Grab your share of ever-shrinking attention spans

“Nobody reads anymore.” We hear that all the time (despite the boom in content marketing), and we could spend all day disproving the notion. But it is true that in our multitasking, Twitter-driven, information-overload world, it’s harder to attract and hold a business audience than it once was. Harder, but not impossible: here are a few tips to grab attention in an attention-deficit age:

Break the mold. Examine how similar organizations communicate, and do something different. Find an unusual angle. Be warmer or more analytical, more casual or more sophisticated—whatever everyone else is not. And ditch the jargon—buzzwords are a way to fit in, not to stand out.

Strike an emotional chord. Focus on what moves, excites, inspires, or alarms. What will get the strongest gut response? Not sure? Think about how you’d talk about it with an attractive stranger at a party.

Just say it. Bland, heavily qualified statements may head off controversy, but they also induce narcolepsy. Say what you mean, clearly and assertively, and support it. People will take notice. And if they take exception? That’s an opportunity for dialogue.

Be relevant. If your content isn’t targeted to your audience, you’ll lose them. Provide information readers want and you’ll keep them with you.

Use snappy display copy. If the most eye-catching copy on the page is dull, why would anyone read the small print? Strong display copy (headlines, subheads and the like) grabs readers; treating it as an afterthought is a mistake.

Underlying these strategies is a key principle: be compelling. And “compelling” means compelling to your audience, not necessarily to you or your organization. Cater to your readers and you’ll get their attention.

Want more ideas for compelling communications? Check out our 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression report.

Messaging intervention: diagnose and fix an ailing verbal brand

“I don’t think they present their benefits clearly—they could use better messaging.” “Their website says one thing, but it isn’t what the sales manager told me.” “Um … I’m not really sure what they do.”

We hear comments like these all the time from people urging us to stage a messaging intervention for some fellow sustainable business. Sometimes we hear them from people who could use a bit of messaging help themselves. Which just goes to show—it’s often hard to tell whether you’re communicating effectively about your business. Here are some signs:

  • People in your organization have a hard time explaining what you do and why it matters
  • Partners and other stakeholders—even your own employees—don’t describe your company consistently or accurately
  • Your messages are inconsistent across channels or product lines

What can you do about it? First step: download our new guide, Messaging 101: 5 Keys to Unlocking your Verbal Brand. It covers the basics (so if you’ve been told you need messaging and you thought, “Huh?” this is for you). It also addresses how to tell if your messaging is hitting the mark (so if you’re soon to embark on a website redesign, branding initiative, product launch or other big project, and you want to be sure you get the best results, this is also for you). And it provides tips on using a messaging platform and making it stick (check out these chapters if you’ve got a great messaging document but it’s dead in a drawer), as well as selling sustainability without greenwashing (essential knowledge for any sustainable business).

The one thing you shouldn’t do: ignore the problem once you know you have one. Creating effective messaging and putting it to use does take some resources (time, money, effort), but the business benefits are both broad and deep. A well-developed messaging platform will help you:

  • Build a strong brand identity
  • Stand out from competitors
  • Support business development
  • Connect with different audiences
  • Simply explain complicated products and services
  • Communicate efficiently

The sooner you do it, the better—not only will you be communicating more effectively and efficiently, you also won’t have to unlearn as many bad habits. Get going with Messaging 101. And pass it on to anyone you know who might need an intervention.

Making a Content Strategy Work (Hint: You Have to Actually Do the Work)

I have to make a confession: this blog post was due last week.

I noodled around with a couple of ideas, but inspiration fled. I scanned Twitter, checked recent exhortations from the marketing punditry. Got depressed over the new IPCC report (we’re doomed). Pondered Dan Ariely’s recent post, “The 3 Costs of Multitasking.” (Yep, that’s me.)

One thing led to another and in no time I was far, far away from my original task: to write about content strategy. A couple of days later, fueled by strong coffee, I snapped back to reality. I had become Exhibit A for the fact that the best content strategy in the world does you no good if you don’t execute it per plan.

Without consistent execution, a content strategy will lose momentum, you won’t meet your goals, and the whole system backs up. It’s easy to get distracted, though, and other priorities sometimes take over. Here are a few tips for overcoming the ADD tendencies most of us share and sticking to your schedule.

Don’t try to do too much. A main challenge, particularly with so many channels and media, is staying focused. Make sure you have the time and resources to deliver on your strategy. One of our mantras: It’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things badly. If you’re lagging, adjust your execution plan rather than constantly struggling to keep up.

Give yourself room to act on inspiration. Build flexibility into your plan that allows you to tackle off-schedule topics without sacrificing scheduled content. Want to blog about that new IPCC report? Do it when inspiration strikes—but make sure your planned post gets done, too.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy. Often, “good” is good enough. You don’t always have to hit it out of the ballpark—just get to first base. Have a limited video budget? Do one well and leverage the heck out of it. Don’t have enough meaty content for your newsletter? Go with what you do have (maybe toss in an old favorite from the archive) and make sure your next issue has more substance.

Keep the larger goal in mind. Content marketing is about sharing your knowledge in ways that engage others with your company so they’ll work with you or buy from you when the time is right. Keep that conversation going, and you’ll be fine.

Now, I’m going to read Ariely’s newest post. It’s about procrastination…

For more on this topic, check out our guide, Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality.

Why Sustainable Businesses Have a Brand-Building Advantage

Can you get gullible customers to buy increasingly craptastic products based purely on a fantastic brand? The answer just in: No, according to Absolute Value, a new book by Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen. As New Yorker finance writer James Surowiecki puts it: “Brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.”

While it’s always gratifying to see more support for our longtime obsession with credibility, what really strikes me about Surowiecki’s column is the case this makes for sustainable business. If your business—including your marketing—is operating on the principles of transparency, accountability, community benefit and environmental care, that’s good not only for the wider world but also for long-term revenues.

It’s not that sustainable operations guarantee quality products or services (though the need to consider issues like waste and social value certainly helps), but that adhering to principles like transparency and accountability means you can’t resort to smearing lipstick on pigs. If you’re a sustainable business, you won’t claim that fat customers are the cause of yoga pants that stretch to transparency (to cite the New Yorker piece’s primary example).

Sustainable business principles pretty much demand what has always been the hallmark of durably strong brands: they’re built from the inside out. That is, the brand’s image and marketing messages express a compelling combination of personality, values and mission that’s lived within company walls. If you’re not walking the talk, no brand strategy can hide that forever.

Get Messaging Out of the Marketing Ghetto

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but people often focus too much on the creative side of new messaging projects. By too much, I mean exclusively.

Yes, the messaging has to be compelling, flexible, and spot-on for the target audience. But all that development work is wasted if you don’t have a plan for making your messaging live beyond the first website revisions and a carefully crafted guidebook that no one reads. For messaging to succeed, everyone (not just the marketing team) needs to use it—in conversation, emails, presentations, wherever. Based on our experience working with a variety of clients on messaging projects, these are the keys to successful implementation:

Enthusiastic leadership. Driving adoption is not as simple as having the grand pooh-bah say “do it.” Leadership needs to embrace it, use it, model it—internally as well as to external audiences. Otherwise, messaging will be seen as optional.

Communicating the benefits. Good messaging solves problems. It provides easily grasped explanations of difficult concepts, clarifies key goals and values throughout the organization, and provides ready answers (even cut-and-paste options) to common questions. Let people know how the new messaging will help them talk about their work more comfortably, effectively, and consistently.

Training. Walking people through practical exercises for using the messaging in real-life situations is essential. This is especially true for sales teams and customer-facing staff: they’re primary message carriers and they need to feel comfortable with their approach. Facilitated role-playing sessions are ideal. It’s also a good idea to provide a refresher a few months down road.

Using new messaging will feel uncomfortable at first—even if it hits the authenticity mark and rings true to everyone throughout the organization—simply because it’s unfamiliar. Without ample reinforcement, people will revert to the words they’ve always used, even if those words inspire reactions like “Huh?” or “Excuse me, I have to go get another drink now.” Then your messaging platform breaks down—and I hate to see good creative go to waste.