4 Web Design Approaches: Which is the Most Effective?

What makes design great?

 

Steve Jobs believed that design was more about the way things work, not the way they look. Apple has gone on to become the world’s most valuable brand with that philosophy.

Vancouver web design approachesFour primary web design approaches:

  1. Client-centric web design focuses on converting the website owner’s artistic vision and feature wish list into a web reality.
  2. User-centric design is all about the user experience. It’s sometimes referred to as a content-centered or consumer-centric approach.
  3. SEO-centric design targets search rankings.
  4. And ROI-centric design decisions are based upon raising brand awareness, building market share, driving sales and increasing profits. It’s often referred to as a profit-driven design solution.

Let’s say you and a few prospective customers decide to take a road trip, as a relationship building exercise.

SEO-centric of course decides to stay home, because the trip does not include a visit to Google headquarters. User-centric obsesses over the comfort of the passengers, so they’ll be very happy they made the trip, and consider coming along again. ROI-centric carefully maps out the most efficient route, checks tire pressures and suggests taking a car with better fuel economy. Cost of customer acquisition is weighed against buying another round of snacks at the convenience store. Meanwhile, Client-centric only cares about the color of paint on the SUV you’ll be traveling in.

From my perspective, getting someone into the vehicle in the first place − or creating your audience first − would have to be the most important. Without it, there would be no trip even to consider. (But, of course, as a marketing copywriter,  “audience” is priority #1 to me.)

A growing number of conscientious web designers are coming to the realization that the client-centric approach is extremely short sighted, self-serving, and fundamentally flawed from the outset. Rendering the decision maker’s creative vision becomes the only thing that matters… to the exclusion of everything else that will make any difference at all.

ROI-centric design wins on the balance sheet, the only place it actually matters in business.

I believe that many designers who won’t fight for the website’s users, or even the company’s balance sheet, are equally self absorbed. They’ve realized that a “give the customer what they want” approach is the shortest, least stressful, path to sign-off and final payment. They know many of their clients’ choices will come back to bite them in the ass, but they say nothing, or at best, make mention of it once in passing.

The return on investment design approach embodies user experience, creation of useful content, SEO and a conversion strategy. In other words, designing for profit covers all the bases but one. Chasing aesthetics, and delivering a very specific look and feel that satisfies one individual, or a small group of them, often conflicts with a far nobler purpose.

Back to You

Are you of the persuasion that the customer is always right? They are, after all, paying for the work and should make the design decisions.

Or would you agree that, as Google and Facebook have concluded, function trumps aesthetics? And the true beauty of a site is revealed in an impressive return on investment.

ROI-centric web design

Reactive Marketing, and Pulling Out of the Dreaded Downward Spiral

The dreaded downward spiral in marketingTen years into their marriage, a couple goes through a bit of a rough patch. The husband isn’t feeling loved the way he used to. He reacts by making some adjustments to his investment. Date nights every Friday, with entertainment and a nice meal out, are reduced to sharing a latte once a month. The gorgeous box of hand-selected roses she learned to expect on their anniversary now is considered an unwarranted expense. So this year she receives a package of celophane-wrapped daisies from the corner store. Rather than spending an evening watching movies together at home, with a bottle of quality wine, he thoughtfully texts her while shooting pool at the pub with his buddies. Within two months, the old magic is back, and he begins to restore the former loving gestures.

Yeah right! That misguided soul should have a divorce attorney on speed dial. Any hope of regaining the love always requires more investment, not less.

Getting Back the Love (When Sales Take a Nose Dive)

A few weeks ago I was invited to a meeting with a prospective client. She wanted to know what we could do in marketing their company online, for “super cheap.” Apparently the digital marketing agency they were with was “too expensive”, and they were looking for a lower priced solution.

I was curious to know why she felt they needed to cut back on marketing. She told me that sales were down, so their advertising budget had to be scaled to match revenue. What she was describing is classic reactive marketing.

She went on to lament about the good old days, when their business did over two million in sales a year. Back then, they were spending upwards of ten thousand a month in advertising; no problem. Now, sales were barely $8,000 per month, so they had only been able to afford $500 a month for SEO, content and social media. Sadly, even that was now too much.

I did some quick calculations and discovered the marketing/sales ratio was almost exactly the same now as it had been in 2007. As she spoke, I realized that every time there had been a dip in sales, they had compensated by reducing their marketing budget. Sales then adjusted to reflect the reduction in exposure. They reacted to that drop, cutting marketing further. No surprise; sales dropped again… And now they were nearing the bottom of a downward spiral, laying off staff members and facing the very real prospect of closing a business more than fifteen years old. According to the ratio, proven over seven years, cutting the monthly marketing budget by a further 40% should reduce monthly sales to only $4,800 within 2 to 6 months. It wouldn’t cover overhead, the salaries of the company’s two principals, much less wages for the staff. It wasn’t my company, but the numbers sent a shiver through my spine.

My recommendation was for her to consider doubling the monthly marketing budget, and becoming very actively involved on their end as well, with my coaching. Leveraging resources in that way, they could achieve three or five times the interaction with prospective customers. She claimed that increasing the budget was impossible, because they were upgrading some of the machinery in the shop. (A vision of shiny new machines being sold for pennies on a dollar at a bankruptcy auction flashed across my mind.) I’m often amazed by the priorities of otherwise astute business people when they’re pressed against the ropes.

When sales take a dip, the only thing that will turn things around is… well, sales :-). Cutting back on visibility will only cause them to dwindle further. When cash flow runs thin, it’s easy to lose site of that.

Robert Herjavec commented on Shark Tank recently, “Sales is the life blood of any business.” Without marketing, and new customers, a business will die. Some small companies try to build market share on referrals alone. Relying solely on word of mouth, they often grossly over-service their existing clients to secure new leads. They refer to this a “free” advertising. New customers unfortunately will come on board, expecting too much for far too little, so it can be a costly and unsustainable model. One way, or another, there will be a cost of acquisition in expanding a customer base.

A downturn is the time to invest more — become proactive — forging ahead instead of retreating. I have seen a full-on effort in content development and social media engagement, coupled with passionate follow-up by the company’s sales and support staff, turn the tide even in the eleventh hour. By dramatically increasing interaction with potential buyers, there is always hope for a comeback.

Back to You

Have you ever felt you could not afford to invest the time or money ongoing marketing required? (I have. Been there, done that.)

Have you ever found yourself entering the dreaded downward spiral of diminishing returns? When revenue falters, do you blog more, or less? Engage more in social, or less? Hire a consultant or marketing pro, or let one go?

Did you ever over-service existing customers, desperately trying to hang on to them, while only breaking even, or even losing money, because somehow that seemed cheaper than reaching out for new ones?

Ever Wonder Why Some Websites Strike a Gusher, While Others go Bust?

Oil derricksI love the movie, There Will Be Blood, and watched it again a few days ago. The story is set in California, early in the 20th century. The American oil boom was on, and by 1903 California had become the leading oil producing state. Derricks as far as the eye could see — hastily erected out of wood — dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. The strategy was simple: drill a bunch of holes and hope one hit. Many would-be oil men went bust, while a few lucky ones struck it rich, bringing in one gusher after another.

In the 1920′s, the oil industry discovered directional drilling. Instead of punching holes all across the landscape of the lease, on a whim and a prayer, and erecting fields of derricks; the new breed of driller worked closely with a geologist to carefully target oil deposits. Directional drilling provided the ability to accurately steer the well in directions and angles that departed from the vertical.

The location of the drill site was determined by geological research. Drill samples were collected and analyzed every few hours and corrections to the path of the drill were made as required. Drilling for oil had become far less hit and miss, and a single tilt-up steel rig began to replace the former wooden derricks.

Even with a far more scientific approach, not every well hit. Short of funds, many small oil companies lost the faith and would revert to the old ways, replacing geologists with carpenters. Instead of drilling deep and singularly focused, the old approach was all over the map and fairly shallow. If the new approach was a sniper rifle with a high velocity shell, the old way was a shotgun.

The Internet has seen its own boom, with a dot-com speculative bubble that lasted from 1997 through 2000. Many venture companies would invest in dozens of startups, hoping one would come in. And, like the oil industry, all online marketers now have knowledgeable advisers and sophisticated tools available to them, to minimize wasted effort and maximize resources.

A targeted approach, with course corrections along the way, makes sense on the white board. Many small business owners will secure quality advice, and with the help of a SEO/content marketing professional, study their target market, create customer personas, determine the best keywords and topics, map out a strategy to reach their audience, and forge ahead with considerable enthusiasm. But if they don’t hit a gusher in two or three months, they’re ready to cancel the analytics service, kill the content creation and social media budget, and fire their adviser, proclaiming, “This new content marketing stuff doesn’t work!”

Predictably, they’ll go back to the old ways. They may get their new “more flexible and obedient” SEO to buy a bunch of links or send out an email blast. “Hell, those used to work like a hot damn.” Instead of focusing their content, so Google can determine a subject for their website, they’ll try to “cover all the bases” by adding pages and posts for a broader range of topics. If they’re an ecommerce site, instead of pruning all the obscure products that don’t fit in the primary theme, they’ll begin feverishly adding new categories. Going wide, lest any potential customer or reader be missed, seems to make sense to a frightened business owner, tired of waiting for traffic to build more organically. If distilling their marketing focus didn’t bring results quickly enough, dilution must surely be the way to go.

In frustration, organic search on Google, Bing and Yahoo! may be abandoned entirely in favor of just buying dozens of pay per click ads, and targeting a very broad range of keywords. Blogging and social media may be abandoned, or take a very different direction. Instead of “attracting” visitors to the site, with helpful content, old school aggressive sales offers tend to appear again in every post.

Going back to the familiar can be comforting. It’s just like comfort food. It calms the anxiety on the short term, but is generally very unhealthy, and wholly unsustainable over the long term.

Learning new and more effective ways of doing things involves a learning curve. There’s time and money involved. Results may come slower than with the old methods you were familiar with, at least initially. When you don’t see immediate results, it may even occur to you that the thousands of authoritative writers on the web, promoting content marketing and social media, may be lying, and that they may have a sinister profit agenda. Change can be scary and emotionally painful. You will have to trust and commit to a strategy you have not proven personally. There may be new people and companies to trust. And it’s essentially impossible to micromanage a process you don’t fully understand.

The only constant is constant change. Once a better way has been demonstrated, it’s not usually possible to go back in time. Covering dozens of acres with wooden derricks had ceased to be the way things were done. Lease holders weren’t going to allow their properties to be torn up that way any more, considering the alternative. In the same way, Google isn’t going to be rolling back to a pre-Panda/Penguin era any time soon. What worked back in 2010, is never going to work again. Mobile devices are also here to stay, and we need to design our websites and develop marketing strategies to take advantage of that trend, not fight it. We either evolve, or we perish.

 Over to You

Do you find yourself hesitant to get fully behind content marketing, blogging or social media? Do you mistrust that line of advice? Is it confusing? Do you have a success story to share?

The Shift From Rented Content to Owned Content, and How it Impacts Your Business

Content: own or rent?For decades, advertising and marketing centered around thrusting a persuasive ad in front of eyeballs. We relied on media companies to develop interesting and informative content, and build their audience, and then rented ad space on their content platform.

As a society suffering from serious information overload, we no longer have time to listen to, view or read all those ads, and we’re sick of filtering them out.

Traditional television is on the decline. People are opting for Netflix, iTunes, Tivo, Shaw on Demand and satellite TV, to name a few.

The same thing has happened with radio. We’re choosing iTunes Radio, or SirriusXM to experience only our chosen programming, free of disruptive, time-wasting ads.

The Yellow Pages were once our ‘bible’ for business phone numbers. Today, it’s just a whole lot more efficient to Google it, then check out a company’s website and reputation online.

Magazines and newspapers are either going out of business or scrambling to go digital. Initially, the surviving periodicals started out with exact digital replicas of their print publications. But more recently, many are selling out an issue to a single sponsor. A single pop-up ad displays when the publication opens on a tablet, and once closed, gives the reader an ad-free reading experience, often enhanced with video and other special features. The cost of publishing has gone way down. Publishers are not churning out pulp any more or covering the costs of distribution, so the need for heavy advertiser support no longer exists. Writers for these publications create free content in exchange for a credit link to their website, and the credibility they will receive as an authority in their industry.

Google, Yahoo! and Bing were established to index and provide the best “links” to high quality, relevant content. Google has openly declared war on SEO practices that manipulate search engine results through clever keyword tactics, on-page over-optimization and contrived linking strategies. To rank well today, we must give the search engines and natural link partners what they have always wanted, plenty of quality, relevant “content worth linking to”, published on a reliable basis.

Here’s something to think about. Would bloggers that write for hockey enthusiasts link to a page that shamelessly toots a sports company’s horn or describes their line of skates and protective gear? Of course not. So why would Google index those pages? An article or post that provides information on choosing hockey gear that can be handed down from one child to the next, cutting the costs of raising a “hockey family” would be of interest to a great many people. That query would turn up in searches and Google would respond by listing the most relevant articles, with a regional emphasis. When you create content other site owners believe would benefit their readership, you’ll attract links from other websites as well as the top search engines.

Despite its decline, some businesses have tried to adapt the traditional advertising model to the Internet, with limited success. Google Adwords and banner ads are popular examples. Studies by marketing analysts indicate that only 8% of Internet users account for 85% of clicks on web display ads, including banners and pay-per-click*. Most of us have learned to ignore Internet ads just as effectively as in other media. The average clickthrough rate of display ads is a paltry 0.1%**, but just under 50% of your traffic will come from natural search***. That means most of your web traffic will come from organic SERPs (search engine result pages) and other inbound links from websites, blogs and social media mentions that recommend your site.

The bottom line: Almost all inbound traffic comes from links. Quality, interesting and relevant content is what attracts links, including the ones on the first page of search engine results.

Search engines monitor social media mentions and engagement, so these influence rankings. And social media can be used to promote blog posts. But there’s a much bigger picture. Discovering where your buyer personas are hanging out online, then engaging with these people, without “selling”, builds real relationships. Nothing beats good old-fashioned word-of-mouth advertising by some of the people you’ve befriended.

Old school SEO was convenient, and for the most part simple, even if it was risky. Business owners handed over money and let the gurus practice their mysterious art. If the ranking and traffic reports showed an upward trend, it was assumed they were doing their job. And then Google introduced their algorithm counter measures.

Many business owners are upset by the shift from rented content to owned media. Others have embraced the new direction enthusiastically. Owning your own media, instead of renting space on someone else’s content, gives you control. Most medium and large companies now have sizable in-house media departments. Small businesses will generally hire local copywriters for part of the content and experts in social media engagement, while handling some of the work in-house with professional coaching.

The question of the hour: Do you believe that we must publish or perish, creating regular “epic” content that is significantly better than anything your competition is putting out, in order to survive and build your brand online? If you’re skeptical, you will never invest the money or time required to get fully behind content creation and social engagement the way you need to. Buying into your content asset is much like deciding to build a house. You have to be all in.

What about other non-media alternatives?

Even non-media approaches like trade shows have seen a decline. People don’t have the time to leave their offices or homes to make their way through crowded, noisy isles of booths, filling bags with marketing crap and then rebuff one pushy salesperson after another for a few hours. For the most part, the salespeople from other booths mill about the show and you might sell one of them, if you’re lucky.

Marketing analysts tell us that email has taken up the discretionary time business people and executives once had available for telephone conversations with sales people. Call screening and gatekeeper blocking has created almost impenetrable walls for cold callers. Even where a prior introduction exists, by way of email, “warm” calls will typically be met with a chilly reception.

Unsolicited email has taken a heavy hit, as the Can-Spam Act has lowered the boom on many offenders. It can be illegal for providers to host the website of a company with too many spam complaints. In some cases, prison sentences have been handed out. Anti-spam software continues to become more aggressive and intelligent.

We need to stop selling all the time and try being useful for a change. Many companies believe it is their earned right to send out regular offers to existing customers. Trust me, they don’t like sales copy in their inbox any more than non-customers. And spamming customers causes them to seriously question the wisdom of their purchase. The general recommendation here is around the 80/20 rule. For every offer you send out, there should have been at least four preceding emails that only shared invaluable information. In other words, you earn the right to “sell” when you’ve reestablished your worth. A previous sale doesn’t allow you to sidestep that rule.

One company that has done a brilliant job with email is Smile. They create the PDFpen Pro software. I would say I receive at least a dozen useful tips on streamlining my business filing by email before seeing another offer. Consequently, I’ve been on their mailing list for over two years and have pulled out the plastic for several major upgrades. Would I have purchased more software if I were not on their mailing list? Doubtful. I was still on that list for one reason. They were more concerned about the value they provided than in selling all the time.

The Takeaway

We’re all content developers and media companies now, like it or not. We must “out content” the competiontion to win market share. Epic, relevant content has become today’s marketing currency

Over to You

Are you embracing “owned media/content”, or still struggling with it? Do you miss the good old days when marketing meant buying ads, and creating the content was some media company’s problem?

  * comScore
 ** DoubleClick
*** conductor

Are You Focusing on Conversion Before You Have Traffic?

FawnSEO vs conversion copy, and scaring the wildlife

SEO copywriting focuses on creating quality, relevant, and hopefully interesting content that attracts visitors to your blog again and again. You’re building rankings, authority and traffic, and encouraging visitors to share your content.

Conversion copywriting focuses on making a sale, or ‘converting’ your visitors into subscribers and customers.

In this article I will be discussing the former. A major mistake many business bloggers make is trying to sell before they’ve delivered on their initial content promise or demonstrated any value.

Visitors are persuaded to stop by the blog, through social media posts and mentions or Google search results, with enticing promises of valuable, useful information. It’s so disappointing and just plain annoying for visitors when every post is saturated with an extremely shortsighted, “buy now” message. It’s not what they signed on for when they clicked an inviting link to receive “help”, and they feel justifiably cheated.

Give your gift with no strings attached

Some thirty years ago, I was a 30% closer and the sales manager for a small TriStar vacuum cleaner sales outlet. The door-to-door vac’ business was reputed to be a very sleazy way to make a living, but I learned a lot about sales from my gritty years in the trenches.

Our “booking girls” would offer door opener gifts like free rosewood-handle steak and carving knife sets, or perhaps a hard cover dictionary/thesaurus combo in an attractive case, in order to book appointments. The gifts were useful, desirable items. Our booking strategy was to impress the person on the other end of the line with the high quality of the gift they had “won”, then book an appointment for delivery, with a quick demo of some new product.

Our closers would arrive at the door a day or two later, create rapport, start out with a light and very entertaining demo, build value, then high-pressure the bejesus out of the gift “winner”. We used to teach: there were only two ways our salesmen were leaving that house, with a signed order, or physically tossed out with the vacuum cleaner hurtling through the air right behind them.

If one of the booking girls was sick, I’d take over the phone at times, to make sure the guys had ‘dems’ to go to. I learned the hard way that selling too early just closed doors. I carelessly let myself enter into a mini presentation on the phone a few times. Big mistake! The only purpose of the phone call was letting the prospect know about the free stuff we were giving them. If we were ravenous direct sales wolves, they were Bambi, and we had to make sure we didn’t scare them away before we came anywhere near the jugular.

We were some of the most aggressive, high pressure salespeople on the planet, but we still realized there was a time and place for selling. Throw the pitch in with the gift, or begin selling before building rapport and demonstrating value, and we were dead at hello.

Some sales reps would only hand over the gift at the end of the presentation, and only if a sale was made. I made a point of giving them their gift before even entering the door, and I instructed my team to do the same. Once inside, I would spend a half hour getting to know my new friends. Here’s the thing… I wasn’t looking for “a sale”; I wanted several. These people had friends. It was important that they really liked me. Did I get burned a few times by people that just grabbed the knife set and slammed the door? Absolutely. We paid for these gifts out of our own pocket, so that hurt. I believed that we had offered them a free gift and that my new friends deserved more than just a pitch. I became the sales manager because of my closing ratio, and keeping the gift separate from the pitch has served me well over the decades that followed.

What is your gift: valuable information that improves the lives of your visitors? Your blog should be a welcoming place to share your free gift. There’s no way to be subtle about your agenda when you finish a blog post with an offer. Sprinkling your posts with links to sales pages will also send your quarry bolting for cover. Even affiliate blogs need to include a good percentage of useful posts that aren’t trying to refer business to another site for a commission.

If you’ve enticed visitors to your blog with the promise of valuable information, deliver on that offer; no strings attached.

 Don’t give a crappy gift

Our local TD bank recently ran a promotion to attract new clients. I noted that they were offering an Apple iPod as a free gift, not a $5.00 toaster that was likely to catch fire the first time it was plugged in. Outsourced-to-the-lowest-bidder, automated or just plain crappy content = worthless gift. It sends a very negative message and is bad for business. Put your all into each post or hire someone committed to content excellence. Your content gift needs to be epic; that means better than any of your competitors are publishing.

Pitch too early and you may never be selling at all

Keep the “gift” — your informative blog posts, downloadable freemium item or something else of value — completely separate from your sales copy.

Of course you want them to check out your About Us page and what you bring to the marketplace. And once they’ve decided to look at the products and services you offer, it’s perfectly okay to “sell” them. I’m assuming here that you have a product or service your customers will genuinely benefit from, so do your very best to convert those qualified visitors into customers. On a sales page it may even be a sin not to ask for the order or include an information request form.

If your boss isn’t convinced, and insists you must sell in your blog, at least earn your readers’ full attention and loyalty in a dozen or more truly useful posts before slipping in a special offer. The same goes for opt-in email subscriptions. Live up to the value expectations of your audience.

Over to you

Would you agree with me that keeping the gift and pitch separate is a sound strategy? Perhaps you believe that “always be closing” is a better approach. Do you have a sales success or horror story to share? I welcome your comments.

Is Your Blog Writing Suffering from “Old Married Couple” Syndrome?

Old married couple syndromeHave you ever noticed how couples that have been together for a long time tend to finish each others sentences? They know what the other is thinking without a word being spoken. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but the mystery’s gone and there are very few surprises. Even when one feels inspired and excitedly relates a new idea, the other lovingly informs them that they had the same flash of genius only the other day. Damn!

The same thing began happening to me over the past few weeks. I’d come up with a brilliant new idea for a blog post and the words just flowed…. I was inspired. This was original stuff. After I finished dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s I clicked ‘Publish’. I would then do some blog commenting and social media posting, to let people know about my new content. To my horror, 4 or 5 other writers I follow had been ‘inspired’ to write almost the very same thing within the past few days. Oh no!

How could this be? I mentioned the strange phenomenon to several other bloggers and received replies like “we’re all connected spiritually, and it’s common for many people to receive the same insights.” But I wasn’t buying it. And then it hit me, I’ve been obsessively following and reading everything people in my niche have written for so long, I’ve contracted Old Married Couple Syndrome. My subconscious had already picked up on what the next post was to be.

OMG, what’s a man to do? Do I have a torrid affair outside my niche, to spice things up a bit? I’d pledged my undying love to the holy trinity of Copywriting, SEO and Content Marketing, but now I found myself wondering if a little content adultery really would be an unpardonable sin. Would I return from my dalliance with renewed vigor, wild eyes of passion and fresh stories to tell? Upon reflection, other topics had caught my eye on occasion, but dare I…

Over to You

Has the first passion for your blog’s topic waned over the past year? Have you run out of anything truly new to talk about? Are the posts of others in your niche disappointingly similar to yours? Would it really be so bad if you strayed outside your topic a time or two, just to spice things up? Do you feel others would overlook the transgression, or perhaps even applaud it?

Increasing Your Blog’s Readership and Authority

Copywriter's typewriter and red proofreading pencilWhen choosing to illustrate the subject of “writing”, many bloggers will choose an avatar of a fountain or quill pen, or an antique typewriter. There is an organic, iconic simplicity to these tools, a functional beauty, elegance and purity of form that still holds a romantic place in the hearts of writers today.

The Way We Were

For thousands of years, a dip pen and bottle of ink were the only tools of a writer. In 953, Ma’ād al-Mu’izz, the caliph of the Maghreb, demanded a pen that would not dribble on his hands or clothes, and was provided with a writing instrument that held ink in a bladder and fed it to the nib. The fountain pen was born.

In the 19th century the Moleskine notebook made its appearance. A fountain pen or pencil, and the leather-bound black notebook, were popular with writers for over two centuries. You can still buy them today.

The first working typewriter was developed by the Italian Pellegrino Turri in 1808. For over 260 years, the tap-tap of a typewriter augmented the thought processes of writers around the globe, transferring their words to paper.

A blank sheet of paper, a well-used typewriter, a red proofreading pencil and the Oxford dictionary were all a writer needed. The only notable writing tools to emerge over two centuries were Roget’s Thesaurus in 1911 and Webster’s American Dictionary in 1913.

Libraries provided limited source material, so most editorial content flowed from the hearts and minds of writers. Feedback from readers helped hone columnists’ skills, and engagement with their audience enabled writers to establish their own unique voice. Good, authoritative writing was informative, but it also connected with the readership. Edgy, opinionated writers tended to have the greatest following.

The first dedicated word processors emerged as stand-alone office machines in the 1970s They combined a keyboard for text entry with the printing functionality of an electric typewriter. Lift-off correction tape permitted minor corrections on the fly. Within a few years, sophisticated computer processors would save documents to RAM or disk, eliminating much of the retyping during editing. My third job was in sales, marketing word processors for the Olivetti typewriter company. Secretaries oohed as I showed them how documents could be stored for reuse. It was a brave new world.

In 1979 Micropro International introduced their WordStar software and writing has never been the same. Today, the blogger is presented with a bewildering array of software options, each promising to make writing simpler, improve the writer’s workflow or protect them from  their inadequacies.

I treasure my ‘swirl’ glass nib dip pen and Mont Blanc 149 Diplomat fountain pen, although I rarely write with them. They are elegant symbols of a time when writing was much simpler.  I would love to get my hands on a Royal No. 10 vintage typewriter (introduced 1914)… a thing of exquisite beauty. It too is a classic icon of the writer’s craft.

Can We Go Back To Simpler, More Organic Writing?

We live in an electronic age, so it’s unrealistic for most of us to consider going back to writing content on a typewriter.  Ribbons and typewriter repair shops have become extremely difficult to find, but there are still a few purists that do their writing on a typewriter, then scan  their text into the computer or tablet with an OCR reader app like Readiris.

If you’ve chosen to write on a tablet, instead of a laptop, a Bluetooth keyboard and perhaps a raised stand will provide a comparable typewriter experience. Many software apps exist for laptop computers and tablets that offer a distraction-free ‘blank sheet’ experience. Two examples are WriteRoom for Mac/iOS and Q10 for Windows 8. Here’s the good news: you will probably actually only need one app for life.

Toting hardcover editions of your dictionary and thesaurus are not practical or necessary today. For proofreading, Grammarly or WhiteSmoke  will check your text for spelling and grammatical errors. There are many bloggers who still write their first draft in Microsoft Word and print it out double-spaced, so they can proofread it with a red gel pen. (The Pilot FriXion Erasable in red is a favorite with professional editors.) Word also includes a light spelling/grammar checker.

Writers of the last two centuries did not purchase a new typewriter every few months or even years. They chose one at the beginning of their careers and it became almost as much a part of them as their right arm. I was watching an episode of Million Dollar Listing recently and noticed that one of the top earners was using an ancient PowerBook laptop that still required the old blue LAN cable because it was pre-wi-fi. I was puzzled that a millionaire would use that old clunker, considering his shoes cost more than a brand new top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. On reflection, it occurred to me that he retained it because a new model with all the bells and whistles would contribute absolutely nothing to his bottom line. He was sparing himself the wasted time and distraction involved in shopping for a new one, upgrading to the latest software and hardware and then enduring the frustration of learning a new operating system. His current computer worked, it was a familiar friend, and he would rather sell homes.

We’re striving for simplicity, so that our minds are free to create and connect with our readers. Don’t get caught up in ‘shiny new object syndrome’, buying every new app and hardware recommendation presented to you. The new toys will not make you a better writer. Writing regularly and listening carefully to your readers are the way you’ll improve.

Most modern writers feel they must read constantly to be an authority in their industry. They believe they are inspired by big-name and competitive bloggers in their niche. They rely on readily-available reference materials rather than looking internally for their own unique take on the subject.

I have no issues with being informed and up to date, but am convinced that a blogger becomes an authority because people identify with the writer as much as the message. Reading outside of your niche can expand your outlook and fuel creativity. Reading other blogs and reference material in your own field obsessively often replaces inspiration and creativity with textbook knowledge, and I believe this is behind much of the “me too” regurgitated drivel found on websites today.

To achieve  ‘contrast’ — to stand out — you need to look beyond the usual sources. Accurate, informative content that does not resonate with your readership is not going to build your audience. Without an audience or platform, you will have a very difficult time being recognized as an authority in your niche.

The Takeaway

Inspired writing in 2014 will not come as a result of buying new computer hardware, more software apps, new online solutions or subscribing to an ever increasing list of resource feeds and email updates in your niche.  Clearing the clutter, so you’re left with only your computer or tablet, your writing app and perhaps a spelling/grammar checker can be very liberating. Consider embracing the mantra, “I already have everything I need.”

You probably read entirely too much in your niche and that’s made it very difficult for you to provide a new perspective to your readers. Your copy will naturally sound exactly like everyone else’s if you don’t expose yourself to something completely different every day.

You need feedback, so write to elicit a response from your readers. Then carefully read and reply to your comments. Commenting on other blogs in your niche also provides an opportunity to test reader reactions, provide a unique perspective and attract readers to your site. Let your personality shine through. Present an opinion. Take a few chances with your content in 2014. Any successful columnist had readers that both agreed and disagreed. In the same way, as long as your critics are respectful, publishing their comments is likely to contribute  to the conversation and increase further engagement.

Over to You

Would you agree that a return to the purity of simple tools, an uncluttered and creative mind, and a close connection with your readers are keys to increasing your readership and authority? Or do you believe cutting edge software tools and hardware, and a level of automation, have become necessary in building an audience today?

Has anyone written content on an old Commodore Pet, Apple II or other seriously cool vintage piece of hardware? I sold some of the first Olivetti M20 computers, bundled with Corel’s WordPerfect software and an external glass-ceramic hard drive enclosed in a wood cabinet. (Set one down roughly and the platter shattered.) Did any of you begin your writing career on a manual, or perhaps an IBM Selectric typewriter, then move to a computer later? Have you hammered out editorial copy for a publication? Here’s the place to share your writing roots.

I love edgy, opinionated “tell it like it is” writing that entertains, is thought provoking and informative, and inspires me to either make positive changes in my life or consider another point of view. Some examples are Paul Boag, Ash Ambirge (The Middle Finger Project) and Chris Brogan. Do you have any recommendations?

The Real Reason Most Blogging and Social Media Missed the Mark in 2013

Social media doesn't workI enjoy watching the Moonshiners TV series. (The events are probably fake, but it’s still entertaining.) In a recent episode, Tim Smith was setting up his first legal still operation at Limestone Branch Distillery, and Steve Beam was becoming concerned over all the delays in production. Every day Tim came up with one more change that must be made to the system before they could begin running whisky. His excuse was that he wanted to get everything just right. Steve, however, believed he should just start making them some money.

Backwoods Virginia moonshiner Tim had been waiting years to ‘go legal’, and I concluded that he was now afraid to pull the trigger. This was his big shot and he was afraid of blowing it. He was postponing the ‘do or die’ moment of truth.

I immediately saw parallels between getting his still setup perfect and a blogging/social platform just right.

The Pressure’s On

Most of the employees of clients I coach express trepidation over letting their boss down, or losing their position. Increasing traffic and conversions for their company through blogging and social media is an expectation that weighs heavily upon them.

Even where we’ve been hired to handle blog copywriting and  social interaction, the push for short term results can lead to a lot of second guessing on the client side. What if old school on-page SEO keyword density and volume link building are still the way to go? This is all new; is content marketing really the new SEO? How soon can we realistically expect the floodgates of traffic to open?

We’re Pushed Outside Our Comfort Zones

Becoming active in a content marketing strategy will push most of us well beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Coming up with a topic, the tedious research, laboring over a brilliant title, commenting effectively on other blogs, guest blogging, and engagement in social media channels, is not something most of us feel naturally drawn to or qualified for. Where there’s discomfort, this generation’s solution is to seek relief.

Fear of Rejection and Failure

For most companies that do not offer products and services people lie awake thinking about, learning to write content others will actually want to read involves a steep learning curve, a lot of hard work and the very real possibility of rejection and failure.

When we put ourselves out there, and they don’t respond, the feelings of rejection are real. Short term expectations were probably completely unrealistic, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of failure all the same.

Something for the Pain

Over the past few decades the media has told us that there’s a remedy for every pain and ailment. If you wake up with a headache, there’s no need to push through the pain, just pop one or two tablets. If you’re sad or depressed, there’s a pill for that. Pour yourself a double and calm down. As a society, we’ve become adept at pain avoidance. And yes, there is a remedy for BSA (Blogging/Social Anxiety) as well. :-)

When we’re feeling discouraged, disappointed, overwhelmed, fearful or anxious, we could choose to push through the pain. We could follow sound advice, blog more, engage more with prospective buyers in social channels and trust the process. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Or we can consciously or unconsciously decide to major on the minors, focusing on getting everything just perfect before we move ahead. In other words, invest our efforts in preparing to work rather than actually doing the work.

The Danger of Getting All Our Ducks in a Row

Admittedly, I’ve been a master of preparing to work. For a while, I convinced myself that I needed to remove myself from the office, to Starbucks, to get away from the distractions, so I could write more effectively.

If I was going to be mobile, I wanted to do it right. I tried several Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad, different cloud sharing solutions, more efficient bags for organizing and toting my gear, ‘fine tuning’ my workflow and assembling the ideal content marketing toolkit. Then I decided the iPad screen was actually too small and re-outfitted for the best MacBook Pro setup. Having completed that, I decided it was time to revisit the iPad. It was so portable…

I have an “impressive” collection of matched sets of writing apps that will sync between my desktop computer, my laptop and my iPad. I of course had to put WhiteSmoke, Grammarly and After the Deadline through their paces. I also felt I needed multiple dictionary and thesaurus apps, “for comparison.” I tried HootSuite, SproutSocial, SocialBro, TweetDeck, Nimble and other solutions, attempting to streamline my social connections.

In the course of becoming the consummate content marketing professional, I read hundreds of books on SEO, content marketing, copywriting, blogging and social media. I also invested in dozens of advanced courses.

And here’s a client favorite, “It’s the website.” Again, I’ve often yielded to the temptation of tweaking the website obsessively, or rebuilding it completely, avoiding content creation and social engagement for weeks at a time.

Like you, my excuse for not blogging, blog commenting and being active in social media several times a week has been that I’m too busy, or that I simply cannot afford to take that much time away from revenue generating work.

My accountant had a serious talk with me last week after going over my numbers for 2013. My “education” and “software” spreadsheets were ridiculously high, while my “revenue” totals were down from previous years. Here’s the thing; if I could reclaim all the hours spent in 2013 reading books on becoming a better blogger and more effective at engagement in social media, the countless hours going through email subscriptions I hoped would help me increase my returns, all the hours squandered sourcing and then learning how to use new software apps and online tools, and the time invested into getting my ducks in a row and systems in place to really get it done… If I could recover all the money I invested into online subscriptions and tools that were supposed to make me better at writing and more efficient in social connection…  I would have been able to afford to post every day. I would have a far more engaged audience in Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. My authority in my niche would be considerably higher than it is. My site would have significantly more traffic. I would have more paying clients. And I would be less exhausted, with more time for myself, my family and friends.

The energy invested into running down all these “improvement” rabbit trails last year left me feeling depleted most of the time. I had convinced myself I needed to know all this stuff, that I really should try all the popular tools, so I could be a more knowledgeable consultant. If I had the perfect system in place myself, I could then pass on all my “content marketing efficiency” wisdom to my clients. Hey, it sounded very logical at the time.

I see the same tendencies in most of my clients. One of the bloggers I coach recently insisted that she needed a new iMac computer, an ergonomic Herman Miller chair and the latest suite of Microsoft Office software to improve her writing. Her boss called me to confirm that the investment was indeed warranted and recommended. I had to tell him the truth; the new computer and chair would undoubtedly make his employee’s work day more comfortable and interesting, but it would not improve her writing at all. It would not bring more engaged visitors to the website. It was unlikely to increase sales or customer retention. Getting her new system set up could eat up more than a week of quality online marketing time. What she needed to do was blog and interact more online. I suggested the requested items be offered as carrots for pushing past her self-imposed comfort limitations. In that way there could be a return on his investment.

The Distillation