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The franchise buyer takes control – are you prepared to meet them where they are?

By Thomas Scott

FLDDC2015

Franchising is an unusual industry. For an industry that generates more than $25 billion a year in sales and has thousands of competing companies, it remains one of the most transparent. Attend any franchise conference, and you’ll find executives from other companies who will share best practices, give thoughtful advice, and take a genuine interest in the success of brands they have no stake in.

We love Franchise Update’s annual Franchise Leadership and Development Conference. Out of all the events in the franchise industry, this event stands out every year as an important place to learn what is working. This is our 10th year attending, and this was one of the best we’ve attended.

FLDC_blog_300x300_1The 17th annual FLDC conference was a record year for the event, with representation from more than 400 franchise professionals from 260 franchise companies. We noticed an aggressive shift in adoption of tactics and some refreshing, forward-thinking advice from presenters. Kudos to the FLDC staff for upgrading content from last year and raising the bar to help make the franchise industry higher-performance.

In 2015, there are record numbers of people considering franchise ownership, franchise brands are prospering, and financing is finally becoming more available. The franchise industry is growing at a steady rate, and according to FRANData, we have been adding one new franchise company a day. Despite the industry’s positive growth, franchise development professionals, VPs, and CEOs are still struggling to recruit enough franchisees and recruit the right franchisees, and the ability to intersect with the right candidates seems just out of reach.

Aaron Goldberg, VP of Franchise Development for ZIPs Dry Cleaning, made a funny analogy during his presentation on “Mastering Sales Fundamentals,” that sums up the key issue franchisors are having in 2015 when it comes to recruiting franchisees:

“When I was young, I had the mistaken impression that if I wanted a date, I could pick the woman I wanted to go out with. I’ve since learned that was totally wrong. Women picked me, and I had absolutely no control over the choice. Likewise, you don’t get to pick your franchisee. Prospective franchisees pick the franchise they want, and as a recruiter, you have no influence over the choice that person makes.”

While tongue-in-cheek, his point is serious. We are in the era of self-directed research, and as speakers from Google have stated, 70% of the decision to buy is now made before prospects request information or speak with a salesperson. According to economist Darrell Johnson, President and CEO of FRANData, franchising is gradually growing, but we are not yet seeing a rising tide and we are not close to a boom.

Competition for franchise buyers is intense, and only the brands that do a good job of grabbing market share and earning the connections with prospective owners will grow. Here’s the catch: just like dating, you don’t get to say if you’ve grabbed market share – that is only in the eyes of the candidate.

Here is our list of important takeaways for franchise development teams from this year’s conference:

It’s time to rework your franchise opportunity value proposition.

Smart franchisors are learning to create more-effective value propositions. In one session, Jack Humbert, VP of Franchise Sales and Finance for J.D. Byrider, flipped through the pages of a franchise magazine he held up for the crowd and commented that not a single ad in the publication had an effective value proposition. Is print advertising dead? You wouldn’t know, because there is a serious disconnect in how brands and ad agencies create value propositions. The typical franchise opportunity ads we see are out of sync with how buyers wrap their minds around opportunities.

Here’s what we mean:

Value proposition No. 1: We are the largest cleaning brand in the country. We are top-ranked, and you can be your own boss and enjoy an amazing lifestyle with our franchise.

Sound familiar? Chances are there are parts of the above statement in your public value proposition. Here’s what’s clear: Statements like these fail. They are overused, vague, and totally lack meaning for prospects. This is a good example of what NOT to do with your value statement, and it sums up 90% of the marketing for franchise opportunities.

Paul Pickett, VP of Franchise Development for Wild Birds Unlimited, a retail bird supply franchise that recruits passionate bird lovers, offered an excellent value proposition, which they now have on their website:

Value proposition No. 2: If you love birds, you can make a lot of money selling birdseed.

The second statement works. It is clear to the prospect, and it targets the core candidate WBU is seeking to recruit.

Humbert summed it up: “For me, a successful value proposition creates curiosity. Curiosity is what propels a prospect into the sales process, and curiosity is what propels someone to purchase a franchise.”

He’s right. Recruitment for franchisees is competitive. Only companies that look outside themselves, market in plain language, avoid clever messaging, and tell a clear brand story will earn conversations with buyers. Overlook your value proposition at your own peril: Having lackluster, muddy messaging will kill your ROI. Not getting a good result from portal advertising? Overhaul your ad page. Is your email marketing underperforming? Perhaps your messaging is off-message. The same goes for your recruitment website and any other marketing materials that intersect with a candidate. If your value proposition doesn’t resonate with your target candidate, you’ll miss your opportunity to connect.

Michael Arrowsmith, Senior VP of Development for Captain D’s, talked with candor about how he launched the rework of his brand with what he thought was a perfect value proposition — only to realize that it was totally off. He went back to the drawing board after talking to his most successful owners and ended up with a value proposition that worked:

Captain D’s provides access to the fast-casual segment with a simple operation, and without competing with other brands.

That was what his target buyer was looking for— they were already in food service, wanted to expand, liked simple operations, and wanted something with some blue ocean and little or no competition. Captain D’s is a brand to watch because it is one of the few brands that can deliver those things.

How do you create a better value proposition? Start by talking to your top performers. The franchisees in your system that thrive can tell you in just a few seconds what the value proposition is. It isn’t rocket science, but chances are it isn’t anywhere close to what your marketing department or outside agency thinks it is.

Franchise Opportunity Website more important than ever

Here’s one clear message that came up in almost every session and presentation: Your franchise recruitment website is the single, most-important part of your growth strategy. If you don’t have a high-performance, stand-alone website geared toward educating potential franchisees, you will struggle to recruit the quality and quantity of new franchise owners you need.

JOSH

Josh Wall, VP of Development for Christian Brothers Automotive, hit this point in his panel on lead generation results by telling the audience that his website created the breakthrough that has given his brand two years of record growth. “It isn’t just that you need content — you need the right kind of content, organized in the right way. You need high-quality video, photos, and other media.” He was proud of his website’s conversion rate — over 7%, which is five times the industry average.

We were pleased to hear Josh give this advice and also happy that three of the top five STAR Awards for top Franchise Recruitment Websites — including Josh’s — were sites we built and maintained.

Here’s the deal: Half of franchise sales in the industry come directly from company recruitment websites. Your website is an extension of your sales team, and it takes the place of the first conversation a candidate has with your brand. The all-critical value proposition we just mentioned? That had better be front and center on your site. How much time do you think franchise buyers spend researching your offering, and how long will they spend on your website? Our data suggests that it is a staggering 52 minutes.

Josh added that before CBA launched their new site, potential buyers were spending a mere two minutes on the website. He realized that he needed serious buyers to spend 45 minutes to one hour to fully understand the opportunity; this is the appetite for information about your brand a serious buyer has. Don’t have enough content to keep someone reading for almost an hour? You’ll lose the recruitment game to brands that do.

Using PR? Spending money on print advertising or radio? A best-in-class website will double or triple your return on non-digital strategies, too.

Companies that are exceeding industry averages invest heavily in the design, brand storytelling, construction, and ongoing upkeep of these sites. Dollar for dollar it has the highest return on investment you’ll make for recruitment.

Want to see examples? Check out our portfolio page.

FLDC3

Sales to existing franchisees increase

One interesting stat from the annual lead generation survey: 40% of new franchise units companies sold in the previous year were to existing franchisees. This is important — if you don’t have a large number of existing franchisees buying new territories or opening new units, you might be missing a development trend that dramatically affects growth.

We love to see brands devote marketing and sales resources to encouraging existing franchisees to grow. Single-unit operators often become high-performance, multi-unit franchisees, and they are a lot easier to nurture than hoping to recruit the next flashy multi-unit owner. Consider incentives, an internal devoted recruiter, CEO blogging to your owners on why to invest in the brand, and teaching the operations support staff how to spot opportunities for internal growth. Set goals for internal expansion, develop a plan, and work it just as hard as your quest for recruiting new franchisees.

Phone leads increased in 2015, and you wouldn’t know it because salespeople struggled with inbound calls

In July, mobile visitors to Google surpassed the number of non-mobile visitors for the first time. According to the FLDC lead generation survey there was a 70% higher response to a web lead from a traditional form than to a lead that came via a phone call. When mobile visits are over 50% on many recruitment websites, this is a problem.

Are phone leads equal to web leads? We think so. Our data suggests that more serious and more qualified buyers prefer to opt in via the phone number on your website. Visitors on mobile devices are also more likely to use your phone number to call than to fill out a web form. It’s simple, and it gives the candidate more control over the process. Most importantly, we are seeing phone leads close at twice the rate of web forms. Twice.

Based on mystery shop results, our industry has a real problem: A receptionist or qualifier answered 35% of the calls. That means we missed 65% of inbound calls for franchise information — calls where the buyer was ready to talk. That makes me cringe, especially when there are proven solutions to handling these calls and ways to design your website so you turn this into an opportunity for recruitment.

Want more bad news about sales team performance? 34% of the leads in the mystery shop received no return call at all. One-third of all leads were never worked. If the average budget for advertising is $150,000 to $250,000, that means that at least $70,000 of your spend is wasted by underperforming salespeople, and you’ve lost deals you would otherwise close. Every year this number has been high. 34% is one of the better years we’ve seen, but it’s still a reason to get hot under the collar. That number should be zero. Every lead should get a return call. They do in other sales-oriented industries, and we don’t have an acceptable excuse for such a screaming lack of professionalism.

Video for recruitment is more important than ever before

Another stat that jumped out: Only 40% of franchise recruitment websites used any video at all.

Have you heard about the large demographic group called the Millennials? It is larger in number than the Baby Boomers and has a staggering 60% aptitude toward entrepreneurship. Every brand we talked to is spending time thinking how to better position themselves for this all-important group. For Millennials, video is critical.

I asked Michael Ackley, one of our franchise writers and my go-to source for an accurate perspective on how Millennials think,  why video was important for Millennials. Here is what he said without a moment’s pause:

“Video is the gateway to accessibility and authenticity. I want to know that the leadership team is accessible, trustworthy, and authentic. Video is an instant way to achieve those goals because it’s the closest thing to looking someone in the eye.”

Franchise development is a people business. Good, authentic, documentary-style video is rare on recruitment websites. It makes the value proposition stick in a meaningful way and works amazingly well on mobile devices.

For the MTV Cribs generation, video allows instant access into the day-to-day operations of your franchise and a seat at the table next to your CEO. It’s critical.

We do extensive documentary video work on all of our website and brand storytelling projects. Projects that have well-thought-out video simply perform better. Video adds the emotional edge to your brand story that creates relevance and curiosity. Want to see examples of what we are talking about? Visit our portfolio page and look at the brand stories and day in the life videos.

Summary

What to do with this information? Start by taking a step back and talking to your top performers. How do they explain your brand’s value proposition? Look at your recruitment website. Is it organized like the STAR award winners from this year?

Get someone from the outside to give you feedback. Look hard at your performance on mobile devices and pay attention to how you handle inbound phone leads. Most importantly, start doing a much better job of telling your brand story and work on your value proposition so you can earn more market share for your opportunity.

If you need help with any of the above, start a conversation with us.

FLDC

Percentage of visitors increases from 29% to more than 50% in one year

GOOGLE3Google quietly announced on its blog recently that in 10 countries the number of users using the search engine on mobile devices was larger than the number of desktop / laptop users for the first time in history.

Last year, the number of mobile visitors on Google was at 29%. In a single year, the number has grown to more than 50%. Google did not release the specific rates — nor did it specify which countries were in the accounting beyond the U.S. and Japan — but the increase is staggering and came faster than most industry experts predicted.

Do you carry a smartphone? Chances are you do, and that smartphone is connected 24/7 to the internet. You are like most people who take advantage of some amazing technological advances in the size, speed,, and usability of the typical smartphone. They are evolving quickly, and users are adopting them at an even faster rate.

Customers are using smartphones for four specific actions on search engines: I want-to-know, I want-to-go, I want-to-do, and I want-to-buy.

This last one applies to anyone working in franchising. Customers and franchise prospects are now using smartphones to do substantive research on products and services they want to buy. This could mean they want to buy your carpet cleaning service, or they could be interested in purchasing a franchise location in your area.

Experts have predicted that with the next three years, the average consumer will cease to use a traditional desktop or laptop and that a smartphone — or a much smarter phone than we have today — will take the place of a laptop.

Smartphones’ screen size dictates the way users interact with information online. Mobile users prefer long, vertical scrolling pages. They interact with text and video article-format content rather than horizontal, flashy, and visual content.

Surprisingly, the amount of time mobile visitors spend online is larger than that of desktop users. Just because the screen is small doesn’t mean your website and other online marketing can’t produce big marketing results.

What does this mean for your franchise recruitment website?

Our client Chem-Dry has invested in state-of-the-art websites that perform well for users on smartphones. The conversion rate on the ChemDryfranchise.com website in the U.S., for instance, is more than 7% on a monthly basis. That means that 7% of all visitors either call for information or complete a request for information form.

This is important for the future growth of their franchise. If consumers are using smartphones more often and spending more time on them, making sure your online presence is designed to take advantage of this is critical. Google recently released a ‘Mobile Paths to Purchase’ report showing that users who had an intent to purchase a good or service, such as carpet cleaning, started their journey online, and 48% started on search engines:

This is a rapidly rising number — the majority of new customers for your business will now originate on both a mobile device and on a search engine.

As you develop and test marketing in the years ahead, plan for everything to be optimized for mobile devices. Your results will be your reward.

Brand Journalists CEO Thomas Scott talks about his approach to using brand journalism to generate leads and engage buyers

Brand Journalism Advantage, a national podcast covering content marketing and brand journalism, features interviews with the country’s top content marketers. This week Phoebe Chongchua interviewed Franchise Performance Group’s Thomas Scott about his work in the franchise industry and how he uses his journalism background to successfully create breakthroughs in franchise lead generation for franchise systems.

Listen to the Episode Below

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Here’s the transcript of the interview:

The Brand Journalism Advantage. The podcast that teaches the power of storytelling to increase business by attracting, engaging, and influencing consumers.

Now it’s time to think like a journalist with your host, Brand Journalist Phoebe Chongchua.

Phoebe: Hello Brand Journalism community. I’m Phoebe Chongchua. Thanks for tuning into the Brand Journalism Advantage podcast. Here we go with the inside scoop on today’s show, Thomas Scott.

Thomas is a leading franchise lead generation expert and he has a history of helping brands create breakthrough expansion. Thomas’s team creates franchise websites, blogging, SEO, social media and PR campaigns, all designed to generate fully engaged franchise candidates and recruit qualified franchisees through the use of brand journalism and corporate storytelling. Thomas is also an experienced franchise executive who has held VP positions in development, operations and marketing. Before becoming a franchisor, Thomas was a successful franchisee. He brings all that experience to help generate leads.

Thomas began his career as a journalist and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His work was published in numerous national newspapers and magazines, including USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Elle Magazine.

Welcome Thomas Scott. How are you this morning?

Thomas: Doing great. Thanks for having me.

Phoebe: To get us started we’re going to move right into our Think Like a Journalist quote. It goes like this, Thomas. “Photo is a small voice at best, but sometimes, just sometimes, one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our senses into awareness.”

I really just love that. That comes from W. Eugene Smith, who is best known for his hard hitting photographs of World War II.

Thomas: That’s excellent. My favorite photojournalist, too. I’m glad you picked that particular quote. It’s one of my favorites.

Phoebe: I found you on Pinterest. What drew me to you were some of the photographs and some of the overlays that you were doing, words over some of the photos, and I think we’ve even quoted you on the Brand Journalism Podcast in past episodes.

I’m really excited to hear what you have to say about brand journalism, to hear what you’re going to tell us about photojournalism. We haven’t talked a lot about that, but obviously there’s a lot of stories being told in the visual space. Both with photos, and like I do, with video journalism.

Thomas: That’s true. It’s very much a package-driven approach. Just like if you were working in a big newsroom in a large newspaper, and you were planning the budget out for the next day’s edition, you would package items together. Infographics, photographs, collections of photographs, headlines and bodies of text — in other words, the stories themselves.

The overall package is what really influences people. If you’re going to be a brand journalist today, and you’re going to assemble and report news about a brand that’s relevant to its audience that it’s trying to engage, you have to think the same way.

It’s really still about packaging. The visual elements of a story are often overlooked by brand journalists who are deep, deep in the writing. They’re used to writing and reporting in the text space. It’s really critical that that’s the main component, but you also can easily overlook things like a large infographic, or a collection of pictures that can communicate on a much deeper level.

People relate to imagery almost on an unconscious level. It makes things sticky and more interesting. That’s the power of a well-told story, is you don’t realize you’re being sold to. It’s just interesting.

Phoebe: Right. I always like to say that photographs and videos make people click-happy. It just engages them from the start.

I know you have a great success tip about writing and getting your work seen, so take it away, Thomas.

Thomas: Oh, yeah. We employ quite a few business writers on our staff. If you work with us, one of the things you hear a lot is, “You have to write to the headline.” My firm belief is that the overwhelming majority of brand journalism today takes place online. That’s where you interact with people, on the search engines, through paid campaigns, through email campaigns, through websites and social media sites. That all takes place digitally.

When we say, “write to the headline,” we mean write your headline first and make sure it’s relevant and interesting, and create the reason for somebody to read. The headline is what earns the read. That’s counterintuitive for a lot of journalists, who are used to writing the story and then somebody else writes the headline after the fact.

That strategy doesn’t work very well online, and you can minimize your results if you’re not careful.

Phoebe: That’s such a great success tip. Do you have a little bit more depth to that, as far as how can you create a quality headline? Because you’re absolutely right. A lot of journalists aren’t used to doing that. It’s passed off to someone else. They write the story, and it might be this amazing story, but if it’s not attracting people by the first words, that headline, then the whole thing is for naught.

Thomas: That’s right. A headline has to do two specific things really, really well or you don’t earn the read. The piece, no matter how well-written the piece is, how good the video is, how well it’s packaged together with photographs and infographics, if it doesn’t do these two things you misfire.

The first is, it has to be relevant. When we say relevant in the brand journalism world, we mean semantically relevant. When you’re doing online work, everything is search-related. The way the search engine works, billions of people a day use search engines to ask questions and find answers.

The headline plays a pivotal role, and the language has to semantically relate to the language people are using when they’re asking questions. One of the real struggles I’ve seen when I hire writers is they actually have to become SEO people to an extent, because really good SEO today is really just brand journalism done on a level that people can relate to.

If you’re going to buy a mattress, or get a quote for insurance, or buy a business or a house, there’s a bunch of questions that you’ll ask. You’ll use a search engine to ask those questions typically, like, “How much does it cost?” “What do users think of it?” “Are there any reviews about such and such a product?”

Mapping out all of those questions, that’s one of our strategies in the work that we do. Writing headlines that relate to that language, that’s how you unlock hidden interest. It’s a really strategic thing that you have to do, but if you’ve worked in a TV studio as a reporter, or a newspaper as a journalist, or even a magazine writer, chances are you’ve never been trained to think like that.

That’s one of the really difficult, missing pieces for people to become effective brand journalists, is understanding keywords and keyword research, and how the keyword research overlaps with the buyer behavior or engagement level of your audience.

That sounds technical, but if you simplify it to what specific questions people are asking, that needs to be in your headline.

The second part is that it has to have a call to action. We call it a knowledge gap, where what you write in your headline has to create a compelling and interesting reason for you to want to read more, or click.

That’s also something that people miss. The headline writing in a newspaper, even a magazine, is much, much different than the structure of a headline online. There are no calls to action in a newspaper. It’s just kind of top-down, informative headlines, or sometimes pithy and catchy headlines, but they don’t really create the call to action that you would if you were doing a Google search for why you should buy a particular mattress. Does that make sense?

Phoebe: It absolutely does. I once heard someone say that clever doesn’t count either.

Thomas: Clever doesn’t count. Clever’s bad actually. That often works against you.

Phoebe: Right, right. Sometimes journalists, as creative as we are, we can hurt ourselves. If you’re being too clever, it just doesn’t really help you online, especially when you’re doing that in the headline.

That’s great. Be relevant, and have that call to action. Getting the readers or the viewers to want to read more, want to click it, want to go a little deeper, and maybe even ask some more questions of the brand itself.

Thomas, tell me about your career. I’m fascinated how you got into this. I’m really interested in the audience that you’re targeting. We haven’t had anyone on the show as a guest talking about franchises. I think it’s such a great niche, so tell me a little bit more about it.

Thomas: It’s a great niche. I’m not sure I want to tell everybody about it.

I went to journalism school at Loyola University in New Orleans. It’s a great journalism program. Spent about 15 years working for the New Orleans Times Picayune, which is a large market newspaper, as a photojournalist. I wrote quite often.

In 2001, right before September 11, I left the newspaper industry. If you had been in that industry for any period of time, it was really clear what was going to happen in the next five or 10 years. It was a slow, gradual decline. I just am a firm believer, as an entrepreneurial person, it’s always bad to stick around and wait for the axe to fall. It’s always better to design your own exit and create something.

That worked out really well. That translated into getting out of journalism and into the franchise industry. Through one of life’s weird quirks, I ended up owning a Showhomes home staging franchise where we bring furniture into houses, which in itself is a really interesting, creative industry.

As part of a franchise system, I got a partner together and we bought the franchise company and grew it. For the next seven years I worked as a franchise executive in that creative industry, home staging. We staged 20,000 or 30,000 homes over that period of time and it was a really fascinating thing to do.

As we grew that business, a lot of our connections with our customers, and the way we built our brand awareness in the real estate industry (because it grew to 85 locations and was a good, sizable company) was through blogging, a little bit of PR and some strategic online writing for website copy.

I began telling our story about how you stage homes, and the before and afters, and the statistics around why that’s beneficial. We created quite a following for that particular brand — this would have been 2005, 2006, 2007 — when it wasn’t called brand journalism. It was called blogging, maybe social media. People didn’t really know how to categorize it. What it was was a non-marketing way of communicating with your base. A very conversational, straight-up tone that was informative, helpful and intuitive to the way we thought people wanted to buy staging services.

That translated into quite a bit of growth for the business on the consumer side and quite a bit of growth on the franchise development side. Franchise companies are different than corporate-run companies in that they have a core business.

Let’s say you’re Subway, where you operate sandwich shops, all the commissary, and all the cost of goods, and all the HR, and all that stuff. On the other side of the company, you have a division called franchise development where they find and recruit franchise owners and make investments and open stores.

If you want to become a McDonald’s franchisee, you buy a McDonald’s franchise. Franchising is a very large industry, with 3,000 or 4,000 brands growing at any time. It’s almost a double-digit chunk of the gross national product now. It’s a very insulated industry, though. If you don’t know the jargon, and you don’t understand the legal relationship and how it works, it’s very difficult to break into.

Because I was a franchisor, there was a tremendous opportunity to replicate what we had done to build our own company. We broke off at the end of 2009 and began doing straight-up brand journalism, first as a blogging service. That was, “How can we help brands communicate in the way that a marketing person can’t?” — tell great stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end that people can relate to, so that they trust the companies and are more knowledgeable about what they do.

That quickly morphed into business development, which is where we work mostly now. People really struggle to find owners and spend an inordinate amount of marketing money on it, so it was a nice niche for us to get into and specialize.

If you’re going to be a brand journalist, I would say find one thing and be really, really knowledgeable and expert on that one thing. Whether it’s working with insurance agents, or maybe a specific type of attorney or a certain type of restaurant. Don’t be a generalist. The more specific you are to a specific type of work, the more successful you’ll be.

The market celebrates specialists and quickly forgets generalists. We’ve grown from a small, one-person shop to a staff of 12 writers. We’ll do well over a million dollars in revenue this year just on brand journalism.

It’s a great business. It’s been a lot of fun to grow.

Phoebe: Yeah. You know, that’s just an amazing story because you started off in journalism, you moved out of it just in time. You got into a home-staging franchise, which has a lot of stories to tell. That’s a fascinating space.

You grew it to 85 locations and then turned into experts at helping the very businesses that you were running. That’s always good stuff when you can show that.

Tell me about a time, maybe, when you were struggling and something didn’t work out like you wanted it to. Maybe you needed to find a little correction to find direction.

Thomas: Sure. We had a client that was a franchise company that we were doing social media services, blogging, a little bit of press release writing.

It was a mattress manufacturer based in Wisconsin called Verlo Mattresses. If you live in Upper Midwest you would know that brand. They’re interesting.

You go into one of their showrooms, they figure out what kind of sleep style you have, or if your partner has a different sleep style how the two of you share a bed together. How tall you are, what your weight is, all kind of metrics around what kind of mattress you need to sleep comfortably.

Then they build you a custom mattress. In 24 hours they build a mattress made just for you based on whatever your needs are, with whatever components you need to have. It’s not terribly much more expensive than an off-the-shelf mattress from a department store or a mattress store, but it’s a much higher-quality, custom product.

They were struggling a little bit. They thought, “Well, maybe if we can get our story out, through traditional PR means, or maybe a blog, we know we can help people connect a little better.”

How long do you think the average person keeps a mattress? If you had to take a wild guess?

Phoebe: Wow. 10 years?

Thomas: The average lifespan is eight years, sometimes 10. How long do you think it takes somebody, when they get to the end of the lifespan and realize the mattress is beginning to wear out, to actually buy another mattress?

Phoebe: A year.

Thomas: It takes eight years. A staggering eight years.

Phoebe: Wow.

Thomas: If you’re a mattress retailer, it is a horrifying number. It’s the kiss of death. The Mattress Association did this really interesting focus groups, and they figured out there were three reasons people didn’t buy mattresses.

The first is when you go to buy a mattress, there’s a dizzying array of choices, and they all look alike. It’s very hard to tell a $4,000 mattress from a $300 mattress. They’re all big upholstered rectangles that sit on a bed frame. People were frustrated because they couldn’t get the specifics of the differences in the brands, and it was a very confusing process. If you’ve ever bought one, you know what I’m talking about.

The second thing they said was the mattress salespeople have a reputation for being super-sleazy and pushy, generally just not trustworthy individuals. You know. If you’ve ever bought a mattress, mattress salespeople, who are mostly commission-based, come off as a little pushy.

The third reason was that the whole process of buying a mattress made people really uncomfortable. You have to go into a public space, take your shoes off and lie down in a vulnerable position with this pushy salesperson leaning over you asking you questions.

The three of those things really kept people from buying a mattress,even when they were ready to buy, had the money and needed a mattress. So we started working with this particular company to try and nip at that, and traditional PR in the marketing sense didn’t work very well.

We’d get just occasional stuff, but we found people were so jaded about the mattress industry it was very hard to get pickup and play, or engagement, on social media channels. You only buy one mattress every 10, 15 or 20 years. It’s not the kind of thing that you’re thinking about on your Facebook feed.

Phoebe: Right.

Thomas: It’s a really weird thing. We unlocked some performance by figuring out that when people do mattress shopping, they’re often trying to get competitive data, or comparative data, for different brands.

We got down to very specific models for some of the common masters. I want to understand how a Verlo compares to a Sleep Number, or how a Verlo mattress compares to Elite, or Serta, or Simmons or one of those types of mattresses.

When we did that we were able to establish a group of customers who had once had the other type of mattress and bought a Verlow. We started doing some traditional reporting. “Tell us about the old mattress you had. How long did you have it? When did it start to go bad? What were the problems you had with it? How did you know you needed a new mattress? Then how did you find Verlo? What’s that whole experience been like?”

We let the customers tell their stories in what we would call a long-format blog article, which is maybe 1,200 or 1,500 words, which is much longer than a typical blog article. It’s full of real detail with pictures and video of them talking about the whole swap-over, changing a particular mattress out.

We began doing that regularly over the span of about a year. It was transformative for the brand. Their search results picked way up. People would read those and come in and say, “I was reading this article about ‘I had this particular kind of mattress and it caves in the middle.’ I read that somebody bought this other kind of mattress that you sell.”

They started selling mattresses at a much higher rate, simply because the story was the missing element. That was the thing that had to connect people. As a brand journalist we had to figure that out the hard way, because all the traditional stuff didn’t work very well.

We had to come back and think, “If I was going to buy a mattress, what would my behavior be? What kind of questions would I have? What kind of story could intersect that person in the middle of that buying process and make it easier for them?” It worked.

Phoebe: You know what I love about that is you said that you had to think about, “If I were going to buy a mattress what would my behavior be?” So I would say you need to think like a journalist and act like a consumer.

When you start behaving the way a consumer would behave, and you go out and you start looking online for things, you realize the behavior is different from the way a company originally approaches their marketing. That can be drastically different.

It’s very informative when you start to say, “I’m the consumer. I’m out shopping for the mattress. What are the types of questions I would be asking? What would I want to know?” I can imagine that the long-form article, 1,200 words, 1,500 words, would be very successful because, you’re right, you’re not buying this every other month. You’re buying it every 10 years or so.

You don’t want to get stuck having to get a bad bed and then take it back. That’s a super-big headache.

Thomas: Yes, but there’s a lesson there. One of the things that characterizes the type of writing we do for the brands is we build websites with that article format. They’re very deeply layered with a sequence of articles. Each page is 1,200 to 2,000 words or so.

They’re very long. We never use bullet points. One of my cardinal rules is we don’t bombard people with bullet points because bullet points speed the read up and shorten the time on the site. It’s just like staging a house.

When I was staging houses we would do a lot of design and structure in the house with the way the furniture worked, the colors play together, to slow somebody down. They spent 45 minutes in the house because we knew statistically, after thousands of houses, if I can keep somebody in a house for 45 minutes, then they fall in love with the house and buy the house because they can visualize themselves living there.

If you’re going to be a journalist, you’re going to have to become an expert, not only in SEO, but you also have to start to understand buyer behavior from a common-sense, human perspective. How would you buy something? Not like a VP of marketing. Often they’re so close to the trees they can’t figure that stuff out.

They have a very different approach to thinking about buyer behavior and influence than a brand journalist needs to have.

Phoebe: Absolutely. I’m really interested in this because we hear a lot that the attention spans are getting shorter, that all of the different apps and the mobile devices that we’re carrying around are causing us to no longer read long-form articles. But you’re saying that long-form articles are very important, and not to use bullet points. Let’s go a little deeper on that.

Thomas: I’m the one person that calls B.S. on the whole statement that you just said. I’ll tell you why. There’s a really, really specific and very important reason why. When you’re interested in something, and you have a question, you will consume a much larger amount of information.

The rule there is the piece of information has to relate to you. You would read that mattress article. You would read all 1,500 words, and probably then some, because you have that specific mattress.

It’s true, in general, that people read less and are busier and don’t have the time, but when you can unlock the relevance, then people will spend a tremendous amount of time.

This is on our franchise recruitment website. What would you say the average time on-site for a typical website visitor is? Off the cuff guess?

Phoebe: 30 seconds?

Thomas: 30 seconds, so maybe a minute and a half would be more like an industry rate. On our website they’re big-ticket items. People will invest $100,000 to $500,000 to buy a business. It’s a very expensive proposition for some people.

We find that among franchise buyers, we generally find there’s three types of visitors to any website. There’s people we just call visitors who are not the target audience, who aren’t trying to produce a transaction or buy something, and aren’t really interested. They just end up on the website.

Then there’s the people we call leads, who are people who express interest and spend some amount of time on the website, but really aren’t in the market or intending to buy. They’re just curious, doing some research or kicking tires.

The third group of people, the most important, are the buyers — the people that actually are the target customer, are qualified, the person that that business needs and is trying hard to communicate with.

A visitor will spend on our sites, because they’re long-format, four or five minutes on average, which is a long time. Leads will spend anywhere from 10 to 11 minutes, roughly double the time. The people that actually buy will spend upwards of an hour. 58 minutes to 62 minutes. They’ll read 33 pages filled with average length of 1,200 words.

When we track IP addresses on all the visitors to our website, that’s what we see. That’s the buyer behavior for the group of people that we’re trying to target. They have an immense appetite for very specific information, and if you don’t structure your content that way they just go somewhere else.

If I’m willing to spend an hour reading about mattresses, and Iyou don’t have an hour’s worth of content on your site, you lose me. I go get it somewhere else.

Phoebe: Right.

Thomas: That’s going to happen.

Phoebe: Yeah, you’ve got to be that resource. Absolutely. That’s what they’re doing when they’re looking around. I think what happens a lot of times is those brands are failing in that area, so whether they’re visitors, leads or buyers, they’re going to many different places to try to quench their thirst for this information.

Thomas: They do. If you’re a marketing person like a VP of Marketing, I actually like to hate marketing people. I’ve been in lots of arguments with marketing people in the normal course of business.

Phoebe: I hear you.

Thomas: I just don’t get it. They all follow conventional wisdom like the pages need to be short, pages should have bullet points, the average time on the site is defined by Google analytics, the bounce rate. None of that really matters to me.

When I talk to a CEO and we take a client on, we look at what the business goal is. That’s a really important piece of advice for anybody who aspires to be a brand journalist. Get real clarity as to what the actual business goal is.

If the website is designed to generate sales of franchises, then the number of leads, or opt ins, you get from the website is the metric that really matters. That website is there to take a visitor and convert it into somebody that somebody can have a conversation with.

If you’re working for an insurance agent and trying to get people to buy renter’s insurance, which we have done quite a bit in the earlier part of our history, it’s this: How many requests for quotes can you get?

It often comes down to much more of a lead-generation metric and less of an engagement metric. I found that as a journalist, if you can align all of the work that you’re doing around a business metric that matters to the CEO, you can sell it.

We started doing it here, and our leads increased 30% and our sales went up 15%. They’ll never fire you, ever, because you demonstrated very, very clear value. I think that’s one of the things journalists struggle with. They write and write and write and write, and they really don’t have an understanding of how to relate the metrics back to something that somebody at a C level can really understand and feel good about the return on their investment. Does that make sense?

Phoebe: Yeah, that is such a great point. I’m so glad you brought that up. Now let’s take it from the flip side of it.

Tell me a little bit about what the business, or the C-level executive, needs to understand about brand journalism because it still is somewhat of a tough sell.

Thomas: Let’s define C level just because that’s a slangy word. C level is a short term for an executive level officer of a company.

If you’re working for a really small printing company in your town and helping them with a blog, the business owner is the C level person. If you’re working for a small company, it could be the CEO, the COO, or a VP level, Marketing VP, somebody who’s very high up in the chain of command. Generally somebody we would say is a decision maker, the person who’s going to decide: “I really like this person. I think this is worth doing.”

One of the things that I’ve learned the hard way, in our six years of doing this hard core, is you have to express what you’re going to do in terms of the value it creates right off the bat.

You can’t say, “I just want to write journalism because I think it’s better.” You have to say, “I’m going to write grand journalism on your website. I’m going to restructure the copy on your website. We’re going to launch email campaigns and blogs and social media efforts, and maybe some PR in article format. We’re going to do it because we either need to increase leads, we need to increase calls to the call center. We need people to buy more pizzas or widgets or whatever it is.”

You have to have a plan from the very beginning how the work you’re going to do is going to impact that metric. That’s really tough. That requires business skills. If you haven’t been in business, if you went straight from a newsroom, it’s a little bit of a deficit because you’re not going to know how to think that way.

It’s not hard to figure out. You just have to think about, “For us to have growth, what does that mean? The sales are going to go up. What are the things that have to happen to drive sales up? Which ones do I think I could impact with the work I’m doing?”

I’ve just found that people at the C level — maybe they only have a small budget. Part of their budget is add words, pace their expanding, and you’re going to curate landing pages with their articles that somebody in their marketing side is going to launch search campaigns targeting specific landing pages with long articles about something very specific.

You can increase leads from those things. For instance, we work with a little printing company here in Nashville where we’re based. They do a lot of work at conventions. There’s big convention centers here and people come to Nashville fairly often for conventions.

They know that when somebody comes in to a convention they’ll spend more money and they need it quicker. They don’t have to cut their margin down, and they’re really good at that. We build landing pages around all the problems people have with convention printing and trade show printing at very specific hotels in town.

Those aren’t pages that are on the website that you can get to easily. They’re mostly the only way you get there is by clicking on a paid search ad. There’s a article behind the ad. The article is what engages people.That’s pretty easy to demonstrate whether it works or not because you have a marketing antenna strategy to drive traffic to the content.

Phoebe: Yes. It absolutely makes sense. It’s a great way to track it by doing that and putting that content somewhere where you have to click the ad to get to it, then being able to measure that metric. Super important.

Before we close out of this brand journalism and marketing advice section, give me a few tips that the brand journalism community, and business owners, listening can put into place with respect to photographs, because almost everybody today is at a level where they’re a photographer.

They’re carrying around their phones. Whether they’re using DSLR’s or they’re using their mobile device, everybody’s snapping photos and many people are doing it for their business. What are some quick tips that you can give?

Thomas: A couple. Thanks for asking that. The first one would be, think about your package before. When I say package I mean think about the elements that are going to go on the page alongside, and in conjunction with, the piece of content you’re going to offer.

One of our guidelines is we like, if at all possible, to have a video piece with just an embedded YouTube video of some kind. We like an infographic, which we often hire out to graphic designers. A big stat or graphic that’s kind of like the stuff you saw on Pinterest, with sometimes just words and numbers over pictures. That can be an infographic in itself, because the 2 play together.

Then we like to have 2 decent photographs. I like the one larger, one smaller. I like the photographs to be authentic, non-stock photography. I’m absolutely not a fan of using stock photography when you get into brand journalism. It feels inauthentic and works against your writing in many cases.

It’s actually not very hard, even with an iPhone, to get a decent picture. If you don’t know what else to do, take a portrait of the business owner in the shop. That, sometimes, that’s the person they’re going to do business with. That will communicate some really helpful stuff.

We often do pictures of products, or pictures of the retail location if that’s the case, or the restaurant. A picture of the dining room or maybe of the food. Something that relates to what the content is.

If I was writing a story about a mattress review, I’d have the person sitting on their bed, their actual bed that they just bought, that I took with an iPhone. Or I might have a picture of the sales person, in a non threatening way, in the showroom.

Generally think about all those pieces. Just like writing to the headline, you have to plan that out as part of your editorial calendar and not make it an afterthought. That’s one of the mistakes I see people make. They put all this effort into writing an awesome piece. They get back and it’s ready to publish. “Oh, yeah. We got to get some pictures.”

That’s a fail. That almost never works really well. It’s actually not very hard for you to get pictures and visual elements if you think ahead.

Phoebe: Love it Thomas. We move into the Think Like a Journalist Scenario. I know you’re going to love this. You’ve been hired to help an ailing company that’s about to collapse. It’s reputation shot. You have 1 month, a $1,000 budget, a smartphone, and a laptop.

How do you begin to turn this company around?

Thomas: 1 month and $1,000? What does the company do, or does that matter?

Phoebe: Doesn’t matter. You go for it.

Thomas: My typical response would be, if it’s a small company, I probably would write web content and some landing pages and probably, if I have just 30 days, one of the things about organic content is it takes weeks, and sometimes months, to rank.

The way ranking works through visibility with a search engine, is you get visibility first. That takes a while. Then the traffic slowly builds and then you get leads as an afterthought. Sometimes it’s 120 days later, so that wouldn’t be my first go to.

I would tend to do things like landing pages, and do a small paid search campaign around a few very specific search terms. I probably would take the same pages and do promoted Facebook posts, or promoted LinkedIn ads to drive traffic to the article that I wrote.

Basically you have to buy the traffic when you’re at that stage because you have such a limited amount of time. I would just think strategically about “Could I spend $100 on a Facebook promoted post and reach 20,000 people? Could I send an email with the article to the customer base of the company?” You could do a mail chimp that wouldn’t cost much.

Have a $250 paid search campaign going for 30 days. I would see if I could get enough results to keep the ball rolling.

Phoebe: You got it. That is. That’s a fun one to just explore. We know that it takes a while to build this stuff organically, like you were talking about, but there’s such great, great results from it all.

Thomas, what is one piece of technology, video, or multi-media equipment or app that you just can’t live without?

Thomas: I use, if you’re a writer, I use a piece of software that’s a web subscription called semrush.com. It’s a keyword research tool. If you’re trying to map out language, understand volume behind keyword research, it’s very easy to use. You don’t have to be a super smart SEO person to get some value out of it.

It lets you understand how a particular website is optimized. By that I just mean you can understand what are the search terms people are using to get that particular company, and what are all the related key words that people use in their queries.

That, if you’re smart about it, is the key to unlocking relevance. This is a thing that most brand journalists miss the most often. SEMrush. I think it’s even got a free version, but that’s a many time a day thing we use here in the shop.

Phoebe: Expert predictions. The year is 2025. What is your prediction for the future of TV, news media, brand journalism? How does this all affect people and businesses?

Thomas: Well, I think we’re getting more and more seamless. One of the things that we often tell our clients, in the franchise sales space, where you have recruiters who are trying really hard to recruit people, is that they’ve essentially been fired from the first conversation with a customer, or client, or a candidate, or a prospect.

The entire first conversation where you got to meet somebody and explain what you do, and what your elevator pitch is, and why somebody should consider using you now takes place online. You’ve actually been fired from that conversation. You can’t influence it in any other way than through really strategic and thoughtful brand journalism.

I think as we go through the technology spurts, converting to TV, and video, and streaming, the web content devices, there’s just every brand’s going to have it’s own story. It’s going to need to be really careful about how the story is told and unpacked, and understand at any point somebody may or may not intersect the brand and come in touch with some part of its story.

All the pieces relate back to some type of vehicle where you can do business with the brand. That’s more of a convergence kind of idea, but I see those being less siloed and less specific and much more combined and lots more overlapped.

It needs to be consistent on all levels. That should be an awesome thing for out of work journalists because the skill that you need the most to make all of that work is simply good communications and writing skills. The ability to write honestly, in a conversational tone, with a lot of upfront substance, and with as little bias as possible.

That’s what people are looking for.

Phoebe: Yeah, and that communication is so vital as we move forward in this world of brand journalism for businesses, and journalists who are looking to work in this space, super important, along with the transparency, which usually comes up somewhere in the Brand Journalism Advantage Podcast.

Oh, Thomas, thanks so much. I’ve really loved all of your tips and information and listening to what you’re doing in the niche market that you’re working in. Exciting stuff. I look forward to following your career.

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* The original podcast can be found here:
http://thebrandjournalismadvantage.com/thomas-scott/

Smart use of SEO and PPC can make a big difference in your results

SEO and PPC are mysterious, smoke-and-mirror tools for business owners. They are attractive and complicated and offer great return if intelligently executed.

However, franchisors appear to get deluged with a staggering amount of bad advice and mixed messages from vendors.

Here is the approach Brand Journalists uses with high growth clients such as Huddle House, Marco’s Pizza, Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, ChemDry, Team Logic, Christian Brothers Automotive, and other franchisors.

Step 1: Start With a Content Rich Franchise Recruitment Website Which Answers Franchise Candidates’ Key Questions

Any franchise opportunity site has one job; to attract qualified visitors to the site and convert them into “leads” — people who fill out the form requesting information or who call on a trackable phone number (for leads on mobile devices).

Franchise Opportunity Websites should convert 5% of Unique Visitors to Leads.  1-1.5% of these should become franchisees.  If your website is not converting 5% of unique visitors, THEN YOUR WEBSITE IS KILLING DEALS.

SEO and PPC does not in and of itself recruit franchisees.  It drives traffic to your website and your website converts traffic into engaged leads…like a 1-2 punch. The more conversions (unique visitors who fill out the request form) you have, the more successful the SEO and PPC will be — as will any other marketing you do.  But successful SEO and PPC starts with a Successful Website.  Huddle House’s website (www.HuddleHouseFranchising.com) routinely converts at 5%-6%, which is far above the franchise industry average of 1.4% (according to Franchise Update’s annual franchise lead generation report).  If you do the math, other franchisors would need 3 times the spend to generate the same number of leads and franchisees.  Put another way, the average franchise opportunity website kills two deals for every one it generates.  Wrap your head around that one!

Step 2: Tell A Better Brand Story

Tell your brand’s story on your website, and don’t skimp on the details.  Because franchising is a high stakes game, buyers take the time to read.  Brand Journalists attributes 80% of the effectiveness of franchise opportunity websites which convert at 5% to content (written word, infographics, and video).  Brand Journalists attributes only 20% of the success of a website to design elements.

We maintain the franchisor has been fired from having that first conversation with the franchise candidate in favor of self-directed research and the content on your franchise opportunity website. In this new era of buyer controlled self-directed research, franchise candidates want to gather all the information they can BEFORE they engage with the franchisor — which is why we attribute 80% of the success of the franchise opportunity website to content.

Your franchise opportunity website is perhaps your one and only chance to control the entire narrative of your brand story to every highly qualified lead.   Ultimately, how effectively you tell your brand story online determines not only how many leads you get, but also how many franchisees you ultimately recruit.

Generating qualified franchise buyers is not about generating clever catch phrases like “sink your teeth into this mouth-watering restaurant opportunity” or “clean up in the janitorial business”  — it’s about making a solid case as to why your business is unique, profitable, and sustainable for the long haul, helping the franchise candidate understand what it takes to win as a franchisee of your particular business.

Step 3: Think Differently About Franchise SEO

SEO is not about rankings, links, landing pages, or programming tricks. SEO is about following Google’s core mission (because people use Google far more than other search engines): to deliver the most relevant results to people searching for information. SEO is driven by language and context.

Franchise candidates type in predictable questions and key phrases when they are trying to identify their best franchise options or eliminate franchise options to get to a short list.  The entire effectiveness of every search campaign is contingent upon knowing the common questions and concerns franchise candidates have and the language are they using when they type into a search engine. Your website needs to be optimized for these searches, and your brand needs organic search visibility for as many of these terms as possible.

Every page and every article should look like a home page and be optimized to rank for an increasingly large numbers of terms.   Often Google will find interior pages and articles before Google finds your home page, which means EVERY PAGE IS A HOME PAGE!  This means constantly adding blog articles, landing pages, core pages, videos, infographics, and photos that are all optimized to answer the search engine questions your franchise candidates are asking.

Can you see the complex design and content implications?  Can you see how the franchise opportunity website, SEO, and Pay-per-click are all joined at the hip?  Can you see why these are not “generic services,” and require much skill and understanding to implement and why not every provider is the same?

Making effective use of SEO today is not just being found, that’s step one.  It’s also about providing content that your customers want to read — content that reads like a magazine article rather than a medical journal.

Let’s assume you are a multi-concept restaurant owner and you are thinking about the total investment of adding a 24-hour diner to your holdings.  You go to google.

How likely are you to check out what Huddle House has to say?  How competent does Huddle House look right now as a franchisor?

HHSEO

Step 4: Franchise Sales PPC is All About Targeting

PPC is totally different from SEO. Pay-per-click advertising is best used for two specific goals:

First, to gain visibility for searches that you cannot easily rank for or cannot rank for at all. This would include competitive searches or searches that don’t relate to your brand, market segment, or industry. If someone searches for your competitor, you can purchase an ad that displays on that search and gain visibility. All buyers do competitive research, and using PPC for this is a smart use of your spend.

Second, to increase visibility for terms you rank for organically. When we pair organic SEO and PPC advertising, we generate 40% more leads than when we do them separately. The reason is simple: the two work together. Companies struggle to get one ranking on a key search page, but getting two or more builds trust and credibility with potential customers.

Our advice for PPC is similar to SEO: Use keywords that your customers use, don’t advertise on terms that don’t convert, and try to align your PPC with your SEO efforts. Follow this advice and you’ll get a dramatically better return. Otherwise, you’ll be amazed at how skilled Google is at absorbing your budget!

Don’t make the mistake of focusing on leads – focus on franchise buyers

By Thomas Scott 

Franchise lead generation is a mistake.

You might think, “Wow, a mistake? I’m spending upwards of $250,000 a year to generate interest in my franchise opportunity.”

That’s true. Companies across franchising typically spend $200,000, $240,000 or $250,000 a year to generate leads. In fact, the average advertising spend for each franchisee recruited in the past few years has been right around $10,000. Companies that lack skilled recruiters, however, can easily spend twice that amount, and new companies or those with poor validation may spend three or four times that much. Almost all of that money is spent to generate interest in your brand and earn conversations for you.

So if you’re a franchise development person, how many leads does it really take to generate a single franchisee? We ask that question in a lot of our training sessions, and we get a range of answers: one in 80, one in 100, one in 250, one in 300 inquiries — that’s a very large number.

The truth is, it only takes one lead to sell one franchise and recruit one top-performing franchisee.

That’s why we like to say you really should be in the buyer generation business. Lead generation is a mistake because if you’re only generating leads, you may not be doing what you need to do to recruit successful franchise owners. Franchise buyers — the people who actually buy, who have the money or who qualify, who are passionate about your business, who will take the business and follow the system to success — have very different online behavior than people who just fill out a form or casually request information.

Because they’re different, you should take a very different marketing approach — beginning with your website — than you would if you’re just trying to generate a large number of leads and hoping to close one in 100, or one in 250.

How Buyers and Leads are different

We track IP addresses on all of our websites, and we understand the behavior patterns that buyers use online. It’s fascinating. We find that there are three distinct groups of people who use your franchise website. There are visitors, who come and don’t fill a lead form out. There are leads, people who fill out forms or call a salesperson but don’t buy.

Then there are buyers — people who sign an agreement, pay money and become franchisees. Their behavior on your franchise website, and on all online strategies, is very, very different.

Buyers spend an immense amount of time reading your website — about 50 minutes, on average, and reads a substantial 30-35 pages of information. That goes against the conventional wisdom that people are in a hurry, that they don’t have time to read information. We have found, though, from years of doing buyer generation and helping brands create breakthroughs is that real franchise buyers read everything you publish because they have a very large appetite for very specific information. That has real implications for how you design your website. It has implications for the copy you put on your franchise portal page and for where you spend your marketing and advertising dollars. Marketing and advertising geared toward attracting buyers is very different from that with the aim of lead generation.

Chart.FranchiseLeadGen.LoResIf you really want to be in the buyer generation business, one thing you have to do is have an article-format website with at least 30 or 40, sometimes even 50 pages of content — because that’s what people need and want when they’re trying to wrap their mind around whether your franchise opportunity is the one to buy.

Another key thing is the ability to drive traffic to your franchise website, in your marketing strategy and budget — and not just from your consumer website. You have to include things like paid search portal strategies, email campaigns, PR campaigns, online content article placement and lots and lots of SEO — a whole wide range of tactics and strategies to drive people to it.

Think about it as leaving a bunch of bread crumbs online, sprinkling them in all the places people might look for your franchise opportunity. Today that means they’re looking on their smartphone, on their tablet, on their desktop. You leave those bread crumbs so that no matter how they search, whichever language they use in the questions they ask, they can immediately get to your website. Then once they’re there, you have to do a good job of satisfying their appetite. That’s the key difference in buyer generation and lead generation.

The mistake people make often in buyer generation is that they only want to whet the potential buyer’s appetite, to tease them into getting them to fill out a form on their website. This is often because franchise recruiters fear they won’t have anything left to say if they put too much information out there. But that’s a failed strategy. We see over and over for brands that we do analytics on, that there’s no basis for that fear.

When you publish a lot of content that’s relevant to what people want to know, you often get more readers and more candidates who go further in the process.

Your recruiting website today actually takes the place of the first conversation between the salesperson and the candidate. That makes salespeople very uncomfortable and recruiters squirm in their seats, but it’s the truth. People make a large percentage of their decision to buy based on what they read — way before they ever opt in or talk to the salespeople. Your salespeople really have been fired from that first conversation.

The content on your franchise recruitment website, then, is crucial. And if you hire a copywriter or an advertising firm or a marketing agency to write that copy, chances are they’re going to screw it up. Buyers don’t want ad copy or marketing blather. They want the kind of stories you’d read in a business newspaper, maybe the “Wall Street Journal.” They want journalistic, conversational, factual and interesting.

Storytelling, particularly in a journalistic style, is a very specific and powerful skill. When they’re reading a well-told story on your buyer recruitment website, candidates don’t realize it’s selling them on your franchise. They just think that it’s interesting, and they can relate to the content.

We’ve worked with quite a few brands in the crowded carpet cleaning franchise industry, so let’s take that as an example. Say you’re shopping for a franchise and you see these two stories:

“Robert Harris, founder of Chem-Dry was on a plane on his way to a very important business meeting — he had to go directly from the airport to the meeting, and he spilled his dinner on his tie. The flight attendant came over and used club soda to get the stain out, and he was amazed. ‘You mean club soda will take a stain out?’ he asked. The attendant explained the old cleaning trick, and a lightbulb went off in Harris’ head. ‘I wonder,’ he thought, ‘if you could use club soda on a large scale to clean people’s carpets and upholstery and floor coverings and other items?’ From that flight 30 years ago, Chem-Dry was born, and now it’s the largest carpet cleaning franchise with more than 4,000 locations.”

Which is a more interesting story to you?

“You can clean up with Chem-Dry carpet cleaning business.”

Or

“Robert Harris, founder of Chem-Dry was on a plane on his way to a very important business meeting — he had to go directly from the airport to the meeting, and he spilled his dinner on his tie. The flight attendant came over and used club soda to get the stain out, and he was amazed. ‘You mean club soda will take a stain out?’ he asked. The attendant explained the old cleaning trick, and a lightbulb went off in Harris’ head. ‘I wonder,’ he thought, ‘if you could use club soda on a large scale to clean people’s carpets and upholstery and floor coverings and other items?’ From that flight 30 years ago, Chem-Dry was born, and now it’s the largest carpet cleaning franchise with more than 4,000 locations.”

Which is a more interesting story to you?

Marketing is in the midst of a revolution. The internet, and social media in particular, has wrested control of the conversation away from companies, turning traditional top-down marketing messages into quaint dribbles amid a tide of information being shared and commented upon by the public.

A word cloud of the session titles from the 2013 IFA convention in Las Vegas. Clearly companies know that having a strong online presence is key to growth and performance. So how do you create your online content?

How do you navigate the maelstrom? By moving beyond slogans, logos and disclosure documents to tell the stories that make your company compelling.

Last week I attended by first International Franchise Association Convention. The gathering in Las Vegas drew 3,600 people eager to find ways to grow their franchise systems by boosting profits; improving their training, support and supply chains; and, critically, appealing to people who are considering buying a business.

For decades, franchise systems were able to use tiny brochures, bullet point messages and the phrase “call us to learn more,” to reach investors. But the Great Recession, which devastated many businesses and wiped out assets, left buyers wary and eager for a lot more information about companies that they are considering for an investment. Now, before people pick up a phone to talk to a salesperson, they go online to do research.

What do they find when they Google you?

For a lot of companies, they find little or nothing — and then potential buyers assume the worst. If nobody is talking about your company, it must not be very healthy, right? You must be on your way out of business, right?

Wrong. You’re probably just not doing a very good job of telling your story online.

That is a huge problem for franchises. To grow a franchise system, you have to attract new people to the business. For franchisors, one of the best ways is to tap into a marketing gold mine in the form of their existing franchisees’ stories. As franchisors compete to attract new franchisees, they should ask: What drew current franchisees, especially top performers? If you ask, they will tell you. What do you like about your day-to-day business? If you ask, they will tell you. What are the sore spots that could be smoothed out with better support? If you ask, they WILL tell you.

Every franchisee has a story about what led them to the business: a laid-off marketing executive who turned a hobby into a profession as a kitchen remodeler; a mother whose search to help her ill daughter led her to a healthy smoothie franchise; a woman whose experience watching a beloved uncle succumb to ALS led her to a company devoted to compassion, caring and helping seniors live life to the fullest.

There are 3,000-plus franchise systems, so what attracted peak performing franchisees to yours?

How do buyers define your value?

Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why,” gave a great Ted Talk in 2010 explaining the thought process that separates world-changers from also-rans. In describing both Apple Inc. and Martin Luther King Jr., he pointed to a thought process that centers on the “why” rather than the “how” or the “what” — two questions that dominate most discussions about what makes a business different.

Sinek argues that most companies (and people) try to inspire action by telling people what they do, how they do it and then, perhaps, why — in that order. Apple, on the other hand, starts out with the “why:” We want to change the world. How? By empowering people through great design. By making what? Computers.

It’s the “why” that inspires.

What is your company’s “why?”

For the past year, franchisees of smoothie and juice franchise Robeks have been telling me their “why”: They want to make communities healthier. For PostNet — whose business model encompasses printing, shipping, marketing and a broad range of services within those categories — the mission is tied together by an overarching desire that franchisees share: to help small businesses, especially those in their own backyard, grow. Cafe2U, a mobile coffee concept still new to the United States, delivers coffee (the what), and uses vans tricked out with high-end barista equipment to bring a café menu to underserved workplaces (the how). But the “why” at the company’s core? They deliver joy to workers who would otherwise forgo a delicious daily coffee break.

Share your “why” with the world

Getting to the “why” is a deeper conversation than what you’ll find in an Item 7 or an Item 19. Obviously startup costs and earning potential are important, and profitability is a key to happiness for any business owner, but franchisees who are happiest are those whose passions align with their work. If you can get them to share their stories, they will add a human dimension to your brand that will make it easier for franchise candidates to understand the culture and the values that set your business apart from competitors.

Don’t you want to attract more franchisees who see your business the way your peak performers see it?

Getting your current franchisees to open up, and then telling their stories online, is a key to unlocking your brand’s growth potential. Whether someone is buying a car, a boat, a house or a business, they want to be able to mentally try it on and imagine how their new life will unfold. Your new franchisees can be the guide for people who are Googling to find franchise opportunities. If you listen well enough to learn your current franchisees’ stories, have the skill to tell the stories, and know how to reach your intended audience online, your brand can experience a breakthrough.

While there are technical aspects to the work we do with our clients, the basic philosophy is simple: Ask questions. Listen. Share.

Why you should hire a brand journalist

Ferreting out great stories and retelling them in a compelling way will attract people to your business, but a lot of companies don’t have anyone with the right skills to pull it off.

Here’s the thing: it takes a story worthy of sharing and re-telling — one that targets a specific audience and answers questions — to cut through the online clutter. It takes rich details that help the reader inhabit the world being described. Great storytelling is immersive — it’s not just a recitation of basic facts.

As luck would have it, the Great Recession freed up a lot of people with the skill set companies need: journalists.

The media industry has been shrinking for the same reason that the sales funnel has been changing — the collapse of top-down communications. Advertisers can now communicate directly with their customers through the Internet, just as your customers can now research you online. As companies shifted their money from print media toward the internet, media revenue collapsed and reporters were let go. The irony is that the same reporters who lost their media jobs are ideal candidates to help companies navigate a world in which the media no longer intermediates.

Online readers have the power to turn your brand into a star or consign it to the dustbin, and the difference is great content.

Is your brand connecting with people online?

If you don’t know how to ask the right questions and tell the right stories, ask for help. The March issue of Entrepreneur advises companies to “hire a brand journalist,” and it’s sound advice.

Terms like ‘think outside the box,’ ‘push the envelope,’ ‘change agent’ lock your trade’s door to the public. Here’s how to open it.

By Thomas Scott
I think I’ve finally decided which piece of horrid business jargon I detest most: “core competencies.” So help me, the next person who starts rambling on about their “core competencies” — especially if they’re referring to “utilizing” or “perfecting” them — gets a vigorous lashing from a noodle. It’ll be a wet noodle — this time.

What makes “core competencies” such a nauseating term is that it expresses a simple idea with words that suggest complexity, the kind of arcane notion only the best and brightest MBAs could possibly grasp. It is not. A pre-schooler could grasp it. Your core competencies are the things you do well.

Jargon - copyright Brandjournalists.com

For small and franchised businesses, core competencies are generally the reasons the businesses exist in the first place. Hi, welcome to Baskin-Robbins, where our primary core competency is selling ice cream. Why, thank you for clarifying that, Baskin-Robbins. Can you put that in an Excel spreadsheet for me, roll it into a cone and top it with two scoops of butter pecan?

Every field has its jargon. Education, especially K-12 education, is particularly horrible. Journalism has its jargon (lede, graf, pica pole). Goodness knows government is chock-full of wretched jargon (and word hash that doesn’t even rise to the level of jargon; try reading a Treasury Department memo sometime). Law, politics, medicine, urban planning — no field is immune.

But I’ve found business jargon is especially egregious in this sense: In law, medicine and financial services, at least, jargon can be justifiable; you’re dealing in many cases with irreducibly complex ideas, many rendered in Latin. Most times, businesses have no such excuses. Too often, business communication is filled with opaque language to mask the fact that the owners don’t have any better handle on their market and operations than you would. What does “maximize our earnings potential and ensure high ROI with best-in-class scalability levels” mean? It means “grow the business and make more money,” generally a good plan of action for a business.

At Brand Journalists, we do our best to translate this nonsense into Standard American English, which — and I really cannot stress this enough — is not the same as dumbing it down. We do not want to oversimplify the ideas behind the words; we want to render the ideas fully, but in the simplest, most direct language possible.

There’s a George Carlin routine that illustrates the idea perfectly. Jargon (which, really, is a kind of professional system of euphemisms, “memospeak”) exists as a buffer against reality, insulation against the notion that your work may not be as esoteric, intellectually taxing and difficult to perform as you’d like to think.

When you’re a business trying to attract franchise leads and connect with members of your community, physical or online, your language shouldn’t exclude, which is what jargon by its nature does. The secondary message behind “taking our best practices to the next level while maximizing disruption opportunities” is, “Don’t bother trying to understand what we do. It’s our thing. Keep out.” Heaven knows what the primary message is.

So here’s a list of 10 particularly awful chunks of business jargon you should ban in your professional writing and speech outright, now, forever, and some suggestions to replace them. I limit the list to 10 for the purpose of time and space, but believe me, it’s not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add to it. I doubt you’ll have trouble.

10. Strategic
Example: “Your attendance at the strategic planning meeting next Wednesday is mandatory. We’ll be discussing our strategic goals for the coming fiscal year.”
Why it’s bad: What planning and goals aren’t, by definition, strategic?
Unjargoned: “We have a mandatory meeting next Wednesday to discuss our plans for the next fiscal year.”

9. Think outside the box (and variations)
Example: “In the last two fiscal years, we’ve used outside-the-box thinking to facilitate best practices and maximize efficiencies by switching to single- rather than double-ply bathroom tissue.”
Why it’s bad: This was clever and illustrative the first 6.3 billion times it was used. Now it’s just ridiculous, to the point at which, if you find yourself uttering the phrase “thinking outside the box” … you’re not.
Unjargoned: “We saved money because Brian suggested we use cheaper toilet paper.”

8. End user
Example: “Our new website maximizes interaction and efficiencies for our end users.”
Why it’s bad: Again, the simple made overly complex. “Customer,” you mean.
Unjargoned: “Our new website is easier for customers to use.”

7. Leverage
Example: “We can leverage our HR staff to process these personnel files.”
Why it’s bad: The term comes from banking (leveraged buyout, leverage assets, etc.). At some point and for some reason, people in the business world began using it as a synonym for … well, “use.” So use “use.”
Unjargoned: “We can use our HR staff to process these personnel files. That is, after all, what we have an HR department for.”

6. Bandwidth (used in non-IT context)
Example: “I should have sufficient bandwidth to absorb that project once I finish this action item.”
Why it’s bad: It’s a hifalutin, pseudo-smart way of saying “time.” You’re a human being, not a segment of fiber-optic cable.
Unjargoned: “I’ll have time to do that when I finish this memo.”

5. Mission-critical
Example: “It is absolutely mission-critical for this business that we consistently meet customer expectations.”
Why it’s bad: Anything critical is by definition mission-critical. Also, it has a hyphen.
Unjargoned: “This business has to satisfy its customers or go under.”

4. Vertical
Example: “This fiscal year, the uptick in certain commodities prices has led to the rise of the microchip and processing unit markets as two of our key verticals.”
Why it’s bad: It’s an unnecessary nounification (I know, not a word, but you get the point) of an adjective.
Unjargoned: Sub it out for “growing” or “rising” markets.

3. Siloed
Example: “The departments are siloed, which contributes to our chronic communication failures.”
Why it’s bad: There’s no reason to turn a perfectly good farm implement into a verb that never should be a verb. It conjures the wrong visual setting, too. Cold, furtive hoarding of business information just doesn’t mesh with an image of a bucolic cattle farm in Wisconsin.
Unjargoned: “Our departments are isolated and don’t share information, which hurts the company.”

2. Synergy
Example: “With this collaborative agreement, our companies have a great opportunity for bubblegum-hard candy synergy.” Even worse when rendered in the plural: “synergies.” Blugh.
Why it’s bad: It’s rare that you can’t find a simpler way to say this.
Unjargoned: “Together, we can create a product better than anything we could on our own.”

1. Push the envelope
Example: “Our change agents have done a great job of thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope to drive adoption of our new pencil-sharpening policy.”
Why it’s bad: It’s a phrase that’s been stripped clean of meaning through sheer overuse — and it’s used incorrectly, like “I could care less.” The actual phrase is “push the edge of the envelope.” It comes from the early days of jet aircraft, when the Chuck Yeagers of the world were trying to break the sound barrier with ever-faster and more powerful planes. The “envelope” referred to an aircraft’s designed capabilities — speed, durability, mechanical integrity — and the phrase “push the edge of the envelope” meant “test the outer edges of the aircraft’s abilities.” Also, it’s not that the proof is in the pudding; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Although it’ll probably come up if you push the edge of the envelope.
Unjargoned: “We went further than anyone ever had in testing how much work our team could do.”

I’d love to hear some of your favorites, the threadbare terms and stock phrases that, like “Hotel California” or “Call Me Maybe,” you never want to hear again. And by all means, if you run across a particularly gristly chunk of verbiage, let me know. I’ll do what I can to translate it.

No guarantees, though. My core competencies are still inside the box.

 

It was authentic, unscripted, imperfect — just like the best brand storytelling

Everybody’s talking about the great Clint Eastwood’s speech last night at the Republican National Convention — man, what an unexpected stem-winder!

What was great about it is that it was genuine and unscripted, authentic communication, just like the best brand storytelling.

Clint Eastwood speaks at the 2012 RNC convention / NYDailyNews

Take a look at this, my favorite quote from the speech, one I think may rank with “Let freedom ring …” and “of the people, by the people, for the people” in the annals of transformative moments in American oratory:

“I mean, what do you say to people? Do you just — you know — I know — people were wondering — you don’t — handle that OK. Well, I know even people in your own party were very disappointed when you didn’t close Gitmo. And I thought, well closing Gitmo — why close that, we spent so much money on it. But, I thought maybe as an excuse — what do you mean shut up?”

Now, the naysayers and obsessive fact-checkers in the media will no doubt focus on how “disjointed” and “inarticulate” his words were. But hey, the guy’s 82 — give him a break! Second, most people are tired of scripted, focus group-tested lines and speeches and politicians like Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, et al, relying on teleprompters and speeches written by “speechwriters” for their supposed “eloquence.”

Clint Eastwood ChairThey just don’t get it. What we’re discovering at Brand Journalists — and what smart political consultants are realizing this morning — is that people in today’s society long for real stories told by real people in a way that reflects their priorities, values and thought processes. People want the real deal – human stories complete with all the flaws. A scripted, teleprompted, logically flowing political speech is just like a traditional marketing piece. It is flawless, one-sided and lacks an authentic, conversational style.

People don’t want perfect; they want real.

Eastwood shot from the hip and sounded like any interesting person you might run across at the bus stop or corner bar during your day. That’s why his speech is the one people will remember more than any other this political season. People tune out anything they think is “crafted” or “scripted.” Eastwood was real, and real is what people crave.

It’s what we aim to do every day here at Brand Journalists for the companies we write about, and it’s why people all over the country have responded so favorably to Eastwood’s speech. I think we might be on the threshold of a new kind of political communication, one that adopts the same lessons of authentic human storytelling that have made brand journalism such a disruptive force for business communication.

It might not be too long before we see a presidential candidate give a convention acceptance speech that borrows from Clint’s fresh, invigorating style. And wouldn’t you put more trust in a company CEO who spoke like your kind-hearted, slightly befuddled granddad instead of a slick Gordon Gekko type?

“‎I mean, why aren’t you people buying my product? What the heck was that, a bat? Are bats flying around this time of year? It’s a pretty doggone good product. Bill and Tim — or Steve? I don’t know — I lose track sometimes — anyway, they’re good people down at the lab. You, chair. You’re a nice chair. I like the way you have all four legs. We have a special this month, y’know. Doggone it, I have to pee again. I drink too much coffee.”

Authentic communication. Just as it’s the difference between phony promises of hope and change and real politics for real people, it’s the distinction between ordinary public relations and genuine brand journalism.

Want to make a meaningful connection with your audience? Just speak from the heart and don’t even bother to prepare your remarks. If you’re writing something, just let the words pop right from the surface of your brain to the page; don’t overthink your ideas! Today, perfection is the enemy of effective communication.

Try it sometime. What you lose in style and grammar points you might just gain in authenticity — and you’ll have a much better chance of breaking through the noise and setting yourself and your brand apart.

What’s your company’s story?

What is brand journalism, exactly, and is brand journalism the same thing as journalism?

By  Thomas Scott and Greg Lacour

Businesses may not know the answer to this complex question, but they’ve agreed on one thing: Using the tools, tactics and style of journalism to tell a company’s story is essential. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) listed it as one of top 12 trends in public relations for 2012, and Entrepreneur magazine focused on it in its 2012 Branding issue.

Why?

Over the years, Western culture has been bombarded with marketing and advertising to the point where consumers are wise to the game and reluctant to accept much of anything on face value. Politicians have adopted old-style Madison Avenue marketing strategies as their own, further strengthening consumers’ perception of commercial slogans and hard sells as nonsense. If it sounds like marketing, people simply tune it out.

Then came 2008, the year that crippled Americans’ trust in its institutions. Through unethical, reckless practices, banks, brokers and retirement fund managers wiped out as much as 50 percent of the nation’s personal net worth — and the government failed to stop it beforehand or punish the guilty afterward. The housing market crashed. Banks dissolved. Jobs abruptly died. People lost savings, homes and big chunks of their future, and it happened virtually overnight.

brand journalism, copyright Brand Journalists

As a culture, we lost faith in companies and stopped trusting them. We changed both the way we perceive companies and the way we make buying decisions.

Today, the typical person no longer trusts a company at face value. It is human nature to hate being sold, so most people avoid salespeople like the plague. When we want or need a service, we look to sources we trust and ask others for their opinions. You might say we are in the age of the expert opinion, and the expert is just about anyone besides a company trying to sell us something!

For companies, the implications are huge. Traditional approaches to marketing are not working like they once did. Customers don’t respond to campaigns, and even when there is a large market for what a company does, customers are just out of reach, giving one marketer reason to call traditional display advertising a ‘branding black hole.’

Thus enters the practice of brand journalism.

As long as people have been communicating, we’ve used stories to relate to each other, make sense of the world around us, and help us make decisions as we go through life. Advancements in technology have us sharing greater amounts of information, and we’re finding ourselves making more decisions based on those stories. You might say that the story is the essence of communication. Always has been and always will be.

As humans we’re wired with a desire to make a real and meaningful connection. This might explain why when someone is telling you a good story, you don’t even realize it. That’s the power of a well-told story. It allows the company or organization to become “human.” Being human is about having a real, honest connection with people, about being transparent, responsive and above all accessible.

Companies have never been adept at using stories to connect with customers. Beginning with newspapers, whose purpose as a business is to deliver advertising to readers, and going through the TV explosion and into the Internet era, companies have marketed to captive audiences, using one-way communication tools to get people’s attention. Traditional marketing and advertising has always focused on prompting a behavior change or action on the part of customers. Buy this, go here, call us, what author Seth Godin calls “interruption marketing.”

Brand journalism involves telling journalism-style stories about a company that make readers want to know more, stories that don’t read like marketing or advertising copy. It means having conversations with your customer — not preaching at them or bombarding them with bullet points but giving them real and interesting stories they can relate to. People today are so inundated with advertising and marketing speak, they now filter out marketing messages and a well-told story is the best way to get your message across.

The History of Brand Journalism

Brand Journalism actually has its roots in the franchise industry. In 2004, McDonald’s Chief Marketing Officer Larry Light said mass marketing no longer worked and that “no single ad tells the whole story.” McDonald’s, he said, had adopted a new marketing technique: “brand journalism.”

Light defined brand journalism as a way to record “what happens to a brand in the world” and create ad communications that, over time, can tell a whole story of a brand.

He was rejecting traditional marketing and advertising approaches that focused on brand positioning in favor of a content stream approach involving multiple channels and journalism-style writing. His model was the way an editor approaches the creation of a magazine, with its array of very different content aimed at a wide variety of interests — hence, brand journalism.

Franchise systems adopted the practice early, and today it is one of the most productive ways to generate leads and engage customers. Big corporations — Boeing, Cisco and Imperial Sugar, to name a few — adopted it with success. Now even small companies use it with great results.

Ten years ago, search was the big marketing trend. Five years ago, it was social media. Today, it is brand journalism. We are in the content marketing era, and the quality of your brand stories can have an enormous impact on how effective your marketing is. As a result, companies are rushing to hire journalists, many of whom are out of work as newspapers fold.

Is Brand Journalism the same as journalism?

Absolutely. It’s simply another kind of journalism, just as political journalism is journalism, sports journalism is journalism, blogs on local issues are journalism, even Facebook posts on neighborhood happenings are journalism.

Before the internet, companies hired PR firms to write press releases and pitch to journalists, who digested the releases and wrote a story that was hopefully favorable to the company. Today, a company can bypass publications and PR firms entirely and publish its own articles. Using blogs, online articles, websites, emails and social media, companies now have an unbelievable opportunity to communicate directly to their customers using journalism-style storytelling.

“Journalism” as we’ve come to define it has traditionally been the domain of newsrooms. Reporters, schooled in the craft, consider the term to apply to a very narrow definition of someone working for a news organization. Ideally, reporters are neutral, bound to be as objective as possible and have a self-imposed responsibility for telling both the positive and negative sides of a story.

Reporters are taught that there is a separation between a news organization’s editorial content and its advertising content. In other words, if a company wants publicity, they should purchase an ad; that’s what ads are for. Reporters often scoff at the idea of people creating stories for and about companies. It isn’t objective, and it doesn’t often show both sides, so it can’t possibly be journalism. For a newsroom reporter, brand journalism is taboo — it somehow is different from what they do.

It isn’t, not really. Technology has torn down the walls and made new rules. Journalism today is a large umbrella that encompasses many variations. A newsroom reporter is certainly a journalist. A writer at a business publication is a journalist. A blogger can be a journalist. Citizens with cell phones at a news scene are journalists. People who use journalism skills to tell stories on companies’ behalf are journalists, and anyone who argues otherwise simply hasn’t grasped the dimensions of the new terrain we’re all occupying.

Because ultimately, it’s all about telling stories aimed at specific audiences. That’s it. Objectivity is a fantasy; a news reporter can’t help but bring his or her biases to a story, no matter how hard he or she tries to be impartial. The practice of journalism, at its core, is about earning and keeping a reader’s interest. Journalism is about finding the essence of a story and deciding how to retell what you find so it is interesting and helpful for a reader. This starts with a catchy headline, moves on to an interesting lead and continues through the body of the article. Like all stories, it has a beginning, middle and an end.

Brand journalists, writers who practice journalism-style storytelling on behalf of a company, have to accomplish the same goal: earn and keep an audience’s attention. They have to collect and edit stories about a company and present them to the company’s audience through a variety of media.

Stories have to be authentic, full of real people doing real things. They should offer transparency into the culture of a brand, and they should give anyone doing online research answers to the questions they are asking. Stories should be interesting to read and helpful. Solid stories earn and keep trust with readers. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen a “business profile” in the newspaper. OK, it’s not technically an ad. But it sure has the same impact, doesn’t it? So what’s the difference? If a story is accurate and genuine and written to appeal to a specific audience’s interests, how is a piece of brand journalism anything other than journalism?

It works, too. Companies that put it into action produce amazing results.

A new opportunity for companies to create meaningful relationships with their customers

Somewhere out there is a potential or current customer who wants what you have to sell.

They may not know who you are or know anything about your company, but they already get what you do, are interested in your industry and have a need for your products or services. Gathering, writing and publishing brand journalism-style stories for your company website, blog, social media and online PR efforts is what it takes to earn and keep the attention of these potential customers.

What is your company’s story?

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Choosing the right words is critical when telling your company’s stories

How do you know you are using the best words in your online stories so they resonate with your target audience?

That’s a question that we ask ourselves constantly while creating brand journalism content for our clients.

Language can be tricky because language evolves with culture. When was the last time you heard someone use the word “zeppelin?” Probably only when it was preceded by “Led” or used on a History Channel show about the Hindenburg.

Words become obsolete.

When you’re writing optimized content, you can’t afford to use obsolete language. That’s why I had to pause recently while writing a piece for one of our clients, insurance broker Gotham Brokerage, whose president was recently interviewed by The New York Daily News. I wanted to highlight a major newspaper turning to Gotham for advice.

My instinct was to write, “When a reporter needed an expert, he reached into his Rolodex…”

brand journalism tactics

But who uses a Rolodex anymore? If I’d used that word, I’d have instantly marked myself as a dinosaur to most people younger than 30. That’d be a disaster for Gotham, since a healthy portion of their client base consists of New York City 20-somethings seeking renter’s insurance.

So how about saying the reporter had Gotham on “speed dial”? Do people still use that term, or have smartphones rendered it obsolete, too?

I checked Apple’s App Store and Android marketplaces to see if “speed dial” was relevant to the smartphone generation. And even though speed dialing is rapidly becoming outmoded, the term is still widely used; only a luddite would fail to grasp the meaning, and the language simply hasn’t found an adequate replacement. (“Scroll-tap”?) So several iPhone and Android quick-dialing apps use “speed dial” as part of their names.

A Silly Exercise?

This might seem like a silly exercise. “Speed dial” isn’t a word that matters a whole lot for Gotham’s SEO purposes — phrases like “renter’s insurance” and “insurance in New York” are infinitely more important.

But the exercise does get you thinking about the level of detail and linguistic precision brand journalists should exercise. Relevant, informative content leads to engagement and sales — but it doesn’t matter how good the content is if people can’t find it.

By tracking the language people use when they type search terms into Google and thinking about how different groups of people use different terms, we increase the likelihood that our clients’ content will be found by the people most interested in it and most likely to act on it.

For a brand journalist, the ultimate goal is helping companies grow their businesses. The story is just the beginning of the conversation, and the language you use determines whether the conversation even happens.

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