What makes a “strong writer?” The answer has big implications for your communications strategy

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In the marketing and communications field, we’re always on the lookout for talent. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked if someone is a “strong writer.”

It’s a simple question, but what does it really mean?

There are the clean writers – those who love grammar debates, can edit like rock stars and always produce clean copy, but who would never thrive as a copywriter at an ad shop or PR firm. Others lead with their creativity – they couldn’t care less about Oxford commas, but their stuff is original, compelling and interesting. There are also skilled technical writers, Web and SEO masters, and so on.

Communications writing suffers from a particular problem, and it is this: too often we assume that anyone who can string words together with any kind of proficiency is good to go. It's odd, because we go to such great lengths to pigeonhole other roles in the field – too much, in my opinion - based on whether they’ve done more consumer and business-to-business PR or crisis communications and social strategy.

Not applying this sort of critical analysis before handing someone a writing assignment can lead to bad fits. Sponsored content aimed at consumers written by a technician is more likely to be flat, while a sensitive internal memo from the CEO may not capture the right tone if written by someone who mostly produced content for an energy drink.

The problem for communicators is that, as earned opportunities continue to shrink, paid and owned channels are becoming more important than ever. And there are only so many videos we can make - or watch. Someone has to get busy writing, and the competition for eyeballs is unrelenting. It’s not enough to just get it done. It must be done correctly, and that starts at the source.

So, if any of your 2018 strategic plans include the word “content”, you need to look long and hard at your stable of writers, and ask yourself some important questions.

Do I want an industry expert, or do I want someone who can entice readers?

Most journalists who cover an industry have never worked in that industry, and never will. They get assigned to a beat and they do their homework to build up their knowledge. What’s important on day one is not that they can distinguish a mutual fund from an exchange-traded fund, but whether they can write about these things in a compelling, attention-grabbing ways. Same goes for corporate writing.

I’m not saying industry knowledge isn’t important, but when it comes to creating content, place the ability to write above the ability to speak and understand jargon. In fact, stomping out jargon, or the ability to distill complex and wordy explanations into simple concept can be the hallmark of a great writer. Keep this in mind when building or reviewing your writing team.

The person who knows your organization and industry inside and out is not automatically the best candidate for the content role in your department.

Is my current writer excited by their role, or are they simply writing because no one else wants to?

Especially in smaller organizations, the task of most blog and web writing falls to the person in the room who either doesn’t hate the thought of it, happens to be the best speller or who is too junior to say “no.” Once this person is identified, it’s very tempting to consider the problem solved and move on.

Don’t do it. If the person tasked with developing the voice and tone of your organization is doing it as nothing more than part of their to-do list, the result will speak for itself. Find someone with passion and chops.

Do I want a capable writer or a skilled storyteller?

The blogs you read regularly, the novels you download and the magazine articles you share on Facebook are written by people who can do more than just write with good grammar and correct spelling – they have a way with words that leave an impression. In other words, they’re storytellers. It looks easy, but it’s not, hence the old joke about people meaning to write a book after they retire but never getting beyond the first page.

If your strategic plan involves reaching a large group of consumers who have no shortage of distractions, then you absolutely need someone who can break through to them – who knows the art of the story just as well as the rules of grammar. The bigger your audience, the more important that skill is.

Am I constantly struggling to provide my writer with feedback because it’s hard to put into words what’s wrong?

A piece of copy reads well, but it’s just not “right.” The tone is off, or it’s just not capturing the spirit of the purpose behind it, or the organization that supports it. If that’s happening more often than you’d like, then it’s quite possible you have a mismatch – a writer who can write, but isn’t right for the assignment, or perhaps even the role. If you’re finding yourself having to often rework because of this, or lack a comfort level with your writer that’s not related to their technical ability, it’s time to reassess.

The bottom line:

When it comes to content, settling for good-enough writing is a dangerous proposition. Anything you post under cover of your brand must be more than adequate. It must strive for excellence. That takes writers who really know their stuff. Whether in-house or from an outside agency, make sure you have at least one that you can count on.


 

Here is the only New Year’s resolution that PR and comms pros have to make in 2018

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You’re back from the holiday break, you’re refreshed and recharged, and ready to tackle the plan for 2018.

This year will be different: you’ve made resolutions to use new channels, and to experiment to find new and more effective ways of telling your story. You’re going to measure everything, you promise yourself, and you’ll be bolder than ever before. Sounds amazing!

Trying new things and always striving to get even better are wonderful resolutions – but they’re also fairly self-centered. If you’re in communications or PR, you work in a very audience- and client-focused field. With that in mind, there’s really only one New Year’s resolution you absolutely have to make to be successful in 2018:

“I will respect and value the time and attentioN I get from my audiences.”

This one sentence is the very definition of customer-centric thinking when it comes to PR and corporate communications. If you resolve to let it serve as your North Star, you will accomplish your goals, blow away your clients’ expectations and set yourself and your team up for long-term success.

Here are practical principles by which you live this mantra. There’s nothing vague or high-minded here – just a relentless focus on the end users of whatever it is that you produce. I’ve broken it down by internal and external communications, as well as the agency world.

Internal communications

I will listen before I speak. (This one applies to all groups!)

I will invest time and effort to understand the strategy and priorities of the business/leader I support.

I will share information (and never hoard it) with my colleagues on other teams.

I will focus on simplicity… and then I will take what I create, and make it even simpler.

I will seek a seat at the table before plans and strategies are fully baked. Recognizing that this is a privilege and not a right, I will work to earn it.

I support a business/leader, but I work for the employees. If a proposed communications approach doesn’t resonate with them, I will have the courage to stand up and change it.

I will never insult our employees’ intelligence with glib messaging which skirts around the real issue. Employees are people first and foremost, and deserve to be treated with respect. That means honesty and transparency, wherever possible.

External communications

My job is not to put out press releases whenever the company decides I should. My job is to protect and enhance the company’s reputation through effective storytelling to media and other external audiences.

When we make worthless announcements, we hurt our brand with journalists and, ultimately, with the public at large. I will work hard this year to ensure that our organization understands this fact.

I will push to achieve something I know is valuable for my organization, but is outside its comfort zone. Wins like this are what people will remember most and where true value lays.

I will spend significantly more time this year with journalists. Building these relationships pays long-term dividends.

I will lead in a crisis. My role is strategic and vitally important, and I will ensure I’m the calmest person in the room as I navigate any challenge faced by our organization. If I’m not confident, I will train. I will also refresh our crisis plans, as soon as possible.

I will look inside our company, as much as out. My internal communications colleagues are often working on amazing campaigns that could have just as much impact externally as they do internally.

I will challenge my agency partners to deliver more. More creativity, more ideas, and more service.

I will also ask myself if I’m using my agency the right away, or being realistic in my asks of them – If my goal is not attainable, I will adjust accordingly.

Agencies

I will deliver more. More creativity, more ideas and more service. It’s what my clients deserve.

I will be honest. That means I will push back on bad or unrealistic client ideas, even if it means putting a working relationship at risk. Clients pay for honesty, not for an automatic “yes.”

I will be always-on for my clients. That means if I come across a great idea on the weekend, my clients will have an email waiting for them by Monday morning.

I will do more to understand my clients’ business and priorities, so that I can spot trends and storylines before they emerge.

I will work to understand the priorities of journalists even better. I will be helpful, pitch only stories in which they’re interested, and be pithy, brief and compelling whenever I have something to share.

I will bring external insights and best practices to my clients, without them having to ask. I will become an indispensable expert in my field, a font of knowledge for my clients to tap into whenever they have a question.

Integrated communications are going to be the theme this year. Budgets are shrinking and expectations are growing. That means whatever we produce for clients will have to be relevant internally and externally, both with traditional and social media.

I will actively seek out, listen to and act upon feedback from clients. (This one applies to all groups too!)

I will focus on what my team does best, and if client needs fall outside that, I will bring in a partner. Half-way solutions mean half-way results.

I will never leave a client wondering when or if I will respond. Even if I don’t have an immediate answer, clients need to know immediately that they’re being heard.

Bringing it all together

It’s important to note none of these principles get in the way of you experimenting with the latest technologies, channels and approaches, or interfere with your desire to be bolder and strive for more.

Instead, they empower and guide you, and will completely change how you’re perceived by your clients in terms, and how much value you deliver.

If that’s not a great goal for 2018, I don’t know what is!

How to get great PR results even when it feels like your whole company is against you

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You just landed a job running the communications shop of an organization, and you can't wait to dive in. You start to build the necessary relationships, draw up strategic plans and get people excited with your big picture thinking.

And then… nothing. Your new plans stall, initiatives don’t go anywhere, and you start to question how much appetite there is to try new things.

That’s when it dawns on you that the biggest challenge you face isn’t budget, resources or inherent desire – it’s the culture in which you operate.

In my experience, even the most talented communications leaders can find it difficult to overcome the “we’ve always done it this way” thinking in an organization. That’s because, as powerful as it may be, it’s also nebulous. It’s never written down or enforced by any one person. It’s simply the air everyone has chosen to breathe, and they aren’t inclined to question it.

While not an easy task, there are ways to break through the cultural malaise standing in the way of positive change. It all starts by recognizing the kind of cultural trap you face, and how to deal with it.

The Overthinkers

These leadership teams value consensus building above all else, often as a way to avoid making tough decisions. For communications professionals, that means that everyone is a stakeholder. Sure, the marketing team may be comfortable with your plan, but has this been run by HR? Or the sales lead who sits multiple time zones away who is impossible to reach, and doesn’t know the first thing about good versus bad communications? Meanwhile, the meetings to discuss the feedback and find alignment get pushed and eventually lost amid the daily bustle.

The best way to tackle this is to fall back on the old adage about saying sorry versus asking for permission. See an opportunity to get a result that, in theory, requires a group’s sign off? Go for it – without permission, if necessary. Get the win, and then market it back. Overthinking cultures aren’t necessarily interested in avoiding action, they’re afraid of risk.

Remember, wins will always find supporters, and make it more likely that plans will get green-lit in the future. Or at least, you’ll know how much runway you have to act in the future.

The Hiders

One of the weirdest mindsets I come across when working with clients is the one that views silence as a virtue. These are the organizations that speak to media or post content only when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they don’t like to talk or make noise. Why? There’s no real explanation, that’s just how they are. They’re happy to let competitors hog the spotlight and tell their stories. In my experience, this kind of thinking usually stems from a bad experience buried in the past that led the organization to cocoon itself, or the influence of a nervous, gun-shy senior leader.

For PR people, this usually means constantly trying to get someone to do something, and watching in frustration as golden opportunities to drive brand awareness come and go. The best approach here is to enlist allies. Find a customer or partner who is open to doing a case study. It’s harder to say no to someone tied to revenue than it is to a communications director. Or, try getting senior leaders on the event/speaking circuit and drive coverage and content that way, as it comes at no extra effort to them. Finally, try to use your competitors to your advantage. Set up a steady stream of emails of coverage and blog posts showing them winning in the industry and keep at it. It’s hard to deny what’s in front of you.

The Chaotic

Then there are the organizations that take their entire cue from the whims of very talented but very erratic leaders. The only priorities that matter are the ones on their mind that day. Important work is often stalled as other executives deal with side projects these leaders like to dream up and implement, only to just as quickly abandon them. And just one stumbled-upon article or random comment made at an event can lead to major (and unplanned) course corrections.

For communications professionals, this kind of culture can be a blessing and a curse. These leaders often love the spotlight and can’t get enough of it, making results much easier to achieve. The downside is they love to talk and write about whatever they feel like in a given moment. The result is a job that feels more like damage control than communication strategy.

I recently had coffee with an old colleague who encountered this. Their solution? Create vanity projects – essentially, fill up the leader’s calendar and keep them busy with speaking events, approving pre-drafted bylines, or challenging them to write a certain number of blog posts on key topics. Stroke their ego and channel their energy for good, but leave them with little spare time to come up with their own solutions.

Some cultures can’t be fixed. But for PR professionals who like a challenge or truly believe in the organizations they serve, taking time to address culture head on can pay big dividends down the road.

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A no-BS job posting for an amazing role

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If you follow us on our blog or on LinkedIn, you know we’ve been looking to expand our team. But as anyone in this market also knows, finding great talent isn’t easy - especially if you're a young company like ours.

When we first posted a few months back that we were hiring, we saw some good candidates, but not “the one.” So, we posted again, this time with more detail, and we found a stellar candidate who, choosing between us and a tech startup, opted for the technology route (we wish them all the best!).

We were so, so close!

They say third time’s a charm, right? So we've decided to share even more detail, and to talk about the role in a way that's actually relevant to the job seeker. Here goes!

The Basics:

  • Title: If you’re an agency type, you’re an AD or a newish VP. If you’re internal, you might have any number of titles, but you get the idea.
  • Role: All the stuff you love - you will get to bring your experience to bear on everything from communications strategy to creating content and PR. Pitching. Writing. Planning. Impressing clients and prospects with kick-ass service. Working with a wide range of companies, from multinational to startup
     
  • Salary: No denying it, not as much as the big agencies. But that's just for now, and it's still more than you might think!
     
  • Perks: See Role, above, and Location, below
     
  • Location: Wherever you want, mostly. We have a shared workspace in downtown Toronto when you need it. Can you attend meetings in and around the city when needed? Then we’re good.

The Rest:

  • We’re two people. You’ll make us three – which means you’re shaping a culture, not joining one.
     
  • You’ll never hear the words “utilization” or “time entry”. Ever.
     
  • You follow current events and business news not because you have to, but because you want to. You're curious, creative and driven - a dangerous combination.
     
  • You think long-term, just like us. You can see what we’ve done in just over a year, and know that it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Everyone has big plans, but we're proud to say that our plans are already coming to life. Join us and help us continue to build. Email wojtek@providentcomms.com if you want to talk.

 

 

How to set your CEO up for success on social media

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A terse email from your CEO arrives in your inbox: “Have you seen this?”

It’s a forward of a LinkedIn post from a competitor’s CEO, featuring a massive amount of likes and shares.

“We need to get me on social.”

This very email exchange is occurring – and will continue to occur – at companies of all sizes. More than half of Fortune 500 CEOs still don’t have a social media presence on any platform at all. However, one of the most powerful drivers of behavior change is seeing someone else’s successful results, so my money is on this tide shifting profoundly in the coming years.

But while “being on social” sounds great on the surface, many CEO efforts – even the successful ones – can flounder and fail. It boils down to a lack of strategy, commitment and misaligned expectations.

At Provident, we’ve launched numerous CEOs on a variety of social media platforms, helping them grow their thought leadership brands and enhance the reputations of the companies they lead. Here’s how you can ensure your CEO's foray into social media is a success.

Strategy

When you set out to determine your approach, lumping all of LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube under the label of “social” is a surefire recipe for failure. The rules of engagement, cadence of posts and indeed the very purpose of each of these networks is vastly different. Yet too often CEOs’ default stance is to be active on all or most of them. Resist!

The goals you’re trying to accomplish, the audience you’re trying to reach and the medium in which your leader is the most comfortable and engaging should determine the platforms on which he or she is present. Trying to engage employees and connect with potential new talent? Head to LinkedIn. Do you run a major consumer brand and want to engage in conversation with your customers directly? Twitter and Facebook are excellent.

Commitment

Success in business takes time. Leaders understand that. Yet when it comes to social media, so many expect overnight success. The reality is that unless you have an audience hungry to hear from you because you run a big company, or you have or a decent-sized budget to promote your content, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll hit a home run right out of the gate. Some of today’s household names on social took months and years to establish themselves. Be sure your CEO understands that, and that his or her expectations are set accordingly.

To scale your audience, your CEO will need to produce great content that entertains or gives away value, is easily findable and shareable, and which helps readers or viewers navigate their lives more easily. And developing that sort of content will take some time, testing, failure and optimization.

Authenticity

Too often, that “we need to get me on social” email implies that someone else is going to do it. The PR, social media or marketing teams, for example, are often given this task. The reality is that if your CEO is unable or unwilling to spend a bit of time to at least provide the nuggets of insight or content for a written piece, or if all you’re going to do in terms of video is capturing your leader speaking at conferences, you’ll find limited success. That’s because authenticity is the currency of every social media platform.

When you’re creating social media content, you’re asking for your audience’s most precious resource: their time. In return, they expect to get what they came to see: authentic content directly from the leader. So, when you’re posting on LinkedIn on your CEO’s behalf, ensure they’ve reviewed and put their stamp on the content. If you’re shooting video, the authentic, two-minute selfie shot on a phone will trump a slick, overproduced piece of corporate video content any day.

Above all else, deciding to launch on social should feel more like a strategic conversation rather than an edict delivered from your CEO. By weighing the relevant considerations, understanding the platform dynamics and commitment required, you’ll be able to show your CEO that you’ve got expertise to share as you frame out the next steps – and that’s exactly the position you want to be in to create value for your leader and your organization.

How to turn “no news” to your advantage

Source: Thomas Schmidt, NetAction

Source: Thomas Schmidt, NetAction

“How do we get coverage if we don’t have any news?”

I bet almost everyone reading this has asked themselves – or been asked – this question at some point in their career.

Some would even say the true test of a PR professional lies in these moments. Agencies are constantly challenged to demonstrate how they will get results during the quiet times.  And why shouldn’t they be? After all, it’s their job, right?  

For a long time, I believed that too.

That kind of thinking has led to the usual parade of expensive tactics designed to create news. The customized (but risky) surveys. The flashy (and riskier) stunts. And so on.

It’s a lot of work. It’s also a deeply flawed process. 

The drive for coverage at all costs comes from a reasonable place. Organizations have stories or milestones they want their audience to know about in order to build and maintain their brands and reputations. And there is a time and place for that. The mistake is assuming that a steady stream of media coverage is a) realistic, b) the only answer and c) not damaging the brand in the long run by exhausting what is an increasingly finite resource.  

So, here’s a better question to ask: “How do we stay connected to our audience if we have nothing to share that’s truly newsworthy?”

The answer: take a page from marketing and become your own newsroom. Where many companies have become quite adept at using content to drive prospects down the customer acquisition funnel, far fewer have harnessed power of true brand journalism to tell meatier, impactful stories to strengthen their brand and build goodwill. Stories you get to create, tell and control.

Here’s how to get started.

Take the “medicine vs. dessert” test

I once worked with a client to promote and feature student science and technology projects from around the world. I tried to get more information on the projects themselves, but was told they weren’t of interest. What was of interest, apparently, was the client representative who was going to MC the event and talk about the importance of innovation.

Not long after I arrived, I learned one of the projects featured a powerful insight related to treating people infected with HIV. By high school students, no less! Years later, I still remember that. And even though it was my job to know the client’s story, it’s long forgotten.

One of these stories – the “let’s tell them we’re innovative” approach, is medicine. It’s what you want to audience to know, so you force feed it to them. The other is dessert. It’s what your audience wants to hear. You show, rather than tell, and they consume it of their own free will.

Step back and look at what you’re doing on your website and social channels and ask yourself – would anyone outside the company walls ever read this stuff? If not, it’s time for an injection of dessert.

Become your own editor

Great stories can live anywhere. Commission a professional writer or partner who has an objective sensibility and nose for news and have them create the story you seek.

And by that, I mean much more than a well-written press release.

Brands increasingly recognize the value of content beyond Top 5 lists. Food maker Mondelez recently announced it was sponsoring a journalism residency at the New York Times. Recognizing how hard it is to break through the cybersecurity noise, HP produced its own documentary (a Cannes Bronze winner) featuring Canadian ex-hacker “Mafiaboy.”

This kind of content dives deeper into the brand and builds a greater connection to audiences than the best news article ever could. It was in their control, and it added real value.

Most organizations lack the resources to pull off what these companies did. The good news is there are no shortage of ex-journalists and professional writers who can bring your story to life in a compelling, relevant way.

Find a partner

Yes, custom content in partnership with established media outlets can be a highly self-serving affair featuring articles with “SPONSORED” plastered all over it.

Or, it can be what Allstate did in partnership with The Atlantic – a site filled with compelling stories about doing good in the world, including pieces on survivors of domestic violence and the U.S. child poverty rate.

Again, good content costs money. But a strong content partner can work with brands to identify the right outlet and ensure quality content that doesn’t read like an expensive brochure.

Invite guests, and be a guest

No one likes to hear themselves talk all the time. The same is true for your channels. Blogs or social channels that rely too heavily on stock images, calls to action and links can start to feel too sterile. So, mix it up – invite partners, customers and employees to add their voices.

By the same token, offer up your people to post in relevant industry blogs. Share your knowledge with others, and invite others to do the same for you. Not only will you add more value, you’ll create more interesting, compelling content.

Next time you enter a dry spell for news, don’t waste time trying to force something that isn’t there. Instead, use your time and resources to take control and create an arsenal of content that will pay dividends far beyond its posting date.

Why I Ignore Every PR "Prediction" Article - And Why You Should Too

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If you follow the PR industry closely, you've likely noticed that the flood of 2018 prediction articles has already begun.

If you read any of them, you’ll know that in 2018, one or all of Blockchain, AI, nefarious influencers, fake news lovers, paid media, machine learning and the lack of measurement are going to completely turn the PR world upside down.

I don’t deny our industry is in constant flux. I’d even argue that’s more true now than ever before. Still, I find these annual prediction articles to be so vague that it’s hard to put any stock in them. For example, will AI actually affect my life by this time next year? And if so, how? I’m calling it now– no, it will not. And not anytime soon.

While the benefit of flavour-of-the-moment predictions is questionable at best, I believe there are a few core things that will benefit PR professionals both today and well into the future.

I recently read an article about how just about everyone can see huge improvements in anything they do by continuing to focus on the basics, and how few of us really bother doing that. The author cites a performance coach who overhears a golfer talking about the cutting-edge clubs he just acquired in a bid to up his golf game. The coach walked over and told him bluntly that losing 20 pounds would have a far bigger bigger and immediate. 

His point: invest in the best clubs only after you’ve really taken care of the foundational building blocks.

The same is true in PR. Yes, we need to stay sharp and go outside our comfort zone, but the core skills – what anyone in PR truly needs to succeed – have barely changed since the day I started doing the job.

With that in mind, here are the trends I intend to focus on in 2018.

1. Industry Knowledge

Like you, I get busy. But I’m going to make a point to read even more over the next 12 months. And not just news – I’m going to seek out every industry blog, business article, marketing whitepaper, business book, you name it. If it looks like something I can learn from, I’m going to read it. If you’re not diving deep and staying current, it’s going to show in your work. You’ll create content that’s not plugged into the zeitgeist, and pitch things that don’t feel timely.

2. Meeting People

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I hate the term “networking.” It evokes images of awkward cocktail events, business cards and name tags with markers. But I love eating lunch and having coffee. So make it a point to avoid doing those things alone as much as possible. Lunches and coffees with people lead to discussions, which leads to ideas, and so on.

This is especially important when you’re a one-person comms operation. Get out there and create your own virtual agency of people with which to discuss ideas. Do you work in an agency? Go meet people who work in different roles within your client company. Or an old colleague. Connect with industry associations, related non-profits, vendors, students…. the list is endless.

3. Being Interesting

Take a serious look at what you or your company is putting out there. Is it on the mark, but boring? Well written, but fluffy? Just plain terrible? Then resolve to fix it. Our business has no shortage “content specialists” who know how to put a smile on the face of people inside a company’s walls – but few others.  Aim to be interesting, emotional, provocative, entertaining, and compelling – and go all-in on writing.

4. Cutting dead wood

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Let’s face it – we all have that one social channel that we only tell people about with the caveat that it’s badly out of date. The time for ambivalence is over. Lots of organizations maintain Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and a blog, and some even need and warrant it. Many don’t.

So, take a hard look at where you are, and decide to do it right. If you’re blogging, don’t make it the thing you do at the last minute so you can check the box. Write the best blog you can. Is your last YouTube video from 2014? Do something about it – or take the link off your homepage.

5. Taking Control

We’ve all heard the gripes. Marketing has all the budget. I can’t make that hire. I have plans no one will sign off on.

Here’s a tough truth: almost no one else in the organization outside your immediate colleagues really knows what you do. I bet many see you as the person who drafts press releases and deals with media, and plans events. You do way more than that. And if they’re not currently seeing you do it, they should.

You’re the only person tasked with stepping back and looking at your company’s reputation and impact of the brand across all audiences. Show it by being truly strategic.

So, by all means, keep AI on your radar. But if you any of the situations I described sound familiar, join me and make 2018 the year of nailing the basics.

Did I miss any skills? Agree, disagree? Share your thoughts.

 

 

 

How to create a world-class case study program

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“I wish more of our customers would agree to do case studies.”

I hear these words a lot. From PR pros like me looking for a great pitching angle. From marketers looking for another tool in one of the most credible toolbelts available to them. And from salespeople seeking success stories that can nudge prospects into clients.

No wonder, given that educational content can increase purchasing intent by an incredible 131 per cent.

I’ve managed case study programs for several large organizations, and helped generate my fair share of case studies for many others. What I’ve learned over the years is this: structure and a clear end goal that's shared by key stakeholders are crucial to success.

It all comes down to answering two key questions: first, how can my organization generate more case studies? And second, how can I make the most of a case study opportunity, once a customer agrees?

How to create more case studies

Let’s get a few things out of the way. Some companies will never agree to case studies, and will put that language in their contracts. Others, not wanting to be perceived as endorsing a product or sharing a perceived competitive advantage, will also decline. Nothing to be done there.

Instead, let’s focus on companies that have no inherent barriers. This doesn’t mean they will agree, only that’s an option that can be discussed. Let’s also assume that your agreements include language around participating in case studies (if they don’t, they should). Finally, you have a project or product that has been in place for an amount of time that allows for both parties to see measurable results and declare the effort a success – the bare minimum for any case study. You’re dying to share the story as loudly and widely as possible.

Now you’re ready to begin. Here's how to do it.

Don’t blow the ask

You don’t get jobs by telling employers what you want from them. You get jobs by telling people what you can do for them.

The default reaction from most customers will be somewhere between “I’m not sure” and “probably not.”

The same rule applies to case studies. I can tell you that the default reaction from most customers being asked to participate in a case study lies somewhere between “I'm not sure” and “probably not”. For them, it adds another to-do to an already long task list. It means setting aside time, corralling people and committing to shepherding copy around the organization. Who needs that headache? And where's their value in this?

So, don’t make it about you, make it about them. What are their marketing goals? What stories do they want to tell their clients?  Is there an executive looking to make a name for him/herself in the industry? Get that information, and make sure what you create tells those stories. Show them what you’ve generated for other customers using their case studies, and get their mouths watering at the opportunity.

Bottom line: It’s not about “we want a case study.” It’s about “you have a great story, let us tell it for you.”

Provide clarity and assurance

Spell out in detail what the customer is really signing up for. Show them your vision of the finished product and exactly what you want to do with it. That will avoid nasty surprises down the road.

Make clear to them that you’re committed to doing all the heavy lifting from writing to managing timelines, minimizing their investment and making it all a pain-free experience.

Get clear buy-in as well. The project lead may be into it, but that doesn't necessarily mean his colleagues are. Make sure he/she has at very least notified their marketing or PR teams. In fact, it’s best to make a separate outreach to them regardless to make sure they understand the ask and are truly on board. I’ve seen many case studies get derailed by people not following proper internal procedures.

Winging it = failure

I worked with a global company with operations in Canada that turned 10 or so case studies a year into nearly 100. They did it by putting a clear process in place around case studies. I could spend a whole post on this, but highlights include:

  • Identifying one point person tasked with quality and quantity of case studies
  • Keeping sales involved in the process, but never as the leads. Case studies help sales, but they’re first and foremost communications tools
  • Using a strong writing and editing team (more on that below)
  • Making sure marketing, communications and legal get to weigh in at the appropriate times
  • Leaving ample time for delivery, knowing customers usually miss deadlines and almost never share your urgency

How to make the most of your case studies

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Think big, even if the goal is small

So, you’ve got them hooked, but they’ve only agreed to the bare minimum. A few paragraphs, or a couple of quotes. That’s great, but whoever does the customer interview should approach the engagement like they’re preparing to write a white paper.

Dive deep and get all the data, proof points, anecdotes and achievements that you can. Sure, you may not be able to use them now, but they may come in handy later. Or, as I’ve seen, customers begin to get more open and willing to do more once they see the process isn’t what they feared. Use your and their time wisely, and with an eye to future possibilities.

Use an experienced (and preferably outside) writer

You have a new intern who is eager to try writing, and seems enthusiastic. Plus, she has time. Win-win, right? Wrong.

Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle a customer interview.

 

As I’ve mentioned, case studies are among the most valuable pieces of content you have. Make sure whoever writes it has experience and knows how to handle an interview. Just because a company is fine with a case study doesn’t mean the project lead on the other end of the phone is eager to talk. They may be reluctant, nervous, busy, or simply not a great conversationalist. You need someone who knows how to overcome that, and still walk away with a great story. And nothing kills enthusiasm faster than someone getting a draft to review that misses the mark.

And remember that even the best internal writers may be too immersed in your culture to be objective. Consider looking outside your walls for help.

Be open to options

Case studies come in many different forms. From videos to in-depth articles to something as simple as a standalone quote. Many companies I’ve worked with have a preferred format or template. Just don’t make it an either/or scenario. Anything a customer is willing to share on the record will prove valuable in some way. 

Remember to actually use what you create

Often, case studies get done and posted on a website and sent to salespeople. And that’s it.

That's weak. Instead, milk them for all they're worth. Check with your PR teams – can they use the story to generate media coverage? Can the story be shared on social channels and blogs and, if so, how? Should there be a mini-release strategy to maximize the story, and is the customer willing to come on board and amplify those efforts even further?

The bottom line is this: The need for case studies is one of the few certainties in a constantly evolving content marketing landscape. Creating or refining your process now will pay big dividends for years to come.


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Run your company’s blog? Here are five easy ways to do it better.

The job of professional communicator includes wearing many hats. One day, we’re creatives, brainstorming ways to bring a message to market in a unique way. Next, we’re firefighters, trying to contain an issue before it grows into something more. We also consult with top executives, maintain relationships with influencers, read everything that affects our industry, manage teams…. I can go on.

So, it’s understandable that when it comes time to write a blog post or any other piece of content, we want to just get it done.  It’s yet another item on our to-do list, and one that’s sometimes given a lower priority.

We constantly tell our executives to prep and practice when it comes to media interviews or speeches, to take the time and get it right. Perhaps it’s time to take our own advice. Content is one of the few direct lines to your audience. Treating it as an afterthought or always doing a rush job only adds to the low-quality content pollution we see everywhere today – endless articles that read like corporate-speak, interesting to few people outside the walls of the author’s office or organization.

So while your time probably isn’t going to get any less precious any time soon, here are a few things you can do today to develop better content:

Use Your News Addiction to Your Advantage

Rule number one of dating (aside from minty-fresh breath!): don’t drone on about yourself. Good content is no different. Not every post has to be about your product, your news, your community activity. Instead, turn the tables. As PR professionals, we often assume everyone else is as plugged into news and trends as we are. We forget that we *have* to, and that others simply don’t have the time.

Make a habit of saving everything interesting thing you read – news, industry blogs, articles from PR industry trades, anything. Then write up a reaction or assessment in a way that’s relevant to your organization, or do a round-up of interesting news. If citing other blogs, give them the heads up so they are more likely to share your piece when it goes live.

Mine Your Co-Workers

We all likely share big employee moments – the annual retreat or holiday party. But you spend so much time with your co-workers, so take advantage of that. Hobbies, sports, volunteer activity, travel, career stories – all those things can be mined to create short, personalized pieces of content that put a more human face on the company and shine a spotlight on culture. The best part is you can do this anytime. Get the information, and store it up for when news is slow.

Get an Outside Perspective

The fact that you’re writing content in the first place probably means you don’t have budget for outside resources. And that’s fine – but mixing in even the occasional post from a writer who doesn’t drink the Kool Aid every day can pay dividends. It doesn’t have to mean paying a content provider, either. Consider approaching people who are active in your industry to provide a guest blog.

We’re often too close to the products or services we talk about day in and day out, so briefing someone to handle a post tied to a product launch or upgrade will be worth the investment. Provided they are interesting, those sorts of posts tend to be promoted and read widely. That means you will also want to make sure your content tells a story in a way that works for the biggest possible audience.

Stop Watching, Start Participating

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients say, “that’s interesting, but we can’t talk about that.” Usually, we hear this comment regarding topics seen to have even the faintest whiff of controversy. Yes, there are things you definitely don’t want to talk about.  But an increasing number of brands are becoming unafraid to take a stance and engage. Blog posts that feel timely and plugged in to issues of the day are simply going to be more appealing. 

Look at ways of tying in what you do or what your brand stands for into current events, and craft content that speaks to that. Start with what’s natural to you as a company, and go from there. Your organization has smart people with insights to share – so share them!

Look to Your Greatest Hits

Remember those posts that were well-received? Great engagement and feedback, lots of shares? They’re not gone forever. If the posts have become stale, bring them back by doing an update or follow-up. Or, do a “part two,” taking a new perspective months or years after the original was first posted. Bottom line – take full advantage of your best material.

Any other tips? Things that work for you? Let us know.