Frank Underwood as Marketing Mastermind

ROBIN WRIGHT, people! Image cred: Netflix

ROBIN WRIGHT, people! Image cred: Netflix

Hopefully you've managed to finish the third season of House of Cards. But even if you haven't, the snippet of episode five that I'm about to detail isn't much of a spoiler. If you haven't watched any House of Cards... I don't even know what to say. Just... Robin Wright. 

Frank Underwood understands the power of stories. Think of his insistence that Russo leverage the recovering addict angle (lesson: vulnerability can win people over if it's balanced with strength and courage), or the reason he decided Zoe was a valuable ally (lesson: stories act like silver bullets if you manage to shoot first). It's as if he were flexing his marketing muscles throughout seasons one and two only to sink his teeth into the meat of his agenda in season three. At this point, as president, he's desperate to get the public on board with his America Works program in time for re-election. He again turns to the power of stories:

We need to sell America Works.... We need more than ad buys. We need the philosophy behind it, we need something of substance.... We need something that will capture the imagination.

He's talking to the writer who will carry out his next marketing maneuver: a book about the program he hopes will redeem his presidency. His point? Advertising isn't selling. Advertising is a tool people use to establish brand recognition and create buzz. But everyone already knows about his program; that's not his problem. The problem is getting people to buy in--selling the America Works program to the American people. So, what is selling if not advertising? Selling is persuading. You can't persuade people without words, and, as Underwood notes, it doesn't require overt manipulation. All you need is a story that's authentic and personal:

No sales pitch, just your honest curiosity.... I want something different, something unique--your voice.

While Frank Underwood typically demonstrates how political and marketing machines utilize manipulative tactics for persuasion, there's no denying the efficacy of his story strategy. I look forward to justifying my House of Cards binge habit with marketing wisdom again next year.

Content Strategy, a definition

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

That white goose black sheep knows how to position itself.

When I introduce myself at networking events as a content strategist and copywriter, people usually ask me about the writing that I do but not the strategy. A few days ago, I was surprised to meet a fellow content strategist who asked me the question I'd been waiting for: what is content strategy?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, content is information made available by a website or other electronic medium. For instance, this blog post is considered content. Strategy, meanwhile, is the art of planning and directing. Keeping these definitions in mind, I've concluded that content strategy includes the following:

  • planning the information to be presented (the content itself, i.e. the words that make up the paragraphs of a website, blog post, etc.)
  • planning the execution of content (the context/schedule, i.e. Monday Emailing, Tuesday Tweet, Wednesday Blog, Thursday LinkedIn, Friday Facebook)
  • directing the presentation of content (the design, i.e. the amount of white space, the use of headings, format)

Wikipedia's definition mirrors the above: "Content strategy refers to the planning, development, and management of content--written or other media." The entry cites other useful definitions taken from the mouths of established content strategists.

When I first started this biz, I expected freelance writing to mostly involve typing away on my laptop, reading sources, interviewing clients, and typing some more. I soon realized, however, that writing isn't enough. I could write a marvelous blog post, hand it over to my client, and it might never see the light of day. If you want people to read your writing, you need to handle it strategically--you need to plan how it will appear on a screen and when it will appear on a screen. You need to make sure you're covering SEO and basic human elements, like humor and voice. Obviously, the most important thing is to make sure the quality of the content is mind-blowingly good, but content without strategy is no better than a letter lost to the bottom of your junk drawer.

Next time I introduce myself at a networking event as a content strategist, this is what I will say: "There may be plenty of people who know how to write a decent sentence, but there aren't many people who know how to create stuff that actually gets noticed."

Metaphors, the human thought bomb

metaphor (n.), a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable, a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract

The power of the metaphor lies in its ability to communicate the abstract. When you have something complicated to explain, whether it be an emotion or technical process, you don't want to lose your audience to your rambling, literal terminology. Let's consider this blurb from a financial group's website:

As the nation’s largest independent broker-dealer*, a top RIA custodian, and a leading independent consultant to retirement plans, LPL is an enabling partner to more than 13,500 financial advisors and approximately 700 financial institutions. We believe that objective financial guidance is a fundamental need for everyone. Through our proprietary technology and a suite of customized services, we enable our customers to focus on creating the personal, long-term client relationships that are the foundation for turning life’s aspirations into financial realities.

Did your eyes glaze over? Mine did. My brain had nothing to chew on--no image, no idea, no feeling. Instead my brain attempted to gnaw on words that painted a bleak, abstract picture. This will not do if you actually want people to pick you over your competitor. Finance is boring. Most people don't get excited about the terms "broker-dealer," "RIA custodian," or even "financial guidance." Nor do people care about how many advisors, institutions, or services you have. Your audience just wants to get off your finance site as soon as possible, so let them.

Enter the sleek and sexy metaphor:

Nurturing your money, also known as "adulting," can sometimes be severely mind-numbing. In fact, some people find it utterly unbearable. But with LPL, attending to your finances can feel as natural as pulling on your favorite t-shirt. We're the tried and true group that won't disappoint. Let us match you with an advisor who'll fit you and feel better than any tailored suit."
Etsy is a wonderful place.

Etsy is a wonderful place.

Metaphors are not only useful when attempting to explain something complicated; they're also great for appealing to the senses. Sensory marketing is legit--the more senses you incorporate into a message, the more effective it's proven to be--and metaphors can provide an avenue for including content that evokes sights, sounds, scents, and tastes. When you think of your favorite t-shirt, you think about the comfort of wearing something casual and familiar. You think about the fresh scent of laundry and the softness of something worn over and over again. After walking away from that paragraph, you'll end up remembering that impression for a while.

People tend to shy away from using metaphors when creating "professional" content because they fear metaphors aren't to the point. They might also worry about the irrelevant associations that a metaphor might conjure. My response: what's more important, being completely relevant/on point or being remembered? Humans value uniqueness. Are your competitors going to use this metaphor? No. So use it.

Email Blasts: the painful truth

The more I meet people at networking events, the more I get added to people's "contact list," which means that my inbox gets steadily more crowded. Which would be fine with me... if most of them didn't suck. After all, these smart, social professionals probably have some pretty valuable things to say. And they are willing to share their knowledge for free. On top of that, they're willing to reach out to me and share that valuable information so that I can sit on my couch in my pajamas and soak it all in at my leisure. But what happens to most of these convenient, informative, valuable messages? They get deleted. Why?

  1. They are boring. I open them up and there are blocks of plain text with canned messaging and no voice. I don't recognize the shining personality of the author. Instead, my eyes glaze over and I try to skim for important info, but it all blends together and I get overwhelmed and angry that this person made me spend my time skimming their email. I hit delete.
  2. They are not concise. If you want people to open an email and read something important, why bury it? Readers don't have time for an intro paragraph. They don't have time to click on that link that takes them to the tiny flash slideshow which, after text-dissolving slowly for three minutes, invites you to "click here!" for more information. Unless, of course, you've built up a solid reputation and you send an email blast with the heading, "THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE, GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD."
  3. They aren't special. I know, I know, we can't all possibly be special. So, be honest with yourself: are you special? Think you might be a little special? THEN WRITE LIKE YOU'RE F***ING SPECIAL. If you're irreverent, write irreverently. If you're funny, write funnily. If you're super smart and nerdy, write smartly and nerdy-ly. If you're boring, don't write or hire someone who has a voice/personality. People will appreciate an irreverent, funny, smart voice more than a calm, collected, "professional" one. I'm not saying you aren't special if you happen to be a calm, collected, professional person... just consider what voice you can authentically inhabit and understand that people have a sixth sense for superficialities. Choose authenticity--you are what makes you special.

Here's an email you can send to your email-blasting colleague-friend:

Dear [special professional person who I happen to appreciate],
I've noticed that you've begun sending informative email blasts to, what I assume, a long list of contacts you've accumulated. I was wondering: have you gotten a lot of response from them? I ask because I've been reading these emails and I have a feeling not many other people have been.... And I bet that when they click on that link "Access Your Information," people don't stick around very long.
As your friend, I want to let you know that you're possibly hurting your brand with these sorts of email blasts. For one, people who know you (and obviously like you) might open the first few emails, but when they find the info boring/dry (no offense) and lacking your personality, they will stop opening your emails. And what's worse than being consistent in your messaging is having your messaging associated with "unimportant" or "boring and dry" or, even worse, "annoying." Because then, when you have something really important or valuable to share, people won't pay attention.
So, if you're interested in keeping your brand shiny and potent, my suggestion is to write with a voice, present your info in a more interesting/entertaining way, and make it prettier (graphic design is actually an important consideration for email blasts, especially when you're contacting people who don't know you very well since you'll have to visually attract them to read your content). Or perhaps consider halting further email blasts before it's too late and you lose your audience. Once you lose your audience, it's really hard to win them back.

And so, my friends, think before you send.

Communicating Like a True Human: Practical & Entertaining Exercises

I love that lady in the back. She knows she shouldn't be wearing that.

I love that lady in the back. She knows she shouldn't be wearing that.

Last week I gave a presentation to twenty small business owners on the subject of creating contrast for business. I went over my Bad Rules and led the following exercises, which I recommend printing and trying out on your own. Enjoy!

Notes from Sinek


Here are some essential takeaways from Simon Sinek's Start With Why, a book on business marketing and strategy that has deeply influenced my practice and philosophy.

  • To influence people's behavior, you can either manipulate or inspire.
  • WHY = the cause represented by the company, brand, product, or person; it's what inspires loyalty and it's what you should use to guide your decisions. "It’s not a debate about better or worse anymore, it’s a discussion about different needs. And before the discussion can even happen, the WHYs for each must be established first." (p. 49)
  • Humans crave the feeling of belonging, a sharing of beliefs and values. "The reason gut decisions feel right is because the part of the brain that controls them also controls our feelings." (p. 57)
  • Start with and focus on the 2.5% of the population that believes what you believe.
  • Innovative companies give their people something to work toward, not on. "If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted. Without managed trust, people will show up to do their jobs and they will worry primarily about themselves." (p. 111)
  • Leader's job: ensure that team members believe what he/she believes and know how to build it. "Your role in the process is to be crystal clear about what purpose, cause, or belief you exist to champion, and to show how your products and services advance that cause." (p. 126)
  • Employees' job: clearly demonstrate the WHY to the world in what they say and do
  • The key to instilling trust and the perception of value in customers is to communicate WHY clearly through marketing, branding, products, and services
  • The hard part is to trust one's gut, stay true to one's purpose/cause/belief, and remain authentic/balanced, especially during periods of growth.

For more, I recommend watching Simon Sinek's TED talk on the subject.