The Lone Ranger and Me: Following Our Creeds

The metaphor of The Lone Ranger is a common one for folks in my line of work–we swoop out of the prairie, help the widows and orphans keep their homes, and ride off into the sunset. There’s another similarity: just as does the Ranger, I have my own Copywriter’s Creed–rules I follow to ensure the best experience and the best outcome for my clients.

1. I learn the topic. I can’t write about something I don’t understand.

2. I start that research before the project kickoff. Clients like it when I don’t start with a blank slate. 

3. I learn the vocabulary of an audience that knows more about their products, markets and messages than I do, and always will. 

4. I’m patient. Just like me, my clients may not know what they don’t like until they see it. 

5. I never ask a question I can find the answer to on my own. 

6. I don’t veer from the client’s message even when I think of better ones. It’s probably tied in to a larger strategy that I’m unaware of. 

7. I twist and turn with the project. Marketing campaigns are always full of switchbacks. 

8. I’m not an artist, I’m a herald. My job is to get the message out, not to achieve the Sublime. 

9. I make the process of working with me as easy for the client as I can. That’s how I get the next job. 

10. I don’t argue with a client if they dismiss one of my ideas. After I tell them what I think, I gladly do what they want.

Why I Love Buzzwords

In Praise of Clichés

It’s the season for all the Best and Worst lists of last year. In the copywriting world, one of the big boys is “Worst Buzzwords of 2013.”

From Forbes to the Trib to just some copywriter’s blog, we vilify with glee and vitriol phrases that are overused, that have been bandied about without restraint, that everyone’s just a little bit sick of reading and hearing. And we’re not kind hearted about it. We take our disdain seriously. It’s not some minor annoyance, like the neighbor’s dog howling at sirens. Oh no. We rise up in outrage, and we demand their eradication from the face of the lexicon.

No more “Big Data”! No more “Curate”! No more “Cloud”!

Well, not me.

I honor and praise buzzwords. I use them whenever I can, and am thankful beyond measure every time I do. And I want you to love them too. I want you to agree with me that the agile use of buzzwords is critical to the lifecycle ecosystem of the hybrid customer-centric content assets we curate and create.

Here’s why.

We’re not artists. Nobody fires up the Barcalounger with a neat single malt, a fresh log on the crackling fire, and a pleasant light to read by, to savor the stylistic nuances and human insight of our Best Practices white paper.

We’re messengers. Our audiences sit at Steelcase desks with a bunch of stuff to do. They want the message fast, and they’re unwilling to give us a lot of time to deliver it. Sometimes, we only get a few seconds.  A headline and a few phrases to click on. Twenty five words or less.

To do that we need all the help we can get—all the shorthand we can find.

You know: like Buzzwords.

Buzzwords carry with them instant meaning—often a wealth of meanings, covering many issues. And, by definition, a buzzword’s meaning is widely distributed and widely used. What a great tool to have when you’re trying to convey a message quickly: a short phrase whose meaning is widely known.

What a treasure the buzzword “Cloud” is to me.

Without it, how would I say that for this solution or that platform there’s nothing installed and that it’s subscription/utility priced, and that it’s updated on its own . .  and all the things that people instantly associate with the Cloud, without my having to write another word. If it were exterminated, I’d hope someone would invent another. Or I’d do it myself, and then offer it to everyone as a public service.

I am grateful for the gift of “Big Data.” Here, instead of a platform, we have a concept. What would I do without that phrase? How would I say that a solution somehow works with all the data out there in the world in all the formats from all the platforms across federated networks . . . and all the other instant connections people make from that phrase.

In two words I get all that blather out of the way and still have some of the reader’s attention span left over to deliver more message.

Eventually, over time, once-reviled buzzwords become respected parts of the lexicon. Consider the word “Interface.” Nobody blinks an eye when you say it, or its offspring, GUI. Yet, there was a time when they were as shunned as “agile” is right now. But today, the word Interface is iconic, welcome everywhere, as respectable as, well, the word “buzzword.”

Whither Thou Thinkest . . . Finding Topics for Thought Leadership Content

Marketers grapple with finding topics for their thought leadership content, especially once they get the first couple (the easy ones such as Best Practices ) under their belts.

I thought I’d share my approach.

My clients come to me with a subject for thought leadership content: HTML5 security, big data search architecture, CRM, restaurant inventory management—or whatever it might be.

It’s my job to find the topic.

I have a guiding principle I follow.

The easiest way to lead someone’s thinking is to take it where it’s already going.

I group target audiences together in terms of roles and responsibilities. Different groups need different thought leadership messages. The CIOs and CFOs who own the green lights need some. The department mangers that make the choice need some. The people in the trenches that influence and obstruct need some. Each of those groups are thinking about very different things. The CIO is only peripherally concerned with the development environment. The network engineer isn’t any the more interested in corporate exit strategies.

So before I try to lead my target’s thinking, I want to find out what’s on their minds.

I look, of course, at the similar content my client’s competitors publish. It’s a kind of Pareto principle: 80% of what I see discusses 20% of the possible topics. Often, my clients have already published a couple of these basic pieces, and need something with more depth and focus.

My most treasured source of information (maybe it’s because it’s so rarely available) is the sales force. They talk to my targets. They answer their questions. They profile them internally and think about the best ways to argue the case.

They follow my principle all the time.

But as I say they’re not often available to me.

Each target group—developers, managers, executives—has its own community: populated with magazines and published experts and so on. That’s a real mine of information. Just to make the point, as I’m writing this, I picked the developer community, pulled up a list of online magazines targeted to it, opened good old Dr. Dobbs and this is the first headline I saw:

Engineering Managers Should Code 30% of Their Time

A skim of the article led me to a concept that was new to me: “technical debt.” I found a healthy discussion about it.

That one-minute excursion gave me insight into what the development community is thinking about.

It takes longer in real life. I’d read the articles and the blogs and so forth, and that insight would deepen. I’d look through the other magazines as well in the same way, trying to find concepts that many of them were discussing. But if that were the only data point, I could still refashion “Best Practices for Writing Great Code” into “Don’t Mortgage Your Software’s Future: Understand How to Eradicate Technical Debt.”

More and more, I join LinkedIn groups to learn what those communities are talking about—and the discussions point to a lot of information resources. (Full disclosure: LinkedIn is a client).

The overall research might take an hour or two before workable topics emerge–no need to dig deeper than success.

And in the end, it’s an easy, reliable methodology for finding relevant topics that touch the right buttons in the marketplace.

Sell Drill Bits Not Holes

Benefits bore the bullet points out of me.

I’ve probably read more benefits lists than any other human being in history. For every project, I look through a lot of information—including a ton of competitor content. And no matter what the technology I’m researching, the benefits are all the same. I don’t mean just that all the benefits for a given product category are the same—every performance management solution for instance. I mean the benefits for every technology are the same: performance management, omnichannel, interactive TV, digital signage, SCM solutions—it really doesn’t matter. You know the list of benefits I’m talking about. Infinite scalability. Decreased costs. Accelerated time-to-market. Easiest-to-use. Blahde-est-De-Blah.

If every competing product presents the same benefits, then those benefits can’t differentiate—your product minimizes resources and so do your competitors’.  To talk about “decreased costs” (for instance) as a benefit of technology is to talk about “goes forwards and backwards” as a benefit of automobiles. Cutting costs (or ROI or ease of use) is a condition of entry for tech products, not a unique sales proposition.

But we tech marketers go on—banging out the benefits in web and print and everywhere else. We try to make them interesting with unique adjectives and innovative superlatives (“hey, no one’s ever said ‘access data with superhero speed’”). But, of course, that just differentiates the bullets not the technology. And we do it because we believe—because we’ve always believed—that that’s what we’re supposed to do. People, the Primal Marketing Truth tells us, don’t care about features—they’ll deal with features later—they care about what the product will do for them: what its benefits are. Nobody wants to run through a mind-numbing discussion of protocols and APIs and schema. That’s not the way people are and, after all, technologists are people too.

People, we’re certain, buy holes, not drill bits.

People might. Carpenters don’t.

Carpenters take the hole for granted. They buy drill bits. Carpenters buy based on purpose, material, shank length, type of cutting tip, TiAIN or TiCN.

The technologists I’ve worked with—well over a thousand of them, Buyers and Sellers—are just like those carpenters.

They know your technology is easily integrated with other technologies to leverage existing investments—because they know that if it weren’t you’d be out of business. They assume your management dashboard is familiar and easy to use: that it uses the same interface conventions as every other management dashboard in the known universe. They want to know how to modify it, share it, protect it. They know it reduces steps, because they’ve never—ever—heard of a technology that increases them.

Everybody in tech companies seems to know this except us. Salespeople don’t talk about benefits. Sales couldn’t close the door, much less a deal, talking about benefits. Sitting across from technologists at any level—even at the first meeting—no rep with her slides on straight would spend more than a gratuitous minute or two going on about ease of use and scalability and so on. She’d be asking and answering technical questions—not about “ease of integration” but about adapters and message libraries and APIs and number of seats. And I’ll bet my “minimize costs” against your “maximize ROI” that nary a superlative—fastest, easiest, leanest—would escape her.

The same is true across the enterprise. Name an organization. Executives talk vision with prospects. Finance talks deals with prospects. Support talks tech turkey. R&D—well, they do as little talking to customers as possible. But none of those organizations would stick more than a toe in the benefits bog. And customers, well, they never talk about benefits.

It’s just us. We are the last bastion of the bull. The keepers of the clichés. The guardians of the generic. We alone persist in saying uninteresting things to a disinterested marketplace.

Marketers, Meet Your Markets

The reason we don’t deliver relevant messages to our markets is because we don’t know our markets.

Marketers rarely meet the markets they market to—how many sales calls have you and your team gone on? We hear about the markets. We imagine them. Some of us (come on, we do) make fun of them (pocket protector anyone?) But we don’t sit in the rooms with those rational and impatient technology buyers and listen to them, learn what they need to know, what they object to, what they spark to, what they laugh at, and what they don’t. Without that direct knowledge, without having some kind of first-hand relationship with the markets we communicate with, what kinds of messages can we create other than vacuous, hyperventilating fluff?

You know. User Benefits.

If we get out there and meet the people who take in our messages, it wouldn’t (at least, it shouldn’t) take us long to learn that our expert markets don’t buy based on bennies. They want to know about the features . . . they’ll figure out if it has any benefit without any help. And a good marketer, like you and me, would quickly adjust our messages so it matched the mind of the marketplace. We’d learn that “a library of 32 preconfigured adapters supported by a J2EE development environment” is a lot more compelling to them than “minimize CAPEX by connecting to virtually any existing resource.”

Make this a mandate: every Marketer sits in on at least one sales event—let them watch (silently!) the pros sell. And, yes, I mean every Marketer: designer, intern, Marketing chief. Let them audit sales meetings where pitches are worked on. Give them the opportunity to learn the real market’s real issues—many of which will surprise them, and some of which will befuddle them. When they do this, they’ll learn that much of the “benefits oriented content” (I had to use the dreaded phrase at some point) they create is about as meaningful to their markets as a Paul Revere and the Raiders reunion concert—maybe less

Direct experience will guide their messaging in a different direction. You’ll see a fascination grow with product features, along with the ability to communicate about them in smart, interesting ways. They’ll understand they’re marketing drill bits not holes. They’ll dig up detail upon detail instead of benefit upon benefit to deliver your message. They’ll avoid the adjective. Shun the superlative. And catch the market’s interest.

This is not a mandate for monotony. You can be interesting, creative, clever, colorful, playful—in other words you can create quality design and content—as long as you remember the market and talk about what it wants to hear.

You want to talk about how my HTML 5 Web Sockets envelope maintains connection across a hybrid infrastructure during a DoD attack?

Have I got a story to tell you.

Connecting Message to Market

Think about something you know about. I’m going to say automobiles. At some level—maybe it’s just at the user level or maybe it’s at the engineering level—we all know about cars. We know what they do. We know how to make them go forward and backward, turn left and right, stop, turn on the radio, and so on. When it comes to cars, we’re an expert marketplace.

Now, imagine an ad or a brochure with this kind of content:

With today’s increasingly mobile world, supported by highways and regulated by traffic signals, the need to have a car that can both accelerate and stop has become an imperative for people across the country.

You’d laugh at it wouldn’t you? Clearly, the writer didn’t understand the market. And I think it would make most people feel disconnected from the message.

Now, ask yourself: When you create your technology marketing messaging, how much of that same type of content are you delivering to your market?

I see it often in most every kind of content. I imagine you have too. Those long (usually introductory) paragraphs that describe “the state of things today.” Fifty, maybe even 100, words spelling out in dense and sonorous language exactly what the marketplace already knows. Knows as well as you know what a car does.

This wastes time, wastes content real estate, and disconnects your message from your market.

It’s OK to have a problem definition section—it’s a good way to let your market know that you know what they know. But make it real and make it specific. Don’t explain, empathize.

CIOs (just as an example) know the state of things today and they’ve read the statistics you cite. That’s not the problem you can help them solve. They have problems like staffing and training, integration, transition, hidden costs, budgeting, device management, political opposition, and so on. You want to talk to a CIO about problems—well, that’s the list that troubles them.

And that’s where your conversation with them should begin.

The Yossarian Way–An Editing Exercise

Here’s a little exercise that might prove useful to you.

Catch 22 opens with the protagonist, WW II bombardier John Yossarian, faking jaundice to avoid flying more bombing missions. As with all patients, he’s given letters the troops send and receive and ordered to censor them. He gets bored with just removing sensitive information so he decides to have a little fun. At one point, he decides that he’ll black out only the modifiers–adjectives, adverbs, participles: the whole group of them.

Try that on your content. Turn on rev tracking (and turn off show revisions) and just go through a wholesale obliteration of them all.

Now see what you’ve got left.

Does the content still make sense? I don’t mean does it read well. It won’t. But, for a second, forget about that. If you take out all the descriptives, how much real meaning has it lost?  Is it still getting its point across, however inartfully?

If so, you’ve uncovered your fluff.

Now let’s put the modifiers back in.

But only some of them. Only those that are important to the meaning. If you’re talking about security you can return “appliance-based protection,” but “bulletproof protection” has no home. The first provides information, the other provides GMB. And be hard on your draft–a modifier either does or does not change the actual meaning of the sentence and there’s really no two ways about it.

I’ve cut copy by as much as 35% just cutting fluff. And I don’t think my clients have ever gotten market feedback that says their content isn’t long enough, or fluffy enough.

Five Don’ts of Technology Copywriting

I thought I’d focus today on mistakes writers make when they create tech marketing content. I chose an Adobe piece at random: they were the first site I looked at and I found something I could use. Not meaning to pick on them specifically at all. These are mistakes I find everywhere–including in my own stuff.  The piece I’m talking about can be found here.

So, here’s my list of Don’ts.

1. Don’t Compare.

Unless you’ve got some real hard numbers to drive the comparison, don’t talk about how much better your product is than the others.

Here’s an example:

Gain the deepest insights and most concise visitor segmentation available.

When you make comparisons, you start a conversation you can’t win. If the marketplace wants to compare depth of insight, let it start the discussion.

2. Don’t teach.

Your markteplace knows its business. You don’t have to teach them about it.

You cannot effectively optimize your marketing efforts unless you are analyzing and reporting on those efforts to make the right data-driven decisions. Guesswork doesn’t cut it anymore in marketing— marketers must be able to determine what the business impact of their marketing efforts is.

This isn’t such a gross violation, but it makes my point. There’s a certain “Analytics 101” feel to it. Better to get straight to the point.

3. Don’t make big statements.

Adobe Analytics is the industry-leading solution that delivers the analytics and reporting capabilities to enable data-driven decision-making.

That’s such a sweeping statement. I looked it up for a minute or so. There are a lot of companies that make the same claim. Usually this is something that little companies do to puff themselves up. There can be only one leader, and that’s the only one who should make that claim. It might be Adobe, in which case: go for it.

4. Don’t leave in the fluff

Edit your content for the phrases that just don’t contribute to the message. It’s OK to say just what you need to say–the market appreciates it.

Here’s the original:

Quickly analyze large volumes of rapidly evolving big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Powerful visualizations make it easy for users to immediately infer meaning to make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve overall business performance.

Here’s an edit

Analyze big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Clear visualizations let you instantly make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve business performance.

5. Don’t be afraid of Features.

My final impression is: the piece is Feature shy. The precept that you sell holes not drill bits isn’t true when you’re selling technology. Carpenters know all about holes—they buy drill bits. Marketers know all about marketing: they buy marketing tools.

Features are your differentiating point—“how” you do something is a lot more interesting to your market than “what” or “why.”