To Do More Business Online, Be a Little Less ‘Businesslike’

It’s nearly 2014, and you know your business has to be on the internet.

But once you’re online, just how businesslike do you need to be?

Obviously, your company’s online presence has to meet some basic standards of professionalism — make sure all the text on your website has been spell-checked and, if you use social media, avoid embarrassing meltdowns, for starters.

But succeeding on the web requires a business to discard some traditional practices and attitudes from the offline world. Here are a few ways you should alter your approach online to connect more easily with potential clients and customers:

Don’t overdo formal language.

You need a consistent voice for your web presence, determined in large part by the market you serve. But even if you are shooting for a relatively high-end market, don’t be afraid to loosen up occasionally online — especially when using social media.

With apologies to Spinal Tap, it’s sort of like a volume knob. If your overall goal is an “8” in serious, it’s okay to dial down to 6 or 7 at times. Users implicitly understand that the web is a little less formal, and using a contraction or addressing users more directly won’t turn them off.

Don’t be a broadcaster.

Old media was a one-way transaction — businesses used media to send a message to people. The people had no effective way to talk back.

The internet has made just about every new form of communication two-way. Now, with features such as social media, comment threads on articles and live video chats, the web has made it easy for any two parties to have a conversation.

Customers know and expect this. Businesses ignore it at their own peril. It may feel more “businesslike” to send out your message and wait for the customers to start rolling in, but that’s not how things work online. You need to post your content, see how people respond, and respond to their responses.

Be transparent.

Many businesses are afraid to post their prices online — “It might scare customers away,” they say.

Business blogging expert Marcus Sheridan refutes that line of thinking with five convincing points. Perhaps the most persuasive is this: You shouldn’t waste time trying to sell a product to
someone who can’t even afford to buy the product.

Talking about price isn’t the only way transparency can help a business online. If you use your website to tell customers a little more about how your business works, what the people who work there are like, and even what you think of the state of your industry, they will identify with you and even trust you a little more. And that should lead to good results.

Be human.

In a way, this sums up all of the points made above. Technology often seems to be anything but personal. But with the widespread adoption of the internet, technology has had an opposite effect on business. It’s much more personal.

Understanding and adapting to that fact is just good business.

Jon DeNunzio runs Squarely Digital, a digital consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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4 Lessons on Writing for Your Business’s Website or Blog

For a business looking to try something new or different on its website, it’s never been easier than right now.

Adding streaming video, real-time social media feeds and attractive design effects can be simple. And users have the bandwidth and savvy to handle it when they land on a more complex site. There’s never been a better time to experiment.

That said, the simplest element of every website has not lost its importance as web pages have gotten more sophisticated. That element is the text.

I’d like to think that the words you publish on your business website are the most important part of the site (although I understand that some photographers and designers might beg to differ). There’s no doubt that the words play a big part in the impression you make on potential customers and clients, not to mention the search engine spiders that crawl and classify your site.

With that in mind, here are four lessons about writing I have learned over the years. Keep them in mind them when you’re writing for your site — whether it’s the text on your homepage, the staff  bios on your “About Us” page or posts on your company blog. I think they’ll help you make just the right impression.

1. Write the Way You Talk

This is the foundation of all the writing and editing I have done since high school. I learned it from my mom, who suggested this approach as I worked on a term paper.

This lesson does not mean that all of your writing needs to be conversational — although on the web, less formal often works better than more formal.

What it means is you should read the words you are writing as if they are being spoken, and if they don’t sound like something anyone would ever say, try again. Depending on your audience and your goal, the voice you imagine speaking your words could be casual or formal. But make sure the words match the voice and sound natural.

2. Less Is More

There are very few sentences that cannot be improved by making them shorter. (In fact, the previous sentence is probably better written as “Almost every sentence is better when it’s shorter.” That edit cuts out five words — a 38 percent reduction).

This lesson applies doubly on the web, where attention spans are short and competition for information and entertainment is a click away.

In a way, this lesson conflicts a bit with Lesson 1. When we speak, we often use extraneous words — understandably, since we are turning thoughts and feelings into words on the fly. Perhaps Lesson 1 should be, “Write the Way You Wish You Talked.” That’s only two more words.

 

3. A Second Set of Eyes Always Helps

Reporters and writers have editors. Entrepreneurs who are writing blog posts about their business don’t always have that luxury.

But if you can get someone — anyone — to read what you’ve written for your site, either before you publish or after it’s live, it can save you headaches and embarrassment.

Whether you realize it or not, you will have blind spots about anything you write yourself. Readers notice the errors, typos and faulty logic that you miss — so why not have the first reader report them back to you?

If you’re in a pinch and can’t get a second set of eyes, I suggest you read your copy in a different way. Print it out and take a red pen to it. Load it on to your tablet (if you wrote on a PC or laptop) and read it there. Read it backwards (really, this works — you’ll pick up spelling errors you would have glossed over going forward).

4. Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block

You have limited time to write for your site or blog. If you stare at a blank page for long, you might convince yourself you have “writer’s block” and it will take too long. You’ll move on to other things — hey, you have a business to run — and you may never come back to the writing.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. I know, because every time I faced a newspaper deadline, somehow I found a way to get all the words written in time. If you make yourself write, you will write.

If you’re having trouble getting started, I suggest putting yourself on the clock. Tell yourself, “I have to have six paragraphs written in 30 minutes,” or something like that. It will happen.

You can also avoid the mythical “writer’s block” by collecting ideas. Start a notebook or file on one of your devices where you jot down ideas for good material for your business site. Then when it’s time to write, you have a place to start.

So there they are, four lessons that should help you write for your business site. As good content becomes more and more important on the web, I hope these tips help you make the right impression and explain your business to customers and clients.

I’ve written it before — a website can be beautifully designed, SEO-friendly and quick as Usain Bolt, but if the actual words on the page are sloppy, unprofessional or indecipherable, you’re losing readers (and business).

Jon DeNunzio worked in the Washington Post newsroom for nearly 20 years and now runs Squarely Digital, a consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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3 Things You Should Know Before Using Google AdWords

The reasons to use Google AdWords to market your business are numerous. The reasons not to are nearly as plentiful.

If you’re not sure whether you should use the popular search advertising platform, this post won’t go very far in helping you make that decision. There are too many variables, starting with your budget, your time and your product or service, for me to compose a “should I or shouldn’t I?” post that would apply across the board.

 

Google AdWords sample ad
A sample Google AdWords ad.

What I can do is save a little time for those of you who decide to try out AdWords. I didn’t know AdWords from AdSense from Words With Friends at the beginning of 2013. But now I know enough to manage AdWords accounts for five clients who spend a combined $4,000 on AdWords each month.

Many manage bigger AdWords budgets and I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have been able to get results. And I have learned a lot. What follows are three lessons from experience — hopefully they will give you an idea of what it takes to run a successful campaign.

(For readers who don’t know what AdWords is: It’s Google’s advertising platform that allows users to create ads that run on search result pages and a network of partner sites. Google offers pay-per-click (PPC) as well as cost-per-thousand impression (CPM) advertising, and advertisers can create text or display ads. Most of my experience has been with PPC text ads.)

Lesson 1. AdWords Campaigns Need Regular Attention

Especially in the early days of a campaign, it’s vital that you check in regularly to see what’s working and what’s not.

If you have keywords that aren’t attracting clicks, you’ll probably want to get rid of them. Or if a certain ad is are doing exceptionally well, you may want to create a few more that like it to try and get even better results. Adjusting your ad spending may make sense, as well.

Tweak and experiment, wait a few days to see results, and tweak again. You’ll find a routine that works for your campaign adjustments — but it almost certainly won’t be “set it and forget it.”

Lesson 2: If You Like Tweeting and Stats, You’re In Luck

Writing an AdWords ad is not unlike posting on Twitter — you’re trying to craft something people will notice in a very limited space (ad headlines are limited to 25 characters, and each of the two lines below the headline are no longer than 35 characters).

If you’ve worked in print journalism (I have), it’s also a lot like writing a good headline.

The difference is the amount of feedback you get. The AdWords interface is not always intuitive, but once you learn how to use it, you’ll find an impressive assortment of data to measure your campaign’s effectiveness. Impressions, clicks, cost per click and average ad position are just the beginning.

Being handy with Excel or Numbers helps, too. I find myself setting up regular reports and downloading more data on the fly to track progress, look for opportunities and create client reports.

Lesson 3: It Doesn’t End at the Click

This may be obvious if you’re focused on return on investment, but simply getting a click on an ad doesn’t equal success. Figuring out what the users who click ads do when they get to your site — and how many turn into actual customers — is the key to success.

That means the adjustments you should expect to make as data starts to pour in should include edits to your site, especially your landing page (the first page users who click on ads see).

A well-designed, engaging landing page increases the chances visitors will convert into customers, of course. But Google also positions ads and charges you for them based on the connection between keywords, ad copy and landing page content. The more related they are, the better you’ll do.

Those are the top lessons I have taken away from AdWords so far. If you have questions or comments, I encourage you to leave them in the comment section below or to send me an  email or tweet. And if you take the AdWords plunge, I wish you luck

Jon DeNunzio runs Squarely Digital, a digital consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

The Value of Highlighting Other People’s Content

I was just a week into the work for my first client when he asked a question that produced a vivid flashback.

“Why should I link to other sites?” he asked, after I suggested his company’s website link to the partners and media outlets mentioned on his homepage. “I don’t want users leaving my site.”

I heard this question all the time in my old career, journalism. After I moved from the Washington Post’s print newsroom to its website, I often talked to reporters and editors about aggregating related news and opinion from other sites on our blogs and in articles.

“You want to give your readers a complete view of the topic you cover, and you can only write so much yourself each day,” I would say. “I know you read the competition. Why not share the compelling things you find with your readers? They’ll appreciate it and come back for more.”

Sometimes those reporters and editors decided to give it a try, and sometimes they didn’t. But the case for highlighting content created by others – even competitors — is a strong one for businesses as well as journalists – here’s why I think you should consider doing it both on your site and in your social media feeds:

  • It gives you more credibility. Highlighting articles, posts and videos from other sites shows your users that you are paying attention to the news and trends in your field. If you’re making a claim about your product or service, a link that supports that claim carries great weight, too.
  • It’s a valuable service to your users. Few, if any, of your potential clients or customers will know your industry as well as you do. But when they are considering your product or service, they will want to learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can. Helping them can build the loyalty and trust you need to close a sale.(This is a form of digital marketing akin to the type advocated by Marcus Sheridananswering customers’ questions to earn their business. He advocates original content, which of course is important, too, but linking and aggregating have their place.)
  • It helps you connect. This is especially true when you share others’ content on social media. Tweeting about a smart article by someone else in your industry increases the chances they’ll follow and retweet your best content. Whether on your site, your blog or one of your social feeds, “link karma” is real – link to others, and they’ll link to you.(And when other sites link to your site, it also helps search engine optimization.)

    It’s worth noting that limiting the amount of your own content that you post on social media is a widely accepted guideline – as Jon Gelberg said on Inc.com:

    “If you become a respected member of the Twitter community, you can throw in messages directly related to your products or services, but those need to be counter-balanced by tweets completely unrelated to your sales efforts.” (emphasis mine)

If you’re curious what happened when I was pitching links and aggregation to old-school Post reporters and editors, well, some decided to give it a try. Others continued to sound like my first client with my current company Squarely Digital: “I don’t want someone clicking away from my content.” Or even worse, “We can’t link to a competitor!”

I understand those responses as gut reactions. We all design pages and write articles and post photos in the hopes users will keep clicking on our site, eventually helping us make money by signing up for a service or viewing or clicking on ads.

But one unavoidable truth of the internet is that every visitor to your website is going to leave, and they probably are going to leave soon. If they’re interested in the topic you cover or the product you sell, they’re checking out multiple sites for information and pricing.

You can pretend it’s not happening and never link. Or you can help them find other good sites, and in the process reap these side benefits. I think you’ll be more successful choosing that path.

Jon DeNunzio runs Squarely Digital, a digital consulting firm that aims to make the internet a little bit easier and a lot more profitable for your company. Contact him at [email protected].

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