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.

Free Download of My Chapter from Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems

About 18 months ago, I was asked by authors Markus Ståhlberg and Villa Maila to contribute a chapter to their book Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems.

The book consists of 35 separate chapters written by 35 different social media experts from around the world. Ståhlberg and Maila asked, pleaded, and cajoled all of us to turn in our chapters, which they then wrestled to the ground and turned it into a heavy book about the marketing ecosystem. It’s not just online marketing, and it’s not a lot of “you should measure Return On Engagement” or “I’m the Chief Awesome Officer!” bullshit that litters the social media marketing book world.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems coverThis is a smart book written by smart people, talking about marketing in general, as it develops and revolves around brands, whether it’s traditional media, online, mobile, and even retail point-of sale.

With dramatic changes in consumer behavior – from online shopping to the influence of social media – marketers are finding it harder than ever to coordinate, prioritize and integrate the latest interactive channels into their overall brand-building strategy. With the emergence of the truly interactive consumer, marketers need to scrap the traditional TV-centric strategies and build their own multichannel ecosystems centered around digital channels and supported by traditional media.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems examines a fundamental game changer for the entire marketing industry – the seismic shift from a single TV-centric path to an interactive multichannel ecosystem that puts digital technology at the core of marketing strategy. With separate chapters on the remaking of marketing, the rise of the digital brand, conversion optimization, m-commerce, searchability in a multichannel world and predictive marketing, this book shows how marketers and brand managers can react positively to changes in consumer behavior, building customer responses and loyalty via the full spectrum of digital media.

Co-authors include Felix Velarde, CEO of Underwire; Sundeep Kapur, Allied Solutions; Cam Brown, CEO of King Fish Media; and my good friend and Branding Yourself co-author, Kyle Lacy, ExactTarget.

The book finally came out this winter, and I did what every other contributor probably did — flipped to their own chapter. I read it, I skimmed through several other chapters, tried to find typos in Kyle’s chapter (sorry, force of habit), and tried to make sense of everything in the book.

Like I said, this is a smart book. It’s packed with information — not just long blog posts, but analysis, strategies, and ideas that mid- to upper-level marketers need to know to help their brands be successful in a fracturing marketing ecosystem. This is beyond “DO TWITTER!” cheerleading. It’s heady stuff, and it’s written by the leading experts in their field.

If you’re interested in a free chapter, Ståhlberg and Vaila have allowed me to make my chapter — “What Really Counts In Metrics” — available for free download. you can download it here.

Ain’t No Party Like a PERQ Launch Party

If you’re involved in the Indianapolis tech startup scene, you already know about Verge, the startup community made up of entrepreneurs, programmers, and investors. We come together once a month, hear a few pitches from some exciting new startups, drink beer, eat pizza, and network with new people (and old friends).

Tonight was an especially huge night for Verge, because we were being hosted by PERQ, the new company formerly known as CIK Enterprises. They were hosting us because they were launching their new corporate identity and look. This was a mega launch party, the size of which I have not seen in Indianapolis in my nearly six years of doing social media and tech stuff.

PERQ was created when CIK consolidated several different companies they owned, and created this new enterprise. The previous three companies served clients in the newspaper, automotive, and retail industries. Because of this consolidation, they’re combining all forces to create a new marketing technology solution — FATWIN — to offer “business-branded games, contests, and sweepstakes with direct mail, email and advertising campaigns to attract in-store and online traffic.”

I first became acquainted with CIK and one of their companies, Tri-Auto Enterprises, when I worked at a local direct mail company years ago. In fact, I bumped into my old boss on the shuttle ride over from the parking lot, who was there for the PERQ launch. He hadn’t heard of Verge, so I was able to fill him in on what it was all about.

Employee in PERQ collaboration space

See? At first glance, you probably thought it was a real bookshelf too.

Not only were they launching a new company with new branding, they had a new look to their office. Everyone who attended got the grand tour of the office, including the conference rooms (complete with Legos for brainstorming, or at least looking creative), the open concept desks, the giant warehouse space turned meeting and collaboration space, the gym and weight room, and even the video broadcast booth. The whole building is so big, they even have Razor scooters for people to ride, like some sort of inter-office scooter share program. TKO Graphics created several of the wall decorations, including a gigantic bookshelf wall that I kept mistaking for a real bookshelf when I saw it from the corner of my eye.

All in all, it’s a gorgeous new space, and I kept wishing I worked there just because it looked so awesome. I might even be able to, because according to their press release, the company plans on hiring 30 new employees to deal with all their new growth and to help promote their new FATWIN technology.

FATWIN is an interesting new product that lets people enter promotional contests held by different companies using the service. From what I can tell, I can either join a company’s FATWIN promotion, or I can join FATWIN and join different companies’ promotions from there. My data is used only by the companies whose promotions I join, and they don’t sell it to third parties. From a data privacy standpoint, I appreciate this approach, because I can give my data only to the companies of my choosing, and not have to worry that some fly-by-night company is going to start spamming me two weeks later.

According to the FATWIN website:

FATWIN is a resource for people who love to win. It’s for people who love to play games, love to enter promotions, and hate to sign up for free stuff over and over again. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible — and for you to have a great experience while winning great prizes and discounts from your favorite brands.

For more information on PERQ, you can visit the website at . You can also follow them on Twitter at @perqmarketing.

Photo credit: PERQ

Five Things To Stop Putting In Your Press Releases

Press releases are one of those not-dead-yet tools that lazy PR professionals still insist on sending out to hundreds and thousands of journalists and bloggers. I still get press releases for movie releases taking place in L.A., inviting me to attend the red carpet rollout of some indie movie. Clearly they’re not culling their lists.

When I did crisis communication, we got a real sense of pride if one of our releases was published verbatim, or nearly so, by our state newspapers. That’s how we knew the real journalists were taking us seriously. That, and our success rate (it was an outstanding day if you could bat .500 on story placement). To do it, we needed solid, tight news stories, not a marketing puff piece.

Many releases I see are just abysmal. I don’t know if the agencies are teaching young flaks the wrong way, or if they’re teaching it in college, but there are some serious errors that are keeping your stories from getting published at all. Here are five things you need to stop putting in your press releases.

1. Marketing copy, especially in the opening paragraph

“ABC Coffee Stirrers, the leader in the coffee stirring industry since 1978 and the developer of the Turbo-Whoosh titanium stirrer, is pleased to announce the acquisition of Global Stirrings, a Canadian coffee stirrer manufacturer.”

Do you see all that dreck? All that extra crap about ABC’s history? That’s amateur hour. That stuff goes at the end of the press release in the <H2>About ABC Coffee Stirrers</H2> section. You know, the part nobody reads. It’s going to get cut out anyway, because journalists like real openings, not a copy-and-paste of your About Us page. When you write that, you sound like a flak, not a journalist, and the editor may pitch the release out of spite and loathing.

2. Adverbs, adjectives, and competitive language

“ABC Coffee Stirrers have proved to be 33% more effective at mixing a coffee drinker’s cream and sugar into their beloved morning java. And customers have eagerly demonstrated their strong preference for the Turbo-Whoosh by increasing sales by a staggering 12% every year for the last five years!”

Newspapers and TV stations are supposed to present the news in an unbiased, objective manner. That means they don’t get to express their opinion. They don’t get to say whether something is good or bad. They typically don’t talk about products, unless those products killed someone.

That means they’re not going to talk about how much better your product is than anyone else’s. They’re not going to publish the “news” written by your product manager. And they’re not going to talk about increased sales, customer preference, or improved performance.

You may get that kind of coverage in trade and industry journals, but you still need to avoid the adverbs and adjectives. If your press release sounds like a freshman English Comp essay, pitch it and start over.

3. Copyright and Trademark symbols

The company lawyer may have told you to put them in the release, but the ®, ©, and ™ symbols don’t belong in press releases for two simple reasons:

  1. They could interfere with SEO. While we can’t be sure how Google treats these, why risk it? Maybe they ignore those symbols, but maybe they treat it like a regular word. No one is going to search for ABC™ Coffee Stirrers®, so don’t make that a search term.
  2. Those don’t appear in news stories. The editors are going to delete them anyway, so don’t make extra work for them or you.

Unless the company lawyer also has a background as a journalist, ignore anything they tell you about writing press releases.

3. “We’re very excited” quotes

“We’re very excited about the merger between our companies.”

“We’re very excited about our laptop upgrades.

You can’t be equally excited about both things. Saying “we’re very excited” about every damn thing that happens is either lazy writing, or your CEO is off her meds. Find another way to express interest or enthusiasm. Better yet, don’t even bring it up at all. We all know you didn’t interview the CEO for this, and if you did, she probably didn’t say this at all.

Talk about the benefits of the news item. Is the merger going to add jobs? That’s your lead quote. Is it going to improve profitability by $10 million? Then that is. No one cares who’s excited; that’s not news. The jobs and profitability are exciting. Only include things that drive the story.

4. Business jargon quotes

“This new relationship will help us streamline mission-critical functionalities as a way to regenerate impactful niches.”

No one talks that way in real life. If they do, make sure they aren’t having a stroke.

But even if they do, preserve their reputation and avoid marketing words altogether. Make them sound like a real human being since, not a marketing textbook.

(Note: It’s easy to confuse marketers with real human beings, but do your best. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and translate their marketing gobbledygook into real words.)

If you don’t have good quotes, the journalist will either email you or call you for a follow-up quote that uses real words. Save them the time and give them a quote that sounds realistic and not one made up by the Dack.com Bullshit Generator (which is what I used to write that sentence above).

A press release is supposed to sound like a real news story written by a real journalist. Most PR flaks don’t know what that looks like, so they keep putting out the same garbage week after week. Then they complain that their stories aren’t being published and that their clients aren’t getting any traction. Start writing real journalistic stories and send out only newsworthy items. You’ll see your success rate — and self-respect — increase.

Lawyers Need to Cooperate with Marketing, or Get Out of the Way

It’s the customer every brand dreams of: the superfan who spends their own time, money, and energy evangelizing a product to all their friends and family.

Sara Rosso is a Nutella superfan. So much so that she created World Nutella Day back in 2007, and it has taken place on February 5th every year.

A photo of a guy who has managed to wedge his head up his assThen she received a cease-and-desist letter from Ferrero’s (Nutella’s parent company) lawyers, demanding that she no longer use the Nutella name in her I-LOVE-NUTELLA-THIIIIIIIIIIIS-MUCH efforts.

According to an article on Social Media Today, Rosso got media coverage of the event on NBC, CNN, and ABC, plus a social media audience of 47,000 fans and followers.

And yet, some lawyers who had no idea about the awesomeness she was spreading (pun totally intended) as well as no freaking clue about how free marketing evangelism worked, shut her down.

So Rosso took her case to the people, and posted the cease-and-desist letter to her blog, and almost immediately — I hope after the marketing department shouted “WHAT THE F*** DID YOU JUST DO?!” at the legal department — contacted her to rectify the situation.

When it was all said and done, Ferrero issued this press release, which Rosso posted on her website:

“World Nutella Day: a positive conclusion

Positive direct contact between Ferrero and Sara Rosso, owner of the non-official Nutella fan page World Nutella Day, has brought an end to the case.

Ferrero would like to express to Sara Rosso its sincere gratitude for her passion for Nutella, gratitude which is extended to all fans of the World Nutella Day.

The case arose from a routine brand defense procedure that was activated as a result of some misuse of the Nutella brand on the fan page.

Ferrero is pleased to announce that today, after contacting Sara Rosso and finding together the appropriate solutions, it immediately stopped the previous action.

Ferrero considers itself fortunate to have such devoted and loyal fans of its Nutella spread, like Sara Rosso.

Problem solved! World Nutella Day has been saved!

Except it should never have been a problem in the first place. Without going into all the “everyone in a company should communicate” drivel, which you and I know will never happen, Legal should have at least been smart enough to check with Marketing and said, “Hey, have you guys ever heard of World Nutella Day? Is this a thing?”

And Marketing would have said, “No, but it’s pretty cool. Why do you ask?”

Legal: “Because we want to shut it down. Someone is using the Nutella name other than us.”

Marketing: “Don’t be stupid. Clearly this is someone who is helping us further the cause of Nutella, which helps us make more money, which is how we can afford to support your non-revenue generating asses.”

While I understand the need for brand protection and support, there needs to be a mechanism in place where the marketing folks can have some input on the cease-and-desist letters and tell the lawyers, “wait, don’t send that one.”

Then stories like this would never have to be written, and Nutella and Ferrero wouldn’t end up with egg on their face.

Where Should Social Media Live? Marketing, That’s Where

Amber Naslund recently commented on a post of mine, and said:

As social business becomes more the MO instead of just “doing social media”, we still don’t have an answer for where it lives, and it needs somewhere. I don’t think it’s going to be enough for it just to be dispersed independently in various departments. We have C-suite roles that are holistic and support the entire business. HR and IT do that to an extent, too, because they’re practices that have to carry across and touch all disciplines. I think social business needs to be that way too.

But as it matures – and maybe even after it’s well established as best practice – it needs some kind of alignment in order to thrive. I’ve yet to make up my mind whether that means there’s an executive that’s responsible for ‘social business’ itself or something else, but the reality is that we need someone to be accountable for the purposes, vision, and results of social business initiatives (and things like innovation, organizational design, culture development ) as their purview, not just an aspect of their job description.

This has been an ongoing question, and one that is not easily answered.

Except that I think it’s the Marketing department.

If you look at Marketing as the communication channel between customers and the company, and not just the department that makes brochures, pictures, and websites, it makes sense. Marketing communicates through web, print, broadcast, and even direct communication. How those messages reach their audience depends on the mediums (media) where they’re found.

There are those who would argue that it should belong in PR, because they have to communicate with journalists and industry bloggers who are all using social media. Some will argue that it should be in customer service, because it has become an established customer service communication channel. (I would argue that customer service should be folded into marketing, since they focus on customer retention, but that’s a different blog post.)

But if anything, the responsibility for social media needs to be kept in marketing for the communication aspect, and the other departments need to be allowed to use it as part of their own responsibilities. If anyone is going to decide what the social media strategy will be, that should come from marketing, but in cooperation with PR, Customer Service, and any other departments using it.

As I said in a recent blog post, Social Media Stars Killed Social Media, we’re reaching the point where social media is just going to be another form of communication, like email and the phone, and we’re not going to have dedicated social media professionals.

So when that day comes that social media professionals just turn into regular old professionals, they need to land in the marketing department.

24 Quotes to Inspire Any Marketer, Plus One of Mine

Have you ever had your name mentioned in a sentence with someone you admire? Like you’re being compared to them, or included with them? And not, “Is Erik Deckers older than Jason Falls?”

It happens occasionally for me, where someone includes me in a list of people I’ve only read about, and who wouldn’t know me from Adam. Every time it does, I want to say, “Wait, I think you made a mistake.” It’s terribly exciting and a real honor. It’s also something I struggle to accept.

People from Indiana are taught to be humble, and to not brag. (We’re America’s Canada.) We don’t take compliments very well, because we’re supposed to be humble and not appear boastful.

So when someone includes my name or mentions something I’ve done/said in a list of people I’ve looked up to, quoted, and read regularly, part of my brain ducks its head, says “aw, shucks,” and kicks at the ground. And another part squeals like a 12-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber.

It happened yesterday after someone pointed me to a slide deck of “25 Quotes to Inspire Any Marketer” from ezanga.com. It included quotes from Dan & Chip Heath (Made to Stick), Seth Godin (Purple Cow, Tribes, and Linchpin), John Jantsch (Duct Tape Marketing), David Meerman Scott (Real-Time Marketing & PR), and David freaking Ogilvy.

And me.

The line is from Branding Yourself, a book that Kyle Lacy and I wrote in 2010, and finished a second edition in 2012. I can’t remember who we learned it from (we cited him in the book), but it was used to illustrate the idea that, just like people have emotional reactions to their most-loved and most-hated brands, people have the same reaction to us.

I thought, “this must be a mistake. Or it’s one of those ‘Daily Paper.li’ pages where 87 different people get included and tweeted.” But then I looked and saw that it was neither of those things. It really was something I said, and it was good enough to be included in a list with the Johnson Brothers, Seth Godin, David Meerman Scott, and David freaking Ogilvy.

People think it’s odd that the personal branding guy has difficulty in accepting compliments or stating simple facts like, “I wrote a book,” especially when he wrote a book that told people “get over yourself.” But I do. I get red in the face when I get complimented. I still don’t like telling people, “I wrote a couple books,” because it seems like bragging. And I still feel like a fake when someone asks me to sign their book.

I have to fight that urge to not say anything about what I’ve done and, you know, actually do the things I tell other people to do.

So, here it goes:

“I had a quote about marketing included in a slide deck and blog post that included a lot of really smart people.”

You have no idea how hard that just was.