Finding It Hard to Come Up with Good Blog Ideas? Don’t Despair.

By Dan O'Sullivan
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Courtesy: fakelvis

I’ve written it before, but it’s worth reinforcing: Failing to update your blog for months (or even years) just doesn’t leave a good impression.

I understand that blogging can’t always top your list of priorities. Anna and I definitely have our blog-less stretches here and there. But at some point you have to step it up, or your blog will end up looking like this one. (No offense, Andy Miller, et al. — yours just happened to be the first good example I found.)

Fortunately, blogging doesn’t have to be as tortuous as you might think. Here are a few ideas that have worked for us.

Provide useful tips.

This is a great opportunity to showcase your expertise for prospects who might be snooping around. Make sure the tips are practical and not overly obvious. We like to give five to 10 tips — going any higher is overkill.

Comment on what’s in the news.

And your industry, in particular. Give readers your spin on a current trend, a new product or a hot company. Another way to show you know your stuff.

Conduct a Q&A.

Think of all the people you know in your industry. There must be a few who’d make for an interesting interview, right? If your contact is game, you can even collect your answers via email — less work for you!

Tell people what you’ve been up to.

This one’s a little tricky. No one (other than maybe your mom) is going to read an extended case study about that big engagement you just completed. But a quick synopsis of that project without excess self-hype? You might have a shot. A nice way to highlight your growing client list.

Put out the call for help.

When in doubt, turn to your online friends. Posting the right question to Facebook, LinkedIn, your blog, etc., might give you a few ideas to run with. (For example: What business problems are you running into these days? What new tools are you using? What do you want to learn more about?)

Have any tips to add to our list? Let us know.

(Not So) Easy to Assemble

By Anna Goldsmith
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Successful installation at last!

My father recently bought an “easy to assemble” hanging light. It proved to be not so easy to assemble, even for a man who can fix cars, build houses and digitally retouch photographs.

Normally patient and even-tempered, he became so frustrated that he actually mailed me the instructions along with a cryptic note suggesting they could use my help.

He’s not alone. I did a quick poll on Twitter about the state of assembly instructions and got an earful (a Tweerful?).

“The simplicity of the instructions rivaled those of the least complicated nuclear sub.”

“So easy my 10-year-old prodigy could do it!”

“Having put this together, I now feel qualified to perform brain surgery.”

As DJ Dynasty Handbag would say, “What’s up with that?” Why can’t easy-to-understand instructions make good on their promise?

Ooh-wee, I’ll tell you why.

Assembly instructions are so badly written for one simple reason: Writers don’t write them — some guy from engineering does. And to compound matters, those instructions are often translated (word-for-word!) into English by someone using a translation dictionary. As opposed to, say, a translator.

I know this because I used to work for a major retailer that sold lots of “assembly required” products. They (perhaps offensively) dubbed them “Jinglish instructions,” and it was my job to rewrite them. It felt good to know my work would prevent heads across America from being banged against walls.

What separates the good from the bad? Here’s what I found.

AUDIENCE

  • Bad instructions assume everyone has an advanced degree in electrical engineering and is a mind reader.
  • Good instructions assume everyone is an idiot. An idiot who would rather sustain a mild-to-moderate flesh wound than spend more than three seconds trying to figure out how to screw Hanging Ring A into Hanging Ring B.

LANGUAGE

  • Bad instructions are written by whoever is around and has a translation dictionary.
  • Good instructions are written by a professional copywriter — or at least a writer who knows how to use clear, concise language and short, action-oriented sentences.

CONSISTENCY

  • Bad instructions call the same widget a “Thingamajig” in Diagram A and a “Whoseywhatsit” in Diagram B.
  • Good instructions keep it consistent.

DIAGRAMS/ILLUSTRATIONS

  • Bad instructions either don’t have them, don’t label them correctly or don’t have someone who knows how to draw creating them.
  • Good instructions are clearly drawn and accurately labeled. Really good instructions use high-quality photographs of the step-by-step assembly process.

TRIAL RUN

  • Bad instructions go through no usability testing or are tested by the team that made the product.
  • Good instructions are tested and approved by your grandmother.

So here is my plea to companies worldwide:

You are spending millions of dollars to develop your product. Please, please throw another few hundred dollars at it and hire a real writer so your customers don’t hate you. It doesn’t have to be me, but it can’t be “that guy from manufacturing who can do it on his lunch break.”

Why It Pays to Hire an Outside Copywriter: One Man’s Story

By Dan O'Sullivan
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A very short post for today. Why? Three reasons:

  1. It’s sunny and 90 degrees, and I’m feeling lazy.
  2. It’s the middle of the summer, everyone’s on vacation and no one will read this anyway.
  3. I’m skipping town for a few days and want to post something new before our blog becomes as stale as that piece of bagel rotting on the sidewalk outside our office.

So here’s the story: When speaking with prospects, I often mention the benefits of working with an outside copywriter. For one thing, we bring a fresh perspective to the work.

Why does this matter? Sometimes clients get stuck in a rut. They’ve been describing themselves using the same language for so long that they don’t even question it. And that can be dangerous. Or, at least less than optimal.

As an outsider, I’m more likely to flag something that doesn’t sound quite right. Case in point: One of our long-time clients was using the phrase “line of sight” in its collateral. And I didn’t know what they meant by it.

When I questioned two of the marketing folks, they said it was just a phrase they’d always used in that context. They soon conceded that “line of sight” really didn’t make sense. I rewrote the passage accordingly.

This is just a small example that backs up my larger point: When it comes to copywriting, it really can pay to bring on an outsider.

Simply 2 Turn Customers Away

By Anna Goldsmith
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As one of the creators of America’s Most Popular Blog™*, there’s a lot of pressure to come up with fascinating entries. Luckily, inspiration is everywhere.

For example, yesterday on my way to the movies, I passed this sign. In case you can’t quite make out the terrible picture I took with my iPhone, it’s a sandwich board advertisement for an auto detailing service called … wait for it … “SIMPLY 2 IMPRESS.”

Now as a copywriter, I think it’s a smart move to address objections early on so you can put a positive spin on them. E.g. Why would a customer decide not to buy your product? Are your competitors cheaper? Okay, maybe we need to spend some time educating potential consumers about your real value — your products cost more because you use better materials and therefore, they last longer.

So, SIMPLY 2 IMPRESS, I do admire you for being upfront and honest with the consumer — something that is sorely lacking in corporate America. No one needs auto detailing or to have his car hand-washed. (That’s right, I just wrote “his.” Call me sexist, but before you do, I challenge you to think of one single woman you know who has willingly shelled out money to have her car detailed. Yeah, I can’t think of any either.)

But here’s how I imagine your sign working against you

Man and woman hold hands, heading happily to the movies. Man spots sign.

Man: Hey, maybe I should get my car detailed while we’re at the movies — it would look really great.

Woman: Why do you need your car to look so great? Who are you trying to impress?

Man: Wait, what?

Woman: It’s that new blonde temp in accounting isn’t it? Amber what’s-her-face. Answer me!

Man: You’re sounding a little crazy, honey.

Woman: Oh, and I’ll bet Amber never sounds crazy! I knew I should never have given you a second chance. You can just go to the movies alone!!!!!!!!

Woman walks off in a huff. Man runs after her promising that Amber means nothing to him and to prove it, he’ll never get his car auto-detailed as long as they both shall live.

Okay, maybe you won’t actually be the cause of a lovers’ quarrel, SIMPLY 2 IMPRESS, but these are hard economic times. Do you really want to remind cash-conscious consumers with your actual company name that your service is a frivolity? This might work at a private, luxury golf resort, but this is a public parking garage. Think about it.

And while you’re at it, also consider whether you really want to write “2″ instead of “to.” (Hint: You don’t.)

* Lightning & The Lightning Bug is actually not “America’s Most Popular Blog.” Currently we are ranked 1,234,557 — right above “The Daily Kitten” and just below “Emma’s Justin Beiber blog.”**

** This is also not true. Both get way more traffic than we do. Especially The Daily Kitten. We aren’t surprised. Both are SUPER CUTE!!!!!!

Mixed Messages

By Anna Goldsmith
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*Available at Amazon.com

You have a gorgeous lawn. You have invested a lot of time and money making it just so. Your hedges are perfectly trimmed. Your carefully pruned garden is bursting with color. Your grass is so lush and green it makes your neighbors wonder if they really have the same water supply.

Hey, you know the only thing that would make it even more beautiful? A cartoon sign of a dog pooping!

If you are the owner of such a sign, I understand why you’d want to put one up. It must be horrible to spend those hours toiling away on your hands and knees, only to have some stupid dog do you-know-what in your prized flower bed. (Or, more accurately, have its stupid owner let him.)

But I implore you: Use the money you’d spend on such a sign and buy a box of plastic baggies and just clean it up. You’re up to your elbows in dirt all the time anyway — surely you’re brave enough to handle picking up a little unauthorized fertilizer.

Or here’s an even better idea: Use that money on a pair of binoculars, an air horn and a dog whistle, and then wait for the offending dog/owner to appear. Trust me, they’ll never come back again.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s one for the City of Cambridge: The Community Garden sign has got to go too. The aggressive MEMBERS ONLY stance is really sending mixed messages.

Besides, anyone who would have the audacity to steal flowers or vegetables from the obviously designated plots won’t be deterred by this sign. As for the rest of us? We’d never dream of doing that. We just want to wander though and admire its beauty. It was created for the community, after all, not just the few people who remembered to sign up early for a plot. How about a friendly sign reminding us to be gentle and not pick flowers and vegetables?

Short of that, maybe those who are lucky enough to get a plot can take turns guarding it with that air horn once the dog situation has been resolved.