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)

Maybe Social Media Marketing SHOULD Replace Traditional Marketing

Whenever I give a talk on social media marketing, I always point out, “we don’t actually recommend that you replace traditional marketing with social media. Rather, it should be another tool in your marketing toolbox.”

Why? Why can’t social media marketing replace traditional marketing? In a lot of cases, the traditional marketing has outlived its usefulness, and is just a waste of money. Not every time for every marketer. But many marketers are spending money on something that’s not working anymore.Toolbox

I can think of five reasons why you should replace traditional marketing with social media or content marketing.

1. You Aren’t Getting a Positive ROI

You ned to spend money to make money. But you need to make more than you spend, in order to make it worthwhile. You can’t just throw money away on a marketing channel and call it “branding.”

Because unless you’re Nike, you don’t have branding-level money, you have “this had better f—ing work” money. So spend the money in a place where you know you’re going to make more money than you spend.

One client stopped spending $60,000 per year on trade show marketing because they weren’t getting anything out of it.

“We’ve measured it, and we don’t make any money on the shows,” they told me. “We just go because we’ve always gone.”

The company switched that entire budget over to content marketing, and in the first six months, they got two new clients that grossed more than their entire annual trade show budget.

2. You’re Overspending

A common trick of the Yellow Pages companies is to break everything out into a monthly price, so all their features and add-ons seem small. “It’s only $5.99 more per month.” “That’s only $3.99 more per month.” “Oh, and that’s a paltry $6.99 per month.” Before you know it, you’re spending a lot more than you intended.

On top of that, your prices will increase even more the following year. Your vendor will often send you a contract renewal with some barely noticeable rate creep, hoping you’ll sign it without too many questions. Soon, any prices you were paying are greatly increased from when you originally signed it.

Combine that with the fact that you weren’t getting a positive ROI in the first place, and it’s either time to renegotiate or drop the channel completely. Your vendor’s salespeople should be able to show you how to measure your ROI (they can’t do it for you, but they can show you how). If they can’t, cancel.

Social media isn’t free, but it is controllable. If you hire an in-house person to do it, you can control the costs. If you outsource to a third-party, they can show you the ROI and prove their value.

3. Your Audience Isn’t Using Traditional Media

Are you relying on newspapers to reach 20-somethings? Are you advertising your home decor products on ESPN? Or you’re still rocking the Yellow Pages ads even though you’re trying to reach smartphone users.

This is where it pays to do target market research. Find out where your target market is likely to see (and not see) your advertising. If they don’t read newspapers, stop advertising in them. If they don’t watch ESPN, quit buying TV spots.

Next, figure out where they do spend a lot of their time, and how they gather news and information. For many people under the age of 30, that’s on social media. Quit spending money on advertising outlets that aren’t yielding anything, and start focusing on content marketing and social media marketing.

4. You Need to Reach a Target Audience

Who’s your target audience? And don’t say “everyone.” Because unless you’re Target, “everyone” isn’t an audience.

Who are the typical buyers of your product? Men over 40? Moms? Single 20-somethings?

How would you typically reach them? TV advertising comes close, but there are so many viewers who aren’t in your target market that you’re wasting money. TV costs are based on total viewers, not targeted viewers. You’re paying for people who will never buy your product to see your commercial.

Radio? Same problem as TV. Plus, there’s more than one station your target audience listens to, so you have to double or triple up.

Direct mail? You can target your audience, but you don’t know who opened your mail, or what they did with it.

With social media marketing, you can target a specific group. Whether it’s advertising to certain demographics on Facebook, or running a content marketing/local SEO campaign for search engines, you can specifically target only those people interested in your product, and ignore everyone else.

5. You Don’t Have a Big Budget

Like I said, social media isn’t free. But it’s relatively cheap, when compared to traditional marketing. TV and radio ads can cost many thousands of dollars. Billboards on highways often cost $10,000 or more per month. And on and on.

Social media marketing is a fraction of that cost. It can easily reach your target audience, and won’t cost as much to do it.

Think of it this way: It can cost less than $100 per day ($3,000 per month) to advertise on a single cable station, but you’re going to spend $30,000 or more (sometimes much more) to create a high-quality spot. A six month ad run is going to cost you $48,000. Then you need another six-month ad. Or a two month seasonal ad. Or more than one commercial.

(And let’s not even talk about how you’re spending a lot to not reach your target audience, or how difficult it is to track ROI.)

Social media pricing varies, but an outside agency can manage social media anywhere from $1,000 – $5,000. It may seem like a lot, but it beats the $96,000 per year you’re spending to create and run two TV commercials on one cable TV station.

Can we completely replace traditional marketing with social media marketing? Not yet. But every day, traditional marketing’s effectiveness is slipping into obscurity. It’s not dead, but it’s certainly coughing a lot.

For some companies, however, they need to stop spending money on traditional marketing and advertising and make the switch to social media marketing instead. It’s where your customers are spending most of their time, it costs a lot less, and it’s easier to reach your target audience.

Photo credit: jasonwg (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Want Me to Watch Your Ads? Pay Me

The one and only reason I stopped paying for Hulu+ is that I was paying $8 a month for a service that was still showing me ads. (Then, I turned around and paid for the commercial-free version a few years later. Totally worth it!)

Every other app and online service I can get offers the option to go ad free if I pay a monthly fee. So I quit paying for Hulu+ because it wasn’t worth the $96 per year to see ads I would see if I was on the free service.

“But you get to see shows that are older than five weeks!” Hulu fans say.

Or, I could just watch them before the five weeks is up. Or catch them on Netflix, which is ad free.

We’re Sick of Being Shouted At

Given that many of us are trying to escape the bombardment of advertising and marketing messages, it can sometimes be a small price to pay for just a brief respite of BUY THIS! BUY THIS! BUY THIS! messages every time we interact with the outside world.Old Ovaltine magazine ad

Here’s what annoys me about marketing and my fellow marketers:

  • I pay for cable TV, and yet I’m still seeing advertisements. I am, in essence, paying someone to show me ads. These same advertisers whine and complain because people like me DVR shows and fast forward through ads.
  • Clothing companies sell t-shirts with their giant logo silk screened on the front, making me a walking billboard. It costs me $20 – $30 to be a walking shill for their company.
  • Car dealers who I just gave thousands of dollars to now want to put a sticker or license plate frame on my new car so I can tell everyone where I got it. That’s not there for my benefit. That’s free advertising to the person driving behind me.

Since when am I required to be an advertisement, and when do I do it because I truly like the product, and want to evangelize on their behalf? And why do brands presume I want to pay money so I can promote their product?

I don’t see why I have to pay for the “privilege” of advertising for a company, or pay to be advertised to. It’s my prerogative to escape advertising, and it’s my prerogative to not shill for a company when all I wanted was a t-shirt. I’m the one doing them a favor by telling people who trust me that I endorse that product.

So here’s what I’m going to start doing:

I am going to purposely avoid as much advertising as I can. I understand that I can’t escape it completely, and I’m not going to try. But here’s what I will do:

  • I will record all TV shows and fast forward through all commercials. The one exception is the Super Bowl.
  • I will never wear a shirt that has a company brand name or logo on it, unless it’s one I support. For example, a conference t-shirt or a shirt for the Cincinnati Reds or Indianapolis Colts.
  • I will never allow a sticker or license plate from to be placed on a new car I purchase. (In fact, I did this already on the last car I bought. They asked if they could, and I said I would if they gave me $1,000. They said they couldn’t go any lower on the price, and I said, “No, I mean you can give me a check for $1,000.” They said no, so I did too.)
  • I will avoid buying magazines filled with advertisements. If I do, I will purposely skip over the ads. When a lot of magazines are more ads than articles — looking at you, GQ — why should I pay for something I can find online?
  • I will pay for the ad free version of an app or product if I believe in and support it or the company. If I don’t, it means I am willing to pay the small price of being marketed to.

In short, my time, my mental bandwidth, and my careful consideration are mine to give. They are not yours to take.

Don’t assume that I want to be advertised to. Just know that if I need your product, I’ll seek you out. If I need your service, I’ll Google you.

But — and here’s my concession — I will happily look at your ad or your short infomercial, up to 30 minutes in length, for $50. You give me $50, and I will watch, read, or listen to whatever you want. $50 gets you 30 minutes of my time, and no more. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll buy your product or tell other people about it. For that, you have to impress me.

Is it fair? Am I being unreasonable? I don’t think so. Too many marketers try to take our time and attention away from something else. They try to insert themselves everywhere and into everything, trying to find that place we go to escape them, so they can take that away from us as well.

So I’m willing to meet them halfway. Instead of going to all that time and trouble to reaching me in the place I don’t want to be reached, just pay what you would have paid anyway. I will gladly sit down, review all your materials, and then we will go our separate ways.

You’ve been trying to spend all that time and energy to get me to watch your commercials (I fast forward through them), your magazine ads (I flip past them), your billboards (I keep my eyes on the road), your radio commercials (I listen to public radio or change stations), and your direct mail (I recycle it before it ever makes it into the house).

Let’s take all that money you spent and guarantee that it has been read, seen, heard, and considered. Compensate me for paying attention to you, rather than wasting money trying to trick me.

Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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.

TV Producers and Network Executives Should Crowdsource Pilots

One of the prevalent images, and yet most annoying, I have of TV land is the producers and network executives who greenlight certain scripts and pilots, and cut others based on their “experience.”

I question the collective wisdom of an industry that gives us “Whitney,” “$#*! My Dad Says,” and “Pregnant In Heels” when they tell us “they know what America wants.”

If you want to find out what people are willing to watch, ask them.

I would love to see a website where pre-screened viewers can log in, watch a pilot, and give feedback on what they liked and didn’t like about the show. If a lot of people hate it, the network will know ahead of time. If a lot of people like it, the network can air it.

This is crowdsourcing at its finest. If you’re going to share something with the crowd, why not let them tell you what they like and don’t like about it. Then, when it’s time to release the final version, it will already be better, because the crowd, the intended audience, has told you what they want.

The benefit of the system is that the networks can determine ahead of time whether to go ahead with a project, rather than create and promote something that turns out to be awful, or avoid bailing on a project that would have been great. People can share their views about the pilot on social media, and get their friends to watch it too, thereby building the buzz for the show before it even airs.

This ends up saving money for the networks, because they’re not selling ads for shitty programs people hate. They’re not constantly canceling or moving programs people actually loved (see Family Guy). And they’re not putting money into programs that no one wanted to see in the first place (see Pregnant In Heels).

What would also be cool is a website that shows old pilots that never made the grade. If nothing else, that lets the public see some of the things we missed, and even see some of the early work done on series that made it later on. More importantly, we get to see what the executives saved us from, or where they really missed the boat.

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.

My TEDxFortWayne Talk on Community

I was given the chance to give a talk at the first ever TEDxFortWayne event in May 2012, where I talked about how the Internet has given us a chance to do community better than we’ve ever done before.

It was the first year for the TEDxFortWayne event, and I was very proud to be one of their speakers. (It’s still one of my favorite talks.)

When the Internet first started becoming popular, people worried that it would destroy our sense of community. If anything, it’s actually helped us find a better community of people we like and want to get to know.

What those nay-sayers didn’t know is that this has been a continuing complaint about television, radio, air conditioners, cars, and the loss of front porches on our homes.

Instead, think about those weird and esoteric things we love to do (or our kids love to do). When I was a boy, in 1977, my weird thing was beer can collecting. It was only by accident that I discovered there’s a whole community of people who loved collecting beer cans. Now, thanks to the Internet, you can find websites, a national organization, regional groups, and conventions all over the world devoted to this one interest.

There are marble collectors, anime cosplay fans, people who love vintage baseball, punk rock knitters, wood carvers, first edition book collectors, fan fiction story writers, typewriter collectors, and anything else you can think of. The Internet has given us our tribes and brought us together in a way that front porches and neighborhoods ever could.

Watch the TEDxFortWayne video to see why the Internet may be giving us a better community than we’ve ever had before.