In case you missed my most recent guest post on Content Marketing Institute's blog.
Even if you’ve never been a reporter for your campus newspaper or have never edited copy and page proofs late into the night on a deadline, you can appreciate the intensity and focus (and coffee consumption) instilled by a press deadline. Longshot magazine harnesses that same intensity: crowdsourcing content to produce an entire 60+ page magazine and related podcasts, from topic announcement to final pages, in two days (in both digital and print editions).
Longshot was co-founded by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, and GOOD magazine’s Sarah Rich. Their first effort that followed this “48-hour” model (which was produced under a since-redacted title that provoked the ire of CBS’s attorneys) won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism.
Before getting to any elements of this approach that have relevance to content marketing, here are a few highlights about how the Longshot team produced their most recent issue....
Keep reading at contentmarketinginstitute.com.
As far as weight and credibility goes, white papers fall somewhere between a case study and a research report. They are a perennially popular form of educational marketing and means of demonstrating thought leadership. White papers vary considerably in quality, format and length, ranging from detailed technical papers to blatant product promotions. A high quality white paper will focus on a compelling topic or issue and help people make decisions by pulling together information that supports a particular solution. The most effective white papers emphasize customer education and avoid anything that would come off like a sales pitch.
1. Topic Selection
Choosing the topic of a white paper should be straightforward. Every market segment has a burning issue, emerging technology, or technical area that’s a source of customer confusion. After identifying the general topic narrow it down to the most compelling and urgent aspects. What knowledge and insights can you provide that would help the targeted audiences accomplish their objectives and do their jobs better now? It’s never too early to think about titles that would catch market attention as a subject line in an e-mail blast or as a headline in a news release.
2. Reporting & Research
A good white paper will incorporate material from a variety of sources, including industry experts and practitioners, as well as secondary and primary research. Research and reporting can easily consume twice as much time as the actual writing. Like any writing endeavor, the higher the quality of the inputs, the higher the quality of the end product.
Organize notes, research, interviews, and other material into a logical flow of primary and secondary arguments and supporting observations. It’s generally best to put the strongest arguments at the beginning where they are most likely to be read (the classic inverted pyramid structure). If possible get feedback on the idea flow or outline to make sure the primary points of emphasis are where they need to be. Tangential topics or brief case studies work well as sidebars and will add graphic variety to the final layout. The typical white paper ranges from 6 to 12 pages, or 2,000 to 5,000 words. The exact page length will depend upon the amount of white space and the number of charts, tables, diagrams and other illustrations. Footnotes and sources for additional information add credibility.
White papers tend to follow a professional or academic writing style. That’s not to say that a more creative style would not be appropriate for a particular audience. Avoid gobbledygook words, excessive acronyms and marketing speak when possible. Shorter sentences are generally easier for readers to follow, but good writers will vary sentence length based on meaning, and use short sentences for emphasis. Conclude the paper with a clear course of action and specific recommendations.
5. Editing & Revising
Solicit feedback from everyone who has a stake in the white paper’s accuracy, main argument and final appearance. Edits and revisions typically require little direct time, but it can take weeks to receive suggested changes from all interested parties. So plan accordingly.
The typical white paper usually starts with a title page and summary, such as a single-page executive summary or a brief descriptive paragraph to entice the targeted reader into downloading and reading the document. Near the end it's commonplace to include a prominent description of the sponsoring organization that highlights their expertise and, if appropriate, brief professional bios of the authors.
Today most white papers are distributed electronically as static electronic pages or in more interactive formats. They can be promoted as a source of more in-depth information in printed advertisements and newsletters, and used as marketing collateral for sales calls and at trade shows. Distribute them in any way that will initiate a relationship with targeted customers or generate sales leads.
What have I missed? What are some of the best practices that you have used to develop engaging white papers and put them in front of the targeted audience?
The basic process and tips presented here are based on my own experience with clients. If you're looking for more detailed and extensive information on creating white papers, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Michael Steltzner's website and his white paper on how to write white papers.
It's right here. I have it in my hand. I considered posting it but I'm not mean by nature and it's not necessary to make my point. Trust me. It's bad. Let me explain why.
The press release in question is essentially about a company's recertification to the latest version of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 quality standard. If this seems arcane to you, for manufacturers ISO 9000 describes a quality system that companies can choose to follow and be audited against. It is developed and updated by a global standards organization based in Switzerland. Being ISO 9000-registered indicates: a) that a company does in fact have some kind of quality system, and b) that their system conforms to a recognized global standard.
ISO 9000 certification is rarely mandatory. It is however sometimes "strongly encouraged" by a manufacturer's customers. While it can be reassuring to purchasing folks, certification is no guarantee that they will always receive a quality product. Quality, in the case of ISO 9000, is mostly about conformance to process specifications.
Likewise, at first glance, this press release conforms to specifications. It has an all-caps headline, a subhead, contact info at the top, dateline, quote, and the obligatory about paragraph (including company URL) at the bottom. So at least the template is there.
The biggest problem is the "news" itself. After receiving the ISO 9000 certificate from their registrar, I can just hear the quality manager or the CEO saying, "We need to put out a press release." And the junior marketing manager nodding his head, "No problem. We'll send it out this afternoon."
But it's not news. In the manufacturing industry promoting ISO renewal is almost like promoting the fact that you've renewed your factory's occupancy permit with the local fire department. It's like McDonald's or Burger King proclaiming, "We have French fries!"
Second, the marketing writer doesn't understand what ISO certification means. That's clear in the second sentence where the release states that ISO monitors manufacturers for adherence to the standards . ISO does nothing of the sort. It develops the standards. What registrars and companies do with the standards is up to them.
Third, the marketing writer doesn't understand what ISO certification means. Yes, I'm repeating the previous point. That's because there's no bigger potential cause for utter failure than not knowing what you're writing about. Slapping words together into an uninformed press release that goes out on the wires can be embarrassing at best. It's the opposite of thought leadership. Let's call it "dumb leadership."
Fourth, the third paragraph goes into more erroneous detail about the ISO 9000 standard itself, and says nothing more about the company or product. The release could have gotten a little better at this point. It could have linked high quality to the company's products or related market issues. It could have offered some advice on the benefits of a superior quality product. Or even promoted a quality-oriented, lifetime value-based quote service. But it didn't.
The fifth problem: clichés. "The world's leading…," "the highest quality," "the industry's largest selection," "state-of-the-art," "today's competitive manufacturing environment," "the company is the leader…." None of these phrases ever makes the cut if a story is picked up by any halfway-decent media outlet. Why include them in the first place? In this case, if you remove the clichés, there's virtually nothing left.
Finally, there's no real call to action. Sure, it includes, "For more information, visit" their website. But there's no urgency. Nothing of value is promised. The company could at least have offered a catalog, preferably electronic. Something. Anything.
I understand that small companies often struggle to come up with worthwhile "news." But sometimes, as in this case, no news would have been good news.
Do you have any more poor examples or advice for putting out newsworthy press releases?
There’s a lot of conversation in the publishing industry today about the fate of books, magazines and newspapers in the age of the iPad and other tablet computers. Two notable interactive books that have been released in the past two months demonstrate the eye-catching potential that digital publications offer for presenting engaging content that appeals to both consumer and business readers.
Our Choice by Al Gore
The sequel to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Our Choice is “Produced by Melcher Media, published by Rodale, powered by Push Pop Press.” It’s available as a “content app” on Apple’s iTunes ($4.99).
In the book Al Gore reviews the causes of global warming. The book presents a variety of technology and system-based climate solutions that are already available or in development. It includes audio narrative, photography, interactive graphics, and documentary footage. Some of the interactive elements and super cool navigation are demonstrated on the Melcher Media website and in a brief TED presentation by Mike Matas of Push Pop Press.
Melcher Media is both a publisher of consumer-oriented books as well as striking, “market-savvy” books for corporate clients. Still, the fact that it required three companies to publish this one title seems to put it out of reach financially for most marketers except for those with the deepest pockets. But it’s not the only example of interactive book possibilities.
The Final Hours of Portal 2 by Geoff Keighley
Reported and written by Geoff Keighley, and designed by Joe Zeff Design, The Final Hours of Portal 2 chronicles the making of the Portal 2 video game at Valve Corp. It’s available as an app on iTunes ($1.99), and as a digital book for Mac and PC on Steam.
The Final Hours of Portal 2 is long-form, behind-the-scenes journalism that appeals to a highly engaged consumer fanbase. It delivers the slick graphics and interactivity that gamers expect. The 15,000-word story element isn’t quite book-length by traditional publishing standards but it includes many exclusive extras including interactive graphics, games, panorama photos, and song tracks.
One of the game-changing aspects of Keighly’s publication is that it’s essentially self-published, bypassing all of the traditional production, promotion and distribution channels that Gore’s book maintains. But it doesn’t look or feel any less professional and polished, or have the lower quality connotations that self-published books often have.
In part this is because both the medium and app distribution channel for such content are relatively new. It’s also because Valve gave Keighly carte blanche to its offices and people, yet he maintained complete editorial control. Few companies are willing to grant such access. But such calculated risks can result, as The Final Hours of Portal 2 demonstrates, in the type of product promotion and publicity that can’t be bought.
Will digital-only books like these elevate readers’ expectations for interactivity the same way that Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers have created market expectations for electronic versions of traditional books? That will depend on how common such books become, which depends on the tools, skills and people required to develop them. It will be exciting to see how the spirit of oneupmanship among writers and designers and publishers will push interactive publications forward over the next several years.
*Thanks to Michelle Linn (@michelelinn) from the Content Marketing Institute for making me aware of Our Choice.
case study -- n. a) A detailed intensive study of a unit, such as a corporation or a corporate division, that stresses factors contributing to its success or failure. b) An exemplary or cautionary model; an instructive example.(The American Heritage Dictionary)
A business case study tells a chronological story that starts with a pivotal decision, challenge or obstacle. Your service or product provides a solution that delivers clear benefits and measurable improvements.
From an educational marketing perspective, the objective is for the potential client or customer to identify themselves or their situation in the story, to understand how your products or services could help them, to recognize your company as a product, technology, service and market leader, and to pick up the phone or engage in some other way with your organization.
1. Identify the Subject and the Story
In addition to the promotional value for your company, case studies should strengthen relationships with satisfied customers and promote their businesses and brands. Target high-potential growth areas and market segments. It’s never too early to start thinking about highlights that would grab reader attention in the subject line of an e-mail blast; this includes brand names, hot topic/issue areas, big dollar cost savings, and dramatic turnarounds.
Before moving forward very far, get explicit permission from the client or customer to write and publish the case study. And make sure you have approval from the right person. Don’t assume that it will be approved or you could end up wasting a lot of time and effort on developing a story that cannot be shared.
Be prepared. Make the reporting process as painless as possible for your customer. Don’t waste interview time on basic information that can be pulled off of a website. Gather as many insights and details as possible from both your customers and your employees who led or supported the project/solution.
At the end of any interviews, assure the client that they will have the opportunity to review the text and their quotes. Be sure to ask for photos or illustrations, or make arrangements for professional photography.
Business is not boring. Just like any other facet of life, the business world is full of characters, drama and good stories. But it is chock full of bland and boring prose. Be clear, be direct. Be wary of excess modifiers and over-qualified statements. Avoid gobbledygook words, marketing-speak and businessese.
Case studies are already formulaic: 1) problem, 2) solution, and 3) results. Use that framework but build a sense of urgency and convey why your solution is essential now. To speed the narrative flow, put non-essential details (such as annual sales, product lines, brands, locations, employees, etc.) in a separate sidebar or box.
Include the client’s perspective everywhere you can; their quotes should read as a trustworthy third-party referral to the reader/potential customer. Respect readers’ intelligence and time. The typical case study won’t run longer than 1 to 3 pages, (600-1,500 words).
4. Editing and Revising
Send the draft text to appropriate customer and client representatives and internal staff who have a stake in the final result. Be as firm as possible with the deadline for changes and revisions. Use the weeks that it can often take to receive feedback for internal review and fact checking. After all changes have been reconciled, have the final text reviewed by a professional proofreader.
For layout (electronic or print), clearly identify titles, headlines, subheadings, pull quotes and boxes. Include high-resolution images, brand logos, charts, tables and anything else the graphic designer can use to grab a passing eye.
Case studies often follow a common page template that prominently features company logos, background details and where to go to get more information. Repeat the review and proofreading cycle with the final layout. Pay particular attention to headlines, chart captions and illustration callouts.
6. Distribution and promotion
We're getting beyond the content creation phase at this point, but depending on the quality and sources, good case studies can be of interest to top-tier trade magazines and business journals if offered on an exclusive basis. The trade-off for such third-party endorsement and exposure is that–after the case study has already taken months to develop–the lead time from submission to publication can take several more months. Copyright ownership can become an issue as well; you may be required to pay for branded reprints of the article that you already paid to develop.
Other typical uses for case studies include customer newsletters, association news, blog posts, and permanent website collateral. Utilize every social media vehicle available to promote the case study. And keep on promoting it. A tweet on Twitter, for example, has a half life of a few hours. Keep dribbling out key value statements over several weeks.
What have I missed? Are there any other key factors for creating high quality business case studies?
One benefit of coming from a journalism (and liberal arts!) background is that you're expected to ask dumb questions. People tend to presume that you know next to nothing about them, about their company, and sometimes even about business in general. I don't take it personally.
What they don't always realize is that asking dumb, a.k.a. basic, questions allows you to quickly understand the fundamentals of their business. In fact, starting with the basics and getting people to explain the core elements of what they do and why, is the first step to asking really insightful questions.
Once you understand their core business issues and processes, it's easier to see when an initiative or a program or even something happening on the factory floor doesn't fit or connect with what they say they're all about. You know you've identified something worth exploring and possibly developing into a story element that could be interesting to customers when the response begins, "That's a really good question…."
Early the other morning when I was reading instead of sleeping I was reminded of the value of asking dumb questions by Patrick Lencioni in his most recent business fable, Getting Naked. The book is about overcoming common business fears that can sabotage client loyalty. Because it reinforces a position of honesty and vulnerability, asking dumb questions is one of the practices that he explicitly recommends for overcoming the fear of being embarrassed and building loyalty.
In a consulting capacity asking basic questions about something in a budget or a business plan that doesn't make sense to an outside observer might only reveal your ignorance most of the time. But the few times that your questions spotlight real issues and potential pitfalls, Lencioni argues, is what clients will remember and appreciate.
Whether you're developing a case study, gathering primary research, or conducting an interview, ask the dumb questions and try not to care too much about revealing what you don't know. Dumb questions force everyone—especially subject-matter experts immersed in the arcane jargon of their specialties—to explain what they mean in everyday words that everyone can follow. The end product that you create will be better because the key points will be more insightful and it will be easier for your target audience to understand.
Have you asked any dumb questions lately and been rewarded or surprised by the response?