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Messaging Strategies: Two Approaches

I recently worked on a messaging project for a client who’s in an industry where everyone says the same thing. Part of the reason for the message’s “sameness” is due to legal and compliancy issues. But the other reason has to do with fear.

When I thought about it, I realized this situation is no different from any other messaging challenge for any other industry. Basically, you can approach messaging in one of two ways:

1. Churn out the same consistent (and often expected ) messages that many, if not all, of your competitors are churning out and focus on your reach and how often you bombard the market with your message

Or

2. Turn the message upside down and on its head. Choose a different message that no one else is focusing on and/or take risks in how you deliver the message

Both strategies have pros and cons. But knowing which strategy you’re going to use will help make other decisions (like who to use for your marketing and writing) go more smoothly.

When to Review Your Marketing Plan

Your marketing plan is just that: a plan. It’s fluid. It’s flexible. It’s a living and breathing document. At least, it should be.

So how often should you review it? Ideally, every month. But I’m a realist and know many business owners can’t make that commitment. So aim for every quarter.

1. Review all activities from the last quarter. Think online, offline, print, newsletters, advertising. You get the idea. If you have a formal, written plan, simply refer to it and go through each item. If you don’t have a formal plan, don’t panic. Call up a Word doc and create a month-by-month list. Refer to your calendar and business credit card/checking statements to help jog your memory as to what you spent your marketing dollars on. As you review each marketing activity, indicate the results. The more specific and scientific, the better. For example, if you did a direct mail campaign to 1000 people and got 20 sales, you know you had a two percent conversion rate. If you don’t have these details, make an educated guess.

2. What are the top business-producing marketing activities? Which marketing activities produced the most leads? Which marketing activities produced the best lead conversions? Are the lists the same, different, or is there overlap? Note: I define leads as anyone who takes action: the person fills out a form, mails in a reply card, calls you about an offer, etc. I define conversions as leads that turn into paying customers.

3. What marketing activities did you and your employees enjoy doing the most? Do any of those activities match the ones on the top marketing activities list? If yes, note those.

4. What marketing activities did you and your employees hate doing? This is not the place to be coy or to think, “Well, we don’t like doing X, but we’ll get better at it.” Be honest. Do any of those activities match those on the top marketing activities list? If yes, make note.

Now, I’m not suggesting you should get rid of all activities you don’t like doing. But let’s say your company has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You and your employees are active on Facebook and you’re starting to build a community. You also use LinkedIn consistently. But then there’s Twitter. You haven’t tweeted in months. You hardly have any followers. You and your employees don’t particularly like it. I’m a big fan of the “do one thing well” philosophy, and the truth is that adding Twitter to the mix might be overwhelming you and your employees, at least right now. So perhaps it makes sense to refocus the time you had earmarked for Twitter and put it towards Facebook and LinkedIn instead. You can always add in Twitter later, and you should keep it on your marketing radar. But the enthusiasm and effort you and your employees are showing towards Facebook and LinkedIn will make up for the fact you’re not on Twitter (at least in the short term).

Sometimes you’ll be in a situation where you hate a particular activity, but you recognize its value. Should you sacrifice your sanity for leads? No. Instead, this would be the time to outsource. For example, I have a client who has a blog, but she has no time — or interest — in writing posts. At the same time, she knows the blog is a “must-have” from an industry perspective and SEO perspective. So she outsources the activity to me. Every month, she knows I’ll be writing 8 to 10 blog posts. (This would be something you’d note on your marketing plan.)

5. What marketing activities do you wish you did (or did more of)? Make sure you can explain why. It’s perfectly fine to say, “We should be on Twitter” or “We should create a Facebook group,” if you have good reasons behind your proclamations.

6. Now look at the next four months. Take a hard look. What you want to do is make adjustments based on what you noted above. You want to weed out the activities that you know aren’t working and re-focus on the activities that are yielding good results.

For the activities that are yielding good results and that you and your employees like doing, would it make sense to devote more time and dollars to these activities? Would the investment yield more leads and increase conversions? While you can’t know for sure, you can make educated guesses. For example, if you ran a contest on Facebook during, say, April and it resulted in increased leads and more conversions that month, it might make sense to run a contest in September and December and see if the results are the same, better, or worse. This sort of experimenting will help you build an even stronger quarterly marketing plan.

Remember: avoid making rash judgments. If you’re thinking of eliminating an activity, ask yourself this question first and then drill down: What’s the problem with this particular marketing activity?

  • Is it the execution?
  • Is it the copy?
  • Are your metrics faulty (or non-existent)?
  • Is it some other reason?
  • Is it something you can fix?

If you go through this checklist and feel you’ve done everything right and that it’s not fixable, then it might make sense to eliminate it from the plan, at least for now. You can always add it back in at some point, should conditions change.

If you think the problem isn’t the marketing activity itself, but rather something else, such as the execution, then adjust your marketing plan to address the issue. For example, let’s say you’re thinking about eliminating email marketing because your open rate is low and you’re not seeing any direct business coming from the newsletter. As you consider the checklist above, you wonder if the problem isn’t email marketing itself but rather if you’re delivering the right message and including the best offers. And you’re wondering about the health of your list and the overall design of your newsletter.

You decide you might not be ready to lose email marketing just yet, but you know you need to do something different. This is where your marketing plan comes in. As you adjust your plan for the next four months, you add in these activities:

  • Research email marketing best practices
  • Research email marketing consultants
  • Have email consultants review email campaigns, make recommendations, and provide a proposal for implementing recommendations
  • Review proposals and make a decision

From there, the email marketing consultant will likely have a plan for re-launching the e-newsletter. His or her plan will flow into your plan. And six months from now when you’re evaluating your marketing plan again, you might be thinking very differently about your email newsletter.

But let’s pretend for a moment that it is six months later and your email marketing results are the same or even a little worse. It might be time to reallocate those marketing dollars elsewhere.

This is why it’s essential to review your plan regularly.

Need help? That’s what I’m here for.

Blogging – A Reality Check

If you own a business, you’ve probably heard that a blog is a great way to add regular content to your site and that it will help get you found by potential customers who want whatever it is you’re selling. Both points are true.

But you want to know what else is true? Your blog won’t “make it big” overnight. Your blog might never make it big, depending on your definition of “big.” And if your blog does make it big, I can guarantee you one thing: it will require a lot of hard work, even after you make it.

Want proof? Here it is:

I recently stumbled on Young House Love, a husband-and-wife blogging team that has turned what started out as a simple blog to keep friends and family updated on the couple’s home improvement projects into a marketable, enviable brand. These are two beautiful people who are in love and doing beautiful work, so I was quite pleased when I read this honest assessment from Sherry on her blogging adventure, and I quote:

We’re not gonna lie – it’s the hardest job we’ve ever had. The biggest misconception is that our blog is a part time thing that we spend a few hours a day on. When friends and relatives picture me out on the patio with a magazine and a cocktail I snort with laughter. It’s hard to put into words how we manage to spend every waking moment working on the blog, but we’re essentially writing over 45 posts a month AND taking and uploading photos AND running an online shop AND offering design services AND coordinating giveaways AND answering up to 100 email and comment questions a day AND making & editing videos. Not to mention actually doing the projects on our home that we then photograph and write about. It’s pretty much a never ending to do list! In all honesty, I’m a million times busier than I ever was in my old New York City 60+ hour a week job. We work nights, weekends and on vacation (after all, the internet is 24/7!) so sometimes it can all be very exhausting. And I don’t make as much as I used to. I actually took a pretty hefty pay cut to see this full-time blogging thing through.

Sherry also makes another important point: she didn’t set out to write a blog that would fill a niche. She and her husband simply wrote about what they were passionate about, and the followers, slowly but surely, began to flock.

This point is worth repeating in Copy Bitch clarity:  passion-filled blog posts will attract more followers than writing around keyword phrases and creating optimized titles. Ideally, you should do both. But start with your passion. Unleash it. Let it lead you.

So you wanna blog for your business and have the sort of success YHL has experienced? Well, be prepared to:

  • work your ass off
  • write about things you really, really care about
  • do it regularly – yes, even when you don’t want to; yes, sometimes on weekends; yes, maybe even some holidays; yes, possibly on vacation
  • make mistakes
  • learn from your mistakes
  • ignore critics (well, most of them)
  • write, write, write
  • oh, and write some more

I realize not everyone is looking for their blogs to go ga-ga like YHL. But you know what? Even if you’re not looking to make it big like them, the bullet points above still apply, even for your modest 3-times-a-week business blog.

Update: It’s July 2017 and YHL took a major blogging hiatus a few years ago. They’re now doing a podcast and the occasional blog post.

My point: your blogging life will evolve. I’ve seen people hot-and-heavy with their blogs for years, and then they hit a wall. Others, continue on slow and steady.

So does your business need a blog? HubSpot and other marketing gurus say all businesses MUST blog. I hate “must” directives. You shouldn’t do something just because someone tells you to. Understand how your business *could* benefit, understand the drawbacks, and be realistic about what you can and can’t commit to. Blogging is a big part of my business, meaning I do lots of blogging for clients who are too busy to do it themselves. This a great compromise. Learn more about my blogging services here.

Does Direct Mail Still Work? (Short Answer: Yes)

Dear Copy Bitch: We’re an HVAC company, and we keep encountering marketing consultants who say we should abandon direct mail marketing altogether. But here’s the thing: our direct mail pieces convert. The ROI is great. Still, I wonder if this is just an anomaly, and if I should get out while I can and redistribute my marketing dollars elsewhere. We have an optimized website, we add engaging content regularly, and we’re delving into social media. Should we put all our focus in those things, or is it okay to still have some of our marketing dollars going towards direct mail? What say you, oh wondrous Copy Bitch? And if you do think there’s still a place for direct mail, can you give some examples of effective direct mail pieces? Thanks for the great blog!

–M.H., Atlanta, GA

ANSWER: The death of direct mail has been greatly exaggerated, methinks. A good direct mail piece can still work — and might even have a greater chance of working today, thanks to the fact so many people are abandoning this marketing method (i.e. if done right, your piece has a great chance of standing out since there are fewer pieces of junk mail, at least in my mailbox).

Now as my regular readers know, I drink at the Altar of HubSpot, and I worship Saint Godin. HubSpot is all about inbound marketing, but it recognizes that outbound marketing tactics — like direct mail — still have a place in a company’s marketing plan. Saint Godin is all about what works and what makes sense for your business and, most importantly, your customers.

So, in essence, you’ve answered your own question: your direct mail is working, people are responding to it, you’re seeing conversions, and you’re experiencing great ROI. You have marketing dollars invested in inbound marketing efforts as well. Sounds like you have the right mix right now. The key is monitoring and measuring results. What works today might not work two years from now. But it sounds like you’re well aware of that.

So what does work? Here are three direct mail pieces that were delivered to my mailbox that caught my attention (for the right reasons):

  1. A free DVD of the Oscar award-winning movie Smile Pinki from Smile Train, a charitable organization that I support. Who wouldn’t love to get a free movie in the mail? And this movie has a great way of reaching other potential donors, since I’m bound to share it (and talk about it, like I’m doing here) with others.
  2. Coupon booklets – I always thumb through the coupon booklets I get and often use the restaurant coupons.
  3. The book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. He didn’t send me his latest book because I ordered it. He sent it to me because I’d bought books from him in the past and he thought I’d enjoy it. Of course, I’d planned on buying the book on my own. I hadn’t placed my order yet, but in the letter that accompanied the book, Saint Godin said that if I already had Linchpin, then I should pass on this extra copy to someone else who could benefit. (Is the guy brilliant or what?)

Here’s a piece of snail mail that caught my attention for the WRONG reasons:

TruGreen and Lowe’s sent me an over-sized postcard with a coupon for $29.95 off my first custom lawn treatment. Problem is, I’m in an apartment building. All of us in the building got this postcard. Someone wasted marketing dollars on a mailing list that included apartment numbers, a field that could have been easily filtered out, had someone been paying attention to the details.

The Anatomy of a Great Offer

Dear Copy Bitch: I’m launching a new website (I’m a fellow copywriter), and I wanted to know if you had any ideas for great offers. I can come up with this stuff for clients, but it’s hard to do it for myself.

—Steve T., Santa Monica, CA

ANSWER: Congrats, Steve! But before I answer, I must address that pesky pachyderm in the room. I know some people are wondering why I’d give advice to a copywriter, i.e. a competitor. Simple. I believe there’s enough room for all of us. Competition is good because it ensures we writers (lawyers, marketers, politicians) do as good of a job as we possibly can. I also believe in the concept of paying it forward. Many people have helped me along the way after all.

Okay, enough of the philosophizing. Let’s talk about the anatomy of a great offer. Here are some traits that I think all great offers have:

  1. It will provide me with something that I consider valuable.
  2. It’s easy to access.
  3. It’s easy to understand and/or use.

1. Make Valuable Offers

So how do you figure out what people will consider valuable?

Ask current customers. Shoot them a quick email or make a quick call and ask them what they would get excited about seeing available on your website.

Ask potential customers.
Think of the type of business owners you want to do business with, and ask them what they would consider valuable. Chances are if you don’t directly know some of these people, you know someone who does.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Picture yourself as a business owner who lands on your website. What sort of information would be valuable? Tips on how to proofread more effectively? A 21-point guide on creating blog posts that get people talking? A step-by-step tutorial on writing an effective web page?

Worried that these types of offers give away too many trade secrets? Don’t. Educating your clients or prospective clients on certain writing tasks won’t put you out of a job. (Empowering people is never a bad thing. Well, at least in this case.) What it will likely do is 1) make them appreciate what you do even more and/or 2) make them advocate for you (especially if they’re reporting to people further up the food chain).

Something else to keep in mind: I believe in crafting multiple offers. Make them page specific. So if you have a service page on website copywriting, craft your offer around that. For example, a document called “What’s a title tag and why should I care?” might work well on this page.

2. Make Your Offers Easy to Access

Don’t make people email or call you. Make the offers free and downloadable off your site. Use simple forms (i.e. make the forms short). Get only enough info so that you can continue to stay in front of people, but don’t ask people to surrender every last shred of information about themselves. Don’t  use automatic opt-ins. If you have a question like “Do you want to subscribe to my newsletter,” make sure the “yes” box isn’t automatically checked. After someone hits “submit,” make sure whatever it is that people just signed up for—a document, a coupon, a webinar, access to a private area of your site—is obvious. Include easy-to-read directions if your offer involves anything that involves more than one step. A nice touch? Automated emails that include information around your offer.

3. Make Offers Easy to Understand

In your case, you’ll probably be providing tip sheets, white papers, and tutorials. Remember the KISS rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid). These items are not the place to show off jargon or impress people with your literary prowess. Instead, provide readable, practical information that a 10-year-old can follow, digest, and start using today.

The same holds true no matter what the offer is. If I run an online store, and I offer a coupon code, it should be clear as to what the code is and how and where I’m supposed to use it.

The best way to make sure you’ve taken care of items #2 and #3 is to test it yourself and then have some other folks go through the process.

Hope this helps!