Five Writing Tips for More Engaging Copy

My cute kindergartener

This month, I’m preparing a seminar for public health researchers aiming to improve their writing and bulk up their portfolios of academic papers. At the same time, I’m helping my 5-year-old learn to read and express himself via the glorious written word.

These two activities have a surprising amount in common, especially when it comes to the fundamentals.

What writing tips can an audience of post-grads and my kindergartener both rely on? The same five things we all need to keep in mind when we sit down to compose an e-mail, write a news release, complete a blog post or develop marketing collateral:

1)     Check your work.

After you’ve drafted an e-mail to your boss, do you take a moment to read over it before hitting send? You should – and you must take several passes through any copy meant to share in a meeting, with customers or for publication.

This old homework adage sounds elementary (because it is), but it’s surprising how many folks consider their first draft a masterpiece. Depending on what you’re developing, your best stuff may emerge in the third or fourth version. Commit the time and energy to refine your writing with the following steps.

2)     Sound it out.

How can you tell a great writer from a good one? Watch for moving lips.

For my son, the sounding-out applies to reading: the “buh” and “ee” reveal “be” for him. For writers, reading out loud can uncover misplaced commas, inconsistencies in verb tense, run-on sentences and more.

Before you finalize a piece, verbalize the draft to make sure it flows. If you bore or confuse yourself, or so

mething just doesn’t sound quite right, get back into editing mode.

3)     Keep it short.

The books my son reads (the good ones) deliver a complete plot in under 40 words. In contrast, the academics at my seminar will submit 5,000-word papers – and it’ll be a challenge for them to squeeze into that constraint.

Although the vehicles are different, the concept is the same: effective writing uses as few words as possible to convey a message. When you’ve finished a first draft, take stock of the word count. Then cut 25 percent off that number by eliminating unnecessary content.

4)     Use active voice.

My son doesn’t know an active from a passive verb yet, but he gravitates to books written in active voice.

Why the heck would he want to read this…

The light saber was swung around by Billy.

… versus this active alternative:

Billy slashed the light saber through the air, striking the imaginary Darth Vader.

For inspiration beyond Star Wars, check out this list of action verbs appropriate for professional content and even research papers.

Conversely, here is a list of passive verbs worth avoiding: Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, does, did. Of course, sometimes these words are necessary, but to create engaging copy, they should be the exception.

5)     Work hard, go outside and play, then revisit your writing.

Ever find yourself stuck in the middle of writing copy? Put the project down, go hit the monkey bars (or the office coffee machine), and then return to your piece when you’re fresh. Often, a new perspective will gives the extra oomph you’ll need to finish the job.

What fundamental tips do you rely on to create your best writing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Permanent link to this article: http://alleybc.com/five-writing-tips-for-more-engaging-copy/

Grand Theft Social Media: Pinterest and Google+ ideas worth stealing

Recently the uber public relations and communications news source, Ragan Communications, launched two wonderfully simple and universal new endeavors on Pinterest and Google+.

The best part about Ragan’s great ideas? You can steal them!

If you think your business doesn’t fit the typical profile for these platforms (i.e., a visually compelling fashion, design, or entertainment brand for Pinterest or an organization appealing to the primary Google+ audience of tech-savvy, male early adopters), these tactics may be especially inspirational for you.

1) Local attractions page on Pinterest

Ragan Communications created this Pinterest page for attendees at its Social Media for HR and Internal Communications Conference.

It highlights great Chicago restaurants and attractions – including the Billy Goat Tavern, made famous in the SNL “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” skit – and makes it easy for conference-goers to find a good bite after their meetings. Who else could do this?

  • Event planners of all types can use this model (personally, I’d love to see more interactive guides like this for professional meetings, music festivals, weddings, you name it).
  • Convention centers, hotels, concert halls and other venues that host regular get-togethers are prime candidates to elevate this beyond a single-use tactic, and create more enduring pages that support strategic public relations initiatives.
  • With a page like this, regional hospitals and medical ce

    nters would provide a real service to patients and their families visiting from out of the area.

  • Let’s not forget tourism organizations, municipalities, chambers of commerce and other geographically defined business networking groups.

2) Book club on Google+

Ragan’s Healthcare Communication News team started a Google+ book club for hospital and healthcare communicators. Although there’s a fair amount of criticism about Google+ and its prospects for the future, the thing I love about the book club idea is that it leverages the most notably unique feature of this platform: a hangout, or video chat.

After reading pre-assigned portions of the book, members of Ragan’s club will share their thoughts and talk face-to-face via a hangout. Others who don’t want to join in the actual discussion will be able to watch the hangout in real-time.

There are endless opportunities to replicate and build on this model, inviting customers or audience members to participate in a shared experience, and giving them a platform to connect and voice their opinions. For example:

  • Patient advocacy groups that need to bring together individuals or caregivers struggling with a similar condition.
  • In the time surrounding a significant industry event – regulatory development or significant legal ruling – accountants, lawyers or other professional services providers may bring together clients to share information or garner feedback.

Do these tactics spark ideas for you and your brand? Have you initiated your own unique use of Pinterest or Google+? If so, share your story in the comments below!

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Permanent link to this article: http://alleybc.com/grand-theft-social-media-pinterest-and-google-ideas-worth-stealing/

Inserting your message into the news (without scrambling)

Credit: HMVH via Flickr

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Newsjacking, a new book by David Meerman Scott that details ways to inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself.

Kivi Leroux Miller wrote a great breakdown on her blog for non-profits. Last week, she took her own advice, turning a blog post on the Komen Foundation debacle into an interview on Politico.

Newsjacking gets your name, company or cause into the news after someone else has done the heavy lifting. Essentially, when a reporter is covering breaking news, you have an opportunity to quickly step in with information that provides context for the story or offers a fresh, local and/or fun perspective. The concept itself has been around for years. In the days before social media, we called this garnering “coattail coverage” – name’s not as sexy, but still equally effective to co-opt news originally driven by others.

Coattailing or newsjacking involve moving fast to jump on breaking news, but there are several planned, proactive ways to insert your message into stories . Here are a few ideas to leverage opportunities without scrambling:

1)   Prepare material: Years ago, the agency I worked for represented a not-for-profit sexual assault resource center in the Pacific Northwest. Recognizing that local media would inevitably (unfortunately) cover stories about incidences of sexual assault, we prepared briefs ahead of time: stranger-danger checklists, personal safety tips, overviews of grooming techniques used by assailants, statistics on assaults in our area. If a story broke in the morning, we could tweak approved content, confirm with our client, and share it with beat reporters along with an offer to interview the organization’s director. Often, reporters welcomed the interview, and turned the tips into broadcast graphics and print sidebars. Today, there is the option of posting material to a blog and then e-mailing or tweeting a link to a target journalist.

2)   Establish relationships: Why wait for a story to break? If you have expertise in a certain

field, form ongoing re

lationships with beat reporters and bloggers so they know they can call you for analysis and commentary. If you’re in the same geographic area, invite them to meet for lunch or coffee. When you’re targeting trade media, set up backgrounder meetings at industry conferences. Follow journalists and influentials on Twitter, and share story ideas (not always about you) on an ongoing basis.

3)   Leverage editorial calendars: Newsjacking works because journalists need sources for the stories they’ve been assigned, and you – the expert – fill that need. There’s a similar mechanism at work at many trade publications and some consumer magazines, although with much longer lead times.

These outlets produce editorial calendars for advertisers, providing annual overviews of the topics they will cover each month so that ad reps can sell sponsors on relevant issues. When the editorial staff prepares for a certain issue with pre-set themes, they may welcome topical story and source ideas — this is your opening.

Obtain a copy of your target publication’s editorial calendar (usually housed on the advertising section of an outlet's website) and identify relevant topics. Send the editor a pitch detailing a newsworthy story idea and provide a little background on your expertise. Make sure you know the outlet’s lead time – some editors determine story topics and assign pieces six months before publication.

Depending on the strength of your pitch and the number of other people the reporter talks to, you may garner a quote or dominate the piece. Last year, a pitch on a relatively narrow topic turned into a feature story about my client’s approach to researching innovative healthcare information technology.

4)   Sign up for HARO: This is possibly the easiest thing you can do to insert yourself into planned stories.

HARO is a free, popular service that connects journalists and bloggers with expert sources. Writers submit queries detailing story topics and source needs, and queries are e-mailed to the list of HARO sources. A source then develops a killer pitch, sends it to the writer, and gets ready for her big interview. (Of course, successful pitches take some skill – perhaps a topic for another post – but here are some great tips directly from HARO.)

Services similar to HARO include PitchRate, which I have not yet tried, and ProfNet, which can be very useful but charges a subscription fee.

When it comes to co-opting the news, creative potential is unlimited. What are some of the approaches you’ve used to co-opt breaking news or planned stories? And if you've read Newsjacking, has the book been helpful?

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Permanent link to this article: http://alleybc.com/inserting-your-message-into-the-news/

Komen's PR Lessons

I loved walking the Seattle Breast Cancer 3-Day a few years ago. Now, it's disappointing to see Komen has violated so many fundamentals of PR.

The firestorm of criticism that the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation inflicted on itself this week demonstrates the fact that a number of negative PR situations result from poor decision-making and lack of strategic thinking.

If you haven’t heard, on January 31, Komen announced it would quit giving money to Planned Parenthood to fund breast exams and other preventive services, most of which go to low-income women who don’t otherwise have access to care. Komen says the decision was based on its new policy against funding any organization under congressional investigation (which Planned Parenthood technically is), while critics argue that the group is bowing to pressure from anti-abortion activists.

I’m not going to comment on the politics of the decision, but no one can argue with the fact that Komen’s actions have set the online community ablaze – the topic is trending at No. 3 on Google – and the organization now finds itself in a bona fide Hot Mess. From a PR standpoint, the decision – or at least, the way Komen went about it – was painfully poor.

How can you avoid this type of situation with your organization? The answer is complex, but here are some fundamentals:

1)   Before you make a potentially controversial decision, listen to your stakeholders.

Talk to your customers. Run focus groups. Conduct market research. Utilize the extensive social media monitoring tools available to track conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. There are a lot of means, but the end goal is to get a handle on what your stakeholders value, and what they are going to think about your decision.

Moreover, if you are receiving feedback from different audiences, understand which group represents your core loyalists and focus on meeting their needs.

In this case, most the of message board comments, tweets, and Facebook posts echo two guests who called into WNYC's Brian Lehrer radio show yesterday: women who are longtime fundraisers and participants in the Komen 3-Day walk, and who will give elsewhere as a result of this announcement.

Conversely, another guest called in to the show to applaud Komen’s decision. It’s excellent that the breast cancer organization picked up a supporter, but there was one piece noticeably missing – the woman didn’t mention that she was already one of the Komen faithful.

If this woman represents those who pressured Kom

en to distance itself from Planned Parenthood initially, will she fill the shoes of those 3-Day veterans who now refuse to walk? It’s a big gamble.

2)   If you make an unpopular decision, prepare to back it up.

Perhaps Komen did fully understand that this announcement would anger its base, and decided to proceed anyway. With proper PR strategy, it is certainly possible to live through the announcement of unpopular decisions, but the process takes preparation, ownership, and communication.

Before a decision is announced, develop a clear plan of attack – identify spokespeople, develop messaging, and practice responding to tough questions. Communicate to appropriate core or internal audiences first, so your chief constituents can deliver messages in unison.

3)   Take ownership of your stance and neutralize potential criticisms.

Listening activities will provide a clear picture of potential complaints. Own those, and take steps during the preparation phase to address them.

For example, prior to its announcement, Komen should have recognized that many would balk at the idea of cutting breast health services for low-income women. The organization should have formed a clear plan to replace the services it once funded at Planned Parenthood, such as partnering with other organizations and providers who serve a similar demographic.

This step could have helped reinforce Komen’s commitment to breast health for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and provide something proactive and positive to talk about.

4)   Communicate often, and communicate honestly.

You can’t drop a bomb and wait for someone else to clean up the mess. If you make a big announcement, spokespeople and representatives must be available to provide your organization’s side of the story. Dead air is space for your opponents to fill.

The idea that a spokesperson wasn’t available to discuss the situation with Shari Roan, one of the top health reporters at the Los Angeles Times, is unacceptable. Komen waited hours to address the issue via its Facebook and Twitter pages, and even those statements were grossly underpowered, considering the vitriol flung at the group. Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, did an exceptional job of jumping on the issue and sharing its message (that's another case study for a separate post).

Additionally, ensure there is some meat to your message. Identify the arguments your opponents will make, and take steps to frame the discussion with substantive information before they have a chance.

Komen should be clearly outlining the reasons behind its decision in a straightforward, truthful manner; its faithful have poured blood, sweat and tears (literally) for the brand, and they deserve an honest conversation.

My hope is that all groups involved in this issue will recover and continue with their admirable work of supporting women’s health. In the meantime, we can watch and continue to glean important lessons.

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Permanent link to this article: http://alleybc.com/pr-lessons-to-learn-from-komen/

Google+ vs. Facebook: Social Media Cage Match

Credit: Herzogbr via Flickr

If you live in Fairfield County, CT and you weren’t at the great local networking group FairCo TEEM’s Social Media Cage Match earlier this month, you missed a verbal showdown so fierce that Facebook and Google+ proponents nearly drew blood in defense of their platforms.

Nearly.

Okay, so the social media speakers were actually very cordial, but even the best networking event is infinitely more appealing when labeled a “cage match.” Unless, maybe, you’re in the cage match industry… then a bill of “Two guys and some PowerPoint presentations” would be a real draw!

In this case, the speakers-slash-fighters, John Blossom of Shore Communications and Nate Berger of KnockMedia, presented some valuable information about how their agencies and clients are using these two platforms.

Here are my top three highlights from the discussion:

1) One of the most exciting aspects of Google+ is that there are no walls around its content. Unlike Facebook, all posts, links, profiles and other details are fully searchable in the daddy of ‘em all, Google. With Google+, you not only share content with your circles (the equivalent of followers on other sites) but the search feature offers an amplification and endurance power much greater than other social media pla

tforms.

2) That said, not many folks (relatively speaking) are on Google+ yet. Start up a profile tomorrow, and try to connect with your existing audience – unless you are targeting early tech/social media adopters, it’s likely they haven’t arrived yet. Blossom spoke passionately about the rapid rate of adoption, especially among global Android users.

The numbers indicate that Google+ may soon become the behemoth, but my feeling is that we’ll see an increasing amount of demographic segmentation between Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.

For example, if you target female consumers, consider all of the 30 to 40-year-old mommies that have lovingly stored albums upon albums of spaghetti-faced babies on their Facebook pages. Are they going to become a force on Google+ as well? It will take quite an impetus for them to pack up their JPGs and migrate over.

3) Because of its sheer size and activity, Facebook is still a critical platform to draw in their loyal fans. Last spring, Facebook opened up some of the backend functionality on its pages. This gave developers the reins to create brand pages that not only attract interested parties, convert them to fans, sell them product, and invite them to stay and interact awhile. Berger’s KnockMedia is one of the firms working the heck out of iFrames to help clients design creative pages.

Overall, I'm less of smacker-downer and more of a cheerleader for choice. Considering the relatively limited number of vehicles available just a decade ago, today's social media landscape offers a virtual buffet of options to meet varying communications goals, audiences, brand personality and other needs.

What's your preferred social media platform? Would you go to the mat for it?

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Permanent link to this article: http://alleybc.com/google-vs-facebook-social-media-cage-match/

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