Finding Content for your Email Newsletter

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This is part of a guest post I wrote for Marketing Roadhouse.

It’s happened again. Someone said, “Why don’t we start an email newsletter?” Everyone then loudly proclaimed this idea’s brilliance. Except you—the person who will make it happen.

Or maybe you’re a small business owner, and it was your own idea to regularly reach out to your customers through email marketing.

Done correctly, an email newsletter is, in fact, a great idea. It keeps you top-of-mind with your customers and prospects, helps build loyalty, and introduces your products to new audiences. But like so many other great ideas, execution is where the rubber meets the road—and where many great ideas fall flat.

Read the rest of this post at Marketing Roadhouse.

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The Illusion of Progress

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Modern staircase

I was struck by a phrase from this Harvard Business Review article: “the illusion of progress.” The article itself is about things we should all stop doing, including reading annoying things and making life too complicated; it’s a good read.

Like many people, I struggle each year with making resolutions that stick. It occurred to me: maybe I’m doing it wrong. Why not apply a traditional business goal-setting model to this year’s resolutions? Take your main resolution, and try making it SMART:

Specific – If your goal is “exercise more,” that leaves a bit too much wiggle room. Instead try setting a goal, such as run 3 times per week instead of 2, or finish a race. If you want to be more productive, list some specific ways you plan to do this, whether it’s blocking time for key tasks, a “not to do” list, or reducing the number of meetings you attend.

Measurable – If you want to run any race–5k or ultramarathon–you’ll need a training plan. Lay out how you’re going to get there, and track your progress. If you want to build your business network, brainstorm a list of ideas on how you will do this, then put them on your calendar. Find a “goal buddy” and keep each other on task.

Attainable – If you don’t exercise much now, a marathon probably isn’t attainable right away. Start small, and build. If your goal is a raise and salaries are frozen company-wide, it won’t happen no matter how much you deserve it.

Realistic – If you plan to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, be more productive, expand your network, stay in touch with friends and spend more time with your family this year, you might find that your goals conflict (unless, of course, you’ve found a stray DeLorean). The more time you spend at the gym, the less time you’ll have to spend cooking healthy meals. If you can’t pick just one goal, find ways to make them work together. Maybe spend time cooking healthy meals with your family, or exercising with a friend.

Timely – Can you reach the goal(s) you’ve set within a few months, or a year at most? If not, maybe your goal should be broken into smaller chunks, so you can make measurable progress sooner. Run a 5k this year, and imagine how happy you’ll be if you get to the 10-miler too. Instead of setting the goal “write a book” try “write a chapter a month.” It’s a lot less intimidating goal in that form, and you’ll probably make more progress.

Be sure to think about the reasons behind your goals. If your goal is to arrive at work 30 minutes earlier, it might help to think about why. Do you want to spend more time working on important goals? Arriving half an hour earlier without a plan for how this will improve your productivity will most likely just result in spending an extra half hour at work–the illusion of progress.

Track your resolutions like business goals this year, and see what happens. And remember, the same rules apply as in business: the more strategic goals you try to tackle at once, the more likely you are to fail at all of them. If you have multiple goals for the year, try spreading out the start of each, maybe one per quarter. That way, the first becomes habit before you tackle the second.

p.s. If you’re not sure what goals to set, you could always let someone else set them for you. I did this last year, and made substantial progress with my goal of relaxing (set by my husband), by taking yoga classes most weeks (every week wouldn’t have been realistic) and spending time reading on Sunday afternoons. By simply clarifying how I was going to get there, I was able to achieve my goal of doing more nothing.

What’s in your pantry?

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A shelf in April's pantry

Any cook needs a well-stocked pantry. From a few basic staples added to fresh ingredients, an imaginative cook can create dozens of dishes, using a variety of techniques and spices.

If you’re constantly struggling to find content to feed your various outlets–and who isn’t?–try looking in your pantry, your “shelf” of long-lasting content. The best way to do this is a communications audit.

A basic communications audit is an inventory of all your communication vehicles–print, web, social, intranets, email–anything you use to communicate with your various publics. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a simple spreadsheet works fine for small organizations.

An audit will help you identify that ancient can of sardines that needs to be tossed, and perhaps produce some unexpected treasures.

Some questions to ask once you have your list:

  1. Are these communications still reaching your audience? Or has the audience moved to another preferred method of communication? Look at open rates, page views, followers, likes, even how many people pick up that print brochure at a trade show. (For the latter, it’s not nearly as many as it was a few years ago. How else can you reach them?)
  2. What’s past the expiration date? You’ll probably find some content that’s a bit stale, or you might be spending time and resources supporting an effort that just isn’t getting eyeballs. Be honest with yourself, even if it’s your pet project. Know when to move on.
  3. What can be re-used? Often, you can repurpose content, even if it isn’t new. They key here is it isn’t new to you. For example, you might include a “featured question” in your newsletter, with a link to frequently asked questions on your website. If people are still asking the question, they aren’t looking on your website. Help them find the answer. Have great content people just aren’t seeing? Try cross-posting it.
  4. Are we consistent? Do your communications reflect the same voice, tone and messages? Are they the right ones? This is one area where small and one-person shops have an advantage. If only one person is writing most of your content, chances are it’s more consistent.
  5. What is my audience looking for? Look at your most popular web pages and most-liked content over time. Use the numbers to guide new content development. For example, if 25% of your website visitors consistently look at the Careers page, beef up that section, and publish your job openings in other communications as well.
Sometimes just making a list helps you view things differently. If you’re stuck for content, take the time to do a communications audit. You’ll probably find enough “new” content (or things you can stop doing) to more than make up the time, and spice up your communications.
p.s. For more on social media audits, check out Marketing Roadhouse.

Finding your flow

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Woman on beach at sunrise doing yoga (dancer pose)

If you’re wondering more about how to be a self-starter, check out Drive by Daniel Pink. In this book, he shares some good news: you can learn intrinsic motivation. It’s not necessarily something you’re born with. (Actually, Pink says we’re all born with it, but it becomes trained out of us by outdated school and work reward systems.)

The concept that most intrigues me in this book is “flow.” If you’ve ever read What Color is Your Parachute? you might recognize it. Flow is that feeling we get when we’re working on something engaging, and really making progress. When you are so engaged or focused you lose track of time.

Solving complex problems does it for some–engineers, maybe. Writing for others. But you don’t have to be creating something monumental to find your flow. Pink asserts that flow is something we need every day to feel fulfilled.

Ever have a hectic day at the office putting out fires, and attending to the problems of others? Unless triage is your element, you probably didn’t find your flow that day. And you might have gone home feeling discouraged, like you didn’t accomplish anything that day. (If you’re a manager, these days happen more often because it becomes your job to help others find their flow, usually at the cost of your own.)

So how do you find your flow? If you want more detail, read Drive, but here’s a simple approach. When you’ve been working on something for a while and feeling in the zone, jot it down. You might notice over a few days that you are most productive at a certain time, or while doing a certain type of task. It helps if the task challenges you a bit–not something that you feel is impossible, but a little outside your comfort zone.

I write for many reasons, but the one I couldn’t quite explain until now is flow. If you’re not finding enough flow at work, find it somewhere. Writing does it for me, and I don’t get to write nearly as much as I would like as a side effect of running a small communications shop.

If you enjoy running, you most likely experience flow during those miles. I can lose hours in the kitchen cooking; that’s flow too. But I also found it in a surprising place: editing a 184-page technical document. It was tedious work, but well-matched to my skills, and the time just flew by.

When you find your flow, protect it. Days when I need to be most creative, I usually work from home, so I can focus without interruption. A closed door doesn’t help much in my office (does it anywhere?), and I find that being in a different environment spurs creativity. (I wrote this post on the train to New York.) If you don’t find flow at work, find something outside work that gives you that sense of purpose. We all need balance in our lives. I just feel a lot happier when ink meets paper, and I can organize a few of the thoughts racing around in my head.

Flow is a personal thing, but it you’ve found it and don’t mind sharing, maybe you could help someone who hasn’t quite found it yet.

Rein in Your To-Do List

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Assorted scraps of paper, taped to a wall

I’ve read dozens of articles lately on time management (many of them on LifeHacker). When you’re in a one-person shop, you don’t have time to waste. You probably don’t even have enough time to do everything that needs to get done during normal work hours. (Anyone else feel like “normal work hours” have become any that you’re awake?)

First, if you don’t have a to-do list, make one now, or check out getoutoftherecat because you probably have the time. If your to-do list is a page long, and you’re writing in the margins, read on.

Here’s what’s worked for me.

1) Make a NOT to do list. I can’t remember where I first saw this tip, but it works. You might have to keep a list of everything you do for a week or month, then look at the low-impact things. Are you writing reports or intranet posts that no one reads? Can you reduce the frequency of one or more of your newsletters? Can you delegate things like making event name tags to the receptionist? Talk with your boss about what you’d like to stop doing, to more efficiently use your time, to be sure you have his or her support.

2) Keep a running to-do list, AND make a short one every day. I make a new running to-do list by category (media relations, website, social media, internal comms, marketing, reports, etc.) at the beginning of every month. Everything is on that list, and it’s overflowing the page at the end of the month. Every day I look at that list, and write down the top three things I need to do that day (fewer if they’re big, more if they’re quick). I write those things on a sticky note and put it on top of the main list.

3) Do at least one of your important things first. This is hard. Sometimes you can’t ignore the inbox. Go ahead and check it for anything that might be on fire. Do things that take two minutes right away and delete them. Turn off any pop-ups or sounds that interrupt you when you get a new email. Stop answering routine emails right away. Wait until you finish one of your important tasks, or take a break.

4) Filter certain emails into folders automatically. I have folders for industry news, Google alerts, communications/PR news, conference notices, LinkedIn and Twitter, among others. Set aside no more than an hour a day to skim them, most important first. Stop when the time is up, and read the others tomorrow (or not at all). If you’re compiling events and industry news as part of your newsletter, keep a Word doc open in the background while you skim the news, and put potential content in your newsletter file. Delete as you read. Unsubscribe from the emails that rarely provide useful content, or that you receive in other ways, like RSS.

5) Be prepared to scrap your whole plan. If TIME magazine calls, you have to drop everything. (This happened to me in the first couple months of one job.) Your priorities are going to come second to the needs of your boss, reporters on deadline, and at least a dozen other possible scenarios. PR is nothing if not unpredictable. On the plus side, it’s hard to get bored in a one-person shop.

I’d love to hear what works for you.

Myth: To Succeed in PR, You Must be a “People Person”

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Five brightly colored martinis on a white background

Today’s Get Stuff Done Tuesday tip is a myth-buster. Why? For the longest time I thought I was the only introvert working in PR. Then I met a whole bunch of smart people who taught me otherwise.

When I taught PR writing to undergrads, one of the first things I asked them was how they decided to go into communications. Inevitably, there would be at least a few young women who cited Sex and the City’s Samantha as their motivation. They were in it to be glamorous.

While most PR jobs offer you the chance to attend swanky events at least once in a while, there’s the part that no one really talks about. You are usually the person who has to plan the swanky event. So while everyone else is enjoying the wine and hors d’oeuvres, you’ll be crawling around in your cocktail dress underneath a dusty stage looking for an audio cable. Or schlepping ice buckets from the kitchen. Or triaging the parking lot because your volunteers didn’t show.

At least 99.5% of event planning is not at all glamorous, and no one ever sees it. (That’s a sign of an event done right, by the way–you have no idea who’s behind it, but it just flows. More on this in a later post.) PR is not about the glamor. And if you’re making anyone look glamorous, it’s your boss, or your client.

Introverts make the best PR people because we don’t WANT the spotlight. We’re happy pulling strings behind the scenes to cast it on someone else. And we like to spend time alone, writing, which is still the most important skill in our profession. Take heart introverts–you are not alone.

p.s. If you see me at an event, please don’t mistake my shyness for stuck-up-edness. Half the people who signed my high school yearbook wrote, “to a shy, quiet girl” and the other half wrote “to a wild, crazy girl”–which do you think got to know the real me?