Four Journalism Techniques To Incorporate Into Your Blog Writing

If you want to be a successful blogger, you need to write like a journalist. In writing style — short words, short sentences, short paragraphs — as well as story flow — important information first, next important, third important, and so on.

But there are a few other journalism techniques you need for your blog if you want it to flow easily, and attract readers’ attention.

My first training as a writer was actually in journalism. It started with my Journalism 101 class at Ball State University, and then being a columnist and reporter for the Ball State Daily News. Since then

Stack of newspapers(For historic reference, this was back in 1987, when they were still printing out, waxing, and pasting up all the pages of the paper. This method of newspaper layout is also where the terms “cut and paste” came from.)

I’ve also been a newspaper humor columnist for over 18 years, and was a freelance newspaper reporter for a time. So everything I do is with a journalist’s eye — a jaundiced, bloodshot, narrowed-suspiciously eye. (I keep it in a desk drawer at my office.)

There were four important journalism lessons I learned from those early days of my writing career, which I still use in blogging today.

1. Your Lede Should Contain Everything We Need to Know

First, yes, it’s “lede” (pronounced “leed.”) It’s spelled that way so it’s not confused with “lead” (led), which is what the movable type was made from back in the early, early days of newspapers. Some newspaper reporters will call the opening paragraph the “lead,” but they don’t have a flair for historical drama.

Your lede needs to contain the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the story. We should be able to read that and understand everything we need to know about your blog post. Some of it may be implied, some of it may be understood, but most of it should just be put right out there.

Take a look at my opening lede:

If you (who) want to be (when = in the future) a successful (why) blogger (what = blogger and where = on your blog), you need to write like a journalist (how). In writing style (as well as story flow — important information first, next important, third important, and so on (more what and how).

2. Refer To a Person By Their Whole Name First, and Their Last Name Thereafter

If you mention a person in your blog post, mention them by their whole name, give their title or reason for inclusion the first time. Every time you refer to them thereafter, use their last name only. The presumption is, if the reader needs to know who you’re referring to, they can always scroll back up the story to find their first mention. We do this for men and women alike. The New York Times has their own style of referring to people as “Mr. Deckers” or “Ms. Carter,” but the rest of the journalistic world just uses last names only.

3. Write for Coma Patients

As my Journalism 101 professor, Mark Popovich, explained it: “Imagine your reader came out of a two-year coma this morning and has no idea what’s going on. So they open a newspaper to your story, and this is the first they’re hearing about any of this.”

This means you have to explain some issues, or at least refer back to them. You can’t assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about. You have to assume they’re coming to the issue for the first time in their lives, even if you’ve written about this topic for five years.

And while we’re on the subject, please never use “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know about” or “Unless you’ve been in a coma, you’ve already heard about” as your lede. It’s stupid, and actually a little offensive. I saw that lede in a blog post about some advanced piece on affiliate marketing, and I still had no idea what the guy was talking about even after he was done.

This hypothetical coma patient is why newspaper stories have all the background information at the end of a story, even if it’s a long running story that “everyone knows about.” They explain the details we learned about in the early days of the issue, just in case someone is not up to speed.

For bloggers, that means link to your past posts about your topic, so our coma patient can go back to that story to catch up. (e.g. “I previously discussed the eight writer archetypes back in March.”)

(It also helps if you have the link open up in a new tab, rather than letting them leave the current page.)

4. Spell Out ALL Jargon The First Time In Every Blog Post

I don’t care if you’re THE leading expert in the industry, and you happen to know that every reader who comes across your blog knows exactly who you are and what you’re talking about. You always spell out abbreviations, acronyms, and jargon terms.

ALWAYS!

Because one day, someone who is not in your industry is going to stumble upon your blog, have no idea what you’re talking about, and they’re going to leave.

It could be our coma patient, or it could be the person who was newly-promoted to the position where they need to give a big fat check to someone with your expertise, but it’s not going to be you, because they have no idea what you do.

If you can make your beginning reader feel smart, without talking down to your advanced reader — and that’s a difficult balance to strike sometimes — you’ll be the person that everyone turns to, rather than just reaching a slice of your potential audience.

Most of our reading habits and reading styles have been shaped and influenced by newspapers. The Boomers and Generation Xers got there by reading actual newspapers. And because that writing style continues on, the Gen Yers are reading the same kinds of news stories online, and being similarly influenced.

Writing and reading styles are still changing as we gather more content online. We skim to read now, rather than reading entire blocks of text.

But one thing will remain the same: journalistic writing is effective for information gathering, because it gives people the most amount of information in the shortest amount of time.

As more people skim to read, if you can write like a journalist, you’ll get more information into their brains

Photo credit: NS Newsflash (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Eight Writer Archetypes: Which One Are You?

What writer archetype are you? Not the kind of writer. Not the genre, fiction or nonfiction, poet or PR flak classification. But your tribe of fellow writers who think and do the same thing you do, even if it’s for a different company, publication, or industry.

Carl Jung originally used the term archetype to refer to a collective pattern of thought present in every individual — self, shadow, animus, anima, and persona. And we have seen other archetypes in different books, plays, and movies throughout the centuries — great mother, wise old man, trickster, hero, child, devil, and so on.

Writers can be collected into different archetypes as well. Different collective patterns of thought that help us define who we are. We may not know it, or put words to the ideas and motivations, but these collective patterns of thought are what drive us into the form of our work.

I started thinking about writer archetypes this week, and tried to come up with my own classifications. Based on my own extensive research (i.e. I did three different Google searches), I can’t find anything else like it. (Which is odd, because writers love to talk about this kind of thing.)

So here are the eight Writer Archetypes I’ve come up with. Which one are you?

    • Informer: These are the journalists and the news writers. They tell us the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the world. If you read it in a newspaper or watched it on the news, you’re hearing from an Informer. Sports writers and entertainment reporters are also Informers.
    • Analyst: What does the news mean? What can we infer from the latest political polls? What does the Arab Spring mean for the rest of the world? The political pundits, the economists, the financial gurus are all Analysts. The Informer gave you the latest Dow report, but it’s the Analyst who goes on CNBC and tells you why it’s good or bad. A news story will tell the latest job numbers, but the economist tells you whether that means the economy is up or down.
    • Educator: Writers who convey knowledge to help others learn. It’s more than just being an Informer, because the readers presumably already know how something works. Whether it’s a text book, a technical manual, or even just a series of blog posts that show you how to take advantage of Google AuthorRank, the writer who writes to intentionally teach is an Educator. A lot of bloggers and marketing book authors live in this space, choosing to build their personal brand and expertise by teaching instead of selling directly.
    • Chronicler: The Chronicler is the observer of the human condition. You find a lot of newspaper columnists here. They’re not quite news, but they don’t fit anywhere else. Matthew Tulley of the Indianapolis Star is one, as was Studs Terkel and his 45 year radio program. Historians are usually found among the Chronicler ranks, as are a few novelists and many creative nonfiction writers.
    • Advocate: The rabble rouser with a pen. They not only observe the human condition, but they speak for those who have no voice, in order to effect change. The Advocate brings awareness to a cause in order to get people to care about it and even take action. The Bilerico Project is an Advocate for the LGBT community. You can even learn to be an activist writer at Bowling Green State University.
    • Persuader: One step beyond the Advocate, the Persuader works to get people to take action on something, but not necessarily a social cause. Political speechwriters are Persuaders, people in ministry are Persuaders, as is anyone who wants their reader to change their mind about a belief, opinion, or value. Public relations people work here, but marketers do not. That’s because a marketer is actually a. . .
    • Merchant: The Merchant is a Persuader who gets people to spend money. You could call this a subset of Persuader, but this is the only writing archetype where the primary focus is to get people to spend money. The other writers may hope to get money for what they do, but it’s not their sole purpose. In addition to marketers, advertisers, grant writers, content marketers, and even sales copywriters are Merchants.
    • Entertainer: Fiction, poetry, stage plays, screenplays. Anything you would read, watch, or hear for entertainment or escapist reasons lives here. You read a novel, watch a play or a TV show, or listen to a radio play that was written by the Entertainer. Many Entertainers can easily put one foot in the other archetypes — the Chronicler novelist, the Educator radio theater playwright, the Advocate stage playwright.

 

As I thought about these archetypes, I envisioned them on a wheel. Each one is a modified version of the one that came before it. The Analyst builds on the work of the Informer, while the Educator teaches you to understand what the Analyst meant. The Chronicler educates people about life in another place, and the Advocate wants you to know how important it is. And so on.

Writer Archetypes

The 8 writer archetypes. Each one is a progression of the one that comes before it.

But, this is not a natural evolution of writing. You don’t start out as an Informer, and move around the clock as time goes by, moving from one state to the other. You can make the jump from archetype to archetype within a career, a year, or even switching gears and topics in a single day.

There are plenty of journalists who became novelists, or Educators who take the plunge into the marketing world, especially as marketing becomes more educational in nature. And, of course, there are plenty of people who stay in the same archetype their entire lives.

This is still a rough idea, and one I’m hoping to develop further. If you have any changes, ideas, or recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

What We Can Learn About Social Media Marketing from The Onion

It was a rather shocking tweet. Someone who was in charge of The Onion’s Twitter account basically called 9-year-old actress and Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis the C-word.

It was so reprehensibly awful and terrible that Twitter just beat the holy bejeezus out of The Onion for it. Within an hour, they deleted the tweet. (This was remarkable in itself, given the fact that these guys never back down or apologize for anything.)

A LOT of angry discussions on whether The Onion should have apologized or not. The angrier ones seem to be on the

A LOT of angry discussions on whether The Onion should have apologized or not.

This morning, even as the Internet was storming Castle Onion with pitchforks and torches, their CEO, Steve Hannah, even went so far as to post an apology to their Facebook page.

Dear Readers,

On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.

Sincerely,
Steve Hannah
CEO
The Onion

From a social media marketing standpoint, this gives rise to a bigger question: when do you blame an entire company for the acts of a single person? When does one person’s views reflect the entire company? And should they ever?

Let’s face it, what this unnamed person did was reprehensible. You just don’t call little girls that word. (Actually, you don’t call any women that word, but there’s a very wide line between being a sexist a-hole and the worst person in the world, and the unnamed person managed to keep one foot planted on either side of it.)

Now The Onion is bearing the brunt of that one person’s poor judgment.

In a lot of cases, people will forgive a company for the missteps of a single person. If you have a bad waitstaff experience at your favorite restaurant, you don’t boycott the entire restaurant. If you received a damaged package from your favorite online bookstore, you don’t stop ordering books. Yet, there are thousands of people who have un-liked and un-followed The Onion on all their social properties, because of a single tweet by a single person.

But this isn’t entirely unexpected. During the presidential election, when someone from a candidate’s past 30 years earlier does something mildly offensive, the other side will scream that this proves that candidate is the anti-Christ or a fascist. When the CEO of a corporation says or does something awful, consumers scream that this kind of attitude pervades the halls of that company.

There’s an awful lot of screaming going on, and people are understandably and justifiably outraged. What this unnamed person did was awful, but the entire organization didn’t sit down at a table and vote on what to tweet.

Are people overreacting or are we justified in screaming at The Onion? Did one bad apple spoil the entire bunch, or should we look at their entire body of work, and forgive them in the end?

This Shouldn’t Stop Companies From Using Social Media

The problem is that whenever anything like this happens — at least the problem for social media professionals like me, Jay Baer, and Doug Karr — is that potential clients look at this and say, “See, we can’t trust our employees not to do something stupid and boneheaded like this.”

It makes our job harder, because they’re worried that their punk intern just out of college is going to start tweeting about his drunken antics at his cousin’s wedding. Or she’s going to launch into some profanity-laced tirade about how her basketball team couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat.

So we have to remind these clients of a few things:

  1. If you have employees like this, you have a hiring problem, and that’s your fault, not social media’s. Those people would act like this even if Twitter had never been invented.
  2. You need to hire people with several years of experience and common sense to run your social media campaigns (these two traits are sometimes mutually exclusive in some people).
  3. You already trust employees to count and handle your money, take trips to faraway places, and even answer the phone without you hovering over them. You need to trust employees on social media this same way.
  4. You need to have a clear-cut social media policy about things you cannot say, words you cannot use, and ideas you cannot convey. At least then people will know why you fired them for violating numbers 1, 2, and 3.

For companies thinking about social media marketing, you need to think about these things:

Will people do stupid things? Yes. It’s in our nature.

Did you hire those people? Yes, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Did you hire them to do those stupid things? No. Otherwise, that would make you as stupid as them.

Will people blame you for it anyway? Yes. Because we all want someone to be outraged at.

Does this mean you shouldn’t do something, like use social media? No. Because people do stupid stuff with all kinds of technology, but that doesn’t mean we don’t 1) use computers, 2) use fax machines, 3) use phones, 4) use cars, and 5) hire people.

We still do all those other things, we just make sure they’re used properly.

That’s how it needs to go with social media. More than half the country is using it. More than half the country is expecting you to be on it. And despite the bone-headedness of some people, it’s still a good and decent place to reach an audience.

People make mistakes. Big, goofy, bone-headed, dumbass mistakes. That’s all just part of the rich tapestry of the business world, and everyone does it. Some are just worse and more crass than others.

The question is, will you stick your head in the sand because of what someone else did, or will you embrace the latest technology and learn from other peoples’ mistakes?

Three Unrelated Skills to Make You a Better Writer

Every writer gets the same advice when they’re starting out — write every day, read a lot, practice writing exercises — but that can only get you so far. There are other skills to develop.

It’s like a baseball player who only practices hitting and catching. Yes, those are important skills that he needs to practice over and over. But there are other skills he can practice that will also improve his playing ability: lifting weights, sprint workouts, and even off-season work like chopping wood and playing basketball, will improve his ability to swing a bat.

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

For writers, there are related skills they can develop, through other activities that exercise their writing muscles, but don’t actually have them writing the same same stuff over and over. These other activities can improve your communication skills, which will ultimately improve your writing.

Twitter

I always thought I was good at concise writing, until I fell in love with Twitter. After using it for a year, and learning how to fit a single thought into 140 characters, I realized I was doing that in my regular writing. When I went back and compared my work to the previous year, I could see how everything was tighter, and how I expressed ideas more fully with fewer, better words.

Twitter has especially helped my humor writing, because I’ve learned how to set up a joke and deliver the punchline in a single tweet. This has had a huge impact on my humor column writing, because I’ve been able to squeeze more jokes into the same number of column inches.

To learn how to tweet effectively:

  • Distill your thoughts into the most expressive nouns and verbs.
  • Cut the adverbs.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Avoid first person references. Instead of saying “I had lunch at @BoogieBurger,” say “Had lunch at @BoogieBurger” or even “Ate at @BoogieBurger.”

(This last one is more of a space saver, but it also teaches you how to write with greater punch.)

Want to make it a real challenge? Avoid abbreviations if possible, and never, ever use text speak. Then, make your thoughts fit into the required space. That’s the best training you can ever do for yourself.

Public Speaking

If you speak in public, you already know how to deliver information clearly and directly, making it easy for your audience to understand and be interested in it. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve already got a speaking style. (And if you don’t, find your local Toastmasters club, and learn to speak in public.)

As you develop that speaking style, try to tailor your writing style to match it. As you’re reading, imagine yourself delivering the material to your audience. If you speak with strong declarative statements, write them. If you’re funny in person, be funny on paper. If you’re calming to your audience, be calming to your reader. Basically, your spoken word choice and delivery should affect your written word choice and style. And as more people hear you speak, the more they’ll hear your voice when they read your work. Match the one to the other in tone, word choice, and even rhythm.

Storytelling

I don’t mean become the kind of storytellers you see at festivals or hear on The Moth, although that helps. Rather, focus on telling stories to friends over dinner. The story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should create suspense, and have an interesting payoff at the end.

If you can easily tell those kinds of stories out loud, you’ll learn how to tell those stories on paper. Any story or blog post you write should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to have an interesting payoff. (Of course, with blogging and journalism, the payoff comes at the beginning, so you’ll need to learn how to deliver the punchline first, and turn the setup into its own a-ha! moment.)

As you’re writing your articles, write it as if you were going to deliver it in public, but as a five-minute story. If you can shift the storytelling architecture to your writing, that makes your work easier to follow. You learn how to keep people involved from a post or article from beginning to end.

These are the three skills I have worked on over the last several years, and they have made a big difference in what, how, and how well I write. And I’m always looking for the next new challenge or skill to master to make it even better.

How about you? What challenges are you taking on yourself to become a better writer?

How the FDA Lost Our Trust During the Meningitis Outbreak

In the face of the meningitis outbreak, which was caused by tainted drugs, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should be leading the crisis communication.

But they’re not.

That responsibility has fallen to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).Tweet from the CDC about the meningitis outbreak

Why? Because we, as the public and consumers of media, trust the CDC. We don’t trust the FDA.

The FDA should be embarrassed.

Jim Garrow pointed out on his Face of the Matter blog — Building Trust is an Everyday Job — that the FDA should be in charge of this outbreak, since it was caused by tainted drugs, which fall under the FDA’s purview. The CDC oversees contagious disease outbreaks, which this is not.

Yet, according to a recent Mashable article, “. . .Twitter users searched for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more often than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” Furthermore, the CDC is regularly updating the media through conference calls about what’s being done about the outbreak, not the FDA.

Why is that?

We Trust the CDC, We Don’t Trust the FDA

Believe me, there is a distinct division between agencies. They usually don’t cooperate or communicate, even when they’re treading some of the same ground. I can only imagine there has been some jockeying for position, for credibility, and for Top Dog-ness between the two three-letter agencies.

So when the CDC, and not the FDA, started holding media conference calls, we should have gotten a clue about the problem, and gotten a good indication about who the media (and the public) trusts and who they don’t. Who has done a good job of earning our trust, and who hasn’t.

Who uses social media well, and who doesn’t.

Tweets from the FDA

Irony, thy name is FDA. (I honestly wish I was making this up.)

We trust the CDC, because we see them on social media more. We trust the CDC because they communicate with the public more. And we trust the CDC, because they tend to talk to us more like people and less like little children.

The CDC has been getting some great press coverage over the last couple of years, thanks to things like the CDC’s Zombie Preparedness campaign, which actually taught people how to prepare for a viral outbreak like pan flu. (Pretty sneaky, CDC.)

While the FDA has tweeted one time — ONCE! — about the meningitis outbreak, in between tweets about Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments of the 1960s to its 13,875 followers (seriously? I have almost as many followers as the FDA?!), the @CDCemergency account has tweeted updates 6 times to its 1.375 MILLION followers.

(Pro tip: If you’re in the middle of an outbreak of a deadly disease because of tainted drugs, it’s probably not a good idea to commemorate the historical signing of an amendment to make drugs safer. Or to tweet about that more often than you tweet about the contaminated drugs that are currently killing people.)

Any wonder why we trust the CDC more?

The Fight For Credibility and Eyeballs Begins NOW

If you want people to trust you on social media (and other) channels, you have to start using them now. If you want people to know they can turn to you when there’s a real crisis, you have to start sharing information with them before the crisis hits.

The CDC has been doing this by tweeting out important information during small crises, and treating them like practice before a big event. They communicate regularly with people, they use social media to its fullest — complete with Facebook page, Twitter accounts galore, blogs, YouTube videos, and just about anything else (hell, they even have a Google+ page for their National Prevention Information Network!). Meanwhile, the FDA’s website still has a starry night background with a dancing baby animation (okay, not really; but they’re still referring to Twitter as a microblog; it quit being a microblog in 2010.).

The short of it is this: You can’t wait until the day of a crisis to launch your crisis communication plan. That thing had to be in play months in advance. And the FDA has lost all control of this crisis, and abdicated it to the CDC.

Maybe this will be a wake-up call to the FDA that they need to do better, so the next time it happens, they can actually be prepared, and we’ll be more likely to trust them.

And you can read all about their efforts on their new Friendster page.

CelebBoutique Shredded by a Lack of Curiosity and General Awareness

CelebBoutique, the British clothing website, may have committed the foul-up of all foul-ups:

CelebBoutique tweet says #Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress.

After being hammered for just a few minutes on social media, their social media people turned on the TV, and saw the terrible news from Aurora, Colorado. Then they sent this:

We apologise for our misunderstanding about Aurora. – CB

We didn’t check what the trend was about hence the confusion, again we do apologise.

Followed by this:

We are incredibly sorry for our tweet about Aurora – Our PR is NOT US based and had not checked the reason for the trend, at that time our

social media was totally UNAWARE of the situation and simply thought it was another trending topic – we have removed the very insensitive

tweet and will of course take more care in future to look into what we say in our tweets. Again we do apologise for any offense caused

this was not intentional & will not occur again. Our most sincere apologies for both the tweet and situation. – CB

Meanwhile, most Americans are livid at the insensitivity of what is now being perceived as a vacuous and clueless fashion brand spouting off about clothes, shoes, and celebrities. As a result, CelebBoutique has just taken a major hit to its brand, with several thousand people pounding them like the fist of an angry god.

And it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

I’ll cut them a little slack. Yes, I’m angry, but I also recognize that mistakes do happen. Someone made a terrible mistake, and it’s not worth storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. No one should lose their job for this.

But this was a mistake that could have easily — EASILY! — been prevented.

All you have to do is be curious, and be willing to educate yourself.

Lack of Curiosity Killed CelebBoutique

Erik Deckers' Twitter response to CelebBoutiqueTheir first follow-up tweets are the first indication that curiosity is not something CelebBoutique’s social media staff holds in great quantities.

“We didn’t check what the trend was about.”

How do you not check this? How can you not be the least bit curious that some word is trending? Why was the first thing that popped into your head about you and your dress, and not “gee, I wonder why that word is trending?”

There are tools to tell you what is trending. There are tools to tell you why something is trending. Google, Twitter Search, even hashtags.org are all places to start.

This is where people need to think like journalists. A journalist never reports on a story that he hears from one person. A newspaper reporter doesn’t write a single sentence until she has confirmed everything her sources tell her. And they never, ever fire off a comment without knowing a single thing about what they’re talking about.

I don’t know if CelebBoutique uses an outside PR firm to do their social media, or if they have an internal staff. I don’t know if they have one person in charge of the Twitter account, or if there are several people.

But regardless of who is doing what, you need to act like a journalist. Even for just a minute. Act like a journalist.

Be curious.

Ask questions.

Wonder why something is happening, and don’t just fire off the first thing that comes into your head, like an 8-year-old.

Otherwise, you pull a boneheaded move like this, and all the goodwill you and your company have worked for will be shredded and ground into the dirt.


Update: It looks like the National Rifle Association made a similar gaffe. They actually deleted their entire Twitter account.

Keep Calling It Social Media ROI: A Response to Copyblogger

I hate it when people try to change the name of a well-known concept, just because they don’t think it accurately describes what that thing is anymore.

Some teeth grindingly well-known examples include:

  • Changing radio theater to audio theater “because you don’t just listen on the radio anymore — CDs, podcasts, and the Internet are also channels.”
  • American Public Radio changing their name to American Public Media for the same reason.
  • Debbie Weil wants to stop calling blogging “blogging,” because the term is outdated. It should be called “the social web” (I heard her say it on Doug Karr’s Marketing Tech Radio show last year).

Trust me, this list goes on and on and on.

Last December, Copyblogger did the same thing. Sean Jackson (CFO of Copyblogger) and Sonia Simone (CMO of Copyblogger) wrote a blog post called There Is No ROI In Social Media Marketing.

But the truth is, marketing will never produce an ROI.

Sonia: OK, you’re still sounding insane to me.

Sean: I’m not done yet.

Marketing will never produce an ROI because ROI is not what you think it is.

A pure definition of ROI is simple to quantify.

ROI = (Gain from the Investment – Cost of Investment)/Cost of the Investment

The problem for marketing professionals is that marketing activity is not an investment.

An investment is an asset that you purchase and place on your Balance Sheet. Like an office building or a computer system. It’s something you could sell later if you didn’t need it any more.

Marketing is an expense, and goes on the Profit & Loss statement.

Yes, this makes sense. But it makes sense in the same way that telling an 8-year-old that eating Brussels sprouts will help him grow up to be big and strong. And on one level, the 8-year-old wants to be big and strong.

On the other hand, it’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, because Brussels sprouts taste like shit.

We Need ROI

Frankly, I don’t care if you don’t think it’s accurate. I don’t care if you think there’s a term that better reflects all the subtle intricacies of whatever it is you’re involved with. I’m not just talking about the difference between investments and profits (that’s more than a little subtle).

I’m talking about the difference between the words you use, and the words everyone else in the world uses.

When I was in crisis communication at the Indiana State Department of Health in 2006-2007, I had to constantly stop the epidemiologists from referring to the bird flu as the “human flu pandemic.” Whenever we had a news interview, I had to remind more than a few of them not to use “human flu pandemic” when they spoke with reporters.

“But ‘bird flu’ isn’t accurate. It may not even come from birds. And it certainly won’t be limited to birds by then.”

“Okay, then call it ‘pan flu,’ because that’s the term the general public is using.”

They didn’t like it, because it wasn’t completely, technically accurate, but I was satisfied because the public was going to know what the hell they were talking about.

We saw it again in 2009, when — turns out the epis were right — it was the swine flu epidemic that got us. And predictably, the media types and general public were all talking about swine flu, swine flu, swine flu. Predictably, the CDC tried talking about the “human flu pandemic,” and no one knew what the hell they were talking about.

Word reached the CDC, and they started talking about H1N1 instead (it helped when the US Swine Association and other hog people told the media that the term “swine flu” was hurting their sales).

It was still accurate, it didn’t offend the epis, and it was still short and sound-bitey enough for the media and public.

What ROI and Swine Flu Have in Common

(Nothing. It was the pithiest sub-head I could think of.)

But at the same time, we do have to recognize that, for good or bad, people will use the term ROI forever. Like Jackson said, “I’m seeing ROI taking on a mythical status in marketing — a benchmark used to compare every decision to some financial metric of return.

It’s not just marketing people, it’s businesspeople everywhere. We all use the term “ROI,” even if there’s really not an “I” in the first place. Same way KFC is now just “KFC.” It no longer stands for “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” they’re just “KFC.”

I think the term “ROI” is taking on the same meaning. We know it means something, but it doesn’t reflect what the letters stand for anymore.

Now, ROI can refer to investments in capital products, it can refer to marketing campaigns, it can refer to your website, your cell phone, your networking events, or anything you spend money on and hope to make money back.

(Because if you want to get even more technically accurate about it, most capital items don’t have a return; you use them until they wear out. And my personal finance friends remind me that an investment only refers to things that can appreciate in value; so a house is an investment, a car is not. So should we start referring to it as Lack Of Return On Investment, or LOROI? No, because that’s stupid.)

So Should We Change The Term “ROI?”

No, we should not. Because all the variations I hear — Return on ENGAGEMENT, Return on INTERACTION, Return on EFFORT — are about as mentally repulsive as a cold, half-chewed Brussels sprout in an 8-year-old’s mouth.

Just like with blogging, radio theater, and public radio, we need to stick with the term that people know. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach to language (i.e. “we have to follow these rules, because they’re the rules”), and changing the name of something to be as perfectly accurate as possible, instead just chalk it up to “common usage,” or the idea that too many people are doing it this way to change it.

Rather than complaining about the term, why don’t you instead try to get people to understand that social media is 1) measurable, and 2) can make money? That’s the more important battle to fight, rather than the ticky-tack little details that only matter to a select few people in an already tiny niche.

 

 

No Bullshit Social Media coverJason Falls and I talk extensively about the ROI of social media marketing in our book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing (affiliate link).