Personas and Writing for Audiences

Personas and Writing for Audiences

Using Audience Personas to Create Engaging ContentThe secret to effective written content is defining your reader’s persona, and using that persona to create useful content. But where do you start?Defining the PersonaWhat do we mean by “persona?” This is simply a shorthand term for a sketch of a typical member of a segment of your target audience. Defining your reader’s persona helps you deliver actionable, informative, engaging content aimed at your potential customers and stakeholders. Many companies develop several personas to represent the different segments they need to reach. These could be:
  • Prospects at different stages in the buying process.
  • End users of your products.
  • Decision-makers at government agencies.
  • High-level executives.
  • Other stakeholders in your project.
Each of these segments has different needs. End users need problems solved and questions answered. Contacts at the top of the buying “funnel” need awareness of your company and your services. Prospects closer to making a purchase need more detailed information.Creating Personas for Your Target AudienceWhen creating a persona, think about a specific (if imaginary) person who represents the audience segment you want to reach. Then develop a list of questions that help you define this persona. When it comes to B2B content, especially for government contractors reaching out to government buyers and decision-makers, think in terms of professional roles and responsibilities and how these intersect with your company and your brand.Some questions for your persona could include:
  • What job title or position does this person hold?
  • What business sector is she in?
  • Is he a primary decision-maker, or does he need to work as part of a chain of command?
  • What challenges does she face in her day-to-day job?
  • What information or tools might help her address these challenges?
  • Where is he in the purchasing process, if he’s a potential customer?
Besides these basics, you need to uncover what content best reaches this persona.
  • What social networks does he use?
  • Does she regularly read content on a mobile device?
  • Can he access content during work hours? Keep in mind that some government agencies have restrictions on social media consumed on site.
  • If you’re reaching out to consumers or others in the general public, what are their demographics in terms of age, location, and ethnicity? What social media channels do they prefer?
Your Persona HomeworkThis may seem like a daunting list of questions at first. How can you find the answers? When researching your persona, a few Google searches won’t necessarily help build an in-depth picture.  Some ideas to get you started include:
  • Talk to your current clients. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers serious questions; you already have a strong connection to them.
  • Keep up with trends in your field. Attend industry events and trade shows, and listen to what speakers and participants have to say. Read industry-oriented publications and sites. Follow social media accounts of industry associations and thought leaders.
  • Study web analytics of your website. What pages on your site do visitors linger on, and what pages do they skip? How do users find your site in the first place?
  • Research the competition and their content. What do they use? White papers, case studies, webinars? Are they filling a content gap you’re forgetting?
Putting Your Personas to WorkWrite down your persona’s information and refer back to it as you craft your written communications and marketing content. Whether you’re sending a newsletter to current customers who might need an upgrade, or a creating a white paper aimed at high-level leaders, refer back to your persona and adapt your voice and your message accordingly.Taking the time to develop detailed personas for all of your content means you can better engage with your desired target audience, whether they’re customers or other stakeholders. Personas help you specifically address their needs, answer their questions, and create awareness. Whether you create these personas internally or work with outsourced content experts to define them, the effort pays off for your company. Download an example persona.

Using Journalistic Writing

The Journalistic Style: How to Use It in Your Content

For firms in the government contracting or B2B sectors, a journalistic approach to written communications can inspire confidence in your expertise and industry leadership, and position you as a credible authority in your field. This style of writing is also ideal for webpages and other forms of online content, where users often quickly scan rather than read in depth.

But what exactly do we mean by a journalistic style, and how can you incorporate it consistently into your company’s written content?

Defining the Journalistic Style

The journalistic style has traditionally meant streamlined, factual writing. Here are some hallmarks of this style and tips on how to apply them.

  • The 5Ws of journalism traditionally referred to the five questions that a reporter should answer in the lead paragraph of a news story: When, What, Where, Why and Who. Addressing the 5Ws helps you focus on informative content—no reader should come away with unanswered questions.
  • Brevity. Eliminate roundabout phrases for cleaner, uncluttered writing. For example, you can easily replace “due to the fact that” with “because.”
  • Straightforward, fact-based writing, free of overly opinionated or emotional language, persuades readers by presenting yourself as a trustworthy source of information.
  • Active voice. Whenever possible, rephrase sentences to be active, not passive. “We developed the software” appears stronger and more assured than “The software was developed by the company.” A stronger phrasing reinforces credibility in what you are saying.

And here a few things to avoid.

  • Informal or chatty tone. An informal writing style has its place, depending on the audience. B2C (business to consumer) content, for example, can strike a less formal tone. However, if you strive for a professional, journalistic tone, err on the side of formality.
  • Over-reliance on jargon. Your level of technical terminology needs to be appropriate for your audience.
  • Clichés or slang. Next time you’re tempted to think outside the box, build from the ground up, or stay on fleek, reconsider. Tired clichés make your content sound tired; expired slang makes your content sound dated and strained.

Storytelling: The Secret to Journalism

Journalism does not mean dry, uninteresting writing, however. What interesting or intriguing stories have you read in the news lately? Why did they stick with you? The answer is storytelling.

Storytelling is a critical part of effective online content today. At first glance, the term “storytelling” seems to apply to creative writing more than your company’s public-facing written content. However, storytelling is a critical component to branding in today’s environment, and your written content should always support your brand. Journalists are trained to craft facts into compelling stories; similarly, your content should tell a story.

How can you use this concept? Think about telling your clients’ stories, not your own. For example, how have your products or services solved their problems?

Maintaining a Consistent Style

Developing and applying consistent guidelines for grammar, spelling and punctuation can help maintain your journalistic style across the board. This takes a commitment to detail, but the effort is well worth the time. Well-edited, polished writing builds credibility; inconsistent, mistake-ridden copy does the opposite.

Some large companies may have the staff and time to develop an internal style guide of their own. Most businesses, however, can use the leading industry standard styles. The AP Style Guide is the well-known “bible” for journalists and editors in the United States; for those in the government contracting sector, the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual is appropriate.

Using the Journalistic Style in Your Content

Once you have established your journalistic tone, the next critical step is to include it in your public-facing content.

  • Press releases. The 5Ws are crucial here for reaching out with newsworthy information. Again, no question should be left unanswered.
  • Website content and blog posts. Website content should be brief, clear, informative, and above all, easy to read. Your blog needs to follow the same rules. Also, keep in mind that much of today’s online content is accessed on mobile devices; a concise style is more mobile-friendly.
  • Email campaigns or newsletters. Emails, like website content, need to be quickly scanned. Succinct content with a snappy headline (your subject line) is mobile-friendly and is more likely to be opened and read.
  • Brochures and other printed marketing collateral. Keep your journalistic voice consistent in all of your public-facing materials: factual, accurate and readable.
  • Other long-form content. This includes white papers, case studies and ebooks, all useful content that positions your company’s expertise and brand.

Thinking about your company’s content in terms of journalism helps you maintain a consistent focus on excellent writing in all of your content. By applying the concepts of the journalistic style, you ensure that your target audience will never lose sight of your company’s 5Ws.

Handling Bad Publicity: Good Examples

Handling Bad Publicity: Good Examples

Lessons Learned From a Crisis Communications Success Story

In a previous post, we wrote about poor public relations crisis management, with lessons on what not to do from the Wells Fargo false account crisis of 2016. Other recent examples include: Mylan raising prices on EpiPen epinephrine auto-injectors, Samsung’s exploding phones, and the disastrous United Airlines incident that resulted in an injured passenger. Where, then, are the positive lessons on crisis communications?

Stopping Incidents Before They Start

Is it hard to think of positive examples? There’s one simple reason for that; successful crisis management means stopping crises before they get off the ground. Planning for the unforeseen may seem like an oxymoron. Yet companies and organizations must have a solid plan for when crisis strikes. Some even prepare a boilerplate library of language ahead of time for every conceivable crisis situation. Fortunately, most of this language may never be used, but time spent preparing is better than last-minute scrambling when the worst happens. Even if the situation has not been fully anticipated, having basic language ready to go can help.

The Cincinnati Zoo

The second-oldest zoo in the country, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, experienced a major crisis in May 2016 when a child climbed through a fence into the gorilla exhibit and the zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team was forced to kill a gorilla out of fear for the child’s safety.

We all remember the media storm that followed, but the zoo’s communications throughout this episode (through press releases and social media) were exemplary. From the first press release issued on the day of the incident to statements in the following days, communications were quickly disseminated to provide information and transparency. They struck the right balance of tone: sorrow for Harambe the gorilla, concern for the child involved, and level-headed defense of the zoo’s actions. Without being defensive, the zoo set the record straight that a tranquilizer takes several minutes to take effect and was not an option in a life-or-death situation. Critically, the zoo did not blame the child or parent involved, despite the social media outcry.

In subsequent releases, the zoo continued to maintain the same quality of response, with positive information on how concerned animal lovers could help wild gorillas, and stories detailing the zoo’s proactive compliance with the USDA on fencing surrounding the exhibit. This steady public relations response served as an excellent counterweight to the flurry of negativity and anger around the event and allowed the zoo to move forward after a tragic and upsetting incident.

Lessons Learned

This crisis offers excellent examples of how to react to a negative situation.

  • Act quickly. Zoo communications reacted immediately and clearly to the incident.
  • Be mindful of tone and authenticity. Zoo staff, dedicated to preserving the lives of endangered animals, were clearly devastated and let their sincere sorrow show through without being maudlin or angry.
  • Keep your position consistent. At the same time, the zoo stood unwaveringly behind the actions of its staff.
  • Do not place blame. The zoo refrained from blaming the child or parent involved, resisting the anger emanating from social media.
  • Be ready immediately with a positive follow-up. In response to the outpouring of emotion over Harambe’s death, the zoo outlined actions that concerned animal lovers could take to make a positive difference.

Planning a communications strategy ahead of time, including your choice of language, can help you be prepared and level-headed when a crisis strikes. Most importantly, a solid plan means organizations can react quickly. But having a strategy in place doesn’t mean your communications will lack authenticity. On the contrary, a communications plan can give you some breathing room so your company’s authentic voice can shine through at crisis moments.

Have you considered what crises could impact your organization?

Handling Bad Publicity

Handling Bad Publicity

Four Communications Lessons from the Wells Fargo Scandal

When confronted by crisis, it may be a natural response for companies to batten down the hatches and wait for the media storm to pass. However, in our current age of social media and two-way customer engagement, crisis communications takes on a new urgency. Hoping that a crisis will blow over is simply not an option.

The 2016 Wells Fargo debacle offers a worst-case scenario for public relations and communications professionals. Under intense sales quotas, bank employees opened 2 million false accounts without customer knowledge; this resulted in millions of dollars in fines, and more than 5,000 employees—nearly 1 percent of the Wells Fargo workforce—fired. This painful episode offers valuable lessons in how to handle bad publicity.

Lesson 1: Apologize to the right people.

Many PR journalists and bloggers have commented on the initial “dry and sterile” statement offered by Wells Fargo in the aftermath of the crisis. The fraudulent accounts resulted in bounced checks, lowered credit scores and other real problems for Wells Fargo consumers. In their September 8 statement, the company said:

“Wells Fargo reached these agreements consistent with our commitment to customers and in the interest of putting this matter behind us. Wells Fargo is committed to putting our customers’ interests first 100 percent of the time, and we regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request.”

This statement did assume responsibility, and detailed the settlement amount. Yet the impact on consumers was downplayed: “Accounts refunded represented a fraction of one percent of the accounts reviewed, and refunds averaged $25.” Other words that stand out are “putting this matter behind us.” Is this matter behind the affected customers, or for that matter, the fired employees? The language used reveals it was mostly written to minimize the damage and appease regulators, lawyers, and investors—not the consumers harmed.

Lesson 2: Don’t mince words in your apology.

Wells Fargo ran a full-page newspaper ad with a letter shortly after the settlement announcement. While it did express “regret,” it never used the more powerful words “apologize” or “sorry.” It also danced around the issue by never mentioning “false” or “fraudulent” accounts. Clearer, stronger, more direct language was called for here. Instead, the letter seems to be a half-hearted apology, one that minimizes the impact of the damage.

Lesson 3: Assume personal responsibility at the top.

The initial statement and the subsequent newspaper ad did admit regret. However, the language used in these initial reactions shifted the blame to lower-level employees without fully taking on responsibility for the large-scale fraudulent activity on a company level. For example, John Stumpf’s signature as company CEO failed to appear on the letter in the newspaper ad. This gesture, although small, would have been a meaningful symbol of top-level accountability; all crisis-focused statements ought to be attributed to the CEO from the start.

When John Stumpf testified before Congress, he not only admitted regret, but even said the golden word “sorry” and noted that he was “fully accountable.” This admission is critical: Those at the top must take ownership and accept responsibility in crisis situations. But Stumpf’s testimony before Congress may have been too little, too late for a company facing a scandal of this size.

Lesson 4: Move quickly with specific fixes.

Company ads, web pages and television ads rolled out weeks later offered a few more details. However, a television ad by Wells Fargo concentrated mostly on nostalgic imagery and a vague promise to “make things right.” It made mention of refunds, but did this refer just to fees or to other damage (such as fees sent to collection agencies) that impacted customers with these bogus accounts? Wells Fargo did not mention one inconvenient fact: Consumers with complaints about their accounts would be referred into binding arbitration, a system that puts consumers at a disadvantage.

In our social media-driven age, customers expect an immediate reply to problems and mistakes. They complain on Twitter and Facebook, and increasingly major companies, such as airlines and hotel chains, move immediately to respond to issues through social media. Similarly, small businesses on sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List do well when they own their pages and respond to negative reviews quickly. Consumers can tell when companies drag their feet.

Does all this really make a difference? It did in the case of Wells Fargo. According to the LA Times, only 3 percent of bank customers in a survey reported being directly affected by the fraud—but 32 percent said they were actively looking for another bank. In addition, the percentage of prospective customers considering business with Wells Fargo shrank to 19 percent, down from 52 percent before news of the scandal broke.

Excellent customer service and accountability define a brand. The Wells Fargo response has been slow-moving, reluctant and vague, providing an object lesson in how not to react during a crisis. This lesson applies to communications and public relations professionals at companies big and small. Apologizing with the right language to the right people, taking responsibility at the very top and quickly resolving problems can all go a long way in fixing damage—and protecting a brand’s reputation from the start.

What Will Happen Next?

The short-term damages of a scandal can mean litigation, settlements, layoffs and new hires. It means some customers will get scared and close their accounts and others will think about it but ultimately take no action. The stock will likely fall, but if the company gets itself on track, it will rise again. The long-term damages to the brand are another matter. Brand reputation is intangible and sometimes difficult to measure. It’s one more reminder that your brand and your company operations are not mutually exclusive. Your brand is the external perception, and you need to help make that perception as positive as can be.