point, I noticed the new buildings were done and the coffee shop no longer there. That made me feel bad. Maybe I’m wrong, and Penny closed because she was ready to do something else, not because nobody came for coffee anymore. In any case, I’m glad she’s on to another venture, sweet as it is. And, I appreciate that she’s apparently still involved in helping animals in need.

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Hello, there. Nice to see you here!

Thanks for stopping by! My name is Chris Lemoine. I live in Seattle, Washington, United States. I’m a writer and traveler who usually earns his living as a marketing writer, content strategist, and account manager. In this blog, I will share ideas and experiences related to writing, content development, communications, languages, and travels. If you want to see pictures from trips, visit Imagerie Lemoine. You can also find my profile on LinkedIn. Feel free to connect or send mail, especially if you’re thinking about sending me work. I’ll be happy to discuss projects anytime.

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