Get read: make it short

July 18, 2011

Whether I’m assisting clients with a newsletter, Web copy or an annual report, frequently the  challenge is to help them to feel comfortable with less text. Annual reports are particularly prone to numerous long paragraphs explaining details of the many undertakings of their year. The thing is, no one is going to read it.

Whoever coined the phrase, “information snackers” to characterize today’s readers got it right. People are inundated with information at every turn and time is always at a premium.

Very few people are going to read a 40-page annual report, no matter the content. Think of how you read a newspaper or online content. Do you start at the beginning of a page and read through to the end of the publication, website or article or do you scan for headlines and keywords that interest you?

I’m not saying that there is never a time for more lengthy content but readers need to be really interested and committed to the subject matter to engage with it. By all means, make more lengthy content available for those people, but think about your writing as you would about introducing yourself at a cocktail party. You don’t begin with your life story, you introduce yourself with a few highlights such as where you live, work or by mentioning a common interest. If you connect  with the person,  you then convey more about yourself.

It’s the same with whatever you’re writing. Assume that your donors, supporters, customers or stakeholders will only read headlines and one or two paragraphs at the most on everything you write. If you can keep content that short and to the point, you’re ahead of the game. You need to get key information out quickly or you’ll lose your audience. Use large blocks of solid text that run on for several paragraphs and you take the risk that your intended audience will not read any of it.

Here are five tips to keep your content brief and readable:

  1. Start by writing key messages in bullets – This sets the stage for being brief and encourages you not to include unnecessary information. From here, you can build short paragraphs and weed out unnecessary words and phrases.
  2. Get an outsider’s opinion – Find someone who is part of your intended audience and get them to read your content critically. What info are they drawn to and what do they skip over? Cut or edit your content accordingly.
  3. Read other content similar to yours – Read the annual report or newsletter from another organization and critically examine what you read and what you skip over. Go back to your content and try to view it with the same perspective.
  4. Make it look as short as possible – Use bullets, lots of headlines and text boxes with additional info and don’t feel you need to fill every page or screen to its margins. White space gives the perception that the content is manageable and breaking up your writing as much as possible allows readers to “snack” on what’s there.
  5. Get an outside writer – A professional writer outside of your organization can help pare down information and determine what needs to stay and what can go. He/she will also be skilled at using the fewest words possible to communicate key messages.

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Getting the most out of corporate sponsorship?

May 1, 2011

When growing companies think about communications tactics to reach new customers or further develop existing relationships, they often think of traditional advertising (e.g., print, broadcast) or perhaps, today, social media techniques. One other opportunity is through the corporate sponsorship of an event, program or initiative.

Smaller, community-oriented companies are frequently approached by an employee or friend to sponsor a local sports team or recreation program. Many companies view this as part of their charitable giving or community support initiative. They contribute to the cost of the team’s uniforms and get the company logo slapped on the back.  This is great community-level support but true corporate sponsorship is different and has become very sophisticated.  It can be a powerful tool but to get the biggest return on investment, it pays to enter into these arrangements strategically.

Sponsorship vs. charitable giving

Many organizations have a charitable giving program. Larger organizations sometimes provide matching programs for employee-driven charitable initiatives. The receiving charity may acknowledge this gift by publishing the name of corporate givers or including them on the “donor wall” for all to see.

This is not sponsorship in its  purest form. Sponsorship may have an altruistic aspect to it but its primary purpose, for the sponsor, is promotion. A company provides money to a non-profit or community event in exchange for the opportunity to promote the company’s name, products and services. Sponsorship activity is usually paid for from the advertising budget.

Sponsorship should be selective

Growing companies should examine sponsorship opportunities carefully to ensure that the one(s) they choose meet their business goals and will reach the right audience. When evaluating a sponsorship opportunity, consider the following:

  1. Fit – The sponsorship should have some relevance to your business or its stakeholders so that you can reach your target audience. A pet food store would likely do better to sponsor a dog show or an animal shelter than a jazz festival, for example. Unless, of course, their market research reveals that most of their customers listen to a lot of jazz.
  2. Level matches exposure – Organizations offering corporate sponsorship usually have various contribution levels that provide corresponding benefits/opportunities. Examine these different levels and choose the one that will give you the best exposure for the cash. Events/non-profits that closely align to your organization’s business goals/audience will be of more value to you than those with a broader appeal.
  3. Opportunities to leverage the package – The best sponsorships are those that provide sponsoring companies with a way to build in other opportunities. For example, if your company is sponsoring a performance event, does the sponsorship provide you with a block of tickets that you can use as a special perk for good customers or that you could raffle off as an employee morale booster? Feel free to suggest spin off activities to the organization offering the sponsorship to see what kind of flexibility there is to tailor your package.
  4. Evaluation – As with any other advertising or PR endeavour, evaluation is important. Does the organization offering the sponsorship provide a report after the event? This report should include the amount and quality of publicity the event received, number of times your company’s logo appeared on banners and in advertising etc. You can then integrate this information with what you see on the company side in terms of sales, increased awareness, staff morale and the like.

On the Charity/Event Side

There is a lot of competition out there for sponsorship dollars. Craft the sponsorship offer for your non-profit event/initiative well by using the resources at CharityVillage.com. This helpful site has lots of valuable information specifically on  corporate sponsorship.

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*This popular post originally appeared in this blog on September 11, 2008

Social media resister or risk taker – both need slower approach

April 6, 2011

I have two types of clients that present a challenge to me when it comes to social media. One is the client who is so intimidated by the use of social media sites that they come up with every excuse possible to avoid even examining whether they could be of use. The other is the client who sees creating a Facebook page or Twitter account as an end in itself. As if just being on these platforms will result in engagement. They want to be “there” without any thought to why or how.

In the first case, I encourage the organization to  start by just exploring how other, similar organizations are using social media before examining how they might use these tools themselves. I urge them not to get anxious about what they should/should not be doing. Just listen and observe first. There’s no risk involved and no huge rush to jump in. Those of us who are immersed in it every day forget that there is actually a lot to learn both technically and culturally when it comes to using social media. Move too fast and the uninitiated become overwhelmed and turned off quickly. Take it one step at a time.

Interestingly, the approach I take with the client at the other extreme is similar. I ask them to slow things down. Take a look at the big picture and appreciate what social media can do for your organization from a strategic point of view. How will you use these platforms to meet organizational goals? Why do you need a Facebook page? “Because everyone has one”  is not a good answer. You need to set specific goals around what you are trying to achieve. Otherwise, you won’t know if your engagement is successful.

Before dismissing social media or leaping in head first, take a look at some of these resources to inform your approach:

Things your organization should consider before social networkingAn earlier post from this blog that promotes a thoughtful approach to social media planning.

Top 10 Business Social Media Pitfalls A post on The Social Roadmap blog by Sam Fiorella that emphasizes the need for a social media plan and points out some common mistakes.

Conquering your fears of social media – a blog post by Todd Heim, an Internet marketing professional who counters many of the basic fears about getting started.

8 Reasons Not to Fear Social Media – A blog post by Aliza Sherman that points to some great resources that can help to reduce the anxiety of wading into social media.

Where do you fall on the social media anxiety scale? Are you quick to adopt every new social media tool that comes along or do you tend to agonize about experimenting to the point of avoidance and inaction?


Should we shred the RFP process?

March 8, 2011

Vintage Post: This post originally published October 13, 2009

shredded-paper

When selecting professional services, many businesses and nonprofits use a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to make a decision about the best firm or individual for the project. Seems like a wise way to approach buying services. Is it?

According to Cal Harrison of Beyond Referrals, the RFP process, which varies wildly in format and content, needs a major overhaul before coming even close to being effective, objective and cost efficient. He’s on a quest, of sorts, to bring buyers and sellers of professional services together to come up with best practices to improve the RFP—perhaps get rid of the process entirely.

I attended an event Cal recently facilitated that aimed to define these best practices for procuring professional services. In a room of 50 or so buyers and sellers of services, it was clear that although everyone seemed to agree the RFP process has problems, it was a challenge to get consensus on a set of best practices. There was some progress but it’s clear it will take some time. I’d be interested in what ideas/thoughts readers of this blog have on the subject.

Generally, none of those who attended the forum embrace the prospect of either responding to an RFP or evaluating that response. The process is often expensive, time consuming and sometimes downright confusing. Ironically, the RFP process is supposedly set up to ensure an objective and transparent method of evaluating professional services. However, upon scrutiny, the very process appears to be fraught with evaluation problems and can be manipulated for unfair advantage.

Because of these realities, some of the larger, more successful consulting practices have stopped investing time and money into responding to RFPs. If this trend increases, it will mean that buyers using RFPs will be disadvantaged by not having some of the best professionals qualified to meet their needs at the table. Clearly, some best practices are needed.

Cal’s written a thought provoking white paper about the costs of the RFP process for buyers and sellers so I won’t rehash all of his points here but I do want to highlight a few of them.

Who bears the financial costs?

It is rare for a professional services company to be compensated for participating in an RFP. The firm is expected to “throw their hat into the ring” solely for the possibility that it will win the business.

I’ve been involved in pulling together RFPs for both my own business as well as for others. I was involved in one RFP for a consulting company that was worth millions of dollars. The firm spent many thousands of dollars crafting its response. Countless staff hours were dedicated to the process and they hired me on contract to copy edit the responses. It was a complex, very time-consuming process involving many late nights because of the tight deadline. In the end, the firm did not win the business.  Who do you think paid for the RFP response?

You may think that the consulting firm/vendor paid. In reality, the costs are passed along to all the customers of the professional services company. That’s because they build the cost of responding to RFPs into their fee structure. They have to in order to make up for all of the resources they’ve put into their unsuccessful RFPs.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the firms procuring service were getting good value from the RFP process. However, Cal argues convincingly that they are often not getting the best professional and the process is grossly cost inefficient.

Evaluation criteria

Cal argues that when selecting a professional service provider, you should consider only two equally weighted evaluation criteria. These are: sector expertise and functional expertise. Sector expertise pertains to how well the professional understands your industry and functional expertise is his/her understanding of your unique challenges.

Many RFPs ask for and evaluate factors that are irrelevant to choosing the best professional. These include items such as methodology or work plan (most are generally the same), hourly rate or proposed project budget as well as timelines.

What, not ask for a budget or fees?

The most inefficient RFPs don’t list a project budget and request the vendor to submit an hourly rate or project budget. Both are irrelevant in terms of evaluation criteria.  That’s because professional services differ from labour-based services (e.g. plumbing, electrical) in that there are likely several different approaches to the same need or problem. Purchasers should always provide a project budget so that vendors can tailor their response accordingly. This actually gives the purchaser more objective information. They can then evaluate the scope and scale of what each firm offers for the same amount. Otherwise, how do they ensure they are comparing the same level and scope of service for the money?

Careful what you measure

Many questions outlined in RFPs do not lend themselves to objective evaluation. They are vague or worded poorly. Questions must be as explicit as possible for any kind of reasonable evaluation. So, a question/qualification such as, “the candidate must have strong experience in delivering services of this type” should be replaced with, “does the candidate have five or more years experience delivering this type of service?” One can immediately see that the second approach is stronger in terms of objective evaluation.

Checking references can also be a vague and unhelpful measurement. Often buyers don’t have rigorous evaluation criteria for the information they obtain from references and it because a largely subjective exercise. Many at Cal’s forum agreed that references should only be used to verify the information in the written RFP process and shouldn’t be part of any scored evaluation. There was also some agreement that little useful information is obtained from references. They are almost always overwhelmingly positive.

Work plans and proposed solutions

I’ve participated in a number of RFPs that briefly outline the company or nonprofit’s need and then ask for a “work plan and approach to the solution.” This always stumps me. As Cal points out, unless the organization has some unique problem or set of circumstances, most professional consultants follow the same methodology for arriving at a solution. It would make more sense to ask for this after selecting the consultant.

Asking for proposed solutions is also problematic. Without going through the above methodology, providing a proposed solution is premature. It can also put up red flags for consultants who have seen ideas they proposed in an RFP executed by another firm who won the RFP. Not ethical, but it happens.

What’s the alternative?

If we got rid of the RFP, how would we ensure there is a fair and transparent process?  This is often the sticking point among buyers—particularly in the public sector where tax dollars are involved. The reality is, having an RFP process does not ensure it is a fair one. As Cal points out in his paper, we can look to the Gomery Commission Inquiry into allegations of inappropriate hiring of ad agencies for proof of that.

So, we go back to evaluating candidates based on sector and functional expertise. How do you evaluate that? By examining level of experience and professional reputation. Defining best practices in this area, I suspect will be the greatest challenge.

Your thoughts?

This post could go on for several more pages about the pros and cons of evaluating professional consulting services.  I’ve really only scratched the surface but I’d like to hear about others’ experience.

What do you find most challenging as a consultant or buyer of professional services with respect to RFPs? What are your suggestions for some best practice statements? Please leave a comment.