Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to attendees at an American Marketing Association Skill School workshop on long-form marketing writing. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this, and I have to admit I had a great time! Thank you everybody for coming. I love the idea that all the things I’ve learned about writing can be passed on to help other writers in their jobs — and help their organizations be more successful.
I received mostly good marks on the evaluations, which always makes a person feel good. However, I asked attendees to give me constructive advice and list subjects they would like to know more about that were not covered in the workshop. They suggested adding information about the topics below. I’ll share a few minor bits of wisdom here, then consider covering some of the topics in future blogs.
Headlines. This is, of course, one of the most important parts of writing successful blogs, e-books, white papers and other longform marketing pieces, because it draws people in to read your longform marketing piece so you can begin building relationships with them. Some of the best advice I have heard on headline writing is from Copyblogger. Do a search for “headline writing copyblogger” to see a variety of past blogs they’ve offered. For the most part, you need to keep headlines brief, concrete and true to the payoff in the article. What do I mean by concrete? That means giving the reader’s brain something to chew on — something visual, unusual or even onomatopoeic (the words sound like what they are describing). Avoid click bait headlines readers are getting used to ignoring (e.g., “15 Ways to…”) In my experience, if you’re writing about something readers truly want to learn, the headline just needs to let them know what they will find in the article.
Breaking up content. We covered some of this in the workshop, with a discussion of the logical flow of ideas. As long as you are presenting facts and ideas to the reader in an order that allows them to consume the information comfortably, you can really do it almost any way you want to. However, that usually means putting information into a variety of clear categories. This also might involve limiting the scope of the content in any one blog. Be sure not to cover too much at once, because readers’ attention spans are short. Subheads are not only a great way to break up content, but provide a good opportunity for search engine optimization. Although it is not always clear what Google and other search engines look for, most SEO experts I know say keywords in headlines and subheads count more than some other places in the content. Note that the headlines and subheads must be designated as official “headings.” That means highlighting the headline/subhead and choosing a heading font.
How do you overcome your own fear to start a project? What motivates you to finish? This challenge is most likely different for everybody! Writing definitely can be intimidating, especially if you’re not used to doing it every day. Some people call the inability to get started on a piece of writing “writer’s block.” However, I’ve never really felt I had writer’s block. For me, it’s more like a mental cloud. It doesn’t feel like my brain will latch onto the topic. In my own case, to overcome this barrier to beginning a project, I sometimes have to trick myself. For example, I’ll often dictate my thoughts about the topic, which instantly puts words on the page. Once something is there, it doesn’t feel as intimidating. In the workshop, we also talked about building writing habits. This may sound like a fluffy piece of advice, but I can tell you that my writer’s “muscle memory” has come to my rescue many times. I try not to think about what I’m working on too much when I sit down at the desk. I just let my mind take over and begin or finish a project. This is where the impulsivity I talked about in the workshop comes in. I sort of let my impulsivity have its head and take over for a moment while I sit back and “watch”. I do have to admit, I love impressing my clients. Many times, that’s my motivation for finishing a project. I not only want them to be satisfied with the finished product, I want them to send me an email that says, “I can’t believe how good this is!” It doesn’t happen every time, but because I strive toward it, I do get comments like that — and I love them!
What are creative ways to avoid “groupthink” in writing that has to be reviewed and approved by multiple stakeholders? If you work for an organization, there’s really no way to avoid this, unless you can convince your superiors to limit the number of stakeholders allowed to comment on marketing pieces. However, in my experience, as long as I am acknowledging the advice given by all stakeholders, I satisfy their need to be involved. Sometimes, all I have to do is say, “Thank you for your input. I will seriously consider your suggestions!” If I’m getting too many edits from a group of stakeholders, I will be very honest with them about the extra work this causes, and ask them to limit their suggestions to only those items that are necessary. In a few cases, I and my superiors informed stakeholders they were not allowed to make language changes, but could only call out technical, legal and other substantive changes that absolutely must be made. It helps to require stakeholders to provide edits on printed drafts. They are less likely to go crazy then if they are making changes in a Google doc, where it’s difficult to see who has changed what. Handwritten edits allow you and/or your editor to address each suggested change separately and decide what you will include. Make sure stakeholders sign their names to the documents they are providing.
Writing for SEO. This is a huge topic! I will publish a blog about this topic sometime in the near future. For now, my best advice is to work with SEO marketing experts to ensure your efforts are accomplishing what you want them to. It is now almost a necessity for marketing writers to work with SEO analytics experts to make this happen, because competition for key terms is so high and technology is so sophisticated. In many cases, it’s not worth the effort to try to get first-page placement, except as it might relate to your specific geographical location. Longtail keywords and keyword combinations can also help you improve search results. There are some basic SEO writing guidelines I follow, no matter who I’m working with on SEO. Keywords still ARE important, from what I understand, even though Google has said its algorithms do not emphasize keywords as much as before. I always try to make sure one or two primary keywords are identified, then include them in headlines, subheads, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph of any longform piece. Keywords in boldface, italics or all caps also garner more “points” from Google, but if the usage is not natural, I’m told it can also get you “negative points.” I used to calculate the percentage of occurrences of keywords within each piece, but I’m told it’s not as important now with Google’s latest algorithms. The most important principle to follow, and my best advice for writing to improve search engine optimization is complete to make sure you are writing rich, applicable, compelling content for your customers on a very clear topic. In fact, Google says this is what its algorithms are designed to identify and reword. Yes, use your keywords, along with alternate ways of saying the same things, but make sure when someone reaches your blog or white paper that it provides truly useful information.
How to write when you’re not the expert in the subject. Over the years, I have worked with many different organizations, industries and products. This is what I do best: absorb information about unfamiliar topics, search for clues to the best ways to connect with my clients’ customers, and right pieces that hit the spot (help them carry out their strategy)! First, ideally, you need a good content expert. Someone from the company who deals in the exact topic you’re writing about should be able to give you authentic information that helps establish your organization as an expert source, which is one of the best ways to not only build relationships with new customers, but retain the loyalty of existing customers. More often than not, your content expert will not be as good a writer as you — or may not understand marketing strategy in ways that make longform marketing pieces successful. However, through content-expert interviews, you can dig for industry terms, knowledge, advice and other information your readers will be hungry for. Ask your interviewee to slow down and take a little bit of time with you to really think things through, then explain what they know and how the topic relates to your customers. You can also find clues in existing materials. Even if you don’t completely understand technical material, you can often harvest terms and main ideas that add an element of authenticity and meaning for your readers. This would be another great topic for a Foster Writing blog, so I will put it on the list.
Samples — who is doing long for marketing writing well? This is a great idea, and I will begin gathering up samples to share on this blog and in the upcoming mastermind group for marketing writers.
Research. This is another topic that could fill an entire workshop day! We will talk more about research in the mastermind group. The quality of your research directly impacts the quality of your writing. You’ll see a couple of ideas in the previous section of this blog about writing when you’re not the expert. Some brief tidbits of advice include: 1) making sure you are getting research from original sources to ensure accuracy/truth; 2) going outside the box to find peripheral information that fits your topic to add richness to your piece; and 3) pre-organizing your material, so it’s less time-consuming to put your outline together and begin writing.
Why is writing today different? This is an excellent question, and there are so many answers! To begin with, language has become such a ubiquitous part of life in general, thanks to the Internet. We are constantly reading, attempting to comprehend, translating, and writing responses to social media. This has made reading and writing a commodity. There are good things and bad things about that. It’s good that more people are becoming familiar with the process of writing. However, strict grammar, punctuation and structure often have fallen by the wayside. One reason for this is the need for speed. My supervisors at Mutual of Omaha companies used to be able to give us a half a week to write an article — or more! Now, if we’re lucky, we get a day or two. I’ve noticed my marketing writing has become much more like newswriting: the facts come in, the writer whips out an article, and the senior editor marks it up for typesetting, all within an hour or two. Writing is also different today because our society has evolved. Many of us are doers, rather than thinkers. In “the olden days,” people did not have the constant barrage of technological toys and tools to keep them busy that we do, and writing letters, journals and stories were actually leisure time activities. On the other hand, some of us have become regular bloggers and article writers, just because we enjoy it or we want to support a cause important to us personally. It’s not unusual for these types of blogs to contain bad grammar and clunky language, but for some people it’s a beginning to learning how to write well. In marketing writing, writing well and following the rules of language is becoming more important, because it marks an organization as serious and professional. This can be a critical competitive advantage, depending on how closely prospects are comparing your company’s marketing materials with your competitors’. I will look into this some more in future blogs.
What skills are valued in writing positions? How do you find work you love, that you’re interested in? To answer this, I think I need to go back to the mantra I shared in the workshop: logical flow of ideas. If you can demonstrate you are an adept, clear thinker through well-written samples, it will go a long way toward landing you a job as a marketing writer. There are, of course, other types of writing positions, but marketing/communications writing is what I know best. Do I love it? That is a loaded question for me. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I’m a creative writer at heart, as are many of my serious colleagues in business writing. I have come to peace with this love-hate relationship with marketing writing through many trials as an employee and as a freelance/independent writer. In the end, it comes down to this: I love writing in general and I care about people. I always try to find elements of these two things in any project I’m working on. When I look for jobs, I look for opportunities that allow me to indulge these two things. I can overcome whatever else I don’t like about the job, if I can be writing and helping people. There are less esoteric concerns you should pay attention to, however, when you are looking for a job as a marketing writer. It’s good to have a marketing, PR, communications or business background to inform your writing, so it will be as effective as possible in helping implement marketing strategy. This background might be in the form of on-the-job training as a non-writing employee, or it might mean you have a degree in one of those areas. Having a background of some kind in your specific industry also will help you get a job as a writer in that industry. Some organizations that hire writers are looking for very specific skills, such as a SEO writing or technical writing. We should talk more about this in the mastermind group.
Persuasive writing for concept presentations. Although most marketing longform pieces involve either direct or indirect persuasion, persuasive concept presentations require a very specific type of writing. I don’t have time to focus on this here, but it is certainly a topic we can cover in the future. I have written many sales tracks, and this is one type of persuasive concept presentation that teaches you quickly what’s needed to elicit a change in behavior from your prospects. First, you have to find something you have in common with the reader to show them you understand their needs. Then, you have to anticipate their objections and give them information that minimizes those objections. (In some circles, that’s called “meeting the objection.”) Finally, you have to suggest a course of action and secure their agreement. (Something like this: “If you agree, I think we should go ahead and get this started on Monday!”) In my experience, finding a sincere message related to your topic goes a long way in persuading people to agree with your suggestions. A psychology minor was part of my undergraduate degree, and I have been astonished at how much it has helped me as a marketing writer. There’s a reason for that. Every buying decision is an emotional decision involving human psychology. Hope that helps for now!
How much do you charge for small group session? I am available for many different types of training and coaching. In addition to the mastermind group we are launching with a free information session on May 18, 2017, I can provide one-on-one or small group sessions tailored to your needs. If this is needed, or if you would like more information about the mastermind, please call me and we’ll discuss it: 402-601-5483.
What are some resources for people who are not good with grammar? In general, I suggest business writers study the Associated Press stylebook. If you subscribe to the online version, you can sign up for quizzes and notification of new entries to help you come up to speed and keep up with the latest changes in grammar. AP style is used primarily by newswriters, but most marketing writers also are very familiar with this style. It is a more streamlined, no-nonsense style than other stylebooks, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. However, the AP stylebook is not as extensive, so I use the Chicago Manual of Style as a secondary resource. For spelling, a common resource is the Merriam Webster dictionary. All of these resources have online versions that are very convenient for marketing writers. It’s okay to find clues to grammar usage through online searches, but look for well-known, trusted sources if proper grammar is important to the projects you’re working on. If you’re starting from scratch with grammar and language construction, I suggest you take a traditional class or two at a local community college. There are other online sources that can help you stay up-to-date with grammar, as well. A couple I know about are Grammarly and Grammar Girl. Jump right in and sign up for their email notifications and digests! Grammar and punctuation are fun — like doing puzzles all day! Embrace the search for perfect grammar, and you will soon find yourself navigating words with ease.
I think that includes all the questions and suggestions on the evaluations from my recent American Marketing Association workshop. If you attended the workshop and have additional questions, please send them to me at Kindra@Fosterwriting.com, and I will post some more answers. Also, visit the Facebook page for Foster Executive Writing and Editing. When I have my act together, I post writing, grammar and punctuation tips. Feel free to leave your own there, as well!
Until next time…