Ten Years Gone

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Ten years is a long time. Ten years of blogging? Well, that seemed unfathomable back in 2006, yet, here we are. This week marks my tenth full year of blogging.

Things have changed so much since I began. Back then it was edgy, then it become profitable. Now, it seems passé and marginalized.

In 2006, writing something new and cool excited me. In the 2008-9 range, blogging was majestic, an exhilarating experience that brought attention, notoriety and opportunity. By 2011, it became a grind. Feeding the beast to stay relevant forced me into a daily blogging discipline.

Then after a series of private disappointing events related to my last business book something happened. I stopped giving a damn what other people thought of my blog. Relevancy, topic, edgy, not edgy. It just didn’t matter to me anymore.

Perhaps I realized what a fool I had been.

The Joy of Blogging Returns

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I still blogged once a week for a couple of years just to maintain presence, but when this year began I gave myself a gift. The weekly blog, a post I would write so often on Sunday night just to get it published, was an act of drudgery more often than not. There was little business value to it anymore, either.

So I decided to stop, and let myself off the blogging hook. No longer would I write on a schedule for my personal blog. Instead, I write now when the muse strikes me, and time permits. And that seems to be every two to three weeks.

What a relief. Freedom to write when I want to, what I want to.

When I press publish, I smile. The joy of blogging returns.

Forgotten Maybe, But Not Dead Yet

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I may be forgotten as a consequence of blogging less, but I’m not dead yet.

Now I still blog elsewhere for other people several times a week. They’re not blogs anymore, not really. I guess because saying what you think is not really marketing. Blogs have to be polished, relevant to target audiences, geared toward the larger customer experienced ecosystem. No, we call them articles now. It’s not the same thing.

Here, when it’s said, it’s meant. It’s a hell of lot less frequent, but there is a genuine authenticity to the blogs that you won’t find on a corporate “brand journal.”

Getting there again was a process. Ten years teaches you if you’re still blogging, it’s because it resolves some sort of creative angst within you. It’s old school. It’s a bonafide antiquated blog, said when it wants to be said.

Ten years gone. “Then as it was, then again it will be.” And here we are, back where we started.

Why Data Driven Content Fails Alone

Have you read any recent content marketing articles? Today’s articles feature shiny objects to distribute content through (hi, Snapchat and Periscope) and platitudes about impact. Largely trend pieces with statistics, they fail to help marketers grow and become better. Worse, the new account-based marketing trend — which is just hyper-targeted data-driven content marketing — focuses on precision provided by analytics, but not the technique used to create niche content.

To be clear, a marketer’s job is to connect with and compel people; usually, but not always, their customers. To do that, content needs to tell a good story.

In many ways, trends like social media tools and data analysis provide new powers for marketing, much like an electric drill works better than a hand crank. So we have a bunch of marketers walking around with power tools drilling holes in a wall hoping they hit the right spot. Even though they have data and the latest networks, they miss the mark more often than not. They don’t understand the wall and its dimensions. As a result, marketers destroy the wall.

What we have is a data problem. Too much focus on data and trends, not enough on creating compelling content.

To be crystal clear with this post: Data and trends in content marketing are nice. They inform creativity. They do not replace creativity.

Impact Requires a Story

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Results in communications are contingent on compelling stakeholder groups — by groups of ten, by the thousands, or entire market segments. Regardless of where the content lies in a company’s user experience, it needs to impact someone’s journey. That is true of the consumer, that is true of the business stakeholder.

Why else would someone act? Buying is an emotional decision. If your content doesn’t create positive emotion for someone — even if it is just allaying fears — then you have a problem.

I love media and how it empowers us to communicate with each other. What I find most interesting is how people use those media forms to connect, and the outcomes these connections create. Why was that Periscope video successful? How did that article help someone come decide to engage with the “build your own” tool on your site? Why did that series of personal case studies increased conversions of your software product?

Stories. Content must tell stories or help people envision their own narrative. The media changes, the methods allow for more precision, there are more distractions now, but once you get someone to try your content, it has to compel them.

How Data Helps Storytelling, But Doesn’t Replace It

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Let’s use another analogy: Just because Google Maps can tell you the fastest route, doesn’t mean it can teach you how to drive. Your trip is not guaranteed to be timely, much less safe.

In my mind, data is beautiful. It provides a great deal of research to inform creativity. It points out who the customer is (demographics), what they like, and which media they use. In some cases, it provides insights into their behavior, concerns and interests with a particular brand. What more could a creative want? This information provides the means to create content that moves the stakeholder.

Yet when I am called into situations to analyze why a marketing or communications program isn’t working, I find that the tactics may beed tweaking, the data analysis needs improvement, but generally they are heading in the right direction. No, the problems come down to two primary groups of issues:

1) Lame content: Corporate messages instead of stories, dry style (e.g. it’s safe and uncompelling), antiquated style (for example long text with no rich media), no personal story or connection, no style, etc.
2) Poor distribution: Including lack of email, lack of native ad-spend, non-engaging social media, using the wrong channels, etc.

Poor distribution has always been an issue, and it is becoming an increasingly difficult one. I highly recommend you read Mark Schaefer’s Content Code if this is concerning you.

On the first issue, the actual content continues to be a problem. Style counts for a lot more than you would think. Data can always be used to better steer a communications effort, but the effort must be made. Data alone cannot deliver compelling media.

Storytelling Must Return

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Whether you call it creative, design, writing, PR or marketing, we build narratives with customers. There are many, many useful methods of telling stories that have been discussed, and as many ideas out there (this one 2014 post features 200+ blog article approaches) as there are distribution methods:

  • Some use an advertising approach, using imagery to tell, and words to compel (Think General Electric).
  • Consider the traditional social media approach of first person experiential tales (Gary Vaynerchuk has to be the best at this in our business).
  • There’s third person journalistic storytelling (Adobe does this well across all properties).
  • You have wonky, funny joke telling (Hello, Captain Obvious!).
  • Others provide historical context (National Geographic uses historical storytelling to sell adventures).

These brands use available data to inform their storytelling approach and build something compelling to people. It’s not enough to create targeted brochureware for what they believe people need to hear.

Content really needs to interest and then resolve the stakeholder’s raison d’etre. This is French for reason of being. Why are they investing time? The content better fulfill that reason or the brand will lose the prospective customer. This ethos is at the heart of the current user experience trend driving branding and digital design.

Trends come and go, but corporate and marketing communications [oops, content marketing ;)] always lives and dies based on stakeholder response. Response is the ultimate metric that every manager ultimately judges a communications program by. No response means changes are in store, from the micro to the macro.

That is why it is so necessary to build a compelling story that creates response. This is true regardless of purpose: Launch or customer experience, micro account-based level comms or social network-wide (organic and paid). Marketers better tell a good story that the audience relates with instead of highly targeted noise.

5 Tips to Liven Up Long Stories

We live in the tl;dr (too long; did not read) era of the Internet. How do you make traditional text stories and content succeed in an online world where attention spans are dwindling and success necessitates visual media?

Over the past year at Tenacity5, we’ve learned a few tweaks to drive more traffic to text heavy copy. Here are a five formatting methods and writing tips to liven up long stories.

1) Build Modules

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We know stand-alone long copy doesn’t perform well. Instead of writing essays, build out posts and white papers with sections or modules. In the old day this was creating subheads to break up a story. In a well engineered content piece for the current visual media era, I would say each section must be its own multimedia module.

Each module has its own mini-thesis or message and can stand alone as a small content piece on the Internet. Modules have both a visual communication of that message and supporting copy. Every module works together to tell a story or support an overarching thesis. Individually, they are unique. Together, they stand as a powerful piece.

Note the architecture of the visual in context with the text. Ideally, the picture, video or infographic can serve as the lead for the story or even tell it. They should work hand in hand. Do not make “snacks” here. There are many resources on the Internet to find free pictures.

Bleacher Report does a really nice job of building module-based feature stories.

2) Architect Visuals from the Beginning

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One of the biggest issues with content today is simply slapping on visual assets to create a multimedia or rich media post. There’s more on content strategy in point five, but when you add visuals after the fact, you are creating content that serves the words. And that may be OK if you are great photo researcher and can clearly understand your thesis and message.

However, more often than not when visuals are added after the fact, they have tangential meaning. When visuals are bolted on haphazardly, they don’t help content discovery and the overall meaning is less understandable.

When you know what you want to say, figure out what the right visual media is from the beginning and build it with the text in mind.

In some cases, you may illustrate points in the text after the fact, like Gaping Void did with Brian Solis’ What If PR Stood for People and Relationships. Nevertheless, GapingVoid was part of the content from the very beginning, and the content was created knowing that we needed sound bites that could be illustrated.

If you don’t already have a visual media library, start building one or research photo libraries for relevant images before you begin creating content. Drawing from a wide variety of assets makes life easier.

3) Use Lists

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When building modules, or at least creating subheads and sections, number and title content with a list. A list signals an easier more digestible content experience to your reader. Should every piece of content you write be a list? Probably not, but lists make long content pieces much more likely to be viewed and read

I used to sneer at list posts as the “BuzzFeedization” of the Internet. That was until I dug deeper and started re-engineering BuzzFeed posts. Then I built a few of them. I titled some with the numbers and others with a traditional headline. Then I watched the numbered post traffic go crazy.

I was little disappointed in this, but the fact of the matter is we are living in the tl;dr era. Breaking up long content into digestible lists and bullets just makes it easier. Or, you can run the gauntlet and try to architect the perfect long business essay that will actually be read.

(Original image by Ian Muttoo)

4) Write Ad Copy

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A writer with advertising training will fare better in the current content environment than a PR or literary writer. Ad writers focus on tight punchy headlines, snappy subheads (or module titles), and short compelling short body text.

If you go my the maxim, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” then your copy is going to fail more often than not. People don’t have time for long blathering posts. Write short, tight compelling copy.

When I analyzed Buzzfeed’s style, more than anything it read to me like ad copy. In that regard, it is concise and brilliant.

In the same vein, do your readers a favor and edit the bejesus out of sections. Make all copy as tight as possible.

5) Composition

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Last but not least, composition is becoming a critical focus for communications, in my opinion. Some would say it always has been. In large part this is because of data. We have so much data, we are either lost in it and don’t know what to communicate or we are over-informed by it, allowing our communications to become scientific and lifeless.

When we have more data — or even better — precise data, we can inform composition. Creativity infused outreach provides the opportunity to wow people. Or we can fail, amused with our data-inspired bells and whistles. Let me give you a photographic example.

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I liked the above photo when I took it. I thought it was so cool to get all of the Cleveland Flats industrial grid iron works AND also include the bright fountain, too. After all, people love bright colorful lights in night settings.

Except one thing: Though it hit all of the data points that I know people love in night shots — long exposure, color, industrial details, bright luminescent orange fountain, etc. — the composition sucked. The fountain overtakes the rest of the photograph, and because the fountain is not well placed in the image, it doesn’t work. The composition failed in spite of the elements.

We cannot fly blind with our communications just because we know people like certain aspects of them or because we satisfy some data requirement or messaging requirement. Any communication — written or visual — must have meaning. That is why we must be intentional about composition.

What is the thesis — the message — of the conent? What are we trying to achieve with our outreach? How are we accomplishing that goal? Does the data we have support that the approach will work? Does the approach inspire our intended recipient? Composition is an area that can always evolve and improve.

What tips would you add?

Other posts you might like:
4 Storytelling Methods
12 Ways to Boost Your Visual Media Performance

The Quality Boom

Strong professional writers, photographers and videographers should be thrilled. Content and social network noise increasingly impact online success, making quality an increasingly necessary component to succeed. That means experienced professional producers will be in demand.

Consider the rise of new markets for quality stories. Cont3nt.com has built a place for content creators to submit their stories. Note the word stories. While photos are the baseline, journalists are looking for the comprehensive package of photo/video AND story.

The demand for better photos is a direct result of mobile snapshots (and the smartphones that people view them on), but the zeitgeist is creating a market for higher quality images. Anyone (including Chicago Sun-Times journalists) can shoot a photo on an iPhone, but most smartphone photos look flat at best.

The same could be said for video. Vine may be the home of six second shorts shot on your phone, but high quality pieces win the day.

One complaint I hear frequently when talking to my more senior colleagues is that many young communications professionals display poor writing skills. Finding quality writers to succeed in the content marketing era is difficult.

The demand for quality writing is one of the primary reasons Erin Feldman became my first hire at Tenacity5. I learned to value quality writing from team members at Livingston Communications and Zoetica. People who work well on a timely basis are more important than yet another account executive.

I believe that demand for quality content will make hiring writers and designers a higher priority than account staff for agencies and consultancies. Regardless of story type — video, photo, written or a combination — we will live and die by quality.

Hybrid Weavers

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Notice the focus on complete stories at Cont3nt.com. I don’t think companies, journalists or content creators are looking for brilliant work in a singular tactic anymore.

Sure you can create the epic photo that is shared across the world, but invariably a story accompanies the image. You can write the most beautiful prose and publish it, but if there are no visuals or video the story will have a limited audience.

Even video requires a story, a screenplay. That usually requires the videographer to write a basic story before shooting.

Content publishers — media companies and corporations alike — realize the need to produce complete stories with multiple types of media assets. Agencies and consultants that can’t provide comprehensive storytelling will need to build networks and teams of diverse producers to fulfill client needs. The same can be said for media companies.

Hybrid content needs drove me to sign up for not one, but three professional photography training classes via National Geographic and Nikon. While most folks are nice to me and compliment my photography, I need the basic fundamentals to transcend from the periodic brilliant shot to consistantly decent photography. I can use these photos in my own work (as I frequently do with blog posts)

It’s all part of providing comprehensive content. Online communities prefer quality hybrid content.

How are you serving this need?

Photos taken last night in Alexandria, VA.

Waiting for Life to Happen

Do you wait for life to happen?

It was Jack Welch who said, “Contol your own destiny or someone else will.” Jack seems to have a superman attitude that fails to recognize the influence of outside forces, but… You can let the world run you, or you can create opportunities.

I don’t wait for things to happen, and I don’t give others full power to determine my destiny. This is true in business and in other pursuits. Yes, things are often out of our control, but we can always create another opportunity by proactively engaging.

I rarely have no options because I am constantly creating other chances and opportunities. If you don’t look for new business, it’s not going to land on your door. Even when opportunity does come, inevitably it’s because of proactive marketing and activities.

But the key is to do the footwork. If you do the footwork, the opportunities appear.

As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. The hard part is walking down the hallway and turning all the door knobs until it opens. That’s when the fear kicks in. You have to walk through that fear.

Writing and Destiny

People often ask me when I will write another business book. My honest answer is I don’t know. I’d rather focus on writing fiction, at least for the immediate future, and so I do. And while I can’t invest the time in fiction like I would a business book, it won’t happen on its own. I have to write every day!

Because I want to publish fiction, I didn’t even look for a publisher last year. I went out on my own. Destiny is not kind to fiction authors who leave their fate in the hands of traditional agents and publishers.

Publishing Exodus was one of the most powerful and fulfilling moments of personal destiny I have ever experienced.

I honestly believe one of my books will break open some larger opportunity. Why? Because footwork produces opportunities. Perhaps it’s a movie deal, or a traditional publisher buys the rights to my books, or drops a fat contract opportunity in my email, or maybe by the time I am an old man, they just start selling en masse. But it won’t happen if I don’t pay attention to my hobby when I can.

Moving Forwrd

Today is the first full week of the year. I am pretty busy, but I think that’s because I busted my butt in October, November and December.

Now it’s time to keep moving forward, and create opportunities for the second quarter and beyond. If we want a full destiny, then we must take the necessary actions to make it appear.

What actions will you take to create opportunities in your life?

Featured image by Robert Gouley.

The War Begins

When November began, I stated my intent to use the #NaNoWriMo writeathon as A method to start writing my next novel, The War to Persevere: Book 2 of the Fundamentalists. One month later I have written 15,000 words or just under a third of what qualifies as a novel.

Generally, I met my goal for #NanoWriMo,, and wrote most days, 21 out of the 28 days, and 13 of the last 14. Six of those missed days were in the first half of the month, so I picked up momentum as time progressed.

At the same time, I got lapped by many, many writers who delivered full novels this month. It was amazing to watch these tenacious writers complete their drafts. It was surely a grind for them as I could see by their daily updates.

Meanwhile, I felt like a jogger slowly starting the marathon. By the time I completed one quarter of the race, people were close to finishing. Oh well. Life running a business and fathering a toddler precludes writing a novel in a month. We’ll have to settle for the slow slog, and finish at some point this winter.

It does feel like the book may come in a little short, perhaps at 40,000 words, give or take, which makes it either a novella or a short novel. We’ll see.

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The 5.56x45mm NATO round plays a prominent role in The War to Persevere.

It might be fun to reveal why the book is called The War to Persevere. Like Exodus (just $.99 on the Kindle for all of you Black Friday shoppers), which begins with a quote, War also begins with a quote:

We thought about it for a long time, ‘Endeavor to persevere.’ And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.” – Lone Watie, Cherokee survivor in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Not quite as noble as Exodus‘s Emerson quote, but absolutely as defining for what is to come. A great struggle begins, one that will demand changes for our heroes if they are to survive.

It’s quite fun writing the book! I’m glad I had the opportunity to work on it just as the holidays were arriving. We’ll see where we end up as the year ends.

Image by Mike Miller.