Grassroots Copywriting

Sharp, modern copywriting for web and print. Based in Pembrokeshire, we craft quality content for clients across the UK.


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Giving credit to Dr. Suess, and his cat

At the Bank of England they understand numbers, but are, apparently, not so good with words. So it’s great to know that the Cat in the Hat is doing his bit to help all of us to understand what the bank is trying to tell us. It’s a response to the discovery that the bank’s inflation reports baffle four readers out of every five.

The bank’s guide towards plainer speaking has been thepaper money small cat’s creator, Dr Suess. The Suess way with simple words is now the bank’s ideal.

But I’d say short words and simple sentences are only part of it. No matter how long or short, some words work on our emotions, for better and for worse. I know my heart sinks when I hear, or read, particular words and phrases, and it doesn’t encourage understanding.

This isn’t the place to get into politics, but I’d say that both ‘strong’ and ‘stable’ have become heart-sink words for lots of people in the UK.

The problem is that people are often blissfully unaware of the fact that they have been taken prisoner by their industry or sector’s jargon. It’s so much part of their working day that they don’t know how their insider-speak makes everybody else feel.

Let’s use politics as an example again. Just about every politician now uses the phrase ‘going forward’ in every interview. ‘In the future’ is no longer good enough, it has be be ‘going forward’.

I can be listening to what’s being said nodding agreement, but that changes as soon as I hear that heart-sink phrase. From there on in, they’ve lost me.

First published at LinkedIn.


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Why you shouldn’t knock ‘herd mentality’

Why is it that ‘flock of cows’ is wrong? Or ‘herd of sheep’, for that matter?

Collective nouns puzzle me. Some, like a gaggle of geese, sound about right. But what’s the logic in ‘a murder of crows’, or ‘a deceit of lapwings’?

The collective is important. Despite the negative implication of the phrase ‘herd mentality’, our instinctive preference for social interaction is at the heart of many of our day-to-day decisions.herd of cows

We make our minds up based on what psychologists call ‘social proofing’, that is a desire to fall into line with people that we think are like us.

An understanding of this fundamental need can be used to influence others in all sorts of ways. If you’ve got five minutes head over to Robert Cialdini’s site and take its ‘influence master’ quiz – but wait until you get to the end of this post (it’s what the majority of really bright people do, you know).

The quiz will test your understanding of how marketers use social proofing. And it provides you with an idea of how sensitive you are to the tricks of the influencers’ trade.

For me, the most exciting thing about harnessing social proofing is the punch it can bring to environment-related messaging. The classic example is hotel towels.

When guests were told that re-using towels saved their hotel money it made little difference to behaviour. They were also largely unmoved when told about environmental impacts – the ‘save the planet’ argument.

What did work was adding in a reference to the herd, or whatever the collective noun for hotel guests might be (how about a weariness?) When told that most other guests who stayed in their room did re-use towels, a majority of people became re-users themselves.

UK politicians are now talking about levying deposits on plastic drink bottles to reduce litter. A deposit scheme is definitely worth a try, but it should be communicated with just a twist of social proofing.

A recent study in the Netherlands tested-out a number of messaging approaches in the hope of reducing bottled water consumption on a college campus. One of the approaches involved students being told about a (fictitious) survey that showed that 65 per cent of their peers were already cutting down on bottled water use.

Yes, that was the approach that worked best when it was linked to facts and figures about environmental impact. Powerful thing the herd, flock, school, shoal, charm, troop, or whatever.


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Guidelines: keeping your writing on track

‘A hotel’ or ‘an hotel’? And, what’s the plural of zero? Answers later. But first, do those questions matter?

If you’re one of those people who is happy to use ‘your’ when you mean ‘you’re’ then possibly not, but good spelling and grammar do mean a lot to plenty of people. Getting these things wrong can eat away at the reputation of your business or organisation.

Poor writing will also cost you search ranking. Being close to the top of Google’s page one will get you noticed, but that’s less likely to happen if your site’s pages are full of shoddy text. Google says that ‘reputable sites tend to spell better’ – and reputable ones rank above less reputable ones.

So, what can you do if grammar isn’t your strong point? You can catch lots of errors using the spellcheck function, or better still a writing app. I like Ginger.

But don’t put all your trust in tech. It’s still best to also ask someone else to scan through your work before hitting print or publish.

Ultimately though, I’d recommend that you put together your own set of brand guidelines for writing. If you’re running an SME I’d guess there’s a good chance that it’s something that you haven’t got around to. There is only so much you can do in a day, isn’t there?

It is worth getting around to, however. Putting some time into creating a set of common-sense rules for your marketing effort will make them feel more professional and can save you time in the long-term.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s easy to do for yourself. And, as you put your guidelines together, you will be creating a ‘brand book’, a body of information that everybody can turn to when they are creating marketing material for your organisation.

Start out with the basics – say how your logo should be used and which colours and fonts are OK. It’s also a good idea to have some guidance for how photos (and video) should be used; collecting some examples of what’s right (and what’s not) is often the easiest way to make the point.

Finally, give time to working out a set of rules for writers. Some of that will be about spelling, grammar and the way you use names and titles, but it should also cover tone of voice.

Make that voice consistent. The way you ‘talk’ to your target audience through your web copy and print materials should same similar to the content of emails and social media posts.

It’s easier to grasp how good brand guidelines work if you can get a look at a well-crafted brand book. Mostly, they’re guarded like state secrets, but one US health care provider, Cleveland Clinic, has taken the enlightened step of making its brand rules open-access.

If you have time, take a look at the way they do at Cleveland and use their book as a blueprint for yours. What works for a big, complicated organisation like Cleveland’s hospitals, will also work for you.

And those questions? Both are examples of the grey area between right and wrong, which is where the style guide comes in. News organisations have their own in-house rules that reporters and editors are expected to follow and they can be a good reference resource for copywriters and brand journalists.

Personally, I like The Guardian style guide, which can answer just about every question that might come to you when you’re writing. So Guardian wisdom says it’s ‘zeros’, but that ‘he, or she, zeroes in’ on something.

And Guardian editors say it should ‘a hotel’. Use ‘an’ before a silent H (like ‘the honest politician’) but ‘a’ before an aspirated H – a hero, a hotel, a hedgehog, or whatever.


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Brand journalism for beginners

Brand what? Good question because ‘brand journalism’ is a label that’s a lot newer than the idea that it’s pinned to, so it makes sense to start at the start.

In truth though, you know the answer because brand journalism’s ‘product’ is part of everyday life. For example, if you shop in a supermarket you’ve probably flicked through the store’s free magazine – a classic exercise in brand journalism.

It has actually been around since at least the 19th Century and is about building trust between a brand and its ‘audience’. It’s best to say audience rather than customer because just about every organisation now puts out marketing materials (print, video, online content) that are, essentially, brand journalism.kitten soft

It uses the traditional principles, techniques and tools of journalism to tell stories that relate to its brand. If it’s ‘sell’ at all, it’s at the kitten-soft end of soft sell (cue a gratuitous kitten pic).

Done well brand journalism creates interest and generates a conversation between a consumer and an organisation. It works as a B2C tool, and in a B2B context, too.  But best of all it is the beginning of the end for old-school push marketing.

If you want to know a lot more about brand journalism get your hands on a great book by Andy Bull. Or, perhaps, start at the shallow end with the book’s supporting website.


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3 reasons NOT to ignore local SEO

Local search is becoming more and more important. OK, think big. Reach for the stars. Go global, but don’t forget your own backyard.

You can become so focussed on SEO, and being at the top of the search, that you lose sight of what’s close to home. You can be missing out on real flesh and blood customers who are a stone’s throw away – and actively looking for products and services like yours.

Globally, the tipping came in 2015. That was when the US went from desktop search to mobile search. Here in the UK, the same thing is happening. The latest research shows that visits to retailers’ websites are now most likely to come via mobile devices.

It matters. Especially if you are running a business that does real-world things. For example, most of the SMEs here in my part of the world (the picture is Narberth in Pembrokeshire) want customers to actually step through the door; they’re shops, or restaurants, or they provide accommodation or activities to holidaymakers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A potential customer, guest, diner or whatever could be just around the corner. But they could walk on by if your website doesn’t perform well on their mobile. So, here’s three reasons why local search should be your priority right now:

1, It’s the future: As I’ve already said the search trend is a move from desktop to mobile. Your website has to perform perfectly on phones and tablets. That’s not just about the technical stuff – it also means that content should be short and sharp.

2, Local searches are ‘ready to act’ searches: Having lots of hits on your website is fine, but when people do a local search they’ve usually already decided to buy. Google calls mobile searches ‘I want-to-know, I want-to-go, I want-to-do, and I want-to-buy’ moments.

3, It’s getting more competitive: More businesses are waking up to the value of local search and are reacting accordingly. How a business ranks is often based on how many positive reviews it has, so late-comers will be at a disadvantage.

Think global, act local.

 


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How ghostwriting can build your brand

There are ghosts out there. They mostly go unnoticed, and are often misunderstood, but there are plenty of them – and they can be really useful.

Reputation is a key to success in whatever it is that you do, whether that’s running a business, a charity or a public sector organisation. And a ghostwriter can help you to get your message out there (as a blog post, opinion article or maybe a speech) in a way that establishes your expertise, without taking up too much of your valuable time.

You’d be surprised by how many ghosts there are doing business by helping people find ‘their’ voice. The best of them work with celebs and politicians, but ghostwriting is also one of the most useful content marketing tools.  ghost town

Here’s an example of how it can work.  This week I’ve been working with a long-term client, a UK-wide conservation charity, on its membership magazine. It is a classic exercise in brand journalism and the emphasis is on filling the pages with bright, readable stories that connect with current and future supporters.

Each edition includes an opinion column. In the early days, this 300-word article was the work of a guest writer, often one of the organisation’s senior executives or a celebrity patron.

They would get a brief, but being non-writers they would struggle to stick to it. Their draft would then cause a headache for the editor, who would (diplomatically) ask for a re-write. And sometimes, a second re-write.

To save time I now ghost the piece.

Here’s how it goes. First off, I have a chat with me interviewee to get to know them and their story. Then we go into a more structured interview, which I record.

The interviewee has to sign up to less than an hour of effort. The sound files can then be transcribed to produce raw text. There’s always much more material than the required 300 words, but the best bits can be cut out and worked into a flowing narrative. It’s rather like movie editing.

Last comes the nail-biting bit – copy approval. Which can go badly, but for the most part doesn’t. Most people are delighted and find it a little spooky (excuse the pun) to ‘hear’ themselves as text.This week’s ghosted column was emailed off to the interviewee a week ago, and then there was an uncomfortable silence.

This week’s ghosted column was emailed off to the interviewee 10 days ago, and then there was an uncomfortable silence. As time went on, we began to worry.No need. It turned out that my subject had been away on an off-grid camping trip and her reply email began: “Wow, what a brilliant piece – captured it all superbly.”

But it turned out that my subject had been away on an off-grid camping trip. When her reply email arrived it began: “Wow, what a brilliant piece – captured it all superbly.”


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Why it pays to pay a writer NOT to write

When you pay a writer to work with you what is your money buying? The obvious answer to that question is ‘words’, isn’t it?

And that’s right – up to a point. It’s the text that matters, but you’re actually buying more than words on a page. If words are a simple commodity, head for a content mill.

The value that you’re actually buying from a professional is creativity, and most of that what happens when your writer’s fingers aren’t hovering over a keyboard. Copywriting guru Tiffany Markman reckons that she spends less than half of the time she gives a client on writing; the lion’s share is given over to making sure she gets the writing bit right.ears rabbit

Possibly the most important non-writing activity is listening. Clients often don’t know what they want, or can’t articulate it. Many are too close to their business, product or project to see it as clearly as they should do.

They are also busy, which means a writer’s brief is often much too brief (‘you know, just do what you usually do… I haven’t had a moment to think about it…’) That’s why it’s the writer’s job to ask questions. And to be all ears.