Misleading Titles

I clicked on the headline for the online news source: “110 Arrested at (company name) HQ.”

The headline definitely got my attention. It sounded like a story about a massive legal or financial breakdown in a large corporation. I couldn’t imagine what had transpired to cause so many employees to be arrested at one time.

The page I landed on had a different headline. One key word was different. “110 Arrested Outside (company name) HQ.” Now I was reading an article about protesters outside a corporate headquarters prior to an annual meeting. The word “outside” implied a very different story than the word “at.”

The original headline was effective in that I did click on the link. However, once I landed on the article, I felt misled as a reader. The article wasn’t what I expected.

Titles matter – for books, magazines, articles, web content. Titles should draw the attention of the reader, make the reader pause long enough to want to know more, and inspire the reader to action. However, a title also has to deliver on its promise. Once the reader picks up the book, opens the magazine, reads the article or web content, they want the title to deliver the story that they were promised.

Great titles are intriguing and compelling; and great titles truly reflect the story behind the title.

Still Learning

I am attending a professional conference next week, and I am excited to learn from experts and peers in the areas of editing, writing and design. I still remember my first professional conference many years ago—I was super-nervous because even though I had the title of “editor” and produced a magazine that the target audience appreciated, I had come to editorial work through a different career path and I was afraid that I would be found out. Everyone else seemed to have degrees in English or Journalism, while my degree was in Economics. Even though I had work experience and on-the-job training in communications, I felt “other” and “less than.”

At that first conference, I swallowed my ego, bravely asked questions and connected with peers. I learned from the keynote speakers and workshop leaders; however, the most important realization was that being willing to learn and surrounding myself with people who have a learning posture is an essential life skill. The best learning over the years has come informally, as I am willing to ask questions of my peers and to listen closely to their answers – “How do you do this?” or “Why did you decide on that strategy?” The answers may be different for me and my situations, but understanding process, thinking and possible outcomes is essential.

Great editors who have been on the job for years are still learning, because what makes them great is their openness to new ideas, new ways of work, new technologies and new media. Every new project I take on, every new client I meet with, every new media platform I test provides opportunity for learning and growth, if I am willing to ask questions and think broadly.

When Michelangelo was 87 years old, he is reported to have said, “Ancora imparo” which means “I’m still learning.” I would love to be able to say that each year, for as many years as I have life and breath.

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.

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.

Editorial Strategy: Flexibility vs. Planning

Editorial decision-makers are continually faced with the issue of how strictly to stick to an editorial plan and how often to veer from the plan to incorporate relevant content that connects with events in the world. With print publications, editorial planning ensures that the organization holds its voice in a consistent way. However, with social media and the need to be connecting daily with constituents via Facebook and Twitter, an artful combination of flexibility and planning is essential.

The planned aspect of content is a way to cover a variety of topics that all relate to the core brand, without neglecting some important aspect of the organization. The flexible side of content management means that there needs to be space within the plan to respond to occurrences in the greater community that impact constituents. An organization that doesn’t have any flexibility in content can be seen as irrelevant. At the same time, an organization without any content planning discipline can experience voice creep and lack of clarity on key messages.

For instance, when a news event occurs that impacts an audience segment, people expect an organization to comment on the event. If everyone is “talking” about an event in social media, and it relates to your constituency, but you aren’t talking about it, then you are not being relevant to the conversation. At the some time, some regular portion of organizational content online should not just follow news but to create news and content that people will start talking about. Planned editorial content spread across time is the way that your organization can shape and drive the conversation, putting forth content consistent with the values and goals of the organization.

The art of editorial content management is in the careful balance of flexibility and planning. One without the other is either irrelevant or undisciplined. Wise editors balance flexibility and planning, and are continually evaluating past messages for what they contribute to the overall organizational content strategy.

Politics of Editorial Content

In an ideal world, editorial judgment is based on intersection of the needs of the audience, the goals of the organization and the merit of the content. However, from time to time, there are other factors that enter into the editorial grid. An article or topic that would not be used based on needs, goals or quality might be published based on who wrote the article. For instance, a relative of a board member or donor might write content that needs to be published, even if it wouldn’t make it based on objective criteria. Or a high-profile author who can bring a new audience to a publication might write something that wasn’t what the editorial team was expecting. The editor can’t reject the piece because of who wrote it, and it even gets tricky asking for too many revisions. So the editor runs the piece and hopes for a positive response.

Editorial politics was a topic of discussion during a break at a conference where I interacted with peers in the industry. We came up with a variety of ways to minimize the negative aspects of including such content. One idea was to limit word count on such “must publish” pieces and put something else compelling on the same page. Design is another way to spice up an article that is mediocre. By adding strong images, the,  page has more appeal. Sometimes the addition of a side-bar can clarify content that is vague. Finally, we just put it in the publication and hope that the strength of the other 95% of our content carries the reader interest.

It is easy to say that you would never compromise your editorial objectives by including content that didn’t meet stated criteria. But in the real world, there are a variety of constituents and decision-makers who have influence. Certainly, if you compromise quality regularly and extensively, you risk losing your audience. On the other hand, if you are stubborn about not including any friends of the organization in print, you can also risk losing influence as an editor. Navigating the politics of publication is a balancing act, but fortunately, in my experience, it is an infrequent issue.

Packaging Matters

As an editor, it is easy to stay focused on the importance of every word written or spoken in a project. I am a word person and crafting clear and compelling content is my specialty. But I have to admit that words are not the only component of effective communication. Graphic design is essential in engaging readers in a magazine or brochure. However, the words and images are delivered in packaging – either physically printed or electronically displayed. Today, I want to focus on the physical packaging that delivers content to end users.

Rather than recycle advertisements that arrive in my mailbox, I often use them as object lessons in communications. Recently I received a fancy brochure from a local realtor trying to convince me that I should call him if I was interested in selling my home. I’m not interested in moving, but I was interested in the packaging for his brochure. It was poly-bagged with a glued flap. The only problem was that the glue on the flap was so strong that I couldn’t actually open the packaging without finding a pair of scissors. Packaging is tricky – for a mailed brochure, the packaging must survive the postal service processes. But having an end-user actually open the packaging to read the brochure is important.

My suggestion to the realtor (if he is interested) is that the next time he invests money in a mailing, he should ask his mail-house and print vendor for a sample of the packaging. Descriptions of USPS approved poly-bagging are impressive, but actual samples that a project manager can touch, feel and open are important.

As an editor who manages a variety of projects, I can’t be an expert in everything, but I can surround myself with other experts. I enlist graphic designers who create compelling images; and I work with printers and mail-house vendors who advise on best-practice packaging and provide samples of mailing materials. Because if the content is excellent, the design is excellent, but the customer can’t open the package to receive the information, or if the package is ripped in the mail, then the communication is incomplete.

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