The Art of Vernacular Voice

The Art of Vernacular Voice

Amy Clark writes beautifully about the power and pitfalls facing writers who try to capture authentic regional accents and cadences. Among her admonitions to writers tempted to take the easy route is this gem:

Finally, vernacular speech should never be used to suggest that one character is less intelligent than another, a myth about dialect and cognition that was debunked by linguists half a century ago and many times since. Nonstandard grammar patterns such as double negatives or the leveling of irregular verbs like blowed for blow tend to be the most stigmatized of dialect patterns, though their origins and usage are historical and cultural.

Good advice not only for writers but for all of us.


4 tactics for a better careers section

Tactics for a better careers section

Nearly every company says “people are our most important asset”. Why then do so few companies credibly tell this story to jobseekers on their corporate website?

In most cases, understaffed HR departments lack the bandwidth to do better. Here are some approaches that you can emulate from companies at the top of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For“. Best of all, most of these can be done with only a modest investment of time and money. Read the full post at eMedia Vitals.


Periodic table of SEO success factors

After all these years, SEO is still a black box for many people who ought to understand it. Many companies hire an SEO firm to create and manage their SEO strategy, but without an understanding of the basics, your chances of getting good results from an SEO vendor are low. So even if this stuff makes your eyes glaze over, it’s in your best interest to understand the basics yourself.

For you visual learners, the good people at SearchEngineLand have published an updated and clever poster of SEO success factors that make the learning process less painful. I am a sucker for a well-conceived infographic.

Periodic Table of SEO

Periodic Table of SEO

You can download a PDF version of this on the SearchEngineLand site. They also offer a good SEO tutorial that uses components of the table to explain SEO basics in more detail.

Nuance voice ads: the next bright shiny object?

Voice recognition software company Nuance is making a splash with its new Nuance Voice Ads product. The idea is that users will talk to an interactive display ad on their mobile devices, thus driving both engagement and recall. This could be huge, but only if it’s executed well. The demo from Nuance seems to miss the point of a rewarding interaction:

This looks like a cheesy magic 8-ball app with an ad tacked on to the end, not something that requires real voice recognition to generate a specific response. There is no connection between the technology and the brand we’re supposed to be “engaging” with. I’m sure there are amazing ways to leverage Voice Ads in ways that don’t suck, but they will require a lot of creative thought. If most voice ads are like this demo, they will be ignored at scale.

Platform vs. product: Teespring

It’s nice to have concrete examples of sometimes theoretical concepts. I recently read a post on Venturebeat about Teespring, a YCombinator startup that pulled in $750k in April selling t-shirts.

Teespring t-shirt

A Teespring user’s design

Well, actually they don’t sell t-shirts, they provide a risk-free platform for people to design, market and sell their own t-shirts using a Kickstarter-ish crowdfunding model. Make your material, design and quantity selections and the base cost changes accordingly. Set your selling price and see how much you’ll clear per shirt. Run a campaign for up to 21 days and when enough people have pre-ordered the shirt, Teespring prints and ships.

When the transactions clear, you get your money, and Teespring gets theirs. If your design didn’t attract the minimum number of pre-orders, Teespring lets everyone know, and nobody is out any money. No risk save for a bit of time.

Teespring has built a brilliant platform and focused their effort on making the use of that platform as frictionless and pleasant as possible. I’ve given my 13-year old a challenge of developing his own shirt and campaign, and told him he can keep all the proceeds. It’s a fun little economics lesson that lays out the relationships between COGS, price, demand and marketing in a stunningly clear fashion.

It’s a perfect example of the power of a platform vs. a product.

You can see the test campaign I put up at

Big data for humans

Nearly every company is getting more data about customers, sales and interactions than it can quickly put to good use.  One fascinating solution is the development of artificial intelligence platforms that can extract insight from large datasets and communicate those insights in narrative form.narrativescience

For several years I’ve been following Narrative Science, a company that has pioneered an algorithmic approach to turning datasets into clearly-written, useful content designed for humans to read and understand. While their early efforts focused on taking  high school sports scores from thousands of games and turning them into instant articles indistinguishable from a local reporter’s efforts, their new Quill product is focused on business intelligence.

So why does this matter?  Think about the parts of your business that generate data; web analytics, ad ops, ecommerce, sales or customer service for example. How many of these generate (either manually or automatically) regular spreadsheets or charts for senior management to review? How often do these reports result in deep thinking about opportunities hidden in the data? Almost never. Unless the person assembling the reports is very good, their “insights” are unlikely to be very penetrating, and are therefore routinely ignored.

We already know that software can analyze and find useful connections and outliers in data far faster than people can. When software can also communicate those insights in clearly-written, logically presented prose, big data becomes a lot more interesting to mere humans.

Think how valuable it would be to deliver concise, insightful campaign summaries and recommendations every week to each of your advertisers, without hiring more people. How about a data product that delivers far more than just…data? Financial services and marketing automation companies are beginning to use tools like this, but the potential for competitive advantage is there for a great many companies. Do you have data that could be turned into a business-transforming product?

Stop breaking promises to your audience

If you are going to send a 3rd-party blast to your list on behalf of a non-endemic advertiser, you’d better have some pretty good behavioral or demographic data to justify why that list is likely to welcome that email. Even strongly loyal subscribers are likely to re-think their email preferences if you spam them.

Case in point: I’ve subscribed to Hearst’s Car and Driver in print on and off for more than 20 years. I use their website, read most of their emails, follow them on Facebook, have participated as a member of their survey panels and have 2 of their IOS apps. In other words, they should know a hell of a lot about me by now. Certainly they should know enough about me to exclude me from any e-blast with a subject line that begins with the phrase “Update your spring look”. 50-year-old guys in the suburbs with a wife and 2 kids do not generally think in terms of their spring or even their fall looks. New Stihl chainsaw? I’m listening.

Update your spring look with AG Denim, Calvin Klein & Ted Baker at 50-75% off on HauteLook. Shop Now. - - Gmail

So why did I even click through? The “from” address was Car and Driver, a brand I trust and have a long relationship with. I love their products and eagerly consume just about any content they produce. The promise inherent in an email from this magazine is that it is going to be in some way related to their product. As soon as I open the email, the promise is broken, trust is damaged, and here I am calling them out. Is that really worth a $20,000 eblast order? And for you B2B publishers who do this sort of thing, is it really worth a $1,500 eblast order? The correct answer is an emphatic “no”.

In a world of readily available enterprise data management platforms that make it easy to segment on the fly, there is no excuse for this kind of “spray and pray” email marketing, especially from a publishing powerhouse like Hearst. It actively damages your relationship with both brand loyalists like me and casual users as well.

Catching the native advertising wave

Native advertising (aka content marketing) programs are getting a lot of attention. eMediaVitals’ Rob O’Regan wrote a great piece on the need for “brand editors” to ensure publishers rushing to embrace this new revenue source don’t end up driving away readers with spammy content.

Content quality is indeed the crucial issue. Let marketers pollute your brand with naked promotion and you’ll quickly train readers to ignore this content as instinctively as they ignore display ads. Back to square one.

Instead, approach this opportunity with a longer view, and don’t put your sales team in charge of it. I’d recommend thinking through these steps before diving in:

  1. Define a clear set of rules for any sponsored content to be sure advertisers understand what they can and can’t do, and why. These rules should also address how sponsored content is presented, by platform
  2. Run a pilot to confirm user acceptance, make adjustments, and gather data to illustrate your value story
  3. Hire a brand editor, separate from your editorial staff. Build this into your pricing, and as the business scales, hire more. Use a freelancer if investment dollars are scarce.

Need another reason to consider offering a native advertising program? Well-executed native advertising is an excellent approach to monetizing your mobile (especially smartphone) presence. It makes a whole lot more sense than display ads that get 40-50% clicks that are “fat-finger” mistakes.

Dan Greenberg has a good overview of the landscape on TechCrunch. I don’t know if he paid for the placement, but it’s also a great example of native advertising in service of his own video advertising ad network. The big obstacle he raises for marketers is scalability of content production; that’s precisely where publishers can add value for marketers.

Standing Desk Hack

I spend so much time at my desk that I thought I’d try standing. After looking everywhere for a box or a little table I could set on my desk to bring my laptop to the right height for typing, I decided to “build” my own. Materials: one 6’x12″ finished pine board and a bottle of Titebond wood glue from Home depot. Two 12″ cuts and a 30″ cut, with the remaining piece serving as a brace for the legs. It’s sturdy and works better than the stack of electronics boxes I’d been using. Need to raise the monitor up next.

standing desk

No, You Are NOT the Only Company Using Agile Processes

I’m going through a brutal RFP process right now, asking unreasonable things of a lot of smart companies. Happens all the time, right? The difference is in how the vendor responds in that situation. I’ve done them the courtesy of laying everything out on the table with my budget and timelines, and sent requirements docs that, while not a full set of user stories, are pretty good high level requirements with plenty of business context.

The vendors who are impressing me are the ones who ask for more details about the product, or show me that they’ve actually read what I sent them by giving me some insight into how they are thinking of tackling the challenge. The vendors who are wasting my time are the ones who respond by blathering on about their fabulous Agile processes while not actually making an effort to understand what I’m trying to accomplish.

Here’s an unsolicited tip: Your unique Agile process may be great for your internal workflow and efficiency, but I don’t care about them. Show me some smart thinking about the challenge I’m proposing to pay you to meet, including how you’ve met similar challenges for others. And please God, if you’ve promised me a proposal and come to the call without that proposal because you didn’t have your shit together, please do not waste even more of my time droning on about your unique processes, and then asking to connect on LinkedIn.


The Cult of Done

I came across the Done Manifesto today, and found it quite compelling. The work of Makerbot founder Bre Pettis and collaborator Kio Stark, this 13-point manifesto is the ultimate speed-to-market approach in fast-moving tech spaces. Here’s a cool poster of the manifesto:

Done Manifesto

Poster by Joshua Rothaas

This is a very startup-centric view of things, and it won’t fly in most big companies. However, if you work in a big company and still want to innovate quickly, I think you should seriously consider how to sneak this inside the enterprise. If I’d followed these precepts over the past few years, things might have turned out differently for me. I’m going to give them a try now; they feel right to me.

Content marketing: Embrace the chaos

John Bethune recently interviewed Paul Conley for his B2B Memes blog, in which Conley laments the way in which content marketing has devolved into self-serving marcomm crap from brands, and much the same from publishers.

This mess is to be expected, because there are a lot of people who have devoted their professional lives to the ideas of traditional advertising and marcomm. Content marketing proceeds from the assumption that useful, engaging content will fill your sales pipeline more reliably than ads, and generate far more repeat sales in the bargain.

So while CMOs may want to do more content marketing, the marcomm folks tasked with execution are simply not equipped for the job. They then hire out of work journalists or a marketing services agency to create authentic content, but can’t resist the marcomm urge to control the message. Yes, copy and journalism can both generate business, but they are not the same thing.

Here are 3 possible paths to success for marketers who are serious about leveraging content marketing: (more…)

New e-commerce findings surprise nobody but e-commerce retailers

I’ve done time in the e-commerce trenches, and it amazes me that the fundamentals are still being neglected by so many retailers. Apparently, Jakob Nielsen is amazed as well. Nielsen recently conducted an in-depth e-commerce usability study, the first one he’s done in 11 years. Here’s the summary:

“Today, poor content is the main cause of user failure.”

We’ve been beating this dead horse for over a decade, and e-tailers (hate that term) still aren’t getting it? C’mon people.

What are the primary points of failure?

  • Big clear images of the product. If you provide a zoom view (of course you do), make it BIG. And high resolution. If you can’t be bothered, then why bother even selling the product?
  • Detailed product information, well-written. Hire a copywriter. Provide a lot of detail. This is not rocket science, but some retailers think copywriting is a frill they can avoid.
There are literally thousands of things you can do to improve the conversion effectiveness of your e-commerce pages, but please make sure you’ve nailed these two basics first.

Gatekeepers: Your days are numbered

Amazon, for all that it seems to be riddled with inefficiencies and discontented employees from the inside, is turning industries upside down. Book publishers are terrified of the online retailer, and with good reason. Amazon already makes it easy for authors to self-publish Kindle editions of their books and sell them through Amazon, while earning a bigger share of any revenue generated. Now Amazon is acting like a traditional publisher, giving advances and handling editing, production and marketing for authors. (more…)

Don’t build 50 products, build one platform

Xcommerce platform

eBay's Xcommerce platform

If you haven’t read Steve Yegge’s eye-opening rant about the power of platforms vs. products, you should. He rambles and gets a bit technical (he is a Google engineer after all) but he brilliantly explains the value of building platforms that can be extended by others vs. building stand-alone products. This matters to much smaller companies as well, even publishers. Taking a platform approach to infrastructure you already need (like a customized web CMS) will at minimum save money, and could turn into a business in its own right for you. (more…)

Amazon’s brilliant power play: Kindle Fire

The new Kindle Fire, with the Silk browser.

Jeff Bezos, quoted in the NY Times, said about Amazon’s new tablet “Part of the Kindle Fire is of course the hardware, but really, it’s the software, the content, it’s the seamless integration of those things.”

Well, actually, it’s about Amazon’s new lightweight Silk browser, which is about to give them amazingly complete, detailed information about users. Privacy concerns? You betcha. Actionable consumer insights? Billions of dollars worth if this takes off the way other Kindle products have. (more…)

The ultimate data product: Awards programs

Awards programs are a great money-maker that can drive significant revenues for trade shows or trade magazines. In B2B, awards for large scale projects have the potential to pull in revenue from both the designer/architect/builder/engineer and the companies they bought components from.

So why aren’t more of these awards programs investing in the next logical step of turning award entries into a data product? It’s a supplier catalog with drama. It’s a look book with pathos. It’s a way to get people to allocate a lot more of their marketing budget to you than they are now. It’s a great path to monetizing a segment of your audience.

Awards programs minus the data product are already pretty compelling. For the 5, 10 or 20 winners and runners-up, there is a great deal of marketing benefit. For the segment of prospects looking to purchase the products or services being recognized, there are useful benchmarks and new ideas. For the awards program organizers, there are entry fees, award ceremony fees, a bump in advertising from some of the winners, and a jump in attendee/reader interest. (more…)

Innovation starts with people, not tools

Many businesses struggling with how to grow digital revenue decide “we need (insert CapEx investment here)”.  Sometimes they are right. I consulted with a B2B publisher who wanted a new CMS, because their existing CMS was an unmitigated disaster, and actively impeded their ability to grow revenue or traffic.

In their minds, the new CMS would deliver workflow efficiencies and SEO benefits (and it did) and increased revenues would follow, as if by magic (they did not). The new CMS certainly made it possible for them to innovate faster and more cheaply, but it didn’t actually supply them with the market-specific product innovation they needed. (more…)