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Content writing – a personal story of love and indignation

04/06/2021
Our newest team member and content creator, Anthony McNamara takes a stand on writing for your audience – not the algorithms.

Most professions attract people to them for a range of reasons. Law, for example, will attract those enticed by the potential earnings as much as it will attract those with an overwhelming desire to see justice done. Providing both do their jobs well, the motivation isn’t particularly important.

However, this is where content writing is a different beast.

For the love of words

The primary motivator for pretty much all content writers (and I make this bold claim with absolutely no empirical data to back it up) is the desire to make a living doing what we love – writing.

In this, I am no different. The thrill of concocting a clever metaphor or constructing a killer closing paragraph (with just the right amount of alliteration) is palpable on those occasions I pull either off. More so when I receive an emphatic “good job” from the client.

And yet, as my years penning words for cash pass, I am increasingly motivated not only by an earnest love of writing, but by a sense of indignation. I still see so much content that has demonstrably not been written for the enjoyment and/or enlightenment of the reader and really it grinds my gears, as the kids say.

I should pause here to affirm that I am in no way taking a pot shot at my content writing kinfolk. Most of what I see that so infuriates me has either not been written by a professional content writer or has, but clearly under the duress of either stringent SEO objectives or anxious marketing managers keen for something, anything to be published.

SEO at the price of coherency

Addressing the former, though the faceless Google algorithms to which we are all beholden are allegedly becoming savvy to it, much content is still produced only with them in mind, and not the actual human beings who have to read ‘cheap, reliable laptop’ 17 times in one 400 word blog.

It’s not just SEO though. Plenty of businesses are shrewd enough to know that regular content output is a good thing, but on those occasions they have nothing much to say, force their writers to say it anyway.

For example, I once read a blog about resolving office conflicts. One piece of scholarly advice contained within was, in the event of an argument, to “walk away and count to 10”. Yes, they had re-purposed lesson one from ‘Anger Management for Toddlers’ for grown, professional adults with mortgages and NutriBullets. If I’d been so angered by this banality and the utter waste of precious seconds of my life reading it, how many others had been similarly angered? How many of those were potential customers?

It’s true that writing with the algorithms as your target audience will get you high up on the results pages. It’s equally true that regularly updated content on your website will make you appear committed and active. But if the final destination is a hastily cobbled together, anti-climactic piece, it will reflect poorly on your brand.

Of course, this should not be the sole motivation for wanting to produce great content. Motivation should also come from the fact that word will soon get around if you become a reliable repository of well-crafted insight. With the right strategy backing it up, regular quality content can elevate your brand to the position of influencer, aka Content Marketing Shangri-La.

Finding your content is one thing, enjoying the consumption of it quite another

The point I’m trying to make (and it’s a fair criticism that I’ve gone round the houses making it), is that your written content should always, always be an illuminating read. Even if it has been written with SEO in mind, or because it’s been a fortnight since your last blog, always assume that someone, somewhere will actually take the time to read it from top to bottom.

Speak to that person. Respect their intelligence and make an effort to involve them in the conversation because that’s what’s happening when they’re reading your words. If you have no new knowledge at that moment to share, revisit something old and put a fresh, entertaining spin on it. And if, for whatever reason, you’re unable to do this, pass it over to someone who can.

I’ll end this semi-rant with some advice and that is to remember the following: When a potential customer is reading your content, at that moment you are in dialogue with them. Even if indirectly, you are giving them reasons why your services and yours alone are the ones they need.

The question is, how useful are those reasons, and how well are you getting them across?

 

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Mental health – some things you can’t put a spin on

11/05/2021
After the year we’ve all endured and as a parent and small business owner, Sam Howard adds her voice in support of mental health awareness.Case study

Running the agency and being a lone parent are usually quite enough to be going on with. But aiming for all the plates spinning all of the time is normally OK. It’s the life I’ve chosen and I make a point of rewarding the tough times with the good: Normally we enjoy lots of family travel; yummy dinners with friends; hikes out into the countryside with the hounds etc. So I can usually ride out the storms.

But when thinly-stretched is your base point and then you swap out your reward system  for grief, fear, restrictions and isolation – I guess it’s no surprise that I have sometimes felt completely overwhelmed. Add to that a very ‘tentative’ year for business and ‘bleak’ would just about sum me up for much of 2021.

Also having to bear witness to the carnage this era has wreaked in our children’s lives is extraordinarily painful. An observant parent once noted, “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Effectively keeping me tethered somewhere between despondent and extremely anxious.

I have no magic cure, no top five tips, no slick way of linking this back to our services.

I’m lucky to be old enough to have had my first jab which was huge. And for me, things started to get better when after a winter of all work and no play, I  swapped the laptop for a shovel and headed off into the garden for a couple of weeks to give my brain a bit of a break and to get some perspective.

Looking forward to looking forward

In the short term, I hope that as we all come out of this and are able to reclaim our personal reward system, we can look forward to better times and our mental resilience and stability will be returned to us.

But in the longer term I hope we have learned some collective empathy. Having weathered the menopause, I am no stranger to anxiety and panic attacks. Even though it was only a few years ago, the general consensus at the time was that all I need do was, ‘just get a grip’. With so many of us now more personally acquainted with the debilitations of poor mental health, I hope there will now be a much deeper well of consideration for those in our care. Whether they be colleagues, family or friends who are suffering, let us hope this collective experience, enables us to give them the comfort, patience and support they deserve.

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Six ways to annoy a journalist – without really trying

18/03/2021

We are very lucky that our head of tech content Sandra Vogel is also a working journalist, as it helps keep all us PRs on our toes. Here she shares some journalist pet hates – forewarned is forearmed.

PRs try their hardest to achieve success with every pitch. Journalists spend significant parts of their day reading pitches, and working out what is and is not useful to follow up.

For both parties it can be a bit of a battlefield. For the journalist there’s never enough time to triage an inbox. For the PR there are never enough successful placements of a pitch.

There are ways PRs can up their pitching game – and perhaps the first place to look for clues on strategy is identifying things that annoy journalists so that these can be avoided.

Here are six things that can annoy a journalist – and obviously enough, they are six things a PR might want to avoid.

1) Bombarding

One email is enough. If you’re going to send a follow-up, wait a while. Wait a couple of days. Sending a follow-up within hours is not going to win you brownie points. If several PRs are working on an account, make sure only one of them sends email to a particular journalist. Journalists don’t want or need to receive multiple copies of the same email from different people.

As for follow-up calls, tread carefully. “Did you get our email about….” is not a good way to go. If you sent it, the journalist got it. If you are going to follow up do so with more information, a new snippet of interest. Don’t give the task to a junior who may know neither the journalist not the subject matter. Follow-up calls are part of your journalist relationship building. Use them rarely, use them wisely.

2) Inappropriate addressing

I don’t want to receive emails that start “Hi, Vogel”, “Hi [name]”, “Hi Andrew”, or anything else that’s not, “Hi Sandra”. But I do receive them. Even though I know this isn’t personal, it annoys. For some journalists it will result in immediate hitting of the Delete key, before the main point of the email has been reached.

3) Media database errors

If you’re taking the personal approach and set aside time to check a journalist out and reference their work, then make sure you get it right. I’ve had emails that start something like “I really enjoy your work at [website], and I wanted to run an idea by you”. OK. But if I’ve never worked at [website] alarm bells ring.

This can cause a journalist to decide in a split second that whatever comes next it’s not relevant to them, and spark another quick reach for the Delete key before any further words are read.

4) Spelling mistooks and word-related offences

Journalists are writers. I know, talk about stating the obvious. But the point is that they are therefore highly attuned to spelling, grammar, and other word-related matters. Emails and pitches that have not been through a spell checker, or those where the grammar and syntax is poor, won’t get much traction. Not everyone is a super-wordsmith. But nobody that can’t write a proper sentence or pay attention to a spellchecker should be let loose on journalist emails.

5) Errors in accompanying documents

Accompanying documents include things like press releases and report summaries. In late February I received a 2021 press releases dated 2020. Seven weeks into the new year. Oh how the PR and I laughed. I’ve also had press releases and report summaries with tracked changes left in them. These can be amusing and informative, but sometimes the tracked changes can be a bit near the knuckle and embarrassing for the PR and their client. The PRs don’t laugh quite as much then. I am afraid an email request to “please delete without reading” is sent more in hope than expectation.

6) Jargon and weasel words

Any pitch that claims what’s on offer is “unique”, “groundbreaking” or “game-changing” gives itself a lot to live up to. Usually it can’t meet the highfalutin claims, and a journalist will not need long to confirm that. Tread carefully about what you claim in a pitch. The watchword here is to show not tell.

Related to this point is the overuse of a range of words that just set journalists’ teeth on edge. Here are a few: showcase, synergy, disruptive, next-generation, revolutionary, innovative, DNA, passionate.

It might be hard to avoid using words like these, but many journalists just find them lazy ways of expressing your ideas. Avoid.

It’s not too difficult to find out what irks journalists. Just ask a few of those your own agency values and respects the most and you’ll get a good strong list of annoyances. That’s step one. Step two is doing something with what you’ve learned. Onwards!

 

 

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Should PRs be doing more to promote the benefits of earned media?

15/02/2021

Tech PR lead Debbie Smith looks to balance the more subtle benefits of earned media against the instant gratification of the click through…

So you’ve just achieved two great pieces of coverage for your client. You send them the links and pat yourself on the back. Then you get a reply from their SEO expert: “But one piece doesn’t link to the website at all, and the other only has a link at the bottom.”

They go on to explain that for SEO purposes it’s good to get links, but ideally these links would be towards the top of articles to increase click-throughs.

Resisting the temptation to throw your coffee at your screen in exasperation, you take a deep breath and explain PR 101: the difference between earned, owned and paid media.

This is not the only time I’ve had to explain earned media in recent weeks. So I’ve been thinking about why the question is being asked. Although it may seem glaringly obvious to those of us who’ve spent our careers in B2B PR, perhaps the convergence of different channels has muddied the waters for some marketeers?

It’s not that PRs don’t understand the value of SEO and the value of obtaining links back to the client’s site, it’s simply that earned media is first and foremost the tool to build credibility, increase brand trust and manage reputation.

 

First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about.

  • Paid media: you pay for visibility or reach through advertising, advertorial, PPC or affiliate marketing. So you have complete control, but it’s the least credible. Ultimately you are paying to get your audience’s attention.
  • Owned media: includes your website, your blogs, your newsletters and your social media channels, where you control both channel and content. This is ideal for education and demonstrating thought leadership. So no money is changing hands but it’s still you explaining to the world why you are so great.
  • Earned media: third party objective endorsement, i.e. someone else is talking about you as an expert, and no money has changed hands. This includes media coverage obtained through PR, where a journalist has covered the story because in their view it’s newsworthy, not because you’ve paid for the coverage. To obtain this you need strong content, whether it’s a product that’s truly innovative, an opinion which provides new and informed views or a piece of thought leadership – which is where owned thought leadership content is valuable, as it can be repurposed for PR.

The great benefit of earned media is the credibility it brings which the other two routes can’t provide.

However, the downside of this is that you don’t get to dictate to the journalists where to put a link back to your client’s site, or indeed if one is there at all, depending on their editorial policy. You certainly don’t go back to a publication and ask for a link to be added or you’ll be promptly referred – with a few choice words – to their advertising department, and they’ll be unlikely to feel inclined to write about your clients again.

 

Where it gets blurry is when earned media becomes ‘online word of mouth’, including shares and reposts, content picked up by third party sites and media developed through partners and influencers.

Say you post on your company’s LinkedIn page about your new blog (owned) or latest piece of press coverage (earned) – when these are shared, they are both ‘online conversations’, even though the content has originated in different ways. Are posts from partners truly earned, or based on a mutually beneficial relationship i.e. owned? And while tech and fintech analysts (i.e. influencers) review products and provide editorial independence, the ASA has taken many so-called consumer influencers to task for not making clear when content has been paid for.

There’s a tendency to class all click-throughs as equal. Perhaps that’s true for buying trainers. It also makes reporting more straightforward! But in the world of B2B, the clicks driven by third party objective endorsements are surely the most likely to generate real interest and preference.

The journalists we work with pride themselves on their editorial integrity. A discussion on a journalist and PR social media group this week made that abundantly clear. So they’ll only cover material that in their view has earned its place on their websites. And we’ll continue to focus on obtaining that earned media, and other third party objective endorsement, as well as on generating the strong owned content that drives it. We’ll celebrate when journalists write about our clients because we know there is more to building credibility, increasing brand trust and managing reputation than including a back link.

Where we sit in the digital marketing mix

 

 

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The editorial calendar is dead – long live the proactive pitch

15/01/2021

FinTech PR lead Chanda Shingadia recalls the days of the editorial calendar when features were spoon fed and compares that to how our skills have evolved in order to still be part of the conversation today.

Pitching has evolved in different ways since I started working in PR over 17 years ago. Back when I was a sprightly and eager account executive we spent hours calling and emailing publications at the end of the year to get their upcoming editorial calendars. These editorial calendars were an integral part of our PR programmes and many of us would trawl through these to see which features would be relevant for our clients and ensure we pitched for them in advance of the publication date.

How times have changed. Only a handful of publications now create these editorial calendars and those that still have them chop and change the features around. A lot of this has to do with many print publications moving to online platforms. They are therefore not tied to advertising and can be more flexible with their themes and topics which are more relevant to current market activity and world events.

So if the mountain isn’t coming to the prophet… then we have to get proactive with our pitching.

Reading around the subject, working out where the sweet spot is, where our clients can add value to the debate of the day and then distilling this down to a succinct and compelling pitch – that’s where a decent PR demonstrates their worth.

Proactive pitching and good relationships with journalists are more important now than they have ever been to ensure clients are still getting their spokespeople in upcoming features and articles that the journalists are writing. Relying on forward features lists simply won’t do and speaking to key journalists that are relevant for your clients on a regular basis is imperative. We like to check in with our journalists to see what’s their focus and suggest a proactive topic that might make a good feature or contributed article idea that fits in with their thinking.

As the industry and media landscape evolves, our job as PRs doesn’t get any easier for sure, but being a more intrinsic part of the editorial process is a reward in itself.

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Counting our Blessings: #5 An ‘un-des’ res

21/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam has counted five of them. In her last four posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B, with a distinct aversion for organising events and for being part of a team that understands life sometimes comes first. Here’s her final reason to be grateful:

The ‘Un-des res’

Hearing on the radio every day of the challenges so many people were faced with trying to work from home, in homes that were not set up for it, and full of people that were not supposed to be there in working hours, i.e. the rest of the family – I am so grateful never to have succumbed to the mantra location, location, location.

People look a bit sorry for me when I confess to where I live, which is in a deeply unfashionable part of London, on the wrong side of the North Circular, in a distinctly average suburban semi. Not for us warehouse living or the joys of open plan, indeed not one wall has ever been knocked through. In the immediate environs, there are no funky shops, no gastro pubs and no organic anything at all, although we’re spoilt for choice with fried chicken shops.

But for that rather ego-wounding trade-off, what we do have, is what this year became the new must have, was… SPACE.

Space enough to have a large and comfortable office with a door I can open when I go to work and shut behind me when I finish. And it has lovely old French windows that open up to a garden, a long unwieldy shady tangle of a garden that I’m never fully on top of, but it kept me sane and tan just trying. We even have a huge lake at the bottom of the road – no really! It was one of London’s best kept secrets, but not so much now.

And if you do have to share a home office with anyone, at least I get to share mine with Dill and Basil.

With Elli happily locked down at St Andrews for the autumn was I ever grateful to have the companionship of Dill the little labrador and new recruit five month old Basil, a bulldog/poodle or boodle if you will, and a total charmer like a little furry Hugh Grant. Together they get me out of the house every day, and watching them play is better than any water cooler moment I can ever recall.

Actually I could go on, but I’ll stop at five. To share the love and celebrate our good fortune we’re donating a day’s fee to the team’s chosen charities: The Trussell Trust, providers of food banks across the UK, Shelter, supporting the homeless, and Street Paws, looking after the animals of the homeless.

As this century comes of age, we sincerely hope it starts to behave itself with albeit an enlightened return to the old normal (even if it’s not that different for us) as soon as possible.

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Counting our Blessings: #4 A trouble shared

18/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last three posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B with a distinct aversion for organising events. Here’s blessing number four; the final one will follow in a few days.

A trouble shared

Maybe it’s because we have no office and that tends to keep the politics of it at bay, but one of the most significant things about our team is that we really do get on and we really do like each other.

So, as each of us inevitably had to duck out to deal with the maelstrom of COVID chaos and life events that came our way – sick loved ones, vulnerable parents, isolated relatives, trying to get food delivered, home schooling, doomed pet rescues, house moves, and even a new baby – the rest of the team stepped up and stepped in to keep the all the plates spinning. In fact the agency even experienced a growth spurt at this time.

Knowing there was instant financial support for anyone who needed it, and weekly Zoom lunches where all talk of work was banned but you could bring your knitting, helped us to stay connected in mind and spirit.

We even managed to volunteer our time to give a Career Ready mentee a content-rich one month virtual internship, which everyone enjoyed and we hope will help with her application to study media at university. Go Asah!

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Counting our Blessings: #3 An uneventful calendar

16/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last two posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B. Here’s blessing number three; the final two will follow in over the next few days.

An uneventful calendar

20 years ago with a three month-old baby, I was tasked with organising one of the biggest user group meetings in the fintech industry. 500 bankers, 200 staff, 12 partners and a five day event in Hotel Arts in Barcelona, just me with zero back-up or support.

Every single aspect of making the conference happen was my responsibility, from the big things like promoting the event and getting people to come in the first place to liaising with all the partners to the planning,  to the entertainment and the blasted buses; from tasting the menus and deciding how much coffee and wine to order to the onsite logisticslike getting up at 5am every morning to put the notepads on the seats in the break-out sessions. to being the last person on the bus every night trying to round up 500 bankers partying all over Barcelona…

Hand on heart I can tell you it was the worst project I have ever undertaken by a country MILE and while ultimately it was a success, the stress levels were horrendous and the trauma went deep.

I swore off events for the rest of my career and as an agency my anathema continued and I’ve steered us clear of them. Sure, we can provide PR and AR outreach support for our clients at events like Sibos, but it is not core for us, it’s just part of the wider PR remit.

Now, when you see the greats like Julie Ross and Profit & Loss with their brilliant global event programme having to close their doors at this time, I can only salute them for thei amazing skill set. It seeems  these things happen for a reason and there but for the grace of SunGard…

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Counting our blessings: #2 B2B is the place to be

13/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last post she gave thanks that we have been a virtual communications agency from the start. Here’s blessing number two: the rest will follow over the next few days.

B2B is the place to be (vindication at last)

I’ve given many university lectures in PR over the years and I’ve always rhapsodised about B2B to a room of glassy-eyed students whose minds are made up already and can’t see past the bright lights of B2C. In a class of 70 you might get one student who goes, oh B2B might be cool, tell me more… they usually become our interns.

And who could blame them. Like most people I know I fell into B2B. For it has none of the glamour, accessibility or hype of B2C.

Let’s face it, producing and launching an industry white paper is never going to get us on the red carpet at the Cannes Lions Awards… No-one is queuing up to make AbDrab, a comedy series based on the hilarious adventures of a couple of slightly studious B2B PR ladies.

Of course the year has had its ups and downs but they do not appear to be related to the pandemic. It seems working only in hard-core B2B tech and fintech has given us a level of protection from the catastrophic impact COVID has had on so many sectors, all connected to B2C.

And for that we are truly grateful and can only wish our industry as a whole a speedy recovery.

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Counting our Blessings: #1 Virtual from the start

09/12/2020

As we emerge pale and wan from English lockdown 2.0 we look to put the year far, far behind us. But ‘tis the season to count our blessings, and although we’ve endured our sadnesses and setbacks, Sam can count at least five of them.

Here’s blessing number one; the rest will follow in a series of posts over the next few days.

Virtual from the start

No new normal here – we have always been a virtual office.

Having run PR functions for many years, when I set up The Comms Crowd in 2012, it was a no brainer to dispense with the hassle of a central office. Minimal overheads meant better customer rates, and I’d attract and retain a more experienced and talented team if they had the freedom to work the hours that best suited their lives.

We’re blessed as we’ve had all this time to perfect how we work together as a team and get past the rookie working from home mistakes: (think pjs, flaky IT, uncomfortable chairs and FaceTime burnout).

So when COVID hijacked 2020 there were no disruptions to our services, no calamities, it was business as normal for us.

Of course, the knock-on effect of being entirely virtual from the get-go was that I had very little appetite for anything else virtual, so I was the permanent no-show at the virtual choir, the virtual pub quiz and the virtual Tai Chi class…not sure anyone missed me.

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