Monday, April 28, 2014

Did I Really Write That? A Guide to Effective Writing

Have you ever thought about how much of each day you spend writing? Not just writing copy for marketing materials, a newsletter or other business-related activities, but changing text on websites, sending email, blogging, texting and perhaps even handwriting a thank you note. The need for more writing is evident.

Much of what used to be oral phone conversation is now written. This has increased the pressure on everyone within an organization to write well, from customer service representatives using email to communicate with customers to marketing executives developing content for printed materials and the company website. Bad writing calls attention to itself, causing the reader to miss the point of the communication. It also conveys an unflattering picture of the individual and by extension, the business.

Why is it so hard to write well? Because writing requires a coordinated effort involving:

  • Memory to correctly apply the rules of spelling, capitalization and punctuation
  • Language ability – grammar,vocabulary, word order and sentence structure
  • Higher-order cognitive skills – planning, organizing, reasoning, logic, abstract thinking.
All three must be developed equally and used simultaneously for good writing to result.

The effectiveness of any written communication, from the most sophisticated marketing piece to an email, will be compromised if it has errors in the mechanics – spelling, punctuation, capitalization. Some readers may even form an opinion about the writer or the business (sloppy, doesn’t care, unprofessional) based on these errors. So the first way to become a better writer is to spell words correctly and to follow commonly-accepted rules for punctuation and capitalization.


A spell checker is a useful tool for finding misspelled words, typos and oversights. But it will not find a word that is spelled correctly yet used incorrectly. The English language is filled with word pairs that sound alike but have different meanings – like its and it’s or who’s
and whose.


Punctuation has two functions: to convey intended meaning, and to provide tone and nuance. For example:

  • A period shows that a thought has been completed.
  • A semicolon indicates that two thoughts are closely related.
  • A colon indicates that an explanation of a previous thought is coming.
  • A comma signals a pause and keeps thoughts from becoming confusing.
Misuse of punctuation can completely change the meaning of a thought, as in these examples:

  • Don’t stop vs. Don’t. Stop.
  • Let’s eat, Grandma vs. Let’s eat Grandma.
  • A woman without her man is nothing. vs. A woman: without her, man is nothing.


Capitalization makes reading easier by indicating the beginning of a sentence, and separates proper nouns from other words. Without capitalization, sentences can run together, making reading slower and more difficult. It is customary to capitalize:

  • the first word of a sentence
  • proper nouns and the adjectives derived from them (Alaskan from Alaska)
  • the major words in a headline or title
  • personal titles when combined with a person’s name (Mrs. Patterson, Dr. Adams)
  • letters in an acronym (NASA)

Language, Grammar and Vocabulary

Grammar is the set of rules governing the way the sentences of a language are constructed. Closely related is syntax, the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Regardless of the type of writing – a sales letter, a blog post or an email – the rules of grammar and syntax apply. Here is a brief review:

  • Parts of speech are the building blocks of grammar. Each has a specific function in a sentence. The eight parts of speech are nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunction and interjections. (Remember your grade-school English?)
  • Sentences are composed of three parts: a noun, a verb, and a complement (such as a direct or indirect object).
  • Sentence types may be simple, compound or complex.
Word choice is a crucial part of good writing. To avoid ambiguity and confusion, readers need the writer to select words that convey meaning precisely and are contextually appropriate. A strong vocabulary enables this function, promotes effective communication and strengthens the power of persuasion. Good writers tailor their vocabulary to the audience and the circumstances.

Effective writing requires an understanding of the audience, knowledge of the subject, and the ability to bring the two together in a clear, concise and organized manner. Good writing begins with a purpose – a thesis or argument – that the writer explains, supports and logically develops using good language skills.

Clarity in writing means choosing specific, descriptive words to convey meaning and activity. Using action verbs instead of forms of to be, active instead of passive voice, and avoiding unclear pronoun references contributes to clarity.

Concise writing avoids wordy phrases when a single word can convey the same meaning (such as using allow, give or let in place of provide an opportunity to). Concise writing uses shorter, simpler words like so instead of accordingly, and eliminates redundancy such as using the word concluded for arrived at the conclusion.

Good writing follows an organizational structure:

  • An introductory paragraph that summarizes the purpose
  • Supporting paragraphs that support the purpose
  • A concluding paragraph that provides a summary, draws a conclusion, makes a prediction or does a combination of these.
Similarly, each paragraph has a topic sentence representing its controlling idea. All other sentences in the paragraph are related to and advance the idea of the topic sentence. Within the paragraph, sentences are structured so that the important words and ideas stand out.

Finally, good writing is elegant. The writing flows gracefully in a smooth rhythm and pace. The thoughts are coherent and logically developed with appropriate emphasis and style.

Writing is an essential business skill

Understanding the elements of good writing has many benefits. Besides helping you improve your writing skills, it will make you a better editor and a better communicator. The expansion of writing from printed materials and correspondence to the digital world means that customers and prospects have more opportunities to form an impression about you and your business based on your writing. Even if writing is not central to your business model, it is one measure of your company’s professionalism.

We do quite a bit of writing at Creative Characters. If you need help conveying your message effectively, we can help. Contact Brigid today at (215) 923-2679 or for more information.

Good Design

There is a way to improve good writing for a printed document: with good design. Good design uses color, type and images to attract and hold the reader’s interest, improve comprehension and lead the reader to the important topics. It may also induce a sense of trust and satisfaction.

Good design follows rules and best practices but is not a formula. A good designer introduces creativity while working in a style that is compatible with a business’s or organization’s brand. A good designer takes the personal preferences of a business owner or manager into account and keeps to the agreed-upon schedule. Yet, if needed, can meet a tight deadline.

We are happy to report that our designer, Sean Miller, has all of these qualities. Sean has been with Creative Characters since 2009. He has substantial experience with print, web, audio and video media. He studied Graphic Design at Bradley Academy for the Visual Arts. For your next brochure, direct mail piece or newsletter, let us provide an estimate for design. We think you’ll be surprised at how affordable good design can be.

Q&A: Do you know an easy way to increase my vocabulary?

Here are some simple and classic ways to build your vocabulary gradually and naturally.

  • Read – Reading provides the opportunity to encounter new words. Sometimes you can tell the meaning from the context; sometimes you’ll need to consult a dictionary.
  • Listen – Children increase their vocabulary by listening to others. You can do the same thing.
  • Write – As you read and listen, write the new words in a notebook, Evernote, or in your mobile phone.
  • Dictionary – Use a dictionary to look up words, then write the definition in your notebook or mobile phone. Also enter a phonetic spelling of the word so you remember how to pronounce it.
  • Use it – To help you remember the new word, use it several times in conversation as soon as you can.

Creative Characters Honored for Sales Growth

Marya and Brigid Kaye, Creative Characters, have been honored for sales growth by CPrint® International during the bi-annual board meeting in Nashville, TN. CPrint® awards marketing service providers and printers who have demonstrated significant growth over the past year.

According to Tom Crouser, CPrint® Chairman, Creative Characters is among an elite group of companies who are seeing sales increases in the slow economy. “Creative Characters is focusing on principles and practices geared to exceptional customer service,” said Crouser. “This effort is resulting in increased sales even in a time of an economic slowdown. A company who can achieve growth in these times can only achieve it by being the best provider for its business customers.”

CPrint® International is an organization of independently owned family-based businesses that strive for professionalism and performance among small business. Companies from throughout North America participate in the program.

Creative Characters is the only company in Philadelphia that qualified for the prestigious CPrint® designation. CPrint® is available only to marketing service providers and printers who demonstrate exceptional quality and service by maintaining standards in operations, training, equipment and software as well as worker benefits and working conditions. This program requires annual on-site recertification as well as participation in continuing educational programs.

Creative Characters, Inc. is located in the heart of Center City Philadelphia at 125 South 9th Street, Suite 701, Philadelphia, PA 19107. For more information about the company, call 215-923-2679, email, or visit the company’s website at

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Direct Mail in the Digital Era

Direct mail is still a viable and critical component in marketing. Direct mail needs to be viewed in a multi-channel environment – tied into your website, landing pages, social media and email marketing, but keep in mind that if you violate the basics you will not get the best possible return.

Know your audience. You can have the most innovatively designed piece imaginable, but it is a waste of money if you send it to the wrong people. Just as in email marketing, you must provide valuable, relevant and timely information in order for someone to act on your offer. So lose the one-size-fits-all mentality; segmentation is the goal. Discover what your ideal customer’s profiles look like and then go find prospects that look like them. Understand your target’s problems and tailor your message to address the problems with your solutions.

For direct mail, copy is King. For search engines, content is King. What’s the difference? A webpage has a near limitless amount of space to convey the message. A direct mail piece usually has a limited amount of space to capture the reader’s attention, engage them to learn more and lead them to take an action.

Vary your message to your audience. Not all your prospects have the same issues and concerns. Plumbers, electricians, HVAC contractors, roofers and general contractors all may be in the construction industry, but they do not share the same problems. If you have solutions for this broad market, you will need to communicate to each differently. A generic message may get a response across the broad spectrum, but you will not reach as many as you could have if you tailored your messages to each market separately.

Timing. Each recipient may be at a different stage of the buying cycle when your message lands in front of them. A small percentage may need your products/services immediately and will respond. Others may be located on the spectrum of no interest to actively researching. Your piece must provide a way for these buyers to educate themselves about your products/services in a non-threatening manner. Other factors to keep in mind are seasonality and buying cycles. I am more likely to buy a Gas Grill in the spring and summer than in the cold, dark winter months, if I live in the northern part of the country. An offer to buy in the winter will likely fall on blind eyes.

Offer. Buy now, steep discount, or additional bonus items are not always the best offers. Whenever possible, it is best to test offers with small samples to see which offers provide the best return. If you are selling a longer buying cycle product or service, offers of more information, how to buy and comparison charts may be the most effective offers. To get someone to respond, the risk must be lower than the reward.

Having a good product or even providing excellent service is not enough today. If your prospect is buying what you sell from someone already, then providing a “me too!” offer will not likely be enough to have them switch. You must know what your competition is providing and then you need to offer more value on the same or similar products and services. Notice I said more value, not lower price. Providing the same products at a lower price can provide more value, but it is difficult to match or provide more when your strategy is to sell for less.

Letters, self-mailers and post-cards, oh my! Postcards and self-mailers tend to work better with existing customers who already know you and your services. The old adage is a letter sells, a brochure tells in direct mail. You can say much more in a letter than you can in the space available on a post card or flyer. If your products or services require some education in order to provide a clear reason to consider you, then you should consider the direct mail personalized letter format as your initial introduction or at least as your first serious sales contact.

Sometimes a nice warm, informative and relevant personal letter is the most effective communication in an otherwise overloaded digital world. Kind of nice just to take our eyes off the computer for a moment, sit back and consider a well written introduction. It can be just the differentiator you need to open the door.

Making Online Advertising Work for You

If you are a small business, you are likely paying too much for your advertising, regardless of what medium you use. In 2012, more than 1.8 trillion display ads were paid for but not seen. That is more than 57,000 ads per second every day all day that are not being viewed and cannot have an impact if no one sees them.

The way the industry is set up today, advertisers pay for ads that are served – regardless of whether they are viewed or not. The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) measures a viewable display as an ad where 50% or more of the ad loads onto a page and is present for at least one second. But view-ability is hard to determine. And even using this standard how much value do you get from a 50% loaded ad displaying for only 1 second?

How about an ad that loads fully but is buried beneath the fold (BTF)? What happens if the site visitor does not scroll down to see it? The ad is displayed and maybe for quite some time, but the site visitor did not see the ad. Doesn’t matter. It was displayed and you as an advertiser still get the “view” you paid for. Ok, so you circumvent that by paying a premium for ATF (above the fold) placement. What happens when the user immediately scrolls down the page? Ad displayed, and counted as a view, but not seen. According to a recent study only 44% of the ATF ads were actually viewable – not necessarily viewed, just viewable.

Though I have been referring mostly to electronically served ads for website, social media, etc. The same applies to other media as well. A radio ad played while no one is listening provides no value to the advertiser. Advertising on a popular time slot on TV where a significant quantity of viewers are not watching live, does not help the advertiser whose audience is away or fast forwards through the commercials.

Why is search engine advertising so valuable? It can be tracked, not just for views, but for actions taken. A paid listing with Google, Bing, etc. will display but you do not pay for the display, you pay for the action a user takes. If they click your ad, you pay. This guarantees that the reader at the very least viewed your ad. Whether or not they took any action is dependent on their current needs, where you directed them once they clicked, and how effective your offer is.

Someday, I expect that most forms of advertising will be judged this way, based on pay for performance. If no action is taken the advertiser is either not charged or is provided a significant break in the cost of the ad. It is time we hold our partners accountable for results in our advertising dollars spent.

The goals of our advertising need to be defined. The strategy put into place and the results measured. Only then can we determine whether or not our advertising is effective, where to advertise and how much to spend. For many companies a 20% net profit is considered a good return. Some have much higher and some much lower depending on industries and volume of revenue generated. But if we assume you are in an industry where a 20% bottom line profit is good, and you could guarantee that for every dollar you spent on advertising you got a 20% net return, how much would you spend?

When I pose this question to most small business owners, they give me their text book answers of I would spend 15% of my revenue on advertising or whatever their industry says is the average. This is because they view advertising as an expense and not an investment. And rightly so; for most businesses advertising is an expense. It does not show much if any return-on-investment (ROI).

The reality is that if I could guarantee that for every dollar of advertising I spent, I would be guaranteed a 20% net profit why would I not invest all the money I could get on advertising until my capacity to deliver was reached?

The reason we do not do this is because advertising is broken. The media are not our friends. They care not about us getting value for the money we spend. They care only about their profits. They are resistant to change. They will not guarantee and say that is because they cannot control the sales process. And I get that. But I am not asking for a guaranteed sale, just a guarantee of action.

And let’s not forget about the consumer. They have changed as well. We can thank the Internet for that. Now, I am no longer restricted to my local suppliers to get products. I can order from almost anywhere at almost any time and have it delivered right to my door. But what the consumer today wants, is no different than what they have always wanted. They want value. They want knowledge. They want to know the provider has their best interests in mind. They want a partner who understands their needs and will do their best to provide solutions to their problems.

The best way to communicate with your customers is one-to-one. An effective email marketing and social media strategy can go a long way in providing relevant and timely information. These tools also allow for easy forwarding and posting to friends and family, encouraging both brand awareness and referral business. These communications should be both informative and targeted with links to more information on your website or blog.

With a bit of foresight and discipline, you can make your advertising go from an expense to an investment paying good dividends.