Archive for December, 2010

5 Principles of Fiction for More Effective Content Marketing

Marketing these days is all about content. Storytelling.

Online marketing is an iterative story. Content may be final—published on website, posted on the blog and promoted through social media—but the story is in a constant draft state, a work in progress that is created and developed as much by the agency of the corporate author as the community with which it speaks.

In these stories, characters and plot lines are distributed through multiple online channels, each quite different, from purpose and audience intent to profile character limit. Our audience expects a different tone on our company Facebook page from what’s delivered in a standard news release. We pour syrup on our pancakes at breakfast in an 80/20 pattern every morning because 80% is about the audience and their needs, and 20% is about us.

(De)constructing the corporate narrative using five key attributes from the craft of fiction and storytelling provides a solid frame of reference for translating business goals into online content strategy.

Somehow it seems prudent to provide a disclaimer here that we should emulate not the imaginative nature of fiction in our marketing, but rather its structure and style.  Storytelling is, after all, the oldest form of human communication.

1.    Tight Lines

Good writers can produce tight lines of copy that are creative, compelling, and persuasive. They tend to have a healthy aversion to adverbs, hyperbole, and exclamation points.

These writers can use metaphor and analogy to convey complex, technical information, or to tease an emotional response from the reader that leads to an action or contributes to feelings of brand affinity. Here are a few tips for being more like them:

  • Use active voice. It means the subject of the sentence is the agent, performing the action. Instead of writing donation was given by {company} to benefit… , write {company} donation benefits…. Not only does active voice eliminate unnecessary words (the be verbs of passive voice), it’s more engaging for readers because it emphasizes the action and clearly conveys the main idea.That said, there may be times when passive voice is useful for de-emphasizing the performer of the action or putting focus on the recipient. (The distinction between active and passive voice for marketing and professional communications is, perhaps, another blog post altogether.)
  • Show, don’t tell. This is Fiction 101, using setting, character, and tension instead of description to illustrate action and create sequence. Marketing communications, whether online or offline, illustrate with data points, customer testimonials (social proof), and specific evidence given at various decision points in the sales cycle.
  • Be grammatically correct. Always get your ideas out before worrying about copy editing a blog post or product marketing email, but do take the time to proofread the content. If you break the rules, do it for style, not by accident. An excellent resource for grammar and punctuation is Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

2.    Character Drives Action

It’s true in fiction, and it plays out in marketing.

The process of identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is like developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

The marketer needs to create content for the individual buyer and her needs. Audience strategy isn’t a matter of B2B vs. B2C so much as a combination of immediacy of need, complexity of product, and to some degree, price point.

For example, the simple B2B software sale may rely in part on emotional triggers related to time/labor savings, while the B2C buyer may be facing a more complicated decision-making process for a product or service (higher price point, status, longevity of product, its prominence in daily life).

Serving up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers create buyer personae that guide their efforts and help uncover what motivates that audience.

This persona is literally a profile, or character sketch. It’s all those demographic characteristics, habits, and behavior patterns scribbled on sticky notes across a fiction writer’s desk, color-coded to indicate role in the story or a specific scene.

The marketing lesson from fiction writing is to think like the characters do, and use that knowledge to focus editorial strategy and create content that attracts the most qualified sales prospects.

3.    The Plot

Plot is what happens in a story—the sequence of events, conflict, cause of the action, the outcome. Writing workshops present a five-step formula: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

The corporate storyteller can use these elements of plot to guide an audience along a conversion path, which is marketing babble for a reader or viewer taking the intended action, such as submitting a form or dialing a phone number.

This writer strives to lead prospects through a sales funnel by engaging and educating them with content. Information architecture and website copy function to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in an action—the writer decides what information to provide at each decision point in order to move the plot and its audience forward.

Another plot development exercise in marketing is mapping communications, such as email campaigns, to where an audience is in their decision-making cycle.

Is that person in the discovery stage (exposition)? Is she being nurtured with informative and relevant content (rising action)? Has she identified a problem or need (climax)? Is she evaluating technical solutions (falling action)?

For most marketers, the plot lines are many. Following this dénouement of the sale, the story begins again with the customer relationship.

4.    The Narrative

Narrative creates the reader’s experience of the plot, how the sequence of events, conflict, and resolution are presented. The narratives of effective marketing communications follow the same arch of explanation, rising action, and resolution—whether in a 500-word blog post or a 140-character interrogative.

Marketers can employ narrative technique to get the attention of their audience, tell a story, and elicit emotional response in the reader. Effective narrative vehicles include advertising campaigns, white papers, case studies, and online content such as blog posts and videos.

In a crowded, always-on marketplace, it’s not enough to make a story stand out—it has to carry meaning that resonates, too.

Audiences are overwhelmed with information and communications. They go online to find to the information they need and, depending on the scope of the problem, a website has a limited amount of time to gain the interest and trust of this audience.

Don’t just present the plot, but create an experience of the plot for the reader. It’s the difference between using your website homepage as the landing page for a PPC campaign, versus a page that uses content specific to the reader’s search, a form to request more information, and a follow-up email campaign to keep the audience engaged.

5.    Setting the Scene

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

That doesn’t work in business writing, either.

Threading together character, plot, storytelling, and copy is scene, the place where these other elements of the narrative interact.

Developing the themes that tie an online corporate narrative together requires content to be organized and somewhat consistent.

The narrative is the combined content—the blog posts, status updates, news releases, static web copy—that reflect the ethos of the business in order to appeal to the character/buyer personae.

Effective online content strategy speaks to both humans and search engines in order to provide value, whether facilitating immediate purchase or bringing prospects into a months-long educational sales cycle.

Setting the scene is often a function of public relations. PR positions the company in the marketplace—its strengths, limitations, competitors, and even corporate personality—setting the scene for the action to take place, for the sales lifecycle narrative to unfold.

The company’s culture, list of awards, digital footprint, and online sentiment create a scene that tells an audience whether to trust or retreat.

These five lessons from fiction writing can string the thousands of words from our content marketing efforts into a narrative experience for the reader, who alone can drive the action for the corporate narrative.

This post was originally published on B2C Marketing Insider. It is a revised excerpt of this post (sans fuckwords), inspired by reasons 1, 2, 5, and 8.

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Misery and Me: Grammar, Copywriting, and Laundry Soap

In an advanced technical writing class as an undergraduate, I remember the professor saying, “This should sound wrong to you all.” She meant simply that we should be able to identify grammatical and mechanical errors by sound (or more accurately, sight) by the time we landed in that class.

It occurs to me now, after so many years and blog posts and white papers and fiction pieces, that I’ve never actually had a formal course focused on grammar. A technical writing course that showed how to put those words into reports and documentation, and creative writing workshops that focused on how those words were used, yes, but never a formal study in grammar.

At this time of night, it’s probably best to lay off the coffee and go watch tv, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether writing is something that can and/or must be taught/learned (that question alone a longstanding debate that requires at least the length of a seminar paper).

Perhaps we absorb writing style and proper grammar more from what we read than what we practice in the typical classroom context that’s often hard to translate to any real-world rhetorical situation. And I mean what we read as in what we’ve always read, long before entering college, the profession, or the writer’s basement studio.

I remember reading books like Watership Down, The Call of the Wild, and The Catcher in the Rye as a kid, not because they were assigned, but because the stories were good. Soon after writers like Stephen King and Dean Koontz took the place of those fluffy animals and rye fields (which could explain a lot about my fiction writing, it seems).

Reading books served as writing instruction. We absorb the language we’re exposed to, it seems, which is what establishes the foundation for our awareness, understanding, and command of grammar.

Our university courses and professional writing excursions serve, then, as an opportunity to exercise those skills can be developed naturally through a love of works like, in my case, Misery and The Door to December. From there my time as an undergrad studying English resulted in a love of literary works most of my friends have never heard of, and my graduate writing workshops taught that, as creative writers, we have to know the rules of grammar in order to break them.

Long before my consumption of anything book-length, I practiced the strange habit as a child of reading each line of copy on packaged products. Any products. Shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, motor oil, bags of dogfood, soup cans, laundry soap.

I’m really not sure what the point of this post is, other than to say that writing is no longer the dominion of the English or communications major. The business world is now an extension of our private worlds. Brands and consumers alike “publish” their writing online everyday through social media, blog posts, and reviews.

Ultimately, the source of mechanics and style that we draw upon in our writing, whether consciously or otherwise, is everything that we’ve read up to the point where we sit down at the keyboard, be it Ars Poetica, the labels on personal hygiene products, or the stuff of nightmares.

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