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Robot writers: the potential and perils of AI copywriting

Last year, campaign.co.uk published this article about how Goldman Sachs is investing in an automated copywriting startup. Naturally, this got all the human copywriters here at HN to wondering whether our jobs were about to be lost to robots.

Although the boss assured us that there were no immediate replacement plans, the question remains – does AI copywriting have a future in B2B marketing?

Come on… really?

Even in an age of VR, where the digital world is inching closer and closer to the physical, the ability of robots to take over creative jobs sounds a little far-fetched.
But it’s definitely being worked on; Google’s AI has written some eerie, haunting short poems, and has beaten a grand master at Go, widely believed to be the most complex game ever devised. And there are the incredible feats that IBM’s Watson is pulling off, from cooking up a storm to saving lives.

So why shouldn’t AI be able to match human writers when it comes to B2B copy?

After all, we can do quite a lot to define the sales funnel or buyer’s journey that we hope to move targets through. Our job is to match solutions and messaging to stated (or assumed) customer needs at various points on their journey, and both halves of this equation (solutions/messaging and needs) seem amenable to being specified for the AI.

We can also point to loads of examples of good B2B copywriting for AI to learn from.

And as I sit here with a cold while my computer perches contentedly on the desk, one of us seems rather obviously to be a far more resilient worker…

The rise of the machines?

But I’m not panicking — yet. Because what is possible in principle is perhaps not so much in practice — yet.

Rarely do we receive a brief that is completely unambiguous in intent and complete in every respect. Because, frankly, composing such a brief is time-consuming and our clients are busy people. So they’re looking for us to connect lots of dots by ourselves, and to clarify where necessary through the faster and more efficient process of having a conversation.

Asking even the cleverest computer to reliably identify gaps and then pick up the phone to ask questions feels like a very tall order right now. Maybe in a few years I’ll have to reassess, but right now I’m feeling pretty secure.

What would be cool is access to an AI copywriter to use as an additional tool in my copywriting toolkit.

I’m thinking of how Watson’s recipes work best when filtered through the judgement of a human cook. And of how machine translation can make the lives of translators easier, but rarely works well enough without human post-editing. I can see how a robot copywriter might help me think of options I’d not have found on my own, and that could help me become a better writer.

So bring on the robot copywriters; I’m not scared… yet.

Abridging quotes – how to do it properly

A great quote can give a piece of writing impact and emotional context, making it more compelling for the reader (as this case study demonstrates). But many people struggle to give you a quote that packs a punch in just a few words. If you don’t want your brochure, case study or presentation to lag, you may want to shorten a wordy customer quote. Sounds straightforward enough, but people get nervous about how to do it properly. So let’s take a look at abridging quotes.

Deleting words: the ellipsis

If you’re removing some words from your quote, simply replace them with an ellipsis (…).
For example:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Becomes:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic… you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Adding or replacing words: the square brackets

If you need to add words for clarification, you put square brackets around the words you’re adding. They can even replace the words you’re clarifying, like so:

Jon at HN says, “It’s fantastic because it’s so fast-paced and the clients are so varied; you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Could become:

Jon at HN says, “It [agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

Or

Jon at HN says, “[Agency life]’s fantastic … you’re always working on something new and exciting.”

See also: The importance of punctuation

Use with caution
Simple as it may be to abridge quotes from a formatting perspective, it’s important to remember that your abridged quote needs to still carry the same meaning as the full quote. Sometimes including or excluding one word too many can change the meaning of your quote. Revisiting our example above, changing:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic but challenging, because it’s so fast-paced and you’re always working on something new.”

To:

Jon at HN says, “Agency life is fantastic … you’re always working on something new.”

Isn’t right – you’ve changed the meaning of the original sentence from a qualified endorsement of agency life to a wholehearted one, somewhat distorting Jon’s views in the process.

Clarifications also need to be treated with caution to preserve the meaning of the sentence. Changing “Agency life is fantastic.” to “[HN] is fantastic” would, sadly, be straying too far semantically to be an acceptable reflection of what Jon said (though working at HN, of course, IS fantastic; the sentence is perfectly true).

Should you bother?

If you’re finding it hard to make a quote fit your purpose, one option is simply to rewrite it – as long as you make sure the person you’re attributing the quote to approves it. It’s common practice in B2B copy to convey the sentiment and meaning of what someone originally said, but using language that is perhaps plainer, or more specific, or more emotional than originally expressed — then get them to approve the new form of words. We generally find that those we talk to are happy to have their sentiments expressed more concisely and clearly, to make their point more effectively.

For more advice on tweaking your language to give it more impact, check out our blog on straight-talking (and discover why Simon Cowell and President Obama are more similar than you might think). Or get in touch and let us see if we can help you convert your lengthy prose into converting content.

Two cautions about the positive shift in B2B tone of voice

There’s a growing trend in B2B marketing that is often expressed in brand guidelines as ‘write the way you speak’ or ‘use a conversational style’. This signals a big shift in B2B tone of voice that I think is great news (for reasons given below). But I also think it’s worth keeping two things in mind as we embrace this change:

1. Context is everything.

2. A friendly tone of voice is no substitute for having nothing to say.

Why ‘write the way you speak’?
The traditional B2B voice — serious, formal, often long-winded — was all about building trust through institutional authority and heritage. But as marketing has moved online and become entangled with blogging, tweeting and other social trends, the old voice no longer does its job.

In a more social context, trust doesn’t derive from stiff, cold authority. It comes from openness, honesty and warmth. And this is why businesses increasingly want to be associated with a more plain-spoken, friendly tone of voice – even when speaking to other businesses. Most of our clients have been moving in this direction for some years, and the trend is picking up pace.

This is great news for B2B marketers and writers because, at long last, we have permission to treat our audience as human beings who respond to human qualities in writing. We can leave dull, convoluted language behind and tell stories that use a more varied range of tools to engage, educate and sell.

Be careful of context
My first caveat about ‘write the way you speak’ is perhaps too obvious to state, but for the sake of completeness, here it is. Clearly, people speak in different ways in different contexts. So which ‘way that I speak’ should I be using when I write a piece of B2B content?

What I should be doing, surely, is writing the way my audience speaks; or, more specifically, the way they want me to speak in the context in which I’m addressing them. A CIO may be quite sweary when he’s down the pub and be perfectly happy for his friends to swear at him. That doesn’t mean he’s happy for his bank manager to swear during a business conversation, or for an IT service provider to do so in a blog.

As shorthand for ‘be human, be genuine’, the advice to write the way we speak is just fine. But obviously brands need to provide more complete, specific guidance to avoid forms of communication that are inappropriate to the context and the audience.

Don’t forget the message
The second, more serious, point that I want to make about the shift in B2B tone of voice is this. We need to be careful not to become so caught up in an exciting new style that the marketing focus becomes all about tone rather than the message or content being conveyed.

However well we ‘write the way we speak’, if there’s not a worthwhile, interesting and valid message beneath the words, our audience will see right through us. After all, the whole shift in voice is driven by a more canny audience, looking for an honest and open connection. Content that dresses up marketing hype in language carefully crafted to sound friendly and transparent is the opposite of what they’re looking for.

But as long as we have something of substance and value to say, ‘write as you speak’ should help us to sound like human beings rather than faceless organisations when we say it. Which is a very good thing indeed.

How clarity can make your B2B messages more powerful

They’re an unlikely pairing we know, but Barack Obama and Simon Cowell have at least one thing in common — their straight talking. Barack Obama’s perception as honest, trustworthy and intelligent may have been crucial in his presidential campaigns, while Simon Cowell is both revered and reviled for his no-nonsense feedback to musical wannabes.

Their direct, confident approach plays a big part in building public confidence, as does their avoidance of rhetoric. An ancient art that was considered a noble accomplishment for many centuries, rhetoric is used to persuade and inspire. Unfortunately, nowadays it is frequently prefaced by ‘empty’ and is associated more with politicians and spin doctors than with compelling argument.

Although rhetorical flourishes can be useful in persuading someone to see things in a particular way, when they’re used on weak messages, they can appear disingenuous or even nonsensical — especially in B2B marketing. This example is from a software company advertising a seminar:

“…gathering leading minds in business intelligence and the analyst community for expert consensus on the answer. Industry experts will highlight how you can leverage business intelligence to provide visibility into business critical information.”

If you consider the message, all it actually promises is information about how to use information to get… information.

A better strategy in B2B copywriting is to get straight to the point in understandable plain English — talk about your product or service simply and clearly and you’ll be on the right track. Best of all, plain speaking for B2B messages is easy to achieve. Just follow these simple rules:

  • Use short sentences containing only one main idea
  • Never use a long word when a short one will get your message across more powerfully
  • Avoid jargon, clichés, acronyms and management buzzwords whenever possible
  • Favour Germanic words over Latin — say ‘each year’ instead of ‘per annum’
  • Be active — say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done’: active verbs bring a document to life and are a lot easier to understand
  • Be definite — if at all possible, use ‘will’ not ‘can’
  • Be brief — your readers will appreciate it, and there will be more of them

We’d love to know what you think. Share your ideas or jargon horror stories in the comments below, on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Shakespeare was a content marketer: 3 pieces of evidence

At this time of year, we know we aren’t the only ones bending the bard to our own devices— especially as this year marks the 400th anniversary of the great playwright’s death. But bear with us, because we genuinely believe that Shakespeare was… a content marketer. Content marketing may not have been ‘a thing’ back in the 1600s, but Shakespeare employed techniques that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s B2B marketing world. For your consideration, here are three pieces of evidence:

1: He made the complex comprehensible

There’s no disputing that Shakespeare was a master of illuminating the depths of human emotion and interpreting complex social situations for the audience. While B2B marketers rarely have to include cross-dressing princesses or matters of kinghood in their content, the heart of our work is no less about taking complex propositions and rendering them intelligible for our audience.

2: He was an entertainer

He may be a literary figure today, but Shakespeare wrote primarily to make money through entertainment. His prolific creativity was driven by a need to keep a steady income — so he was after the summer blockbuster, not the arthouse film. Our business audience might be more niche than mass-market, but the challenge of attracting and holding their attention is as pressing for us today as it was for Shakespeare back in the day. Nobody wants to plough through content that “will last out a night in Russia, when nights are longest there” (Measure for Measure, Act II scene i).

3: He spoke to multiple stakeholders

Shakespeare’s audience comprised newcomers and loyal followers, just as we have prospects and customers. And just as we have multiple targets with different needs (in tech marketing, for example, the CIO, the IT manager, and the end user), so Shakespeare wrote for both the general public and the nobility (even the royal family). He succeeded brilliantly in catering to their differing tastes – and also in flattering the rich so that they’d continue to patronise him (which was a good thing back in those days). Learning how to please multiple audiences is surely a task worthy of William himself.

Shakespeare for marketers

We’re continuing the fun with Shakespeare on our Twitter feed, where we’re asking you to identify the play that we’ve taken a popular quote from – with the quote altered to reflect the world of B2B content. So if you’ve got some time on your hands, why not head over to @hnmarketing and take a look?

Why is B2B content failing to engage customers?

Are you struggling to create B2B content that provides business value? If so, then you’re not alone — it’s been said that as many as 83% of B2B marketing leaders are failing to produce content that engages their customers. Here are four top reasons content fails to engage and some practical advice to put it right.

 

Nuturing_contentProblem #1: content focuses on early stages of the buyer’s journey
Picking up customers might not be a problem, but keeping them engaged through their decision-making journey is more challenging.

Solution #1: create nurturing content
Map your content creation to different stages of the journey, and focus on moving the customer from one stage to the next. Then you won’t only be creating content – you’ll be creating a relationship with your customers.

 

Document_strategyProblem #2: no documented strategy
You might have a strategy, but it’s different depending on whom you ask – and that means not everyone is pulling in the right direction.

Solution #2: document your strategy
It’s not rocket science. Get that strategy written down, get everyone on the same page and join up your approach to content marketing.

 

Get_human

Problem #3: stuffy content
“We’re a business and our content needs to reflect that. It’s what our customers will expect. But they just aren’t interested in our content.”

Solution #3: get human
Take the suit and tie off your content and turn it into something they’d want to read in the evening, not just at their desk. That’s partially about making it relevant to them, both professionally and personally, but also about the tone and style you adopt.

 

Say_something_newProblem #4: your customer already knows what you’re saying
Your customer does nearly 60% of their decision-making without talking to you. They’re smart and they’ve heard it all before.

Solution #4: say something new
Don’t settle for ‘interesting’ or ‘accessible’ content. Do your research and tell the customer something they didn’t know, which forces them to question their buying criteria. Perhaps they always assumed they couldn’t reduce their energy consumption, for example, when in fact you can help them with that?

 

You can download the full infographic here.

What are your secrets for creating engaging content?

Share your tips for creating content that grabs your audience and doesn’t let go on Twitter, LinkedIn, or in the comments section on our blog.

Listicle or Missticle? How to write engaging listicles

Listicles — bulleted lists of information presented as an article — are a great way to engage today’s time-poor readers. But have you ever stumbled on one that feels like it’s missed the point?

You know the kind: “Top 250 PR stunts” or “61 social media tips you don’t know about”. Listicles are designed to make the information they contain accessible, but there’s a fine line between achieving that and turning your readers off – sometimes before they’ve even clicked the link.

So how can you keep your listicle on the straight and narrow? We’ve come up with a few ideas to help your listicle avoid being a “missticle” (pardon the pun). To help, we’ve even arranged them in a list…

1: Get the numbers right
The best listicles keep to low numbers. Ten would be an absolute maximum, but five or three would be better. Though numbers like 13 or 9 stand out, they do risk giving people the impression you couldn’t decide which ideas to use so just chucked them all in. Even numbers are fine – as this listicle from hubspot shows.

2: Watch your language
If you have 30 points, are they all “top”, “significant” or “best”? It’s important not to over-hype your article. Your readers will see it a mile off and likely vote with their feet. Take this CMI article , for example – no hype; just a promise to list some useful tools that’s then delivered on.

3: Find the thread
This is the one that can make the difference between a good and a great listicle. Even though you’re writing a list, it’s still important to find an arc that draws your reader in and gives them a reason to read the whole thing. In a list of top social media tools, for example, you might start with tools that focus on curation and finding content and move through to those that are more geared towards analytics and review. Or, as we did in this listicle on barriers to social in business, start with a surface issue and then dig deeper with each successive point.

It does take a careful bit of planning to write engaging listicles – short and accessible as they are, they aren’t necessarily quick things to write. But once you’ve got the format working for you, your content will shine.

You’ve probably come across a variety of listicles. Why not share the best – and the worst – in the comments below, LinkedIn or Twitter?

Customer experience: setting the mood with unforgettable content

Have you had an unforgettable customer experience — one that stands out in your memory for all the right reasons? I still remember a call I made to Virgin Airways for two reasons: the hold music was Stevie Wonder’s Superstitious (what’s not to like?) and it was also great quality, unlike most hold music which sounds like it’s being played through a toilet.
In business, it’s not just what you say that matters — the quality and tone of your content can have a massive impact on the way your customer feels about you. Compare a datasheet that’s presented as a dense list of numbers, against one that’s well laid out and easy to understand. The first can leave you feeling none the wiser, while the other can be an absolute pleasure to read.
So how can you give your content this treatment and ensure it gets customers talking?

1: Critically assess the tone
Even if you have brand guidelines, there are things you can do to make your content engaging, lively and an all-round joy to read. Read it to yourself and see if you get bored; if you do, chances are your customer will too.

2: Make sure it’s clean
It might sound obvious, but weeding out spelling errors and grammar mistakes is essential — nothing looks worse than a rogue apostrophe or a typo in the title. It’s essential to do a spell-check, but you could also use a proofreader or engage an agency to create sparkling, word-perfect content.

3: Think about the user experience
The user experience (UX) is something we tend to talk about in the context of web design but it’s equally relevant for content. What information does your audience want to see up front, and where will their eye be drawn to first? Do the two things match? Does your video include lots of text? If they’re watching it on a smartphone, it’ll be too small to read. Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes can really make good content great.

Over to you
What do you do to give your customers an experience to remember? What’s the best treatment you’ve received? Share your thoughts with us in the comments box below, or via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Continuing the cycle: when the buyer’s journey is over

It’s a familiar scenario: someone has bought your product or service and is satisfied. A customer’s completed their buyer’s journey, you’ve made a sale and everyone’s happy.

But what about the next time? How do you ensure that you’re considered in the future? How do you stay at the forefront of your customer’s mind?

In short, the answer is: genuine interaction.

When we say genuine, we’re talking about going beyond product-focussed communications. Remember, your customer hasn’t just bought your services; they’ve bought into your company ethos, your approach to business and your brand personality. In fact, it’s likely that those were the factors that led them to choose you over your competitors. Keeping those aspects of you shining through – rather than what you’re selling – will go a long way towards your customer considering you the next time they have need of your services.

But how do you do that? At HN, we’ve been helping businesses continue conversations with existing customers for a while and we’ve seen the following examples have great success.

  • A quarterly update email lets everyone know what your company’s been up to. Perhaps you’ve announced a new partnership, or attended a recent industry event. Even if there’s nothing like that going on, you could always share your company’s latest blog post (if you haven’t got a company blog, then you’re missing out!)
  • Build an online community, be it a LinkedIn or Facebook group or a technical forum, and get discussions going among your customers. In doing so, you’ll create multiple opportunities to engage directly with your customers – showing your knowledge and passion for the issues that affect them. You never know, you might even learn a thing or two from them!
  • Organise a customer event where you can discuss issues and upcoming developments that you know they’ll be interested in. It doesn’t have to be a Gartner Symposium-sized event; even an informal get-together gives you a chance to interact on a personal level with your customers and plenty of opportunities to discuss further business opportunities if the time is right. And, anyway, nothing says thank you like free food.
  • Interact on social media by responding to mentions and posts or even reaching out to influential customers or industry figures. When done right, you can start and maintain conversations on key topics facing your customers, just as in a forum or at an event.

Have you tried any of these for your  sales cycle? If you already do these things regularly, how do they work for you? Let us know your experience by leaving a comment, or getting in touch via Twitter or LinkedIn.

The secret to making great Slideshare presentations

Here at HN, we’re big on recycling — and we don’t just mean paper and glass. We think that when you’ve spent time (and money) producing great content, it’s important to use it in as many ways as possible to get the best value out of it. We’ve written about this before in the context of presentations, but there’s one medium that we neglected to mention last time: making great SlideShare presentations.

SlideShare is wonderful because it makes it easy to share your presentation and so increase its lifespan, but a quick search reveals that many are tempted to simply upload a set of slides and forget about it. While that may feel like a quick win, it means that a lot of the value your presentation delivered — the value that came from the words you said around the slides — is lost. So what can you do to optimise your SlideShare presentations to make them stand out from the crowd?

1: Tell the story without a speaker Presentation slides are usually there to support what the speaker is saying. There’s no opportunity for that in SlideShare, so you have to be certain that your audience will get the message from the slides alone. If necessary, use more slides – as long as each is engaging, your audience will keep clicking (see point 3).

2: Make it visually appealing Again, presentations created to support a speaker may not place emphasis on visuals since they don’t want to distract the audience from the speaker. But on SlideShare, the slides are the focus. Use high-quality images (so they still look good on full screen) and use them liberally to support the story.

3: Keep them clicking With every slide you create, ask yourself this question: why should they be interested in what the next slide says? If they don’t have a reason to click on, they won’t. With that in mind, try to spread your arguments across multiple slides, creating an engaging story that your readers will want to click through.

There are lots of great SlideShare presentations out there, but we particularly like this one by Seth Godin that achieves all of the above and also gives some helpful, entertaining advice on… achieving all of the above!

Convert or create?
It may seem like it would be easier to simply create a new presentation for SlideShare, rather than repurposing what you have, but at HN we think otherwise. If you bear in mind all the uses to which a presentation might be put when you start to create it, you’ll find that repurposing it for different purposes and media will be simpler.

What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below, tweeting us or posting on our LinkedIn page. Or, in keeping with our theme, you can follow our adventures on SlideShare.