Images as Bricks, Text as Mortar – A New Model for White Papers?

White papers are meant to persuade and inform. What if you did all of your persuading with images and all of your informing with text?

Last week a freelance writer turning her attention to the world of white papers asked:

How important are graphics and diagrams to a white paper? I’m not very good at creating these. Do you think I should check out a few online tutorials on MS Word to learn how to use all those tables and charts?

I think about this a lot. A white paper without diagrams is silly, bordering on the oppressive.

It’s like children’s literature without pictures. In fact, it is children’s literature without pictures, because you run the risk of losing your readers to the demon of the abbreviated attention span.

I suppose that a real genius could tell the entire story with diagrams and use the text as filler. Most of us are not that good, but we realize that diagrams break up the text and make it easy on the reader, and we’re all in the business of making it easy on the reader.

Turning the White Paper Model on Its Head

Whether you’re a marketing manager responsible for providing images to your writer, or a writer responsible for delivering a decent read, diagrams count.

In fact, given that the intent of a white paper is to persuade and inform, consider using images to persuade and narrative text to inform. If writing a white paper is like building a wall, the prevailing wisdom is to use the text as the bricks and to use diagrams as mortar, holding the text together and supporting it.

On your next paper, make the diagrams work as the bricks. See how much of the story you can tell with images:

  • applications of your technology
  • quantified results from your customers in a chart
  • photos of your product in action
  • maps with statistics
  • flowcharts before and after your product is in place

Then use text as the mortar that binds each image to the next in transition.

You could turn the white paper model on its head, yet still persuade and inform readers.

Have you seen examples of this? Do you think you could pull it off?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photocredit: Elsie esq.

Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 4 of 4)

This is part 4 of a series on your internal preparation for a white paper project. Fourth: Who is going to write the white paper?

Once you have decided on the message you want your paper to convey, fleshed out your ideal reader, and determined your paper’s call to action, it’s time to find someone to start writing it.

Before you start banging out tweets in a writer cattle-call, stop and think about four factors in selecting your writer:

  1. Who will write the white paper?Internal vs. External – “We write our papers in house because we can’t find external people who know enough about what we do.”I hear this often from technology companies who know that the knowledge they want to publish is locked in the heads of key employees, and the only practical way for them to tell their story is with internal talent.This makes sense in some academic and research circles, and when a company is first getting its marketing act together, but who is more likely to notice (and tell you) that the emperor has no clothes: an insider or an outsider?
  2. Industry expertise vs. writing skill – “Have you ever written white papers on mobile eCommerce widgets before? Can you send me a sample?” The answer will almost surely be “no.”This is a good question if you’re looking for ways to disqualify a writer, but if you really need the paper written, you had better ask a different one: “Can you describe a project in which the subject matter was new to you, and you delivered a paper that made the customer happy?”We all want both industry expertise and writing skill – and sometimes think that our technical writers are ideal for generating marketing content – but if you can’t have both, buy skill and let the writer learn your industry. (See Will Kenny for more on this.)
  3. Content vs. layout – Do you want the writer to deliver the content alone, or the content plus layout?Most of the time, you’ll move white paper outlines and drafts around in a Microsoft Word or Google Docs file because it’s easy for reviewers to edit them. But a paper done in Word usually looks like a paper done in Word, so most companies want the final draft laid out in an application like Quark Xpress or Adobe InDesign. If you want that extra touch, you need to decide whether you or the writer will be responsible for it.
  4. Scribe vs. project manager/owner – “This project could go on for a couple of months, so we need somebody who can work independently and stick with it until the very end.”If that’s your case, you want more than just a scribe. A lot of ancillary work will go into the project, and while you may not see it coming, often your writer will. The most sensitive areas are contact with your customers and follow-up with internal reviewers; your comfort-level with letting somebody else handle these will determine whether you need a scribe or a project manager.

What factors do you apply in deciding who will write your white paper?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 3 of 4)

This is part 3 of a series on your internal preparation for a white paper project. Third: What is your paper’s call to action?

A good white paper is like a diving board.

  • You promote and preface it so that your ideal readers see the benefit in getting onto it.
  • You inform AND persuade, so that readers feel that they are drawing their own conclusions as they move down it.
  • You set it up so that those conclusions lead in one specific direction – to your category of product or service.

Once you’ve done all of this, and your readers are at the end of the diving board, what do you need to do next?

Tell Them How to Jump In

The last step in a strong white paper is a strong call to action. Just as it’s obvious what you need to do when you’re standing on the end of a diving board, you need to make it obvious to your readers what their next steps are. Since these can vary widely, the question to answer before you begin the project is:

What do we want readers to do once they’ve read the white paper?


  • Click here to register for our webinar on IT service management
  • Forward to a colleague via e-mail
  • Subscribe to our green energy newsletter or blog
  • Tweet/Digg this
  • Use our template to write to your congressman
  • Disagree vehemently with the author and post a comment
  • Agree vehemently with the author and post a comment
  • Rate the white paper with 1-5 stars
  • Do your own research on telemedicine reimbursement at these links

An Integral Part of the White Paper

Don’t just regurgitate your press release boilerplate on the last page of the white paper or give an info@ e-mail address. This is an opportunity to use your valuable content to cultivate a following and generate momentum.

Also, this call to action should be integrated to the white paper and to the rest of your marketing landscape. It should reflect your messaging platform or creative brief, and it should hitch the white paper firmly to the surrounding campaign.

“For more information, contact Sales” need not apply. Tell your readers how and why to follow you, and give them a good reason to do so.

How do you get your readers to dive in?

Next: Is the writer up to it?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 2 of 4)

This is part 2 of a series on your internal preparation for a white paper project. Second: Who is the ideal reader for this white paper? Get ready to dissect the persona.

Too many companies underestimate the importance of this step in the white paper process—determining the ideal reader. When this step is skipped, the result is a white paper that tries to do too much for too many people and ends up boring most of them. Don’t let that fate befall your white paper project.

Do some homework on your ideal readers and be sure that your paper floats their boat. This kind of homework is akin to developing a buyer persona, which David Meerman Scott describes as

a distinct group of potential customers, an archetypal person whom you want your marketing to reach. Creating [content] based on buyer personas gets you away from an egotistical site based on your products and services (which nobody really cares about, after all). What people do care about are themselves and answers to their problems, which is why buyer personas are so critical for marketing success.

Your white paper needs to be valuable content. For that to happen, you need to think about what’s valuable to your reader. You can’t just publish a few thousand words of text that make you feel good and assume it will be read.

Characteristics of Your Ideal Reader

You can dissect your notion of the ideal reader with a few different knives:

Which hat are they wearing? Your company always has a variety of audiences with a range of priorities you may not be able to accommodate in a single paper:

  • Investors want to see that you have studied, understood and addressed the business problems in your industry.
  • Engineers need to integrate your product, so you need to convince them that it won’t blow up in their face.
  • Prospective buyers want to know what you’re promising them, and how you’ll make good on that promise.
  • Existing customers will buy more from you if you’re demonstrating technical advances.
  • Journalists race against deadlines and appreciate content that fits their publications.
  • Analysts want to know how your products fit in the industry landscape so they can describe it to their own audiences.

Where are they in the sales cycle? A white paper, or similar non-promotional content, is a good tool at any given point in the sales cycle, but it’s hard to write a paper that will work at all points in the sales cycle. Papers that comprehensive tend to buckle under their own weight, so consider different flavors of white paper:

  • Market introduction – I’ve spent jillions of dollars on travel for my sales managers, and now I’m thinking about moving more customer contact to the Web. The right paper will arm me with the vocabulary and concepts I need to figure out whether it’s a sensible move.
  • Business benefits – I’m ready to make a business case to my execs and to my customers, and this paper will arm me with a cogent rationale.
  • Technical benefits – My IT department needs to weigh in on the security and infrastructure around this change, and they have an entire set of their own questions that need answers.
  • Thought leadership – I want to work (and keep working) with smart people, so that I look smart. Tell me what your crystal ball tells you.

Which questions are they asking? This is your stepping stone into the meat of the white paper, because the paper must offer some kind of answer.

  • “You mean that’s possible?” In the early 1990s, I worked for a software company that doubled disk capacity using software. We spent a lot of time answering exactly this question, as people were trying to get another year out of their 30MB hard drives and didn’t want to have to upgrade hardware.
  • “How much will it cost/save me?” The paper that answers this question is probably the most useful sales tool. Help your ideal readers make their own calculations. And don’t fib.
  • “How did you do it?” Once I interviewed a room full of engineers about a project to convert a hydraulic application to an electromechanical one. “If you were reading a paper like this,” I asked, “what would you want to know?” Without missing a beat, the lead engineer replied, “I’d want to know how we did it.” While you have to be careful of what you put into such a paper, it goes a long way toward your technical credibility.
  • “What’s the Next Big Thing?” Speaking of credibility, a good thought-leadership paper answers this question and gives readers insight they can use to impress their boss.

Weld the Ideal Reader to the Paper

Once you have identified your ideal readers, put their job title into the title of your paper. For example:

  • 5 Things Non-Profit Marketing Managers Need to Know about Social Media
  • 3 Ways Wireless Operators Can Use Personalization to Give Customers What They Want on the Mobile Internet
  • How Translation Managers in Retail Keep Up

How do you profile your ideal reader? Next: What do we want readers to do once they’ve read the white paper? John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Before You Start Your White Paper Project, Ask These Questions (Part 1 of 4)

This post is part 1 of a series on the homework you need to do before you start on a white paper project for your organization. First: What message do we want to convey?

Have you ever painted anything: a door, a bedroom, a house? Did you keep track of your time? Did you notice that you spent most of your time in preparation, and that the process of applying paint actually went pretty quickly?

White papers are not much different. Organizations that have done all the prep work and established a rhythm and process for marketing content can keep white paper projects rolling without much ado.

But companies still getting their feet wet with this type of persuasive, informative content should do the prep work so that the process of writing, reviewing and approving the paper goes smoothly.

This is a series on the questions to pose and the answers to get when starting a white paper project.

1. Do we agree on what we want the white paper to convey?

Not “What will the white paper convey?” but “Do we agree on what we want it to convey?”

In the case of a technical benefits paper, this is usually easy. Our paper needs to:

  • describe our new approach to trapping spam at e-mail gateways.
  • explain the advantages of electro-hydraulic over electro-mechanical motion control.
  • show our technique for evaluating both bond and derivative strategies in a single framework.

Even if three of us are reviewing the drafts, it will be obvious to us whether the paper accomplishes that goal.

With a business benefits paper, however, this is not always so clear, because the writer must align the paper with other landmarks around the company (some of which we haven’t gotten around to putting in place yet):

  • What’s our unique value proposition: that we’re cheap or that we’re effective?
  • Do we have messaging in place that the paper will support? Which shall we emphasize: our benefits to franchisors or to franchisees?
  • Is our sales team trained in the kind of sell that will make the best use of a white paper? Or are we just going to hang it out on the Website and hope people grab it?

Finally, in the case of a white paper designed to convey an organizational transformation or demonstrate thought-leadership (see my scoffing about that elsewhere), all bets are off. Opinions will vary from one end of our C-suite to the other:

  • How much should we tell people? Do we show them warts and all?
  • What do we want the moral of the story to be?
  • Who is the final arbiter of what goes into the paper (i.e., who’s the boss)?

Reaching agreement will take some time and work, but it helps ensure that the paper meets the needs of the greatest number of stakeholders. You don’t usually need to undertake this soul-search every time you want to start a paper, but you should weather it at least once the first time, and canonize your answers for future projects.

What are your thoughts?

Next: Who is the ideal reader for this white paper?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

This is why you’re a social media loser

[guest post originally published on Mark Schaefer’s blog]

This week, I phoned my neighbor and favorite instructional designer, Gail Dana, to tell her about yet another social media presentation (YASMP) I’d seen advertised.

“Gail, do you get social media?” I asked her, italicizing the verb.

“Sort of,” she replied, “but I think it’s worthless. Or at least, I hope it is.”

“I know what you mean. A lot of us don’t know quite what to do with it. Anyway, wanna go listen to another young person try to explain it to us?”

Gail was up for that, so we drove across town to attend Melodie Tao‘s presentation here in San Diego, “Social Media Design Techniques to Engage your Customer.”

Melodie gave a breathlessly energetic performance describing Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and even Foursquare, outlining design ideas for your presence in social media.  She described using social tools to enhance traveling, studying, spending time with friends, and accomplishing work tasks. I figured I must have done a lot of the same things at her age, but without recourse to social media. In fact, I traveled the world for four years and made only two phone calls home in all that time (one was a wrong number because my parents had moved).

It got me thinking about my blogs and my newsletter and my LinkedIn profile and the time I spend wrapped around the Twitter axle when suddenly I had …

My Social Media Epiphany

I figured out why my social media efforts include so much head-scratching after all this time:  I’m in Category 4!

While Melodie paused for a hurried gulp of water during her speech, I managed to wrap my brain around the factors that go into social media winning and losing. Four categories occurred to me in the space of about 2.5 seconds, and whenever I can think that fast, I’m usually right.

Category 1: The Natural Networkers. We all know people like this, people with a seemingly boundless circle of friends. Attracting and retaining this circle is second nature to them. They don’t even call it “interaction;” it’s just what happens when they’re awake. They’re drawn to polls, giveaways, contests, coupons, comments and retweeting in their offline life, so doing it in a browser or on a phone provides an extra channel of exhilaration.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to connect to and build relationships with other people.

Category 2: The Geeks. Not strictly geeks, but left-brain, analytical personalities who see the patterns in keywords, practice SEO copywriting to apply them and understand the science behind building an audience and moving it from one point of engagement to the next. The tools of social media resonate with and challenge them. They figure out how to make money using these tools to build and distribute the right content.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to figure out how the lawn mower works, then turn it into a mini-bike, then a go-cart, then a fishing boat. (And get us to pay a nickel to ride along.)

Category 3: The Hemingways. These people are the ultimate raconteurs. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing online; if we stumble onto something they’ve written, we drop everything and read it. They write crisply, then infuse their writing with the story of their own interesting life, they make us stop and think and actually click on the link to the story they refer to. They write the posts that make the young girls cry… They don’t need SEO techniques; people retweet and forward their stuff because it’s just such damned valuable content.

Social media is an online extension of their innate ability to tell a story that resonates with us, the kind nobody interrupts with, “Yeah, well that’s just like the time I…”

Adrift in the Long Tail …

Now, if you’re fortunate enough to live in more than one of the preceding categories, you knock the cover off the ball. Long may you run. But let’s not forget the rest of us in …

Category 4: Social Media Purgatory. We start a blog, stick with it, and do as much as we can to promote it, considering we’re not in the other three categories. We have a Facebook and LinkedIn profile, we tweet from time to time, we have between a few dozen and a few hundred followers, and we’re adrift in the long tail. We read the advice and attend the webinars of people in the other three categories. We see how people turn tweets into interaction, and interaction into relationships, and some relationships into a career, but it’s a long way off for us, and besides, we have our day job.

Social media is an online extension of our innate ability to lean out on the carousel and reach for the brass ring. We don’t quite grab it, but we congratulate ourselves for staying on the painted pony and trying hard.

Of course, it’s entirely up to us to spend the rest of this life (and maybe a couple more) in social-media purgatory. But social media and its tools will nudge some of us out of Category 4 and into one of the other categories, in the same way that the Harry Potter series inspired hardened non-readers to get through 3400 pages, or that Microsoft PowerPoint has instilled in timid people the nerve to present in front of an audience.

So, on the way home from Melodie’s presentation I bounced my newly found taxonomy off of Gail. In doing so, I recalled a line uttered by the hapless Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, scratching his head at the difficulty that rich people find in connecting to one another:

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”

Pick whichever set of categories makes the most sense to you, and stop being a social media loser.

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

Review Loops Made Easier – Part 2

What takes most of the time in getting content out the door? The review loops. Here are a few more ways to make review loops go as smoothly as possible.

yarn loops and review loopsIn my last post, I highlighted three ways to make review loops easier in your organization:

  1. Get all reviewers involved from the start.
  2. Ask your white paper writer to include the summary with the outline.
  3. When you send it out, tell reviewers what you do and don’t want.

I’ll finish up my list of 6 tips in this post.

4) Send drafts serially, not in parallel.

In the interest of time, you’re tempted to attach the outline or draft to email, copy all four reviewers and send it out to them in parallel at the same time. You’ll ask each of them to send his/her comments back to you in a day or two, then you’ll forward all of that to your marketing writer.

You’re better off sending a single, cumulative version to each reviewer in sequence. It’s better for the reviewers, better for you and better for the eventual outcome.

What happens when you don’t do that?

Your time-savings in parallel are really a false economy, because you run the risk of sacrificing quality. When you send a draft out for review in parallel:

  • reviewers are unable to see the comments other reviewers have made
  • you may end up getting back a heap of contradictory changes
  • either you have to reconcile conflicting directions or – worse yet – your writer has to reconcile them.

You’re better off sending it first to Sid, asking for his comments by the end of tomorrow, then forwarding Sid’s changes to Carole, then Carole’s changes to Bill, etc. Yes, I know it takes longer, but what you lose in time you gain in quality.

5) Politely persist in your follow-up, even when the reviewer is a customer.

Whether you work serially or in parallel, you’re still going to have to pursue some of your reviewers to get their comments to you. Obtaining these approvals is part of your job, so grin and bear it.

First, everything you send out for review should have a please-return-by deadline in bold type. That’s how people know that you’re serious.

If a reviewer is tardy in returning comments, I recommend sending a single email message within half a workday of your deadline. If you receive no reply within one workday, phone the reviewer.

After that, let office etiquette, politics and the relationship you have with your customer be your guide.

What happens when you don’t do that?

Your editorial schedule slips, and you start having trouble owning the very process these reviewers have begged you to manage.

Don’t hide behind email, though. If your email reminder doesn’t work, then pick up the phone. Leave a message if you have to, but don’t just keep lobbing email at your reviewer.

There’s really nothing wrong with polite persistence. In time, you begin to see whom you can trust as a reviewer, which is a valuable lesson.

6) Read and reconcile comments before you send them to the writer.

Do you read the copy that comes back from reviewers, or do you just turbo-forward it to your marketing writer? Yes, I know you’re busy, and you feel as though you’ve crossed the finish line by corralling all comments and changes and sending them to the writer, but you should have a look at them first.

In particular, scan the comments for food fights among reviewers.

What happens when you don’t do that?

When you don’t take the bull by the horns and reconcile points of contention among your reviewers, you put your writer between a rock and a hard place. If the reviewers haven’t managed to agree on messaging and substance, you shouldn’t expect your writer to do so. A smart writer will incorporate all the other changes, leave the discrepancies untouched and return them to you with a note.

After all, as a marketing manager, you own the relationship with your reviewers. It doesn’t make sense to hand it off to your marketing communications writer, does it?

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.

photo credit: WillowW

Review Loops Made Easier – Part 1

Review loops cause most of the delay when you’re trying to get content out the door. Here are few ways to make review loops go more smoothly.

Rope loops, review loops. Take your pick.On most content projects – white papers, case studies, contributed articles, blog posts, etc. – it’s the marketing manager who ends up getting the squeeze during content reviews.

“Why is this taking so long?” the stakeholders moan. “Sales needs this content to close the Flubdrubber account, and they need it yesterday.”

Alert readers have pointed out to me that there is plenty of glamour and enjoyment in most marketing communication duties, but they can’t find any at all in content review loops. I believe them when they tell me that, so here are a few ways to lessen the pain and shorten turnaround.

1) Get all reviewers involved from the start.

If you know that five different people are ultimately going to review the piece, get all five of them involved from the start. That means:

  • sharing the creative brief with them, if you have one (and if it’s mercifully short)
  • showing all five of them the outline you receive from your marketing writer
  • including all five of them on all review loops

What happens when you don’t do that?

“I don’t want to see anything until after it’s been through all reviews,” says Mr. Big. He is too busy to have a look at it when it’s a work in progress, but not too busy to demand huge changes when your finish line is in sight.

Maybe you save Mr. Big for the final review because you want to reduce the number of cooks in the kitchen. In that case, you’ll find comments from him that look like this:

  • “This is not the messaging we’re going with in the future.”
  • “Why are we mentioning Blunderbuss Industries? They told us that we were not to use their name.”
  • “I thought Bluetooth Smart was our secret weapon. We shouldn’t describe it in public-facing content.”

In other words, you squeeze yourself even tighter, you undermine your credibility with all of the other reviewers and you antagonize the writer. Bringing everyone in as early as possible helps you avoid that.

2) Ask your white paper writer to include the summary with the outline.

How do you know what the writer really took away from that one-hour interview with your director of engineering? She’ll prepare and send you an outline, but most outlines are just a box of bullets arranged in chronological order. How do you know she got the right message?

Consider a small but important insurance policy on your project: Ask your marketing writer for the introduction or up-front summary along with the box of outline bullets.

What happens when you don’t do that?

Without a summary, you can get all the way through the first draft before it dawns on you that the writer is off message. You can get as far as a first draft that describes your peer-to-peer networking technology accurately, but for deeply technical readers instead of the business-focused readers you intended. Or you may find yourself with a draft that reads more like a newsletter article than the white paper you wanted. That means a lot of re-work. And more squeeze. Taking the writer’s temperature at the outline stage helps you avoid that.

3) When you send it out, tell reviewers what you do and don’t want.

When you specify the depth of review and the kind of feedback you want from your reviewers, you make it easier for them to perform the task and easier for you to incorporate their comments.

Drop a few bullets on page one, labeled “Comments for Reviewers,” with guidelines such as:

  • “Ignore formatting. This draft is for review of content only.”
  • “Focus on ensuring that technical details in this draft are accurate.”
  • “Your concrete changes to the text will help us stick to our release schedule. Change tracking is enabled. Add/edit/delete text freely.”
  • “Use embedded comments only for unresolved questions.”
  • “Please return your marked-up copy by Tuesday, December 10.” (Always include a deadline when you ask for a review.)

What happens when you don’t do that?

If you send out a draft for review without specific do’s and don’ts, you’ll find that at least one reviewer has taken  it apart with a scalpel and tweezers and put it back together “the way it should be.” That may be beneficial, but most of the time it’s hopelessly vexing because marketing managers don’t like to open a review draft and see that somebody has changed it completely.

Also, you don’t want to get reams of comments with vague questions or topics for debate. In a draft, concrete changes are best. If Mrs. Big has an issue with messaging or disagrees with the project on some existential level, draft comments are not the best place to work that out.

Assume that your reviewers crave your leadership and direction. Give them specific instructions.

Start with those.

That’s plenty to get you started simplifying your content review process. In my next post, I’ll include more ways to make review loops easier.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.

photo credit: Joe Loong

What’s the Difference Between a Blogger and a Cartoonist?

Christmas decorations - Charlie Brown and Sally read the Sunday comicsIn at least one important way, there is no difference.

Both have to come up with something to fill their spot on the page. Every. Blessed. Day.

Longest running comic strips

Do you read the newspaper any more? I still get it a couple of days a week. I look forward to the comics – two full pages in the daily U-T San Diego – because they give me the chance to sit in spellbound admiration at the intestinal fortitude of the cartoonists.

Cartoonists have to deliver creativity and meet reader expectations every day of every week of every year for the rest of their career. Sure, they take time off, but you know it means that they’ve had to work extra hard before they leave and extra hard when they return to come up with clever content that we want to read and will enjoy. Every. Blessed. Day.

Some comic strips go on for decades, like Little Orphan Annie, Popeye and The Katzenjammer Kids. Don’t you ever wonder how Mort Walker can keep coming up with ways for Beetle Bailey and the Sarge to cross each other? Or how many more flat puns Johnny Hart can coax out of Wiley’s Dictionary in B.C.? Or how many exclamation marks Moy and Giella have used in Mary Worth’s unending life?

When the “single most important characteristic of successful content marketers is perseverance” (Joe Pulizzi), do you have the chops for that kind of longevity in your blog?

How do they do it?

Don’t ask me how they do it. This blog has nothing on The Wizard of Id, or on any of the long-in-the-tooth bunch, so I don’t have their secret inside of me.

I need to search the Web for it.

James Dodds III, creator at, notes:

I find that in my (non-brilliant) creative endeavors it pays to keep a notebook (or smart phone) to capture comic strip ideas, jokes, etc.

I find that I can only hold 2 – 3 ideas in my head before new ideas start “over-writing” them. If I write down the ideas as I get them I can go back and develop them at my leisure.

Write it down, you will forget.

Eternally on your guard

You may have to give up a little bit of your consciousness to be a long-term blogger or content marketer. You may have to be eternally on your guard, collecting and jotting down ideas here and there, because they won’t always come at the most convenient moment.

When a couple of good ideas pop into your head, and you know you’d better write them down before they slip into Lethe’s waters:

  • you may spend years hearing an inner voice randomly nag, “Oh! Gotta jot that down!”
  • you may miss your boss praising your writing in front of your co-workers.
  • you may not hear your spouse tell you how good you look since you’ve lost weight.
  • you may turn to ask the man behind you for a pen, just as your daughter scores a goal.

That’s the potential price of being eternally on guard for ideas to turn into content. It may be too high for you. You may not want to live that way, even temporarily. If so, you may just chuck the whole be-on-your-guard thing and publish whatever self-promoting drivel occurs to you, since nobody ever got fired for toeing the company line.

But what cartoonist would dare do that?

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”

photo credit: Kevin Dooley

Get My Attention in 20 Seconds. The Motown Way.

Tell your readers what they want to know, and do it fast. Here’s how Motown did it.

“Now, if you were hungry and had only one dollar, would you buy this record or a hot dog?”

In the early days of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr. would pose thmotown product marketingis question to his employees in their Friday morning product evaluation meetings. With dozens of songs per week competing for promotion, the hot dog test was one of Gordy’s pet criteria.

Translations for your marketing content:

  • “If you were in a hurry and your inbox was full, would you read this email or skip to something else?”
  • “If you had 15 minutes to do research, would you read this white paper or a competitor’s?”

The 20-Second Hook

“Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas was one of Gordy’s personal favorites. Why?

“My goal to hook people in the first 20 seconds was never accomplished better.”

Think about the songs (or movies or books or poems or blog posts – in short, the content) that grabs you from the very start. Nowadays, 20 seconds is an eternity, but hooking your audience is still what sells.


  • “How long will it take a reader to get into this article?”
  • “Start this article off with a compelling question or statistic or quotation – something that will grab me.”

Try harder next time

Motown didn’t abandon songs that failed the Friday morning tests. Their champions – the artists, writers, promoters or producers – would take them back into the studio for more work.

The Supremes were eager to release “Baby Love,” but Gordy didn’t think it started strong enough, so the group went back to the studio, increased the tempo and added the “Ooo-ooo-ooo” to the beginning. Within two months of its release, the song became the first number-one Motown hit in both the U.S. and Britain.

Translations for your marketing communications writers:

  • “I get lost in the middle of this paper. Make it easier for me to see the structure.”
  • “This case study is too much about us and not enough about the reader. Would you want to read that? Fix it.”

Why not pretend you’re in a product evaluation meeting at Motown for a few weeks and whip your content into shape? I can recommend that all you marketing managers read Motown: Money, Music, Sex and Power by Gerald Posner as you’re getting your Berry Gordy on.

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”