Shiny New Marketing Automation Tools Can’t Fix Sucky Content

In the content marketing world, you can’t swing a big stick without whacking some marketing automation tool that promised to not only drive prospects through your sales funnel, it will lovingly nurture your leads, walk your dog, and make handfuls and handfuls of fries.

People look at these new tools like a teenager gaping open-mouthed at a motorcycle, thinking, “Man, if I owned this, my life would be awesome!”

Ducati Supersport 620

I’m going to ride this to my 30th high school reunion.

That’s what it’s like with marketing automation. Marketers look at the shiny new tools, and dream of all the customers they’ll get, wind blowing in their hair, and Sarah staring after me, wishing she never dumped me.

Unlike the teenagers, marketers have the budget to bring their shiny tool home, where they promptly leave it in the driveway. They don’t have any fuel to put in it, and they don’t have anywhere to go.

Every morning, the marketer goes outside, sits on their new purchase, and says, “Okay, now GO!” And never moves an inch.

It sits, unmoving, from lack of content. No blog posts, no white papers, no videos, no podcasts.

Oh sure, they had the best of intentions. They got their entire mailing list uploaded into the CRM, and they even sent out content fairly regularly. For two weeks.

But then life got in the way, meetings popped up, and they stopped writing and producing content. They never had a chance to open the throttle and see how fast they could go.

You Need to Feed the Beast

The problem with marketing automation is that it always needs fuel. It always has to be fed. On top of that, it needs premium fuel. Your prospects expect great content. Not good content. Not even pretty good content.

It has to be stellar. Otherwise, they’re going to get bored and go away.

Which means you’re only as good as your content, not your tools. It doesn’t matter which tool you have, or that you paid for the platinum package, with all the bells and whistles and handlebar tassels that wave in the wind. If your content sucks, it will suck expensively.

But at least you’ll be able to track all the unsubscribes and put them all in a colorful report your boss can easily understand.

As content marketing grows and matures as an industry, and people rave about big data, customer journeys, and buyer personas, it’s still about the quality of your content.

If you can’t tell a story, still confuse features and benefits, and use enough marketing jargon to make the Harvard Business Review editors smile in their sleep, no tool will save you.

Focus first on the quality of your content before you start kicking the tires of a new marketing automation tool. Because once you make that big expensive purchase, you’re the one responsible for making it go. And if your shiny new tool can’t bring in the leads and convert them to customers, the fault isn’t with the tool.

It’s an operator error.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

5 Secrets Writers Can Learn from Actors

One thing I love about being a creative professional is the kinship with my fellow creatives. We understand the life — the instability, the random free time, and the unreliable flow of money — and we share a knowing-yet-slightly-sad smile when we meet. We get each other.

I had a chance this past April to talk with actor David Schmittou when he was in Indianapolis, playing “The Man in the Chair” in Beef & Board Theatre’s The Drowsy Chaperone (you can read my review of it here).

I wasn’t sure what I wanted when we sat down. I just wanted to see what I could learn from someone who got to be “someone else” professionally. Actors get to lie about who they are; writers lie about everything else.

So David and I sat outside at Paradise Café for nearly two hours, talking about the creative life. He told me about acting, what it’s like to be a working actor, and many of the different roles he’s played. He told me lessons he’s learned from working with people or taking classes from some of the biggest names in the industry.

That got me to thinking about how the keys to good acting are similar to the keys to good writing. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, short stories or content marketing, good writers can learn from good actors.

I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t want to disrupt his flow. As if I moved, it would startle him, and he would realize what he was doing and stop. So I made sure to remember the important points, and wrote them down in the car.

These are a few of the ideas I got from two brilliant hours with David Schmittou.

1. Create and absorb as many tiny details as possible.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone"

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards’ production of “The Drowsy Chaperone”

When you’re acting, these details will inform the way the character reacts in certain situations. It might even be a very tiny thing, like setting the needle on a record on stage in just the right place, even though no one is going to hear it, because that’s what we do in real life. Or making sure you put on side 1 in Act 1, and side 2 in Act 2. No one will see this, no one will know, but you will absorb it into your role, and it can have a powerful effect on your performance.

For Hemingway, details were crucial, even if you omitted most of them. That’s what he called The Iceberg Theory (the 1/8 of an iceberg that we see is supported by the 7/8 we don’t). If a writer knows a lot about a subject, he or she can leave certain things out, and the reader would still feel their presence. But if a writer doesn’t know a lot about a topic, and leaves certain things out, there’s a hollowness to the work.

An actor who only recites lines and offers up the barest of tiny details in their actions is wooden and not very memorable. A writer who does it is plain and uninteresting.

2. Live in the world of the play.

Don’t think of yourself as an actor on a stage, David said, be in that world. Absorb the character and imagine you’re him or her. Don’t think about after the show, don’t think about the argument you had with the director. Be present in that world, not this one. For David in The Drowsy Chaperone, he was in New York City, in his apartment, listening to his favorite record of his favorite musical, chasing away the blues.

For writers, especially fiction writers, this means being more than a story teller looking at their story as if they’re watching television. It means being in the world, notebook in hand, chronicling what you see, dodging bullets, storming the castle, and shooting at spaceships.

If you can immerse yourself in the world, you see more details, the experience becomes fuller, and you’re able to deliver a better performance/product to your audience.

3. Create a back story for your character.

Write scenes and short stories about characters. In his mind, David created a whole back story for the Man in the Chair, what he did for work, why he was single (“Since this was the 1970s, he had been married, but was unhappy, because he didn’t know what it meant to be gay,” David told me.)

Oftentimes, characters don’t come with back stories. They don’t have relationships spelled out. Did the Man in the Chair have friends? Why isn’t he with them? Does he get along with his mother? What kind of job does he have? Actors have to answer those questions themselves.

Writers, especially TV writers, will write create a “show bible,” which spells out character back stories, small details, likes and dislikes, and anything that might become important later on. They’ll write out scenes between characters that will never see the light of day, just to know how they would act and react.

If you can know why your characters are made the way they are, who influenced them, and why they like or don’t like other people, this becomes one of those very important iceberg details that shape your writing.

4. Base characters on yourself and other people.

David’s portrayal of the Man in the Chair was based on people he knew, and not past performances. He never even saw the play until he had already done the role once or twice. But he based the mannerisms and the back story on people in his life.

When Hemingway created characters for his stories, he modeled them after people he actually knew. He just changed their names. By using real people, he already had the back story written, he knew the tiny details, and he could more easily inhabit their world.

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway said:

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. . . You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

In essence, don’t make up people, because the characters will be fake. Instead, write about real people and make minor changes.

By using real people, you can create real characters who are emotionally rich and deep, not shallow caricatures or archetypes.

5. Listen carefully and react to the other actors.

Actors need to listen to their fellow actors on stage. Whether it’s traditional theatre or improv, listening is a crucial skill. You never know when an actor is going to make a mistake, say the wrong thing, or even change their mood or inflection of their next line. Actors have to be able to react to what was just said, not automatically say what they were going to say.

Sometimes fiction writers will “let the characters take over.” They let their characters act and react to what’s happening on the page. I’ve written stories where I have a basic idea of what should happen, only to have the two characters take the story in a completely different direction.

What’s really happening is the writers imagine how their characters would react in certain situations, and write that down instead. Rather than forcing actions and conversations to reach a certain end, the writer just holds on and goes along for the ride. This can only happen when writers live in the world of their story, create a back story for their characters, and base them on real people they know.

In the nonfiction world, sometimes “you” are the person you should listen to. Imagine yourself delivering your article as a speech, and write what you would say. Build on knowledge, feeding one idea into the next. If you can’t do step 2 without doing step 1 first, put the steps in the right order. This isn’t a mystery to be solved or a secret to be revealed. Listen to the way you would teach this knowledge, and write that.

When you get a chance to meet someone whose work inspires you, take it. When you get a chance to talk about the creative process with other creative people, take it. With a little lateral thinking, you never know what you might learn.

Don’t Let Data Drive Your Content Marketing

Too many people are bragging about doing “data driven content marketing,” and they’re missing out on the most important aspect, the human element.

There are times you have to throw the data out, and make decisions based on your gut feeling. Rather than being driven by data, why not let random chance and serendipity do its thing once in a while.

People who are driven by data will never make a decision without consulting the analytics oracle, and as a result, will miss great opportunities because the data didn’t give them permission.

Data should measure what you’re doing and tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Data should not make your decisions for you. You don’t work for data, it works for you. If you’re one of those people who consults spreadsheets about where to go for lunch, let alone what kind of content to publish, unclench a little and try something new.

Content Marketing Starts With Small Blocks

My son at the Lego Store in Orlando. There are all kinds of Lego statues throughout the store.

My son at the Lego Store in Orlando. There are all kinds of Lego statues throughout the store.

First of all, content creation is not hard. It starts with small building blocks — a blog post, a tweet, a photo, or a two-minute video. It’s not just 30 page white papers or 2 hour webinars.

Any 12-year-old Lego builder can show you amazing creations built with the smallest of blocks. Eventually, they’ll all combine for some epic large-scale creations that were pieced together one block at a time.

This is as true for Legos as it is for that single piece of content you’ve agonized over — tested, revised, A/B tested, subjected to committee review — for the last three weeks. You can build a great campaign with a lot of little blocks in a way that you can’t with five giant slabs.

When it comes to the small content blocks, there’s no time for the data to tell you what every single post and tweet should say. If you do, you’re overcomplicating things.

Your data should influence the overall theme those content blocks will become, but human intuition should be the driving force. The data should tell you whether it’s working.

Sometimes You Just Have to Ignore the Data

A few years ago, I was working with a client whose SEO specialist had created an editorial calendar based on SEO data and predictions. We decided to ignore writing about their product and cars for the umpteenth time. One of their dealers did a lot of work with boats, so we thought we’d see what happened if we wrote about that for a change.

“No one visits our site about boats,” said the SEO specialist, citing the data.

“That’s because we’ve never written about boats,” I said.

Two months later, our boats post was the second-most visited page on the entire blog, behind the main page. And the total traffic for the next three posts didn’t even equal that of the boats post.

Had we listened to the data, we never would have written about boats. Had we let the data do all the driving, we would have missed a great opportunity. As far as we can tell, the client has been one of the only companies talking about this particular issue, and it’s benefitted them greatly.

When you let data drive your content, you’re just one short step away from “we’ve always done it this way.” That’s when things get super boring, and your audience leaves or dies in their sleep.

For years, the data told web editors wanted shorter and shorter blog posts, until the #longreads movement began. Now people are digging into 2,000 – 10,000 word stories and sticking with them until the bitter end. “The data” told us people didn’t want long stories, but now “the data” is showing us how wrong it was.

If people had listened to “the data” the first time, the art of long-form writing could have disappeared for many people. Instead, by trying something new — by letting humans do the driving — we now have the chance to read long read stories from BuzzFeed,, and, ESPN’s website created to meet the growing demand for long stories.

If you’ve ever abandoned a story idea because the data didn’t support it, ignore the data, publish the story, and see what happens. The worst thing that will happen is “nothing.”

Nothing will change, nothing will move. No one will abandon your brand because you wrote a single blog post that deviated from the data-driven editorial calendar. But you may find a whole new rich vein of ideas and topics that you can mine for weeks and months.

If you’re letting your data drive your content calendar, the wrong person is in the driver’s seat. You have creative people for a reason. Take the keys away from the bean counters, and let the creatives go to work, and then measure their results. Let’s see what happens if you put data second and ideas, and people, first.

The Google Mobile Friendly Update: How Will It Affect You?

From time to time, I like to offer guest posts to readers, provided they’re not actually commercials masked as guest posts (i.e. you’re writing it to share knowledge, NOT gain a cheap backlink to your client’s site. You know who you are.)

This is a guest post by Nate Vickery, a proper Internet marketer from Sydney, Australia. He’s also a big fan of Australian Rules football, a game I enjoy watching and don’t understand a second of.

The Internet is all about efficiency and fast exchange of information. Nowadays, when the number of different gadgets with various resolutions is on the constant rise, website developers have to adapt their sites to those new devices. We’ve all experienced pages that are not mobile- or tablet-friendly. Those pages and sites simply turn off their visitors. But in April, some great changes were introduced by Google, concerning the future site ranking when it comes to mobile searches.

How does it work?

Google experts want to award site developers and owners who make an effort and adapt their sites to mobile devices. Since April 2015, the most popular search engine worldwide has been updated and now it gives a special treatment to mobile friendly sites and pages when an Internet user does the surfing from a mobile device.

First of all, it affects only separate, individual pages and not whole websites. Secondly, it applies to search ratings only when the query is done from a mobile. Also, this mobile-helpful Google update functions in all the languages that are used throughout this search engine. The major advantage of this approach to mobile net search is that users will not have to tap their screens and wait for pages to load, since the update brings about smoother and more user-friendly exploration of the mobile Internet.

Where could this take us?

If users have troubles when trying to load a site, they won’t wait endlessly for it to load, but will simply leave the site and never come back. So, you could create an expensive and useful site that will remain unattended and unused, due to its bad responsiveness to searches from different devices.

Before the update, mobile-friendly web design had been discussed a lot, but there has never been such a bold step forward in helping mobile users get the best out of their Internet presence. If we know that today smartphone searches are overtaking the throne from PC net quests, only the sites that are functional and adapted to these new circumstances will have an increase in traffic. Eventually, websites that do not conform to these latest changes will not be ranked high and they will not have enough users to justify their existence.

The week after the update launch

This change in the site ranking service did not come out of the blue, so it sounds illogical that some well-known websites simply ignored the update. In order to become a mobile-friendly site, it is necessary to either develop a special mobile version, or apply responsive website design. The market treated differently the sites that made the changes and those that did not.

Since the introduction of the new update on April 21, a week after its launching there were some interesting data about the way websites reacted to this Internet search novelty. According to this list of winners and losers, the sites that did not adapt to the new method of Google ranking calculation in the mobile world have already fallen behind. The sites that employed either one of the ways for optimizing sites for mobile search were on the winning side.

Also, it has to be said that some sites do not care about the mobile share of the market. They are content with desktop users and have enough success and profit from PC and laptop visits.

The future is mobile-friendly

As smartphones and tablets overtake the Internet from old-school desktop computers, some changes are inevitable. Also, it is clear that most of the mobile users are teenagers and younger people. They want it all and they want it now.

Social media and video/music websites are under special pressure from that group of Internet users. Those businesses and websites that offer the most responsive and fastest service will have the highest conversion rate, which will eventually lead to a higher income and more opportunities for future investments. Websites that miss this chance and rely only on traditional Internet search have to be ready to face quite serious problems. It would be wiser to go with the flow to prevent the flow from drowning you.

The latest Google update has already caused changes in the way people find what they want from their mobile devices and it will shake the mobile web even more. The only thing site owners need to do is prepare for present and future changes to keep their sites on the winning side of the net — embrace mobile-friendly design, and stay at (or reach) the top of the Google rankings.

Nate M. Vickery is a marketing and internet marketing consultant from Sydney, Australia. His specialty is online marketing and, in recent years, website design and development he learns mainly from reading blogs of local creatives like Infinity Technologies. Aside from work, he enjoys a good game of Aussie football.

Three Questions Marketing Agencies Should Ask (and One They Shouldn’t) When Hiring Writers

Hiring writers at marketing agencies can be a crapshoot if you’re not careful. There’s really no one path that makes someone suitable to be a writer. But too many times, agencies think they need someone who fits a specific mold.

When they find the mold-fitting writer, they find he or she just wasn’t quite what they were looking for. The problem is, a candidate may look good on paper, but when you get down to it, they’re not even close to being an acceptable fit.

Maybe they studied English grammar, but they suck at story telling. Maybe they’re a brilliant creative writer, but they know absolutely nothing about business. Or maybe they’re a trained journalist, but they specialize in news writing, which isn’t just dry, it’s Sahara arid.

And maybe the best available writer was turned away because they didn’t have the “correct” qualifications.

If you want to find the best possible writer for your marketing agency, here are three questions you should ask every candidate, and one you shouldn’t.

1. When did you first call yourself a writer?
Search engine friendly content factory notebook and macbookThis is a tricky question, because a real writer has struggled with this question for years. (It’s how you can tell the real writers from the poseurs.) And you have to ask it in this way — “when did you first call yourself a writer?” — because real writers have a story about their answer.

We’re not quite sure when we “have permission” to call ourselves writers. For some, it’s when they publish their first book; for others, it’s the first time they sold a story or article. But the point is there’s a journey and a realization that goes along with finally calling ourselves a writer. And if someone has that story, they’re a real writer.

People who call themselves a writer without giving it any thought don’t give writing any thought either.

Don’t worry if a candidate still struggles with calling themselves a writer. That’s a good sign, because it means they take their craft so seriously, and they want to do such a good job, they won’t just slap that label on themselves without proving themselves first.

(In my own business, when I hire freelance writers, this is the only question I really pay attention to. It’s a strategy that has served me well for six years.)

2. What do you do for personal enjoyment?
Regardless of whatever else they say, one of the things they list must be “reading.” If they don’t read for fun, they’re not serious about writing. Every good writer I know does two things: 1) they write every day, and 2) they read every day for fun. It’s a form of practice.

High-performance athletes often use visualization as a form of practice. They imagine certain plays, techniques, or moves, or they watch game film. To sports psychologists, visualization is a form of practice that’s almost as effective as the actual physical practice.

When writers read, it’s like Peyton Manning watching hours and hours of game film: we’re still practicing, we’re still learning, we’re still honing our craft. We’re not just putting words into our brain, we’re absorbing styles, techniques, and new ideas.

3. What kinds of things did you write in college/What kinds of things do you write outside of work?
You want your candidates to have extra writing experience, and not just in the classroom or for work. A recent grad may have worked on the school newspaper, literary magazine, or school comedy troupe. A veteran writer may have a regular column in a sport fishing magazine. But they need to have something else in their portfolio.

Even if they regularly submit work to literary magazines that gets rejected, that’s fine. You just want to know they believe enough in their craft that they put themselves out there with it. You want the person who loves writing so much, they do it as a hobby as well as a job.

A computer engineer once told me the only college grads he hired were those who also did tech — software, robotics, whatever — for fun at home. It meant they were continuing to learn, and didn’t just limit their knowledge to whatever came from the classroom. He said these people knew more about their jobs than those who only did their coursework.

And the question you should avoid. . .

4. Do you have a degree in English, Journalism, or Communication?
These are supposedly the three writing degrees, but having one doesn’t necessarily mean the person can even write. I knew someone who had a journalism degree, but was hands down possibly the worst — and slowest — writer I ever met.

Having a degree does not equal having the ability.

Having one of these degrees could even mean the candidate studied 18th century British literature, specialized in photojournalism, or studied interpersonal communication.

Having a degree does not even equal having the knowledge.

Meanwhile, I have a B.S. in Philosophy and an M.A. in Higher Education, but I have a writing career many trained writers would envy. Yet, some marketing agencies won’t give me a second look because I have the wrong degrees. Don’t let your HR department dictate the kinds of people you get to interview.

Writing is a skill that can be mastered without the benefit of training and “proper” education. Plenty of famous and outstanding writers learned how to write without having a degree in the Big Three. They did it by reading a lot, writing as often as they could for as many publications as possible, and overcoming the struggle of whether to call themselves a writer.

If your marketing agency — a place that most likely prides itself on creativity and thinking outside the box — is looking for a new writer, ask these three questions (and skip the 4th) and you’ll find the best writer for the job.

Content, not SEO, Should Rule Owned Media (Guest Post)

Sean Sullivan is a digital marketer in Indianapolis, specializing in content marketing and analytics. He’s also a good friend. Sean is publishing guest posts in several places, and I’m going to start contributing to his site. This is his latest submission.

Writing should be storytelling. The Internet should throw papers on your door step every morning. Writers should expect their paper articles read. Since the Internet, content overload diminishes what the public can see. Readers want information now. And businesses scramble to publish where readers are.

Old News

Marketing is not an instant solution. Marketing takes a lot of trial and error. Companies need a balanced media approach. This would include owned, paid, shared, and earned media strategies. Since you can’t control earned media, and paid media gets expensive, let’s focus on owned media.

What is owned media?

Owned media includes content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). As the publishing company/entrepreneur, you “own” these medias forms because it’s your website and your content. Many industry experts are saying SEO is in the past, and content marketing is the future. That is not true. All media forms are important, and SEO sometimes means not doing certain things as much as it means using certain tricks. (SEO is not dead yet.)

For the last 15+ years, Google still makes the rules. And you have to follow those rules. Google created the sandbox. And we all have to play nicely. Or we get put in time out. Here are a few ways to play.

View Google Traffic as a Bonus, Not the End Goal. SEO has taken such a beating, and it’s such hard, ongoing work, that it’s not an effective long-term strategy any more. Don’t play old SEO tricks either, because Google will drop the ban hammer on your site. Instead, figure out how to build on online business by connecting with people. Look at Google traffic from inbound marketing as a bonus. You can build your business on SEO, but it can be hard if you don’t have the time to dedicate to always changing and adapting to Google’s new algorithms.

SEO Depends on Content. SSEO is a competition between people finding the best tactics and using them better than anyone else. Content has the potential to go viral and be shared by people who like it, but monkeying with SEO might prevent it from going viral, because Google can penalize your efforts. SEO can help, but your best content — your “hero” content — takes a whole lot more work to create than the actual SEO. It’s your hero content that people want to share and talk about, and that will always be more powerful than traditional SEO.

For Converge Street, I get much better organic traffic when writing about a name or a concept, but that doesn’t help SEO. Writing more quality content and sharing that with my networks is what wins traffic.

Editorial Writing and Tracking. Write in a news/editorial style while linking credible outbound links — link to help with editorial content, not because SEO says you need X number of links. Track results to expand your focus — check page views and time on site. Figure out who likes your writing (i.e. who reads and shares the most) — count social shares, social networks, and even regular sharers. This way you know what people and search engines like. Then, give them more of what they want.

Having good content and using SEO does’t mean readers will flock to your website. Those are just two legs of the three-legged stool. Understanding the different media channels will definitely help. Know where your audience is, write the things they want, and share it on the places where they’re found.

SEO impacts inbound marketing but it’s not main the reason people come to your website. SEO, analytics, and social media lands your paper on people’s doorstep. But good content compels them to pick it up and read.

Photo Credit: @Doug88888 via Compfight cc

How to Get Discovered by Brands (GUEST POST)

This is a guest post written by Tamar Weinberg, VP of Customer Success of influencer marketing platform The Shelf, a tool that ensures that brands connect with the most relevant influencers. The Shelf’s technology includes patent pending brand and ecommerce indicators.

Get Discovered By Brands

Are you a blogger looking to be discovered by a brand for collaboration opportunities? We totally understand the challenges you’re facing.

I’ve worked with a sizable number of bloggers in the past, having written a book on social media marketing with an entire chapter dedicated to blogging. Many people start their blog and come to me immediately after two or three posts, thinking that money and recognition will come immediately.

It won’t.

There are over 200 million blogs—and that’s just one platform. However, even though the space is extremely competitive, there’s a lot of noise and not enough signal. For you as a blogger, that’s a great thing. Discovery will take time but it is doable.

My key piece of advice for all people trying to start a blog: keep at it. Work really hard and post consistently.

But more so, network! Let other people discover you by engaging on their content. And above all, keep your attitude positive and your head held up high. These days, engagement on blog posts is low. Blogs in 2015 don’t get as many comments as blogs in 2010. However, as you keep up on blogging, your social proof as a personal brand will go up. Your Twitter follower numbers will rise. Your Facebook Likes will increase. You will be recognized by people who will be interested in who you are and what you do.

Now you have an established following and brands are taking notice. A few have reached out to you and want to work with you–but you may want to work with others. One of the biggest challenges you will have is how to effectively pitch and collaborate with brands. I totally recommend making the first move.

As long as you have the social proof, you’re in a position to effectively pitch and build upon these brand relationships that benefit both you and your brand. Here’s how we suggest that you build the relationships:

Do Your Research

Look at what other bloggers in your niche are covering. Are they working with other brands that may be interested in your audience as well? If so, take a look at how they’re collaborating with these other brands and feel them out. Was it a giveaway? Affiliate offer? Sponsored post? Once you have a solid understanding of what type of collaboration they are working with, you’ll have a solid foundation for formulating your pitch.

Take a look into the brand’s marketing initiatives. Are they working on any existing campaigns it may be helpful to align with? It may help to check out the brand’s social media channels where you may find promotional materials that help you learn about current campaigns that are worth participating in.

Develop Your Pitch

On top of your research, you may already have a few brands in mind that you want to work with. They could be products/services that totally jive with your audience and your interest level. By now, with both of these, you should have a pretty solid understanding of the types of collaborations that have been done before with the brand and other bloggers, if at all. (And if not, just make the first move and ask!)

Why does your blog align so well with their brand personality? It’s helpful to communicate this particular point in your pitch. To stand above the crowd, you may wish to get creative and offer some other ideas on other types of collaborations.

After you’ve jotted down your thoughts, create the pitch: include a short overview of who you are, how the campaign benefits the brand, and any deliverables you’ll give them. Make your email short and sweet, and if you’d like, include a media kit so that the brand knows about your audience, your social followings, and your positioning in the marketplace.

Be in constant contact

Assuming your pitch is good, those brands should be able to get in touch with you quickly. If they schedule a meeting or phone call to discuss the scope of the project further, take it. Be open to hearing as much as possible from them so that you fully understand their objectives so you know exactly what they’d expect from you and how you could realistically help them. By having this meeting, you should be able to get all the information you need to craft a formal proposal with requested compensation.

If they didn’t get back to you, try again. I hate to say how many times I’ve dealt with people who are good people but are just bad at responding to emails. Maybe they were reading your initial contact while under the covers at 11pm. Maybe they were in a meeting. (Maybe they suck.) But don’t be afraid to try again and be politely persistent until they respond. In fact, if you’re passionate about them, show them you’re already engaged with the content. Feature their brand in an article. Tag them on social media. Engage with their posts and show them your love of the product.

And if you’re already in communications with them, that’s a tipping point! Your blog has now become a professional medium, and it is important to be professional with your communications with these brands to keep these collaborations coming. This is the best step toward a long term relationship that benefits everyone and puts you in a great light.

Initially, it will feel like quite an intimidating process to be involved in this next step with brands. But at the end of the day, the brand gets visibility and you get some benefit through product, payment, and affiliation as well. After all, you’re an influencer. It would be silly not to interact with people who had the If you don’t have the courage to reach out, the opportunity may never present itself.

Four Personal Branding Secrets from Joy of Painting’s Bob Ross

One of my pleasures — I wouldn’t even call it a “guilty” one — is recording The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross on my DVR, and then taking a nap while I watch. Bob’s voice is so smooth, so relaxing, I’m often asleep before he finishes showing all the colors across the screen.

If I could make three or four of them autoplay in a row, I’d slip into a coma.

Bob RossI’ve been watching the show for over 25 years (it started in 1983 and ran until 1994), because not only is he fun to watch, but because Bob teaches us important lessons, even if we never paint a single canvas. (Also, he filmed his shows at my alma mater, Ball State University, so I feel a sense of obligated pride.)

Lately, I’ve been watching and relistening, because a lot of what he says applies to personal branding and networking. Here are four lessons we can all learn from Bob Ross, he of the happy trees.

(Why four? Because if I had an odd number, one would be left out.)

1. Everyone Needs a Friend

Bob never paints just one of anything — one mountain, one cloud, one tree. He paints a happy little tree, and then he declares, “I think he needs a friend. We’ll put him right here.”

Everyone has a friend in Bob Ross’ world, and so it goes in our own. If you’re going to become an entrepreneur or grow your personal brand, you’ll need friends. We all need a network of support.

Whether it’s family and friends, community groups, colleagues at the coffee shop, or your online social networks, you need people to help you out. People who can shield you from the wind and give you someone to talk to when you think you’re out there all on your own.

Make connections with mentors, mastermind groups, networking groups, and professional associations. Find your tree friends and your support will be stronger just by having them around.

2. There Are No Mistakes, Just Happy Accidents

Bob never wanted people to worry about their quality of work when they were learning. The great thing about his method, he said, was that if you make a mistake, you just scrape it off and try again.

Even so, the mistake was still a learning experience. You learned from it, so you could do it better the next time.

As you grow your business or personal brand, you’ll make plenty of mistakes and bad decisions. You’ll start down the wrong path, spending hours or days on a project or problem, or in a business relationship, only to find you made the wrong choice.

So you go back and start all over. You scrape off what you did, and do it better the second time.

In the end, you fixed the problem, it looks good, and now you know more than you did before.

3. In Your World, You Do What You Want

Bob Ross - In Our WorldBob never worried that much about colors. Purple skies, green oceans, or on a recent show, everything — clouds, grass, even the water — was a different shade of brown.

One of the things I appreciate about owning my own business is that I get to do things the way I want. I hire who I want, I work when and where I want, and I take on the clients I want. The only thing I need to worry about are the results, not the process.

I’ve had employers, like my stint in the state government, where the process was more important than the results. As long as I was there from 7:30 to 4:00, it almost didn’t matter what I got done.

Sure, I had tasks that needed doing, but we weren’t beholden to shareholders, clients, or anyone who gave us money. As long as we all trudged on the same treadmill, the bosses were happy. That was a paint-by-numbers job if I’ve ever had one, and there was no room for experimentation or change.

Now that it’s my own world, the only people I need to keep happy are clients. And as long as I deliver what and when I promised, they’re happy. They don’t care if I work between 8 and 5, or if I’m working at 2 a.m. at home, or 2 p.m. in a coffee shop.

4. It’s That Easy

Every time I watch The Joy of Painting, I think I could actually paint like Bob. He describes different techniques, and occasionally murmurs, “It’s that easy. Just two hairs and some air. It’s that easy.”

When I see the outstanding work my friends are doing, I know I’ll never be a painter. But when Bob does it, I believe I can do it too.

Not only is his confidence in me contagious (he’s like Mr. Rogers for grown-ups), he shows that his method isn’t as hard as some of the more traditional methods.

He also explains that there are plenty of classes, resources, and even certified instructors who are there to help you out.

So it goes with entrepreneurship. While it can be difficult at times, it’s not like you’re recreating a multinational corporation from scratch in six months. Start small, start with what you know, and make sure you learn along the way. There are plenty of classes, resources, fellow entrepreneurs, and even certified instructors who are there to help you out.

Bob Ross may not be one of the best painters of our day, but I think there’s a reason his show is on 21 years after he died. His lessons and his techniques are applicable, not only to create your own art, but creating your own business and your own personal brand. Start watching him on your local PBS station or on YouTube, and see what gems you can pick up from Bob and his happy little trees.

Tax Deductions You May Miss as a Freelancer or Entrepreneur

If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, and you’re only using the 1040 form to do your taxes, you’re doing it all wrong.

You’re missing out on some very valuable deductions and expenses you could take, and if you’re not using a professional, you’re leaving money on the table. If you find you owe taxes each year, you’re definitely not doing it right.

My advice: find a tax professional you can trust and talk to them about using a Schedule C with your 1040.

Income Tax Monopoly SquareThe general rule of thumb is, if an activity costs you money to do the thing you make money at, you can deduct it. For example, I make a few bucks as a travel writer for the state of Indiana. This means I can deduct any expenses related to my travel-writing trips, such as mileage and hotels. A writer friend makes money from, and is taxed for, his book sales. This means he can take deductions for any readings and book signings he drives to, especially if they’re overnighters.

You’re going to be taxed on your income already, so you might as well reduce the amount the government takes by declaring each and every expense related to it.

Here are four important deductions you may be missing as a freelancer, independent professional, entrepreneur, or small business owner.

1. Mileage Related to Work

If you drive to client meetings, conferences, or other work-related events, you can deduct the mileage. However, this doesn’t include mileage driving to and from your regular work; you can only count special trips. Keep track of all your meetings in a calendar, and then list all the meetings and mileage in a spreadsheet. Turn all that in to your accountant and they can take care of the rest.

Erik, how exactly do you think I do this? —Cary, your accountant

Cary, I don’t know. Voodoo or physics or something? I’m a writer, I don’t pay attention to this stuff. This is why I depend on you. —Erik

I use Google Calendar and Google Drive, and I use Zapier to export all my appointments to a Google Drive spreadsheet. From there, I can clean it up, delete all personal/non-paying appointments, and then pop in the mileage for each appointment. This saves me roughly three hours from trying to do it all by hand.

Note: You can also take the mileage out of the company as non-taxable expenses. But once you do that, you can’t take it as a deduction on your personal return because it will be deducted on the business return. If you drive 400 miles to and from a conference, that’s roughly $200 in expenses. You can take the $200 in cash, or you can deduct it on your taxes. Ask your accountant which would work better in your favor. And if you pay for your gas with the company card, you can’t deduct your mileage either.

2. Cable and Mobile Phone

If you work from home, and you rely on the Internet to do your work (and who doesn’t?), you can deduct your cable/Internet costs. The same is true for your mobile phone. If you have a mobile number for clients to call, that’s another business-related expense, which means you can declare it. And if you keep a work-only landline, that’s also tax deductible.

(However, you can also keep your phone costs down if you use Skype as your primary means of communication. This also lets you keep a personal-only phone, and not have to worry about that second phone, or trying to total up the number of work minutes versus personal minutes.)

Remember, you’re not allowed to deduct costs if you’re reimbursed for them in any way. For example, if you work as a remote employee, and your employer pays your cable bill, you can’t turn around and declare it yourself.

3. Office Space

I found a low-cost office to rent, and it’s something I recommend, if it’s available where you live. In Indianapolis, we also have the Speakeasy, which is a shared co-working space. Other cities like Fort Wayne and Evansville also have co-working spaces. If you pay a membership fee or rent to be able to use that facility, that’s considered a deductible business expense. (Working every day from a coffee shop is not considered a business expense, however.)

If you work from home, it is possible to declare your home workspace on your taxes, but it can be rather tricky. There are formulas, and if you use part of a room to work, you need to measure the workspace, and there’s a formula to apply and more of that voodoo physics stuff Cary knows about.

It’s a bit easier if you dedicate one room, like a basement office, to your workspace. But if it’s the desk in a corner of the family room, that’s a bit more problematic. Talk to your accountant, but be prepared to justify it to the IRS, because this often raises flags with them.

4. Food and Entertainment

This is a tricky one. It’s not like the old days when you worked for a company, and you could expense big fancy meals with important clients. Deducting food costs on your taxes can be a problem if you’re not careful.

For one thing, says Cary, you shouldn’t buy food for “working lunches” on the company account. (My wife says the same thing, so this may not be a tax rule so much as a Toni-and-Cary-are-conspiring-against-me ploy.)

One reason is that you can’t deduct the whole meal, only your half. You can’t just take people out to lunch and deduct the entire meal on your taxes. It can also raise red flags at the IRS if they see a lot of entertainment expense deductions on your taxes. So keep this kind of spending to a minimum, lest you feel the cold, probing fingers of an audit.

The problem with doing your taxes yourself is that you may not know the latest rules about deductions and expenses. Basically, if you find that you owe money when you file your taxes, you need to speak with a professional. While you’ll have to pay the accountant, if you’re making a full-time living as a freelancer or entrepreneur, you could find your tax return is much bigger than what you could get doing it on your own.

Special thanks to my own accountant, Cary Hudson of Ashworth Accounting Services for helping with this blog post (and my business!). Cary is a CPA who lives and works in Carmel, IN. He specializes in working with small businesses for their tax and bookkeeping needs, and he’s saved me from hours of headaches for the last six years.

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver (Flickr, Creative Commons)

12 Marketing Strategies Defined

If you’ve ever wondered what all the different types of marketing — content marketing, inbound marketing, push marketing — actually mean, wonder no more. Here is the basic definition of what each of these are, and what they do.

Salesology Cover

Marketing Style


Content Marketing


Digital Marketing


Direct Marketing


Inbound Marketing


Internet Marketing


Mobile Marketing


Online Marketing


Outbound Marketing


Push Marketing


Relationship Marketing


Social Media Marketing


Word-Of-Mouth Marketing



When you get down to it, marketing is marketing. We can put all kinds of fancy names on it, or do some mental gymnastics to make it seem like one type of marketing is so much different from another. But all marketing does the same thing: convince people to buy your product. They just have different names to achieve the same goal. (And if we’re being truly honest, they’re not that different from each other.)

If you want to hire a marketer, hire someone who knows marketing. There’s no one method better than another, there’s no one special strategy that will be a magic bullet to your particular need.

And when it comes to online/social media marketing, you’d better make damn sure your marketing agency has extensive marketing experience, and isn’t just well-versed in using the latest shiny new social media toys.

Photo credit: James Prochnik (Flickr, Creative Commons)