My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

03/16/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are seven notable communications stories from the two weeks ending Saturday, March 16.

Blogs Outrank Social Networks for Consumer Influence: New Research by Patricia Redsicker, on the Social Media Examiner website, March 6.

Redsicker reports some interesting findings of Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influence Report.

Among the six findings she highlights are: One, blogs influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. In fact, they are “the third most influential digital resource (31%) when making overall purchases, behind retail sites (56%) and brand sites (34%).” Two, brands and influencers measure success differently. “Brands see success as increased activity on Facebook, Twitter or their websites, while influencers rank blog or website page views as the best measure of success.”

9 Tips to Enhance Your Content Marketing by Bill Miltenberg, on the PRNews website, March 8.

Miltenberg provides tips culled from PR News’ recent Digital PR Summit that featured three PR/content marketing professionals: David Patton from Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, Chad Melton from Ingersoll Rand, and Eliza Anderson from Intrepid Travel.

Why Brands Should Embrace Honesty by Nicola Kemp, on the MediaWeek website, March 13.

Kemp leaves no doubt how she feels about honesty: “At a time when consumer trust in businesses and institutions is at an all-time low, brands can no longer afford to shroud themselves in secrecy and hide behind generic press releases and oblique statements.”

She also makes it clear that achieving honesty will not be easy for businesses: “While the corporate communications industry has effectively built its trade on helping businesses save face, it has a long way to go in adapting to a world in which consumers are demanding that the face in question is a true and honest one.”

Pope Francis, Need Some Public-Relations Help? Here’s Advice from America’s Political Consultants by Brain Resnick and Elahe Izadi on the NationalJournal website, March 13.

For this piece, the writers asked a number of political consultants what they think Pope Francis might do to improve the image of the church and to shore up its support and confidence.

Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee says, “It’s not that different from politics here—you’ve got [to] connect with people, convince them that you ‘get them’ and that you’re willing and able to fix institutional problems.” Kevin Madden, a Republican advisor, says, “Presenting a reformist agenda will be a critical part of generating goodwill with Catholics around the world as well as those Vatican-watchers.”

Other consultants offer suggestions. Most are not only appropriate for the Pope and his church but are relevant for corporations and other large organizations facing their own crisis.

Gartner Finds Corporate Websites Still a Higher Digital Marketing Priority for U.S. Marketers Than Facebook—Just by Natasha Lomas, on TechCrunch, March 13.

In this article, Lomas says a Gartner survey of U.S.-based companies shows that “corporate websites are ranked as the top digital activity for marketing ‘success’ — beating marketing on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.” Forty-five percent of the survey respondents say that their corporate websites contribute to their companies’ success, while 43% say their social media efforts boost marketing success.

Lomas quotes Gartner’s research director as stating, “The survey results suggest that the corporate website will not be displaced anytime soon by a brand’s social media presence.”

The Journalist and the PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” by Peter Himler, on the Forbes website, March 14.

“The historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals has taken a distinct turn toward the latter in recent years and cuts across virtually every media beat,” Himler says. But he doesn’t see the relationship as being completely broken.

Himler, a seasoned PR/media strategist, gives a few suggestions for what each side of this media-relations equation might do to do improve its relationship with the other.

How the PR Industry of Yesteryear Compares with Today by Michael Sebastian, on Ragan’s PR Daily, March 15.

Sebastian begins his piece by stating, “In just a decade, aspects of the public relations field have become unrecognizable.” Then he provides an infographic from InkHouse Media + Marketing showing how today’s PR industry compares with itself of a few years ago.

At the bottom of the piece is a link to another story worth checking out. This one lists 10 signs that show you are an old-school PR pro.

Q&A on Long-Form Content with Jennifer Kane

Recently Jennifer Kane, a marketing/communications strategist and principal at Kane Consulting, wrote an important blog post about long-form content on the Web.

Jennifer Kane

Jennifer Kane

She starts Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by stating a fact that is often overlooked: Long-form content is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds, “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Then she provides some of these rules, which make a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

Since her “secrets” in this post are so accurate and helpful, I decided to ask her what other advice she might have for someone interested in writing and presenting better digital long-form content.

Below are her answers to my questions:

David: How narrowly or broadly do you define “long-form content?”

Jennifer: I define it pretty broadly because it really seems to be up to the reader what they consider to be “too long.” On a really basic level, if it’s a video over 5 minutes or written content that the person cannot see the end of even after scrolling down from the first view of the page to a second view of the next segment, I think most people consider that to be “long.”

Even if it’s easy to read or simple to view, if there is no easy end in immediate sight, people can be quick to make a judgment that this is going to take too much time to consume.

I wrote this post because I got trapped inside a number of long pieces I enjoyed, but wasn’t sure how long I was going to have to enjoy them.

If I left to tweet about the piece, I’d have to scroll down and find my place. If I scrolled to the end to see its full length, I’d lose my place. I basically felt stuck within the content’s awesomeness—which is lovely because it was well written, but also annoying because I, like all audience members, wanted to manage my time.

David: Does long-form content have a minimum number of words?

Jennifer: From the guest posts I do on multi-author blogs, it seems like a post that is “long” by their definition is one that is over 900 words. That’s kind of an arbitrary number, but one I keep running into.

David: Do you think that for something to be “long-form content” it must fall into a specific category of documents?

I know you consider narrative journalism as long-form content because you mention The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek as a good example. But do you consider a white paper, a bylined article, a speech, or an annual report as long-form content?

Jennifer: I think this applies to all online content—fiction or non-fiction, educational or entertaining. I do consider white papers, most bylined articles, and speeches to be long-form content.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read an annual report on line. Due to the fact that they’re graphic heavy, they seem to always be downloadable PDFs—which I think people have an easier time processing because they can view, assess and navigate the total breadth of it pretty easily.

I guess I would always define this based on how people are currently defining “average” length. If the average video is 2-5 minutes, and the average blog post 500-750 words, then “long” would be anything longer than that.

I also think this average is becoming shorter consistently over time. People have shorter attention spans, so what constitutes “too long” is always changing.

David: Finally, besides “Tunnel Creek,” would you recommend other examples of long-form content that are easy to read and follow because they are well written and well designed?

Jennifer: Here are some very good ones:

1) Most recently, the Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Usfeature in TIME. (24,105 words—amazing info).

2) I think some of the most consistently amazing long-form stuff I’ve read lately is in WIRED. Every month, they’ve usually got a whopper of an article (often not the feature) that’s a jaw dropper. For example, the recent article Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us.

3) This LEGO video is well done (a little long for me, but I’m not the target audience) and is a great example of company storytelling to boot.

4) And, then in my industry if I mention a tool/technique in a post I’m often hyperlinking to articles from CopyBlogger, ProBlogger, and Social Media Examiner because they post a lot of “definitive guide” kind of posts as well as exhaustive lists of ideas. For example:

My thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to answer these questions and providing her expert advice.

Print Media: Facing a Digital Future or Extinction

shutterstock_116212888In an early episode of “House of Cards,” the new Netflix TV series about Washington’s political underbelly, the editor of the fictional Washington Herald newspaper gets fired because he’s stuck in a pre-internet era, an era without instant news updates or constant online chatter.

He wants things to remain as they’ve always been. And he’s not happy when a rising young reporter gets lots of media attention for her scoops and then turns down his offer to be the paper’s primary Capitol Hill reporter, in part, because she wants to write a political blog, a medium he sees as being beyond contempt.

This episode shows the tough decisions faced every day by the print media: Should they maintain their ostrich stance, ignoring changes that are battering their industry, making obsolete their old business models, and rapidly destroying their individual companies? Or should they embrace online media with their new rules and their seeming disregard of traditional ethics, standards, and ways of doing business?

While the Washington Herald is fictional, two long-term print newspapers—Daily Variety and the Financial Times, each publishing a daily edition for more than a century—are real. Both publications have been dealing with the problems caused by online competition, and each has taken a different approach to dealing with them, as news articles pointed out last month.

The first sentence of a recent New York Times article on Daily Variety, which has been a leader in covering the entertainment industry for 108 years, makes clear that this newspaper’s approach didn’t work. The sentence was short, to the point, and quite clear: “Daily Variety is dead.” And so it is, along with its companion magazine, Weekly Variety.

This newspaper that had printed stories each day—once considered a fast distribution of news—could no longer compete against digital outlets that posted and updated stories throughout the day. Its number of subscribers had dropped to about 25,000, and it was losing staff members. Some freelance writers went months without being paid for their stories.

Apparently, the only concession Daily Variety made toward the changing digital world of journalism was to start a website years ago. But that site was surrounded by a pay wall—a barrier that readers of few publications in 2009 were willing to cross. The Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 2.14.06 PMwebsite, which will remain active, is now offering readers free access to its information.

The Financial Times, a 125-year-old London newspaper covering the financial market, has taken a different approach to competition. Without giving up on its print publication, it has embraced an online future.

As a result, it has done much better than Daily Variety and, in fact, better than many print newspapers facing digital disruption. In February, The New York Times said that although the Financial Times print editions are fading, the publication “has figured out how to make significant money from new outlets, without straying from its original purpose.”

Now, the online publication has more than 300,000 subscribers, slightly more than those who get the printed edition. That’s also more than triple the number of online subscribers in 2007, when the Financial Times switched from a pay wall to a metered approach, giving online readers a number of free articles before charging them. About one-fourth of its digital subscribers are on mobile devices—which, many experts believe, hold the future of online communications. In its continuing effort to strengthen its digital offering and subscribers, the publication has just introduced its weekend mobile app.

The Financial Times sees its future as “serving a digital platform first and a newspaper second,” according to its editor. Nevertheless, it has no near-term plans to discontinue the print edition. Although print is being streamlined, it remains an important part of the Financial Times.

Apparently, the Financial Times learned some time ago that it’s less important whether its news is delivered in print or online, as long it’s accurate and timely, and its quality is beyond reproach. And it learned that its future—like that of countless newspapers across the country—depends on learning how to outsmart competitors, playing under new rules in an unfamiliar field, while continuing to play its own game.

This is a lesson the old editor on “House of Cards” and those of Daily Variety never learned.

Photo: Shutterstock/Slavoljub Pantelic         

03/02/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending March 2, 2013.

My Secrets: How I Became a Prolific Writer and Learned to Get Beyond School Essays by Vivek Wadhwa, on the LinkedIn blog, February 25.

Wadhwa, a book author and writer for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, shows that you don’t have to be a journalist or love English grammar to be a successful writer. He taught himself to write, taking 40 hours to complete his first BusinessWeek article. He now turns out a piece in two to four hours.

He considers these to be keys to writing: “to speak fearlessly from the heart, get to the point immediately, keep the message simple and focused, and use the fewest words you can.”

19 Things Successful People Do on Social Mediaby TJ McCue, on Forbes website, February 26.

McCue offers some helpful tips here. Among them: “They publish more quality, not just quantity” and “They are genuine.”

A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy: Answer Customers’ Questions by Mark Cohen, in The New York Times, February 27.

Cohen writes about the new, highly successful marketing campaign undertaken by River Pools and Spas, a firm that installs fiberglass pools. The campaign, now at about one-tenth the cost of the company’s previous advertising budget of $250,000, consists mostly of blog posts that answer customer questions. One post has led directly to sales of at least $1.7 million.

This article provides lessons that other small companies might want to consider.

The Anti-Blog Post to Writing Better Blog Posts, a post by Mars Dorian on the {Grow} blog, February 27.

Dorian’s post takes a contrarian look at blog posts and questions the value of just echoing what others write. He suggests that before you start writing, you ask yourself these questions: “Are you creating an original piece of work, or are you merely soaking up the sound waves from the echo chamber?”

Too many bloggers, he suggests, are reading each other’s posts, mashing the information together, and slamming “out another samey samey blog post.” To avoid this routine, he offers five “anti-guidelines” for crafting original, compelling content. One guideline: “Allow your personal truth to shine through.”

Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by Jennifer Kane, on the SteamFeed website, March 2.

In this post, Kane, a marketing/communications strategist, points to a fact often overlooked: Long-form content on the Web is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “ weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds that “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Kane’s “secrets” make up some of these rules and provide a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop better long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document or its component parts (headlines, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

If you are interested in writing long-form content, you will want to read this post. I found her “secrets”—including the unannounced sixth one that you can find in the last paragraph—to be accurate and helpful.