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SEO. Things can only get better.

By | B2B, SEO, Uncategorized

Not so very long ago, when search engines started appearing, a rush began to stuff as many keywords into every piece of text as you possibly could. It seemed the obvious and only way to do things, was to brutalise communications and many in the copywriting community shuddered.

Those who had known or worked for old school greats like David Abbott and Tony Brignull felt a mixture of sadness and anxiety. If SEO was the future of commercial writing, it didn’t look like much fun.

There was a new generation of expert, people who said things like: “The electronic screen means no one can read anything properly anymore, so just make it as short as possible”.

And there were other types of operators who were creating link farms to try and game the system, and fool Google into bringing their business up the rankings. It seemed that the kind of intelligent, audience-based, information-rich copy with a touch of wit no longer had a place in a post Google world.
But that was then, and this is now. For the last few years SEO has been changing radically. Far from long form copy being the medium of dinosaurs, SEO actively encourages it. Now Google will penalise you if it considers blog content “thin”, by which they mean less than 600 words.

There’s now a well established relationship between the number of links you earn and the length of text you write. Long form writing is back in business, with a vengeance.

Even the number of characters allowed in the meta tags have increased in length.
But it’s not just quantity that’s gone up, it’s quality too. The last 2 years have seen the Google algorithm is increasingly understanding the hidden meaning between the lines, using Latent Semantic Indexing, LSI. So you’re well advised to avoid keyword stuffing and write properly instead.

Link farming has died a death, keyword data no longer gets provided; the many ways of gaming the search engine system come with bigger Google penalties. Black hat SEO days are numbered.
It’s back to the USP or unique selling proposition, that is now actively used in SEO in Hong Kong. Or, its journalistic equivalent, the Unique Story Proposition. In either case the writer needs to be crystal clear about what they’re offering or what a page is about.

And at the top of the whole process and quietly guiding it, is the age old principle of putting your audience’s question first, not the search query ranking first.

It’s quite possible that contrary to a lot of indications 10 years ago, we could be entering a golden age of content. Abbott and Brignull would be proud.
SEO and Language

Allenby said it in a sentence.

By | Communications craft, Mission statement, Tone, Uncategorized

In front of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem stands another equally historic building, the YMCA, where if you look closely, you’ll find an inscription. It amounts to the mission statement of the building, put there by Lord General Allenby in 1933.
Eighty years later, the same building and related organisation still has a mission statement, which nestles next to the reception desk. (see bottom of page)
But this version is much longer, difficult to understand in many places, and completely wooly in others. Was it Allenby’s military discipline or the fact he lived in a less committee-based world than meant his single sentence conveys so much more that the committee speak of the later version?

The modern mission statement: “The YMCA has a value system based on equality, human dignity, multiculturalism, and the aspiration to promote peace among nations. The organization makes no distinction between religion, race and gender and aims to embody these principles ​​in its activities. Aware of the importance of every human being, the Y aims to develop a peaceful community in which the uniqueness of each ethnic group works together for the broader benefit of society.”

From imagination to reality

By | B2B, Communication theory, Communications craft, content, Creativity, Strategy, Uncategorized

Research is a topic that raises a lot of hostile feelings in creative people. Numerous campaigns have fallen at this point only to do really well in real life. Maureen Lipman in BT’s 1980’s Jewish Mother TVC campaign was a perfect example. But I think testing material is really useful, if only because it’s a great way to find out more about your target audience. Above is the general process and it can be iterative.
Although it’s really useful for creatives to go to the focus groups and watch behind the glass window, it’s not as common for this to happen as you might think. For one thing creatives see it like going to the dentist, an exam they’ll find painful and would rather avoid. Another reason is that an agency can be making more money from the creative when they’re chained to their desks rather than watching housewives in Surbiton.
One insight I remember getting from a focus group on women’s hair products was that this particular 40 something lady wanted to look great at times I’d never really considered. Not for her husband, not for the cocktail party nor the hen do, but when she was wearing jeans and a T shirt and the builder was coming round.
Obvious when you think about it, but only when you’ve heard from your actual audience.
Just for completeness here’s the bigger process that the creative sits inside. Many organisations short cut this, but this essentially is the ideal.

The bigger context of research is the following cycle.

Moving a tone on

By | B2B, Communication theory, Communications craft, Strategy, Tone, Uncategorized


One of charts that really helps when you’re discussing verbal, or indeed any type of brand identity is the one above. Based on Jungian archetypes and developed by Mark and Pearson, it forms a neat representation of different brand flavours.
The question you start with is the usual consultancy one: where are we now? The next question is where would we like to get to?
If an organisation product or service is say in the ruler section, maybe they want to transform and become a mate?
If they are a ruler, what sort of ruler are they? Bossy and aloof in a not good way or alternatively, aspirational in the way British Airways was, when it was at its best?
Or maybe the content is such a mish-mash it doesn’t really have any distinct tone you can speak of. Maybe it’s just a big pic’n mix nothing.
These are the issues that form the basis of an audit, and obviously you need to do this in some form, even if only in a very cursory way.
In the old days it was all about the branding agency auditing, presenting and ultimately delivering a verbal identity, but my view is that doesn’t really wash nowadays.
Most organisations have scores of content marketing and corporate writers and there’s no reason to leave them outside the process.
This means that repositioning a company needs to be done with them in a collaborative training and exploratory way, rather than brought down from on high and ‘rolled out’.
Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘rolling something out’, it just doesn’t make any allowance for the way organisations usually work.
You usually find that it’s one thing for a verbal branding agency to blithely specify a few choice phrases, that amount to general good writing practice, but it’s quite another to work through the daily diet of communications the team actually have to put out.
It’s for this reason that training, facilitation, content and verbal brand repositioning are a great combination. And you can’t really substitute them for a few standard bromides about copywriting.

Jaguar tone book
Asthma UK
Anglian Water

When was the last time you chilled with a problem?

By | B2B, Creativity, Uncategorized


Organisations often complain they don’t have enough resources to throw at a problem but you could argue it’s the abundance of the wrong type of resource that stops the job being done really well.
The perfect and well-known example of this: the anecdote about how the US and the USSR tried to create a pen that would work in space.
While the US technologists were running a massive project to design a multimillion-dollar pen that could operate in zero G, the Soviets had opted for something much simpler for their own space mission: a pencil.
This elegant, cheap yet effective solution was like many great masterstrokes of creativity. Just as with Picasso’s bull’s head, the concept is so simple you could be forgiven for missing it.
One of the interesting facets of this anecdote is that at first it doesn’t look the way we think creativity should look. But it’s got many of the hallmarks of smart creativity. Doing more with less, questioning embedded assumptions, and making something look effortless. There are lots of learnings here for many different enterprises – not necessarily looking to go into space, but trying to solve hard problems nonetheless.
The nature of things is that when a company gets involved in optimising a process, the momentum of the process often precludes creativity. The system is wired to do the wrong thing highly efficiently rather than going back to the original problem that needed solving – and chilling with the problem for a little while.
The creative process starts when you give up being too busy to think.
Chilling with a problem is a difficult thing to explain for a time-centred organisation. “I’m actioning X, Y and Z for next week’s status meeting” – sounds so much more businessy than “I’m chilling with the problem for a little while”.
In a recent project with some Bristol physicists, we asked them to create a project to sell to a James Bond baddie. The results were fascinating. Just as with any other form of creativity there was a majority of quite interesting workaday solutions and one that stood out which we can all remember many months after. It was more or less the equivalent of the pencil.
Perhaps amongst all the clever stuff we do on the course, the most valuable insight is that to see things differently you have to start by looking at your clock differently; do less, think less and chill a bit more. Like riding a bike it’s easy when you know how.

Can animals be creative?

By | Creativity, Strategy, Uncategorized


We might not think of animals as clever enough to be creative, but this footage suggests otherwise. A group of Orca wales line up and swim in, in formation so that they create a bough wave that is big enough to flip the ice. Their reward is fresh seal.
More surprising still is the fact that sometimes the seals aren’t eaten. They are allowed to climb back on the ice and the Orcas have another go. In other words, they seem to be doing it just for the practice, or the sport.
We think of the British as the great creators of new sports. Rugby, cricket, badminton, Eaton fives, tennis, and football. Perhaps the animal kingdom has actually out performed us in creating new sports.
There are other examples of creativity in the animal kingdom too. Monkeys that send in smaller monkeys from other species to pick nuts out of small crevices. They then ‘mug’ the smaller monkey and get the nuts.
If you gave a creative team the above problems to solve, how long would it take them to come up with an answer?

Creativity and symmetry

Big change, big message

By | Communication theory, Communications craft, Uncategorized


There are so many ways change and communications are related. And a corollary of this idea is that if you want to create a big communication, you need to find a really big change to champion.
That may be easy if you’re Martin Luther King, but what if you’re a mid-market soap brand?
What sort of change can you go for?
So not the kind of change that goes 10% off all cocoanut formulations this July. How about we’re going to change the relationship of women to their feelings of self-worth?
This is the task Dove sets itself and the size of its ambition for change means people always get its communication.
What are the big, ambitious, hairy goals you’ve set to change with your product good or service?
Have a look there and you’ll be on the path to some great bits of communication.

Tim Riley on copywriting

By | Communications craft, content, Tone, Uncategorized

Tim Riley was one of people who was kind enough to give me some coaching and critiques when I was trying to land my first job in advertising.
Years later he also sat down with me over a cup of tea at the Landmark hotel to help me sort out the content and aims of the Copycourse.
You might know his work from, amongst other things, the most clicked on Sainsbury’s ad for 2014, based on the true story of when the Germans and the British started playing football on Christmas day, from behind the trenches. See above.
He also penned the following words of advice on writing copy (below). Almost two decades old, and coming from a pre-digital age, it still stands up for its no-nonsense tonality, and humility.

“I have a confession to make, and it’s an unusual one for a copywriter. I don’t like writing copy. This isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, though. Because the truth is, nobody likes reading copy either.
People buy magazines to read the articles, not the ads. You’re lucky if people notice your work at all. So I always try to make the headlines tell as much of the story as possible. (Consequently, I end up with some very long headlines.)
Occasionally though, there’ll be ads where writing detailed copy is unavoidable. What do you do then? You get somebody to help you. When I was a junior at BMP, there were three very good writers, Alan Tilby, Dave Watkinson and Alan Curson, who were patient enough to read through my copy and suggest improvements.
Never was this more eloquently done than when Al Tilby looked at what I’d written, carefully tore it in half, then in half again, and let the pieces gently flutter into his wastepaper bin. ‘You can do better than this,’ he said. I did. The other way I learnt was by reading old ads, over and over again.
One I always admired was the Health Education poster: ‘This is what happens when a fly lands on your food.’ I liked the way the writers, Charles Saatchi and Michael Coughlan, made the story so compelling with such a deadpan, factual style.
In 73 words of copy they use only one adjective. (And the one they do use, ‘runny’, is a killer.)
Old ads aren’t the only things you can read for inspiration. Given a poster to do about Michael Jordan, Andy McKay and I found an article about him in an old copy of American Esquire. At one point, the author described Jordan’s game as ‘an ongoing dialectic with Isaac Newton’.
Once we’d looked up ‘dialectic’ in the dictionary, it was a short step to ‘Michael Jordan 1 Isaac Newton 0’. But perhaps the best advice on actually writing copy comes from an ad. It was written for VW in 1962 by, I think, John Withers. Underneath the headline, ‘How to do a Volkswagen ad’, the copy concludes: Don’t exaggerate.
Call a spade a spade. And a suspension a suspension. Not something like ‘orbital cushioning’. Talk to the reader, don’t shout. He can hear you. Especially if you talk sense. Pencil sharp? You’re on your own.”