What makes a great blog – and how to write one for business

What makes a good blog and how do you go about writing and sustaining one?

Someone asked me about this topic recently, so here are a few thoughts below. One thing that comes to mind straight away is that a blog should evolve as time goes by. It is quite acceptable to address a variety of topics over the course of several months or weeks – as long as the blog has a common thread or theme that ties your posts together.

And as long as it encourages repeat viewings.

Your style of writing can, and should, evolve, too, as should the overall content and direction.

This blog has been for some time about various writing skills in a business environment, including P.R. and the art of good communications (at the risk of stating the obvious!). But when I started blogging, it was more about personal reflections on my day-to-day existence.  Beware about mixing both.

Here are a few ideas about blogging:

  •           Identify your audience and write for them. As with all forms of communication, it’s best to focus your blog on a particular audience and their needs and desires. Why are you blogging? If it’s just as a hobby or to sound off, that is a different matter from a business-related blog that serves as a marketing channel to reach your audience. I always advocate planning a series of topics, perhaps a month or two in advance and writing about them in order. See my bullet point below about being stuck for ideas – writer’s block happens to all of us
  •          Adopt a friendly, approachable tone and include anecdotes and experiences, where relevant. Gone are the days – mainly – of cold, clinical blog posts with little personality. Readers should feel they know (at least a bit about) the person writing the blog, without hearing their full life story. But, like much writing, this is easier said than done
  •          How often to blog? Good question – some say several times a week, to help with search engine rankings and to create a following. I prefer to stick to my own communications plan and update my blog when I really have something to say on a writing or communications topic. Blogs needn’t be too long, either, around 500 words is an ideal maximum length
  •          Test a few draft blogs on colleagues, friends or partners before you post them. You may end up creating a few followers and fans in the process. Or listen to their feedback if they have constructive criticism. Did they honestly find it easy to read to the end of your post? Would they wish to revisit your blog in future?
  •          Once your blog is established and you have posted a few items, see if you can attract a guest blogger (preferably an expert or highly knowledgeable in their subject area) on to your site. It will only add to the credibility of your blog. And it is great to include other voices and perspectives, especially blogs written by existing and potential customers, including links to other credible blogs and web resources
  •          Hot topics. Like press releases, white papers and other pieces of business writing – establish the real hot issues in your line of work. What new perspective can you offer on them (especially if you can convincingly argue a view-point that differs from the status quo)?
  •          Mix it up. For the last few years, my blogs have been about writing, Public Relations (P.R.) and communications. But, we all like a break from the day-to-day, so occasionally I have included updates on the work of a charity I support. It’s fine to vary the general direction of a blog once in a while, as long as there is a reason for doing so (you may get some push back for trying this if you blog on someone else’s behalf). Variety keeps things fresh, and communicates a wider perspective. It helps with writer’s block and if you run low on ideas, too
  • Check out other blogs and writers you find inspiring to generate your own ideas. And as well as text, clearly don’t forget pictures and video.

For advice on business writing, contact me at bennettwords@sky.com

 

Don’t be boring! How to write to engage your audience

Here’s a quick question. When was the last time a piece of business writing – be it copy on a website, some advertising copy, or a press release – really grabbed you?

There are some great examples of those kinds of writing out there, but it is also easy to turn your audience off in just a few lines.

So what’s the secret of great writing? In a nutshell – don’t be boring! There are many ways to engage your customers, company’s staff or the media. In fact, one of the worst marketing crimes is where a piece of communication goes unnoticed. That means your efforts have failed.

Here are a few tips to add some punch to your copy:

1. Be interesting. Maybe you think what your company does isn’t very intriguing. Well, there is usually a way of making it so. You manufacture paperclips? Well, how about adding a factfile on paperclips (where relevant) into your copy – for instance, calculating the number of paperclips it would take to reach from Earth to the Moon; who was the inventor of the paperclip and add in unusual uses the paperclip has been put to. Immediate interest!

2. Be succinct. Some of the best advice I saw was on writing for the web. Basically, write your article as briefly as possible. Then cut out half of what is left. Readers drown in too much text and quickly loose interest.

3. Thinking visually. Work with a good graphic designer. Whether for digital use – or print – great imagery and imaginative design concepts work wonders in getting your ideas across. And the copywriter should help generate them – does the phrase I used above about ‘adding some punch’ might give you a few visual ideas and conjure up any images?

4. Think customer. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in your own organisation’s achievements. But how do they reflect on your approach to customers and what you can do for them? Being a company founded 37 years ago and having eight directors on the board is all well and good, but, what does this tell your customer? And, without wishing to be rude – try applying the ‘so what?’ test to the statement above. See my previous advice on writing press releases for a further explanation, but this is just as applicable to other forms of business writing.

5. Imagine you are the reader. This takes point four a step further. It’s helpful to think of your intended audience as a real person. So, what are they like – male or female, young or old, where do they live, what do they buy, what work do they do, what interests do they have and so on? What do they like and what would turn them off – in short ‘what’s in it for them’ with your proposition? Don’t be afraid to cut to the chase here. If you can put yourself in the mindset of this customer, then you will be better equipped to tailor your words and images to their needs (give them a name, that will probably help).

I will be returning to the theme of engaging customers, the media, and other audiences, through great writing, in my next few blogs.

http://www.bennettwords.biz

 

Helping property specialist’s messages hit the mark

Slater & Brandley has ambitions to become a major force in the West Bridgford and Nottingham property scenes, and the company expanded rapidly during 2013.

Who better to help it achieve its marketing goals than PR and copywriting specialist Bennettwords, which has a proven track record in delivering effective communications for SME clients, as well as for some bigger household names?

Slater & Brandley added an estate agency arm to its existing residential sales business last year, and communicating this new venture to customers and the wider public was a priority.

A press release written by Bennettwords gained coverage in the Nottingham Post property pages, a key media outlet for the company. Shortly after this, the firm was asked to give the Post its views on a proposed national cap on house prices, leading to Slater & Brandley’s MD being quoted alongside other property gurus from well-established firms.

More recently, more successful PR was gained with coverage of another Slater & Brandley story. The company had just moved to a new base in a distinctive building in West Bridgford, a story which appealed to both the Nottingham Post online (nottinghampost.com) and the West Bridgford Local News. Plans are now being drawn up for more PR and publicity during 2014.

Garry Slater, MD of Slater & Brandley, commented: “Andrew Bennett of Bennettwords brought a raft of fresh ideas to the table on how best to create the maximum exposure for our business and we were very pleased with the final result.

“Andrew engages in his subject with a real passion and is more than prepared to push for the very best outcome for us.” 

 

In the picture: What to look for with PR photography

I am turning to some essentials for good PR and press photography in my latest blog.

This is a topic I hear virtually no discussion about in PR circles these days, but good photography is still important and a great photo can help persuade a journalist to include your story.

Having been the editor of a business to business magazine, I am surprised by a few photos still sometimes submitted for editorial use.

The landscape shifted away from film to digital a long time ago and today, there is much emphasis on providing compelling digital content – including images – for all kinds of audiences.

As a consequence of the digital revolution, many of us have access to digital cameras (often good ones), and smart phones can increasingly take better pictures. However, the person behind the camera and how he/she handles their subject remains important.

Any images supplied to a publication or editorial website for inclusion need to do justice both to the media outlet itself, and the organisation that sends them.

Here are some basic tips for commissioning, taking and supplying images:

  • Make sure photography is supplied in both high resolution (at 300 dpi – while bearing in the mind the final size the photo will be reproduced at) and low resolution (80 dpi) versions, the latter for websites. The former is essential for the printed media to ensure clarity when reproduced. Again, there is often now less emphasis on high resolution shots, given the popularity of digital media platforms
  • If possible, brief a professional photographer to take your pictures, especially if they are to accompany an important press release or media story. Write a clear brief in advance explaining exactly what story the image should tell, who should be on the picture and what style of photography is desired
  • Get the shots done in advance of when the press release or feature needs to be issued so you have time to make the best choice. Offer the media a small range of choices when it comes to images, or even the best single picture – journalists are busy and won’t have time to spend looking through a plethora of pictures. Provide accurate, clear captions for each picture (and yes, these are still missing sometimes)
  • If your story is very newsworthy, call your target media in advance and see if one of their staff photographers (or a trusted freelancer) will come to take some pictures instead of supplying your own. Have a clear idea in mind before contacting newspapers and magazines about the who/what/when/where and why for the photo beforehand. Often, an interesting, well-composed group shot showing some people – or a person – with a key involvement in the story is enough. There is no need to be too contrived when setting up photo opportunities. Try to give some notice before arranging such a ‘photo call’ so the media can accommodate this in their diaries
  • If you must take the picture yourself, go for a nice simple shot against a plain background using an SLR camera. Avoid the pitfalls like taking a picture of a group of people in front of a large window or other reflective surface!
  • When sending pictures out to the media to accompany a news release or feature, I am inclined not to include attachments with emails. Ideally, you can upload a small selection of images to a website where the media can view them via a link and make their choices. Journalists have pretty full inboxes and usually won’t welcome more big files clogging them up

All pretty basic photographic stuff. But it’s surprising how many low resolution Facebook style images (fine for social media, but most probably unusable for a quality printed publication) or shots of the back of people’s heads in a meeting are sometimes considered acceptable for journalistic consumption.

 

How to pitch features ideas to journalists

Last month, I wrote about editorial features, what they are and why this content is different to news stories. And how to approach researching features you or your organisation could make a positive contribute to.

Now I’m turning to how to pitch your editorial feature idea to a journalist. ‘Pitching’ a story idea (or ‘selling in’ as it is often called in Public Relations) is a skill in itself and requires a well thought out approach, as well as sometimes a thick skin.

My last blog dealt with the importance of doing thorough research about your target media to look for opportunities, establish their style and the differences between publications, and noting deadlines.

I will assume you have done all of this before you make the first call to a journalist. The key to success with features is really knowing the publication’s readers, so careful advance research is a must and may put you ahead of your competition.

Once you have your target list of publications, their features lists (or at least an idea of what they are including, when and what their deadlines are) find out who will be writing the most important feature – from your perspective – on that list.

Other than perhaps national newspapers, not many publications have a big team of feature writers. So the task may fall to a trusted freelancer, a staff writer who normally tackles news or perhaps even the features editor (who is responsible for all features content) him or herself.

Phone the writer who is responsible for that feature, making sure it is convenient for them to speak for a few minutes, and ask what angle they are taking for the piece. Also ask if you can help in any way (and how). You might like to double check that all important deadline date, too!

This is where you might score points against a rival company or organisation that may also be aiming for inclusion in the feature. You might propose an angle for the story that the journalist had not thought of, which appeals.

Having spoken to them, and established what their needs and wishes are, make sure it is both in your interest and realistic to fulfil them before their ultimate deadline.

Then quickly email the journalist back with a succinct message explaining what you can offer as part of their feature. I made some suggestions about what might be valuable content in my last blog on this topic.

Remember, it is your job to make the journalist’s life as easy as possible, provide added value for their readers, please their editor and ensure they hit their deadline with ‘good copy’. All of this will add to the positive PR that you will gain.

Put yourself in the writer’s shoes and ask what ‘good copy’ would look like from their point of view (rather than yours). Would it be extra quotes from someone well-informed, with a different perspective on the subject? A case study from a happy customer? Some authoritative recent research, perhaps?

Can you provide a good quality, high resolution photograph or an informative graphic to illustrate the feature?

It should go without saying that once your suggestion of help to a journalist has been accepted, all contributors must deliver the goods on time. Failing to do that will mean you can effectively cross that journalist and publication off your media list next time you have a contribution in mind.

Again, think if you can fulfill the wish list before promising – it can take quite a bit of time to arrange interviews to suit various dairies, organise good quality photography and so on.

If, for any reason, things change (for instance, someone suitable is no longer able to provide an interview before the deadline) be sure to let the writer know quickly and suggest alternatives.

Once you have supplied the copy and other information, do follow-up with a final phone call to ask if this was all received. Does it actually meets the writer’s needs? Do they need anything else– if so, how could you, your company or organisation help?

Make sure you follow-up by getting hard copies of the publication itself and distributing it to everyone who has made a contribution to the feature.

Once you have seen the final results in print, it is a good time to write a quick email of thanks to the journalist. You might ask how you could make a contribution to another feature or news story they are writing in the near future!

Getting the media inspired by albinism

It can be difficult getting journalists interested in the work of a charity, especially with so many organisations clamouring for publicity – especially if that charity represents people with a rare genetic condition in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

This month, my news release and media invite for the Albinism Fellowship Conference near Blackpool gained coverage in a number of local newspapers including the Lancashire Evening Post, and attracted interested from the broadcast media.

Here’s the news release (Inspired by Albinism conference FINAL invite), which was aimed at generating greater understanding of albinism – a condition which affects only 3,000 people in the UK and their families.

I will be back shortly on another topic – more tips on gaining coverage within editorial features.

 

How to gain inclusion in features

What are features, how do features differ from news stories and how can you gain coverage as part of an editorial feature?

I’m dealing with these topics this month in my PR blog.

There might not be as much of a rush to plan a feature (or being part of it) compared to a new story, but the process requires more consideration and forward planning to achieve good results.

It’s really a case of ‘think, plan then do’ here. The first job is to consider (as with news content) which are the key publications and outlets that your company or organisation should be included in.

Features are more in-depth articles. As mentioned, they may be less timely than a ‘news story’. They could consist of an interview, expert advice on a topic or look at in-depth trends and/or analysis of happenings in your sector.

Usually, features are planned well in advance with a features diary or ‘editorial calendar’ (sometimes up to a year ahead for trade publications, although, beware – features lists may change from time to time with some topics being dropped or amended and news ones added).

How – and when – should you get involved? Firstly – do some research; however, this can be time consuming and is one of the reasons companies pay PR professionals to advise them on such matters.

Get hold of copies of all the key publications and media outlets covering your sector or sphere of interest and read their features, getting to know what they are interested in and how they deal with different topics.

As well as the obvious titles (or indeed online outlets) covering your sector – think laterally. So if you specialise in IT, think not about just titles that cover IT – might your feature idea be interesting to a publication that is read by HR (Human Resources) professionals, too?

Two publications in a sector often cover matters in very different ways. For example, with trade publications for the UK passenger rail sector, one leading title always focused on the business and political aspects behind railway stories, whereas other magazines were strong on nostalgia (“the golden age of steam” and so on) and appealed to train enthusiasts.

Such differences are easy to spot; elsewhere they may be subtler. Within social care, another sector I have worked in, there were titles aimed at front line social workers and others looking after vulnerable people, whereas another sector publication was aimed at managers making strategic decisions within health and social care.

So this is why it is particularly important that to do your homework carefully before you approach the features editor or journalist in question to pitch your idea.

As with news stories, which I have addressed before, there is no point pitching a feature idea to a publication that will have no intention of using it; it will do your reputation no good and is time wasted.

Request the features list (some may refer to it as their ‘forward features list’ or planner), which may be available online, from the publication’s media pack, or with a quick email to the relevant editorial contact. Establish the deadline for each feature.

Take a close look at what your key publications have planned for the next six months or years and what they have run previously. How do they cover various topics?

How can you or your organisation contribute in a valuable way?

• Do you have strong views on the marketplace you operate in and the latest trends – do you have a genuinely different viewpoint that you can back up with facts, figures and perhaps case studies?

• Can you offer an in-depth interview to cover this angle (which is hopefully something the publication has not featured before or at least not for a while) or provide interesting photo opportunities?

• Or can one of your customers or service users offer an interesting perspective on new developments, which will gain them some publicity too (make sure you approach third parties first before going to the publication with your idea)?

With a planning grid at the ready, including key titles and editorial contacts and deadlines for these publications, your feature ideas and the resources you will need to help provide a good contribution, time to approach your media.

It’s a good idea to do this months in advance of when the features will appear, especially if you are new to doing this and you are approaching these media for the first time. I will deal with techniques for ‘pitching’ your feature ideas to journalists next time and hints for gaining inclusion, even if it doesn’t initially go to plan.