7 ways to take your marketing strategy from blah to deadly (#longread)

By 18th September 2018Content Strategy
7 ways to take your marketing strategy from blah to deadly (#longread) - Engage Content Marketing Agency - Dublin

We have a list of rules pinned to the wall in Engage HQ – the seven tenets of marketing philosophy that we try to apply to everything we do, whether that’s work for ourselves or for our clients.

We’ve thought long and hard about them, and while they aren’t set in stone and are liable to change over time, we feel they are a good representation of our point of view, our culture and where we hope to end up fairly soon.

  1. Don’t fear humour
  2. Don’t be paranoid
  3. Don’t copy the competition
  4. Don’t be blue
  5. Be more direct
  6. Diversity in everything
  7. Stand for something

These are rules that fit our beliefs and the way we work. But they could be just as easily applied to another business looking to transform their online presence. This is a long read, but here is an explanation of our seven rules and why they matter so much.

1. Don’t fear humour

In the world of B2B marketing, humour isn’t always the first port of call. We’re all busy proving how professional, experienced, agile, dedicated, passionate we are at what we do… convincing prospects that we’re also funny probably isn’t going to help us land that next contract.

But in the business of content marketing, the holy grail is engagement. We want people to engage with our online selves, consume our carefully researched advice pieces, sign up for our newsletter and remember us when they next need the service we provide. We want to be ‘sticky’ – that is, we want people to remember us.

The overly serious landscape that is most B2B marketing can become pretty monotonous after a while. But there’s no reason it has to be quite so desiccated – after all humour is used to great effect in B2C marketing and so many ad campaigns. It’s just easy to fall into the trap that because this is business, it needs to be formal.

However, ask your clients why they keep working with you, and you’ll often get reasons such as great personality, friendly team, really appreciate the personal touch, we get on really well… OK, they may not directly say, “because you’re funny,” but the key is that they ARE relating to you on a human level, and humour is part of that.

I think the overly ‘business’ tone happens in part because you care. When I write about a topic I’m passionate about, there’s a tendency for the language to become a little earnest, dare I say, preachy. It’s happening right now as I type. It’s somewhat a side effect of having expertise/insight you want to impart in a clear and convincing way.

I’ve been fighting formality in business communications for many years now, so adopting humour is the logical next step. I don’t claim to be particularly funny, and I’m not asking my clients to transform into stand-up comedians, but I am asking that they let us add a joke here and there, make an amusing analogy, or use an absurd feature image on a blog post.

It’s all about letting a little personality in. Baby steps. The days of anonymous corporate monoliths are long gone and it’s OK to be good at what you do and say something funny at the same time. You’d be surprised how hard it can be to convince clients of that sometimes (not our clients, of course, they are the best in every way and we love them).

Remember the DollarShaveClub video? It’s still one of the top examples marketers cite of brands doing humour well.

2. Don’t be paranoid

Paranoia. It’s an easy trap to fall into. A lot of words that are used about business can sometimes make you feel at war – cutthroat business tacticscorporate battlefieldbeat the competitionthe cut and thrust of businessdo whatever it takes… I could go on ☹.

In marketing, this kind of approach is usually counterproductive. While it might be great language for firing up your sales team (and even that seems disputable to me), marketing is not warfare and adopting a ‘they’re all out to get me’ stance will get you nowhere.

Don't be paranoid

Do you trust your team?

Here’s a concrete example of paranoia. I have had several businesses push back hard on including their team on their company website. They didn’t want their employees’ names and photos on their site.

If you consider that a business’s greatest asset is its employees, this reluctance can seem odd. But the reason all these companies gave for not wanting employees on the website was, “They might get poached by the competition.”

People move jobs for all kinds of reasons. But if they did, out of the blue, get a job offer from a competitor (and none of the companies I mentioned above had a real-life example of this happening), they would no doubt make a rational decision about whether or not to accept. They’re unlikely to leave you solely because they were asked to.

The way to keep your staff is by giving them a reason to work for you above anyone else. This includes simple things like valuing them – for instance, being proud enough of them that you put them on your website!

In the age of LinkedIn (other social networks for professionals are available), imagining that we don’t know who works at a particular company is delusional. If I wanted to poach members of your team, not having their name on your company website isn’t going to stop me!

The confidence to shine

Another area of paranoia we fight regularly is knowledge. When we start working with new clients, we’ll frequently find that the blogs and other content they produce is deliberately vague, too technical or has huge gaps in information. Their reasoning is generally, “If we tell people how to do it, they won’t need us anymore.”

It’s true, knowledge IS power. But thinking you’ll be weak if you share your knowledge is flawed reasoning. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The kind of people who read your content and then do it themselves would have found a way to do it with or without your advice. They are ‘doers’ by nature, but at least if your advice was sound they’ll now know you are actually good at what you do and you’ll have raised awareness of your brand.
  2. The best way to convince people they need an expert like you for the task is to show them just what’s involved and the skill levels required to do it well. For example, if you and I sat down for coffee and I told you all the things that go into optimising a website, you’d be overjoyed that there are services out there to do it for you!
  3. Just because someone knows how something is done, doesn’t mean they want, or have time, to do it. Outsourcing makes sense, that’s why we all do it. Your service is no different. For instance, I’m handy with a blow torch and solder and know how to replumb a house; but I still called in the plumbers to work on the new Engage HQ.
  4. Generosity works. People remember brands that give more than they take. It makes clients more loyal and prospects more likely to convert. It builds trust. It is a proven fact that sharing knowledge will bring you more customers. Don’t believe me? Xerox ran a content marketing campaign called Get Optimistic that was all about helpful content. The operation yielded them $1.3 billion in pipeline revenue.

You’ll get nowhere in marketing if you don’t open up and start being transparent. Transparent about your people, your knowledge, your processes, and even your prices. One of our clients, an accountancy firm, has had the price of their packages on the company website for years. They consistently acquire new clients at rates that are many times over the industry average. Showing their prices on the site has brought them MORE customers, not fewer!

Paranoia and suspicion are not attractive qualities in an individual and they’re not a helpful way to build a company, either. If you want people to have a good experience with your brand, try being more open, more confident, and more trusting.

I guarantee you will see results.

N.B. If you’re looking for an example of a business being completely transparent with the outside world, take a look at Buffer Open. The company is transparent about EVERYTHING, to the extent you can even eyeball their live revenue dashboard (yes, really).

Snapshot of the Buffer live dashboard

3. Don’t copy the competition

Don’t copy the competition was actually the very first rule we came up with, I wrote a blog about it last year as it’s something very close to my heart.

For years and years, I’ve listened to clients, potential clients, friends, and acquaintances obsess about their competition when they should be focusing on themselves. I’ve heard words like ‘benchmarking’ thrown around as though it’s the only thing between them and global dominance.

If you want to read the long version of my rant against some organisations’ obsession with competition, read my blog: Understand your competition, but don’t copy them. A precis of the blog is as follows:

  1. Competitive analysis is useful, but don’t fall into the trap of assuming that everything your competitors do is genius and worth copying.
  2. Don’t confuse ‘they’re making money’ with ‘they’re good at marketing’.
  3. Competition-watching is a creativity killer.
  4. Don’t be confined by the norms of your industry. Be the best, not just the best in your industry!
  5. Think about your prospects. It’s not about what YOU want, it’s about what THEY want.

Anxiety about the competition rarely leads to a sound marketing strategy. As the CEO, CFO or CSO, it might seem logical to focus on the market share that others are eating up; but as a marketer, I have rarely found this to be a helpful starting point.
Don't copy the competition

What do you want to say about everyone else?

I had a client a while back who was rebranding as part of a repositioning exercise. We had already been through a rebranding exercise, and I had written the texts for their new website. There was a hiatus over Christmas, during which we were out of touch for a few weeks.

When we got back in contact, I was surprised to hear they had a whole new take on our brand positioning and messaging. They wanted to change the homepage of their site into an exposé of the bad practice that was rife in their industry – less company homepage and more public service announcement.

It was noble of them to want to warn potential clients about how other people in their industry are cowboys. However, this would have saturated their content with negative messaging – and even though the core of that message was ‘We’re different’, having all their content focusing on the competition instead of on the value they could offer would have been a mistake.

What do you want to say about you (and just you)?

The theme of this rule Don’t copy your competition, so why am I going on about people who wanted to show how different they are from their competition? The fact is, obsessing about your competition IN ANY WAY can be deeply harmful to the brand you have been carefully building.

There’s this guy called Simon Sinek who gives advice about business and stuff. Now, you’ve probably been watching his videos/attending his events for a long, long time… but I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t actually heard of him until three months ago. And, wow, isn’t he great?!

In a video I watched the other day, Simon explains how businesses rant on about the competition. He draws a picture of listening to the people from two global players: the folks at Apple talking about solving problems, and the folks at Microsoft talk about beating Apple… which of those two companies would you call the most inventive?

Simon perfectly articulates what I have been shouting from my padded cell (Engage HQ) for the past few years. If you focus on your competition, you leave no space for your own thinking. I had no idea this was even a thing, but Simon has been talking about it for years.

As I have said before and will keep shouting for as long as people let me at the oxygen: you will do much better if you put yourself so far ahead of the competition that they become irrelevant. The day you liberate your company from the shackles of competition-watching, you give them the space to be more creative in their solutions.

More importantly, you give agencies like ours the liberty to think outside the box and come up with some genuinely creative ideas that could really bring you some market share 😉

4. Don’t be blue

The Don’t be blue rule has nothing to do with mental health, stress, depression, or anything along those lines. This is a very simple rule about branding and visual identity.

How many websites do you look at a day? Have you ever noticed what colour they are… and the fact that a large number of them are blue? In fact, after black and shades of black (grey), blue is by far the most used colour on the web. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are all blue, as are a huge number of B2B websites.
The internet is blue

I have nothing against blue. I wear a lot of blue; it’s a great colour. After black, it’s the next easiest colour to read on a white background. It lends itself to a wide variety of uses and comes in a glorious range of shades. The sky is blue, and it’s the colour most of us associate with water.

It’s not surprising that such a versatile colour is therefore used prolifically in branding and thus on websites. It’s a safe, neutral colour that few people will object to when trying to come to a consensus on logo or design options. For many years, links were blue no matter what other colours were used on the site.

According to Envato, internet folklore traces the popularity of blue for links “back to the father of the internet, Sir Tim Berners Lee. Some of the earliest pictures of him that feature links on his computer screen show links coloured in blue.”

Blue is also traditionally associated with a conservative business world and masculinity. But as we know, businesses are becoming less formal, less hierarchical, more diverse and more conversational. With businesses everywhere updating their values for improved customer relationships, better workplace well-being and increased inclusiveness, is blue still the right colour?

Sure, it is reliably familiar, but perhaps it is so familiar it is now a non-colour – saying nothing at all? For the modern business, saying nothing – especially on the internet where everyone has an opinion – is not really an option. If you’re looking to stand out, and if you want your brand to be more memorable, one way to do that is to avoid the use of blue.

So our Don’t be blue rule is a little reminder to not always opt for the safe option, but to actively push outside of your comfort zone. Being different is a good thing. Even if your website is already blue, maybe there are other ways you can be different.

5. Be more direct

There are a few layers to this rule. In part, it’s about the importance of using the active voice in marketing content. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms active voice and passive voice, active voice is generally where the subject performs the action in question. It’s a more direct, more precise, and more simple way of writing.

But before you go and change everything you’ve ever written into the active voice, look at the context. If you obsessively refuse to write in the passive voice, that doesn’t necessarily mean your content will be amazing. Sometimes the passive voice works and is the only choice.

I know I slip into using the passive voice, and it’s a hard habit to break. However, using an active voice is often the more succinct way of explaining something, as pointed out in this example from an econsultancy.com article by Dan Brotzel:

A tree was planted by John (passive voice) vs John planted a tree (active voice)

Source: https://assets.econsultancy.com/public/imgur/57tH9oT.jpg

So, using the active voice is a great idea when producing marketing and advertising copy. But so is keeping your message simple. Professor Daniel Oppenheimer wrote an interesting paper entitled Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly. He found that academics (and they aren’t the only ones) regularly switched out words for more complicated language in an attempt to seem more intelligent.

In fact, they achieved the opposite result. Oppenheimer’s conclusion (he conducted five different experiments) was,

“… the loss of fluency due to needless complexity in a text negatively impacts raters’ assessments of the text’s authors.”

If you’re producing content to demonstrate your expertise in your industry or sector, appearing less intelligent is NOT what you want to achieve! By simplifying your language, you make your texts easier to read and the subject easier to understand, but you also come across as a more confident, and therefore credible, author.

Another layer of the Be more direct rule is about being less cautious. You don’t have to be completely neutral all the time, it’s OK to show emotion and a personality! Get to the point, don’t dance around it. To illustrate, I have a concrete example from something we wrote (yes, even though we write for a living, our first drafts are often a bit of a mess!).

When we drafted the article in question, it included the sentence: It is rare to find an individual who enjoys having to ring a support desk. But when it came time to edit, I felt this wasn’t direct enough and we changed the phrase to: No one enjoys having to call a support desk. It’s a simple enough change, but if you go through your texts and look for vague or circuitous phrases, you’ll be able to tighten up your texts easily.

So, be more direct when you write. Do it!

6. Diversity in everything

During a recent presentation I made at a company in a very male-dominated sector, I expressed the desire to see their online audience split of 70% (male) v 30% (female) reach something closer to parity over the coming year or two. A modest ambition, by my standards. But one of the team immediately asked me why this was necessary. He even asked, “Why the need to make our content more feminine?”

There are many reasons this stance stuck a cord with me, some of which are:

  1. Why assume content must be ‘feminine’ for women to be interested in it?
  2. Why would you NOT want your audience to be representative of the general population? What better way to know you are reaching as far as you can.
  3. Even if your industry is currently over-represented by one sex (and that could well go either way, depending on the sector), in this day and age it must be obvious that gender-parity is the only possible destination?
  4. Do you want to be an organisation that follows the crowd and simply ‘ends up’ in the right place because there was no other option? Wouldn’t it be better to have taken a stand from the outset and said: we want to be over there, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get there!?

Diversity in all things is crucial, but it’s easy to preach diversity and still not practice it. Policies and programmes actually remove the onus from individuals to do anything about it. Founder and activist Cindy Gallop, speaking at the 3% Conference in 2016, said:

“When people feel diversity is taken care of, they won’t do anything. The quickest way to make people understand the business benefit of gender equality and diversity is to do it in a way that makes those benefits manifest.”

If you’re not about to employ/promote someone, you may wonder what this has to do with you. It’s possible that you don’t have any specific events coming up that give you an opportunity to promote diversity. And I’m not a business consultant, so I’m not even talking about the wider benefits that inclusive practices can bring to a work culture.

Coming at this from a purely marketing point of view, let me assure you that even small actions will eventually make a difference. On the Engage blog, we’ve talked about promoting positive mental health messages in marketing. But you can also think about your website and the other ways you communicate your brand, and what that says about diversity.

Something as simple as making sure you have as many images featuring women as men – or featuring someone who isn’t white, someone in a wheelchair, someone older, etc. – is easy enough to achieve these days. The next time you’re online, try to notice what you’re NOT seeing in ‘business’ images… how often do you see tattoos, piercings, even dress sense that’s a bit different?

Let’s take the word diversity in its fullest meaning, and try to be more inclusive when preparing marketing content. Difference is a good thing, and we will all benefit from a world where it is celebrated. So, when choosing contributors for your blog, sending a team to a trade fair, inviting guests onto your podcasts, remember… diversity in everything.

7. Stand for something

The final rule of Engage HQ is Stand for something. In echoes of our diversity rule, this is the assertion that an organisation should have a point of view – a loftier goal, if you will. It seems odd to me that in going to work (where we spend most of our waking lives) we somewhat abdicate our responsibilities as citizens of the world and dampen a lot of the distinct traits that make us who we are.

There’s something homogeneous about organisations of all kinds that flattens out opinion, whether it’s lowest common denominator or happy consensus. Having a strong viewpoint can be seen as risky in business. I mean, you wouldn’t want to lose customers because you have an opinion about something… right?

I was speaking recently to an experienced entrepreneur with a new business venture. The industry he’s in is very established and he’s hoping to bring a disruptive way of handling the work that should revolutionise his sector.

We talked about how he could get his brand known and how they will approach lead generation. It was fairly classic stuff; so far (and it’s still early days) the online presence planned is fairly typical. Before I left, I asked if he would consider being more disruptive in his approach – finding a way to be different to the other providers in this area. Standing apart.

If his team sits down and really thinks about what they are trying to represent, thinks of the company in terms of what they want it to be OUTSIDE the context of their market, I’m confident they will stand head and shoulders above their competitors. It’s a case of saying, “Sure, this is how it’s done today. But we have a hunch about how this is going to go down in the future and we’re going to start doing that right now.”

I’m not talking about taking the moral high ground, or that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ stance. I simply mean you should know what your stance is and own it. Proudly. If this new business does that, I firmly believe that instead of chasing leads around the internet, they’ll have people knocking on the door begging to be allowed onto the client books.

Consumers today demand authenticity. And as study after study shows, younger generations in particular are looking to engage with brands or work for employers that share their values. Brands such as Patagonia, Mars or Merck have all taken stands on issues they feel strongly about. If you haven’t seen it before, take a look at Heineken’s social experiment, Worlds Apart:

Far too many organisations think that having principles is a personal thing – an individual choice – that has nothing to do with a company. But the evidence from brands that have a well-developed philosophy and take a stand shows that the rewards are great. Businesses should demonstrate a purpose beyond profit-making if they want to stay relevant.

Does your company have a set of rules or extended mission statement like ours? I’d love to hear what they are!

If you want to revamp your company’s marketing strategy, but aren’t sure where to start, why not talk to us?! We don’t just write blogs, we help businesses with thorny issues such as brand voice and positioning. Call us on 01 556 0576 and let’s get started.
Scarlet Merrill

Author Scarlet Merrill

Founder & Customer Experience Activist at Engage. I create and deliver holistic strategies that communicate your company’s values through great content. My passions are: technology, design, innovation, startups, books, WordPress, open source, open data, politics and pedantry. You don't make a plural by adding an apostrophe before the s!

More posts by Scarlet Merrill

Engage Content - Dublin, Ireland