Happy New Year from The Hired Pens

By Dan O'Sullivan
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The problem with maintaining a blog is that you have to keep updating it. Otherwise people might think you’ve either a) gone out of business, or b) died.

But with the holiday week upon us, neither Anna nor I have any desire to blog. We have been doing it pretty regularly all year and frankly need a break.

Rest assured, however, that we are still in business and alive. At least for now.

We’ll see you again in ’11.

Rule Number One for Good Product Writing: Make People Actually Want Your Product

By Anna Goldsmith
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As a copywriter, I pay particular attention to both good and bad writing. The good is inspirational and bad copy is a reminder of what not to do. Both make excellent fodder for blog posts.

The new radio spot for Gold Peak iced tea is my latest example of “the bad.” I tried to find a link to it, but couldn’t so I’ll just describe it instead.

A mock interview between a radio host and a famous chef, the spot goes something like this:

Host: So I’m here with world-famous chef Natalie Madeupname, who is sharing her holiday menu with us. Natalie, how will your meal begin?

Natalie: With a delicate fois gras mousse.

Host: Delicious! And let me guess, you’ll be pairing that with a white Bordeaux?

Natalie: No! Gold Peak iced tea!

Host: Okay … how about your main course?

Natalie: Boeuf Bourguignon and glazed new potatoes.

Host: And I’m imagining a red burgundy with that?

Natalie: No! Gold Peak iced tea.

And on and on.

Now, before I tear this apart, let me first let me say that radio spots are particularly challenging to get right. I think this is why 99% of them are so awful. As the writer, you have no visuals to work with and a highly distracted audience to deal with: traffic, noisy kids in the backseat and a backseat driver in the front. That’s before you even get to the five to 15 other pre-sets.

Gold Peak did do a few things right: They got my attention and the writing was pretty good. I was reeled in by the amazing dishes “Natalie” described, and the dream continued with the host’s suggested wine pairings. (Only to be promptly shattered time and again by the actual product they were trying to sell me on.)

And that’s the problem: The concept itself — that if tea is good enough, it can be a replacement for wine. Now I love iced tea, but it has its place. Sipped from a porch swing on a hot summer day? Yes! As a workday pick-me-up? Sure! With a plate of piping-hot vanilla scones? Sold! But with an exquisite holiday meal? Nope, sorry guys.

Yes, this response — and I’m guessing I’m not alone here — is a big problem for Gold Peak. After all, if it does nothing else, good product writing needs to make your audience actually want your product. This one just made me want to throw my fifth glass of iced tea out the window, grab my dining companions and head to the nearest bar.

An Open Letter to the Potential Client Who Contacted Us Last Month

By Dan O'Sullivan
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Photo by Mindaugus Danys.

Dear Potential Client,

When you called us just before Thanksgiving, you were filled with urgency and enthusiasm. “We need copy for our website,” you said, “and it’s got to be ready in three weeks. Can you get me a quote by this afternoon?”

“Yes,” I said. For we like to be accommodating. Especially when we hear from a potential client in distress.

Soon after you called, we started putting together an estimate. Sure, we had other things to do, like finish some client work for which we actually get paid. But you needed a quote ASAP. So we put those other priorities aside.

“What went in to putting together the quote?” you wonder. Well, more than you might think. We spent some time reviewing your current website and other collateral. We thought about what research would be involved — interviews, competitive analysis, etc. We considered the subject matter and scope of work to determine how much time we’d need for the writing and revisions.

Next, we added up the numbers and attached a dollar value to it. We included that along with an explanation of how we arrived at the figure. The whole process took about 30 minutes. (For larger projects, it can take a couple hours.)

After all that, we emailed you the quote. You didn’t respond that night. Or the next day. Fearful that you might have been hit by a bus or something, we checked in with you a few days later. Still nothing. In fact, we haven’t heard from you since.

So here’s the deal, Potential Client: If you request a quote from us, we owe you a timely response. And you owe us the very same courtesy. Sometimes our quote will be too high for your budget. Other times you’ll find another writer who’s a better fit. That’s OK. Either way, just let us know. We can take it.

But don’t leave us hanging. Or we’ll have to tell your mom she raised an impolite brat.

Sincerely,

Dan

Anna is Interviewed for The NH Writers’ Network

By Anna Goldsmith
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Dan: Hey, we got an email from Lee Laughlin from the New Hampshire Writers’ Network — she wants to interview one of us for their blog. You want to take this one since you’re  from New Hampshire?

Anna: Sure. I like being interviewed.

Dan: Cool and hey, Live Free or Die.

Anna: No, YOU Live Free or Die.

Dan: No you!

Anna: You!

So, here’s the interview. It was really fun talking to Lee, and I was pleased that I got through our 45-minute call without regretting anything I’d said. Probably because I wasn’t drunk. Or not very, anyway.

The SEO Essentials, Courtesy of SEO Expert Lew Sabbag

By Dan O'Sullivan
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Lew Sabbag is the founder of Publish Today Media, a Boston-based firm that provides a full range of Internet marketing services, including search engine optimization (SEO). We recently chatted with Lew to get his advice on the essentials of effective SEO.

What should every newbie know about SEO? Let’s talk about the bare basics.

Effective SEO boils down to three things: 1) the right keywords, 2) the right content (which incorporates those keywords), and 3) inbound links. Those are the basics.

What are the keys to a solid keyword strategy?

Here are the places where we try to work in keywords:

  • URL: if possible, it’s great to have a targeted keyword within your URL
  • Title tag: i.e. the line of HTML code that also appears at the top of the browser window
  • H1 tag: i.e. the first headline on a Web page

It’s particularly effective to have the same set of keywords at work in the title tag and H1 tag.

How do you go about determining keywords?

First of all, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Consider how they — not you — think about your services or products. Consider the problem you’re helping customers solve; that determines what keywords they’ll be searching for.

It’s also important to pick keywords that people actually are searching for. I’ve seen sites that don’t take this into account, which is why they get little traffic. In fact, a colleague recently told me about a client that had none of the essential keywords for its industry anywhere on its site.

The Google AdWords Keyword Tool is very useful for keyword selection. Just enter a phrase, and it’ll give you 200-300 variations of that phrase. You can find out how many people search for each phrase each month along with its competitive ranking, in terms of spending on AdWords.

What’s your advice for incorporating keywords into body copy?

Your content should take into account your keywords, which means including them in a few paragraphs on the page. But don’t go overboard. Always remember that you’re writing for humans; there’s an art to SEO writing, and “keyword stuffing” won’t cut it.

And what role do links play?

The more inbound links — i.e. the more sites that are linking to your site — the better. Google likes it when other sites are “endorsing” your site.

Any other advice to share?

So many people really miss the boat on SEO but also on orienting users once they arrive on your site. Here are three good rules to keep in mind on this point:

  1. When the user comes to your site, he immediately wants to know where he is. What’s your company? What do you do? Spell this out clearly in the header and right in the main copy block on the home page.
  2. Next, think about what you want the user to do. Download something? Buy something? Donate? Watch a video? Contact you? The end destination must be clearly established.
  3. Finally, consider how you’ll drive the user to your desired destination. Create an intuitive path so that it’s easy for the user to get where you want him to go.

What do you think? Did we miss any key SEO essentials? Let us know.