Writing, marketing, communications, Web design, social media—these are some of the topics featured regularly on this blog. We’ll try to keep it light and useful. Feel free to comment on any posts or offer suggestions as you wish.
Small businesses should work to save the open Internet (a.k.a., “net neutrality”). Why? The reason is simple: under current FCC rules, Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot slow down, impede, or block, or charge higher fees for distributing data from any source. This means that content uploaded by small business and individuals enjoys the same access to distribution as that from large companies. When the Internet is regulated as a public utility (under current practice), visitors can access information from all websites like this.
Early indications from the Trump administration hint that such neutrality might be in danger. The mega-ISPs—Cox, Charter (also owner of Time Warner), Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon—would like to charge businesses a fee to have access to high speed distribution of content on the Internet. Such a fee would be in addition to their fees for connection to the Internet. Failure to pay could mean that a business would encounter a delay in displaying content or even failure to have content transmitted at all. Small businesses could suffer lost revenue compared to large corporations who would be able to pay the additional fee.
As previously mentioned in my post on long-form marketing, businesses and organizations are increasingly using video and other longer content pieces to tell their story. What happens if their sites take longer to load than those of larger, wealthier competitors?
If you run a small business that sells a product or a service, you could be forced to pay “protection money” to compete. After all, you can’t afford to have potential clients fall off your site simply out of frustration. And we humans get frustrated quickly: remember how often other drivers (not you, of course!) jump around slowed or stopped traffic to get ahead or into a faster lane. On the Internet, people will jump off your site in just a few seconds. In fact, most viewers spend less than 15 seconds on your website. If they can’t see your site or crucial information (such as a video) quickly, they will go to a competitor’s site.
All of a sudden, that protection money begins to sound like a deal, if not a good one for you.
Imagine being told by a company like Comcast that in order to allow your users to continue to browse your site at high speeds, you will need to pay a hefty fee for data prioritization. You would almost assuredly not be able to make those payments. On the other hand, your multi-million dollar competitors, whether they be Walmart or another big box store, have almost infinite funds to make sure their website speeds are consistent. This, in effect, could put a small shop out of business because of how important internet traffic is to its bottom line.
Kevin Green, “How Changes to Net Neutrality Laws Could Affect Small Businesses,” 2/22/2017.
With the appointment of Ajit Pai as the new FCC Chairman, threats to an open Internet have already surfaced.
From left: FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly.
The camel’s nose under the tent could be an emerging practice known as zero-rating. Large providers of streaming content—T-Mobile (with its “Binge On” program), Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Comcast—have begun offering consumers video content that would not count toward their data use quotas, that would be “zero-rated.” This creates a situation where an ISP such as Comcast could discriminate against another content-providing ISP such as Verizon. A precedent is then established to create rival toll roads whereby content providers would have to pay to get their content distributed universally. The situation is quite complicated. The best explanation that I’ve seen is by Jeff Dunn, “Trump’s new FCC boss has already set the stage for a less-open internet,” in Business Insider, 2/9/2017.
The previous FCC was investigating the effects of zero-rating on businesses. When Chairman Pai took over, he stopped the investigation, stating that the practice benefited consumers without undue harm to business. In fact, the FCC under his leadership appears to be poised to reduce or reverse regulations so as to allow ISPs to begin to charge content providers differently for premium speed access. That has not yet occurred, but it seems very possible.
What to do? If your livelihood depends on your small business’s access to an open Internet, contact the FCC commissioners. Also contact your local Congressional representatives. For an excellent summary of the historical, technological, economic, and cultural issues regarding the threats to the open Internet, see Quincy Larson’s recent post, “The Future of the Open Internet—and Our Way of Life—Is in Your Hands.” See also Thom Hartmann’s piece on how big ISPs plan to see your information with Congress’s (i.e., Republicans’) approval. Don’t be caught unaware of what’s happening!
The first clue that the blizzard has arrived is silence. The usual white noise of distant traffic, barking dogs, sanitation trucks, airplanes is gone—replaced by a white blanket of total quiet. Even the snowplows are banished from the street. Nothing. Everything. Just. Stops. Except, perhaps, for the wind.
Like birthdays, blizzards provide opportunities for reflection. Unlike birthdays, blizzards are random, usually identified by a specific year. People remember blizzards, sometimes fondly. And somehow, the snow remembered from past years always gets deeper, the temperature colder. So, while the wind blows and the snow swirls outside today, here are a few of my blizzard tales.
A lot of folks remember the Blizzard of ’77. I had just moved to Syracuse and was encountering my first Central New York winter. I was driving a Pontiac Astre (terrible car, but the only one I could afford) that wouldn’t start when the temperature dropped below freezing. I lived on a steep hill not far from campus, and I couldn’t get out of the parking lot for a week. I had never encountered so much snow all at once. After five days of getting covered with slush while walking to campus following the storm, I decided to trade cars and move.
We had blizzards in Indiana, too. My mother sadistically enjoyed dressing me in outlandishly uncomfortable outfits. When I was about two years old, I learned to associate snow with itchy clothing, the result of a woolen snowsuit that my mother insisted would keep me warm. What looks like a smile on my face here is actually a grimace.
During the winter of 1971, as I recall, I was driving back to my apartment on the north side of Chicago after a Christmas visit with family in Indiana. The blizzard struck just as I got to northern Indiana that evening. By the time I started up Lake Shore Drive, snow had piled up to about 8-10 inches, bringing traffic to a standstill. There were no plows in sight. Drivers were literally inching along so slowly that people had time to exit their cars, find a suitable snowbank, relieve themselves, and get back in their cars. And then I awoke to our classist society: while we poor souls were struggling through the snow, on their high-rise balconies along Lake Shore Drive the wealthy were laughing, cocktails in hand, at our plight. Obscene gestures from car windows could be observed.
My father was a high school mathematics teacher, but also a basketball coach. During this time of year, he became rabidly obsessed with the county and state tournaments. When a big snowstorm struck one spring when I was 13 years old, he dragooned me into helping him dig our way to the main highway so that we could get to the games that afternoon. Since we lived about ½ mile from the highway, it took us over three hours to dig through the drifts. I recall sleeping through most of the games.
My worst weather-related driving experience occurred in early 1992. My daughter and I had attended my aunt’s funeral in Indiana and were returning to Syracuse. The weather was frightful, especially on the New York Thruway from Buffalo to Syracuse. Snow accumulated on Interstate 90 so much that large trucks were exiting to seek shelter. We had to keep going, however, because the trucks had blocked all the exit ramps. The alternative was to drive or freeze. Somehow, despite the whiteouts, we snaked our way around abandoned vehicles for the entire distance. After finally prying my hands from the steering wheel, I noticed that my knuckles had lost all flexibility.
How will this blizzard stack up? Predictions mention over a foot of snow, followed this afternoon by rain, and then more snow. Disgusting! By the time you read this, I’ll probably be occupied with the snowthrower.
Feel free to add your own stories in the comments below.
Why Not-for-Profit Members Are Important
Keeping the doors open for your not-for-profit organization is challenging. Money is hard to come by. Federal and state funding is likely to decline sharply during the next few years. The National Council of Non-Profits recently reported that government support, donor retention, and corporate funding have already dropped. Private foundations and individuals focus on new, splashy ventures that are often outside your mission. Covering day-to-day expenses keeps directors and board members awake at night. At a time when relying on members’ support is more important than ever, the crowded schedules of families and distractions of electronic screens means fewer members, both current and new. After all, what’s in it for them? Why should they join your group? If you’re involved in running a museum, an advocacy group, or a community organization, you need to show them why.
How to Attract New Members
Attracting new members rests on two factors: (1) relevant programming, and (2) effective communication. Relevant programming is normally specific to an organization’s environment and mission, but it sometimes requires careful revision. Effective marketing to prospective members, however, concerns all organizations. Here are some approaches that work.
Show people how they will benefit from joining. Don’t merely tell them about your group—it’s history, list of officers, calendar of events. Those things are perhaps important after they have joined. Initially, however, they need to know what joining the group will do for them, their families, their community.
List the benefits concisely and in order of importance. For example, if your group offers services or sponsors events at a physical location, tout the benefit of involving members in non-virtual human interaction. It’s good to get out and away from our electronic screens!
Tell stories. If need to awaken empathy, create videos or brief stories about individuals who have benefited from your group. Appeal to prospects’ concerns for their own situation or feelings of empathy and solidarity for the persons described in your stories. Research shows that people feel empathy for individuals more readily than for large groups or strangers.
Collaborate with other organizations and businesses. Consider offering package deals whereby new members can join two or more organizations for the price of a single membership at one. Or link up with corporations and offer their employees significant membership discounts. Both ideas can pay off in more new members and greater word-of-mouth reach.
Invite people to join! And make it easy to do so. Try to avoid offering complex levels of membership fees.
When someone does join, be sure to thank them—repeatedly. And follow through on the benefits.
For additional strategies, check out Top New Strategies for Nonprofit Membership Growth and 3 Expert Tips for Building Member Engagement.
How to Retain Current Members
Members who pay membership fees are donors. They should be treated as such. That means that you must thank them in every communication about your organization. Roll out the red carpet for them. Treat them like VIPs, because they are. Without them, your organization will surely collapse and you’ll be out of a job. Here are some specific suggestions to focus your communications on your members.
Create an email list for members. Use it frequently, but not too often, to inform members of new benefits, special events, and always to thank them for their support. The cost in money and time to maintain and use an email list is less than for sending out notices via regular mail. If your membership is large, segment your list according to interest, activity, or level of support.
Feature stories about members on your organization’s website.
Start a blog. Include stories about members in blog posts. Invite members to contribute their own posts to your blog (edit as necessary).
Use your email list to distribute a monthly or quarterly newsletter. (Have a few physical copies available at your organization’s location.) Focus on the activities and achievements of members or beneficiaries of your group, not just on the staff. Thank your member-donors.
Sponsor events that encourage members to network with one another about common interests or concerns. Avoid trying to control everything.
Invite members to contribute their time and expertise, not just their dollars. Create program advisory boards to help evaluate and revise your group’s programs. Encourage members to join your executive board or, if they are able, to help with fundraising. Interestingly, the more time that members invest in an organization, the better acquainted with its needs they will become; and that often leads to greater financial support. Thank them.
In all ways, both great and small, show your members your sincere appreciation.
Fix Both Design and Content
All organizations maintain websites and distribute print materials such as brochures, newsletters, reports, etc. Most pay a lot of money for professional assistance, either in-house or outsourced, in designing such materials. Since human beings are visual creatures, deficiencies in graphic design are easily spotted. Graphic design of websites and brochures must be visually appealing, informative, and consistent in promoting an organization’s brand.
Although many businesses have published well designed websites, perhaps with professional help, their written content often lags. Perhaps their officers have written the brochures, newsletters, or solicitations themselves, despite being too busy with other matters. Or perhaps such materials focus on the organization and its personnel rather than on the members. Or maybe the authors of written pieces simply lack the expertise to produce effective work.
Develop written content that gets the job done. Prospective members need to see how joining will benefit them. Current members need reminders about how the organization contributes something important to them and to their community. If the writing is sloppy, vague, dull, or error-ridden, folks will be turned off. The best graphic design in the world cannot overcome such problems.
Effective messaging today also requires using social media—Facebook, Twitter,Instagram, Pinterest, etc.—often and well. This cannot be achieved as an afterthought or a sideline. Promoting an organization on social media requires assigning someone to create the content (images + words) and monitor responses. Increasingly, organizations that cannot handle this task in-house retain freelance writers to get the job done.
At a time when a growing, healthy membership roster is key to your organization’s survival, don’t take a chance on delivering a substandard, ineffective message. Get professional help before it’s too late to turn things around.
In Marketing Without Words? Not Quite!, I argued that social media marketing using lots of images still requires some words to convey precise meaning. But that’s not the whole story. Recent trends show that long-form marketing—long posts of 2,000+ words, case studies, white papers, video(!)—often gets better results in online search rankings and conversions. The primary issue, then, is which long-form strategy is appropriate for your organization and how you should implement it.
Why Use Long-Form Content?
We live in an age of image-driven social media, Internet overload, and short attention spans. We’re told that people don’t read books or long essays and that younger people, especially, interact with the world and one another through mobile devices. But we also live in an age of stories and data-driven information, and not everyone’s story can be told completely in 140 characters. Organizations and individuals are rediscovering that longer narratives remain vital to achieving their objectives. They include
- Business-to-business (B2B) marketers
- Not-for-profit organizations
- Colleges and universities
- Large, complex corporations
- Small businesses
- School districts
- Labor unions
- Government agencies
Long-form content can help in surprising ways to gain and hold public attention in a highly competitive environment. Web pages featuring longer posts or documents of 2,000 words or more often rank higher in Internet searches simply because they deliver more value. Serpiq’s study of the effects of content length on search results speaks for itself.
Longer pieces also stimulate longer times by visitors to a site. Google has restructured its search algorithms to focus more on quality rather than merely inclusion of keywords. Sites that provide high quality information respected by others become authoritative.
Types of Long-Form Content
Most types of long-form content were developed before the Internet, but they have been adapted for online use.
Case Studies – I usually refer to these documents as “success stories” because they identify a rather complex, important problem and report some successful responses or solutions to that problem. They are very useful for scientific, technological, or engineering firms to explain a new process or application. They are equally apt for telling stories of not-for-profit organizations or schools in order to draw attention to their personal or social impact on their communities.
White Papers – These longer documents usually report results of scientific, technical or public policy research. They often use scholarly research to support their conclusions, and they usually address other experts in their field. Promotion of a service or product in a white paper tends to be very subtle.
Long-Form Mail/Email – Longer messages (either on paper or online) to potential customers or clients have never gone out of style. They provide an opportunity to explain in detail the benefits of a given product or service, and they usually include one or more calls-to-action to accept or purchase what is offered. Many organizations continue to find them very effective in generating new or repeat business.
Newsletters – Similarly to mail/email above, newsletters keep current clients or members of an organization up to date on recent activities and upcoming opportunities for engagement. They often highlight the achievements of individuals in order to solicit financial or other active support.
Long Blog Posts – Just a few years ago, the recommended length for most blog posts was 700 or fewer words. That is now changing. Longer blog posts of 1,500 words or more are achieving better SEO results because they deliver more value and increase the time that visitors spend on a page (presuming that they are well written!).
Videos – Initially, it might seem odd to include videos as long-form content, but consider how much information they deliver. Most video scripts that are delivered on-camera or as voiceover commentary run for several pages. Organizations use them to explain products or services and to tell their more involved stories effectively.
Podcasts – Streaming audio files have the same properties as video, but they allow for more flexible access since people can listen to a discussion in a wider variety of settings. Both podcasts and videos can be delivered in a series to which people can subscribe.
Webinars – Online seminars that provide discussion by one or more experts and an opportunity for attendees to ask questions or make comments are a great way to provide substantial information that addresses specific needs in detail.
E-books – Probably the ultimate long-form document, an e-book certainly requires the largest investment of time and care. If you are an actual authority on a topic, you might want to make that investment, but take care not to mimic the legions of shoddy authors out there!
How and When to Use Long-Form Content
The most important rule for long-form pieces: provide high quality! Whether you are offering a while paper, a podcast, or an e-book, avoid cutting corners. Back up what you say with relevant, timely research. Create, revise, proofread through as many cycles as you can reasonably manage. Consider suggestions from others. Never stop improving. Visitors to your site will welcome such a gift and will return for more.
The second most important rule: include images, video, white space, and attractive formatting. Even in research-heavy documents, readers appreciate and remember visual illustrations. After all, you don’t want to put people to sleep even if you’re selling cures for insomnia! For a good example, check out Neil Patel’s image-rich discussion of long-form marketing.
Break up those dense paragraphs. Relieve visitors’ eye strain. Have some fun!
Sunny Lenarduzzi created a very helpful video on how and when to use video. It’s good advice, and she clearly had some fun creating it. Her three types of video—thought leadership content, social proof (testimonials), and product or service content (how to use or do something)—summarize the uses of much long-form content of all kinds. Watch her video below.
Check out Sunny’s website as well for additional videos, tips, and services.
The last rule to remember: promote via short-form marketing. Otherwise, no one will see your carefully crafted content. Social media outlets—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others—lead people to your longer offerings.
Getting Professional Help
Control freaks among us (I’m one!) usually like to do things ourselves. But DIY might not be advisable under some circumstances. Perhaps you don’t have the time to produce longer content. After all, you might be running a business that might not be entirely online. Or maybe you lack the necessary equipment or expertise. Or if you’re totally honest with yourself, you might not be a good enough writer (sorry, but good writing is hard).
If any of these circumstances reflect your situation, hire some professional help. When you do, however, make sure that they understand fully your objectives and concerns. Try to stay engaged in their creative process so that, together, you can produce something that lives up to your expectations.
Words are dying. With everyone spending so much more time absorbing information via smart phones, tablets, or computers, digital marketing focuses more than ever on images. Capturing initial attention and providing essential, emotionally relevant information quickly are two good reasons for this shift. As Mike Hill at Moonshine has pointed out,
Visual and audio technologies liberate us to absorb more information, faster and better, than reading words.
The reason for this is hardwired into us – reading and writing are not skills we’re born with, unlike seeing and hearing.
That visual imagery results in more effective communication and retention of information appears to be confirmed by neuroscience. In explaining the “pictorial superiority effect, or PSE,” John Medina in Brain Rules (video available!) urges us to scrap our text-based PowerPoint slides in favor of image-based presentations. Continue reading “Marketing Without Words? Not Quite!”
Sorry, I’m not hiring. But I am looking to improve the process used by nearly all businesses and organizations that do hire. Let’s face it: looking for a job today amounts to an inhumane, impersonal, tedious slog. If you can join your parents’ or Uncle Joe’s firm, stop reading and go consult a family therapist. The rest of us are condemned to networking and responding to poorly written job descriptions. Be aware, however, that poorly crafted job postings harm employers and prospective employees.
We’ve all seen them: job postings so long, detailed, technical, and jargon-laden that a single human being could not possibly fulfill all of the required expectations. Why are we subjected to such abuse? Continue reading “Help Wanted for Job Descriptions!”
As a college administrator for several years, I endured too many boring meetings and presentations. You have, too, regardless of your profession. You know the drill: while presenters read from text-heavy or chart-laden slides, people tune out, nod off. Often, they discuss poorly written and argued reports. (I’ll even admit that my own reports too frequently fell into that category!) What to do?
Grow a cerebral spine! Our teachers once urged us to listen or read actively. In today’s jargon, they were telling us to think critically. But we’ve forgotten (or never really knew) what that means. Let’s learn something useful from students in the Middle Ages! Continue reading “Battle Boredom, Improve Decisions!”
So you weren’t paying attention in high school English class? I know, it was boring. Besides, we all had social lives to manage. But that lapse might cost you today in lost opportunities for employment or career advancement. Despite rapidly improving AI, spell and grammar checking, and other aids, errors creep into everyone’s writing. And some of them can mark you as an ignoramus. Not good when you’re trying to impress your boss or a client.
Anyone who writes hastily, such as beleaguered office workers responding to scores of email messages each day, often slip on wrong-word ice. Your English teacher surely knew this, but you were physiologically incapable of thinking about anything beyond the next 20 minutes. As a public service, therefore, I’m reincarnating your poor teacher to supply a list of commonly misused words along with their corrected usage. Bear in mind that this is a blog: the list, therefore, is not exhaustive. Continue reading “Wrong Words vs. Right Words”
Travel writers should improve their game! Typically, they’re quite good at describing attractions to visit, places to stay, where to eat, and even what to wear. But all of that does not comprise a complete travel experience. As evidence, I offer our recent driving adventure in Scotland.
Last fall, my wife and I took our first trip to Scotland. Since we’re both independent personalities, we shunned group tours and set out on our own to see the countryside. Upon landing in Edinburgh, we picked up our rental car and drove into the city to our hotel. Despite some travelogue warnings, we did not find driving on the left to present a major problem, although we would not recommend doing so for your first time in a bustling city after an overnight flight. Still, we annoyed only a few native drivers (bus drivers seemed to exhibit the least patience) as we negotiated often confusing intersections. Continue reading “Oh, Those Narrow Scottish Roads!”