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Formal or informal language? What toilet signs can tell us about writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.

“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.

By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.

Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.

So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.

By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…

If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.

If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.


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Isn’t writing for the web just like any other writing?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesWell yes and no. Yes because the web provides writers with just another medium for their words. No because web users read in a different way to readers of text in other media such as newspapers, books and magazines. They read in a much less linear fashion flitting across the screen like a butterfly looking for something to settle on. And when they do settle they tend not to hang around for long if there’s nothing of interest – not least because just a few clicks away there’s the whole of the World Wide Web to distract them. So as a web writer first you’ve got to grab your readers’ attention, then you’ve got to hold them long enough for your words to work their magic. And if that wasn’t hard enough you’ve got very little space to do it – especially if your words are displayed on a tablet or smartphone.

If I viewed the preceding paragraph on my iPhone in landscape mode, in a font large enough to read without straining my eyes (Calibri 11 if you’re a real anorak and want to check for yourself) I ’d get halfway through the seventh line before having to…

 

 

 

 

…scroll down. As a rule of thumb – an ancient expression that seems oddly modern in an age of handheld devices – you can squeeze 120 words on a Smartphone. Tablets, laptops and desktops can, of course, accommodate progressively more in one “screenful”. Read this on your iPad in landscape mode and you’d get about as far as the word anorak in the second paragraph – a word count of about 200. Turn the screen through 90 degrees and you can squeeze in an extra hundred or so words – 330 in total. A figure not to be scoffed at in a world where Twitter limits you to 280 characters but still relatively few compared to the olde worlde of paper and ink.

Take the book that’s been gathering dust under my bed for so long it’s now more dust than book. It’s called The Isles – A History by Norman Davies. It contains approximately 450 words per page – twice that between page turns given that you get to see two pages at a time. How do I know this? Because I am that anorak! What’s more I’ve just counted 2,750 words on a double page spread in the best-selling tabloid newspaper and 3,056 words on a similar two pager in a leading broadsheet.

I’m not saying people won’t scroll down. I’m just saying that these differences between screen and page demand much of us as writers. Certainly we shouldn’t be putting really important stuff so deep into a webpage that people have to scroll down to find it because they simply may not bother. To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff “above the fold” where, on a news stand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Authors have long been aware of the need to keep readers reading over the potentially awkward chapter breaks. That’s why they often set up some kind of conflict towards the end of one chapter but keep the resolution from us until the beginning of the next. Done well the book becomes unputdownable. The challenge then is to make our websites unclickawayfromable!


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Could this be a sign?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesI’m easily annoyed. Perhaps it’s just my age. Or maybe there’s a lot to be annoyed about in the world right now. And I’m not just sweating the big stuff (Trump, war, Brexit…). Little things bug me too. Like signwriting on vans and lorries. I’ve written about it before but I feel compelled to write about it again after an angsty journey from my home in Shropshire to the Home Counties. Barely five miles into the trip I’m following this monstrosity.

I’m assuming the company has gone to the trouble and expense of having the vehicle signwritten as a mobile billboard. But adverts generally only tempt potential customers if those customers know what the bloody hell they’re being sold. It’s not clear at all from this mumbo jumbo what the van driver does for a living so I’m unlikely to stop him and buy one. Whatever one is.

It’s a classic case of trying to impress the reader with clever words and having exactly the opposite effect.

But as these two examples demonstrate is is possible to use the limited space and time available on the side of a moving vehicle to advertise one’s wares effectively.

The lesson? Decide what you want your words to achieve before you start writing and use language that is clear and concise to the reader.

Creating value, building trust and delivering results are bullshit bingoey kinds of words or phrases that should, like cliches, be avoided like the plague.

It’s all about the reader. If it doesn’t work for them it can’t work for you.

PS R Breeders Ltd, it turns out, sell bull semen.

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Striking the right tone – why conversational is best when writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 4 minutesThe social web is supposed to be just that – social. So be sociable. Which, tonally, means writing in a conversational style. The best web copy is, in most circumstances, both chatty and purposeful.

In the old days when the majority of our social interactions were face-to-face our impression of an individual (or an organisation for that matter) was built up from these literal meetings. Rightly or wrongly we judged people from how they spoke, the words they used, the way they dressed. We even judged people instinctively. As I write this I can almost hear my granny saying “ooh don’t trust him his eyes are too close together.”

Well nowadays many transactions are happening online solely in a virtual sense and as a consequence our impression of the individuals and organisations we’re transacting with are derived to a significant extent (in some cases almost entirely) from the impression created by the website where those transactions are taking place.

So the big question is this: are your words creating the right impression?

Here’s a fun way of checking whether your website is creating the right impression. Look at the tone of your website from a user perspective and try to build up a mental picture of the person or people who’ve written the words. Now if you bumped into your organisation in the street what would he/ she be wearing? Suited and booted? Smart but casual? Or scruffy as hell? And how old would they be? Young or old?

We have a lot of delegates from local authorities attending our writing for the web workshops and after doing this exercise they realise that their tone is far too starchy and may well be putting off the very people they’re trying to help. “Male, middle-aged and wearing a grey suit,” they say. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that especially as I score two out of three on that count…

Work out the tone that you need to project to achieve your aims and objectives and then make sure the words on your website help do just that.

Of course it’s about a whole lot more than just words – things like the graphics and for those organisations with actual contact with their clients (whether by phone or face-to-face) how those interactions are handled. But all that’s for another day and another workshop. For example, our popular dealing with difficult people workshop.

Here are some examples of overly formal, downright pompous or simply stupid writing from the on and offline worlds.

“This item of gym equipment is currently out of service. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to our customers for any inconvenience this might cause.”

We can see it’s broken. It’s covered with more hazard tape than a crime scene. Words that tell us what is plain to see are superfluous. Tell us something we don’t know. And I bet if we asked you face-to-face what was going on you wouldn’t speak in such a formal way: “I would like to take this opportunity…”

So make sure your words are chatty in tone, add value and get to the point quickly.

“We’ve called the engineer. Sorry!”

But shorter isn’t always better. Take the rather stark warning: “Do not litter!”

So commonplace a sign that we eventually become so used to seeing it that, in effect, we don’t see it at all. And, in any case, even if it adds “£50 penalty for offenders” we know the chances of getting caught are remote. So if the stick is ineffective enter the carrot…

“It costs you money to pick up litter.”

Or the softer version appealing to the heart instead of the head…

“Our workers risk their lives picking up your litter.”

Ask yourself what combination of words and tone is most likely to achieve your purpose. And make sure your words convey meaning clearly and concisely.

Here’s an exercise you can play when you’re stuck in a traffic jam or driving along a motorway…

Look at the signwriting on the sides of commercial vehicles, lorries and vans. During a recent trip to London down the M40 I saw “Sam’s Fried Chicken” and “Interior Contracting Solutions” within the space of a mile. I knew instantly what business Sam is in. He does exactly what it says on the van. But I’m still not sure what the other business is advertising. Both signs are three words long. One is clear. The other obtuse. Is your website a Sam or do you need the services of Website Clarification Solutions?

We’re all guilty of showing off in our use of language. Or at least I am. Trying to appear ever so erudite when it’d be a whole lot clearer if I used the word clever instead. Accidentally obfuscating – sorry I mean clouding/blurring/muddying/complicating/fogging – the issue when I’d be better off using one of the many more widely understood and/or shorter alternatives.

The beauty of English is that it has two roots – one Germanic the other Latin – and, therefore, an extraordinary lexicon/vocabulary to choose/select from. But it’s also a beast in that, confronted with a dazzling array of words (more than a million according to some studies) we can, if we’re not careful, end up choosing the wrong word and look silly instead of smart. I’m sure I’ve done exactly that somewhere in this article and that you’re just itching to tell me. I’ll make it easy for you just click here to send a fulminatory email.


This is an extract from Richard’s book Writing for the Web – why reading differently means writing differently. It’s available as a pdf, an e-reader and, coming soon, as a paperback. To order your sample copy please fill in and submit the form below.

Continue reading Striking the right tone – why conversational is best when writing for the web

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Hook ’em with a question

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

“Online it’s all about the narrative. We’re suckers for a good story so try to convey your research as such. Make it engaging for your target audience. Aim for a conversational tone. And remember to ask lots of questions. Think of it this way: a question mark is like an upside down hook so to hook people into your research ask them questions. As a researcher you’ll be amazed at the value of their responses. It could even be the answer you’re looking for!

I penned these few words of advice for researchers looking to build an audience for their work online. It was in response to a request from Hywel Curtis at http://www.growresa.com – a new website to help academics with blogging.

The quote took me a long time* – certainly longer than the few minutes I’d expected. But it’s amazing how blogging can help clarify the thought process. And that, in itself, is surely one of the benefits of blogging for researchers? There are, of course, other benefits. Here’s a short presentation I prepared as part of a training course for Queen Margaret University in Scotland. It’s a basic introduction that I hope might help you decide whether to start blogging yourself. Watch it carefully and you’ll spot the delicious irony when I say that blogs shouldn’t be a repository for all those presentations you’ve given!

 


French philosopher Blaise Pascal
French philosopher Blaise Pascal

*The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, he of the “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter I didn’t have time to write a short one” was right; it takes longer to ponder a few sentences than it does to compose a whole article.


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What’s the difference between categories and tags?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesWhether it’s birds or blogs we’ve be organising stuff into groups since the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus invented his system of classification. In fact I’d argue that making sense of our complicated world is something we’ve felt compelled to do as Homo sapiens (Kingdom: Animalia; Order: Primates; Family: Hominidae) pretty much from the get go. Or to put it another way, we were anoraks well before the anorak was invented. But whilst the taxonomy of the natural world is, for want of a better word, taxing, the taxonomy of the digital world is, thankfully, less complicated.

Carl_von_Linné

Blogs can be organised into three, simple sections:

  1. Subject
  2. Categories
  3. Tags

Think of the subject as the label that covers everything you write about or are planning to write about in your blog. It might be a subject with a wide-ranging scope like nature or gardening or something much narrower like hill walking or vegetable growing or narrower still like Munro-bagging or potato propagation. Narrow or wide the choice is yours – especially if you’re blogging for pleasure. If you’re blogging for profit then I’d suggest you stick to a subject you know about and one where your target audience will value your expertise. It’s easier to sell yourself a master of one trade rather than a Jack-of-all.

Categories become important once you have more than a few blog entries and  help vistors find their way around. The wider-ranging your blog the more important categories become. I have a client who blogs about urban anthropology (the subject). She’s written extensively about the legacy of the London Olympics but also writes about the post industrial landscape and about the impact of technology on human behaviour. I suggested they should be thought of and classified as three separate categories. Of course, there will be times when you want to list a post under several categories and that’s fine. For example, if Pokémon GO ever becomes an Olympic sport it’d come under two of my anthropologist’s category headings.

Tags are similar to but more specific than categories. Again looking at the example above a post could be categorised under “Olympic legacy” but be tagged specifically “London” or “Rio” so that a visitor could more easily find all the posts that are tagged or reference, say, “Rio.” Tags on blogs aren’t that different to tags on #Twitter that help us find stuff there.

Most if not all blogging platforms allow you to display your chosen categories so visitors can see your blog’s organisational structure at a glance. I’d suggest you do just that. WordPress and others also enable you to display the tags you use so that if a visitor clicks on a particular tag it aggregates all the posts that use that tag.

If you want to have a look at how I utilise categories click on the dropdown menu  on the sidebar of this post or on my personal blog. The tags I use appear along the bottom of this and other posts. Try out the feature by clicking on one.

Eat your heart out Linnaeus!


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Front loading – websites not washers

Approx. reading time: 5 minutesHere’s a quick and easy fix to make your website more appealing to your target audience:

Don’t bury the good stuff so far down the screen that people have to scroll or swipe to find it. Because they probably won’t!

To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly and immediately visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff  “above the fold” where, on a newsstand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Front loading is such an important concept in my writing for the web workshops that I’ve devised some simple exercises to help explain it. The exercises also cover principles such as decluttering for clarity and brevity. It’s probably easier to print them off  (open pdf) and mark the paper, as I suggest, with a real red pen.

Here’s a paragraph written specifically for print that follows the conventional, and some would say out-dated, intro, explanation, conclusion format:

In this article I’m going to show you how to write for the web and explain why it’s different to writing for print. But first a little bit of history. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. But when we read stuff online we’re much less linear in our approach. Eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And if we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page or worse still the whole site in a hurry. The fickle way readers behave online is the biggest single factor determining the way we write web copy. In short, because people read differently we need to write differently. It really isn’t good enough simply re-purposing words written for paper. Or certainly not without wholesale changes in terms of structure, layout and length.  Structurally we need to write in such a way that the important stuff is placed on the screen where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading. Another name for the technique is the inverse pyramid. Doesn’t really matter what it’s called. We need to write in a way that lends itself to breaking up long paragraphs and, therefore, large blocks of text, into shorter paragraphs and smaller blocks, bullet points and lists. And we need to write in a way that is shorter, sharper and to the point because or readers tend to be less patient than when reading a book. [312 words]

Where is the introduction? Highlight it and write the number 1 in the margin alongside.

Where is the explanation or background? Put a number 2 next to it in the margin.

Highlight the conclusion (or conclusions) and mark with a 3.

Now try writing a version that conveys the same information but in the reverse order – 3, 2, 1. Start with the conclusion.

Struggling to find a natural sounding place for the introduction at the end? Another virtue of writing this way is that we can often dispense with the intro altogether and make the article shorter as a consequence.

Here’s my version.

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down. The principle is called top or front loading or the inverted pyramid method. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. [176 words]

Better structurally but still a bit too long so let’s next go through it striking out the words that aren’t strictly necessary. See how short you can make the paragraph without rendering it meaningless.

Here’s my version, first with the editing showing and then without:

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s clearly visible without the need for the user to scroll down scrolling. The principle is It’s called top or front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Write in a way that is Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye tracking studies suggest we scan search the page in an F pattern searching for interesting or relevant information and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page in a hurry. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper. Cast your mind back to school days.  Pound to a penny you learned to read in a linear fashion. For me it was Janet and John. And that’s still pretty much how we read books – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page, page after page after page. 

People read differently online so we need to write differently. Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading. Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists. Be short, sharp and to the point. Why? Because eye-tracking studies suggest we search the page in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave the page. Compare that to the linear way we read words on paper  – word by word, from the top left to the bottom right of the page. [106 words]

Shorter, certainly, but perhaps still a bit “slabby” in appearance. Try breaking it into bullet points and improve usability further by changing the font type, size and colour to make the key words stand out like headlines in a newspaper.

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

The shortest and cleanest-looking version yet, although maybe a bit too short for readers who are really interested in the subject. Extra detail can be provided through hyperlinks (internal or external) readily accessible to those who are motivated to learn more but without cluttering the page or confusing those who are only after an overview.

Here’s my shorter version with hyperlinks (and, yes, the hyperlink works)!

Read differently means write differently.

  • Put the important stuff at the top where it’s visible without scrolling. It’s called front loading.
  • Break larger blocks of text into shorter blocks, bullet points and lists.
  • Be short, sharp and to the point. 

Eye tracking studies suggest we search in an F pattern and read as few as 1 in 5 words. And when we don’t find what we’re looking for we leave. Compare that to the linear way we read word by word on paper. [83 words]

Now try the above exercises with a page or section from your own website. When you’re done road test it by asking your visitors  (or, failing that, colleagues, family or friends) which version they prefer. If your own website is too close to home to fiddle with without upsetting your co-workers then choose an external website from your sector that you think could do with a makeover.


This article first appeared in Richard’s writing for the web booklet which accompanies his training course of the same name. You can book a place here.

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The press release – dead or alive?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutesTen years ago ACM Training regularly ran writing press release courses the length and breadth of Britain. Filling a room with trainees in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle wasn’t a hard sell. Why, we even paid the occasional visit to Norwich! But then something happened and within a year bookings dropped almost to zero. That “something” was the social web. Suddenly organisations didn’t have to rely on the media to get their messages across. Facebook and everything that followed meant they could get in touch with their target audiences directly. Cut out the middleman was the mantra. Made sense. Sort of. Cue dozens of articles proclaiming “the press release is dead.”

And that’s pretty much the way it stayed. Or at least it was until about six months ago when, almost as suddenly as it dropped off, demand started building up again. Cue dozens more articles proclaiming, with a startling lack of originality and misappropriating Mark Twain, that “reports of it’s death had been greatly exaggerated.”

So which is it – DEAD or ALIVE?

Both, in my view. Dead in it’s original form. Alive in it’s new form. Or to sum it up in one word: different. Different because the media landscape has shifted dramatically in the past decade. A decade where the dizzying rise in the fortunes of another Mark (Zuckerberg not Twain) has been matched by a precipitous fall in the fortunes of the print media, particularly local newspapers.

But those that are left still need copy. In fact, with very few staff running them, they are so desperate for copy they’re likely to print your press release almost verbatim. Which is good. Unless your press release is bad. In which case it’ll still be bad. Because the chance of a reporter or sub-editor rewriting your copy and ironing out any wrinkles are zip.

So without this journalistic back stop in place there’s a good case to be made for ensuring your press releases leave you in the very best shape. Which is perhaps part of the reason why there’s been an upturn in business for training companies like ACM. But there’s an additional reason to give your press releases a polish – because once written they can easily be re-versioned for all of the other distribution channels now available such as online newsrooms and, of course, the likes of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Think of the press release as content with a newsy nose. That kind of content is likely to go much further on the social web as well as getting you noticed by journalists working in print, online, on television and radio.

In my next article on this subject I’ll take you through the key elements of a press release fit for the digital world. If, in the meantime, you’d like to book a course and join the renaissance movement then click on the image below.

writing-press-releasesRichard Uridge has been a journalist for more than 30 years, though he claims it feels like only yesterday that he started as a cub reporter on the Reading Chronicle. Heʼs worked in all three major media – television, radio and print – and for ten years presented Open County on BBC Radio Four. His journalistic work has taken him all over the world. Less exciting, though perhaps more relevant, is that over the years he reckons heʼs read several thousand press releases and as a result knows what makes good, bad and downright ugly reading.

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Know thine audience

Approx. reading time: 6 minutes

In any kind of communication the more we know about our audience the better. Whether we’re writing for the web or for a flyer tucked under a windscreen wiper, this knowledge gives us clues about how to engage our readers, viewers and listeners. Engagement is a necessary precursor to understanding. Without engagement what we’re saying may only register as a sound tapping on the audience’s ear drums. We need to engage to get the message beyond the level of mere noise and up the neural pathways into the brain where it can be processed and understood and, all being well, acted upon.

But knowing the audience doesn’t just give us clues about content that might engage. It also helps us structure that content – put it in the most compelling order. It helps us determine the best style to apply to that content – serious or silly or somewhere in between. And it gives us useful information about the length of that content, the media we use to convey it, the places we put it and the time we put it there.

If we don’t think enough about the end users of the content we’re creating we risk ending up writing for the person we know best (ourselves) and getting it spectacularly wrong for everyone else. What I find funny may offend you and vice versa.

Grab a blank sheet of paper (very old school I realise but quicker, more flexible, and cheaper than using a sketching app like iDraw). In the middle draw the outline of a face, give the face a name and make this person representative of one of your target audiences. Let’s call him Bob. Around Bob’s face, spider diagram-style, jot down all the characteristics you think might be relevant. You’ll be scribbling obvious things like gender, age and race, and less obvious things like which social groups he belongs to, his hobbies and interests, his tastes in everything from music to food, his media habits – which papers he buys, which tv and radio programmes he likes, which websites he visits and yes, of course, which social media platforms he uses.

You also need to consider things like how much your version of Bob or Nadia knows already, how motivated they are to behave as you wish, and what mood they’re in. Knowing these things will help you understand where they are intellectually. Where they are physically in terms of time and space will also be informative. Are they on the bus, at their desk or in their armchair? Is it morning, noon or night? And are they in a hurry or on the slow train?

Let me give you a real rather than virtual world example. One January day I was filling my van with diesel and, as the display raced towards £100, feeling the metaphorical chill wind of fuel price inflation as well as the literal wind of winter. So time: in a hurry. Place: garage forecourt. Weather conditions: cold. Mood: bad. Armed with this broad brushstroke portrait of Richard, Worcester Bosch was able to target an advert for its energy efficient central heating boilers on the pump trigger. It couldn’t say much – because both time and space were in short supply – but it said enough to get me to Google the company name when I got home. And now what’s sitting in the corner of my kitchen? Yes, you’ve guessed, an energy efficient boiler! The same ad placed, say, on the locker door in my local gym would be less effective. I’d likely be hot and in a much better mood and consequently much less receptive to the implicit key message: buy our boiler.

Drawing a series of detailed pen portraits – one for each distinct target audience – takes some time. But it’s time well spent because like Worcester Bosch (the company’s not paying me, honest) it informs all the subsequent steps we take in the social media and ultimately leads to a much better return on investment.

This demographic information as marketeers call it can be gleaned from a range of sources. Some of it frankly is instinctive because we are like the people we’re targeting and knowing ourselves is knowing our audience. Or perhaps we know people – family or friends – who are like our target audiences. If I’m targeting children specifically then I’d do well to look at my own children to guide my approach.

Young people are particularly challenging to engage through the social media. Not least because as children of the Internet age they are more adept at the technology than older people but also because behaviourally they’re still developing and this means their vocabulary, idiom, interests and even choice of social networks can change faster than you can say Pinterest.

If like me you’re no longer a card carrying member of the hip cool generation then a brilliant way of keeping up with your target audience is simply to observe them. Become a social media anthropologist. A latter day Desmond Morris if you will sitting by the Facebook watering hole watching the young lion cubs at play. It sounds a bit creepy I know. And when the cubs you’re observing are your own it’s called Facebook stalking. I’ve heard grown ups describe Facebook as a third parent, going to places that real flesh and blood parents couldn’t possibly go to keep an eye on their children. I’ll let you decide whether going this far is too far. But there’s no doubt watching the online behaviour of our customers and prospective customers (and competitors for that matter) is a legitimate business practice. It’s called market research and it predates the social web by a long, long time.

Now it’s way beyond the brief of this article (or the workshop manual it originally appeared in) to explore market research except insofar as it touches upon social media strategy. And to that extent all we really need to know is that market research is, at its most basic, asking questions and listening to the answers and then using those answers to inform marketing decisions.

So we need to ask questions of our social media targets, listen to the answers and let those answers inform our social media decisions.

Asking questions of our target audiences helps us to get to know them so well they can, metaphorically speaking, sit on our shoulders as we create our online content and act as our critical friends. We should be asking these imaginary individuals what they think of what we’re about to post. Do they like it? If the answer’s no then why don’t they like it, what don’t they like about it, how could it be improved? Have an imaginary conversation with the imaginary Bob before you start the real conversation with the real Bob.

One other point on market research. You need to ask what questions people are asking. Questions about questions in other words. These question questions are important to ask because of the way people use the social web. In essence we type questions into search engines (even if we don’t actually hit the ? key) and then rely on those search engines to find us the answers – the more relevant the better. If I’m thinking about buying a camera I might type “digital SLR vs rangefinder” or “Canon vs Nikon.” If I’m worried about that pain in the pit of my tummy I might type “stomach cancer symptoms.” (Don’t worry about me by the way, turned out I was just hungry)!

It’s not just the questions they’re typing into Google we should be interested in. What questions are they asking and what comments are they posting across the social web, on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook? Maybe we’re in a good position to answer those questions for them, to add our own comments to theirs. What happens then is that our reputational stock rises – perhaps in one spurt so that they buy that slinky new Nikon camera there and then or perhaps by only a dribble but enough for them to return to us as a trusted source of information, refer others our way and maybe one day make that purchase, donate to our charity or get that lump checked out. And even if they don’t ever buy anything themselves they’re nonetheless leaving behind something valuable – a link, direct or indirect, back to you. Fantastic if they had something nice to say about you or your products and services. Not so fantastic if they had something nasty to say.

The fear of opening ourselves up to brickbats as well as bouquets is what stops many organisations from getting involved with the social web. But like conversation itself the social web is here to stay and is highly likely to integrate itself more and more with our everyday transactions – both social and commercial – so staying away will become less and less realistic. In any case organisations that open themselves up to criticism in such a public way find paradoxically, that managed well, they gain even from the brickbats. Dell Computers provides a fascinating and evergreen case study of this very point. First they feared the social web. Then they got a good kicking. Next they immersed themselves in it. And now they benefit from it hugely generating more than $1 million in sales directly from social media. The fashion retailer H&M is similarly instructive.

http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/social-media-marketing/why-dell-is-a-great-case-study/

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Why content is king(er) than ever!

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesGood quality content – and plenty of it – has always been the single most important part of any social media strategy. How else can you be genuinely “likeable” on Facebook and elsewhere and get followers who stick with you so that your organisation gets the visibility it needs to “sell” whatever it’s selling?

And now content is more important than ever before: “King-er,” to misquote Bill Gates. Why? Because liking a page on Facebook is no guarantee that you’ll see all that the page posts on your own timeline. For a while now you’ve got to like that page and tick the “get notifications” option.

Picture of Facebook's get notifications option
Why your followers must click like and get notifications

And what’s going to persuade your followers to take both of those crucial steps rather than just the first? Good quality content. If you’re posting stuff that’s useful to them in some way then they’ll genuinely want to see it on their timeline. If your content isn’t useful to them they won’t want it cluttering up their timeline. Simple as that!

So why did Facebook add the “get notifications” option in the first place? Because if it didn’t our news feeds would be jam packed with stuff we weren’t really interested in. Zuckerberg and his buddies are constantly tweaking the news feed algorithm that determines what we do and don’t see. And forget trying to outwit it. The only – and I mean the only – way to get seen is to post good stuff. Which means building content creation into your daily schedule.

Of course there’s a bit more to it than that. Determining the best time of the day or night to post, for example. But that’s another subject for another day.