How to write for the Internet

Professional writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant says that when writing for the Internet, you should consider the advice public speakers are often given: slow down.

In writing terms, this means focusing on being as easy to read as possible. This is because people read differently at their computers than they do when faced with any printed document.

You may not always be conscious of it but when we’re reading at our computers, a light is shining in our eyes… This is the backlighting from the screen and we usually don’t notice it  — except if we’re sitting on a beach in the sunshine and suddenly discover we can’t read at all.

But there are other challenges with computers. The typefaces we like on paper often don’t work on screen. Each letter is represented by square pixels on a grid rather than by lines of ink on paper. This makes them harder to read. As well, our computers have less control over spacing, hyphenation, justification and column width.

Furthermore, the width of a standard column on the Internet is often too wide for the human eye. (When I worked in the newspaper biz, I was always told that you should multiply the point size you used by two to determine what should be the maximum column width in picas. Thus, anything in 9 pt type should be no more than 18 picas wide, or about three inches.) Many Internet sites have columns far wider than three inches!

Bottom line? When you give your readers text on a screen, you’re asking them to work really hard. Thus, it’s more important to “speak slowly” so they understand what you’re trying to say.

She goes on to give a series of specific tips and tactics to make your writing easier to understand online. Many of these tips apply to email as well. Go read Daphne’s post at The Measurement Standard for more details.

(Want more about how to write well? Check out my blog posts about writing.)


Social media productivity: Have an impact online, while still having a life offline

Friday I presented at ConvergeSouth 2012 in Greensboro. I gave a talk about how to use social media productively, by which I mean getting results without having to spend 18 hours a day online. Below are my slides.

If you’re interested in having me speak to your group or conference on this topic or any of the other subjects I write about here, please get in touch.

10 reasons to attend ConvergeSouth 2012

ConvergeSouth 2012 logoIn less than two weeks, ConvergeSouth 2012 will take place in downtown Greensboro, N.C. at the Elon Law School.

The conference covers creativity, business and community online. Which means, in practical terms, loads of information on everything from web development to pay-per-click advertising to making a living from your blog.

I’ve attended ConvergeSouth several times, and this year’s conference will be the third year in a row (at least) for me. I always learn something, always meet new and interesting people, and always leave with new ideas. If that wasn’t enough, here are 10 more reasons you should go:

  1. If you work for or with nonprofits, there’s a whole track of sessions devoted specifically to nonprofits.
  2. If you’re a total beginner when it comes to these things, there’s a whole track of “101” sessions just for you.
  3. If you’re a developer who eats, breaths and sleeps in code, check out the advanced (“301″) sessions.
  4. If you’ve been hearing a lot about content marketing, there are several people who will cover that subject.
  5. If you know you need to do a better job with search engine optimization, whether you’re just dipping your toe into this or need some advanced tips, there are speakers who will cover that.
  6. If you want to boost your web presence with video, you can learn from people who know how to do that.
  7. If you want to know what to do when everything goes wrong — when everybody’s attacking you — there’s a speaker who will cover that.
  8. If you want to know how to get the media to pay attention to your business, your cause or your idea, a newspaper editor will provide insights.
  9. If you want to brush up on using WordPress, Facebook or LinkedIn for your business or nonprofit, there are sessions for you.
  10. You can get a 25% discount with the discount code “CS2012-MARK.”

Unlike other social media/tech conferences, ConvergeSouth is a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit effort. That means we’re focused on delivering great content, not maximizing profit. As a result, this is about the best deal around for this kind of conference — just $99, before the above-mentioned discount code.

In full disclosure, I’m on ConvergeSouth’s all-volunteer board, so I might be a bit biased about this. But trust me, I wouldn’t be spending my time on this (or writing this post) if I didn’t think it was worth it.
I hope to see you there.

Once again, here’s the registration link; to get an extra 25% off use the discount code “CS2012-MARK” (without the quote marks, naturally).

P.S. There’s a limited number of discounts available under my code; once they’re gone, they’re gone. Register now.

Six surefire ways to zero in on your customers’ pains

Want to move someone to action? Identify one of their “pain points” and tell them how you’ll solve it.

Let’s take a literal example: back pain.

Get back pain? Does it interfere with the way you enjoy life? Chances are pretty good this ad would motivate you to go to grab some Aleve from the medicine cabinet or, if you’re out, go buy some. The commercial brings to life the physical, social and emotional discomfort that pain brings.

You can do the same thing with whatever you’re selling.

But to do it persuasively, you’ve got to know what words, feelings, ideas and images people associate with the pain your product or service relieves.

You need to learn your prospects’ “language of pain.”

If you have the pain in question yourself because you’re part of the prospective customer group, than you may start out with some insight on this. Many of us would be able to sympathize with old Saint Nick in the Aleve ad.

But if you’re a marketing manager trying to sell corporate financial management software to chief financial officers, you probably don’t have an intuitive, first-hand grasp of how CFOs talk, feel and think about the pain points around accounting software. After all, you’re a marketer, not a finance pro.

So how do you learn the language of pain for CFOs, or anyone else? Here are six ways to zero in on this vocabulary of discomfort.

  1. Mine keyword data. Using tools such as Google’s free keyword tool, you can see what terms people are using when searching for solutions or answers to particular problems. This will give you a sense for the words people actually use. (Google has tutorials on how to use this tool.)
  2. Monitor social media. By finding communities of your target customer group and listening to what they say and how they say it, you can often discover how your prospects talk about and feel about the pain in question. LinkedIn groups are a good place to start for B2B marketers, as are any specialized social media sites in your industry. There are lots of tools you can use to search broadly; one good free one is Social Mention. You should also read industry blogs (and their comments) for insights.
  3. Interviews and focus groups. In-depth conversations with even a small number of people can provide you access to the language they use and feelings they have about the problem you’re offering a solution for.
  4. Trade shows. Interviews and focus groups are formal ways to tap into the language of pain, but attending trade shows and conferences and simply striking up conversations with your target audience can lead to insights, too. Listen carefully, especially to what people say when they’ve had a few drinks and have loosened up a bit – they may get less polite, but more honest. Honesty is what you need.
  5. Your sales and customer service staff. The sales and customer service teams usually have a lot of direct contact with your target audience (if they don’t, you have another problem). Talk to them to understand how your prospects think, feel and talk about their problems. You can also go along on sales meetings and listen to customer service calls.
  6. Media coverage. If the problem you’re solving has been covered in the media the language used by reporters in stories, quotes in those stories and words used in editorials and op-ed pieces can offer important clues. Trade publications are a great place to look for B2B products and services. In addition to the publications you already have in your office, you might want to cast your net wider. Yahoo has a directory. But don’t stop with one source. There are thousands of trade publications out there.

Obviously, as you go through the research process you should, at a minimum, take a lot of notes. If you compile a large amount of raw text – interview transcripts and social media conversation, for example, you could also dump it into a tool such as Wordle, which produces “word clouds” that show you graphically which words are used more often.

What tips do you have for understanding how customers think, feel and talk? Please share in the comments below.

Why you should ignore what GM and Chris Brogan do online

I saw this morning that Chris Brogan, one of the social media world’s A-listers and guiding lights, has closed his LinkedIn account, which included more than 16,000 contacts and 143 recommendations. Many of us would kill for a network that big and that strong, but apparently it wasn’t working for him.

LinkedIn logo

Last week, GM made headlines when it announced, just days before Facebook’s IPO, that it was canceling its $10 million ad spend with the social network. It wasn’t getting the return it needed apparently. Others have also criticized Facebook’s ads (Ryan Holliday of American Apparel, for example).

Does this mean you should dump LinkedIn? Maybe cancel all your Facebook ads?

Unless your Chris Brogan or GM, these incidents don’t mean anything. Play your game, not someone else’s game.

Easy to say, right? But the question is, how do you actually do that? Are we never supposed to pay attention to what others are doing? Are there never lessons there? Fair enough.

Here’s how you play your own game.

1. Know what your goals are.

2. Know how your going to measure those goals and what metrics are going to account along the way. (For anything online, report bottom-line measurements to the boss, but you’ll need to measure other things to actually move toward those sales-and-profit-oriented objectives.)

3. Start doing stuff to try to move those metrics in the right direction. Yes, should look at case studies, listen to the experts and evaluate your options based on your own experience. In other words, take your best guess. But you won’t know what will work and how well until you actually do something.

4. Once you start doing stuff, per step 3, then you can figure out what’s working (and try to make it work better) and figure out what’s not working (and fix it or stop it).

Rinse and repeat.

It’s really not that hard.

So, a giant car maker dropping Facebook ads and a social media A-lister dropping LinkedIn is interesting. But it has nothing to do with your marketing efforts.

Do you disagree? How are you evaluating your digital marketing efforts? Please leave a comment below.

 P.S. I need to say that I think Chris Brogan is a smart guy and I think he’s right about 90 percent of the time when it comes to social media. But my point stands: Listen to what he says and think about it means to your business, but don’t blindly mimic him, or GM or anyone else.

Beware of bad advice on social media metrics

Lately, I’ve seen a slew of articles — like this, this and this — bashing the use of certain measurements in social media and online marketing efforts.

You mean Facebook page “likes” don’t matter? The amount of traffic to your website is irrelevant? And the number of Twitter followers isn’t worth counting?

Tape measure

Photo via {a href=""}Gastonmag{/a}

Whoa, Nelly, let’s slow down a bit here. Those metrics do count, and if you’re in online marketing or social media, you should watch them closely. The key is understanding what they really mean and how to use them.

The experts are right in that if these metrics are the only thing you measure, your online efforts are doomed. If you tell the CEO how many people “Like” the company on Facebook, then that person has every right to fire back with “How is that driving our sales?”

So yes, report the metrics that count to leadership: How many new sales leads your efforts have generated, how much increased revenue (or better yet, profit) you’re responsible for, how much you’ve boosted awareness of the brand. That’s all good and well.

But actually driving those numbers in the direction that makes the boss happy requires more insight. You’ve got to know what levers you can press to move the bottom-line numbers. The best way to figure this out is to understand what kind of sales and marketing funnel you’re working with. (If you don’t know what a sales and marketing funnel is, here’s a good explanation.)

Boost the top line to drive the bottom line

Let me give you an example here. Let’s say your target metric is the number of website lead-gen forms you get potential customers to fill out. Before people can fill out the form, they’ve got to visit your website. And even once they’re on the website, they have to believe that they can trust with their information, that you can deliver something of value to them (hopefully the product or service you’re selling), and that it’s worth their time to give you their contact information.

To start with, let’s say you’re getting two leads a day through your online form. And let’s say you’re getting 20 visits a day to the page with your lead-gen form, and 200 visits a day to your website. One way to increase the number of leads you get is increase the number of visits to the lead-gen form and, a farther up the funnel, increase the number or website visits you’re getting.

This is based on a pretty basic sales principle: If you want to close more deals, make more calls.

I think of these kind of metrics as “top of the funnel” stats. They’re not numbers you necessarily include in your report to the boss, but they are numbers you need to monitor, understand and move if you’re going to deliver the bottom-line results the boss wants.

Why you should have multiple email accounts

I have a confession to make: I’ve had something on my to-do list for several months now that I’ve been procrastinating on.

  • “Record all email accounts and passwords in one place.”

Over the last few months I have been using Clipperz to store my passwords for various accounts. I spend a lot of time online, so I have a lot of passwords. But I’ve been procrastinating on rounding up my email addresses and adding them to Clipperz. The problem is that I have a lot of email addresses, including some I don’t use that often, and I dread the thought of digging them all out and figuring out what the passwords are.

A better solution, you might say, is just to have fewer email addresses. But multiple email accounts are useful.

In fact, if you only have one or two email addresses and you’re active online – especially if you’re doing things for clients, employers or others – you need to use more email addresses.

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Why you should attend ConvergeSouth

Blogs and social media are great, but you can often learn more, meet more people and have a richer experience attending conferences, seminars and other events in person. There’s a big difference between skimming a blog post in your RSS reader and the immersive, interactive experience of a conference.

That’s why, if you’re interested in social media, search engine optimization (SEO) and doing business online, you should attend ConvergeSouth 2010. (Disclaimer: I am one of the volunteers helping to put the conference together. I’m involved because I’ve attended several past ConvergeSouth conferences and I think it’s a great conference.)

So far, this year’s line-up of speakers includes:

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Why you should stop trying new social media sites

Google Wave. Google Buzz. Farmville. Foursquare. Gowalla. Yelp.


Don't get lost in the maze of choices social media offers. (Photo source:

The list goes on and on. There are more social media sites, social media apps and cool online things that people are talking about than I will ever have time to fully explore. Even though I make my living in part by helping companies use social media, I can’t commit enough time to explore every new thing to come along. Chances are, you don’t have the time either. And that’s OK.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying the latest and “greatest,” easy to worry that you’re going to miss out on the next Facebook or Twitter if you don’t jump on a new site right away. In other words, it’s easy to forget why we’re here in the first place.

We’re here to have conversations, to learn, to market and brand ourselves, our businesses and our causes. Actually doing those things requires work, attention and focus. But the siren song of Google’s latest project or the newest game that all your friends seem to be playing on Facebook can be all too alluring sometimes.

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30 content ideas for an email newsletter

One day your boss comes into your office and announces that he wants to publish an email newsletter about your department, company or organization. And then he gives you the job of actually producing it. He gives you a deadline and says “I look forward to seeing a draft of the first edition next week.” What do you do?

I’ve created and managed a few email newsletters over the years. Just as with a blog, an email newsletter is built around content. Here are 30 content ideas for your email newsletter.

1. Links to and excerpts from your recent blog posts.

2. Links to and excerpts from other web sites or blogs that your readers might find useful or interesting.

3. A short essay or letter that’s not published anywhere else.

4. An exclusive tip of the week/month.

5. Links to your company’s social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook fan pages, etc.).

6. News and announcements about what’s going on in your business or organization.

7. Special offers, discounts and coupons.

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