Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

Six Crisis Communication Lessons to Running Your Business During an Emergency

Ten years ago, when I was in crisis communication for the Indiana State Department of Health, part of my job was to create an emergency contingency plan if we were ever in the field without power or an Internet connection.

Our job was to communicate with the public during an emergency, and we couldn’t let little things like power outages stop us. Our plan involved battery backups, cell phones, a Verizon MiFi, car AC converters, and even hand delivering CDs of videos and releases to local newspapers and TV stations.

I was reminded of all this when I had to send my Mac to the shop to have the logic board replaced, and they said they’re keeping it for 3 – 5 days.

I’ve run my business out of a backpack for the last seven years, and this marks the first time I’ve tried to function without my handy laptop. In just a few agonizing days, I’ve been reminded of those emergency preparedness lessons, and I’ve learned some new ones as well. Here are six ways to function during an emergency or equipment loss.
My iPad and Bluetooth keyboard - a bare bones crisis communications setup

1. Make sure you already know how to use your gear.

I’m going to be working off my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard for about five days, writing everything on Google Drive and using Google Chrome to update my client blogs. I had an old MacBook, but it bit the dust last month, which means I’m using the ultimate in dumb terminals.

Luckily I’ve used this kind of setup before, so I didn’t waste a few hours trying to figure out how to get everything to work. I fired up Google Drive, connected the keyboard, and I was off and running. But I was able to do it because I’ve already practiced this setup before.

Identify your backup gear, and try to spend a day using it. Find the holes in your knowledge and equipment, and fill them both quickly.

2. Store things in the cloud.

I have two external hard drives, but I also recently started backing up my important documents to my iCloud account, as well as Dropbox. So even if I don’t have access to everything on my hard drives, my important files are easily accessible.

Basically, I’m writing everything on Google Drive, including this article, since that’s how I share my client documents anyway. And while I normally keep my works-in-progress on my laptop, I uploaded everything to Drive before I headed to the Apple Store, just in case I got some bad news. I could also download my current articles from my iCloud and open them with Pages on my iPad.

And if my computer was completely destroyed, I can still restore everything from one of my hard drive backups.

3. Use cross-device apps and services.

I also use other cloud-based services for my business. My bookkeeping is on Freshbooks (they have an app, as well as their website), Todoist is my to-do list (which runs on all my devices, plus online), and I keep track of important information on Evernote (cross-device, cross-platform, as well as web-based). And my email portal is Gmail, which I can access from anywhere. (I could even go to the local library and answer emails if things were especially bad.)

However, the major DDOS attack last week reminded us how vulnerable we are if our access to the Internet goes down. This is why I don’t operate completely in the cloud, and still store things on my laptop. It’s why a cloud-only setup is not ideal. Even if we were cutoff from the rest of the world, anyone who still keeps documents on their laptop can still function. So don’t put all your electronic eggs in one basket. Strike a balance.

4. Keep everything powered up.

One lesson Hurricane Matthew reminded us of is to keep your devices and your batteries powered up at all times. Since my Bluetooth keyboard is cordless, that means I need to have batteries on hand. Since I’m working at home most of the time, I’m fine. But on those days that I’m working in a coffee shop, it’s smart to keep a couple batteries in my bag, just in case.

I also have to keep an eye on my iPad, which is running wifi and a Bluetooth. It slowly loses power over time, even when it’s plugged in, so I try to take a break every couple hours to let it recharge faster.

5. Use a password vault.

Security is also important, which starts with secure, hard-to-remember passwords. The problem with having everything on the cloud means trying to remember every password you ever created. Or worse, you can easily remember the one password you use on all your accounts. (Don’t do that. It’s extremely unsecure).

I use a password vault that syncs my various passwords between my laptop, tablet, phone, and the cloud. I never have to remember my passwords, I can either retrieve them from the vault by hand, or have them fill in directly. So I only remember the master password to get in, and my vault handles the rest.

This means I can even use a backup computer, and still access my various web services without using the Forgot Your Password retrieval function. I recommend a password vault like LastPass or 1Password, which both work on different devices and platforms. Even if you have a Windows laptop and an iPad, they’ll still sync up your passwords.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

When I was in crisis communication, we were always training and preparing for terrorist attacks, as well as natural public health emergencies, like avian flu. But rather than wait for years for one of those things to happen, we decided our best practice was to work on any small emergencies, like an e. Coli or salmonella outbreak.

My staff and I would put together a press release, gather the necessary information, and share it with the appropriate media outlets. We worked to get it out within an hour of our first notification, because we knew that would be our benchmark if we ever had a real emergency. While an emergency never arose, we were even prepared when we participated in full-scale exercises that involved the entire state, and would have been ready for the real thing.

Similarly, I try to spend a few hours every frew months working solely in the cloud or working on this iPad-and-keyboard setup to make sure I can make it all run efficiently when the time arises. I’ve still managed to meet all deadlines and respond to my emails, without any problems.

While this setup isn’t ideal for someone who focuses strongly on high-scale production work, and needs access to a lot of local information — photos, videos, and past work — it’s at least a great way for me to stay productive and give my clients what they need. It’s put a few of my wish-list projects on hold, but I’m still managing the important work.

By keeping backups of everything, and being very familiar with the way my backup equipment and services work, I was able to come home from the Apple store, switch everything on, and get back to work without missing a beat.

How to Use a Fiction Throughline in Your Content Marketing

In novel writing, there are certain elements or themes that run through the book like a thread. You can find this thread in movies as well. They’re common themes like “Debbie is afraid of commitment,” “William wants Scotland to be free,” or “Captain America hates bullies.”

This is the throughline.

It’s the running theme, a character’s reason for being, a plot or sub-plot, or even the language that’s used in the story.

Every few scenes, we’re reminded of the throughline once again, though only a touch, as the author or screenwriter tugs on it once in a while to remind us it’s there.

When scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to the bully. When he dives on a hand grenade during basic training to save his squadron. When he ignores Colonel Tommy Lee Jones and rescues his best friend, Bucky.

As Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds says:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

Basically, Chuck says, it’s “the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story.”

Find Your Throughlines

What is the thing your company wants to be known for?

Not your mission statement. Nobody talks like that. Besides, most mission statements suck. Hard.

We will operationalize bleeding-edge strategies in order to maximize our core competencies to that we may holistically leverage best-of-breed solutions.

That’s not a throughline. That’s complete crap. (I sure hope that’s not someone’s actual mission statement. I made it up, and I had to shower afterward.)

Every kind of content marketing should use a throughline. Even solar panel manufacturers.

Instead, what do your salespeople and marketing staff brag about? What excites you about what your work? Why does your company do what it does?

That’s your throughline. If you’re a pharmaceutical company, your throughline is saving lives. (Or helping old men get erections. I’m not judging.) If you make solar panels, your throughline is saving the earth and reducing our dependence on coal. If you’re a business improvement consultant, like my friend Robby, your throughline is helping others be more efficient.

Once you know your throughlines, you’re ready to weave them into your story.

What Do Throughlines Have to Do With Content Marketing?

In content marketing, your throughline runs through your company’s overall story.

Your story is made up of chapters — blog articles, white papers, videos, podcasts — and your throughline should pull potential customers through on their buyer’s journey.

Your company’s throughline are those things you stand for and can truly deliver. If you know your company’s USP, a unique selling proposition, that’s your throughline. It’s the top benefit you offer your customers.

For Chick-fil-A, their throughline is chicken-not-beef. Their advertising is all about the cows telling us to eat more chicken. For Apple computers, it’s thinking different(ly). Their computer ads are about doing great things with the right side of your brain. For Pro Blog Service, it’s about providing high-level professional writing. So I write articles about advanced writing skills.

Not everything Chick-fil-A does is about their cows. Not everything Apple promotes is about being a creative professional. And at Pro Blog Service, we write about things other than writing.

But every so often, you’ll find that theme, that element, that throughline to pull you through their stories, on to the next chapter.

For our solar panel manufacturer, they can spend most of their time talking about the quality of their panels, their low cost, available financing, ease of use, money saved, and benefits over wind power.

But every so often, they need to tug on their throughline to remind us it’s there: “if we can use more solar power, we use less coal to create electricity. And less coal means a cleaner tomorrow.”

Content marketers like to call themselves storytellers, so here’s a real story element they can use. Novelists and screenwriters use them all the time, and so can you.

If you can weave your throughline into your content marketing, it will tell you what comes next, and it will move your customer down the right path. You can more easily plan your content schedule if you can follow the golden thread that’s waiting for you to wrap a story around it.

Photo credit: Gray Watson (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Content Marketing: Winning Google Searches for Lawyers

A lawyer friend told me once, “No one likes lawyers until they need one.”

It was a good reminder about the function lawyers play in today’s society, solving problems, or preventing them. And that people don’t want to think about them, until their problem becomes all-consuming, and they can’t think about anything else.

I saw an interesting article recently on content marketing for lawyers that reminded me of my friend’s statement. I especially was struck by the headline, “People Search for Lawyers, Not Law Firms.” It reminded me that people look for lawyers the same way they look for any other service provider: they want a solution to a problem.

If you have a leaky faucet, you call a plumber. If your car isn’t working, you call a mechanic. Maybe you worked with one in the past, maybe you have a friend who recommends one. But chances are, unless that mechanic or plumber put a lot of money into marketing, you’re basing your decision on a relationship you/a friend have with a particular plumber or mechanic.

Barring that, you’re basing it on a Google search.

Chris Grant wrote on Passle.net about how lawyers can ensure they’re more easily found online, by using LinkedIn, blogging, videos, and Twitter to promote their personal brand.

. . .[P]eople are interested in people, and [this] hammers home the importance for lawyers (and other professionals) of having a really good online presence! Your potential clients are out there, searching for an individual that can help with the problem they have

Did you catch that last bit? Your potential clients are searching for those who can help with the problem they have.

When You Don’t Have Large Advertising Budgets

Of course, there are some law firms you’ve heard of. The giant ones in your city or state that spend a bunch of money on TV advertising, and coughed up several thousand bucks just to be on the back cover of the phone book. We’ve all heard of those firms.

But what if you don’t have back-of-the-phone-book money? Don’t worry about it. Instead, ask yourself:

  1. When is the last time you reached for the phone book? And if you did, did you look at the back cover? And did you look at the back cover at the exact moment you needed a lawyer?
  2. When’s the last time you watched TV commercials? When’s the last time you did it without fast forwarding or running off to the kitchen? And when is the last time you watched a TV commercial at the exact moment you needed a lawyer?

That’s not to say advertising is ineffective. It creates awareness. People will remember who you are when they do need you. But I’ll bet that many people who used the phone book and watched the commercials didn’t remember the name or phone number right off the bat.

I’m more willing to bet they Googled it until they found the right name.

Content Marketing: Providing Solutions to Problems

Search engine friendly content factory notebook and Macbook

Write down your blog post ideas whenever you think of them, and write them later.

I’ve done content marketing for three different law firms, in three different cities and states, and covered three different practice areas.

One was for a general small-town attorney, who wanted people to find his firm when they were in trouble. We wrote blog posts about “what to do after you have an accident” and “should I represent myself in court?”

Another was for an employment law attorney. He wanted people to find his firm when they had been wrongfully terminated. So we wrote articles about “how to tell if I was wrongfully terminated” and “my supervisor is sexually harassing me.”

The third was for a major medical malpractice and personal injury attorney. He wanted to be found if someone had been seriously injured during a medical procedure or major accident. We wrote about what to do after a surgical procedure went wrong, or if an insurance company wanted to give a small settlement.

For all three clients, we had three goals in mind:

  1. To win local Google searches. Google looks at where a particular search is taking place, and then shows the results closest to the searcher. Try this as an experiment: pull out your phone and do a search for a plumber. I’ll bet the plumbers that come up are all in your city. Google provides those kinds of local search results, but only the best optimized websites — and those with a Google Business listing — will show up first on those local results.
  2. To demonstrate their expertise in their field. Once people find you, they need to know you know your stuff. It’s already assumed you do, since you graduated from law school. But what if you work in a highly specialized field? Or a very competitive field?
  3. To solve people’s problems People don’t just go searching for attorneys willy-nilly. It’s not like their three favorite online time wasters is Facebook, Candy Crush, and searching for law firms. No, people only search for lawyers when they need a lawyer. If you go back and look at the attorney examples I used above, you’ll see these are all questions or issues people have at a particular moment. And they’re searching for the answers online, not the phone book, not late-night TV commercials. So if you can demonstrate that you know the answer, at the time people need the answer, you’re the one they’re going to call.

I knew an attorney who specialized in intellectual property, and he often wrote about IP issues, partly to educate the inventors he wanted to appeal to, but also to show them that he knew more than the other IP attorneys they might be checking out.

Another attorney specialized in large-scale alternative energy issues. She was sought after by investors and utility companies for her expertise in that field. And she was able to demonstrate that by writing repeatedly about different local and national alternative energy issues that were happening around the country.

Attorneys who don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising can reap great benefits from content marketing. You can boost your search performance and personal branding if you can write one or two blog posts per week. It gives you some great exposure and gets your ideas out there for your potential clients to see.

Unleash Your Content Marketing With New Avenues

Blogs and Twitter are no longer interesting enough as content marketing tools to stand out anymore. They’re just the necessities of doing business.

It’s like saying, “Our business uses computers!” or expecting job seekers to know how to use a word processor. Blogging and Twitter are a part of business now, and you stand out in their absence.

If you want to do serious content marketing, yes, you absolutely have to have a blog and Twitter. A company without it has to work a lot harder at SEO and online marketing just to keep up. But that’s no longer enough. If you want to rise above the crush of average, me-too content, you need to do new stuff that no one else is doing.

The Future of Content Marketing

One of the things I always mention in my Future of Content Marketing talks is that you need to go where your competition isn’t.

A few years ago, that meant starting a blog. But now that most companies — at least the more successful ones — have one, that’s just the price of admission. You aren’t unique or outstanding.

The Owned Media Doctrine cover, a book about enterprise content marketing

Taulbee Jackson wanted to show his clients that he knew a lot about enterprise content marketing, so we literally wrote the book on it.

You can create more better content, but even that will only get you so far. You’ll still get buried by the avalanche of mediocre content. So you need to try using different channels, formats, and publications.

This is what I usually say in my talks.

If they have a website, start a blog.
If they have a blog, start a podcast.
If they have a podcast, do a video podcast.
If they have a video podcast, write a book. Or host a monthly webinar. Or go on a speaking tour.

The point is, you need to do something else that other people in your industry are not doing. You need to be where the competition isn’t.

Just Be Audacious!

Starbucks has recently jumped into the content marketing game, creating a media arm of the already-giant coffee empire. It’s something to read while you’re sitting in your local Starbucks, drinking your half-caf soy chai latte. And it’s a bold choice for a coffee shop, but it ties into their philosophy of being “the third place.”

Once you log into the wifi, their login portal takes you to their coffee blog that shows you how to pour the perfect cold brew, or features a short article about their new coffee brand, 1912 Pike.

Or, best of all, to see their new original series, Upstanders, their “original collection of short stories, films, and podcasts sharing the experiences of Upstanders – ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities.

While some people will pooh-pooh the idea of a food brand trying to break into the media market, don’t forget that Red Bull has gone from being an energy drink company to a media and extreme sports company that sells energy drinks.

But more importantly, if Starbucks can launch a small video and podcast series as a way to showcase outstanding people in their communities — seriously, watch The Kids Who Killed an Incinerator — then why can’t you start your own unusual content marketing?

“Make Good Art”

Neil Gaiman told the University of the Arts in 2012 to “make good art.” But that doesn’t just have to be advice for artists, or for middle managers who harbor secret novel-writing dreams. Companies can make great art that still works for them, but without staining it with overt marketing messages.

For example, a publisher could publish a flash fiction or short story series. Or serialize a novel, the way The Strand Magazine serialized the original Sherlock Holmes stories The publisher’s authors could even write short stories related to their books as a way to introduce people to their work. But don’t just publish them in an anthology that will only sell 2,000 copies. Publish them on your blog, push them out on Facebook, and turn them into an audiobook podcast. Get people interested in the stories and introduce them to other authors whose works you publish. Think of it as “if you liked this writer, you’ll love that writer” marketing.

Create a comic book. Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, General Electric produced a series of science-based comic books that were distributed to grade school kids up through the 80s. (I remember reading them when I was a boy.) And they recently hired new writers and artists to update their content with all new comic books. What’s stopping your company from creating comic books to help customers understand how your products work, or how to solve problems with the things you sell? There are plenty of small, independent writers and artists who would create some of the best comic art you’ve ever seen. (And given the fickle nature of the comic book industry, there are even several big-name veterans who are looking for work.)

They don’t even have to be superhero stories, but they can be illustrated explanations and conversations between two characters. Check out Gavin Aung Than’s Zen Pencils. Gavin takes great speeches and short essays by notable artists and thinkers, and turns them into long single comics, which are both moving and interesting. I’ve shared a few of these with my youngest daughter who desperately wants to be an artist. (His Jack Kirby comic/poster still makes me misty.) Think of these as comic infographics.

Start a small magazine about your industry. What if you could outperform the trade association journals in your industry? Better yet, what if there isn’t a trade association journal for your industry? Think about how much credibility you and your company would have if you became the voice of your industry. Imagine sharing the journal of your industry with your potential customers. Talk about a credibility boost. While everyone else is rocking a once a week blog, you’ve got an entire magazine devoted to solving your customers’ problems. This is going to make you be seen as one of the leading experts in your entire industry. Joe Pulizzi has done this with the Content Marketing Institute, publishing Chief Content Officer magazine every month, and is now regarded as the guy for everything related to content marketing.

Start a podcast. More than 57 million people in the U.S. (or 21% of the population) listen to podcasts at least once a month. That’s the same number of people who use Spotify; 13% use Twitter. What if you could only get .01% of that audience? That’s 5,700 people. That’s quite a sizable audience, especially if you’re in a niche B2B audience. Even 1,000 people would be outstanding, because that’s 1,000 people who are listening to your radio-show-that’s-secretly-a-commercial week after week.

And, a podcast is an ideal selling tool. You can invite potential customers to be interviewed on your podcast, which will intrigue them more about your company. They may not be interested in talking to your salespeople, but they’re more than happy to take a call from you about being on a podcast. Who knows how the relationship can develop from there? Even if they don’t take those sales calls, you can bet they’ll pay attention to your company even more after you interview them. (And if they become regular listeners, then they’ll be listening to your radio-show-that’s-secretly-a-commercial week after week.

Decoder Ring Theatre cast

Cast of Decoder Ring Theatre, an audio theatre company in Toronto.

Better yet, can you sponsor a radio theatre podcast? Decoder Ring Theatre in Toronto has produced some of the best radio drama in the vein of old-time radio heroes and detectives, and they reach several thousand people. (Disclosure: They also produced five of my radio theatre scripts a few years ago.) Other podcasts, like Canadaland, Grammar Girl, and Marketing Over Coffee, reach tens of thousands of people, and they’re sponsored by different consumer brands, like Casper Mattress, Audible Books, and MarketingProfs.

But what if you were to sponsor a podcast in the same way soap companies sponsored radio dramas in the 1930s and 40s, which later became our modern soap operas. Imagine having a bi-weekly or even monthly radio drama that drew in thousands of listeners just because they wanted the story? The audiobook industry is already a billion dollar industry, and I believe the audio theater industry could be a big part of that. There are already a number of popular audio drama podcasts. And while they may not be wildly popular, they still reach a devoted audience every week or month.

Content marketing needs to travel beyond just blogs and white papers. It needs to be more than the same old, same old that every other B2B content creator is trotting out to its customers. If you want to truly stand out, try something that’s so unusual, it will stand out just by virtue of being one of the first companies to do it.

Skip the Fancy Apps: You Don’t Need Special Tools to be a Writer

I love to hassle my artist friends about the cost of producing their art versus mine:

“Do you ever think about how you need a $1000 camera to make your art, but I can do mine with a pencil stub and back of an envelope.”

And then I get escorted from their exhibition, and they don’t speak to me for months.

I’ve had several discussions with photographer friends — all professionals who make their living behind the lens — about whether they could produce high quality work with a cheap point-and-shoot camera or needed expensive equipment. They all agreed, good equipment made life easier, but their (breathtaking) skills let them overcome the shortcomings of the cheap equipment.

And so it goes with painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers, and furniture makers. Professionals can do a lot with cheap tools, but they really shine with high-quality tools and equipment. (Conversely, an amateur armed with the best tools doesn’t have the skill to match the professional using poor tools.)

Writers Don’t Need Special Equipment

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterThat’s the great thing about writing. Our work doesn’t improve with our tools. We don’t need hand-crafted pencils made from reclaimed barn beams and carbon fiber bicycle wrecks. Or pens with comfort grips and high-tech synthetic ink. Or frictionless paper that glides under our hands. (Although this Ogami stone paper is unbelievably smooth!)

A writer really can get by with a golf pencil and the back of an envelope. A writer writes; everything they do happens in their brain, and gets translated onto paper.

It’s the same on the digital front. There are no special apps that make us better writers. No apps that make our words shine or turn them into magical ideas.

Sure, there are plenty of tools that claim to be writers’ apps. Tools that shut off Facebook and tools that hide your entire laptop screen. But what can they do that a simple “I’m not going to use Facebook for the next two hours” self-promise cannot?

(Said the guy who checked Twitter three times in the last hour.)

There are minimalist writing apps that strip out all the bells and whistles of Apple Pages or Word. But you can also get TextWrangler for Mac or Microsoft Works for free, or just plain old Google Docs.

There’s even Scrivener, but that’s more of a workflow/information management tool. It’s great for large bodies of work, like a master’s thesis, novel, or screenplay, but for anything less than 1,000 words, it’s like taking a moving van on a quick run to the grocery store.

There are other tools, like RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com, but they’re not writer-specific. And don’t get me started about Evernote. I love Evernote, and have the pro version, but you can’t swing a dead cat/mouser/tomcat/grimalkin without hitting an article that lists Evernote as a “must-have writing app.”

What CAN Writers Use?

Don’t get me wrong. These are all fine apps, and I use several of them. But these aren’t must-haves like a photographer and his camera, or a painter and her brushes.

If you want special writing tools, get a basic notebook and a decent pen, and just start writing. Or pick the word processor and laptop you’re most comfortable with. Whether you handwrite everything, or you have a 21″ HD computer monitor and bluetooth keyboard, you’re going to get your best work done with the tools you feel comfortable with.

I’ve written in small grid-lined Moleskine notebooks with a Pilot G-2 gel pen for 12 years. I’ve pounded on a 60 year old Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter, and an 80 year old L.C. Smith & Corona Silent. I’ve used Apple’s word processor (AppleWorks, ClarisWorks, and now Pages) since I was 20. I’ve played with different writing apps, including Facebook blockers, minimalist writers, and even Scrivener.

But none of these made me a better writer. None of these improved my writing or my efforts. Sure, some of them were more efficient, but you measure good writing in results, not efforts. No one cares about the process, just the finished product.

In the end, no tool will make you a better writer. Apps can improve the process, but they don’t improve your skills. While we can argue that better tools make better paintings/photographs/sculptures/tables, a better word processor doesn’t make a better story. Focus less on the tools you use, and more on your process, and everything will fall into place.

The Seven Mudas (Wastes) of Content Marketing

Lean Manufacturing, which spawned America’s Agile business movement, is based on a Japanese management philosophy. It was further developed by Taiichi Ohno as part of the Toyota Production System. Ohno identified seven different areas of waste, and said that if companies could solve these problems, they could improve profits and productivity.

One of the tenets of the Lean Philosophy is to avoid mudas, or wastes. In manufacturing terms, these are the different pinch points that have an impact on the manufacturing process. For example, Inventory means you’ve tied up a lot of capital in having extra raw materials or finished products on hand, which crunches your cash flow. Over-processing means you’re putting more time and energy into each unit than you will see in profits.

While the Seven Mudas are applied primarily to manufacturing, they can be equally applied to content marketing. They are Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-Processing, Over-Production, and Defects; they spell TIMWOOD.

Transportation

Transportation is one of the Seven Wastes of Content Marketing as well as Manufacturing.

This is an example of the Transportation muda. Products can get damaged during transportation, which wastes time and money.

What it means: Every time you move raw materials or a finished product, it can be damaged or lost. You also have to pay for each time you move it with labor and equipment costs, but those don’t add to the value of the product.

How it applies to content marketing: If you edit your content by committee, if you have layers upon layers of approvals, if you have a system that does not trust two grown adults to write and edit a piece of content, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy. The Transportation muda is the time and resources wasted by passing a piece of content between three or more people who need to approve before it can be published.

How to solve it: Set up a system where one person writes, one person edits, and then it gets published. If you require a third person’s approval, these are symptoms of a bigger inefficiency. You presumably hired intelligent, responsible adults, and if you can’t trust them to make intelligent, responsible decisions, that’s a management problem, not an employee problem. Before you ever start a content management program, create an understanding of what you can and cannot discuss on your blog or social networks.

Inventory

What it means: Storing up raw materials or completed products. They don’t make you any money, and won’t until you sell it, which is wasted capital and labor. This is the problem that just-in-time inventory systems usually fix.

How it applies to content marketing: Storing up a lot of articles in advance can cause publishing problems because you either have to pay your writers up front (tying up capital), or you could lose the content because other issues and industry changes arise. You’ve paid for all of this great content, only to bump it further down the publishing queue until it’s out of date or completely forgotten.

How to solve it: Don’t store more than one month’s content in your inventory, because you never know when your editorial calendar is going to change. Instead, revisit your editorial calendar once a month, and make sure you’re still on track.

Motion

What it means: Similar to Transportation, Motion is about the movement of workers and machines. Too much motion makes people prone to injury, and machines are prone to damage from wear-and-tear through continual motion.

How it applies to content marketing: I’m going to reverse this one. The problem with a lot of content is over-automation. It’s a lack of motion. People look for the shortcuts and easy way out. But you’re sitting on a comfy chair, typing on a computer, and the only thing that actually moves are your fingers and wrists. What kind of shortcuts in life do you actually need for this job?

How to solve it: If you want good content, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to read, research, edit, and practice. You’re going to have to be creative, and come up with new ideas. You can’t automate this, and you can’t take shortcuts. Don’t copy-and-paste tweets into Facebook status updates. Write something different for each channel, and take advantage of its uniqueness.

Waiting

What it means: The opposite of Motion is Waiting. If products are not being transported or made, it causes delays in the line. Delays mean employees are Waiting, which means you’re paying for non-performing labor.

How it applies to content marketing: Waiting is often caused by a bottleneck in your creation process. Either your writer is too slow, or your editor is taking too long. Maybe they have too many projects, or they don’t have enough work. Or you have way too many meetings. (Or you completely ignored me on the Transportation thing, and your compliance department is taking their own sweet time.)

How to solve it: Look at your content staff’s typical productivity, and see what they can normally handle on a good day. If they have less work than that, you need more clients/projects. If they have more work, you need to more people. But don’t create busy work just so they have something to do. Focus on high quality first.

Over-processing

What it means: Doing more work than is actually needed. This not only has the problem of extra Motion, but it also adds additional labor costs.

How it applies to content marketing: Any. Committee. Ever. Do not assign content creation to a committee. The fewer people involved, the better.

How to solve it: Content creation should be between the writer and the editor. (Of course, dont’ forget the client, if you have one.)

Over-production

What it means: Sometimes called the worst muda, because it creates so many other problems. If you work ahead, you have a problem of Inventory. You have to move the product to its Waiting place, which means more Transportation. More production means more Motion. Plus, you run the risk of creating more Defects.

How it applies to content marketing: Don’t confuse this one with Inventory, although they’re two sides of the same coin. Inventory has its own problems, but Over-production is the process of getting to that point. Are you adding bells and whistles to every piece of content? Are you repurposing old content to the point that you’re just copying-and-pasting, and slapping a different title on it? I see this when a marketer turns a blog post into a podcast into a movie into an infographic into an ebook into a one-woman show at their local fringe theatre festival. It’s tiresome and more than a little lazy.

How to solve it: Figure out what your readers want, and give it to them. Focus on creating original ideas, backed by original research, and make everything the best it can be. Rather than recycling and repurposing that content into 17 different forms, pick one or two and stick with it. Repurposing only contributes to the content shock.

Defects

What it means: In manufacturing terms, Defects are broken products that result from bad materials, poor employees, and even problems of Transportation and Motion. Remember, it’s not just poorly-made products; it’s also a unit you stuck a forklift through during Transportation.

How it applies to content marketing: These are your typos, your grammatical errors, misused punctuation, and so on. While a misplaced apostrophe won’t waste a blog post, it can affect your credibility. I’ve seen articles on websites that claim to have strict editorial controls, and they demand excellence from their writers. And yet, I’ve seen misspelled and missing words in their work. So much for “excellence.” These are also articles with bad information, poor research, poor logical arguments, etc. And don’t even get me started on just plain old terrible writing.

How to solve it: Work with professionals. Hire professional writers and editors. Don’t just pass it off to the younger staff because it’s “that new-fangled online stuff.” Pass it off to them because they love to write. Pay for training for your staff, give them opportunities to develop further, and help them get better at their jobs. Or, just outsource the work to the pros.

Did I miss anything? Any descriptions you would agree or disagree with? Any interesting stories you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below, and let me know how you would describe your own Mudas of Content Marketing.

Photo credit: Astrid Groeneveld (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)