5 Questions To Ask Before Sending Any Marketing Email

Recently, one of our startups got a big boost of incoming users. I asked the founder, “what did you do to take advantage of the situation?” “We increased promotion in our channels,” came the reply.

Alright. Well, as we discussed recently, there is a big difference between user acquisition, and user retention. If you suddenly find yourself with a big group of new users on your hands, you have to be focused on retaining them. Andrew Chen pegs the most vital period for activating and retaining users at just 7 days from app install, for mobile apps.

Chen is right when he says that customer lifecycle emails are not the end-all for customer retention or activation. But they can play an important supporting role, particularly if your product has anything like a learning curve involved- that is, if it takes users some time to understand how they can really use it.

Customer retention can be aided even within the first visit, if the onboarding process establishes behaviors and patterns that can be activated again later on. You can show users what life will be like with your product, and get them to “buy in,” by doing a few things right away.

But once you have established a relationship with a user through the product, you will probably want to make use of some smartly timed email marketing to further activate and convert that new user.

After talking with the founder, and sharing some typical email activation and conversion strategies that I have picked up over the years (which I think I will write about more in another post), I thought it might be a good opportunity to pose some important questions that startups should ask themselves before sending any marketing email.

No matter what kind of email you’re sending, these questions can force you to examine the purpose, the content, the goal, and the timing of any marketing email. They are as follows:

1. What Is the Goal?

Before hitting send, ask yourself what you hope to get out of this email. Do it not just in the sense of what your ideal reaction to the email is, like “I want the user to know about a specific feature we have,” but in terms of what the campaign as a whole is meant to do.

Make sure that the email has a goal that is trackable. “Informing our users about a new feature,” is not an easily trackable goal. But it is trackable if, for example, you give those users a way to show they know about the new features, or if you track user behavior before and after the email is sent and read.

This should lead to a few more questions: do I have a success benchmark for this email? Open rate? CTR? Conversions? Hits on a landing page? Engagement with the product? Do I have an easy way for the users to react to this email? Is there a clear CTA (more on that later)?

Try as much as possible to tie the email to some real data points, and to have some expectations for what it will accomplish. If you meet those goals, you can use the experience to replicate the good results. If you don’t, you can look for specific problems, or ask someone else for their input on where it all went wrong.

2. What is your Claim?

Every marketing email -in fact every email- has a basic “claim,” and often more than one. A claim is a statement of fact, or values, which you hope will be received by the person who receives the email. A claim doesn’t have to be said in words, but it has to be felt. It has to come out of reading the email, that this is the reason you are communicating with the user.

Try and spot the claims in this fictional marketing email:

Dear Lloyd,

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are turning, and the snows are inbound! And here at XYZ Inc, we’ve been working on an exciting new way to keep you warm during the coldest months.

Check it out here. Get a special discount of 25% if you purchase before Nov. 30th!

Bye!

XYZ Inc Team

Wow, well I’m definitely intrigued here. So what’s the claim? I can spot a few candidates:

1. You need this product for the winter.

2. We are a cool innovative company.

3. Our products are affordable.

All that was accomplished without directly saying any of those things. But these are very clearly communicated claims.

The claim can be many things. It can be something really simple, like “we care about you.” Or it can be “this new feature will make your experience better,” or “we understand you and your problems.” It can be very direct: “you have 6 days left before your plan expires.” It doesn’t ask users to do anything- that’s for later. Instead, it is simply the broader message of the email.

Try, as an exercise with yourself, to put your claim into clear and specific words, in your own thinking, before you send the email. Ask someone else to review the claim, and tell you what they think it is.

When we are writing community emails to mentors, teams and our community, StartupYard Director Cedric Maloux and I often start with that question: “What are we claiming here?” Then we make a bullet point list of claims we could be making, and we choose the one that is most clear and true to us. Then we make sure that our communication centers around that claim in some way.

So, what is your claim? Force yourself to answer that question clearly.

3. Where is the CTA?

The CTA, or Call To Action, is the thing you will ask your user to do, once they have seen your claim. There is a clear CTA in virtually every email I write- even personal emails. Marketing tricks are, after all, just systems for thinking about normal means of communication.

A CTA is usually directly tied to the goal of the email. What do you want the user to do now? Do you give them a foolproof way of doing it?

I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but it’s difficult to imagine an effective marketing email that doesn’t contain some kind of CTA. A CTA doesn’t strictly have to be a button or a link either. You can have a CTA that doesn’t even lead to your product or site (although the results of such a CTA are harder to track).

A common mistake is for a CTA to be too vague, or to be too complicated. “Please share this on Facebook.” Ok, but where’s the share button? Where’s a link to let me do that?

And another common mistake is to not inform the user of what will happen when the CTA is followed. This is a common reason why people don’t follow CTAs- because they don’t really understand what is being asked of them. Emails come in, and because the author was concentrated on getting the CTA out there, it appears at the top, possibly with several exclamation points:


“Dear User,

Click here right now it’s amazing!!!

Not only is this a pretty good way of getting yourself caught in a spam filter, it also just doesn’t really work. People want to know what they’re really being asked to do before they decide to do it.

You need to set up a CTA with some context, and possibly follow it with some reassurance:


“Dear User,

You may be interested to know that we just added a really cool feature we think you’ll like!

Click here to check it out. It’s a way of sciencing your tech using tech science. Cool right? “

Very cool. I’ll check that out, because I know what I’m being asked to look at.

4. What Time Are you Sending this?

This is as much about understanding your own users, as following any specific rules. Will your users get your email at work or at home? How old are they? How late do they stay up? How early do they rise? What time of day are they likely to follow the CTA you send?

Anyone who’s ever received pornography and viagra spam emails knows that they come at night, because that’s when spammers think you’re just loose enough to give them a look. Well, they do that because it probably works.

So take a look at your user’s behaviors, engagement times with your product, and the data you’ve gathered in the past in order to time your emails to maximum effect. Don’t be afraid to experiment! There’s no rule about this. It’s whatever works.

5. Who are you sending this to?

Just as important as what, and when, is who. A really common problem with startups that are growing their marketing efforts via email is that they don’t pay enough attention to grouping and categorizing their users, and sending emails that are likely to have the highest impact for those user groups.

For example, do you ever wonder why so many online services ask for your birthday, despite the fact that there is no conceivable reason why they should need to know it?

Recently i was suggesting to one of our startups that they try a “Birthday Campaign,” which is an old favorite of email marketers, and it goes like this: On the user’s birthday, you send the user a limited time discount offer to upgrade/extend/buy your product, but only within the next 24-72 hours (the details depend on what your goal is, and how long it should take a person to make a buying decision).

It turned out the founder I was talking to was not collecting birthdays in his onboarding process. Too bad! He should start doing that, and see if he can do something with it.

But that’s not the only way to go about it. Companies collect birthday info because they know that people spend more on or around their birthdays and, crucially, they ask people for things they want. Parents give kids money on their birthdays, as do grandparents, and spouses drop hints to each other about what they might like.

And there are lots of personal details that can be taken into account. Should your Christmas campaign really include customers in Israel? Should your back to school discount reach users in their 30s? Should your valentine’s day campaign go to single people? You don’t have to collect an extensive survey on your users in order to learn at least a few things about them, but those valuable bits that you do know can make the difference between a successful campaign, and a flop.

9 Ways to Make Pitching Easier On Yourself

For some who join us at StartupYard, pitching before an audience of 300 is as natural as brushing their teeth. Some people do have a knack for public speaking that can’t exactly be explained. Others have to work at it. This post is for those people- the majority of us, to whom pitching and selling our ideas in front of a bunch of people feels about as unnatural as reciting Shakespeare.

Don’t Overestimate the Role of Talent

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Certain people are naturally good speakers. But most great speakers have to work at it. The chances are that if you hear someone who’s great at public speaking, that ability is the result of many years of practice.

On the flip side, many people with genuine talent are unwilling to put the work in, and really use their talents to full effect. I don’t worry about the worst speakers we have at StartupYard- I worry about the talented ones. Those are the ones most likely to slack when it comes to preparing their pitches and really putting in the work. They are used to coasting on their natural abilities, and they often under-prepare for the overwhelming experience of pitching to a big audience.

When the real talents put in the work, we have magical moments. But more often, the best pitches come from the entrepreneurs who thought they couldn’t even do the pitch.

Be the Biggest, Loudest Person in the Room

This also has to do with natural inclination, but also experience. As a result of meeting so many people in the technology field, I’ve come to be able to spot certain things about people that I couldn’t before. For example, Jan Mayer, Founder and CEO of 2015’s TrendLucid, is a lecturer at Masaryk University. When we first met, and when he pitched StartupYard at our final selection rounds last year, I asked him if he was a teacher.

“How did you know that?” he asked, surprised. It was his ability to project his voice, as I like to say, to about 130% of the available space, and to appear larger than the space he occupied. If you watch teachers teaching, they command attention by speaking in a voice which is slightly louder than it needs to be, and addressed to what seems to be a group which is slightly larger than the actual group they are speaking to.

This “4/3s” voice allows the teacher to command the attention of the audience (often unruly teenagers), in a way that a normal speaking voice could not. By giving the appearance of size and energy that is slightly larger than the room, the teacher makes the audience feel as if they are smaller than they truly are.

So be big. Be bigger than the room.

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Don’t Pitch or Present. Explain and Share

There is a positive example that you can take from Steve Jobs, and more recently Jony Ive or Tim Cook. The best “pitches,” are really not a sales pitch, but a narrative of events, trends, and technologies that explains why a product is the way it is, and why that makes sense.

In best pitches I hear, the emphasis is not on the fact that something can be done cheaper, or that money can be saved or earned- nor do they lay heavy emphasis on the size of the market (a classic rookie mistake is claiming you’re in a “Gazillion Dollar Industry,” as if that means something).

Pitches that tell me a company will be hugely profitable are at best eye-rollers. If you’re a startup, then that’s not a claim anybody should put much faith in. And anyway, the most important thing is the reason your new idea or business model is revolutionary, not exactly how much money it’s going to make. Those predictions will be useless in 6 months. So focus on what you can control, which is the execution of your vision.

Instead, the best pitches tell a story, which is something we work on at StartupYard quite intensively. The story is shared, and the processes involved are explained. If you approach your pitch with this perspective in mind, then you can relieve yourself of much of the burden that many entrepreneurs place on themselves of “selling,” with something much more organic- something that they do every day with employees, friends and family.

Investors and partners want to see that you can clearly explain and share your vision, so make your pitch about that- not about your ability to sell. This is in many ways easier, because it demands that you stick to your strengths, rather than

Remember, then Talk. Not the Other Way Around

When we’re engaged in normal conversation, sometimes we start a sentence without really being sure where it’s going to end.

Here’s a fascinating exercise- record yourself talking about something casually, and then write it down exactly as you spoke it aloud. What you’ll find, typically, is that it makes almost no sense at all. It will be full of runon sentences that lead nowhere, and ad-hoc phrases that only make grammatical sense if you cross your eyes.

Nobody talks the way they write. But often, founders doing their first pitch will write it, expecting themselves to be able to say it out loud. Well, your mouth and your brain are not accustomed to actually speaking the language that we recognize in writing. That’s just not the way people talk.

Find Your “Beats”

When working with our startups, I constantly harp on the idea of “beats,” in their pitches. A beat is a moment of particular emphasis. It is a phrase or a word, or a particular idea that is central to your narrative. It needs to be remembered.

Great pitches have a clear sequence of important points, or beats, which are memorable. For an example of this, it’s useful to look at someone like Tim Cook, revealing the Apple Watch (go to exactly 1:00:00 in the video.

Cook organizes his beats in a very simple pattern. When he needs to emphasize a point, he says it as a slide appears with the same words and an image behind him. Simple, and elegant. If you’ll notice, he only uses words on the screen when he is making a specific, memorable point. At no other time are there any words on screen.

A common mistake for founders is to make their “big point,” or “ahah moment,” a part of a slide that is so complex and full of information, that the audience is busy looking at it instead of listening to what is said. Your “beats,” have to be moments where nothing else gets the attention but one simple idea.

So Nice, You Said it Twice

I’ve talked in previous posts about repeating the name of your company during your pitch (by the way, repeat the name of your company in your pitch). But this piece of advice is simpler. If something is really important in your pitch, don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize what is being said. A very powerful way.

You see? People frequently repeat things when they’re speaking, but they rarely do so in writing- which can make a pitch feel pretty stilted when you haven’t rehearsed it enough.  

Your Slides Are the Plan, Not the Pitch

Our Managing Director Cedric Maloux repeats this same piece of advice to every startup we accelerate: “Your slides are cues, not content.” When we write our presentations, the tendency is to try and accomplish communication with slides that can’t be done verbally. That’s a mistake, because it leads founders most often to try and pack slides with too much information.

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Here’s a good general principle: if you can’t say it 10 words, it’s too much information for a slide. Your slides should be nothing more than a framework for what you want to say. Nobody wants to go to a pitch and spend their time reading your slides. They want to hear from you.

German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously wrote: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As I’ve pointed out, one of the downsides of planning a pitch, is that what you end up with is a plan. Whether that’s a plan of exactly what you’ll say, or exactly what you’ll show the audience, that plan is not what is going to happen.

As I often tell my startups, the trick is not to say what you want, but to avoid saying what you don’t want. So be clear, be precise, and don’t over-write your pitch. Organize it into simple chunks.

Use Real Numbers

When I say “real numbers,” I’m going a bit beyond the “big numbers on the screen,” sense of the word “real.” I see plenty of pitches that are full of impressive numbers that, when you actually consider them, don’t say anything about the startup that’s actually pitching.

Worse, I often see pitches that include the numbers of competitors- as if the startup is just going to magically carve out a slice of the pie in their industry just because they showed up at the table. It doesn’t work that way, and investors know that. Even worse than that, I have heard pitches that included the valuation of companies in the same market. Now we’re in La La Land for sure.

Do Vocal Exercises

It’s silly. It’s embarrassing. It really, really works. For the past 2 years, StartupYard has engaged coaches leading up to Demo Day to work on voice training. The impact, over and over, has been startling- and not just for those founders who began as novices in public speaking.

Your voice is like anything else- an instrument of coordination that you use to do certain things. We are all accustomed to talking. But like the difference between walking a kilometer, and doing a pole vault, the body is not accustomed to the feats of energy and strength that we do not practice long and hard.

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For those without extensive practice and training, public speaking is surprisingly exhausting. It takes an unexpected amount of strength to use your voice to address more than a handful of people, and adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and consume more oxygen, meaning you need to breath more deeply and quickly. This all causes a person to expend more energy, to sweat, to be out of breath, and to feel exhausted, even after only a few minutes.

Bonus: Don’t Forget to Smile

This isn’t part of my 9 tips, but it’s important. Smile! And you’ll get smiles back. That’s reassuring, and will make you feel better about what you’re doing.

StartupYard’s 3rd Unconference: Remote Year, Work/Home Balance, and Blogging

Wednesday night, at Node5, StartupYard hosted our 3rd “Unconference.”

Unconferencing is an alternative take on a conference in which the participants help shape the talks and sessions offered.

An Unconference differs from a traditional conference or set of workshops, chiefly in that none of its content is planned or scheduled ahead of time. Instead, the content of workshops is decided spontaneously, by whomever is in attendance, and is interested in contributing.

 

The whole process looks a bit like this:

1. Introduce the format to attendees.

2. Attendees write down a workshop topic they would like to host or to attend on sticky notes.

3. Participants vote on the topics to be included in a series of time slots, with multiple workshops running simultaneously. The total number depends on the space and the number of attendees.

4. The moderator proposes a schedule of the events, striking a balance between topics, and not putting the most popular workshops in competition.

5. Attendees suggest changes, and the conference kicks off, with the topic owners either presenting themselves without preparation, or asking for others to present on the topic they’ve proposed- in some cases, workshops become idea-sharing and brainstorming meetings.

Remote Year

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This unconference was presented in cooperation with Remote Year, an interesting organization from the US. Remote Year collects a group of people who work independently or remotely, and offers them a once in a lifetime chance: to work in a different city, every month, for an entire year.

The object is to get to know their fellow travelers (people from around the world, not just the US), and experience life in a huge range of cities around the world, while continuing to work remotely. The organization plans and organizes all travel, accommodations, and workspaces for the workers, as well as occasional events, such as our Unconference.

The group we met, about a third of Remote Year’s 75 current members, were engaged and interesting. I’d love to hear more of their feedback about how Remote Year works for them, but they’re just at the start of their journey. They’ll soon be moving on to Slovenia, then to Croatia, Turkey, and later to Asia and South America, visiting Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Remote Year doesn’t seem cheap, at $24,000 for the full year (paid twice a month), however, considering that this is probably competitive with rents in many American cities, and it represents travel and accommodation expenses, it might not be as expensive as it seems.

Topics

There were a wide range of topics, including “video games as a business,” and “monetization of mobile apps: subscription vs. one-time payments.” But as I often do, I gravitated to soft skills topics, so these are the sessions I’ll talk about here.

Session 1: Understanding Neuroscience for Sales and Pitching

Cedric Maloux, StartupYard’s Managing Director, has given this presentation a few times, and it is always interesting. He based his talk on two books: Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff, and Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.

He talks about the concept of human evolution being related to “three brains:” the “reptilian brain,” the “middle brain” and the “thinking” or intellectual brain. One brain has been built “on top” of the other through the course of human evolution.

The important insight here is that while we think of ourselves as intellectual beings who make rational decisions, we in fact base many of our actions and thoughts on more primal, less rational instincts. The reptilian brain assesses the world according to the most basic terms of survival, more crudely put: “can I eat it, can it eat me, or can I have sex with it?”

Advertisers have long known that fear, aggression, and reproduction are the most powerful drivers of human action. But that insight shouldn’t be limited to advertising. So Cedric talks about how to appeal to the “reptilian” brain in all of us: by evoking these same feelings, either with images in presentations, certain words, or ideas that appeal to our basic survival instincts.

At the same time, Cedric highlights the “power of because.” Also long known to marketers, psychologists, and salespeople, research dating back to the 1970s shows that by supplying reasons for our need to do something, or for our need for others to do something, we can influence them to go along with us at a very high rate.

The classic experimental proof involves a woman asking to cut in line at a copy machine, but there have been variations that included people asking for seats on metro cars, and other situations. Research shows that when you ask to cut in line at a copy machine, even giving a bogus reason like “I have 5 pages,” you only stand a 60% chance or so of getting what you want. However, when you state the reason more clearly, using “because,” you can reach a 94% rate of assent from subjects. If you ask: “can I cut in line because I’m in a rush?” you’re over 50% more likely to be allowed to do so.

Interestingly, the increase in acceptance also applies even if no new information is added. So, for example, if the “I have 5 pages,” is reworded to “because I have 5 pages,” the results are the same as when giving a valid reason.

These experiments also showed that the power of because extended even to unreasonable requests, although its power diminishes as the request becomes more unreasonable. While a person with 5 pages could get up to 94% acceptance, a person with 20 pages might get only 42%, but that would still be almost double the amount that they could get without a “because.”

Work/Home Balance

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

A topic of interest to me as a newly minted dad who annoys his co-workers with pictures of his kid, this was more of a discussion group. The StartupYard team, along with the Node5 team and a few members of Remote Year got together to discuss the issue of balancing life and work, or, for some, the concept of there being a difference between life and work.

This session focused on two things: the problem of balance and priorities, and the issue of extraversion vs. introversion.

We first discussed the “four burners theory,” a concept popularized the American writer David Sedaris, which poses the problem as one of priorities. A balanced life has 4 burners, as on a stove. One is for family, one for friends, another for health, and the fourth for work. It being difficult or impossible to cook on four burners simultaneously, a successful person will usually choose to remove one. For example, a person who values their work and family, must then choose to abandon either their health, or their friends.

It stands to reason that a successful career, a solid family, and a healthy lifestyle doesn’t allow someone to keep up friendships, which involve nights out, hobbies, and other time consuming activities. At the same time, a person may choose to have a great career, and time to go to the gym and eat healthy, but must then choose between spending time with their friends, or going out on dates in the hope of finding a mate.

Again, a person may choose to have a family, have friends, and be healthy, but must then spend less time focusing on a career and making money.

Moreover, the theory goes that a person who wishes to be *really* successful, must only use two burners. You can be very healthy and have a great career, you can be an amazing friend and parent, or you can have a great family and an ambitious career, but you can’t perform at the top of your game in three areas at once.

While we all shift our priorities over time, I found some truth in this framework. I have sacrificed mostly friendships as I have transitioned to my interest in my family. My wife has stayed out of the workforce to raise our son, but has been able to maintain friendships and a healthy lifestyle. As some in the discussion pointed out, these changes are cyclical, and they need not be permanent. Roles can switch, and the needs of families change over time, as kids grow up and look after themselves.

We also discussed the concept of the “outgoing extrovert.” While Petra of Node5 described herself as an extrovert because of her ability to talk to groups and be outgoing, she also described her need to be alone with her own thoughts. It was pointed out that she might not be extroverted, but rather outgoing. Cedric too, pointed out that his public speaking ability and his career working with so many people was in fact a defense that he has built up because of his introversion, and not because he is extroverted.

On the other hand, members of the discussion who really are extroverts talked about how difficult it is for them to pass up spending time with their friends, while the extroverts couldn’t easily sympathize with the dilemma that the extroverts face; they would almost always rather be on their own. For the extroverts, not being among their friends was a draining experience, rather than a relaxation.

These are the sort of layered and spontaneous discussions that a really good Unconference can generate: when’s the last time you talked about your emotional needs at a business conference?

Blogging and Writer’s Block, and “Brand Building”

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Time to become famous.

Finally, I participated in a discussion about blogging. Something I’ve come to think a lot about in the past few years.

As many of the attendees were about to spend the next year traveling the world, many were thinking of writing “travel blogs.” The problem, it seems, is that many didn’t have a sense of the value of that kind of blogging. Why do it? Who is it for? How to start?

In writing, we often talk about “writer’s block.” While many people think of this as an issue of not knowing what to write, it’s actually more complicated. “Writer’s block,” is the dreaded feeling that writers have when they are unable, or don’t know how, to start writing, even when they know what they would like to write about.

A blank page spreads out before the writer like a barren desert, and the enormity of having to fill it with good ideas is frightening. This stops many people from writing, blogging, or doing many other creative activities.

I suffer this existential fear all the time, particularly when my writing is not work related. But writers can learn tricks to overcome the problem.

My trick, which works better for me in blogging that it does in longer works, is to always keep the problem in mind when I write. Just as we work with our startups to focus on the problem they are solving for their customers, and the unique value they are providing to overcome customer pain, I approach writing this blog in the same way.

What problem can I solve for our readers, by writing about something? It can be a basic problem, such as our readers not knowing about something they should know about. Or it can be more complex, such as the piece we posted earlier this week about StartupYard’s deeply held values, and how they differ from what people might expect. The problem then would be that people see something a certain way, and the writer doesn’t. So the writer must express his or her view, and persuade or at least inform people of their opinions and views.

If you aren’t writing to address a problem, or a lack of something, then you aren’t writing for anyone. If you aren’t writing for anyone, then why are you writing? Of what value is what you write?

While members of the discussion talked about having a blog in order to “build a personal brand” (an already overhyped concept on its own), the problem remains. A brand is built around values, and you have to have values (and thus opinions), in order for your brand to have any meaning.

We are all aware of this subliminally, if not intellectually.

Think of a few famous brands, and you will be able to define their values fairly clearly. McDonald’s? Family, “Americanization,” entrepreneurialism, convenience, and comfort. You may see other positive or negative connotations in the McDonald’s brand, but you’ll recognize that the brand communicates those concepts consistently. Apple? Cutting edge design, ease of use, and high-end mass consumerism. Whether you hate or love Apple, you can recognize that these are its core values, whether they are successful or not.

In “building a brand,” a blogger, just like a corporation, has to establish what the brand is intended to convey. Otherwise, readers will be less than charitable with their own interpretations. And the best way to convey your values is to talk about them passionately- to argue for them, and to make the discussion about them, rather than about yourself, your needs, or your idea of what your “brand” is all about.

If you can do that consistently, as I hope this nearly 2500 word blog post (written in less than 2 hours) will show, writer’s block may be the least of your problems as a blogger.

Meet the 2014 Founders: Gjirafa, Albania/Kosovo’s answer to Google

In our continuing series, we are introducing the StartupYard 2014 teams in individual interviews with their founders and key members at the accelerator. Here we introduce Gjirafa, in the words of CEO and Founder Mergim Cahani, of Kosovo. 

 

Mergim, how would you describe Gjirafa in a few words?

It’s an awesome animal with a long neck :laughs:.

Gjirafa is a full-text web search engine and a news aggregator specialized in the Albanian language. Gjirafa will bring relevant information that will be easy accessible to over 12 million Albanian speaking people worldwide.

So it’s Google For Albanian Speakers. Isn’t That Job Already Taken (by Google)?

You could say the same thing about Seznam or Yandex (the Russian search giant), but they’ve thrived in competition with Google. That’s a great model for us moving forward.  Competition between Seznam and Google have brought better results for consumers in the Czech Republic. Google doesn’t own the internet, and it shouldn’t.

And no, we aren’t Google. We have something that Google does not have. Gjirafa has access to local data, understands the market, and has been developing technology for full-text search in Albanian language. That’s something no one else has ever done, including Google.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Albanian stands alone as a language with no relatives.

Gjirafa is turning quite a few heads with our mentors at StartupYard. Why do you think that is?

Our team is built to impress, with a very strong business and academic background. Three founders have a combined 30+ years of experience, one previous successful startup, four masters degrees and one PhD. The advisory board features prominent figures in web search and management, Prof. Torsten Suel and Prof. Jay Nathan respectively.

We are very happy to be getting so much positive attention, but important to note is that mentors’ inputs and constructive feedback is shaping our product and company further. From day one at StartupYard our value proposition started to get better and better thanks to mentors’ feedback. The reason why most mentors and investors are interested, we think, is that our project has the prerequisites to make it promising: a strong team, an excellent market potential, and the technology – specifically our differentiating product features.

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

Mergim Cahani: Founder and CEO of Gjirafa

What brought you to StartupYard? What have been the benefits for you, so far?

I am certain that StartupYard is de facto the best accelerator that our team and project could have picked. In fact it is the only accelerator that we wanted to be part of (within the context of this project). It has just about all the ingredients of other accelerators, including the ones from Silicon Valley, and then some – that directly gives us better opportunities and increases our chances of success.

Mentors, investors, angels and VC’s, involved with StartupYard can more easily comprehend the potential of our project at our targeted market than other investors from other geographic areas. There are great similar success stories in the Czech Republic, and some of these investors are involved directly in those projects (www.seznam.cz is one example). They understand our product, they recognize its potential, and have a clear idea what it takes to reach our goal. This way, they can provide feedback that is so vital to company success, and some have already shown interest to be part of this journey.

Where to start with benefits of StartupYard :laughs: We love Prague, StartupYard at TechSquare has an amazing working environment, great people, a lot of events, and, can’t forget,  great Czech beer. As far as accelerating our project growth, we have meet some industry leaders, Chairpersons, CEOs, and investors from world leading corporations, who really helped shape our product and increase our value proposition immensely. Also there are a lot of perks, to mentioned one: we are en route to becoming a BizSpark plus company (that is around $60,000 in azure credit that we were planning to spend). Last but not least, people who run StartupYard know their business- they have a proven track record and experience that was evident from day one.

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

left: Cedric Maloux, Director Startup Yard. Right: Mergim Cahani, Founder CEO, Gjirafa

What are your near-term goals for Gjirafa? What products and services will be part of the ecosystem at launch?

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Our near-term goal is to launch within two months. We are planning to include a few “elect” services at the beginning. That means a full text search, news aggregation, a transport scheduler for Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, weather widget, and Albanian web facts. All these services are one of a kind, as they currently do not exist anywhere. The obvious exception is text search, where Google is a player, but we think we can do a better job, as we are focused only on one language and one specific segment of the web. That’s worked for Seznam, and we think they’ve shown us the way to success against the Google Goliath.

How about your long term goals?

Our long term goal is to become the front page of the Albanian speaking web. To be synonymous with “Internet” in the Albanian mind. If you speak Albanian, when you open a browser, it will open on www.gjirafa.com. We will provide highly relevant services and ease of access to information that is geographically localized and based on the Albanian language. Gjirafa will be more than just a useful search engine, it will be everywhere for everything. I will not speak to specific services that we plan, but I can tell you that there is a full list on queue that we are prioritizing; each one of them more valuable than the next.

As a sneak peak, enabling e-commerce in Albania and Kosovo, at this moment, tops the list of our long-term goals. Replicating the platform to other Balkan peninsula countries, is also a viable option.

You’ve mentioned developing a unique search engine for the Albanian language. Can you tell us about the development process?

It was fun! :laughs: That may sound extremely nerdy, but I don’t mind. It was really fun.

Working on this from Kosovo was a different experience than the time I spent in the United States; where in my last job I worked in a typical corporate environment. Previous to that I was in Academia, and being able to work full time on a project that I loved, what can I say? It was thrilling.

I turned one bedroom of the house into an office (this startup was luxurious; no office garage)! I used a bit of my prior experience with developing large-scale full search engines, from my Masters program at NYU Poly School of Engineering, and the very valuable help of my mentor Prof. Torsten Suel, to create all the pieces needed for the Gjirafa engine; multi-threaded crawler, indexer, query processor, and a few things in between. I developed a prototype that was not the best out there, but it was good enough and I was happy with the outcome.

The biggest limitations at the beginning were hardware and bandwidth, plus latency, and occasionally an algorithmic problem that kept me up at night. Later, two friends joined me as co-founders, and now we are working on making the engine even bigger and better. One co-founder Ercan Canhasi, PhD, is working on the search engine, while the other co-founder, Diogjen Elshani, MS, is working on the business development side.

Why do you think competitors like Google haven’t focused on Albanian speakers,

Google hasn’t ignored the market completely. I think they’ll regret their absence.

The scalability of Google allows it to fit almost any market given enough data. But there are two problems here (1) currently there is not enough data for the Albanian language on the web, and (2) the Albanian language is one of the most lexically unique language in the world. Google can’t search something it doesn’t have; it can’t index information that currently does not exists on the web. As far as the language goes, Albanian is one of the a few languages that does not derive from another language; it is a branch on its own. Processing a language (intelligently), means some knowledge is needed for that language. Linguistic research in English, and for a lot of other languages, exists. There is almost no linguistic research for Albanian that applies in this context. We are currently researching and developing Albanian grammar and syntax for NLP.  We have done the groundbreaking work that will tie Albanian speakers together online, through their language.

Kosovo’s political situation has undoubtedly held back business development in the region. Do you see the situation as improved enough for the region to compete on a level with the rest of Europe?

It is true that the political situation in the region has set back development. But things have started to take a turn, and Kosovo and Albania are becoming emerging markets especially in technology development. Based on our web mining data, the Albanian web is still in the early stages of development, but it has doubled in the past year and it is continuing its growth rapidly. That might sound like not much, considering that the whole size of the web increases at the same rate, but the difference is that the Albanian web has been expanding its core economic value at a much greater rate than the average. It is developing, and that means there are enormous positive gains to be made across a huge range. The rest of Europe will not see its web experience improves by 200% in the next 2 years. Albania and Kosovo will see that kind of improvement.  This web infancy is one of the reasons why the market is not penetrated by global companies, which makes it a logical reason why our project represents a great opportunity right now.

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What’s your general strategy for marketing Gjirafa? Google has name recognition in search all over Europe. How can you compete with that position?

Our position is with the unique services that we provide for users that Google, and other competition, do not. People need information, and currently can not get it online, and we feel that this market has been left behind – but they will be able to find it on www.gjirafa.com. Also, we will provide a targeted platform for merchants that will enable them to reach their customers. That aspect of the online economy is completely absent in Albania/Kosovo. Can you imagine that? It’s 1999 in online advertising there. Imagine what that means for the future. Our marketing strategy is diverse and a combination of several channels. Without going into specifics, we have a few marketing strategies planned for direct and indirect marketing.

 

Gjirafa is planning to launch its full text search engine in July of this year. 
You can connect with Mergim via Linkedin. 
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Irena Zatloukalova: Keep It Simple (For The Media)

StartupYard Mentor Irena Zatloukalova

StartupYard Mentor Irena Zatloukalova

Wednesday, startup teams from StartupYard spent the morning and most of the afternoon in PR training. PR and internal communications manager Irena Zatloukova,  of Seznam, grilled each of the teams for several hours, walking them through the experience of having to pitch their companies, answering uncomfortable or difficult media questions, and crafting and selling a narrative to the media. Here were some of the takeaways from the session:

Journalists are People Too

Irena Zatloukalova should know something about journalists. As head of PR for Seznam, she deals with all of kinds. The most important highlight of all of her experiences was this: journalists are people too. People know when they’re being treated fairly. They generally know when you’re lying, or when you’re not being completely honest. They know when they’re being used, and they resent it the same as anyone would. They also respond to positive inputs in all of the same ways that other people would: praise, trust, caring, and interest inspire journalists just as they inspire others.

Understanding Conflicting Motivations

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Irena and Cedric kicking off the workshop

Zatloukalova pegged the sometimes tense relations with journalists, especially among entrepreneurs, on the conflicting motivations that publications and their editors, and entrepreneurs have. As an entrepreneur or as a company, there’s a tendency to want to carefully craft a journalist’s take on your activities, and push a specific, self-serving narrative. At the same time, reporters have to justify, to their bosses and their readers, writing about a given company, or a given product. Often the interests of a journalist and a business are not perfectly aligned, and tension arises when a PR manager or a CEO is not able to accept those differences amicably- when the representatives of a company can’t respect the position a reporter is in. PR reps can form the destructive habit of “blacklisting” or cutting off disfavored reporters and publications for not toeing the company line, and they may also be tempted to distort the truth, or to lead journalists on with misleading intimations or false facts. This is a symptom of expectations that would be impossible to meet: that reporters be an apparatus of marketing, rather than a medium and means of communication.

Building a Story

 

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Team Evolso gives a mini press-conference

And to avoid these traps of poorly managed expectations and conflict, Zatloukalova talked about “building a story.” Story building is a way of approaching communication with media, that keeps in mind that media will always form its own conclusions based on the information provided, and the impressions of the journalists themselves. Thus, 3 elements are key to getting media to do what you need it to do, and Zatloukalova suggested that startupers ask themselves these three questions:

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Team Girafa in particular wants some of Seznam’s secret sauce

Is it News?

Is the story actually of interest? Is it something unique? Does it have import for the readers? Just because you want the media to talk about you, doesn’t mean they will. Many young companies can be tempted to see any information they give to the media as an enticing gift, when in fact they offer little of real substance or interest. It has to be news.

What are the Details?

This part is about curiosity. Facts make the story real, and they are the juiciest part of the story. Providing the media with facts makes the story real for them, and gives them something to present to their readers. Without statistics, exact figures, dates or percentages, your story’s context can be unclear. How important is this news to you? To your market? To the reader? To competitors? What do the numbers actually mean? The details lend credibility, and offer the media something they can use to justify their story as important, and meaningful. Without facts, there is no story.

Is This a Trend?

Finally, what does this piece of news say about something bigger than your company? Reporters love to find and tell stories that demonstrate a pattern or an emerging condition in the market, or in society in general, that has not been fully described before. If your product is beating a competitor that was thought unbeatable, this could be part of a new trend. If your users are interested in your product for a novel reason, that too could form the basis of a new and noteworthy change in the way things work. Trends can be small, restricted just to your market, or even to your own company, or they can be big; saying things about society, about your country, about the future, and about technology, art, and the economy.

Not Making Journalists Think

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Zatloukalova also stressed the “Art of the Soundbite,” or the unique framing of a particular narrative your company is pushing, which expresses itself well in just a few words. The object when addressing the media is to speak in terms that are *evocative* without being too specific or conditional. The more a journalist evaluates what you say based on its internal logic, rather than on his or her own biases and experiences, the better of you are. So make these arguments and viewpoints interesting and memorable.

She gave examples like Apple’s “The World’s Thinnest Notebook,” soundbite for the introduction of the Macbook Air, and Cedric Maloux, our director at StartupYard, added his favorite, also from Apple: “1000 Songs in Your Pocket.”

Don’t Describe, Evoke

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All the teams had an opportunity to grill and be grilled. No one was spared in this workshop.

Evocative soundbites are those that make a strong statement, which forms a clear image in the mind of the journalist, which he or she can pass on to a reader. This process is one of positioning, as well as promotion; Zatloukalova gave the example of Seznam itself: pointing out that Seznam doesn’t speak in terms of itself alone, but evokes the images that reporters are familiar with, to contextualize the company: “Seznam: the only company in Europe competing on a level with Google,” or simply “Seznam is the Google of the Czech Republic.” These sorts of statements are strong, can be backed up with facts, and are easily understood and repeated. The simpler a statement is, the greater a chance it has of finding itself repeated and used again. As an editor, Zatloukalova will often take the writing of a marketing copywriter or a fellow PR rep, and remove, to their great frustration, all of the adjectives from the piece. The point in this should be clear enough: what is important is not your opinion by itself, nor how you wish people to see things, but rather statements of fact that can be argued convincingly. You can tell someone that your app is wonderful and innovative, but why should they listen? People listen to surprising and unexpected statements- even statements they don’t necessarily agree with.

One of the CEOs at the workshop voiced a doubt about this strategy. “The Macbook Air wasn’t the thinnest notebook in the world. What happens when your claim is only arguable?” But Zatloukalova pointed out that arguments of that kind aren’t particularly bad, for an established company or for a new one. If the media is arguing over or critiquing your claims, you’re in control of the conversation at a basic level: they are already talking in terms of how you see yourself.

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The Time Bank of America Stalked Me: Or How Not to Do Social Media

It all started innocently enough. I had just made a series of online purchases using my Bank of America debit card, paying for an account on Squarespace, and a couple of related services, for a website I was making. The purchases happened over the weekend, and on tuesday I got the email.

Bank of America card security is the bane of my existence. I live in Europe, but maintain an American bank account for the considerable ease it provides in making online payments, where payments in Europe entail a lot more red tape (plus Netflix!). But Bank of America doesn’t like Europe. Not one bit. My card is shut off for fraud protection on a regular basis. Because I bought an unusual item (a mattress), because I used it in a different city than usual (Karlovy Vary), because I used it too much in one day ($400), and it is shut off, like clockwork, minutes after I arrive in any country, other than the one I was in the last time it was shut off. This has given rise to a little ritual I now have with Bank of America. When I arrive in a new country, I take out the equivalent of $200 from a bank machine, wait a couple of hours, then call their international fraud prevention hotline (toll free), to assure them that it’s really me.

To make a long story short, Bank of America wanted to cancel my debit card because it had been compromised by one of my online transactions, apparently. The only problem was, that I had already been waiting for a replacement to my credit card, also with BofA, for nearly 4 months. Now I would have no cards with which to pay for my beautiful Netflix, Spotify, and… other things that I pay for online.

I made the call, and after various hijinks and extremely long and uncomfortable pauses, the cards were their way: 30 minutes on the phone. Not my worst outing. Not my best. I was annoyed with the whole thing, and the crazy trance music they were playing was bizarre to listen to at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday.

That’s when it got interesting.

I flipped over to Twitter and posted this missive:

To be fair to me, I’m just being cheeky. And the techno music is god-awful. Why do I feel like I need to be on crystal MDMA to enjoy making a business call? But I wasn’t really upset, just bemused. If there was an emoticon I should have employed, it would be that slanty chagrined one like this :/ that indicates something like: “meh…”  I certainly never expected a response. That’s when things got a little weird.

Bank of America representatives, I think at least 2 separate people on the same account, attempted to contact me by DM to get my phone number. That’s a little weird, I thought. I initiated this conversation online, and they want to call me on the phone.

I gave my number, out of bemusement more than anything else, and then they proceeded to call me. 7 times, in 2 days. Each time they called, they also repeated a DM on twitter asking me to get back to them with a better time to call. But I was feeling a little trapped at this point. I had put myself in this situation, and I just wanted out of it.

However, given the time difference between Prague and wherever they were calling from, they only succeeded in actually getting me on the phone once, at about 9 in the evening, when I told them I was at an art class with my wife, and I would not be speaking to bank representatives on the phone. The support person wasn’t clear on the concept of there being different times in different parts of the world. She called me back at about 1am. I didn’t want to just say: “hey, listen, I was just being sarcastic, it’s fine, and please change your horrible holding music.” This was feeling like I had done something wrong, and was being held to account for it.

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To be honest, I’m just not ready to commit to a long term relationship.

Your Customers are Not Problems: They Are Opportunities

It just so happens that an alum of StartupYard, Brand Embassy, recently announced a major new round of seed funding. Brand Embassy is very cool, and if you run a medium to large software company, or engage a lot of social media (enough to have a social media team), then you should check it out. I used it myself in a previous position, when it was still very much in early Beta, and it’s gotten even better since then.

I don’t know if Bank of America is a client of theirs (they should be if they aren’t), but even if they were, software can’t protect a company from making grave errors in how it deals with its customers in social media. Software can make sure you don’t miss things; make sure you’re keeping up with the traffic, but it can’t give you a sense of humor. It can’t make you treat people like *people* instead of like points of data. On this front, Bank of America acts just like you’d expect a bank to act.

I think I know what happened though. I think I get why this situation unravelled the way it did. Bank of America is probably using a suite of software similar to Brand Embassy, which assigns social media representatives to specific cases and interactions, and can be monitored by a team leader, producing cool metrics and satisfyingly productive data that tells you how your social media interactions are progressing. There are probably goals involved that try to turn negative initiated interactions, like mine, into positive viral feedback. My tweet had to be about a problem, and that problem had to find a solution. Acknowledgement alone was not in the playbook for them.

At the end of this whole thing, when some poor young person had mollified me on the phone, and promised a muffin basket (or whatever), I was supposed to rave about how great Bank Of America is at handling its customers. Nevermind that they could spend time hiring and training for their inbound call centers so that when you call them, they can handle your actual customer care complaints more effectively. I understand that the social space exists, and is fast eclipsing inbound customer care anyway, for many reasons. And that’s all ok. But a lot of the time, people use social media to be provocative, and sometimes the best reaction to provocation is to be provoked. Mix it up. Toss in a right-hook. It’s a risk, but it might be worth it.

Social Media Should be Used to Excite, not Defuse

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Except in this case, software, or whatever protocol Bank Of America must have to manage it’s doubtlessly vast legion of social media reps, assigned my “case” to a representative, and a case demands “resolution.” I had been made into a number, and that number had to be rounded off, one way or the other. My comments had to be “dealt with,” rather than “engaged with.” I can imagine the number of people involved in shaping the language that goes into what these reps are allowed to tweet to people. And nothing kills creativity faster or deader than a committee. Because it’s always easier to say no to risks, than to take them. 

I’ve managed social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers. And it’s a double-edged sword. I can understand Bank of America not wanting to engage with petty bickering, or wanting to even *attempt* to poke fun at itself by acknowledging my own dry remarks with a bit of humor. The divide and conquer approach is safer, and I’m sure their numbers prove it. With a half million followers on a corporate social media account, the great temptation is to monetize that resource: to turn it into a channel for spreading your marketing message of the day, and to split off and minimize chatter and negativity as much as possible. Most companies can’t resist that siren call in the twitterverse. And that’s a real problem. But Twitter is taking steps to make the “divide and conquer” approach of sock-puppeting corporate accounts less attractive.

There’s a world of milk and honey beyond corporate speak, in the Twitterverse. There is an opportunity in social media to engage with customers, to get to know them, and to talk to them on their own level. Instead of flattening out everything into a bland corporate pancake, Twitter and other social media allow a rep to quickly, and incredibly easily figure out who they’re talking to, and talk back.

My website is listed on my twitter profile. In 30 seconds, a rep could have known what I do, where I work, and what my sense of humor is like. They could have found the StartupYard blog in about 3 clicks, if they thought about it. And then they could have spent a minute personalizing a response, and delighted a long time customer with a little acknowledgement. But they didn’t do that- they spent untold amounts of time trying to get me on the phone, where someone who still didn’t know anything about me would try to “handle” me and my non-problems. That’s an awful shame, really.

Content Matters. Not Just *Your* Content.

The essential issue here is that big companies are comfortable with “marketing,” as a concept, and with “customer care,” as a concept. But they are not ready for “marketing with customer care,” as a new mode of engagement with customers. Solving customer problems is one thing, but sometimes customers just want to feel acknowledged as human beings. And sure, plenty of companies are faking this kind of customer engagement with large-scale “viral” opportunities, but that isn’t the same thing. In that kind of scenario, the company controls the environment, selects customer reactions, and manages the content. Social media is not built for the perfectly polished story: it is built for the rough and ready. It is built for letting consumers create the narrative.

Thus, I present my vision of the ideal tweet: the tweet that is special because it actually accomplishes something new:

By pushing our interaction, which initially consisted of me poking a little fun at their byzantine call center operations, into a “real life,” or at least “real telephone,” interaction where I was being put in the position of explaining myself to someone, BofA made a mistake. They silenced a member of their herd, who will no longer feel comfortable engaging with them in social media again. They pushed the interaction as far as possible to the right: customer care land. They tried, rightly, to acknowledge me, but they didn’t play fair and give something back. Perhaps that’s the point, but consider this: your angry customer is also your most valuable. He or she is going to be the person who tells you what you can do to improve. Instead of being a mouthpiece for your brand (because social media is sadly ALL about brand, and not about real communication for big companies), an angry or a complaining customer is an opportunity for you to learn, and to demonstrate that you *can* learn.

Here’s how I’d have liked to see my “case,” handled at BofA. A customer care account should have tweeted: “thanks for the advice [insert quip about techno music]. We’ll bring that up at the next meeting. Anything else we can help you with?” At 132 characters, that gives me total satisfaction. Hey! A big company noticed me! I’m a hero! If the music ever does change (it’s always possible), I might become an evangelist for the BofA brand anyway. They really listened to me! They care about me! BofA could even highlight the interaction if they did decide to change something, featuring my tweet, and announcing that they were adding some cool bands to their hold music library.

Ok, that’s a little far-fetched, but still. They could do something like that. That would at least be fun, and possibly even funny. Banish the thought of a company that size doing something engaging like that!

But they didn’t listen- they didn’t acknowledge the content of my tweet at all. They just side channelled me away from Twitter entirely. God knows what I could have accomplished by talking to them on the phone. A satisfying coda to my BofA experience, when I had been complaining about having to talk on the phone with them in the first place?

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Disclaimer: Bank of America is staffed by nice and helpful people, and they are not in any way meant to be portrayed here as a villain. My opinions are my own, and are not meant to be interpreted as those of StartupYard or its partners.

StartupYard Mentor Bogomil Shopov Talks “Growth Hacking” and Open Source

Bogomil Shopov is a well known open-source developer and renowned growth hacker. He is an active speaker in open-source circles, and a contributor to various projects, including Firefox.
 
Follow him on Twitter @bogomep for valuable updates on the world of Bogo.

WIll you tell us a little bit about your career?

I started my career a long time ago. My first job was, behold … a sheppard! I was at school and I needed money. Believe it or not I have learned a lot from my first job 🙂

After that I used to sell small goods, and when I finished high school I joined the Bulgarian Army.  I spent 5 years in intelligence doing some secret military stuff. After 5 years I realized I needed a change and in order to escape the army’s stupidity, I decided to pursue my dream – to work in IT. If you go through my resume you will find a lot of things – I used to work as a programmer, web architect, IT manager, Product and Project Manager, Open Source consultant, community manager, marketeer. I’ve spend the last 6 years working on startups.  Now I am a “growth hacker” – the only definition that combines all skills I’ve gathered in my entire career … and I am happy! Also I am a Pirate! My signature is on the establishment act of Pirate Parties International.

Bogomil Shopov: Avowed Pirate.

Bogomil Shopov: Avowed Pirate.

You’re interested in open source, and you work part time on Mozilla’s Firefox. What drew you to that project, and open source work in general?

That’s an easy one. I like freedom and I like sharing. At first I started to share my code with other people and then I started to show others how and why to do it. The open source and free software movements are “guilty” of some of the most successful software projects, including the Internet. I contribute also to the Open Data initiative for  opening all government data to the public. Talking about freedom, I even ran for European parliament with the idea to fight for our digital rights and I am proud that I helped the stopping of Sarkozy’s “three strikes” (the EU version of the law). Also I am mentioned in Wikileaks for that. As I said before I like freedom and sharing.

Why did you campaign for MP fall short?

People in Bulgaria were not ready to think deeper about digital rights and green way of living. Those concepts were new to them and that’s why we got so low results.

Ever think of running again?

No, because I think there is a way to do useful work outside of the parliament and to achieve my goals.

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You describe yourself as a “growth hacker.” What does growth hacking mean to you in today’s terms?

It seems there are a lot definitions of the term. I personally prefer this one: A growth hacker is a rare combination: someone with the right marketing and technical skills who can come up with clever marketing hacks and also track their results.

[This is the main topic of Bogomil’s upcoming StartupYard workshop for members of the accelerator]

You’ve been working for a couple of years in education technology. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities in that field?

The Internet is an open book – you can take whatever you want, but you can also write and contribute. Using the internet for teaching and studying – it’s more than required now. There is huge knowledge collected and if you are a smart teacher you will know how to use it. The challenge is, well, to convince the rest of the teachers that using modern educational technologies is a must.

We worked together as a marketing team for a year, and one of your strengths is email marketing. Is email marketing more or less relevant today than before the rise of social media?

Email marketing never dies. This is the most used channel and it will remain like that for years to come for sure. If you are using it wisely you can get a lot from it. I know a company that used to send millions of e-mails almost every week, without any effect and after changing the strategy with more precise segmentation, A/B/C/D testing and adopting some anti-spam techniques the miracle happened – it works.

Email marketing is not just pushing the “Send” button. I’d love to write a blog post to share more thoughts on that, because is one of my favourite things to talk about.

What about social media? What are some of the common mistakes that people tend to make when trying to leverage social media channels into growth?

I love social media. I love creating experiments on social media as well (do not google me!).

The biggest mistake that most of the companies do is to do everything they can to get more followers. What? Yes! I know a lot of companies, even here in the Czech Republic, whose goal for their social media effort is to have new followers every day and to have more than others.

Well this is not so bad, but this is just step 0 – the work begins after that. You have to talk with your followers, you have to keep them entertained and engaged and you have to give them something they need, not just boring sales messages.

The social media channel is like every other channel – if you use it the smart way – you will get a lot from it.

What can StartupYard teams expect to learn from your input, and what do you hope to gain from mentoring  StartupYard startups?

I will hold a workshop in April about, well, growth hacking. I will show the startups how they can use tools and ideas to find their first clients, how to nurture them, so they can buy again. How to do testing for their ideas and concepts, how to track everything and how to use the data to take business decisions.

Also I will show some growth hacking examples, that they can start using on the next day. Also I will spend some time talking about Behavioral Economics from the Marketing Point of View.

But most of the time there will be discussion, because I don’t believe in workshops where one man does all the talking and the rest of the audience is thinking about something else. We will talk together and grow together.

You can catch Bogo at the Bulgaria Web Summit 2014, and at his upcoming Growth Hacking workshop

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What I learned in 18 Months as an Email Marketer (Part 2)

Advertising to Sell Vs. Advertising to Learn

It’s quite common for a small company in ramen profitability to start treating every conversation with customers as a sales opportunity. That’s the right attitude, anyway. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, every interaction is a a kind of sale. Either you are selling yourself to an investor, the media, or a partner, or you are selling your product to a customer. But just as you should always refine your pitch based on how well it has actually worked, you should do the same with your advertising. In fact, you can use advertising as a very cheap and effective form of research.

Shopping your Brand, and Testing Assumptions

Shopping your brand is sort of like focus-grouping, only you do it in the wild, and you use real customers as the focus group. The idea is to get a good sense of whether your target market is who you think it is, and if so, what that group responds to best.

You may run into some surprises doing this. The people you are most willing to buy your products may not always be the ones you’d expect. A classic industry example is women’s underwear: Victoria’s Secret has long known that male customers will spend more money, faster, than women buying the same products, and will be less interested in discounts and sales. And the reasoning is simple: men feel uncomfortable shopping for intimate items, and also don’t want to be caught looking cheap while doing it.

By the same token, though women may take longer than men to make purchases online, they also buy more electronics than men do, and consume more online media, and spend more time on social networks, taking the majority share in Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Catering to a demographic doesn’t have to mean talking down to that demographic either. You don’t see Apple making stereotypical “lady Iphones,” but their products are possibly more popular with women than with men. I can guarantee: Apple tests their taglines and slogans on women as much as they do on men. If you were selling a sleekly designed, high end electronics toy to the top of the market, would you care what women thought of your marketing?

Assumption testing can prove that your products are appealing to people you never considered potential customers, and for reasons you haven’t even thought of.

Case in Point:

Cedric Maloux, our CEO, created an app for IOS last year, and as soon as he had a working app, he “shopped” it using a number of targeted ads on Facebook. And since Facebook allows you to segment your market and target your ads to people based on sex, he decided that he wanted to know which taglines would work more with women, and which with men.

Because the nature of the app was targeted at a hobby that is overwhelmingly popular with men, he was surprised to find that women responded to the ads too. Not as much as men did, but there were key taglines that women responded to. There were ways of representing the app that appealed to women even more than they did to men. And by using the “advertise for research” approach, he was able to zero in on marketing that worked across these different segments.

And it isn’t just gender, either. There are loads of assumptions you probably make about your customers, and which you can test very effectively for little cost.

Agile Marketing: How it works

Agile methodologies don’t work every step of the way. There’s no set of iterations you can take in coming up with your products that will take you from no idea what to do, to a completed project. You need to be inspired first- and without that, there is no testing to do; no basis of comparison between a non-process and a good process. The same is true of agile marketing. It relies best on a seed of inspired thinking about your customers and your product, followed by rigorous and ego-free examination of what really works. I’ve done tons of marketing material that I loved, and only a small minority of it ever worked well. That makes marketing and coding not so different at all.

Start with Simple Questions

Like, what’s the first thing my customers see? Does it work? Does it work for the market I’m targeting? Could something else work better? Where am I losing customers?

 If your company already has a logo, then you probably have a slogan and associated taglines too.  There’s plenty of advice available about how to write them, and it isn’t actually that hard. I mentioned recently that a tagline or a slogan is more like a static element for a website. It’s fertile ground for A/B testing, and that’s what you should be doing- all the time, and not just for the homepage, but also landing pages for any campaign you run.

You can start with broad assumptions about your customers. Segment them into “likely,” and “unlikely” customer groups, and run a couple of different versions of ads and associated landing pages for each group. Create ads targeting both groups, and show them to both groups too. If your likely customers respond to the ads that target them, then you know you’re right about your market and your strategy. But if your unlikely customers respond more than you anticipated, you can continue to segment them, dialing in the specific messaging and the specific part of that market cohort that *is* responding to your marketing. You may find you’re sitting on a potential client base you never considered. And if your likely customers respond to your ads for your unlikely customers just as much as the ones targeted at them, then this may tell you that your messaging to these customers is not as effective as you thought it might be. You may have more opportunities to sell to this group with a different approach.

Set Clear Goals

Using a system like OKRs, set objectives that involve clear answers to your simple initial questions. For instance, a question like “Is my purchase page losing sales because of the design?” can be associated with an objective like: “improve purchase page performance by 25%,” with key results being simple items like: “define the most effective call to action,” and “reduce distracting elements that cause users to bounce or navigate away.” Now follow the formula: testing incoming hits on the purchase page while cycling through these changes. You may find that something as simple as a stronger call to action can raise your conversion rate from 0.20% to 0.25%, and in terms of an online store, that’s can be an enormous increase in revenue.

Shocking how often this works.

Shocking how often this works.

You may well be shocked to realize the difference a single element makes in your overall revenue when it iterates itself over thousands of hits on a landing page or a homepage every day. There, a tagline that works just 1 time in 1000 more than another can mean the difference between life and death.

But you want to be doing this testing now- not when thousands of page views are already in play. That’s why small ad-buys on facebook or other platforms can give you the intelligence you need to get ahead of these questions- before you realize you don’t have it right.

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What I learned in 18 Months as an Email Marketer (Part 1)

When I took my first marketing job, I assumed that writing was writing, no matter what you were writing about. So I sat down, strapped in, and learned as much as I could about what it takes to write email copy, landing pages, and sales campaigns. Easy, I thought. Turns out, it’s nothing like normal writing at all. Here’s what I learned.

The Call To Action

“Don’t talk about what you want. Talk about what your customer is going to do.”

Last week we talked here about selling without selling. I’m going to reiterated the 7 principles that are mentioned in that post. These are the 7 elements that should be represented in some way, in every communication with a customer.

Trust: In you and the product. Let the customer do what they would normally do.
Understanding: Be as simple and clear as possible. The customer is not smarter than you.
Emotions: Use humor, use evocative words, show love and caring. Show passion.
What to do: Buy, sign up, click, share, read on
When to do it: Now? Later? Soon?
What I get out of it: Speak about effects of the product, not the features.
When it will happen: Examples, case studies, quotes, and testimonials

Last week we talked about the first 3. Now we’re going to talk about the middle two: what to do, and when to do it.

All of your marketing copy, the copy that is designed to lead a customer from contact with your website or marketing materials all the way to a purchase, has to inspire an action on the part of your customer- to draw the customer inexorably toward a purchase, a sign up, a click, a share, or any action that you want a customer to take.

What it Does

Your calls to action should always be just enough to inspire the viewer to take the next step he/she is comfortable with, and no more, engaging each user to the maximum of their comfort, without scaring them away by pushing them to a sale or action they aren’t ready for. This feeds back to trust: you should never be in the position of asking a customer to do anything he or she doesn’t understand.

If you think of your website or marketing approach as a pinball machine, your customer is the ball. Your marketing emails, landing pages, and homepage are all those little widgets and bumpers that keep the ball moving, and your copy is gravity. When the ball finally ends up falling into the hole, that’s a sale. Here’s the trick: pinball isn’t fun if the slope is too steep, and gravity is too strong. A satisfying sales experience, or any intended customer outcome, is one that feels natural, and rich for the customer. As the customer “bounces,” from one element of your online presence to the other, they should constantly be only in danger of heading towards a sale, never getting there unless they’re ready.

If you think of the customer as the ball, then you shouldn’t worry too much if they don’t go directly to a sale every time. The longer they bounce around and absorb what you do, and who you are, the more likely they are to eventually decide to buy. And the longer they take making the decision, the clearer it will be when they do buy that the product is right for them.

There’s rarely a reason to push: a customer will only ever buy when they are ready to buy, and not before. If you have a lot of hits on your purchase page, but few conversions, then you have probably already realized this: when confronted with a decision to buy, nobody is going to do it earlier than they expected, without a very good reason (that’s where discounts and promotions come in, but that’s another story).

What It Looks Like

Last month, I edited the StartupYard Homepage and a few other landing pages for copy. Our CEO Cedric Maloux had done the layout and the basic copy. Here’s what we started with:

What Are You Working On…?

Data

We’re looking for the craziest, most ambitious projects out there, having to do with the manipulation of large clusters of Data.

Search

Have you invented a new search algorithm to complete, or compete with, the big boys? We want to hear about it.

Analytics

Do you have a new, unique way of making sense out of Data? We have x TB of data for you to play with.

This copy is good, but ask yourself: what are you being asked to do? The first line has an open question. That’s a good challenge to go further. Now we get an explanation, under the Data header, of what we’re looking for: “the craziest, most ambitious projects.” Well that’s nice, but what does it mean? Why are you being told all this?

And in the next header under Search, we explain what we want. Nobody wants to know what we want, unless it involves giving them money. And since we actually do want to give you money, why not come out and make that part clear? The site visitor is not sure who this information is for: does it apply to them? Will they find something they are looking for? They are not being given a direction to go in, only information to absorb. That’s only half of what they need. Here’s the copy with calls to action.

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Now we have some strong direction. The visitor is being shown what we want, and being pushed to engage to their level of comfort. We have a call to connect in the second column, a challenge in the first, and an invitation in the third column. That’s three ways we’re inviting the user to go further right now. We don’t care how they do that: they can email us, they can read the rest of the homepage, or they can go right to the application. We make it clear here that they’re free to choose. They can seek their own level of comfort with the process.

While it seems superficial, these calls to action have powerful subconscious effects. In Blink, bestselling economics and sociology writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses widely known psycho-social experiments in which individuals are “primed,” with certain words before being placed in a social situation. For example, a person who is told to read a list of words including “patience,” “serenity,” and “calm,” is overwhelmingly more likely to wait patiently for her turn than a person who is told to read words like “aggressive,” “confront” and “fight.”

The words that an individual hears or reads has an enormous impact on how that person behaves in the short period afterwards. Words that prime for activity and exhort action will engender better results virtually all of the time.

Open for Business

Have you ever stood outside a shop or a restaurant, and not been completely sure that they were open, so you didn’t go in? Ever passed a restaurant because it looked closed, only to see someone come out and only then realize it’s open? We all have.

Now, think about those lit-up signs on shop windows; “Come in, We’re Open.” You might think you’re not affected by this kind of thing, but you are. Your confidence, inspired by this tiny little call to action, will empower you to stride directly to the front door and open it. No questions asked.

A homepage is no different. These kinds of calls to action are just a little tiny nudge saying: “We are here for you. This is about you. It’s not a blog, it’s not PR, and it’s not about us, it’s about you.”

A Good Call to Action is not Manipulative.

Sometimes marketers go a little nuts when they figure out that a call to action can be such a powerful thing. What would you do, for example, if I could promise you that I could increase your open rate on emails by 100% in one day? Would you want that?*

*This is a classic call to action, by the way: of course you want to increase your open rate by 100%. You are supposed to say yes.

What they can forget is that no matter how powerful a call to action, you can never sell someone who doesn’t want to be sold. Calls to action are nudges, not shoves.**

**And this is a classic trust-building rejoinder: I am telling you I understand your problem and I understand that the solution is not as easy as some say. I’m showing you that what I’m offering is better than the competition, and that I care about what’s best for you.

If I nudge you, you’ll scoot forward in the direction you want to go. If I shove you, you’ll go in the direction I wanted for a moment, and then start resisting me.

This is no different from the store analogy from earlier.

What kind of salesman do you trust? The one who waits for you to look around, then approaches you quietly and asks if you want help? Or the one who approaches you as you walk through the door and asks you what you’re looking for? The first salesman wants to help you. The second salesman wants to control you.

The first one gives you a choice: tell him what you are looking for, or say no, you don’t need help. Either way, you do what you want. The second makes a demand: tell me what you’re looking for, or break all trust, and lie, saying you are “just looking.” Either way, you are forced to choose between two options you may not like.

You may buy from the second salesman if you know exactly what you want, but you wouldn’t buy from him if you weren’t sure. You haven’t been given the space to establish comfort with his offerings, before he is pushing on you to tell him what you want to buy. And if he is very good, and manages to get you to make a purchase before you’re ready, you would never, ever return to that store. Your embarrassment would be too great. You’d associate him, and that product you bought, with an experience you’d rather forget. This is not a win for anyone.

Online marketing is no different. People know when they are being invited, and when they are being pursued. And they don’t like being pursued in that context.

Do you get those emails from click-bait websites, with some video and a headline that says: “Drop Everything Right Now and Watch This or You Will Be Sorry,” or something to that effect? We’ve all been there. Or maybe you see those chain letters on Facebook, that manipulate you into sharing some overly sweet piece of human misery, that turns out wasn’t true in the first place?

Yes, they work. Once. And while you can get a lot of traffic from a sensational headline, and a big email open rate from a grabby subject line, that’s all you’ll get: traffic. Because people know when they are being manipulated, and they don’t like it.

This kind of marketing is for ad-driven spam sites, not for an honest product site that is actually offering people something they need. So don’t be a manipulative bastard. It doesn’t work anyway.

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Focus on Copywriting: Sell without Selling

This is part of our series exploring the skills, resources and experience Founders need when entering and working in an accelerator.

While most startups can’t afford an in-house copywriter, most companies also can’t afford not to have someone focus on copywriting, at least some of the time.

Why you Should Focus on Copywriting

“Language ties together the worlds of reality and possibility”

Last year, Jason Cohen wrote about developing his “story,” the many years of selling Smart Bear, a successful code-review tool. I’ll quote part of the text here (with permission), and encourage you to read the entirety.

At first when someone asked what my company’s tool suite was, I would say:

“Smart Bear makes data-mining tools for version control systems”.

It’s a description so esoteric that, although accurate, not even a hardcore geek would have any idea what it is, much less why it’s useful. Years later, when it was clear that code review software became our sole focus, I got better at describing it:

You know how Word has “track changes” where you can make modifications and comments and show them to someone else? We do that for software developers, integrating with their tools instead of Word and working within their standard practices.

Better, yes, and for a while I thought I nailed it, but still no press. Eventually (thanks to helpful journalists) I realized I was still just describing what it is rather than why anyone cares. I left it up to the reader to figure out why they should get excited.

Eventually I developed stories like the following, each tuned to a certain category of listener. Here’s the one for the journalists:

It’s always fun to tell a journalist like you that we enable software developers to review each other’s code because your reaction is always: “Wait a minute, you’re seriously telling me they don’t do this already?” The idea of editing and review is so embedded in your industry you can’t imagine life without it, and you’re right! You know better than anyone how another set of eyeballs finds important problems.

Of course two heads are better than one, but developers traditionally work in isolation, mainly because there’s a dearth of tools which help teams bridge the social gap of an ocean, integrate with incumbent tools, and are lightweight enough to still be fun and relevant.

That’s what we do: Bring the benefits of peer review to software development.

Now the reason for excitement is clear: We’re transforming how software is created, applying the age old techniques of peer review to an industry that needs it but where it’s traditionally too hard to do.

– See more at Cohen’s own Smart Bear Blog

Part of the conundrum of good copywriting is that it is virtually impossible to test. A homepage layout can be dissected into precise quanta of effectiveness: how many visitors, how many clicks, how many page views; the flow of traffic is orderly and can be controlled. You can A/B test adwords and landing pages and see “what works,” but you’ll only ever be finding out what doesn’t fail as much- not how well you could be doing. There’s no A/B test for a truly novel approach; one that builds momentum for your site and your products, because two novel approaches will not be binary in nature. They will not be comparable at all.

Because copy doesn’t work like code, but a lot of web entrepreneurs assume it does. If the copy “doesn’t work,” it’s the fault of the copy, not what the copy supports (ie: the product, or the company).

Build Your “Story,” And Your Voice

Copywriting, done well, can increase a site’s conversion rate enormously. It can entice new customers and woo old ones to stick around. But most early startups stick with their old copywriting for too long.

You can’t test  copy like you can a layout or a button or a piece of code: it’s too complex- there are too many emotions, too many subtle cultural cues, and too many ways in which people read; all of them different.* And even more, it’s reactive- your copy has to evolve with time, coming to acknowledge your existing customers and community, and what your products mean to them, along with attracting new customers. Jason Cohen’s “story,” as it evolved above was changed to acknowledge whom he was talking to about his products, and what they need to really understand about them. He went from a programmer with an idea, to a trustworthy person with a solid background in helping people with his products. And his story showed that.

                        ________________________________________________

*Our CEO Cedric Maloux disagrees with me on this point. 

Cedric: I used to have 4 different homepages. All similar, except for one headline. And I was measuring which one was leading to more sales in real time. The software would show one or the other and measure the reactions. This is A/B testing at it’s best- you can test a headline, but you can’t test all the copy. 
 
Cedric makes a fair point here. Headlines, tag lines and slogans often work more like static features of a website than the rest of the copy does. Because they don’t take on all of the same responsibilities as normal marketing copy, you can and should treat them as testable. These are the elements of your copy that stand up best to focus-grouping and testing, because their purposes are more unique- namely to attract clicks and push a visitor to go further.

                        _______________________________________________

This is not to say that you should never speak in technical jargon, but that you should always know whom you’re talking to, how much they know, and how hard they’re listening. Your copy needs to evolve to reflect the culture of your company and your customers.

But in the data-driven world of online marketing, these organic, real, contextually rich evolutions are rarely allowed to happen. It’s rare in this world to see something closer to the corporate ad-agency driven model, in which a creative and an account executive sell campaigns to a client, who then uses the creative output to tell a new story. More often it’s the case that the better is the enemy of the good: that founders and CEOs are unwilling to try anything that smacks of the entirely new, because it can’t be reliably tested, and requires a great deal of faith. Even though truly original great ideas have, necessarily, never been tried before.

 In the current startup ecosystem, ambitions for zero-cost growth have become dangerously intertwined with risk-aversity: companies shrink from the prospect of *losing* small levels of growth, in a gambit for gaining more. And not a small number of companies have played the same tune for too long- failing to pivot their messaging until their revenue has shrunk enough for it to be too late, and changes will only appear desperate and cynical (which they will be).

This is a shame in some respects, as the quality of language on a website is just as important in conveying impressions of honesty, competence, and skill as a quality design is. Perhaps even more so, as web design becomes increasingly automated and pre-packaged. Copy cannot be automated or prepackaged. It always has to be unique. Language ties together the worlds of reality and possibility. It is the medium in which you make your ideas real for your customers: in which you construct the reality of your products, and a future world in which your customers use them. That’s a vitally important thing to focus on.

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The pen is mightier.

Write Honestly: Sell Without Selling

I had a great sales manager once you who taught me what he called the “7 Things” that you have to keep in mind when you talk to a customer. It was based on a simple principle: when you talk to customers, you are always selling something. 

Before we go all Glengarry Glen Ross here, this is not the same as the old adage: “Always be Closing.”

The important thing is to remember what your relationship to a customer is, and to be very honest about that fact. You will never sell someone something they don’t want to buy. And even if you do manage it once, they will never buy twice, so you shouldn’t sugar coat or lie about your products, ever. You don’t need to. Just follow these “7 Things.”

Trust: In you and the product. Let the customer do what they would normally do.

Understanding: Be as simple and clear as possible. The customer is not smarter than you.

Emotions: Use humor, use evocative words, show love and caring. Show passion.

What to do: Buy, sign up, share…

When to do it: Now?

What I get out of it: Speak about effects of the product, not the features.

When it will happen: Examples, case studies, quotes, and testimonials

The list is a simple one to follow, and you should look for every point to be covered in some way in your communications with customers (eg: on your homepage, landing pages, email contacts, and other sales material).

Most important of the above is trust. My sales manager would say this: “If I asked you to show me 4 fingers, what would you do?” I held up 4 fingers on one hand. He said, “Exactly. Now, if I held up 2 fingers on each hand, you would think I was being a smartass.” This is to say, that trust is established by doing what the customer expects, and by showing that you understand the customer well. You have thought this through, and you understand what the customer needs.

Then you can access emotions. Emotions can be descriptive words, or appeals to imagination. But emotions must be appealed to after trust and understanding are established. Customers are looking for an emotional connection to anything they buy. If they feel they’re dealing with a real person, who wants and cares about their business, then they will be more than ready to come back and buy again.

What the Customer Gets Out of It

Surprisingly, this is an element of a lot of online copywriting that gets completely lost. Companies don’t talk about what their products mean to people. They just talk about what their products do and are. That’s a major problem.

While you might describe your product idea as: “A non-SQL back-end solution for tracking PPC traffic ROI,” I might describe that same idea as: “A tool that helps online businesses figure out whether their web ad dollars are being spent wisely.” While my version tells you practically nothing important about how the product works, it does tell you what the product does. It speaks about effects rather than features of the product. It focuses on what is important to a client, an investor, or a customer: what the product accomplishes.

This is important especially for non B2B products, but generally any time in which the client is significantly different, as an entity, from your company. And even if you’re an IT company selling IT resources to be used by IT people, the person actually in charge of buying those products or services is probably not the one who will be using them.

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Your copywriter has to concern him or herself with these distinctions: how product copywriting (such as product instructions, help menus, drop downs, and user messages), and marketing copywriting, such as homepages, campaign pages, and marketing communications, are fundamentally different, and meant often for fundamentally different people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the same mistakes made: websites for complex and expensive products that use a product copywriting style, right on the homepage. You might as well add a light-box on the homepage that pops up and says: “If you haven’t already committed to buying this product, don’t bother going forward.” The person who is viewing your homepage may not be a customer, and treating them like a customer (with product copywriting), is often a big mistake.

Because before a person is your customer, you need to establish trust. And that means giving that person a way of understanding who you are, and what you do, and of liking you. If you haven’t done that, then the customer is taking a risk in buying from you. And most sales, you’ll lose that customer.

If it’s work for the buyer to figure out what your product is, then it’s going to be nearly impossible to sell to them. And unless you’re in the enviable position of a product company that has its client-base beating down its door to buy the latest release, then you need to think about this. A lot of the time, the person your product is meant for, and the person your product will be used by, are two totally different people. And you need to assume the worst.

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