Long copy brief? Short copy brief? It’s your responsibility.

Let’s be honest: as with any service, there is uncertainty involved in copywriting, especially when it’s for a new client. It’s your job, as a copywriter, to take control and remove this.

The uncertainty is inevitable, and applies to both sides. At the client end, if they’ve never worked with you, or perhaps even with any copywriter before, then there’s naturally going to be some nervousness about taking on board a new supplier. Hopefully you’ll have been through some hoops before taking on the work – at least some emails, ideally a meeting or two – but even though your portfolio is great, and you’ve both enjoyed a coffee together, the client needs reassuring that they’re in safe, professional hands.

At your end, as a supplier, you really want to make sure you get it right first time. But by definition, the client doesn’t know as much about the copywriting process as you do – that’s why they hired you. So it’s your responsibility to guide them through it.

This is why the copy brief is so important. It’s the statement of what is needed, by when, and who has responsibility for what. As you develop your own working methods together the copy brief can become less important, but for those first few jobs together, it’s essential.

I have my own standard copy brief, which I use as a vehicle to help me guide clients through what’s needed. Sometimes I even write my own copy brief just for my own use, if I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny piece. I developed it during my time at Porter Novelli where, as half of the Writing Bureau there, I produced miles and miles of copy, almost in a production line, and this necessitated the discipline of the copy brief.

As well as the basic details around who the client is, contact details and so on, it covers several essential areas:

  • How many words? This is admittedly quite basic but you sometimes need to be quite militant on this one. There’s a tendency for clients to ask for ‘two or three pages’, which begs the questions around how large are the pages and how large is the font!
  • What is the piece about? This needs to be a succinct statement, ideally one sentence. I’ve done quite a lot of branding work and this is the equivalent of the killer question, ‘What do you do?’. Ask ten people in an organisation and you’ll get ten different answers. Same with the copy brief. Make sure someone absolutely knows what this piece is going to be about.
  • What is ‘the hook’? Why would people want to read this? As with branding, this is the equivalent of ‘What do you do differently’? It’s sometimes a really tough question but you both need to dig down and find a reason for the audience to want to read it. Ideas here could be that it’s a unique offering, or the first of a kind, or perhaps there’s been something big in the news that you could use as a hook. Be creative.
  • What are the points you want to make, and what is the proof for each point? This is where the rigour starts. You need to have ‘proof points’ for the statements that you’re going to make. These can be quantitative (5,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire) or qualitative, using anecdotal evidence such as news items that support your point. Certainly working in an agency I found this section incredibly useful, as I couldn’t be expected to be a subject matter expert on everyone’s account. This section made them think about what they were asking me to do, and we all ended up with better work as a result.
  • Where will it appear (publication name or type, email, PDF, printed newsletter)? To give an extreme example, if this is going to appear in the FT, it needs to have a completely different tone than for the Daily Mail. But even trade or vertical titles will have different requirements, so it’s important to ask where this piece is going to appear.
  • What effect do you want to create? This could be to drive awareness, or get more sales, or win an award. It might be less important in a copy brief but I know marketing clients like to see this, because you’re echoing to them that you know what they want from the piece.
  • Who is going to read it and what are their wants/needs? This is a basic question about the audience. Are they senior management who want a macro-level view across their industry? Are they junior staff who just want direct advice? Don’t forget, journalists are also audiences (and are also human, mostly).
  • Why now? Any tie-ins? This is similar to ‘the hook’ question but is explicitly looking for tie-ins. The point here is that the client is often the subject matter expert and they should know what’s been going on in their marketplace. So, ask them.
  • What is the tone of voice? This is important. It’s an expression of the client, the publication, and the audience. You need to decide whether you’re going to be authoritative, or direct, or friendly. If you’re a challenger brand you might want to be a bit pushy. If you’re a retail or consumer brand then maybe err towards the side of informality.
  • Is there an in-house style? This can just be a shortcut to the tone of voice, but consider that the graphic design can also be a pointer towards tone.
  • Do you have any examples? If so, then perhaps you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I tend to find that previous successful examples are the key. I don’t think you can get away without asking all the other questions, but if the client can show you something they liked, and that worked, then this can get you a long way towards knowing what’s required.
  • Do you have any background material? Again, this is where the client needs to work hard, not just in helping with the ‘why now’ question, but with providing you with what you need. Obviously you’ll have to do your own research, but if the client can help with recent articles they’ve seen, or their own research/data/publications, this can help immensely.
  • Timings. This is where you become a project manager as well as copywriter. You don’t need to go crazy here. Just list the stages, responsibilities, and estimated time. The stages and responsibilities should be along the lines of first draft (copywriter), first review (client), second draft (copywriter), second review (client), final draft (copywriter),  and sign-off (client).

So you see, this pretty much covers everything. There can be overlaps, for example with the ‘why now’ and ‘what’s the hook’ questions, but this brief has never let me – or my clients – down. You could maybe distil it further and create a ‘brief copy brief’ but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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The #PRStack Project: Really at the intersection between PR and digital

What are the best tools that help PR practitioners perform to the best of their ability?

This is a thought I had a few years ago. I could see that, with the advent of Web 2.0, it would help PR people to know what consumers were sharing about their clients’ products. So, I put together my first cut of the Friendly Ghost Social Media Resource – ‘Friendly  Ghost’ because that was my moniker at the time (when we all felt like we were part of the matrix and thought we had to have cool names) and ‘Social Media Resource’ because I couldn’t think of anything snappier.

It was fairly clunky and difficult to follow, being a huge Google Doc. So I acquainted myself with Zoho and turned it into a proper database.

Reaction was mainly positive but some people expressed doubts about contributing to something when they didn’t know who was building it. Fair enough, and even though I tried making it truly crowd-sourced, by giving people the tools to share the interface, it didn’t really take off.

But if the latest CIPR report on the state of the profession is to be believed, then such a resource is clearly needed. PRs are apparently overstressed and unfairly paid, lacking in digital skills and resources. This kind of resource could help.

It clearly needed someone with much more credibility, influence and foresight to kick-start such a project. Stephen Waddington seems to have ascended into the firmament recently, popping up all over the place. A recent tweet of his caught my eye: the PR Stack, in which he invited people to contribute with their favourite tools and how they might be used.

I’ve used plenty of tools in the past, so I jumped in and added my take. True to his word, Wadds has posted an update, thanking the contributors, and so I get a bit of free publicity to boot.

prstack

This is great. Not only do we have a cool new tool – which is going to be a mobile app imminently (see above) – we have a community to follow. This community is, by definition, at the intersection of PR and digital, representing the core of people who have feet in both worlds but are also proactive enough to get involved. It reminds me of the good old days where Social Media Club would meet up at the ICA, or upstairs at the Coach and Horses.

So what should you do right now? Follow them, of course. And subscribe to their blogs, if they have one. Wadds has also helpfully put together a Twitter list so you could also subscribe to that.

And one thing I notice when I look at the contributors: they’re all individuals. I think there’s a great opportunity here for an agency to become involved, position itself right at the heart of this intersection, and be part of something exciting and new. And let’s face it, we haven’t had anything like that in social media for quite some time…

Paper.li – content aggregation for the easily frightened

Content. We’re not so much waving in it, as drowning. IDC says that in 2011 we created 1.8 zettabytes (or 1.8 trillion GBs) of information. In 2012 it reached 2.8 zettabytes and IDC now forecasts that we will generate 40 zettabytes (ZB) by 2020.

Of course, that’s not all human-readable data but I’ve been looking around for those kind of figures and it seems we’ve given up on calculating the size of the blogosphere, Twitterverse or any other social media-verse-osphere in any meaningful way.

So let’s forget about quantifying data. How do you feeeeeeeeel about it?

Personally, I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time. Google Reader was great for grabbing a ton of feeds and filtering the wheat from the chaff. It closed. Yahoo Pipes does something similar but has a steep learning curve and is a bit flaky.

TweetDeck was the answer, I thought, with its persistent filters. And as I wrote recently, Feed.ly is starting to pique my interest in RSS again because it’s a better way of actually finding out what people are writing about, properly, rather than just sharing.

But it’s still all a bit, well, panic-inducing. I dip into TweetDeck and have a nibble but hop away quite quickly again like a tiny frightened rabbit. Feed.ly, while more relaxing, can also scare the faint of heart, especially with its title-only layout. There are magazine-type apps such as Flipboard, which recently expanded into the web(osphere) and Google Newsstand. This seemed a way forward, by presenting items in a neat, concise layout but try as I might, I never really managed to get them quite how I wanted them.

But Paper.li just works for me.

At its simplest and most effective, you just plug your Twitter feed into it, which creates a publication based on the most shared content, that was shared by the most influential people. So it’s almost a Twitter ‘expander’, taking the most relevant tweets and expanding them back into full articles. You can go much deeper into different sources of content, filters, customisation and so on, but at the basic level it works marvellously well.

I’ve been using it for quite some time, ever since Neville Hobson’s version cited me as contributing to his daily publication. I used it to help promote Byyd (recently reactivated I see) and am currently helping LoopMe with it too. Oh, and I’m also using it myself, obviously.

However, forget about sharing for a second. My publication is actually really useful to me. This is because it represents something of an amazing intersection between the people I want to follow, and the content I want to read.

What I really like about this approach is that I get an email in my inbox each morning telling me that the new edition’s ready. I go and take a look, and there it is: my magazine, with the most interesting articles that I really need to read. Not columns of content or masses of titles. Just the top, say, four or five articles distilled for my pleasure.

So forget about building feeds or creating lists, or scanning vast swathes of information rolling in front of your eyes like so many fruit machines. Just start up a Paper.li publication, plug your Twitter timeline into it, tweak it a little with filters, and away you go. If it’s not quite right, tweak it again a few more times and you’ll soon have your own, simple, relevant daily digest.

I think the next radical step in Paper.li’s evolution is going to be some sort of unique delivery system. I see a great opportunity to offer the magazine in, say, a PDF format so that people can print a hard copy. Or, how about this: a centralised printing facility that not only prints but delivers, maybe via third-party agents that specialise in news, with franchises based in local communities offering a valuable source of local employment. It might catch on…

From search to site through what you say

So I’m getting back into RSS browsing. I dropped it when Google Reader died, thinking that Twitter was really the only game in town for monitoring. But there’s a difference. Twitter is really, really fast and for that reason, I tend to use it for quickly getting an idea of what’s going on. I might retweet or favourite but honestly, do I read much of what flashes by? Not really.

It’s nice getting into RSS again, building up my feeds, this time in Feedly. Feedly’s pretty good with a nice interface but still doesn’t have keyword filters. Not to worry. I liken it to sitting down with a trade magazine and spending time going through what really matters. Flipboard and Google Newsstand are good, but you really do build your own Feedly from the bottom up.

Straight up, solid gold: Econsultancy, ever the publisher of sage advice, features a piece by the wonderfully named Lyndon Antcliff, explaining why an SEO should think more like a publisher. He defines an SEO as someone who gets as many people from a web search to a web page as efficiently as possible. The key to this is links. And the key to getting links? Content.

He then discusses attention, attraction, delivery, response. This is yet another variant of the marketing funnel (awareness, interest, desire, action) which I’ve used many times to illustrate content strategy.

Some people think the marketing funnel is dead. Others think it’s well and truly alive. Then again some people think PR is dead, while others think it’s thriving. Still others think Elvis is dead, the poor deluded fools.

I don’t think you can prove it either way but what I do believe is that it’s a great way to formalise your knowledge. I’m a fan of structured thinking, mainly because I find it hard. If it’s hard, it’s usually worthwhile and then, when you get the hang of it, the other stuff becomes easier.

So, looking at content through this structure you start to see that awareness is really about going to where other people live, so that you interact with them on their home turf. They’re not going to come to yours until/unless they’re aware of you. So awareness is about earned content, and you measure it by the amount of conversation you’re having with people out there. You make this work for you by identifying influencers in key topic areas and building structures through Twitter lists, Feedly lists and so on, making sure you interact with the people that matter.

Interest, then, is when people are curious enough about you to come and pay you a visit. Have a nice sit down and a cup of tea. Maybe a scone or two (yes, I’m British, it shows). This is where your owned channels are important, and you measure this by engagement. If you’ve made the right noises abroad, about the right topics, to the right people, then, when they come to you, if you continue to make the right noises, they might just shortlist you.

What of desire and action? Well, my take on this is that they’re really where your website works hardest. Visitors have surfed through the stratosphere of awareness and the atmosphere of awareness, and now they’ve landed on Planet You. This is your chance to validate their suspicion that you’re the person/team/agency/company for them, and where your case studies, awards and recommendations come into play. And action is really about conversion, so make it as easy as possible for them to get in touch.

Some people reckon the marketing funnel is circular now, with ‘retention’ feeding back from the bottom to the top, like the self-consuming serpent. I see that as a by-product of everything else you do, with maybe some specialist activities such as newsletters so they feel part of the club.

To get back to Mr Antcliff’s point, if you really want to make your content work hard to pull people from search to site, you need to think about publishing. And this is why you need to think about how your content can work for you. I remember in my early days I told people that really, I was a publisher. This blog is a publication. And as we all know, everyone is a publisher now.

Anyway, go and read his post on Econsultancy. He has, I think, a different take on the funnel but it’s broadly similar. Well worth a read.

Whoops there goes another Bitcoin

Confidence. It’s what makes the world go around. Money too, as the song goes, but that’s pretty much an index of confidence. Watch the stocks plummet and you can be sure there’s lack of confidence there, or even the presence of panic. See the indexes climb and there will be some pretty confident people behind them. It’s certainly not love. Don’t you just wish the financial markets would hire more confident, less panicky, more loveable people?

So the latest Bitcoin hack – to the tune of $1.75 million, from Chinese Bitcoin exchange Bter – is another knock to the confidence behind the cryptocurrency. Bitcoin hacks have been coming thick and fast of late, or perhaps that’s just because the media spotlight switched onto them when James Howells threw away four million pounds’ worth of Bitcoins when he dumped his hard drives. Or it could have been when the major exchange MtGox was forced to close, taking 850,000 Bitcoin out of circulation (and then finding 200,000 of that in a discarded offline wallet).

I became intrigued by Bitcoin quite some time ago, as I do by most new shiny things that promise new ways of working. It seems to have come straight out of someone’s head (and we don’t know exactly which someone that is, although Newsweek once thought it did) and into the world quite literally without intermediation.

Bitcoin is a currency that exists outside of centralised government control, with a limited number of Bitcoins in existence. New Bitcoins come about by solving tough computational problems. The more computation thrown at the problem, the tougher the problems get. It is decentralised and self-balancing. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to work.

As a virtual currency it brings into sharp relief the idea that money doesn’t really exist. The money I have sequestered in bank accounts isn’t really there. It’s just ones and zeroes. Not even that – it’s actually just some magnetic impulses on a storage device somewhere. (No wonder some people still keep their money under a mattress).

The difference between Bitcoin and ‘real’ money is that ‘real’ money – even if it’s just magnetic polarisation – is backed up by the government. If a huge sunspot were to wipe all our hard drives tomorrow then hopefully the banks will have contingency plans, such as back-up centres behind lead-lined vaults buried miles beneath mountain ranges.

But virtual currency holds no such backup, by definition. OK, so the trace of payments is distributed across all peers, but as we’re finding out, rapidly, this is no protection against hacking, it would seem. Online wallets are insecure. Offline wallets can wind up in the local recycling facility. Entire exchanges go ‘pop!’, like balloons.

So another hack, another knock to the confidence of what was once supposed to be a brave new world of currency exchange. Strange isn’t it how these brave new worlds can turn so sour? Remember how the web was supposed to facilitate creative freedom? Or how social media was going to give everyone a voice? I pretty much gave up blogging because I realised my voice was being drowned out by the noise, so I had to come up for air. I’ve only started again because I need to exercise my writing muscles once in a while.

What now for Bitcoin? Let’s take it from Gavin Andresen, chief scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation, the closest thing to a central bank for the nascent cryptocurrency: his opinion is that Bitcoin is dangerous and people should steer away from using it. That’s one of the most important figures in Bitcoin as reported by the highly credible FT. So, that gives me confidence. Don’t even approach the glass. For now.

Gotta love cloud storage

I’ve never lost any data. Ever.

Actually, I tell a lie. I once lost ALL my data. I was recklessly drinking some Becks beer while doing some file management and somehow managed to delete everything from a drive that didn’t have the trash can activated. Thirty rather desperate (and suddenly sober) minutes later, I’d downloaded a good undelete utility and recovered it all. Phew.

Apart from that however, I’ve been something of a back-up freak over the years. It started when I got into home music production. All those hours of recording, arranging, mixing… to lose it all would have been devastating. This brings into sharp relief what we mean about the value of data. Sure, it has business value when you make it work for you. But it can also have immense personal value.

But as our data grows, and becomes more sensitive, backing up becomes more onerous. You forget. You can’t be bothered. You get out of the habit. You need a 1TB hard drive to back up a 1TB hard drive. You need secure, off-site storage – and when you’re working freelance from home, you might not have ready access to a nice, locked drawer somewhere else. And the more human intervention comes in, the more likely you are to screw it up. One day you will back up the wrong way, from the backup to the live. Or, your backup drive will corrupt and you’ll only find out when you really need it. I shudder to think…

Enter cloud storage. Now, I can just hear the stifled laughter. You’re thinking “Why is Brendan talking about cloud storage so late in the day? It’s been around for ages.” This is true enough and I suppose I’m a relatively late convert. But you never know, someone might be looking around for opinions on this, and if they find mine, then I’m telling them: go for it. In fact, if you’re looking around for opinions on this, and you just found me, then I’m telling you: go for it.

Cloud storage is brilliant. I never realised how brilliant until I really started using it. Now, whenever I save a file, and that cute little icon on the systray spins around, I know that I’ll never lose it, that in fact I can go back to a previous version if I need to, and that I can access it from any of my machines, anywhere in the world (mostly). And I don’t have to do a single thing. In fact, I don’t even have to spend one Bitcoin on it. It’s free. This is absurdly amazing. If it didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. Which they already have, of course.

But cloud storage also opens up creative possibilities. For example, I’ve developed my own social media monitoring system, called ‘Bob’ until I think of a better name (although I’m starting to like it). Bob downloads data, aggregates it, cleans it, and then presents it in ways that I – and my clients – find useful. Where does Bob download the data? To cloud storage, of course. This means that I can query Bob at home, or in the client offices. It doesn’t matter. It’s entirely transparent to Bob. If I ever licensed Bob, I could have clients each with their own private cloud storage, all feeding data into their version of Bob. Marvellous.

Another possibility: your own personal music library. If you can get enough storage (or don’t have too many songs), then just port it all across to a cloud drive and you can access that from any machine, anywhere, and you’ll never need to back it up again.

Cloud storage is also a hugely useful facilitator for collaboration. I run the social media and programme editorial for the Kop Hill Climb, now a major international automotive event in Princes Risborough, Bucks. The entire organisational crew, comprising well over 20 people, uses cloud storage to share and store files. And, as Kop Hill Climb is a charity, generating around £50,000 each year to local causes, the fact that this storage is free is a welcome bonus.

So there you go. Cloud storage. It’s ace. There are plenty of articles out there detailing the various offerings available so I won’t bore you with the details, go and have a look (the PC Advisor cloud storage review seems comprehensive and up to date at the time of writing).

But if you really want to know, this is how I’m using it (note that I’m using several services because that means I get them for free within their storage limits because I’m a cheapskate):

  • Microsoft OneDrive – for my personal work. I use this simply because it’s baked into my Windows 8 installation. It seems a bit slow to upload but apart from that it chugs away nicely in the background.
  • Dropbox – for Kop Hill, and for one client, because they both use it. I find Dropbox rock-solid, but it doesn’t cope with concurrency very well (that is, when two people are accessing the same file). This can result in lost work or duplicate files, so watch out for that.
  • Google Drive – for another client, again simply because they use it. Honestly? Don’t touch it with a barge pole. I’ve had serious issues with Google Drive not syncing, resulting in lost productivity trying to figure out what the latest versions of files are. Really. Don’t go there. Unless something radical has changed, this is, in my opinion and experience, not fit for purpose. Sorry Google.
  • Mega – to store all my music, because you get a wopping 50GB free. OK, so it’s run by Kim Dotcom. OK, so he’s a controversial figure to some. But in a strange way I trust him more than I trust the likes of Google and Microsoft. At least there is a spotlight on him. And it just works.

I’ve also dabbled with Amazon Cloud but I found that a bit clunky. Just my own take on it.

There are other services too, so check them out as per that article. This just works for me. Between them, OneDrive and Mega ensure that when I save stuff, it remains saved. And, so long as I have strong passwords that I change, it remains safe too. Meanwhile Dropbox and Google Drive enable me to work with other people, albeit with more than a little frustration from Google Drive.

Let me know how you get on.