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Redesigning your website? Here are 5 lessons I learned doing mine

Redesigning your website? Here are 5 lessons I learned doing mine

Designing a new website or redesigning an old one ranks as one of the most important marketing strategies you can execute for your business. I recently took myself through the entire process, and in the course I got an education. Here are five lessons learned that really paid off in a website that I love and for which I continue to receive compliments (and, most importantly, inbound leads.)

1. Do your research. Educate yourself on the latest trends in web design. When I was planning my website, I immersed myself in web research. Since I planned to have my site built on a WordPress platform, I looked at perhaps more than 100 themes and examples of sites that used them.

Get to the point where you can identify several websites you love so much you’d like to emulate them. Look both inside and outside your industry or niche. For example, I looked at dozens of writers’ websites. But I found most of them to be atrocious. Instead, I loved the sites of graphic designers. For each website you like, make a list of why you like it, as well as how you’d improve it. Website designers tend to be visual thinkers, and so they’ll really appreciate this work. And you’ll have a much better idea of what you want.

2. Write a plan. By spelling out your goals clearly, you’ll not only know what you want, but you’ll be able to evaluate your results in the end. Set aside time to think about your objectives. Schedule several sessions for this task, because you’ll want to refine your plans over time as you clarify your goals.

I was amazed at how many designers thanked me for putting my thoughts into a plan. Most of them said that prospective clients often had only a fuzzy idea about what they wanted in their website, which in turn made it harder for them to create an accurate proposal.

The elements of my plan included:

  • Audience: Who are you aiming your site at, what do they care about, and how can your site provide them with something of value?
  • Site objectives: What do you want the site to do for you? What actions do you want visitors to take?
  • Functionality: What do you want to be able to do on the site? Add updated content? Display your products or creative work? Interact securely and privately with clients? Keep in mind that most users will visit your site using a mobile device; so make sure it uses a mobile-responsive design.
  • Look and feel: If you already have a brand identity, the site will probably serve as your flagship branded communication. If you don’t, your website will define it. Make sure the designer understands your brand personality and can translate it into the look and feel of your website.
  • Problems: Think of all the problems and issues with your current site that you want this new site to solve. I wanted a much better method for keeping my portfolio updated. So I needed a new system to capture samples and display them consistently, easily and elegantly.
  • E-commerce: Do you plan to sell products, classes or events on your site? Do you need special forms other than a standard contact form?
  • Video: Do you want to post videos or external news feeds?
  • Designer/Developer: What do you want the designer/developer to do? Some tasks you may want to delegate include helping you choose a theme, making recommendations on a platform (e.g., WordPress, SquareSpace, etc.), doing the backend development and coding, setting up a blog, optimizing your site for search, searching for and selecting photography, uploading the new site to the host, training on how to use the site, providing a usage manual (very helpful later when you’re adding content and images), and future maintenance and upkeep.

3. Establish a budget and timeline. You can spend anywhere from a few hundred bucks to tens of thousands of dollars for a site. But you get what you pay for. If you set a range for your budget, you can narrow your search to those designers working in your price spectrum and not waste your time (or their time) with designers or agencies you can’t afford. Build in more time than you think you need.

4. Create a shortlist. Once you’ve written a plan and established a budget, start looking for designers. Get referrals from friends and colleagues. If you belong to a professional or trade association, ask members for referrals. Do you admire the websites of some local firms? Call and ask who did their site and whether they’d recommend them. Cull your list to about three designers.

5. Choose carefully. Send your plan to each of the candidates and ask for a proposal. Then you’ll be able to compare their proposals equitably. Schedule a meeting with each, if not face to face, at least on the phone. Don’t discount your gut feelings about intangibles like personality match. After all, you’re entrusting your primary marketing portal to them, one you’ll be living with for next three to five years. Ask to see their portfolio and look at their work carefully. Ask for and check references.

Following these five steps should help you find a great designer. While that is just the beginning of the design process, it should put you on the right track for eventual success.

Creative briefs: Put strategy first

Creative briefs: Put strategy first

Writing creative briefs doesn’t have to be a drag.

In fact, your most creative work can happen in this planning phase. Do your work well here, and the actual creation should go a lot smoother and faster, in addition to producing a more strategically sound product.

In this post, you will learn:

  • What a creative brief is
  • What they’re used for
  • Why they’re beneficial

At the end, I’ll walk you through a template for a typical creative brief. When you’re done, you’ll have the outline of a creative brief you can use for your next project.

Strategy before tactics

Creative briefs are strategic communication plans. They state the strategy behind the tactic—the who, what, when, where, why and how of the assignment.

Creative briefs:

  • get everyone on the same page
  • catch and arrest fuzzy thinking
  • force everyone to discuss and agree on the audience, objective, strategy and message.

Also, they lay the foundation for creative execution. Really, creative freedom. Because once the audience, objectives and messages are set, the creative team is free to do its best work within those parameters. A creative brief should be so well done and self-explanatory, in fact, that you can hand it off to a writer or designer, even if they weren’t around during its development, and expect them to nail the project.

Key components of creative briefs

Here are a baker’s dozen key elements of a creative brief, starting with the big questions you want answered first.

  • Problem: Define the problem succinctly before you propose a solution. What is the issue? A lack of awareness of the product or solution? Poor positioning relative to competitors? Misperceptions about the company, product or issue? Negative associations with a product category?
  • Objective: Once you’ve identified the problem, define the goal (I’m using goal and objective interchangeably here) of this communication. What are we trying to achieve? What do we want people to do? Many communication efforts fail because they have not clarified the objective. Remember the AIDA formula: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. Which of these are we aiming for? Ultimately, you want people to take action. But you can’t measure your success unless you define your goal now.
  • Solution: What tactic do we propose? Is this a brochure for a tradeshow, a blog post, a web banner, a print ad? Why is this the best tactic?
  • Audience: Who are we talking to? Go beyond demographics. Understand their values. What are their problems? What are their dreams? Are you talking to Generation X? Millennials? Boomers? Where are they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The more you know about the way your prospects think, believe and feel, the better you can reach them.
  • Current Positioning: What does the prospect currently think or believe about the product, service or idea? Don’t know? Don’t guess. Remember, you don’t position yourself. Customers do. So do the research and find out what your customers really think.
  • Desired Positioning: What shift in attitudes or perceptions are we hoping to achieve? It’s okay to aspire to an ideal. But if the gap between reality and perception is too great, that static you hear will be your customer’s cognitive dissonance.
  • Key Takeaway: What is the single, most persuasive idea to achieve the objective? Say it in one sentence from the customer’s point of view.
  • Features and benefits: What makes the product, service or idea unique? More importantly, why do those matter to the customer? You must answer the WIIFM question: What’s in it for me? For example, utilities are not really selling energy efficiency; they’re selling home comfort, health and safety, and money savings, which will allow customers to feel relieved, smart, in-control, loved, and so on.
  • Support: What are the reasons, research or facts that make the key takeaway message true?
  • Differentiation: Good marketing differentiates you from the crowd. Marketing has progressed from features and benefits to experience and tribal identification. As Marty Neumeier says in The Brand Gap, “selling has evolved from an emphasis on ‘what it has,’ to ‘what it does,’ to ‘what you’ll feel,’ to ‘who you are.’” Nike is a good example. They’re selling an aspirational goal: We’re all athletes.
  • Brand alignment: How will this communication align with the organization’s brand? Use the organization’s brand guidelines or at minimum describe the elements of brand personality you will tap, including the personality attributes (e.g., confident, optimistic, friendly, cheeky) brand voice and tone (e.g., vocabulary, sentence length, person).
  • Metrics: How are you going to measure the success of this communication? Response rate? Clicks? Registrations? Quantifying your results will help you prove the value of your work to your client. And it will help you refine your approach next time.
  • Timing: Key dates and deadlines

Plan the work, work the plan

So you’ve assembled the team, met with the client and drafted the creative brief. You’ve presented it to the client and gotten revisions and approvals. Now what?

It’s time to go to work. Use the creative brief in a brainstorming session to develop concepts. Then tack it to your wall or open it on a separate screen as you write or design.

When the first draft of the project is ready, pull out the creative brief. Did the creative work follow the plan? If not, why? It’s always possible that a brilliant, yet divergent idea may surface while doing the work. But unless the idea solves the problem and meets the objective, it’s probably off target.

But you won’t know if your work is on target unless you’ve defined the target before you start. And that’s the purpose of the creative brief.

What are your experiences with creative briefs? Do you have a different version that works for you? Share your ideas and comments.

Marketing Lessons from my Local Cafe

Marketing Lessons from my Local Cafe

Is it the macchiato? Or the marketing?

In the 10 years I’ve lived in my neighborhood, I’ve seen a procession of cafés come and go. It’s like clockwork. A new café puts out a shingle. There’s great hope that maybe this time, the owners will get it right. But inevitably, two years in, the lights dim, the doors are locked and the kraft goes up on the windows. And we’re back to brewing our own coffee.

Until another bright-eyed idealist spies the cute little space and decides to give the food business a whirl. The first few times, I introduced myself and immediately started giving little marketing tips: Reach out to residents. Visit every area business. Make special offers. Start a loyalty program.

But after realizing I was being well-meaning but possibly presumptuous, I skipped the advice, ordered my macchiato and wished them the best.

Aside from the recommendation to never open a restaurant, I’ve wondered if there’s a lesson or two in this for those of us in the business of helping businesses engage with customers. Here are three takeaways:

  • Get good advice. When you’re up to your eyeballs in cappuccinos, it’s hard to see the big picture. That’s where an advisor can help. Someone with an outside perspective can open your eyes to things you can’t see. In my case, I hired a coach who pointed out that my 10 years in the utility business made me an expert. That niche was right in front of me, but it took a coach to point it out. What’s your blind spot?
  • Know your customers. I don’t know what my neighbors like, but I’d love to have a cozy café, the kind of place that makes great coffee, offers delicious little nibbles and lets you sit and work in comfort. There was one place like that, but the owner couldn’t roast his beans onsite, and so he found another location. Since then, we’ve had a vegan restaurant, a piroshky-and-pickle place, a place that forced you to listen to the owner’s New Age music, and another vegan place. The latest incarnation is the best, in terms of food quality: a Peruvian eatery that specializes in fresh seafood. But how many people in my neighborhood want Peruvian seafood? The owners better be trying to get the word out to Peruvian food lovers around the whole city. The point is, know your market. The more specialized you are, the wider your geographic reach should be.
  • If you build it, they will not come. Most if not all of the café hopefuls suffered from the Field of Dreams myth. I cringe when I pass these places that have sunk their hearts and souls (and equity) into the business, and they’re playing to an empty arena. The lesson: build it and then promote the hell out of it.

A good restaurant needs great food, service and location. A good business needs a quality product and service. But if you don’t understand your market, get a wider perspective, tell your story and engage with customers, you could end up like the latest café with a two-year lifespan. And that would be a shame, because we need you in the neighborhood.

Story: Use These Six Elements to Engage Customers

Story: Use These Six Elements to Engage Customers

Lots of people are writing about the power of story in business today.

But what is a story, and how can you use story to engage customers?

Basically, a story is about a character who wants something important and struggles to get it. In the rest of this post, I’ll break that down into its parts.

Here are six elements that make a story a story:

  1. Character. Story starts with character. And the number-one character is the hero. This is where so many corporate stories fail. They try to make a new program, initiative or project the hero. But programs don’t get up in the morning and change the world. People do. And that’s who we want to read about.
  2. Prize. Okay, we have a character. But we don’t yet have a story. The character has to want something: to solve a problem, to right a wrong, to make things better. Why does the character want to achieve that goal? In other words, what’s his or her motivation? When we discover a personal motivation, we develop empathy for that character. Let’s say we have a character who decides to start a program for street youth. That’s certainly a noble goal. But add that the character spent seven years on the streets before turning her life around. Now we have a reason to be personally invested in that character’s story. We really want to see her succeed.
  3. Stakes. What would happen if the hero didn’t achieve the goal? The more that’s at stake, the more compelling the story.
  4. Conflict. The hero wants something. Do we have a story yet? Not until we have conflict. Janet wants an ice cream cone, goes to the grocery store and buys a Dove bar. Hooray for Janet! But it’s not a story, at least not a good one. What if Janet wants an ice cream bar and she’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert without a car or money? Well, we might just have a story. The struggle for the character to get what she wants is the plot. She tries, fails, tries again, fails, tries again. Each time, the challenge gets bigger, and the prize seems farther away.
  5. Plan. How the heck is the hero going to win against the odds? She has to make a plan.
  6. Success. Not all stories are success stories. Some are tragedies. But in the world of marketing and organizational communications, we want to show how our product, service, company or agency creates change for good. This is the resolution. In traditional stories, it’s the climax, where the hero defeats the antagonist or monster and claims the prize. In your story, it might be where the person who started the homeless youth program sees her first class graduate. Use facts to bolster your claim of success. But bring home the emotional truth – and engage with your audience – by showing how this success made a difference in people’s lives.

Use these six elements of storytelling, and you’ll turn your dry facts into compelling stories that grab people by their hearts and inspire them to take action.

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Persuasion: To Change Hearts and Minds, Appeal to Values

Persuasion: To Change Hearts and Minds, Appeal to Values

You can change how people behave when you appeal to their values.

My wife and I recently had one of those nature vs. nurture discussions. I had read an essay in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine, titled, “Why Do Many People Doubt Science?”. The author, the science writer Joel Achenbach, says that people use facts to reinforce beliefs that are actually shaped by their worldview. In other words, our values influence us more than scientific facts do.

As a communicator, I agreed with Achenbach. But that got my spouse, a public school teacher, going. Wasn’t this a deterministic perspective that gave little credit for how learning can open minds?

Take global climate change. It turns out that plenty of educated people deny climate change even though they know the facts. In one study the author cites, higher rates of science literacy correlated with stronger views, pro and con, at both ends of the spectrum. “Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus,” Achenbach says.

And personally, as much as I don’t want to cop to it – even as a former reporter – there are times when my head tells me one thing but my heart, and what I want to believe, influence me more.

Voting with our tribe

In May 2013, Portlanders rejected (for the fourth time since 1956) a proposal to fluoridate the city’s water supply, even though, as Scientific American pointed out, water fluoridation has been rigorously tested and proved safe for 65 years.

And in November 2014, Oregon voters narrowly defeated a measure that would have required labeling of genetically modified food packaging.

I voted yes for fluoridation. I was swayed by the scientific argument and I didn’t have that much at stake emotionally.

But I voted for GMO labeling, even though there’s little proof that GMO foods are harmful. (Read Michael Specter’s piece in the New Yorker, Seeds of Doubt, for an eye-opening story.) But my vote for GMO labeling was admittedly a vote against big, bad Monsanto, the GMO purveyors, as I suspect it was for many others who also voted yes.

So why do people believe what they want to believe? Why do educated people believe vaccines cause autism? The answer gets to the core of our identities. The author of the study cited by Achenbach says that, when we argue about climate change, we’re really arguing about “who we are, what our crowd is.”

Values trump science

“We never left high school,” Marcia McNutt told Achenbacher. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science.”

My teacher wife often jokes that we live in a middle-school nation, where adults still act like adolescents vying for attention, power and control. So she nods when she hears that researcher saying our biggest motivation for what we believe is the desire to fit in with the crowd.

But why bother to teach kids science if they’re just going to let their peer group decide for them – even when they become adults?

And as communicators, educators or marketers, how can we possibly change hearts and minds if people don’t share our values?

The answer to the education question is to do a better job of teaching scientific thinking, the researcher McNutt told Achenbach. Science isn’t just facts; it’s a method of arriving at the truth.

Persuasion requires knowing your audience

Changing hearts and minds requires knowing your audience. Understand not just their demographic profile, but their value set. And then appeal to them based on those values. It’s why sometimes the best argument for adopting sustainable practices is about saving green money rather than the planet.

Back to the discussion with my wife about education. It turns out she’s right. You can get kids to change their minds. All you have to do is make learning cool. If any teacher knows how to do that, they should get a raise.

What N.Y. Mets manager can teach us about story

What N.Y. Mets manager can teach us about story

Mom, can I stay home to watch the World Series?

For many of us who grew up in a certain era, baseball connects us to our childhoods. And no one evoked that more beautifully on the night of Oct. 21, 2015 than the manager of the New York Mets baseball club, Terry Collins. He did it using the power of story.

The Mets – my team since they lost 120 games in that first season of 1962 yet won their way into my heart – had just swept the star-crossed Chicago Cubs to win the National League pennant. They were going to the World Series for the first time since 2000 (a painful Subway Series loss to the cross-town Bronx Bombers) and for only the fifth time in their 53-year history.

At the news conference, one of the reporters asked Collins what the victory meant to him. His answer illustrates how story grabs us at a deeper emotional level.

Here’s the exchange between the reporter and Collins:

Q. You've chased this moment for an entire baseball life, a lot of decades. I wonder if you could reflect on what it means to you. And I'm sorry to ask this, but did you reflect on your dad at all in those moments near the end of the game (Collins’ father had died before spring training this year)?

TERRY COLLINS: "Yeah, baseball has been my life, my whole life. I was one of those guys that started playing when he was 4 or 5. And I told a story tonight to some people that … this day would have been my mom and dad's wedding anniversary, had they been alive.

I remember, when I was 12 years old, I was such a baseball fan, I was begging my mom to stay home and watch the World Series between the Yankees and the Pirates. And she wrote me a note … that I was sick in the afternoon and couldn't go back to school ... because the World Series were all in the daytime back then … .

I'm sitting there tonight thinking, holy crap, now you're in it after all these years. It was worth the wait. It was worth all the work.

So it's a special moment for me. After all these years, when this has been your whole life, to finally get to the ultimate series that every person that's ever played this game wants to get to. Let's go home and enjoy it.”

Story involves us

Does Collins’ story make you smile or choke up a bit? It did for me. It’s not like we know Terry Collins or his parents. So why does his story touch us?

On one level, it’s seeing what this moment meant to this man. The 66-year-old manager had spent his life in baseball, yet he’d never been to the top of the mountain, the World Series. Not even close. Hell, when the Mets defeated the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 26, 2015 to clinch the National League East, it was the first time any of his teams had ever won a playoff spot.

So at the personal level, the moment was sweet for a guy who’d finally reached the pinnacle of achievement in his field. But the real power of a good story is its ability to involve us. We put ourselves in the storyteller’s shoes. We become the heroes of our own dramas. And that’s why Collins’ story goes deeper.

Story is universal

His story is powerful because it is universal. We’ve all been kids. We all have mothers. Some of us may have lost parents. By sharing his memory, Collins activates our own memories. We remember our mothers and fathers, perhaps some act of grace or benevolence, from our distant past. And then we’re connected to what it means to be human: our own longings, losses, struggles and triumphs.

Collins becomes our surrogate. He is the Everyman who stands in for our longing to chase a long-held dream, struggle, suffer and one day see it realized.

It’s a great lesson. If you want to people to listen, relate, support or understand you, tell them a story. Get personal. By revealing your humanity, you just might make someone want to cheer for you.

Even without Terry Collins, I’d be cheering for the Mets. But after hearing his story, I’m that much more emotionally engaged. Go Mets!

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Story power: Connect through myth and archetype

Story power: Connect through myth and archetype

What makes a story powerful?

You know those stories you hear on the radio when you literally can’t leave the car until the story ends? This was one of those. It was about a peach farmer who very nearly ripped out his heirloom peach trees when they didn’t meet the industrial food model for color and shelf life.

NPR aired the seven-minute story on March 14, 2015. I heard it while driving and after I parked wrote a note to myself to look for it later.

The farmer, Mas Masumoto, had scheduled a bulldozer operator to tear out the fruit trees. Big buyers had blacklisted the peaches. He had 2,000 20-pound cases of fruit sitting in cold storage losing money.

He sat down and wrote a paean to the kind of peaches whose perfume makes your mouth water. The Los Angeles Times published his essay, titled “Epitaph for a Peach.” Readers wrote to him and begged him to keep his peaches.

So when the tractor guy showed up, he told him to go home. Alice Waters, a founder of the local-food and organic movement, began selling Masumoto’s peaches at her famed Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. His story and fame spread. The farm thrived.

But this was much more than a story about saving peaches.

A dying grandfather and an epiphany

Another character enters the story, and the story twists. It’s the farmer’s daughter, Nikiko Masumoto. She’d grown up on the farm, and like many farm kids, she left for college and thought she’d never return.

Nikiko loved her gender and women’s studies, feminist theory and radical political ideas at the University of California, Berkeley. But one day, after listening to a lecture on the environmental impact of industrial farming, it dawned on her that the most radical thing she could do would be to return to the farm.

So she did. She got a peach tattoo for her 21st birthday and worked on the farm. She took another educational hiatus for graduate school. But when her grandfather was dying, she returned once again.

This is where the story got me on a visceral, emotional level. On the radio, Nikiko chokes with emotion. She realizes the sacrifices her grandfather had made, how he’d bought the farm after being released from the internment camp during World War II. It was a legacy she couldn’t walk away from. In character arcs, this was the epiphany moment.

And so now she is the third-generation Masumoto peach farmer.

The power of myth and archetypes

Why did this story get me in the gut? On a conscious level, it was a great story about generations. But on the subconscious level, it tapped into roots that go deep in the collective human story mind.

  • It uses elements of the Hero’s Journey, the uber-myth identified by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nikiko is called to her quest early and initially turns down the call – two elements of a quest story.
  • Great stories need high stakes. If Nikiko fails, her dream and her family’s farm will die. But there’s more at stake. Her quest stands for small organic farmers everywhere. If she fails, we all fail.
  • Great stories tap into archetypes. Archetypes occupy a powerful place in our subconscious. In this story, Nikiko’s grandfather, and to a lesser extent, her father, play a role identified by Christopher Booker in his mind-blowing book, The Seven Basic Plots, as the wise old man. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Gandalf for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the wise old man represents the full attainment of wisdom, strength, love and spirit that the acolyte aspires to. (If you’re developing your brand, one of the classics of the branding literature, The Hero and the Outlaw, Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, a 2001 book by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson, helps you connect your story to one of 12 archetypes.)

Connect on a deeper level

What does this mean for you? It means that a) you can connect with your audience through stories and b) you can connect on an even deeper level when you link your story with embedded archetypes and myths. And that will make your story more universal, powerful and compelling.

When I’m researching a story, I look for resonance with myths and archetypes. Finding them is like finding gold. If you’d like help with finding the hidden connections to myth and archetype in your story or if you have other ideas to add to the conversation, let me know.

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Touchpoints: Walk the talk at each step

Touchpoints: Walk the talk at each step

Every moment you're in contact with a customer is a brand opportunity. Make sure you seize it.

I recently flew for the first time on Virgin America. Call it my virgin Virgin flight. On a flight from Portland to New York (via San Francisco) I was impressed by how the airline turned the usually boring in-flight safety presentation into an entertaining opportunity to convey its brand.

Instead of the typical rote demonstration of how to buckle a seat belt and use an oxygen mask, the airline presented its entire FAA-mandated safety spiel in music and dance. Attractive young flight attendants danced and sang everything you needed to know about safety in five minutes of high-production-value Hollywood glitz.

In late 2013, Virgin released the video on its social media channels. Within a few weeks it got about 6 million views on YouTube. It was a brilliant marketing move, creating further buzz.

The video got me thinking. If Virgin’s flight presentation is this cool, maybe I should pay attention to everything else it does in my customer experience. Are they telling their brand story at every turn?

Take advantage of touchpoints

Here are five points I noticed. The takeaway for all of us? Pay attention to the entire customer experience at every touchpoint.

1. Customer Journey. Don’t you wish companies put themselves through the experience of being in your shoes as a customer? (Amy Schumer did. Go here for a laugh.) To do this, create a map of the customer journey from A through Z. You may gain amazing insights. A quick Google search turned up a number of software-as-a-service providers with customer journey mapping services, such as the Touchpoint Dashboard.

2. Restrooms. Talk about touchpoints. Maybe I should call this a no-touch point. I’m not obsessive-compulsive by any stretch, but I attempt as best I can to avoid touching stuff in airline, restaurant and tavern restrooms. The typical transcontinental jet carries from 100 to 130 passengers in the main cabin. All served by two claustrophia-inducing toilets. If Virgin America had put as much effort into cleaning its restrooms as it did in producing its video, I would’ve kissed the flight attendants (or at least thanked them). What’s the equivalent in your company of a clean restroom? (P.S. Apparently, there’s a whole genre of social media devoted to restaurants’ dirty toilets.)

3. Food. There’s not much I can add to everything that’s ever been said about airline food. But if you have to serve food, ask yourself how it reflects your brand. Ask yourself if you’d eat it. If your brand is—as Virgin America describes its brand—“clever, provocative and friendly,” what food would you serve? Peanuts?

4. Walk Your Talk. Here’s what Virgin America’s brand guidelines say about its brand personality: “Virgin America makes flying fun again. We’re constantly reinventing air travel with our stylish design, award-winning service, and the most advanced entertainment system in the sky.” That made me laugh. Fun? Once the glow from the amusing video wore off, Virgin did nothing to demonstrate its difference. Are you living up to the copy in your brand guidelines?

5. Customer Service. The happy dancing flight attendants were a hard act to follow. It’s not that I was expecting the real attendants to twerk down the aisle. But somehow I was expecting a little more sizzle on the steak. Instead, the employees were just ordinary. There's nothing wrong with ordinary. Just be careful about portraying your employees in such an idealized treatment if you can’t live up to the fantasy.

Take the touchpoint test

As clever and entertaining as the Virgin America video was, the airline flunked the touchpoint test. After all, this was a golden opportunity. I had no prior experience with Virgin. The airline could have swept me off my feet and created a new customer. Instead they let me down (thankfully with a boringly safe touchdown).

How are you telling your brand story—throughout your customer’s experience, in ways both big and small, at every touchpoint? And not just in words but in actions. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

How to write a blog post: seven steps to success

How to write a blog post: seven steps to success

Have you ever wanted to kill the beast that is the blog machine?

If you’re a marketing or communications manager, you’re suddenly placed in the role of a managing editor, facing down an editorial calendar that hungers for content. If you’re in a staff role, you’re now a content expert and are expected to turn out scintillating blog posts.

Don't have the budget to hire a professional writer? Don't despair. You can learn how to write a high-quality blog post on your own. In this post, I’m going to show you how. When you’re done, you’ll know how to find good ideas, organize your structure, write a great beginning, middle and end, and work faster and more efficiently.

1. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Coming up with ideas for content is easier if you think like your customer. Ask yourself what your customer cares about. What keeps him awake at night? What does her boss care about? What are their pain points? For every problem your customer has, what is your solution? Your answers will give you a great list of search-friendly topics to post.

2. Organize your content. Whether you write by the seat of your pants or not, you will eventually have to organize your content into a structure. It’s faster if you take the time to do it first. Make a list of your topics and then order them. Examples of structures include lists (as I’ve done here), chronologic, step by step, how-to and problem-solution. Use bullets, numbered lists, subheads or a combination of these to guide readers through your post.

3. Write a compelling introduction. Grab the reader’s attention with your first sentence. Introduce the topic right way. Show that you empathize with the reader on the problem or issue. Explain the problem in greater detail. Tell the reader how you’re going to help them fix the problem. Then transition to the body of your content.

4. Make one point. Ask yourself, what is the one thing I want my reader to learn to do or to take away from this post? Don’t try to say everything. As Matthew Arnold advised, “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.”

5. Keep it brief. Making one point will aid your brevity. People don’t have the time or desire to read lengthy posts online. Keeping your pieces tight will keep people reading and coming back for more.

6. End with a conclusion. When you’ve run out of things to say, summarize your point or tell the reader how they’ll benefit from taking your advice. Point to the future or to next steps.

7. Edit. Finally, make sure your piece is error-free. Poor grammar, style, punctuation and misspelling turn readers off and tarnish your reputation. Correct mistakes. Take a knife to superfluous words, phrases and sentences. If you’re unsure about your editing prowess, find someone with a good eye and ear for language and ask for help.

These seven guidelines are not the only ways to ensure the quality of your posts. But they’re a good start. Hyperlinking to other resources, sharpening your title and content for SEO, using images and ending with a call to action also will make a big difference. I’ll cover those topics in future posts. For now, following these steps will set you apart from all the other bloggers competing for attention in the blogosphere.

And they just might help you slay that blog monster.

What's your biggest problem with writing blog posts? Use the contact form to let me know or ask me a question. And if you like this post, share it on social media by clicking one of the social media buttons below.

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What's the difference between a narrative and a story?

A lot of people use "narrative" and "story" interchangeably. They shouldn't.

So what exactly is a story? And why should you make a distinction between the two words?

My online Merriman-Webster’s Dictionary says a story is an account of incidents or events, or secondarily and even vaguer, it’s a “statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation.”

By that definition, this is a story: It rained. The sun came out. Then it got dark. Or this: He fell asleep. Then he woke up and got something to drink.

Those are not stories, at least not yet. Yet they meet the dictionary’s definition of a series of events. So what’s missing?

This is a story: “In January 1996, I pulled the career equivalent of driving off a cliff: Trading a salary for a dream, I left my corporate communications job to return to my first love of writing. It was the craziest, best decision I ever made.”

That’s the copy I wrote in the “My Story” section of my website. Since I wanted to make a point about my storytelling skills, I wanted to show what I meant. It had to be short but it had to tell a story.

Why is that a story? Let’s break it down. “In January 1996 (setting in time or place), I (character) pulled the equivalent of driving off a cliff (challenge or problem or conflict): Trading a salary for a dream (a worthwhile goal with stakes), I left my corporate communications job (action to achieve goal) to return to my first love of writing (motive). It was the craziest, best decision I ever made (outcome of action).”

So in its skeletal form we have the elements of a story: A motivated character struggles against obstacles to achieve a worthwhile goal.

Story starts with character

There are other factors, such as setting, details and dialog to give a sense of verisimilitude, and high stakes if the character doesn’t get what he or she wants. But the most important thing in this definition is that it’s character-based. There’s a plot, of course. But it starts with a character who wants something.

On the wall near my desk, I have tacked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101. There are just eight items. No. 2 is, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” It’s only when a character enters the picture that we begin to engage with a story. And even if we don’t like the character, we need to identify with him or her.

Vonnegut’s No. 3 is, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Especially if that glass of water is locked behind a door and the character is dying of thirst. That raises the stakes. Now we care. Is he going to survive? What happens if he doesn’t? Now we empathize with the character. We want him to win. And that tension keeps us reading.

That’s why “narrative” is not a great synonym for story. Because narrative can simply be plot: this happened, that happened and then that happened. A story can be a narrative, but a narrative doesn’t have to be a story.

Your message is not your story

Another thing that often gets called a story in the communications world is “message.” But a message is not a story. A message can be anything. “I specialize in telling stories that move people to think, to feel and to act” is something I say about what I do. It’s a message, and, I hope, a pretty good one. But it’s not a story.

Keep this definition of story in mind as you think about how to inspire people to act or change. Connect your product or service or idea to a story, and you’ll be more likely to have your audience cheering for you and wanting to be a part of the story themselves.