Screw the Long-Term Strategy! Smart Content Marketing is Agile

Newsjacking chart

There’s an old story about an architect who was hired to design an entire campus of buildings surrounding a large empty quad. When the buildings were done, the administrators asked the architect to lay out a series of sidewalks between buildings.

He decided to wait instead. As he waited, people walked between the buildings, finding their own way, eventually wearing the most efficient paths into the grass. Then the architect had the sidewalks installed on the paths the people had made, saying they were more efficient and useful than anything he could have created himself.

How many times have companies created a long-term strategy for content marketing or social media marketing, only to scrap the entire plan after two weeks because of a crisis or major event.

I’ve talked with companies that will schedule everything — blog posts, Facebook updates, and even individual tweets. I’ve seen spreadsheets of scheduled tweets, three per day, five days a week, which took days and weeks to create, all thrown away because of a change in a law, regulations, or even a CEO or CMO.

There are plenty of reasons to have a long-term strategy, but plenty more reasons to avoid the strategy and be more agile. Here are five ways you can be more agile with your content marketing.

1. Create a topic checklist.

Marathon Checklist signFor some clients, we’ll blog about particular topics each month, but the actual titles of the blog post are wide open. We’re more concerned about the general theme of the month, but we don’t script each individual post. For example, a men’s clothing line might have a topic checklist like this:

November

  • 2 posts on dressing warm for winter
  • 2 posts on hats
  • 2 posts on scarves
  • 2 posts on winter suits

The blog posts themselves could be about how to wear a suit in the bitter cold, which kind of hat to wear to the office, the proper way to tie a scarf, and what materials are warmest in the winter.

This method lets the content marketing manager decide what to write about, taking input from product managers, as well as PR and marketing staff. It’s also flexible enough to change if problems or news stories arise. For example, if hats became suddenly more popular, they could drop a couple posts on suits and scarves, and write more about hats.

2. Watch your analytics

Google AnalyticsGoogle has stopped telling us what keywords bring people to our blogs, but you can still get a good idea by looking at the pages that get the most traffic. If you spot a pattern, you’ll understand what people are turning to you for. This means you should put more energy into those topics.

Keep an eye on your Google rank as well. Use a service like WebCEO to find your true Google rank for certain keywords and topics. Write about the areas you want to shore up, as well as write more about the things you want to improve.

3. Answer customer service and tech support questions

People who ask questions are usually a smaller subset of people who have a particular problem. That is, if 10 people ask a question, there may be anywhere from 100 – 250 people with the same problem. Write blog posts and create videos to answer those questions. As people search for the answers to their questions, they’ll find your content and visit your site.

Search your email for questions that start with “how do I. . .” Talk to your customer service department to find out what people are calling about. Rewrite and publish FAQs and tech support knowledge forums into blog posts. Use screencasts and videos to show people how to complete a particular process or fix a problem.

4. Monitor the industry news

As David Meerman Scott says, newsjacking is about injecting your ideas into a breaking news story. It’s about becoming the “second sentence” in a news article.

Newsjacking chart

As soon as you hear about breaking news in your industry, write a response story that includes your take and your ideas on how it affects your customers and your industry. It should be the second sentence in your blog post or press release. At the very least, your customers will appreciate you alerting them to the issue. At best, journalists will see you as one of the authorities on it, and call you for a response.

Be a voracious reader of little-known and industry insider sites. Create RSS feeds of your industry’s thought leader blogs and news sites. Set up Twitter lists of those people and monitor them constantly.

Most importantly, be prepared to jump on those news stories immediately. Take a crisis communication approach: Be first, be right, be credible. That means writing blog posts as soon as things happen, or even assigning someone to be a dedicated content marketer whose primary responsibility is to write content. (This may mean giving them a “get out of meetings free” pass.)

5. Think like a beginner, or ask your beginning customers

You work in a particular field day in, day out. You’ve talked about your work so much, you’re sure everyone knows the most basic information about what you do. It turns out, most people know nothing about your industry, your company, or your specialty. They come to your website because they have those basic questions and they need answers.

Ask your salespeople to explain their sales pitch, and look to your FAQ. Come up with lists posts like “Five Things to Consider About _____,” “Five Things to Avoid When Buying _____,” or “Five Reasons You Need _____” to answer those beginning questions.

Many of my clients are surprised to see these beginning posts are some of their most-visited posts. They figured “everyone” knew all about the subject, but it turned out no one did. I’ve helped clients scrap entire content marketing strategies because they had to take it back to the beginning.

Rather than spending a lot of time and effort creating a content calendar, leave yourself open to serendipity and happenstance. An agile content marketing approach lets you change directions and go with the flow when responding to events as they arise. It lets you provide more value to your customers and clients than a fully-developed and strictly-followed content calendar will ever do.

Photo credit:

Five Steps for Surviving Google Authorship’s Death

I was pretty pissed when Google canceled their much-loved Authorship.

For one thing, they did it less than a week before an advanced content marketing seminar I was leading, which killed about 25% of the entire presentation, which sent me scrambling for another solid 15 minutes. I mean, I had a great graphic with Chuck Norris, bacon, and a cartoon of a bear riding a shark, and They. Killed. It.

Second, this was the one thing that was going to make honest writers out of all the meh-diocre hacks and spammers. Rather than allowing anonymous drones to fill up the Internet with less-than-acceptable articles, the good writers were going to be rewarded with high search engine ranking.

And now they killed it. Killed it dead. Deader than any show Ted McGinley joins.

Google search results for Ernest Hemingway bloggingBut as I’ve had time to grieve and process my feelings, I’ve realized that Google Authorship’s demise does not mean the end of quality writing or content marketing. Yes, it will mean we all have to work harder, but it’s not impossible.

Google Authorship played a very important role in SEO: it drove people to Google+. If you wanted to take advantage of Authorship, you had to link to the network, and use it properly. But not enough people embraced Authorship (or Google+), and so they shut it down.

That doesn’t mean we’re going back to the SEO old days, where keyword stuffing was all the rage. Google is is putting extra nails in that coffin with their Panda 4.1 release.

If anything, they’re still beating the “write better” drum, and giving favor to small and medium businesses that make content creation one of their top priorities.

So if you want to catch Google’s attention, do it right the first time.

It’s Still About Personal Branding

Ted McGinley from his appearance on Happy Days.

Oh, the stories this guy could tell. If only he’d keep up his blog.

Authorship did one thing: it put a writer’s picture on the Google search results, and included the author’s name. That’s it. Yes, that was helpful because it added a semblance of trustworthiness and credibility to the article, but just because your face appeared next to a result didn’t mean it was any good.

It also told Google who the good authors were, in the hopes that they would give preference to those writers who did it right and followed all the rules. But they still have ways of knowing. They’re just not going to show that favoritism via photos and names.

Google has also killed the benefit of guest blogging, especially for backlinking purposes, which has all but eliminated the dearth of guest posts appearing everywhere on the Internet. So it’s actually become a viable personal branding strategy again, even though it’s finished as an SEO strategy.

This is where being a good and connected writer, or hiring them, comes in handy.

According to CNBC’s article, “Want to lift your Google ranking? Hire writers,” writing guest posts in places with high visibility adds to your reputation and credibility as an expert in your industry.

Writing is a central part of Jamie Walker’s job. Her San Francisco-based start-up SweatGuru, which develops Web-based software for fitness instructors and personal trainers, counts on Google for over half its traffic and has virtually no marketing budget. Instead, Walker is frequently penning blog posts for the Huffington Post and the site SheKnows.com, offering advice to yoga teachers and techniques for running. It’s about establishing herself as an expert, without pushing SweatGuru’s products.

I’ve said many, many times before, I think “write good content” is a galactically stupid strategy (it’s a way of life, not a checkbox you tick off or a thing you decide to do, as if it’s optional). But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you’re writing for highly-visible sources like Huffington Post, that’s not a place to drop your Buzzfeed-quality articles. It needs to be some of your best work, because that’s the first thing people are going to see. That’s what will win converts to you and your brand, not pumping out a lot of low-quality work just to meet an artificial-yet-ineffective deadline.

You need to write well, because Google will reward it. People will read your work, share it, and spend more time on your site, which are all factors in Google’s search algorithm (along with 200 other signals). Don’t settle for good enough, because people will ignore it in favor of stuff that’s better.

If you can’t write well, learn it. If you can’t learn it, outsource it. This is not a place to cheap out or screw around. If your business depends on the quality of your content, make sure it’s the best damn content you can put out there.

While you’re creating that top-notch content, don’t forget these four other tactics.

  1. Write guest posts on influencers’ blogs and outlets. The more visible the outlet, the better, just don’t do it for the backlinks. If anything, stick a single link to your main page or Twitter page in your bio. Google won’t even count it, but stick a rel=”nofollow” tag in there so they know you’re not trying to be tricky. But don’t put your best eggs into that basket. Save your best content for your own blog.
  2. Join an allied industry group on LinkedIn where you can serve and provide value. Do this in addition to joining your industry’s groups. Write information for the allied group, not your industry group. Don’t worry about trying to impress your colleagues, focus on impressing your potential customers. Your industry colleagues won’t hire you, allied group members will.
  3. Curate insider information. Curation should only take up 20% (1 day out of 5) of your total content marketing. It should not be your entire strategy. This means you need to find the best and hardest to find information, not the Mashable article that everyone’s already read. Share that information with your allied groups so they can do their jobs better.
  4. Embrace social sharing. It may be old hat, but there ain’t no hats like old hats. The best way to get people to see your content is to share it on social media. They’re not going to stumble upon it by accident. There won’t be a grand awareness of your latest article. And the social media fairies won’t sprinkle it with their magic dust into your networks. You have to tell people, several times in fact. Post it two or three times over two days. Remember, not everyone is on Twitter at the same time. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and possibly once in the evening or the next day at lunch time. Google still pays attention to social sharing signals, so the more your content is shared, the better.

Authorship may be gone, but if you’re an effective content marketer, that shouldn’t matter. If you’ve already been doing it right, you’re still able to keep doing what you’ve been doing. It’s like taking a nail gun away from a carpenter. As long as he’s still got his hammer, he can keep working.

If you’ve still got your blog or website, you can keep working too.

Five Lazy Words To Cut From Your Marketing Copy

Take what you need sign taped to a telephone pole

Many marketers suck their readers into the bog of humdrum with over-used words and industry jargon, hoping no one will notice they’re just coasting on properly spelled words and grammatical sentences. It’s a sign of writing laziness to trot out the same old phrases and buzzwords, using them just one more time, in the hopes of getting out of yet another copywriting jam.

These words aren’t even buzzwords anymore. They’ve had the buzz driven right out of them. They’re words that every good copywriter must stop using if they want to stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Needs

Take what you need sign taped to a telephone poleNeeds is the marketing equivalent of “stuff.” It’s so overused, government agencies are going to start using it. That’s nearly as bad as when your mom joined Facebook.

  • Check Teacher’s Pet for all your back to school needs.
  • Steve’s Auto Parts has all your automotive repair needs.
  • Visit Cackling Larry’s for all your old-timey gold prospecting needs!

This is the cardinal sin of copywriting. Never, ever say “needs” in your marketing copy. If you have to, torpedo the entire paragraph and rewrite it. If you can’t think of another word, switch careers.

Solutions

“Solutions” fill “needs.”

Need I say more?

Storytelling

“Storytelling” took off soon after the phrase “content marketing” did. And as the content marketing industry has become populated by the creative writing set, the word has become overused, even if the method has not.

I won’t go into the problem of blog posts written by “storytellers” that look less like stories and more like school papers or technical manuals, except to say this: if you call yourself a storyteller, tell stories. That’s different from Articlewriting, Blogposting, and Instructionexplaining.

Content marketers, stop saying you’re doing storytelling. Not everything is a story. You’re a writer, so write things. That’s a timeless, all-encompassing word that’s not in danger of becoming trendy overused jargon.

You’re not a storyteller unless you go to festivals wearing a black turtleneck and tell stories in that funny poetry-reading voice.

Rich

Content-rich, visually-rich, keyword-rich. It used to be an effective word, but it’s been so overused, it’s eye-rolling-rich. We say it when we should just say “full of” or “better.” But I’m even starting to see it to mean “meets the barest definition of.” As in “this book is word-rich.”

Why not say heavy, appealing, replete, full, packed, stocked, gorged, or my personal favorite, chockablock.

If I can get anyone to use the phrase “keyword-chockablock,” I will have lived a complete life.

King

Prince Willem-Alexander at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

That’s then-Prince Willem-Alexander at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, going for the gold.

Content is king. SEO is king. Social media is king.

The phrase “_____ is king” is as ubiquitous as those damn Keep Calm and blah blah something clever blah t-shirts. Someone’s going to say it, then thousands of people are going to repeat it, to be followed by many more thousands going, “nuh-uh, the thing I said was king is still king.”

Nothing is really king. It’s important, it’s crucial, it’s essential, it’s even critical. But it’s not “king.” The only King is Elvis. Also, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.

And please, for the love of God, do not replace “is king” with mission-critical.

The world is filled — FILLED! — with overused jargony phrases that make me want to tear an Oxford English Dictionary in two. But these are the five I think we should do away with immediately. If we can start here, we can improve content marketing for everyone, making the world a bright and happy place.

(While we’re on the subject, I’m not real wild about “content” either.)

Photo credit: Itzok Alf Kurnik (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Louisville Digital Association’s 6th Annual Digital Media Summit Schedule

2014 Louisville Digital Media Summit

I’m very proud to be one of the speakers at the 6th annual Digital Media Summit in Louisville on October 16. it’s a single day event held in Frazier Hall at Bellarmine University, and it’s sponsored by the fine fols at Brown-Forman and Bellarmine University’s School of Communication. You can get tickets here.

With the tagline, Improve your business and marketing through technology, several of us will be talking about how to do social media marketing better, including my two co-authors, Jason Falls and Kyle Lacy.

2014 Louisville Digital Media Summit

Tentative Agenda for Louisville Digital Media Summit

8 – 8:30 a.m. Networking, Breakfast, Setup

8:30 a.m. Introductions Jason Falls

8:40 a.m. Opening Keynote A Decade of Chasing What’s Next
Rick Murray, former president of Edelman Digital

9:30 a.m. 10 Professional Writing Secrets
Erik Deckers, Pro Blog Service

10:10 a.m. Break

10:20 a.m. The Mobile Commerce Revolution
Tim Hayden & Tom Webster, Edison Research

11:10 a.m. Paid Advertising In Facebook, How PPC Ninja’s Really Work Founder
Jason Brown, SERPWoo

12:00 p.m. Lunch

1:00 p.m. Bellarmine School of Communication
Dr. Lara Needham, Bellarmine University

1:20 p.m. 5 Technology Trends Disrupting Behavior
Kyle Lacy, Exact Target Marketing Cloud

2:10 p.m. Communicating at the right time, right channel and right situation in a crisis
Dr. Karen Freberg, University of Louisville

3:00 p.m. Break

3:10 p.m. Your Brand, Your Brain
Julia Roy, CoFounder, Workhacks

4:00 p.m. What Didn’t We Learn? Speaker Panel
Jason Falls, Moderator

4:30 p.m. Closing

You can register for the event here. By the way, if you’re interested in going, I’ve got a special discount code you can use. Just email me — erik at problogservice dot com — and I’ll give it to you.

What “Write Drunk, Edit Sober” Means

Ernest Hemingway

I have to correct a long-running bit of misinformation I’ve passed on for the last several years:

Ernest Hemingway did NOT say “write drunk, edit sober.”

This is something I’ve said in my talks on writing, and it’s one of my most popular tweets of the day. My Klout score will jump two points after a good “write drunk, edit sober” slide.

Except, it does not appear that Ernest actually said it.

Peter De Vries

Peter De Vries

It may have been said by noted American novelist Peter De Vries, the author of The Blood Of The Lamb and Reuben, Reuben — which, as it turns out, is not about a fat guy at a deli.

Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.

Writing coach Jeff Goins recently wrote that he had some issues with the phrase, which I disagree with. Goins didn’t like it because 1) it propagates the myth of creativity as a whimsical activity, something that isn’t taken seriously, and 2) it encourages and possibly even glamorizes substance abuse.

Regardless of who said it, I still hold with the advice, but with a couple of caveats.

One thing to understand about “write drunk, edit sober”

While Ernest may have been quite the boozer, the one thing he never did was write while he had been drinking. In fact, he never started drinking until the afternoon. Regardless of his schedule, he was usually at his typewriter by 6 or 7 am, and would work straight until lunchtime, often standing up. He wouldn’t let anything interfere with his writing, including a hangover.

As he told George Plimpton in the Paris Review:

Ernest Hemingway

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

After lunch, he would write letters, edit some past work, and then hit the sauce around 3:00. He may have ended up drinking all night, but he was right back at the typewriter the next morning.

The other thing. . .

I don’t actually believe the phrase “write drunk” encourages substance abuse any more than “eat fresh” will make me a vegetarian.

Rather than ranting about trigger warnings (which I absolutely hate), I’ll say this instead.

When I mention this in my talks, I always point out that “write drunk” only refers to a state of mind, not an actual altered conscious. Alcohol is a depressant. It depresses our inhibitions, which makes us act silly, do inappropriate things, and say and do things we might not otherwise do.

We all have (or know someone who has) made bad life choices while drunk. If we can’t even make good choices about things that have a long-standing impact on our lives, how can we expect to make good word choices?

So, don’t drink and write.

Instead, writing drunk means to imagine the kinds of things you would say if you’d knocked back a few to depress your inhibitions. What words would you use? What ideas would you express? Would you speak more poetically? Use more dramatic and lofty language?

Instead of “speaking loudly,” would you “shout your barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world?”

Similarly, “edit sober” means to copyedit with a critical eye. It doesn’t mean to eliminate and undo all the great work you did while “drunk;” it means clean up your work, remove errors, and fix typos.

It means that you need to nudge your no-fun inner editor and put him or her to work. She doesn’t have permission to tone down your work, just make sure everything is spelled right.

You don’t have to be a tortured soul prone to fits of rampant alcoholism and multiple marriages to be a successful novelist. You have to sit down and do the work. You need to stretch yourself, say things you normally wouldn’t say, and go a little nuts.

Don’t undo the good work you’ve put down. Just make sure it’s error-free, and send it out into the world.

Instead, drink in moderation, and write to excess. It’s cheaper, easier, and you don’t feel like hell in the morning.

There SHOULD be a High Barrier to Entry in Content Marketing

Lightning

The downside of content shock, says Mark Schaefer, is that there will be a high barrier to entry for companies and people who want to start content marketing.

He says that like it’s a bad thing.

There needs to be a high barrier to entry, at least for those who want to be successful.

LightningThe problem is, says Schaefer, the Internet will grow 600% in the next six years. In other words, as big as the Internet is now, there will be six more Internets of content by 2020.

Yet we consumers only read, watch, and hear 10 hours a day of it, and that number won’t increase. We can’t even keep up with the current Internet now, and it’s going to grow by “one Internet” every year. There’s already too much, and it’s hard to find the really good stuff as it is.

That means we’re either going to accept more crap as “good enough,” or we’re going to hold out and trust that the best work will rise to the top, via recommendations and sharing.

The “Myth” of Rising Content

Schaefer calls this the “myth of rising content.” He says that “amazing content” — well-written, well-produced content — is the price of admission, the bare minimum to get in.

It’s a myth I prefer to believe in. If amazing content were only the price of admission, then we wouldn’t have a shock. We would have so many people just struggling to get into the game at all. But as it stands, we have so much mediocrity that, if you were to put some effort into it, could create some outstanding work that would catch people’s attention. And if you really focused, you could create some stellar work that would make people talk about you for months.

It’s like the book publishing world 30+ years ago, before the Internet was even a thing. You had to be awesome just to have a book published. Now, anyone with a laptop and wifi can publish an e-book, and the marketplace has become crowded again.

Forty years ago, when there were only a few TV stations, you had to have a great TV show to get on the air. Now, thanks to cable TV, there’s way more than “13 channels of shit to choose from.” But there are a few shows that everyone is watching — Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, House of Cards — because it’s “amazing content.” Everything else isn’t amazing, it’s just “good enough,” so these shows stand out because of their amazing-ness.

This means the only two ways to be successful are to either produce more content than anyone else, or do it better than everyone else. Since most of us can’t produce hundreds and thousands of blog posts, photos, and videos per week, we’re just going to have to be better.

That’s the high barrier. To be better than nearly everyone else out there. To write better articles, shoot better photos, and produce better videos and podcasts. The high barrier isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot of skill. You need professional writers, professional videographers, and professional photographers.

You can’t just hire a bunch of new college grads, stick a camera in their hand or plunk them in front of a computer, and expect them to create great work. Sure, they’ll do good work, especially if you hire a creative writing major, a photojournalist, or video producer (which I highly recommend).

But that’s the go-to strategy that’s creating this mess: get the new kid to do it.

It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, kid, it just has to get done.

That’s the attitude that will get your work mired in the 600%. It’ll be buried under the thousands of blog posts, millions of photos, and decades of videos. This is where the high barrier will help. It will save people from being overwhelmed, and keep them interested in your work, whether you’re a media company, manufacturer, service provider, or artist.

You need producers who have the skill and experience to make their work stand out from the rest of the crowd. You want professional writers, photographers, videographers, and audio producers. Not everyone who can string two sentences together is a writer, and not everyone with a $300 camera is a photographer or videographer.

In my professional work, I see so much crap written by someone who thought their first draft was “good enough for who it’s for,” and they rushed to get it out in the 30 minutes between meetings. So I’ve stopped reading “good enough” blog posts, stories, and articles. This means I’ve stopped reading newspapers that fire their best writers and columnists, and replace them with rookie writers doing nothing but restaurant reviews. This means I don’t watch most TV shows, I look for the hidden gems on cable, Netflix, and YouTube. This means I don’t listen to commercial radio, I listen to two or three eclectic favorites via iTunes, or a few podcasts.

I look for people who treat their work like a craft and not a commodity. That’s where I get my 10 hours a day of content, and sometimes not even that much. I think the backlash against this new diarrheic Internet is going to be that people are going to read, watch, and listen to less. We’re going to be more selective, and that means people are just going to have to work harder.

This also means we as business owners and marketers need to change our focus about how we generate our content. We need to avoid the trap of “more more more,” and focus on being better.

We should hire writers who are mortified by a single misspelling in an article. We need to hire writers who take a few hours to write a single piece because they’re forging, honing, and sharpening their work, and still aren’t satisfied when it’s done. We need to work with photographers whose biggest investment isn’t a zoom lens attachment for their iPhone.

We need to make sure our work is some of the best available. And you’re just not going to do that if you focus on being good enough.

#Ferguson Shows Why Citizen Journalism Is Still Critical

If you’ve been keeping up with the news from Ferguson, Missouri, chances are a lot of the updates and photos are coming from individuals who aren’t journalists, posting live video feeds from their cell phones. When members of the traditional media were being arrested by the police, and the cable news stations were all kicked out or, in the case of Al Jazeera Television, fired at with gas grenades, it was often the alternative news sources and citizen journalists who fed us new information and updates.

I spent most of last Friday night, as well as last night (Monday), following what was happening in Ferguson through a variety of Twitter users, including Vice News, Alice Speri, Ryan Reilly, and Adam Serwer, as well as alderman Antonio French (who was arrested Friday night), his wife @Senka, and several LiveStream, Ustream, and Vine users. That’s not to say the mainstream media wasn’t there — they were. But on that first night, most of the video footage and images they replayed over and over on CNN were coming from people uploading them from their phones to Twitter and Instagram.

 

I won’t rehash what’s been happening this week — the militarized police response, the protests, the tear gas and the flash grenades. The fact that you know about it at all is thanks to the mainstream media, the alternative and non-traditional media (Huffington Post, Vice News, Freedom of the Press), and citizen journalists. (Update: The police kicked nearly all the media out of the area at 12:00 am CDT, often pointing guns, firing tear gas, and threatening to arrest them. One journalist, Tim Pool, allegedly had his press badge ripped off his chest and told by a police officer, he “didn’t give a shit.”)

Citizen journalists can range from anyone with a Twitter account and a cell phone to an independent news organization as complex as a large blog or an online news website, like The American Reporter (disclosure: I’ve been the humor columnist for the American Reporter since 1997). And anyone with that basic technology can record and disseminate news on a micro scale, or have your content seen around the world by tens of thousands of people.

While the term citizen journalists is often spoken with air quotes around that second word, especially by professional journos, they still play an important role in getting out early information. Ever since George Holliday recorded the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 20 years ago with a Sony Handycam, private citizens have become citizen watchdogs against the police, the government, and in some cases, even the media themselves.

In many cases, they’ve been doing it without protection, at their own risk, and without the benefit of a publication’s legal team to back them up. They’re the people who find themselves at the center of the action and rather than run away, they pull out their cell phones, hit the button, and stand around a little longer than is safe or wise.

This means anyone can upload videos of things they think are wrong, or want to record for posterity and history.

Of course this means we also have to become critical thinkers and viewers, making sure that what we’re seeing is real, and not a hoax. That we’re re-sharing news from people we trust, and not just blindly retweeting everything with the trending hashtag of the day.

We Also Need to Trust Our Technology

But while we were watching Ferguson news on Twitter, it turns out Facebook’s algorithm didn’t even allow #Ferguson news to show up in our news feeds at all. On that Friday night, if you weren’t looking at Twitter, you didn’t even know anything was going on. (And if you rely on Twitter’s U.S. trending reports to see what’s happening, you were told that #ThatsSoRaven was infinitely more important than #Ferguson, as the tweens’ show trended that night, while the civil unrest in our own country was supposedly not even happening. The hashtag trended in individual cities like Indianapolis and Nashville, but not the country as a whole.)

Medium writer Zeynep Tufecki argues that this shows why not only is net neutrality important — what if Facebook and Twitter didn’t want us to know about Ferguson? They didn’t mess with the algorithm, but what if they had decided to play that card? — but even the technology used by both real and citizen journalists could be affected. California is considering legislation that will require “kill switches” in cell phones. While the technology is there to discourage violent cell phone theft, who’s to say an overeager militarized police department won’t force a wireless company to throw that same switch when they’re about to come down on a crowd of protestors?

Citizen journalism isn’t going away, despite the gnashing of teething and rending of garments by the professional journalists who look down on the amateurs with only slightly less scorn than a militarized police force. It’s here to stay, and as we’ve seen in Ferguson, it sometimes may be the only source of information we have for a while.

Five Ways for Creative Writers to Make Money (And Two That Don’t Work)

No Bullshit Social Media in New Release Shelf

I had a great discussion with a new friend, @SarahSuksiri, about creative writing, poetry — I learned a lot about poetry and poets from her — and how writers try to make money while pretending they don’t associate themselves with filthy lucre.

This attitude is especially prevalent with poets, who think they should only do poetry for their art. If this is your attitude, repeat after me:

Hello, welcome to Starbucks

For those writers who want to earn a living from your creative writing degree or MFA, here are five ways to actually make some money from writing that does not involve freelancing. Or you can at least show your parents that your 4 – 7 years of higher education were not a complete exercise in navel gazing.

1. Sell ebooks

Jim Kukral is the master of promoting self-published books. He’s made his name helping new authors and. . . let’s say, “niche” authors find an audience and sell their books. Even the unusual ones. (Books, not authors. Well, authors too.)

The numbers in self-publishing make sense. Without going too much into the entire “traditional publishing versus self-publishing debate,” let me tell you what Kukral and others say about the economics: If you sell a traditionally-published book for $20, you’ll make $1 – $1.40 per book in royalties, after you pay back your advance. If you sell a self-published e-book for $2.99, you’ll make $2. Sell it for $9.99, and you’ll make $7.

Now, you may sell more books in bookstores with a traditional publisher (plus it’s awesome to have your book on a bookstore shelf), but you have to sell 5 – 7 trad-pub books to make $7, versus selling one $10 ebook. Sell 1,000 books, and you get either $1,400 or $7,000. If all you sold is 1,000 books, you won’t get that $1,400 from your publisher; that’s all payback for your advance. But that $7,000 is yours off the bat. (Warning: this takes a lot of social media marketing and promotion.)

2. Become a speaker

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Professional speakers command a fee. If you’re a nonfiction B2B writer like me, you have a system or knowledge that you can parlay into a one to six hour teaching session, and people will pay for that (see #5 below). If you write about important social issues, whether fiction or nonfiction, you may be able to get a gig as a keynote speaker. Keynotes make anywhere from $500 to $3,000, and even more. (Of course, you need to almost be a professional keynote speaker and that takes a few years. You’ll know when you’re ready for that.)

Build up your stage legs by giving readings, teaching small classes, and doing small talks around town for free. Join Toastmasters if you’re not comfortable with speaking. Promote yourself with a blog and become active on social media.

3. Give readings or host organized events

Slam poets earn money through their readings (Slammings? Happenings?), because they treat their work like a musician or a theatre troupe. They sell tickets or have a cover charge, and they sell books in the back of the room. Depending on the size of your audience and your rates, you could make a couple hundred dollars in a single night. Not enough to pay the rent, but you’re certainly earning more in one night than working three shifts at High-Priced Boots And Pants in the mall.

Promote the bejeezus out of these events, and get a big crowd. If you don’t like marketing, you’d better learn to real quick. You want a big crowd that’s interested in what you have to say. Even if you want to be a purist who never accepts money for their work (do your events for free then), you still want a big crowd of people who clap for you (or snap. Do they still snap at poetry slams?), and run up to you afterward, gushing and stumbling over their words. Promote these events with social media and old school marketing techniques to draw that crowd.

4. Combine your work with another passion and travel

Writer Chris Guillebeau, who wrote The Art of Nonconformity, has the kind of job that lets him work anywhere. So he does it while he travels to different parts of the globe in an attempt to visit every single country around the world.

As a writer, you have the flexibility to work anywhere you want, and on any kind of project you want. In some cases, you can even work in strange new locales, like the African Bush, the Canadian wilderness, or Iowa. If you can leverage your writing skills into a real money-earner, like a freelance copywriter, go where the work is, or just work from your favorite coffee shop. If you can get a nonprofit to hire you for six months, rent a short-term apartment in that city, and go to work.

5. Teach classes and seminars

Writing coach Jeff Goins is making his name not only as a writer, but as a writing coach. He’s built his reputation and living by offering several online webinars and ongoing classes per year, as well as selling educational materials to budding writers. One of his multi-week classes can cost a few hundred dollars per student. Similarly, I’ve begun teaching classes for the Indiana Writers Center, and I was happily surprised when I was handed a check at the end of the first class. I had forgotten all about it.

So what if you charged $200 for a 4 week online class and got 15 students to sign up? That’s $3,000 a month. It’s not downtown-penthouse money, but for a young writer who has a roommate or spouse-with-a-job, it’s a significant contribution to the household income. And what if you could repeat that model every month, or even run it twice a month on different days, but only did it a few times a year?

Further, if you have an MFA, you’re qualified to teach writing and English at a local college or university. (Actually, if you have a master’s degree in anything, you’re qualified to teach undergraduates in that field.) It’s not great pay — I get anywhere from $700 – $1,000 a month for a single public speaking class. And you certainly don’t want to build a career on being an adjunct. But if you’re looking for beer money, or a little something to boost your income, this is a great way to use your degree and your passion.

And now for the two don’ts: I’ve seen other people try this, and it’s rough. A lot of people have started down one of these two paths only to realize the numbers don’t work, and they’re out all that time and expense.

1. Start a website or journal that relies on banner advertising

Ad sales are a hard, scary way to make money. Even big city newspapers aren’t making a ton of money from them. Advertisers only want to pay per thousand displayed ads (some even only want to pay per click). These advertisers will only pay between $10 – $20 per thousand visitors, which works out to $.01 – $.02 per view).

So if you want to earn $50 for a single article, you have to generate between 2,500 – 5,000 visitors to that one page page. But if the advertiser is paying by the click, you may get $.20 per click, but if you want $50, you need 250 clicks. And if the click-through rate on an ad is 1% (which is actually kind of high), you need 25,000 visitors to see that ad. If you could bring in 25,000 visitors a month to your website, you need to sell ebooks, not display ads.

2. Traditional publishing

(Otherwise known as “my editor is going to hate me now!”)

While everyone wants to have that big blockbuster that makes them more money than J.K. Rowling and John Grisham combined, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? I’ve written three books and ghostwritten half of another. If I tried to live on the royalties of those books, I’d have a very fancy cardboard box under a bridge.

No Bullshit Social Media in New Release Shelf

When I saw this photo, it was one of the proudest days of my life. My mom, not so much.

Even if you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of books in order to get rich; several tens of thousand per year to earn a salary. Let’s say you get $1.20 in royalties for every published book you sell. If you want to earn $48,000 a year in royalties, you need to sell 40,000 books every single year.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditional publishing is great. I owe Que Biz-Tech and Pearson Publishing a lot. So much of what I’ve been able to do has happened because they took a chance on me. I love knowing that my books have been printed, occupy a physical space in the world, and I got a thrill knowing that No Bullshit Social Media was seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of impressionable children walking into a Barnes & Noble. I encourage many writers to try to get their books published by a real publishing house before they take up the self-publishing baton.

But — and this is the point I want to stress — traditional publishing is not how you’re going to make a long-term living. The numbers just aren’t there anymore. Not at $1.40 royalties per book. You’re going to push, promote, and shout about your book to as many people as you can, whether you self-publish, or you go the traditional route. Either method involves the same amount of work. The only difference is there’s a bigger payoff in the self-pub route than in trad-pub. (On the other hand, you’ll never see a self-published book in a Barnes & Noble.)

Having said that, having a traditionally published book is an excellent way to build your reputation, which makes numbers 2 – 5 that much easier to accomplish.

Now that I’ve crapped on your dreams or given you a great idea, what are some other ideas you have for writers who want to make money? If you’re making money from your writing, what are you doing that earns a steady (or at least significant) income? Leave a note in the comments.

How to Spot (and Block) Twitter Follow Spammers

May 21, 5 days later - Following 7,965 people. Almost 1,000 people in 5 days.

Twitter is becoming a cesspool of uselessness, churning with marketers who think it’s free advertising, and people who post motivational quotes that couldn’t persuade someone with OCD to wash his hands. And I won’t even mention the people who promise to get you 5,000 “followers” for $29. (They’re the “floaters.”)

Now we’re being hit with wave after wave of Follower Junkies who artificially inflate their numbers without providing anything of value.

Follower Junkies will yo-yo follow people to boost their follower count into the tens of thousands, bumping up against Twitter’s policy of only allowing users to follow 1,000 people per day, but never going over the line. So they stay under Twitter’s radar and continue to spread their infestation.

Beating the Twitter Follower Limit

When someone new joins Twitter, they’re only allowed to follow 2,000 people. This is the Twitter Follower Limit. You can’t follow more than 2,000 people until a certain number of people are following you back. (You also can’t follow more than 1,000 people in a single day). Once you reach a magical unspecified ratio, you can follow more people. (Some people speculate that the ratio is roughly 10% more than your follower count. Once you get 2,000 followers, you can follow 2,200 people. 2,200 followers, you can follow 2,420 people. This is speculation, but that’s the principle behind the magical ratio.)

So a yo-yo follower will follow 2,000 people, wait for them to follow back, unfollow them, and then follow a new batch of people. The more followers they get, the more people they can yo-yo follow, and on and on and on, until they’ve got more followers than God, but their tweets are about as complex and substantial as a high school prom.

Suspicious Twitter follower count

Fewer than 800 tweets but almost 4,000 followers? I don’t think so. Also, check the followING count — if you’re not a celebrity, it shouldn’t be that unbalanced. This is someone in the midst of a yo-yo drop.

How to Spot a Twitter Follow Spammer

You can spot a yo-yo follower because they have fewer than 3,000 tweets, but 10,000 or more followers. Or they are following a mere fraction of their followers, but they’re not celebrities. Their following numbers look like the Matterhorn.

Here’s an example: Spammer #1 is following 76,800+ people, and has 88,700+ followers. Are they interesting? Most of their Twitter stream seems to be a steady drip of one-way communication, with the #leadership hashtag on Every. Single. Tweet. (No, I’m not exaggerating.)

To check the Twitter shenanigans, I used TwitterCounter.com’s graphing capability. You can examine as much as 3 months’ worth of data with a free account. This is from April 4 through June 18.

May 27, 2014 - Following 88,162 people

May 27, 2014 – Following 88,162 people

 

May 29, just 2 days later. Following 69,563 people. A 12,463 count difference.

May 29, just 2 days later. Following 69,563 people. A 12,463 count difference.

This is someone who is — technically — following Twitter’s rules. The slow climb after May 29 is still within the “you can’t follow more than 1,000 people in a single day” rule, but they dumped nearly 12,500 people on May 27 and 28 so they could slime their numbers up some more.

This wouldn’t be so bad — hell, I just dropped 4,000 followers over several days by clearing out people who hadn’t tweeted in 30 days or more — except this person is on a yo-yo upswing, which is why their follower count keeps rising.

Here’s another example: Spammer #2 is following 7,986 people and has 12,800+ followers, but has only written 3,852 tweets. They’re all one liners that first-time comedians would be embarrassed to use, with absolutely no interactions or retweets. Just constant one liners. I’ve had better conversations with my television.

May 16, 2014 - Following 6,996 people.

May 16, 2014 – Following 6,996 people.

 

May 21, 5 days later - Following 7,965 people. Almost 1,000 people in 5 days.

May 21, 5 days later – Following 7,965 people. Almost 1,000 people in 5 days.

Again, this stayed within Twitter’s rule of “following no more than 1,000 people per day,” but you can see the effect it had on this person’s follower numbers. As they followed more people, their follower numbers rocketed too.

What about their output? How much are they tweeting? Spammer #2 is averaging 3 or 4 tweets a day, but peaked out at a big ol’ 5 for two days in the middle of May; Spammer #1 has “written” 57,700+ tweets, averaging 47 tweets per day of #AutomatedLeadershipQuote after #AutomatedLeadershipQuote.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what they’re tweeting. I won’t even speak to whether their tweets are interesting or not (They’re not. So much Not Interesting in one place. I haven’t seen this much Not Interesting since high school algebra.) What matters is that while they’re following the letter of Twitter’s rule, they’re doing everything they can to work around it and look like they’re important and/or interesting.

Except they’re not. They’re frauds. They didn’t earn those numbers, they cheated. You can’t buy value, you can’t buy your reputation. But you can apparently click your way to a false sense of accomplishment.

The Solution? Drop the Spam Hammer

I vet every single person who follows me before I follow them back. I check out their Twitter profile, and if necessary, look at their Twitter feed. If someone has a too-high-to-be-real follower count, especially if their tweets number in the very low 4 figures (or fewer), I spam-block them. If they have a high follower count, but their tweets are inane, nothing but retweets, or a one-sided conversation with no responses to anyone, I spam-block them.

I do it without hesitation, without remorse, and without pity. And I giggle with schadenfreudic delight every time I do it. I even unblocked one guy just so I could hit the Report For Spam button again.

Twitter is not going to get any better. It’s going to become the AOL of short form communication one of these days. Already, networks like App.net are coming online, ready to fill in the gap after Rome Twitter collapses. But we can extend its lifespan and its usefulness by getting rid of these Follower Junkies who are cluttering up the network for the real users who want to actually benefit from it.

The Sure-Fire Writing Process for New Writers

Novelists may have the luxury of writing and rewriting their work, but business writers and bloggers don’t. We need to get stuff out, and get it out fairly fast. But the danger is if we put something out before it’s ready, we’ll get hammered by our audience and our bosses. So the natural reaction is to withdraw and not put anything out until it’s good and ready.

My friend, Bryan Furuness, rewrote his first novel, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson (affiliate link) seventeen times.

I rewrote this once.

Search engine friendly content factory notebook and macbookIf you’re a blogger or content marketer, you don’t have the luxury of time and, well, more time. You have to get your work out fast. But it can’t be so fast that you put out schlock. There’s a looming content shock, and anything that you put out that sucks will only contribute to the problem. So follow these steps, and your writing can stand above the massive glut of content that continually spews out of the laptops of the “quantity, not quality” content marketers.

Write Shitty First Drafts

Novelist Anne Lamott gives us permission to write shitty first drafts. They don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to be nearly awesome. In fact, they should be awful. Just get your ideas out of your head and down on paper.

For a blog, keep the topic limited to a single idea. One idea, one post, one day. If you try to get more than one idea, your articles will be convoluted and hard to understand.

Shoot for no more than 400 words, but 300 is better. There are all kinds of arguments for and against 500 words, 750, or even 1,000 words. I like 300 – 400 because you can get the most important points of an idea down, and then explore them more in-depth later. (Clearly, that’s not going to happen with this piece, but I do that with my client work.)

Plus, the average mobile phone can display 100 words on the screen, and the average reader will swipe two more times to read something, which equals 300 words.

Rewrite Your Second Draft

After you finish your first draft, put it away and wait for several hours. Waiting overnight is even better. Then, go back and rewrite it. I don’t mean start over from the beginning. But don’t be married to every word on the page or think that you have to leave in every sentiment you expressed.

This is where you tear out words, sentences, and even whole paragraphs. If something doesn’t drive your story forward, tear it out. Everything should be about your topic, and nothing else.

It’s major work, and there should be drastic changes between your first and second draft, but don’t start it all over. If you do, the new version is still your first draft.

Edit Your Third Draft

While you’re still developing your craft, make sure you do a third edit a few hours later. (As you get better, you can skip this step, but plan on doing it for several months, or even a couple years.)

Fix the awkward wording, remove smaller sentences and words that don’t add any value. Remove adjectives and adverbs. (Don’t describe verbs, use descriptive verbs.) If you’re sticking with the 300 word limit, this can really make a difference. Why bloat a piece with 100 junk words? If your reader only wants 300 words total, make every one of them count.

This rewrite is not as drastic as your second one, but it’s still thorough, and we should see some serious changes.

Polish It Up

Finally, the following morning (this is a 3 day process), polish the piece up for the last time. If you’re still doing major rewrites, there’s either something wrong with your work, or there’s something wrong with you, and I’m guessing your work is fine.

Your problem may be that you’re a perfectionist, and don’t want to let the piece go. Don’t mistake perfect for finished. It will never be perfect, but it will be finished. And if you’re on a fifth, sixth, and even seventh read-through, you’re just stalling. Ship the damn thing and be done with it!

This is the copy editing stage. Look for misspellings, bad grammar, and punctuation. Make sure all the T’s are dotted and all I’s are crossed (I know what I said).

The House Building Analogy

As you’re starting out, this whole process should take about 48 hours, but spread over three days. Write the first draft in the afternoon, after thinking about and ruminating on the topic all morning (thinking about it will help you crystallize your thoughts when you actually sit down to write). The next morning, first edits. That afternoon, second edits. The morning after that, final polish.

Think of it like building a house: the first pass through, you’re putting up the walls and roof. The second, you’re shifting walls around and making some small-but-significant changes to the floor plan, but the outside walls are in place. On the third pass through, you’re putting up the drywall and painting. And on the final pass, you’re installing the drapes and light bulbs.

As you get better, you’ll find you can skip that third step. You’ll be confident enough in your word choices and writing ability that you don’t need so many rewrites. Even so, I still recommend taking about 24 hours to complete a piece. Write it in the afternoon, do rewrites in the morning, and final polish in the afternoon again.

Writing is one of those skills we all learned in school, but many never developed afterward. It’s easy to write, but it’s hard to write well. If you can do these four steps, your writing will become tighter, more interesting, and more enjoyable to read. And you’ll even like doing it.