Breaking the Rules

This week I received a “flyer” for a new grocery store that is coming to town. In contrast to most grocery store marketing materials that emphasize graphics and include product pictures and white space, this flyer was full of dense text and few pictures, printed on cheap paper. Reading through their flyer made me wonder when it is a good idea to break communications rules, and how content and design principles evolve.trader joes flyer

Why Open Design over Dense Text?

Contemporary design offers a way to catch the attention of an audience. Since you are competing for attention, and you only have a few seconds to connect with an audience, an image that grabs attention is used to draw the reader to your message. This design emphasis has evolved in recent years, to the extent that design is often more important than content in connecting with an audience.

Having the Confidence to Break the Rules

So why are the marketing professionals for this grocery store chain breaking the rules of marketing communications? They have established their brand identity as different from the average grocery store experience. So from that basis, it makes sense that their communications vehicles set them apart from other stores. This is a confident move that can produce great results if it works, but if you try to be quirky and fun but aren’t quite, then your marketing materials might look more pathetic than proudly unusual.

Deciding how to communicate your brand identity and the tone that works for your organization is based on knowing your audience and evaluating your results. Even if you don’t have a huge research budget, you can show samples of marketing materials to people in your core customer audience and evaluate their reactions to your materials, adjusting messages as necessary.

Finally, the ultimate measure of any marketing communication is the result that it produces. Are your messages creating loyal customers? If your customer base is growing, then your messaging is working, whether it follows the rules or not. In the case of this grocery store chain, people in my state have been waiting for years for them to arrive on the scene and the social media buzz related to their store openings is huge, so even though they break the rules, it is working for them.

Love Your Audience

Do you love your audience?

When you read that statement, does it seem too strong? That “love” isn’t a term that you use so freely?

How about value and respect? Do you value and respect your audience?

Creating high quality content takes time, energy and focus. And the more you value and respect your audience, perhaps even love them, the better your content will be. Because you will care about the content you create.

As writers and editors, sometimes our eyes slip off our audience. If you don’t like your audience it is easy to move into a subtle “us/them” mentality and your communications suffer. A thin veneer of dislike separates you from your audience. You may move into a patronizing tone because you know better than “them.” The result is disengagement. Your audience can sense when you make this subtle shift, and you are no longer communicating because your audience will stop listening.

You can still challenge your audience to stretch and grow through your content, while respecting where they are right now. You value them enough to want to challenge them to be a better version of themselves. But your challenge has to start with respect.

Your best communications work will occur when you care, like, value, respect and yes, even love your audience. Honestly evaluate where you are with your audience as you step into 2014. They are worth your best effort – and your highest regard.

Please Edit Your Holiday Letters

The post office is still in business, so it’s holiday letter season. Even though we know way too much information about many of our friends from frequent social media updates, some of us still engage in the holiday letter tradition. In the spirit of sharing professional editorial advice, here are a few tips that will take your holiday letter from good to great:

  • Make us laugh – if you have the gift of writing humor. Otherwise, don’t try to write a funny Christmas letter. My years of magazine editing yielded many more rejected “humor” articles than accepted ones. Humor is a gift. If you don’t have it, choose a different genre. We have one family friend who writes the best humor letter ever. Only one.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, and the trend toward photo collages is welcome in holiday letters. However, a few words are helpful for your readers. Since some of us can’t remember the names and ages of your children, it’s OK to put captions on the pictures. Also, we might be curious about the mountain or monument you are standing in front of, so please label it.
  • If you think your letter sounds too sales-oriented, then it definitely is. If you launched a new business this year, you can mention it in one sentence in your letter. However, this is not the place to give special offers or sales pressure. I will mention my website in my Christmas letter. “I launched my freelance website at” Enough said.
  • One page please. A half page is even better. If your holiday letter is two pages (or longer) then no one will read it, except your Aunt Mary. Slash everything but the core message. If you are playing with font size to make it fit on one page, cut more words. Hire an editor if you need one.
  • You children undoubtably had many fine accomplishments this year. You want to share them all. Please share only one. And your friends with average children will appreciate it if you find something other than accomplishments to write about. “Even though Joey sold an app to his third grade classmates, he would rather spend his free time on the couch eating potato chips.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

The Simmering Part of the Creative Process

The “simmering” step of writing and editing is essential to high quality content. Over the years of editing many different writers and producing my own content, I have found that the most overlooked parts of the process are the thinking and simmering stages. The creative process tends toward mediocre when rushed or pushed.

1. Thinking time. My best writing comes after I have had time to ponder a topic. Often I will put a block of time on my calendar a week before an article is due. This gives me time to clarify the topic, mull over approaches, talk to other people, consult experts and think about the audience. This warm up time results in a cleaner first draft.

2. Get it down. The first draft isn’t the place to stress over word count or finesse. Start writing and get the big idea and take away down clearly. Often this draft is longer than necessary and includes some extra ideas or rabbit trails.

3. Let it sit. Overnight is preferable. If I have to turn writing around the same day, a stroll around the office, slowly sipping a cup of tea or switching to other tasks for an hour can give some objective distance from the content.

4. Read it critically. Is the big idea and take away clear? Is there a strong beginning? Is there extraneous material? Pay attention to word count. Edit ruthlessly. Just because I love all my words doesn’t mean that they are all memorable for my reader.

5. Let it sit again. The next revisions will be much better if I again get some distance from my work.

6. Go through one more time. Make every word count. Pay attention to construction, clarity, grammar, voice, tense.  Think about the reader. How will they process what I am writing?

7. Give it to an editor and expect revisions. They are not as wed to my precious words as I am and they hold an overall vision and perspective that I cannot see. Trust them and follow their lead in revisions.

When I receive content from writers who stopped at step #2, I make suggestions and send it back. My readers deserve more time and thought than just a few ideas typed into a file. They deserve finely crafted content. And that takes simmering time, thought, energy and skill, by both writers and editors.

Bifocal Editorial Planning

Which issue is most important for an editor to focus on, the current issue or the next 3 issues?

The answer is both! Part of the art of being an effective magazine editor is to have bifocal vision. A great editor has to pay close attention to the details of the current issue of the magazine or newsletter, so that she can step through each stage of a quality editorial process. At the same time, she needs to keep some level of attention focused on the next few future issues in order to maintain consistently high quality in the magazine.

It is easy for an editor to get stuck in the present issue, because there is always some article that needs polishing, some layout that needs review, and some author who needs more attention. But an editor who can keep an eye on the future, while taking care of the present issue, will serve her readers with great output.

Here are some reasons that editors should keep some level of attention on future issues:

  • Some features take more time to develop than the usual editorial cycle. By thinking ahead to the next 2-3 issues of a magazine, the editor can assign research and pay attention to other voices on a topic. This will result in deeper and more thoughtful content.
  • Some articles will fit better in a future issue than the current issue. As an editor is looking through submissions, he can be evaluating whether a particular article is best for the current issue or if it would make a stronger contribution to a future theme. It is always tempting to push a great article into a current gap, but a patient, bifocal editor will consider the overall direction of content in both current and future issues.
  • Strategic editors take their readers on an intentional path over time. By planning out multiple future issues, the editor can offer a progression of topics to cause growth in readers.

It isn’t easy to keep enough focus on future issues during the pressing schedule of producing the current issue of a magazine. But an excellent editor knows how to allocate her time and brain power to cover both aspects of the job.

View a webinar that I taught for Magazine Training International on “Structuring the Editorial Process” that includes more information on bifocal editorial planning.

Filling Unexpected Space

In the editorial planning process, all the space in a magazine or e-newsletter is usually allocated to content, advertisements or in-house promotions. However, sometimes during the process, allocations may change. Perhaps an article that was planned for the issue is rejected during the initial review cycle. The article either wasn’t up to the quality level expected, or when all the content was reviewed together, it was repetitive or didn’t fit with the theme. Now, all of a sudden, there is an extra space in an issue and little time to fill the space.

Here are several options for unexpected space:

  • Keep a file of backup articles that are ready to go.
  • Have go-to writers who can quickly provide content.
  • Create a “resting space” with a quotation and an image.
  • Have a stock of in-house promotions already prepared.
  • Spread out design for an existing article.

Having a contingency plan for how to use extra space in a magazine or e-newsletter can result in higher quality outcomes, since alternatives are thought through in advance, rather than in a last-minute scramble.

Loyal Readers

A magazine provides a relationship between readers and content providers. This reader relationship is essential for a magazine to remain viable. Readers choose to subscribe to a magazine because it is meeting some need in their life, and once they choose to become readers, they have an expectation of what they will receive from the magazine. The same is true of digital content – websites, e-newsletters and e-zines.

Building the reader relationship and meeting expectations is one reason that magazines have a structure – so that loyal readers know which section to go to for short, interesting grazing material or their favorite columnist. While they expect fresh material in each issue, the delivery of content is in a package that feels familiar, like a trusted friend. The challenge for magazine editors and designers is to respect their relationship with loyal readers enough to continually strive to exceed their expectations – and to balance continuous improvement and creativity with the sense of familiarity and relationship that readers receive from consistency.

Here are a few ways to continue to freshen content within a consistent structure:

  • Include special thematic sections to provide fresh perspective and still leave room for columns and regular departments.
  • Stimulate reader engagement through advisory teams or surveys which can provide a fresh stream of ideas relevant to the audience.
  • Allow for surprises for readers. Every now and then make room for a new type of content, such as a song or artistic visual that fits into the editorial grid but provides a new genre for the reader to experience.
  • Revisit your structure and editorial grid every few years to make sure they still meet the needs of your readers.

Loyal readers who look forward to receiving their magazine or e-zine content will share their enthusiasm with their peers, who can also become loyal readers if the magazine continues to meet and exceed expectations.

Editorial Grid

Having an editorial grid simplifies the content development process, because it is clear what types of content should be included and what doesn’t fit in the grid and should be rejected. An editorial grid is developed based on a clear understanding of organizational vision and strategy, and the purpose of content within the organization. Adherence to an editorial grid is important for magazines, e-newsletters, websites, social media, books and any type of content. That doesn’t mean that every content platform within an organization will have exactly the same editorial grid, but differences in content tone, type and subject matter on various platforms should be based on strategic decisions about audience and purpose, not editorial whim.

Development of an Editorial Grid

The starting point for an effective editorial grid is a clear understanding of the needs of the target audience and the organizational purpose of content (such as to inform, instruct, inspire, motivate or other purpose).

Understanding the audience is an ongoing process, but includes conversations, focus groups, statistical data, anthropological research, continuous observation and listening. If an organization has several audience segments, then clearly understanding the nuances of each segment is important for making sure the segment perceives a strong affinity with the organization. Audiences change over time, so this process is not a one-time effort.  Editors and content writers should always be asking what the audience wants and expects from the organization, and how the content can meet and exceed audience expectations.

Clarity in the organizational purpose of content focuses the efforts of content creators and editors. Rather than a smattering of different topics, unrelated to each other or the organizational purpose, editors can seek the highest quality of content that specifically fits into the strategy of the organization. Such editorial discipline also means that readers know what to expect in terms of content topics, which builds audience loyalty.

Content Confusion

A magazine that I read from time to time has recently changed their editorial focus. They still emphasize home and garden topics, but they have added a few pages of fashion and makeup. These are not topics that I expect in the magazine and it is perplexing to me as a reader to have a few pages that don’t seem to fit the editorial grid. I don’t buy fashion magazines because those are not topics that interest me, but even if I was interested in fashion, I wouldn’t expect to find it in a magazine that has “homes” and “gardens” as the defining words on the cover. And if I was looking for fashion as a key component of content, I would want more than just a few pages.

Clear editorial guidelines based on both organizational strategy and audience understanding are essential for maintaining a consistent brand in all platforms of content.

Macro Editorial Review

Often editorial energy is focused on each individual piece of content, in an effort to emphasize quality and clarity. But periodically, an editorial team should step back and look at collective communications. Depending on the volume of individual pieces, such a macro editorial review should happen monthly, quarterly or every six months. The macro review looks at the overall tone, topics, voice and style of the whole body of content that an organization has produced over a period. This macro-level review is important, because it is possible to end up straying from the organizational voice and brand in a series of incremental content decisions. By pausing to look at the big picture of all the communications delivered to constituents over a period of time, such subtle drift can be detected and corrected.

Before embarking on a macro editorial review, it is important to establish a culture of quality improvement and acceptance of evaluation and review. Rather than negative repercussions and defensiveness, all the parties in the review need to be open to giving and receiving evaluations, with the goal of making the overall communications more effective.

Questions to address in a macro editorial review:

  • How does each individual piece of content contribute to the organization’s overall vision and mission?
  • How does content fit into the editorial grid?
  • Are there topics that have not been addressed often enough? Are there gaps which need to be filled?
  • Are there topics that are too frequent? Is there a need for more variety in content?
  • How does content on various platforms fit together (web, print, email)?
  • What are the best content pieces over the period of time? How can we produce more winners?
  • Which articles should not have been produced? How can we avoid lower-quality content in the future?

Macro editorial review processes can lead to increasing the overall quality of communication for an organization. Being open to giving and receiving evaluations on content sharpens the skills of the staff team and focuses everyone on communications strategy.

Editing Online Content

Online content is simple to post and change, but in many organizations, online content doesn’t undergo the same editorial rigor as print content. Sometimes fast-breaking news leads to inaccuracies in online content; however, some errors are due to poor review processes.

My state is currently experiencing wildfire season, and facts change as quickly as the wind. Is a fire at 500 acres, 600 or more? Some readers are interested in the general news about the fires, but for people who live in the fire zone, the particular facts are very important. Just today I read an online news article that had two different size statistics – the headline said, “Lime Gulch Fire Grows to 498 acres.” In the body of the article, the size was described as “more than 600 acres.” It is likely that a reporter updated the content of the story without updating the headline. This is an understandable mistake, except that even the teaser for the article clearly showed two different numbers. An error that even someone who isn’t an editor should be able to correct. And if a news site isn’t reliable with facts, then they are not actually serving their audience.

These are my suggestions for minimum standards in online content:

  • Spell check all content. This seems obvious but based on what I read online, this step is sometimes skipped.
  • Double-check all numbers, names and addresses.
  • Read content out loud. This step can catch incorrect words that spell check misses.
  • Re-read the headline, content and captions one more time.

These are definitely minimum standards. A better process, that is unfortunately not always planned for or funded, is to have fresh editorial eyes look at the content. A quality online process will include one person entering content and at least one other set of editorial eyes approving content before it goes live online. Sometimes just a few extra minutes can make the difference between errors and quality.

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