Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I Was Leading a Class on Creative Journaling When Suddenly ...

I was recently asked by an executive of an account I work on to lead a class for seniors as part of the organization's lifelong learning program. I was flattered and said "yes" although as a copywriter I was not sure what I could teach. My contact suggested "creative journaling"and I agreed.

I don't keep a journal and barely remember to update this blog but after a little research I had my outline done, a two-page handout for the class, and some ideas for our discussion. I showed up with pads and pens as a dozen senior citizens waited to find out about how to start and maintain a creative journal.

The class started out innocently enough. I explained the difference between keeping a diary and undertaking this journaling, and shared some idea-starters and topics. We talked about creative expression and personal expression. I said that one area to journal about is your worries or concerns, things that bother you; to write that letter that will never be sent. That's when things took a very meaningful detour for us all.

A woman raised her hand and shared that when her now-deceased husband was spiraling ever downward into dementia, she, in her despair or frustration or rage, cursed him out. With tears in her eyes, she said that to this day she feels guilty about this; what should she do? "Well," I responded, "this could be a great example of that letter that never gets sent. Why don't you journal about your feelings that day, how you felt in that moment, and express your regret about the event? It will help get it off your chest. When things go unexpressed they get a life of their own and you need to let it go. But more important, you have to cut yourself some slack for being human." I hope that she writes that journal entry and instead of beating herself up, gives herself credit for hanging in there during a terrible time on her life.

I got back on track and we talked about forming a writing group, akin to their knitting club or book club. Some more topics were discussed. Other hands went up. Clearly, the idea of letting go of their troubles in some way (verbal expression being the preferred option that day, it appeared) was opening up a floodgate among my "students."

"No matter how hard I try I can't seem to ..."
"I'm having trouble forgiving myself for ..."
"I wish I didn't always feel ..."

It was at this point that I started counseling my elders on choice. How we all have a choice about how we act or feel about anything; we just don't always recognize that at the time. In the moment we react but if we take a breath, stop and think, we realize we might not be able to change the situation but we always have a choice about how we will be about it, or what we will do with it. This engendered some more conversation; not everyone agreed with me, saying they can't do it alone. I countered that they didn't have to, sometimes we need professional help or family support to address an issue. We talked, honestly and openly.

I gave the class another short writing exercise and many were eager to share their entries. After some reading aloud for the group, another hand went up.

"We are here together in this community but we did not come here together. We are not all from the same backgrounds or have the same interests. I try talking to people and no one wants to talk; I try to make friends but it's not working. I always feel so lonely."

Oh boy. A two-parter. What happened to our writing class? Good thing I think well on my feet.

"There are two kinds of people, the ones like you -- the outgoing connectors-- and the others who are afraid. Many people are afraid, they won't reach out first, they need more time to warm up. As many people get older their worlds get smaller. You see that, right? So don't be discouraged; just keep trying to connect. Use the ideas from this class as your entree. Find shared interests, talk about something on your mind. It will happen." The woman seemed somewhat mollified.

"As for loneliness," I continued, "being lonely is part of the human condition. We can be surrounded by loving family and friends and still feel lonely at times; we can be married to someone for 50 years and have periods of loneliness." There were several nods of assent in the room on that one.

"Find someone in this class who you can share your journaling with," I said.

At the end of the hour, several people asked when I was coming back, which was very flattering. Our group therapy session/writing class had just been getting started, it seemed. I gave out my business cards and told them to call me with ideas for their journal entries or if they got stuck. It had been a cleansing experience for some of them and a powerful hour for me to be able to give something so unexpected to them.

Then the old man who'd been sitting silently in the back of the room shuffled up to me as I was packing up. He had tears in his eyes.

"I never told anyone this before," he started. I looked straight at him. "I was part of the third landing party at Normandy." Oh no, I thought, this is going to be very bad.

"By the time we got there, the first two landing parties were all dead or dying," he said in his sad voice. "A young boy was calling out for his mother, he was shot up and bleeding. I sat next to him and put his head in my lap." Now he was crying. "He called out, he thought I was his mother. And then he died. I had his blood all over my uniform." I fought back my own tears as he told me this.

"I have nightmares about this, I cannot get this scene out of my head. Almost 70 years and I wake up at night thinking about this. I can't take it anymore, I don't know what to do."

I looked at him, this sad old man who wants to forget the horror of that beach in Normandy. I said, "You gave a dying young man the comfort he needed. That is a very great thing. He was lucky and did not have to live with this memory but you do. Take this pad and pen and keep it by your bed so when you wake up in the middle of the night, you can write about your feelings."

He thanked me and walked out slowly. I said my goodbyes and find myself sitting here, journaling about the experience that so moved me.

So if someone asks you to lead an adult education class for seniors some time, be careful of what your topic is and which floodgates it might inadvertently open for you. And have your journal and pen handy.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Make Sure Your Website Makes the Right Impression--And Builds Sales

As the old saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” In the online world you have one moment, so make sure you make the best impression right away on your business’ website. Here are five ways to make sure your website works in positive ways to build your online reputation and identity.

Good website design. This is a crucial part of how site visitors will perceive your brand and it’s sad to say, I see many websites that are not updated and look unappealing and musty.

Site visitors (and future customers) will trust your brand based on what they see on the Web. You want to encourage them click through to view more pages, watch a video, or fill out the contact box for more information. Make your website design clean and uncluttered, with images that support your brand’s story and encourage interaction with the pages.

Mobile-specific website. Smartphone market penetration has skyrocketed; according to, market penetration in 2014 is projected to reach 64 percent of all new handset sales, and IBM reports that mobile commerce sales now account for over 13 percent of total online sales. It is predicted that more people will access the internet via their smartphones than their desktop computers by next year.

Mobile-specific websites are formatted to accommodate the smaller screens, touchscreens, and gestures so they are much more user-friendly for smartphones and tablets. They are thumb-friendly and don’t require lots of zooming in or panning left to right (just scrolling up and down). If you are creating a mobile version of your current site, leave out the flash graphics—they don’t load on mobile devices.

Embed video. Your website should offer various media because people take in information in different ways—through text, images, or video. Videos become your online commercials and should be just as short to keep viewers engaged. Embedded videos in your brand’s website increase visitor engagement or interaction, increases length of time on the page, and is good for SEO because videos can be optimized for search. By linking your short videos to longer forms on YouTube or Vimeo you create relevant back links to your website.

Link your social media accounts. Social networks provide excellent ways to boost your business’ online visibility; there are hundreds but the most popular for business are LinkedIn, Facebook (fan pages, not personal pages), Google+, and Twitter; Pinterest is becoming a popular business-building tool for certain types of businesses as well. You should cross-promote your social media content with your website to drive traffic to specific web pages or promotional landing pages.

Optimize and analyze. Strong search engine optimization (SEO) enhances your website’s organic search engine results. Implement the proper keywords and keyphrases, write relevant on-page content, and use targeted meta tags, title tags, and page descriptions.


After you optimize (which should be ongoing) you need to see how the site is performing and meeting your goals. Website analytics provide valuable data that will inform content and actions to take to grow your business. You can see:
- Which search engines your visitors use
- The search terms they used to find you
- Specific pages they are visiting
- Time spent on each page and bounce rates
- Interactions with the website pages

Analyzing these metrics helps you determine where you are losing your customers (on the site) and the channels they use to reach you; use the data to make necessary changes to boost website traffic and convert more prospects to customers.

Taken separately, each element can only do so much; put together in a cohesive website development plan can help you transform your website into a valuable online business asset. If you need recommendations for SEO experts who can help you with this important internet marketing effort, feel free to contact me for a referral.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Damn You, Typos! Begone with You!

Anyone who knows me or has worked with me knows that I am a stickler for detail, good grammar, and a typo-free piece of communication. I have been known to snarkily point out the errors on other people's website pages, in their social media posts, their articles . . . and restaurant menus are a particular favorite of mine. (Honestly, doesn't the Italian restaurant know how to spell "cappuccino?") I apologize in advance about my nasty habit but these things just jump out at me, begging for attention.

So it was interesting to have a few friends point out some errors of my own in a Facebook post and a vacation message on my email program. Allow me to explain.

Both were typed on my smartphone, and I was not wearing my glasses. I hate the stupid touchscreen keypad and the fact that I am far-sighted and can't see crap without my glasses! However, are these good excuses or just ... excuses?

In the case of the email vacation message, I let everyone know that "I sm out of the office until later." This is certainly not horrible in any way but it was pretty funny, given the source (moi). When my friend pointed it out I responded that perhaps I was creating a service mark for my message (and then explained the phone typing thing, no glasses, etc.).

In the case of the Facebook message, I was at a major regional shopping mall Monday night, just before closing, when a shooter entered and started firing randomly (not at people, thank goodness; turns out he was there to kill himself but he certainly scared the shoppers and brought out hundreds of police and FBI agents).

My husband and I ran into the back storage room of the shop we were in with the store manager and locked ourselves in there until we could safely exit. I hastily grabbed the phone and wrote out a Facebook post that was partially scrambled due to the errors but everyone understood the message.

Locked in back of a store in Gardem stste Plaza. Shooter in the mal. Safe for now.
Like · · Promote ·
I did not realize the errors (minor, given the circumstances) until a friend who read and responded to the post pointed them out. She said I must have been shaking because of so many typos and that just wasn't like me. She is right, of course--not about the shaking (I was not) but about the errors. I had no idea of them at the time. It was not terror in the moment (although I was a bit rattled and nervous) -- again, it was a case of tiny keyboard, touchscreen, no glasses. When I got home and saw it, well, the figurative egg was on my face! I explained the situation to her.

So where does this all lead? Read your stuff before you post it! It only takes a moment to go back and make corrections. What you write, publish, and share are reflections of you, whether in a personal or professional sphere. It is not difficult to make your communication more professional by looking it over first.
  • If you are writing an article, news release, report, or other business-related document, have a colleague or professional editor/proofreader review and proofread it before it is published.
  • If you are typing on those little phones or even the more expansive tablet keypads, don't hit "Send" until you've looked over the message or the document. The same goes for any desktop email program.
  • Try copying and pasting your text into a new blank page and read it over again; sometimes the printed change of scenery helps you see things differently--and notice small mistakes.
  • Multi-tasking sucks and will lead to mistakes that you'll have to go back and correct, then re-send whatever you just wrote with a note of apology. This looks bad. For instance, avoid chatting on the phone while sending emails or documents.
  • Don't rely on spell check and MS Word's grammar/spelling correction tools -- these are not fail-safe.
  • Now that I use a smartphone and text occasionally, I see that capitalizing and punctuation is a bit of a hassle. Do it anyway. At least before you send me that message. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Missing the Old Days

Summer is winding down, my daughter (only child) is now at college, and I find myself feeling quite nostalgic for my college days. I did not even love where I went to college but no matter . . . knowing about all the experiences my daughter will be experiencing over the next four years makes me yearn for that simpler time (that, at the time, did not always feel so simple!).

Then my thoughts turn to my early days in advertising, as an aspiring and then junior copywriter. Ah . . . typing on an IBM Selectric II; brainstorming with my art director in our offices, cracking each other up with awful headlines and ad concepts until we got a few we liked, then layouts drawn with black marker on big pads of paper; art directors with heads buried in lucigraphs as they resized images, and waiting three days to get a proof back because it had to be typeset and the PMT (photo mechanical transfer) had to be created (remember veloxes?). Graphic artists knew how to paste up type and the typesetting machine we got at McDonald & Little took up the whole break room!

Video and audio tape. 7-1/2 ips. 3/4", 1" or 2" for broadcast -- all these numbers meant something at one point. You could hold your work in your hands. You schlepped a portfolio around with your print work and your reels.

Today it is quite different in so many ways, from the way we work to how the work is produced. Now we talk about MP3s and podcasts, and send links to websites written or digital portfolios. Spots are edited on desktops, ad layouts are done in minutes, changes nearly instantaneous. My skills have expanded and my work assignments broadened to meet the demands of today's clients and technology.

But the work is different for me in other ways as a freelance copywriter. I'm a journeyman, I go where I'm needed and generally work on my own, separately from the art director or designer until we meet up later on to align our designs, copy, or concepts. It's a backwards process but seems to be the way these days. Sometimes we end up at the starting line together -- a more cohesive way to produce good creative. But not always. And I don't always see the final version of work I've done--assignments often disappear into the vapor or I forget to ask because I'm on to the next project.

As nostalgia for the "good old days" seeps into my consciousness, I miss:
  •  Sitting in each other's offices with pads and pens and ideas bouncing around the room. 
  • Working very late and sleeping on my creative director's couch because the meeting was early the next morning. 
  • The sound of the keyboards in writers' offices.
  • The presentation meetings with our group head and creative director, getting them to sign off on our ideas to present to the client. 
  • Working with great voice talent to create radio spots or going on shoots for TV commercials.
  •  Storyboards for commercials rendered rough in the office, then returned with the artistic flourishes of the storyboard artist. 
  • Acting out radio scripts for other creatives before sharing with the client. 
  • And humoring the account guys who wanted creative to follow "the research" (nice try, guys). 
Good times.

My former group head sent me a slide last year of me and a Charlie Chaplin impersonator from a shoot we did for a bank commercial a million years ago. Two framed animation cels (hand-drawn and hand-painted) from a Cookie Crisp commercial I wrote still adorn the wall above my office. Treasured memories.

Ad agencies were not public relations agencies and the lines had not yet blurred as they are today between advertising, marketing, and PR. There was no internet yet nor social networks. The day I was leaving my job at McCaffrey & McCall, some new "computerized typewriters" were being delivered to the secretaries--the first personal computers the agency was investing in. Exotic.

The unfettered creativity, the mistakes, the bloopers, the great lines and sizzling copy (the ones that the clients didn't buy and the ones they did), the jingles, the learning curve, and the feeling that all was right with the world. That was then, this is now--byline articles and blog posts, website copy, press releases, collateral material, and yes, even the occasional ad or TV or radio spot. And I'm so happy to be a part of it still! 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How to Work with a Copywriter

You have an idea, marketing project, website, commercial -- something you want to do to promote your product or service. You might even have retained the services of a graphic designer or art director but now need someone to put together the words. That's the copywriter.

Writing copy is more than just spitting out verbiage, though.  

Good copywriters are strong creative and messaging strategists who help you get the word out to the right audience in the right way (in the appropriate brand voice that reflects your company and target audience).  

Good copywriters work closely with art directors to develop a solid concept for an ad campaign or marketing piece so that from there, the design and the messaging flow well and  properly.  

Good copywriters listen to their clients, ask lots of questions, and turn in pieces that clients feel accurately sell whatever they are selling.

That's where you come in.

If you want a happy relationship with your creative team (this goes for your art director or graphic designer as well), here are some tips:

Collaborate closely. No one knows your business better than you do so don't keep your insights to yourself! Copywriters must be inquisitive in order to complete their assignments. They ask a lot of questions so they can get all the detail and background they need to work on your project successfully. Depending on the type of project, the writer might ask you to complete a questionnaire that provides the basis for a creative brief, which is the framework for the project.The copywriter will likely have to do some independent research to get more meat for the project's bones and might ask you for direction about reference sources. Don't keep it a secret -- we like sharing!

By the way, I beg of you, please do not spit all over or revise the work for no solid reason, especially if you have already approved a headline, creative direction, topic, layout, etc. Collaborate with the good of the work in mind; don’t change everything just because as the client you think you can or should. This sets up a terrible working relationship with a creative team. We want to develop a happy working relationship for the long term whenever possible and I'm sensing another blog post for the near future on this topic.

Communicate clearly. Copywriters, like nature, abhor a vacuum. This is not to say we don't enjoy working alone (and we love partnering with our artful counterparts) but we do not enjoy working without any feedback on the project. Guessing sucks and no one will be happy. Please let us know when we are going in the right direction or wrong one, if we've hit the right notes or missed your key selling points, and if we are correctly reflecting your "brand voice." If the writer is not open to your constructive input this could be a problem so make sure you are working with someone who understands and likes productive, constructive give-and-take. (See furtive plea above.)

Don't forget -- feel free to communicate praise for a job on target and well done!

Contract correctly. Make sure you have hired the right person for the job. No one is great at everything. Yes, many writers are equally at home writing for all media or for a broad variety of account types, both consumer-oriented and B2B. But there are differences you must look for and ask about. For instance:
  •  There are writers who love to do independent research and others who prefer client meetings or calls to mine the goodies before getting started. 
  • Some copywriters specialize in writing in one particular medium (print, broadcast, or digital/online) or particular type of project (such as articles/blogs, websites, print ads, or commercials). 
  • Others focus on specific vertical markets/specific industries (health care, financial services, consumer package goods, entertainment, lifestyle, hospitality). 
  • And some write solely for advertising or public relations while others happily bounce between the two different disciplines (and yes, they are different), such as I do.
I can recommend some excellent creative service providers to help bring your project to fruition so that together we can collaborate, communicate, and contract to promote your business. With open minds, good communication, and mutual respect, creatives and clients can do some great work together.

Oliver Standard Visible Writer photo by Virginia Hammer

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Twenty Great Reasons to Write and Publish a News Release

In my last blog post (which is too long ago, I admit that), I wrote about the downfall of businesses who think all their news is fit to print.

Honestly, sweethearts, it's not.

But it is not all that difficult to find reasons to communicate with the press (which in this case is not limited to print journalism--although many people on LinkedIn have argued that a press release is something that goes to "press" in traditional print way, rather than a news release that is sent to all news outlets. Whatever).

A news/press release can be about a lot of topics or matters related to your company or practice but should resonate with prospective readers, viewers, listeners (there, I've covered all ways to consume the news -- print, video/televisions/online, radio/podcast. Anything else?). 

Aside from announcing a new product or service you offer, which is true news (especially if it has real merit to your audience), here's a far-from-exhaustive list of (twenty) reasons to put out a news release about your company:

1  Announcing your new company website or significant upgrades to your existing website--and how they help your customers.
2.  Involvement with charity work; community service earns press and positive relations with the public. 

3.  Results or findings of a new study or research in your industry or field.
4.  Useful tips related to your product or service (without being overtly self-promotional).

5.  Forecasts about your industry or upcoming changes in your field that will affect consumers.
6.  Comments on current events or trends that relate to your industry.
7. Receiving an award -- this can be an employee, manager, owner, or the company. Share the good news!
8. An offer of a free downloadable white paper or e-book that benefits your audience; people love free information.
9. Adding new employees or opening a new office/location.

10. Saying goodbye to long-term employees who are retiring -- nice reason to craft a feature release.
11. Your office is hosting a special event or educational webinar or seminar.
12. Announce a reorganization or a renaming of your business.
13. Somewhat related, announcing the rebranding of your business (could be a renaming and corresponding marketing overhaul, or a periodic rebranding to refresh and renew how customers see you).
14. Community events your company is sponsoring, from high school fundraisers to Little League teams to social action endeavors.
15. Marking a milestone anniversary for your business (great way to include a retrospective of important business accomplishments or contributions over the years).
16. Gaining a big-name client or inking a big deal (as long as it's OK that this is public knowledge).
17. Presenting at an industry conference, exhibiting at a trade show, or sponsoring a program.
18. Crisis communications -- responding to negative press about your company, product, or service; managing your reputation with your public (where the rubber meets the road in public relations).
19. Making an appearance on a talk show or participating in an expert panel, from internet radio to television interviews to business interviews in the newspaper. All good.
20. Major financial or structural changes in your company-- merger or acquisition, going public, expanding overseas.

What are some of the reasons why your business has issued a press release? Feel free to share them in the comments box.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Is Your News Release Really News?

Press release and PRClients often call me to write a news release for them but quite often, I'm left asking, "What exactly is your news?" All too often, business owners or managers believe that what is news to them or important to them carries equal weight with the reporters and editors who will be receiving the press release release, or with the public that will end up reading it.

Sorry guys, not so much. However, there are ways to make your non-news become somewhat publicity-worthy and earn you some free publicity.
  1. Try to zero in on a trend that will catch the attention of the media and your intended audience and develop a story around that, one in which you can slide in your announcement. For example, hiring a new employee is not of vast interest to anyone outside of your office; but hiring someone because it reflects growth in your sector or industry, or signals growing strength in the local job market, could be newsworthy.
  2.  Tie your news announcement into current events to create greater relevance. I once had to write a press release about an area private school that had a "sister school" relationship with one in Japan. This was around the time of the terrible tsunami that hit Japan two years ago. The school was initiating some type of support project for its sister school overseas. OK, that's pretty good. But I had read a story  in our local daily newspaper a week before about a public school in the county that had some kind of program with another school in Japan. Voila! There was the tie-in. I wrote and submitted the press release, with a note about how this story dovetailed nicely with the newspaper's recent coverage. A reporter called my client to find out more about the program and ran a story in the local section about it.
  3. Alert your media targets to an emerging trend or breaking industry news that relates directly to your organization or business. The fact that you opened a real estate staging practice is no big deal to most people beyond your family and friends; however, you can position yourself as an expert real estate stager and inform the media (and thereby, inform your audience) of a study that shows how well-staged homes sell faster, even in a tough real estate market.
  4. Offer a free seminar or workshop that is open to the public or that caters to specific market. Free works nicely and is seen favorably as something of a public service. (Hint: a newspaper is also less likely to expect a paid ad for a free program.)  Educational, informational, and helpful programs are also great ways to get exposure for you and your business. You'll want to send a short news release about your upcoming event to the local press or to the appropriate trade publications and post it to your social networks.
  5. Perform community service or create a charity drive in your office and invite the public to participate. The fact that your office is doing a coat drive in the winter is your business but opening up to area residents as they are preparing to shop for winter clothing is classic public relations.
Do you have favorite tactics for turning a ho-hum news story into something worthy of a true press release? Share them here!  Corporate public relations services