6 “Dos” and 1 “Don’t” For Developing a Great White Paper

According to the Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs’ 11th Annual Content Marketing Survey, 47% of B2B content marketers used white papers in the past 12 months. Considering that the average white paper costs $4,000 to $6,000 to produce, with some complex projects costing as much as $10,000, it’s reasonable to assume that organizations receive a good return on their investment. In fact, white papers are among the best early-to-mid-stage content formats, particularly effective in generating early buyer interest from the awareness through the consideration and intent stages. What’s more, white papers often benefit from a long shelf life, and can be easily repurposed in a variety of formats and channels, such as blog posts, podcasts, webinars, press releases, bylined articles, infographics, and social media. A well-developed white paper is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

Given the levels of investment, effort, and potential return associated with a white paper project, marketers have plenty of incentive to do it right. Whereas blog posts and infographics can be produced quickly and relatively cheaply, long-form content like white papers demand some additional thought and planning. Most importantly, your white paper should be fully aligned with your organization’s long-term content strategy and goals.

With this in mind, here are 6 “Dos” to consider before kicking off your next white paper project:

  • Do speak to your audience: A successful white paper begins with a compelling topic. And that topic needs to speak directly to a specific, unique challenge or issue your target audience is facing right now. The name of the game is clicks, and unless the topic clearly resonates with your audience, your white paper is likely to gather dust in a forgotten corner of their inbox.
  • Do say something original: One of the most important jobs of a white paper is to help an individual or brand become established as a “thought leader” in their field. The late economist and editor-in-chief Joel Kurtzman first coined “thought leader” in its modern usage in strategy+business magazine. In the decades since, many organizations overused this term, throwing it around to describe every regurgitated utterance of conventional wisdom. Don’t be that guy or gal! For your white paper to have a chance at making an impact in the marketplace, and to have legs beyond the current quarterly cycle, you need to say something original or counterintuitive, and be prepared to back it up.
  • Do cite relevant data: One way to back up your unique or counterintuitive big idea is through evidence – specifically, fresh, current, compelling, independently validated data that support your key points. This information can come from a variety of sources: proprietary research, published studies, government publications, or anecdotal evidence gathered through client interviews and focus groups.
  • Do quote industry experts: Another popular and effective way to establish credibility in your white paper is by interviewing recognized experts in the field. Not only will these quotes help validate your position and point of view, but since everyone loves to see their name in print, they will also extend your reach among the experts’ networks and spheres of influence. Don’t forget to approach your current customers as potential interview subjects, as well. They can provide real-world examples of how they solved the problem you describe in the paper (using your solution, of course), and the additional recognition can serve as a way to thank them for their loyalty and partnership.
  • Do avoid jargon: As much as you hope your shiny new white paper will enable you to leverage industry best practices to help move the needle on all your marketing goals and capture low hanging fruit along the customer journey, you can easily shoot yourself in the foot by overusing industry jargon, cliches, and the most annoying buzzwords of the moment. Nothing reduces a white paper’s effectiveness and credibility more than jargon, except maybe this …
  • Do proofread! Perhaps the only sin worse than overusing buzzwords is neglecting to weed out careless typos, spelling errors, and grammatical snafus. Not everyone will notice, but for the vocal minority that does, nothing is more annoying than silly mistakes that should have been picked up in a final round of editing. Take the extra time to have a second set of eyes read through the final product before you publish. Your readers will thank you!

As a bonus, here is one important “Don’t” to remember for your next white paper project:

  • Don’t push product! We all understand that the ultimate purpose of marketing is to drive sales. Long-form content like white papers are most effective when used in the top and middle stages of the sales cycle, when establishing brand awareness and credibility is most critical, and your audience is seeking objective, thought-provoking points of view. For this reason, avoid overtly selling your products or solution in the white paper, where product-pushing can be more damaging than beneficial. Leave the selling to late-stage content like case studies, website product pages, in-person and virtual events, sales sheets, and brochureware.

White papers hold a unique and important place of prominence in your content marketing toolkit. They help build awareness, credibility, and “buzz” for your brand and offerings. They also have a long shelf life and can be repurposed in multiple ways. Follow our tips for effectiveness, and you’ll be assured of a successful white paper project that will keep returning value for years to come.

Thriving Under Pressure

I am lucky enough to live in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, known for producing some of the country’s (and the world’s) best wines, especially those varietals that excel in cooler climates like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and ice wine.

As spring finally began to emerge this past week, it got me thinking about the winemaking process. Although I am a happy consumer of wine, particularly vinifera reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir, I know very little about the wine-making process. So, I did a little research.

As it turns out, the best wine comes from the heartiest grapes— those able to flourish under the most challenging conditions. Vines with ready access to water and nutrient-rich soil tend to produce fat, characterless grapes, which result in watered-down, flavorless wine.

In contrast, fruit that grows under the most Spartan of circumstances, like dry, rocky soil and low levels of rainfall have to work a lot harder. They develop complex root systems adept at seeking out the water table and hard-to-find nutrients. The plant ends up focusing all of its resources on producing rich, complex grapes instead of beautiful leaves and long, snake-like vines. It prioritizes the one thing most important to its species’ survival: luscious, sugar-filled, flavorful grapes, which in turn serve as the foundation of a delicious, complex wine. It also ensures the propagation of the species.

These challenging times feel a lot like growing grapes on a rocky Italian hillside during a harsh, dry summer. Many businesses are struggling, and more than a few aren’t going to make it to the other side. Yet some are finding ways to excel. They are innovating their products, services, and internal processes to adapt to our new reality, whether that means empowering employees to work from home, or offering curbside delivery to their customers. Meanwhile, those brands that have proven unwilling or unable to pivot to meet their clients’ and employees’ needs are withering on the vine.

We can learn valuable lessons from these companies that are spreading their roots further from the vineyard – seeking out new prospects and finding new ways to communicate their value propositions. Can’t hold your in-person user conference this year at a fabulous destination? Why not move it online? How about setting up a regular speaker series or webinar training program? This may be the year to start that podcast, video series, or weekly newsletter.

Innovation has always been the hallmark of the business community, and it amazes me how many companies have been able to survive and even thrive during this historic pandemic crisis. Yet, as more Americans get vaccinated every day and the danger of the virus begins to recede, the endless possibilities of springtime are blossoming. After a seemingly endless winter, it’s a great relief to cheer on those organizations, people, and brands that stared into the abyss and are now poised to reach new heights.

And that’s something we can all raise a glass to.

How to Tackle Your First 100 Days

The first 100 days of a new President’s administration is generally seen as crucial to its ultimate success. This period is ripe with opportunity, as the newly inaugurated President typically benefits from a “honeymoon” period, with higher-than-average public approval ratings and bipartisan reserves of goodwill that can lead to key legislative wins.

Especially in times of crisis, the first 100 days are seen as a bellwether of an administration’s ability to enact change. As the nation battled the Great Depression in 1933, a freshly inaugurated FDR took 15 major actions in service of his signature “New Deal” program, including passage of the Emergency Banking Act and the introduction of his signature “fireside chats.” JFK ordered the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attacks within his first three months, Ronald Reagan secured the release of the U.S. hostages held in Iran (on day one!), and Barack Obama shepherded the massive $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through Congress before his first month was out. With a historic coronavirus crisis still looming, President Biden has pledged to deliver 100 million vaccines into the arms of Americans within his first 100 days, among other bold initiatives.

But it’s also true that the first 100 days, a period lasting just over three months, establishes the tone and expectations for the new Administration’s competency and ability to function, and provides the nation with its first clear-eyed view of the President’s overall effectiveness as a leader. If an administration begins its term hampered by inaction, internal discord, and dysfunction, it is unlikely to accomplish much of anything in its first few months, let alone over the course of a four-year term.

The first 100 days of a new administration demands bold leadership, big ideas, and strong, confident action. There are lessons to be learned for marketers, as well.

We often focus on setting annual targets or objectives for our business or marketing program. But think back to January 2020—of all the ambitious goals you set back then, how many did you actually accomplish, post-COVID? Even in a “normal” year, the annual goal-setting cycle is useful from a strategic perspective, but is usually less effective as a tactical tool.

In contrast, working to a 90- or 100-day timeframe strikes the perfect balance between long-term, strategic goals, and shorter-term, practical milestones. A week or a month is too short. It is too easy to become derailed when your focus shifts to dousing “urgent” day-to-day fires. At the same time, too much can change over the course of a year – in your market, with your competition, and with economic and business conditions beyond your control. An effective strategic plan must be both forward-thinking and flexible enough to pivot on a dime.

That’s why a 100-day (or 90-day) plan can work so well.

When setting your content marketing goals, break your yearly calendar up into quarterly increments. Start by focusing on your key content pillars – those products, topics, or themes you want to highlight in the upcoming quarter. Then decide on the mix of content you’d like to utilize to support these themes: A blog series? Earned media? Placed byline articles? White papers or eBooks? Customer success stories and case studies?

Lastly, schedule your content releases in two-week “sprints,” until you have the entire quarter covered. Lay it out visually on a thirteen-week calendar and double-check to ensure all the key content pillars are covered. Make sure you support your flagship assets (like white papers, eBooks, and trend reports) with a consistent campaign of promotion and repurposing through a variety of channels and media (e.g., blog posts, bylined articles, social media, podcasts, videos, and earned media).

By establishing the groundwork in your first 100 days, you’ll set the tone for a solid and successful content marketing program. With some foresight and planning, these early wins will carry you through the entire year, while providing enough flexibility to help you manage any challenge that comes your way.

Strike First or Protect Your Turf? Applying the Lessons of Cobra Kai to Your Content Strategy

I’m currently binge-watching my latest guilty pleasure, Cobra Kai on Netflix. The series is based on the beloved 1980s film Karate Kid, which starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso and Pat Morita as his mentor, Mr. Miyagi.

The original film and its less well-received sequels were based on a very simple proposition – that good and evil are black and white, and good always triumphs in the end.

Of course, life doesn’t always play by those rules. And to its credit, the immensely watchable new series takes a more nuanced approach to its main characters, Game of Thrones-style. While Karate Kid pit Daniel, a poor New Jersey transplant living with his single mom in L.A., against his archenemy, spoiled rich kid Johnny Lawrence, in Cobra Kai their roles are reversed, 30+ years on from high school. This time around, Daniel is a wealthy owner of a chain of successful car dealerships, while Johnny never quite escaped the ‘80s. Here is a guy who doesn’t know how to use a computer or smartphone, and actually wears a Zebra concert tee for an entire episode (author’s note: this obscure Louisiana-bred band was among my top three faves in high school, along with Led Zeppelin and Rush, of course!) And at the end of each episode, I find myself shifting back and forth between rooting for Johnny and his dojo full of bullied miscreants, and Daniel and his smaller band of plucky charges.

Yet the overarching theme is still represented by the contrast in martial arts philosophies, and in turn life, taken by the two competing senseis. Daniel has adopted the philosophy of his late master, which is to employ karate as self-defense, to only strike as a last resort, and never in anger. Hey, that approach catapulted him to the All-Valley Karate Championship, so why change now?

Johnny’s philosophy is quite the opposite: strike first – strike hard – no mercy. Cobra Kai never dies. In the movies, this do-or-die ethic, as taught by the cartoonishly evil Sensei Kreese and put into practice by his spoiled rich-kid students, was wrong on its face. But in Cobra Kai, that philosophy doesn’t always seem so wrong-headed, if it helps a bullied kid gain confidence and a sense of self. Or does it?

Like many great pop culture touchstones, the lessons from Cobra Kai can be applied to marketing strategy. Not every technique or approach is going to work every time, for every campaign, and for all audiences. In some cases, a defense-first approach is the way to go – never strike first, protect your turf, and don’t make waves. Other situations call for more aggressive tactics. You may be targeting a new market niche already staked out by established incumbents, and need to establish your domain authority by creating a dominant thought leadership platform. Or you may be launching a new, innovative product or service and need to explain to your audience why it is right for them. In such cases, a bold, proactive approach is the way to go. Competition is grease to the wheel of business, and as long as your approach is ethical, legal, and respectful, any practice is fair game.

Regardless, there is a time and a place for both strategies. The key is to cater your content marketing plan to address the needs and pain points of the audience you have, or the market you desire. Miyagi Do or Cobra Kai – both approaches can lead to success, if deployed the right way at the right time.

3 Tips for Nailing the Case Study Interview

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Case studies, also known as customer success stories, are an excellent way to communicate your company’s value to a qualified prospect, by demonstrating how you have helped actual customers solve real-life problems. You can spout all the features and benefits of your offering and preach outstanding customer service until you are blue in the face, but often it takes a well-positioned testimonial to close the deal. Your customers are your best salespeople!

Crafting an effective case study isn’t hard, but it must begin with a well-planned and executed customer conversation. Here are three easy ways to ensure you crush the interview:

1. Plan and prepare: Pre-interview preparation is critical. If you go into the interview blind, you’ll probably miss the most interesting quotes, which help your story come alive. Do a little research on your customer, and draft your questions in advance.

My interview questions follow this classic case study template:

  • Company Background
  • Challenge
  • Solution
  • Journey
  • Results

Develop your questions directly from this template, and in this order. This helps in a few ways: It will keep the interview on track, allowing your customer’s story to flow naturally. And by following this orderly sequence, the case study will practically write itself.

I recommend interviewing at least 2-3 key players at the client company, preferably in different roles and at various levels of the organization, reflecting a range of end-user perspectives.

2. Dig deep for golden nuggets: If you’ve spent enough time planning, the actual interview should go smoothly. Reference your script, but be ready to follow your subject wherever she might lead, particularly if she tosses up a particularly juicy data point or unforeseen benefit of working with your company’s solution.

Above all, listen to your subject’s answers, and ask follow-up questions. My business coach Ed Gandia turned me on to the “so what?” approach to interviewing. For example, if you ask, “What are some tangible benefits you realized after implementing ABC solution?” she may reply, “We reduced loan closing times by 25%.” Don’t stop there.

Ask yourself “So what?” and ask your interviewee, “What did that reduction in closing time mean for your staff? Are they able to process more loans, or take on additional duties now? What do the faster closings mean for your customers? Did they get their money more quickly? What were they able to achieve? Is your company more competitive in the marketplace now?” These questions will help uncover those “golden nuggets” that make for truly compelling stories.

3. Save time with smart technology: To save both time and effort, I use a few inexpensive (or free) technology solutions. First, I always record my interviews. Most often I do phone interviews, and I like using FreeConferenceCall.com. As the name implies, the basic service is free. You get a dedicated, reusable, password-protected conference line, and free call recording with ample storage space (you can pay a fee for additional storage). I have found the service to be extremely reliable and easy to use.

If I need to interview a source in person, I use the voice memo app on my iPhone. I have not experienced any issues with sound quality using the built-in microphone on the iPhone, but I recommend interviewing your subject in a quiet room, and testing the positioning of your smartphone’s mike beforehand.

Once you have the recording in hand, I highly recommend using an online transcription service, such as Rev.com. I’ve used Rev.com for years, and find them consistently accurate. The price is right (currently at $1.25 per transcribed minute), so for a typical 30-minute interview, it will only set you back thirty bucks. Rev.com keeps getting better and faster, and the company promises to turnaround your transcription in just twelve hours. This is money very well spent.

Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus

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Words can’t adequately describe what many of us are feeling right now. In the U.S. and around the world, the events of the past few weeks have been alarming, shocking, frustrating, and frightening.

The relentless march of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is causing panic and fear worldwide. Many people are getting sick, and some are dying. Events and gatherings of all types and sizes are being canceled. It may seem like our cultural fabric is coming undone at the seams.

On the economic front, the scene is not pretty. Equity markets have fallen deep into bear market territory. The Dow’s 2,300-point plunge on Thursday, March 12, 2020 was the steepest one-day percentage decline since 1987. The travel, tourism, sports, and entertainment sectors, in particular, are facing a seemingly existential crisis.

Meanwhile, economists are anticipating a steep, but perhaps short-lived recession. Experts agree that the fundamentals of the U.S. financial markets and economy are generally sound. If prudent measures are taken and the outbreak is managed with care, businesses and the overall economy are expected to recover in the second half of 2020.

Scary times, indeed. As a marketer, how should you respond?

The natural inclination during trying times is to “circle the wagons,” “batten down the hatches,” and prepare for the coming storm. In practical (read: non-cliched) terms, this often translates into indiscriminate, across-the-board cost-cutting. Emotionally, this makes sense. But marketing is one area where dramatic cuts during a financial downturn can do more harm than good.

Firms that were already struggling during the good times of the economic expansion will undoubtedly do worse during a downturn. Many will continue to flounder, and some will lay off workers, close facilities, declare bankruptcy, and even cease operations. But other firms that have sound balance sheets, offer category-leading products and provide outstanding customer service can thrive even during challenging times.

In order to succeed, these brands must project an image of stability and strength, which requires continued investment in both earned and paid media. Those firms that are able to maintain or even increase their share of voice while others reduce their exposure will be heard clearly above the fray. A consistent and confident messaging strategy says to your customers, partners, and the market that you are still here, still innovating, and still performing in spite of worsening external market conditions.

The data supports the notion that continuing to market your brand during a recession will pay dividends. Following the Great Recession a decade ago, U.S. firms reduced their advertising spend on average by 13 percent. Yet, studies have shown that companies that cut their marketing budget to zero during a recession take 5 years to recover to pre-recession sales levels. Those that only cut their budget in half still take three years to recover.

Of course, no two economic downturns are exactly alike. The current crisis differs from the recessions that followed the 9/11 attacks and the housing crisis, both in the level of uncertainty and the global scope. When we look back, this moment may indeed turn out to be a challenge of historic proportions, on par with the Great Depression or World War II.

As a B2B marketer, it is easy to forget that your clients and prospects are not faceless corporations, but real people, with real families, real fears, and real-world concerns. Effective marketing during times of crisis means showing empathy toward and an understanding of both the personal and business stresses your audience is facing. The mark of a great company isn’t the ability to rack up amazing sales growth numbers during the good times. Great companies rise to the occasion and serve the needs of their constituents—their customers, employees, owners, and communities— always.

To my clients, colleagues, and friends: Please reach out if I can help you in any way. I wish you and your family continued health and safety as we navigate these difficult times, together.

The Folly of Free

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Three months ago, my favorite gas station removed its free tire air compressor. I’m still not over it.

I used to go there all the time. The gasoline is competitively priced, the convenience store offers a great selection of products, and the service is decent. They even have a loyalty card program with a seven-cent discount on each gallon of gas.

But the main reason I would visit was to fill my tires. Typically, I would pump up my tires to the recommended psi (pounds per square inch), then pull around to the gas pump and fill up my tank. Occasionally, I would stop inside the shop for a coffee or snack.

Every other gas station in town charges for air – typically a buck or two for three minutes. Not a huge amount, but it irked me to pay for something that seemingly should be free. I appreciated that this particular establishment didn’t charge. Also, the air compressor was easy to use. It had a digital screen where I could type in the exact 32 psi of air pressure needed for my model tires, and the pump would automatically fill the tire to that level, startling me with a loud beep when finished. Couldn’t be easier.

So, when they removed the free air pump and installed a pay-to-pump model, I was really upset. (Even worse, the new machine features an old-school manual pressure gauge –  goodbye digital screen!) I’ve visited the station a few times since, but not as frequently as before. Now, every time I pull in, the first thing I think is, “they took away my free air!” I pump my gas, grumble to myself (or to whoever is unlucky enough to be riding with me) and leave. No more trips inside to the convenience store. More and more, I’ve avoided that station altogether, even though it’s on my way home from the office. It’s not as if any other gas station is offering better service or lower prices on gas. It’s simply that the copious stores of goodwill I had accumulated toward this business over the past decade have completely dissipated. In fact, I now have negative feelings toward this business.

NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently reran an episode from 2012 about the unique power of “free,” and how taking it away can backfire. Big time. Consider the example of veterans and the American Red Cross. Apparently, back in World War II, the Red Cross used to serve free doughnuts and coffee to American GIs stationed overseas. Then in 1943, for what seemed like very good reasons at the time, the Red Cross began charging the soldiers three cents a doughnut. Naturally, the GIs became very upset. More remarkably, veterans still have negative feelings toward the Red Cross today, more than 75 years later! The Red Cross has tried very hard over the years to make amends, to little avail.

Why is this?

It turns out that the money aspect is just one element of this phenomenon. The core reason runs much deeper. When an organization starts charging for something it used to give away for free, it drastically changes the nature of the relationship with its clients. When the Red Cross was giving away its doughnuts and coffee, the soldiers viewed the organization as a benevolent, caring entity that was looking out for their best interests during a time of great stress and hardship. The moment it asked them for money, the relationship turned transactional, and the rules of the game changed in an unexpected and irreparable way.

The bottom line? Offering something for free can be a powerful tool in marketing, and it’s a great way to entice prospects to try your product and (hopefully) become loyal customers. Many companies take this approach – from offering “freemium” content online to free banking services like coin exchange and bill pay. But you better think carefully about how long you’ll be able to keep offering that product or service gratis. Unless you believe that, like The Michael Scott Paper Company, you’ll make up for it in volume, you’ll likely have to charge eventually. And once you finally acquiesce to reality and begin charging customers for that formerly free product, the bond of trust you worked so hard to establish may be broken.

Perhaps for generations.

The Big Green Content Marketing Machine

Content marketing has grown into the leading method for promoting brand identity and cultivating an audience. In fact, according to Technavio, the worldwide content marketing industry will expand to over $400 billion by 2021, more than double its 2016 valuation.

Why is content marketing dominating all other types of marketing today?

Content marketing, contrary to popular belief, is not a flash in the pan. In fact, like prospecting for gold, the blueprint for today’s practices harks back to the 19th century, where innovative companies like Sears, Roebuck and John Deere communicated directly with their customers using then-new media like magazines and catalogs. These organizations went beyond simply advertising products, to promoting a very specific lifestyle to their target audience.

In fact, John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, which launched in 1897 and is still published today, was a progenitor of modern B2B content marketing. Check out this short video clip produced by Content Marketing Institute (CMI) to learn about Deere’s groundbreaking and successful approach to brand development.

The key to The Furrow’s success was and still is its non-salesy, journalistic tone and style. Recognizing that its customers (hard-working farmers) didn’t have the time or inclination to sift through transparent sales pitches, Deere has always strived to present unbiased, relevant articles and information. As one loyal reader states in the video, “I think the articles in The Furrow are very neutral, to the point where I always wondered – ‘Is this a John Deere magazine, or not?’” (However, it’s worth noting he is proudly wearing a classic green John Deere cap!)

Whereas a century ago, print media like newspapers, posters, and catalogs ruled the roost, the advent of the Internet has provided marketers with a bounty of new channels for promoting their brands. In addition, new technology is allowing today’s marketers to slice and dice their audience into micro-segments based on demographics, psychographics, and location. In fact, using cognitive technologies like AI, machine learning, and robotics, organizations can customize their messages to an audience of one.

Despite these new methods of distribution, the core principles of content marketing remain the same. To be successful, today’s marketers must transcend product-focused “push” advertising, to “pull” in their audience by offering meaningful value in a compelling and useful way.

Since 1837, John Deere has been a leading manufacturer of agricultural machinery and equipment, including its instantly recognizable green tractor. The company operates its business based on four core values: integrity, quality, commitment, and innovation. For nearly 125 years, The Furrow has embodied those values and has introduced generations of farmers to this iconic American brand.

Is your marketing strategy delivering the same level of consistent, timeless success?

Content in Context

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Only in Vegas …

I recently spent a long weekend in Las Vegas with my wife and youngest son. Although this was my fourth visit to Sin City, this time seemed very different.

We were in town to cheer on my nine-year-old as he competed in the Kids Fitness category of the Natural Olympia bodybuilding event. This was his third competition since embarking on his bodybuilding journey about a year ago. By far the youngest competitor, my son posed like a pro and had a blast meeting his fellow athletes and sharing tips on nutrition and exercise. He even got to enjoy dinner with his West Coast grandparents – a rare treat. He was floating on air the entire weekend.

The event was held at the Rio Hotel and Conference Center, a well-appointed property off the Strip. It has some excellent restaurants, and our room was clean and comfortable. However, as we trekked from our room to the adjoining conference site each morning, we had no choice but to navigate the hotel’s crowded, noisy casino. My wife and I kept our son close as we hurried him past the habitual gamblers at the roulette tables and retirees pulling the one-armed bandits. A few seemed to have been there all night. My son held his nose, complaining the air reeked of smoke.

On our last day, we spent a few hours walking the Strip. We gazed up at the faux-Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel. We marveled at the Bellagio’s synchronized fountain show. We stopped in the souvenir shops and ate massive pancakes (my boy’s post-competition “cheat meal”) at the Hash House a Go-Go. But the sidewalks were more crowded than I remembered, stifling and sweaty with the press of humanity. I gripped my son’s hand tightly as we traversed the filthy, trash-strewn staircases and walkways.

My prior visits to Vegas consisted of work conferences and getaways with college buddies. Under those circumstances, the city sparkled with the promise of excitement and adventure. I visited the clubs, ate at the steakhouses, played some golf, and yes, hit the blackjack tables (up to a predetermined, modest limit of cash on hand). This time, with my wife (a Vegas newbie) and son along for the ride, the City of Second Chances seemed decrepit, slightly menacing, and above all, depressing.

What factors account for this stark difference in perception? Context and point of view.

Vegas hadn’t changed. But my perspective clearly had. Seeing the city through the eyes of my companions, who had no interest in all the “mature” entertainment the city has on offer, I was able to see right through Vegas’ veneer of glitz to its decaying core.

Context is Everything

Context and point of view are crucial elements in content marketing. When you’re marketing to your prospects, you must grasp their mindset – at a specific moment in time. What stage of the buying cycle are they in? Are they early in the process, just beginning to analyze their needs? Are they considering expanding their product offerings? Deciding between offering a solution in-house or outsourcing to a third-party vendor?

Or is your prospect further down the sales funnel – fully sold on the need, and beginning to explore specific solutions? Have they narrowed their search down to a shortlist of providers, vetting references, and comparing features and pricing?

Just as critically, what is your prospect’s role in the buying process? Is she the decision-maker, or an information-gatherer?

What baggage does your prospect bring to the table? Have they already tried different approaches to solving this problem, with little success? Did they try a competitors’ solution, and been burned? Perhaps they used your solution in the past. How did that go?

Before you communicate with the buyer, you must understand where they are coming from. You need to consider their unique perspective, past experiences, and biases. You must understand their goals, pain points, and needs. Only then can you help guide them to the next stage, and ultimately toward a buying decision.

Without an understanding of context, it is nearly impossible to develop a compelling and impactful marketing message. Without considering where your prospects are today – at this moment— you’re simply blowing smoke in their faces.

Even in Vegas, that’s never acceptable.

The One Where He Talks About Style Guides

Spring is in the air. Time to clean out our closets, open the windows wide, sweep away the winter dust, and refresh our personal style.

Now, when it comes to personal style, mine admittedly leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, just the other evening my wife and I were binging on some old episodes of Friends. Yes, the classic 90s sitcom that basically held a mirror up to my life for the better part of that decade.

Anyway, we were watching one episode where Ross walked into Central Perk to meet up with the gang, and I remarked (aloud, I think)— “Hey, Ross is wearing my shirt!”

Not, “I used to have a shirt like that,” or “That looks like something I would have worn way back then.” No— “I have that same shirt NOW, that Ross was wearing THEN.”

As Chandler Bing might say, “Could I BE more out of fashion?”

Fortunately for a sad sartorial specimen like me, spring is also a great time to refresh your business’ style. By that, I’m referring to dusting off your organization’s communication strategy and taking a hard look at how you represent your brand to your audience.

Yes, friends – I’m talking about your marketing style guide.

OK, first things first. Perhaps you don’t have a style guide. That makes sense. Why do you even need one? Well, here’s why:

  1. Consistency – Your brand is your most valuable asset. To protect, preserve, and promote your brand, it’s essential to maintain consistency in messaging across all mediums and modes of communication.
  2. Clarity – A style guide helps clarify your brand message, and how that message is communicated. It helps reduce or eliminate any confusion among people in various roles across the enterprise and ensure that everyone always stays on message.
  3. Simplicity – Without a style guide, it’s all too easy for people to dilute the message. A style guide simplifies the process of writing any type of document and reduces the risk of confusion.
  4. Speed – With a well-conceived style guide, there is no doubt how to write a document. For your content creators, this speeds up the writing process, improves quality, and reduces the amount of editing and proofreading required.

Now that you understand why you need a style guide, let’s discuss how to develop one that’s effective and useful:

  1. Don’t recreate the wheel. To make your job easier, reference an industry standard like the Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook as your default for grammar, punctuation, and word usage. These guides address common areas of contention like whether to use the Oxford comma, and how to write numerical and financial terms.
  2. Note unique differences. Make sure to specify any differences in writing style among documents you write for various purposes and audiences, such as internal communication, technical documentation, client reports, social media, and marketing materials.
  3. Watch your lingo. It’s a good idea to call out any specific jargon, industry terms, or acronyms you allow in your writing. In general, it is best to avoid jargon and technical terms whenever possible, but if there are unique terms that your clients and audience understand, identify those in the guide.
  4. Keep it short. A writing style guide should run only a couple of pages in length. Many organizations produce a comprehensive branding style guide that includes both written and visual guidelines, to ensure branding consistency across all media. If your style guide includes visual guidelines, its fine to stretch it out to four or five pages, including illustrations and examples.
  5. Address your brand voice. Is your organization’s preferred style conversational, or formal? Do you get technical, or go for a layman’s tone? Your style guide should spell out your company’s unique voice, level of formality, and word usage, and whether it differs among various types of content and media. For example, you may choose to allow an informal, conversational tone in blog posts and web content, but never in white papers, client reports, and email. Content Marketing Institute offers up some great examples of corporate style guides that effectively address voice here.
  6. Avoid international incidents. If your brand has a global footprint, customize the style guide to the unique cultural differences of the regions you serve. History is filled with examples of U.S. brand messaging getting lost in translation overseas. One notorious marketing snafu was the Chinese debut of Pepsi’s slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life.” Unfortunately, someone translated this phrase as “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave.” Pepsi was D.O.A. in China, for a while. (For a fascinating look at Pepsi’s history, including its most notorious marketing fails, check out this video.)

Take advantage of this season of renewal to develop or refresh your marketing style guide. Once created, it’ll always be there for you.