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.

Appreciating Leftovers

My kids love Thanksgiving.

Not so much all the grocery shopping, and days of preparation, and the hours of watching the turkey slowly roast in the oven.

And certainly not the smothering hugs and lipstick-stained kisses from Aunt Martha as she makes her grand entrance into our previously-bucolic homestead.

(OK, who am kidding? With three school-aged kids and three dogs, our home is never peaceful.)

No, what my kids really look forward to are the leftovers. I have a mean turkey rice casserole recipe, and my kids beg me to cook it up every day for a week following Thanksgiving. I also make some great turkey croquettes. For some reason, my children seem to enjoy the leftovers much more than the original dishes. You know, the ones that my wife and I sweat over for days preparing.

The key is to change the recipes up a little bit. Use the turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes in new, creative ways. Add some fresh ingredients, like cream of mushroom soup, rice, or egg noodles. Sprinkle a little pizazz into the mix.

Come to think of it, the same approach works well in your content marketing strategy.

(You, Patient Reader, knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

Repurpose your content leftovers

One of the many benefits of developing a regular and consistent content marketing program over the course of months and years is that eventually, you have created a massive library of rich and flavorful articles, white papers, webinars, blog posts, and case studies to draw on.

Once you’ve developed that library of delectable content, it’s simply a matter of defrosting the leftovers, reformulating your recipes, and mixing up all your ingredients until you have something new and delicious.

In practice, this may mean taking the white paper you published last spring and recycling the observations into a webinar featuring a panel of internal and external subject matter experts, making sure to introduce fresh new insights into the mix.

Or it may mean reheating portions of the article you wrote for a leading industry publication into a set of short blog posts.

Another tasty approach to try is leveraging your recent case studies to create a series of short client testimonial posts on LinkedIn.

The possibilities are endless. As we near the end of the year, it’s a great time to revisit all the delicious content you cooked up over the past twelve months. You’ll be surprised how many savory morsels are buried deep in those pages of valuable assets. All they need is a little loving attention and effort to turn them into a cornucopia of mouthwatering delights.

Whatever else you do this holiday season, remember to save your leftovers.

Your kids will thank you.

 

 

Back from the Dead

‘Tis the season of vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, and zombies. This makes it a great time to discuss the reanimation of that old content marketing standby, the white paper.

Recently a client asked me, “Do white papers still have a place in my content marketing strategy?”

I get it. In today’s information-packed, immediate-gratification world, the traditional white paper can seem windy, dry, and even a bit boring. Aren’t bright shiny objects like short blog posts, infographics, and 90-second video clips more effective at engaging your audience?

To some extent, yes. Shorter-form, visually-immersive content is growing in popularity, particularly as part of a well-coordinated social media strategy. Yet in the high-end B2B market, the staid, long-form white paper still plays an important role. Consider these stats:

White papers remain the most effective way to attract and engage buyers of high-value, complex products and services. These decision-makers spend hours researching the best solution to their unique business challenge. A properly-executed series of white papers creates a foundation of expertise upon which your firm can build credibility within your target market. Over time, this foundation will harden and begin generating a steady stream of qualified leads and eventually, sales.

That said, white papers are evolving. Here are a few trends I’m keeping my eye on:

  1. Short is sweet: Although I still write a lot of traditional, long-form white papers of 4,000 to 6,000 words (up to 15-20 pages, with graphics), recently I’ve worked with several clients to produce shorter papers of 1,500 to 3,000 words. This format is perfectly designed for today’s busy, harried executive who doesn’t have the time to read a full-fledged white paper. The key is to still provide a meaty exploration of a core business challenge or industry trend.
  2. Seeing is believing: When white papers first became popular in business in the early 1990s, they consisted primarily of plain text set against a white background, with few if any graphical elements, charts, or illustrations. This approach has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, white papers include photos, company logos, call-out quotes, charts, graphs, illustrations, and infographics. Some even include video clips in interactive, electronic formats. It is a welcome change. Today’s “white” papers are much more engaging and easier to digest than those of the past.
  3. Promote, promote, promote! You may have just written the most thought-provoking, scintillating piece of content in the history of white papers. Unfortunately, if you simply slap it up on your website, no one will find it. This is where social media posts, media alerts, press releases, emails to your current clients, prospects, and influencer lists, and sharing on popular white paper sites like White Paper Library and TechRepublic can help get the word out and extend the life and usefulness of your publication.
  4. Reuse … recycle … repurpose: A white paper is the centerpiece of a comprehensive content marketing strategy. If you take an evergreen approach, focusing more on tried-and-true insights and advice rather than chasing the trend of the moment, a single white paper can continue paying dividends for years. The content can be sliced into a series of shorter articles, each focusing on one key topic from the paper, and repurposed endlessly via social media posts, blog posts, live webinars, podcasts, and recorded videos.
  5. Avoid the overt sales pitch: OK, this one is nothing new, but it remains a best practice. White papers are meant to provide a thorough analysis of a specific business problem or market trend and offer a well-considered solution. Buyers do not expect a hard-sell. Leave that job to your product brochures, sell sheets and case studies. It’s acceptable to include a “learn more” call to action toward the end of a white paper, but that’s about it. The white paper is strictly a top-of-the-sales-funnel asset targeted to buyers beginning their research. Once you establish credibility as a thought leader, the buyer will return to investigate your offerings.

The white paper is not dead! It remains an important element of a well-balanced content marketing strategy, particularly for firms offering high-value, high-cost products and services. Is it time to make it part of yours?

To Japan With Love

Yuka just boarded her flight back home.

My family was selected as one of three host families for a Rotary youth exchange student from Japan. Yuka spent this past year immersing herself in American culture, language, and education, and she had the experience of a lifetime.

For my family, the experience was every bit as rewarding. Through Yuka, a joyful, kind, and enthusiastic ambassador for her home country, we caught a glimpse through the peephole into the fascinating world of Japan. For her part, Yuka confronted several challenges along the way, especially early on as she struggled to become fluent in English and understand the nuances of our relaxed communication style.

Now that the tears have dried, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the experience. Several lessons are applicable to marketing communications:

  1. Communicate simply and clearly: Simplicity is always a worthwhile goal in communications, but when dealing with a non-native English speaker, it is particularly important to break your writing down to the core message. What is your goal? Are your sentences and paragraphs overstuffed with purple prose? If you slash all non-essential words and phrases, is anything lost?
  2. If at first, you don’t connect, restate your message: Sometimes I would ask Yuka a question, and be rewarded with a blank stare. This was a sure sign I needed to rephrase the question in a different way, using simpler, more common verbiage. Occasionally it meant I needed to provide additional background information or context. These interactions reminded me there is usually more than one way to communicate with your audience.
  3. Know your audience: In Japanese, there are four distinct ways of addressing people: kun, chan, san, and sama. These various styles range from informal, to condescending, to deferential. Japanese custom requires speakers to address people differently depending on their relative ages and organizational rank. Although the U.S. is a much less formal and hierarchical society, it is still critical to understand your audience and cater your messaging style accordingly. Ignoring your audience’s perspective means at best, encouraging misunderstanding and at worst, offending the reader.
  4. Listen before speaking: Yuka taught me to listen more closely and to have patience. As a non-native English speaker, she would sometimes struggle to find the right word. After much trial and error, rather than quickly jumping in with what I thought was the phrase she was looking for, I learned to let her sort through her mental catalog to find the words that fit her thoughts. I often found she was trying to say something different from what I assumed. This lesson is already helping me in my writing and interactions with collaborators and clients. Even as native speakers, few of us can always, perfectly articulate our thoughts, goals, and messages. It pays to listen, ask follow-up questions, and engage in interactive dialogue before drawing conclusions.
  5. Thank your lucky stars: Those of us living in the English-speaking world have it easy. Not only does a majority of the (business) world speak English, other languages, particularly those native to Asia, are much harder to learn. Consider that Japanese has four separate systems of written language: kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romanj. Kanji, which was imported from China two millennia ago, consists of 2,000 symbols in common use, each representing a different word. Japanese children must memorize over 1,000 kanji by the time they finish elementary school.

My family and I are grateful to Yuka for sharing her wonderful and unique perspective and personality with us for a few months. We miss our host daughter/sister already and look forward to seeing her again, perhaps next time in Japan.

Yoku kaite, umaku iku.
Write Well, and Be Well!

 

Training for the Marketing Marathon

For a recreational runner training for a big autumn distance race, the months of July and August are soul-crushing.

You’re getting into the heavy slog weeks of long, slow distance runs, mentally taxing mid-week speed work, and weekly mileage counts approaching 30, 40, 50 miles or even more. You wake up earlier each morning to combat higher temperatures and stifling humidity, factors that slow your natural pace down by a full minute for every 10 degrees of temperature rise.

I’m training for my second marathon. Like a lot of runners, I find it hard to stay focused. Digging deep for daily motivation is a challenge.

Yet the key to any successful distance race is to put in the work, week after week, day after day, mile after mile. As any coach will tell you, if you follow the plan, and put in the miles, you have a better-than-decent chance of hitting your goal, whether it’s to qualify for the Boston Marathon, notch a personal record, or just cross the finish line.

But you’ve got to put in the work. You can’t expect to successfully run 26.2 or 13.1 miles without training hard for three or four months. You can’t complete a distance event drawing on just one workout a week. Or by skipping your long runs when you feel tired.

Content marketing works the same way.

There is no magic marketing formula that works for every business. Some organizations publish regular blog posts on topics of interest to their target audience. Others create long-form thought leadership content like white papers or e-books. Still others seek out expert interview slots, guest posts and podcasts, and bylined articles in relevant industry journals to expand their universe of qualified leads.

All approaches are valid. But no method will work for your business unless it’s done regularly, consistently, and strategically. A white paper may present the most brilliant and unorthodox solution to a problem the world has ever seen. But if you don’t promote the content across multiple channels (like press releases, social media, and sales meetings), and repurpose it in other forms (articles, blog posts, webinars) it will have limited impact. Besides, one white paper alone won’t do much for you over the long term. The goal should be to develop a thought leadership platform, and build an audience that begins to think of your company as the go-to knowledge expert within your field.

The same goes for blogging. Too many businesses start a blog with the best of intentions, only to peter out after a few posts. It takes time to attract an audience, and once you have one, you must work to keep them engaged. A regular, active blog with relevant content improves search engine optimization (SEO), and drives traffic to your site. An inconsistent, stale blog with broken links and obsolete info has the opposite effect.

Be in it for the long haul. Develop a solid plan and stick with it, mile after mile.

That’s how you cross the finish line.

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Looking to kick your content marketing plan into race-day shape? Let’s talk! Contact me at ted@tedgoldwyn.com or www.tedgoldwyn.com.