Weil: Thank you, Mike! What a nice introduction.
Mike: Well, you're quite welcome. Could you give us a little more information about what you do?
Weil: Well, I'm probably best known for publishing an e-newsletter, which is of course a form of email marketing, called WordBiz Report. It's read by about 15,000 subscribers in over 80 countries. I also sell information products through the WordBiz stores. These products are special reports on topics related to marketing with e-newsletters, more recently business blogging and so forth. I also offer consulting services and audio conferences, and I'm doing a new interactive teleseminar series. So I do a bunch of different things, all centered around marketing with words and marketing with your content online. That's through the internet, either through email or through a website.
Mike: I think a lot of people who are involved in email marketing or web marketing tend to forget that it really is about words. The internet is primarily a medium of words. It's easy to get lost in all the glitzy technology and video and forget how important it is to get the right message across. Is this a common theme with the people you work with?
Weil: Well, I think it's actually perhaps an agreement at this point that the internet is a text medium. It started out that way, for those of you who can remember that dark background with a blinking green text, you know, those old computers. While visuals and images are very appealing, what prompts people to action is the words -- it's the copy. And it's sort of exciting, since writing is what I care about, because I think that it's coming back to the forefront. People are realizing that pretty pictures don't sell.
Mike: Right. I think it's interesting that our most popular search engine, Google, stuck with text-only ads, the Adwords program, for a long time. But recently they've gone to accepting some graphic ads.
Weil: That is interesting. I don't pretend to be an expert on the Google Adwords program, although of course I use it myself, but they must have had a demand for it. I personally think that their idea of little text ad boxes on the right-hand side of search results is just absolutely brilliant. Because people read, whereas the eyes literally tend to gloss over something that looks like a banner. So I'm not sure why they went to graphic ads, but I guess they just want to offer people more options.
Mike: Well, I agree with you. As an internet user, I skip anything that's animated, you know, dancing bunnies on the screen don't get looked at -- go right to the words! Could you talk a little bit about the big trends you see in written communication through email and on the net? What are the big shifts taking place that people should be aware of?
Weil: Well, I think the biggest shift is blogs, if you believe blogs are more than a trend, and I do. I think blogs are much more than a cool trend -- blogging as a tool is enabling anybody to quickly post new content to their site or to their blog page. More importantly, to post in such a way where the writing is very immediate, fresh and direct. I think you and I were speaking a little earlier and you mentioned the word "authentic," and I think there's a realization that marketing speak, corporate speak if you will, just doesn't work on the internet, because the internet is very much a one-to-one medium.
You don't normally have six people crowded around a computer screen reading the home page of a particular company. Internet communication is really one-to-one. This is certainly the case for email. Corporate speak just doesn't work for people -- they tune it out. Whereas writing is more intimate; it has a fresher, more human tone to it and can be very, very powerful. I think a lot of people are agreeing that it really does work, and that's why blogging is really going to take off as a business tool in the next year. Of course, the media's discovered it, but I think more importantly, it will take off as a business tool.
Mike: That's some interesting insight on business blogging. So far, of course, blogging has been the realm of individual commentators -- political bloggers, technology bloggers -- but it's been more of a grassroots trend so far, right?
Weil: Absolutely. For those of us who are into the whole online thing, I think we've enjoyed the kind of coolness factor. "Ooh, that's fun, let's go read that." But for other people, particularly in business, I think it's actually turned them off of blogging. They say, "That's so silly. I don't want to read about someone's personal observations about politics. I don't want to hear about their cat or what they ate for breakfast."
But I think we're just beginning to move beyond that, where people are beginning to understand that you can learn a lot from these famous bloggers, the political pundits and so forth, by studying how they write about things, how they link to other sources, how they create an ongoing dialogue with their readers. You can take that and apply that to a business situation, where you're trying to get closer to your customers or your prospects to connect with them, and it's just a fantastic tool.
Mike: You have a product out called a Business Blogging Starter Kit that can help people get started with blogging, right?
Weil: I do. It's based on an audio conference we did, but we've significantly edited and enhanced it and added a lot more resources to it. It covered everything from what blogging software you can use and what the differences are between the blogging software products, to some case studies that are very specific -- they're business case studies of how blogs are being used. My favorite part is the content tips on how you write a good blog. So there's a lot of good stuff in it. It's a great way to get started, even if you're just thinking, "Gee, should we add a blog to our internet communications mix?"
Mike: Well what a timely a product, because I think a lot of people out there have been reading blogs, and they're involved in marketing in their own organizations, but they don't really know how to get started or even what technology to use. So, kudos to you for that, Debbie!
Weil: Well, let's hope that there's lots of interested buyers. We'll see!
Mike: Using blogging as a credible communications tool brings up some interesting, perhaps even debatable ideas. I think for many years, credibility was achieved through journalism and the traditional press by presenting an apparent objective viewpoint, right? It's not biased, it's all fact-based, it's supposed to be objective. But now, blogging comes along, and people are putting in their opinions and their passions, and suddenly that seems a lot more credible to people because it's real. Does that ring a bell with you?
Weil: It does, and it sort of seems a bit contradictory in a way, doesn't it? Particularly when you talk about business, where credibility is what you're trying to build. When it's marketing communications, whether it's online or offline, what you're trying to build is your credibility, leadership and that sort of thing. So, I think honestly it's a little hard to describe -- where is that line? Where is the line that you shouldn't cross if you have a business blog, in terms of expressing opinions versus being inappropriate? Whether it's revealing company proprietary information, or talking about your new product development when you shouldn't talk about it, or even saying things that are inappropriate about your competition. I don't have all the answers. But I do think it can be figured out, and I think that there are ways to do that.
Mike: I want to ask you about email newsletters. Email newsletters were at one time riding a wave of popularity, but their use seems to have stalled out a bit, perhaps because of the spam problem, and the fact that people are annoyed at receiving too many e-mails. What do you think is going to happen to email newsletters down the road? Are companies going to rely on them more? Have they become more accepting? What are the trends there?
Weil: Well, I like the way you put that, and I think a couple of things have happened. One, as you mentioned, are all the spam filters that are making it more difficult to deliver these email newsletters because they get trapped and caught up and siphoned off into junk folders. The second is simply the sheer number of e-newsletters, or e-zines as some people call them. Basically everyone has an e-zine, so it's very hard to rise above the din to get yours noticed. So I think what's going to happen is that only the ones that are good are going to survive.
There's also the publishing end. Remember that most companies are not in the newsletter publishing business -- they're just using this as a marketing tool, and some of them just run out of steam and can't keep it up. They don't have a good way to generate interesting, useful content over the long term. So those will just sort of go by the wayside. I don't know how hopeful I am about the spam problem really being solved, but I just think it's just like with everything else -- the good ones will stick around and a lot of them will just disappear.
There is one more thing. There is always the technical problem of HTML versus text, especially with all the new email filters in place. For example, Gmail accounts don't support CSS, which is an HTML coding thing. There may in fact be a movement back toward little text messages that say, "Hey, want to get your new issues of our newsletter? Click here and go to our website." I don't think anything is written in stone yet, but I think that there may be a move back toward that, because those short alerts that tell you that the newsletter's ready are probably easier to deliver.
Mike: So, in a sense, I think it makes your focus even more important to marketers, because it brings it back to the text.
Weil: Exactly. I think it's all in the writing and the content of the newsletters. If something is really truly interesting, people will continue to read it and that makes it effective. The same rules apply to writing a good newsletter. A good e-newsletter is well written and it makes people want to read it.
Mike: So, from a content point of view, a text point of view, can you offer some simple things people can do to make their newsletters interesting? Or is it really more complex than that?
Weil: Well, there are some simple tips you can use on content that always work. One is to be really careful of what your ratio of editorial versus promotion is. People can smell that a mile away. If your newsletter really is just all about your latest product, they can sense that and they'll delete it. So you have to be careful about that. As for specific content tips, I frequently recommend "The Top Three Tips" for whatever it is you'd like to discuss. You can even use your subject line as a way to structure what's going to be in your newsletter -- so "Top Three Tips" never fails.
Case studies never fail -- people want to read case studies. Industry trends -- maybe if you have a little section on statistics. People also like Q&A. They like stuff that's a little bit behind the scenes, perhaps of how things work in your company, or maybe how your product works, stuff that you might even call journalistic. It's the kind of interesting thing you might read in the newspaper. It's not marketing speak. There are lots of little tricks on how you can generate content like that. You can also get your readers to submit questions, and you can provide answers.
Mike: What about your own e-newsletter, WordBiz Report? Are these the same types of topics you include in that?
Weil: Well, I wish I could tell you that I could just do it in my sleep and it just rolls off my fingers, but unfortunately it always takes more work than that. I do have some content formulas that I use, and actually this is one that other people use as well, which is that I think about what products I want to promote, and tell people about that product. When I say product, I mean like a PDF report, or perhaps an audio recording. I think about what the product is about, and then I flip it around and make the topic of the newsletter or the lead article be about that issue or topic, with three tips about it.
For example, I did an article just recently on the top three tips for marketing with postcards. And I interviewed a woman who'd written a report about that, and I'm selling her reports through my store. So it's a revenue share, and people absolutely loved this article. It was very, very simple, and I think it worked because I didn't just have the top three tips -- I say that I spoke to this woman and here's what she said, so they were getting a little bit extra, more than they would know from just buying her report. And people went and bought this report in droves. But I was very low-key about the "Hey, go buy her report." It was kind of, "Wanna learn more?" So the formula is "Top three tips!" and then "Wanna learn more about this topic? Click here and see what we have, read our report about XYZ." It tells you more about whatever the topic is -- in this case, marketing with postcards.
Mike: Can you talk more about marketing with postcards?
Weil: I cannot explain it, maybe it's because it was August, but my point was, "Think offline." A lot of us are too involved in the online world that we forget that there is an offline world. People may think tangible things like postcards or direct mail are expensive, so they may not do a lot of direct mail, but postcards are quite affordable. They are real and they're tangible and you can put some interesting copy on them, and they're very cost-effective. Think multichannel, think on and offline -- postcards in conjunction with telephone calls, handwritten notes for prospects, along with your e-newsletter and perhaps a blog and great content on your website.
Mike: Fascinating. I think people would be interested to learn more about that. It's the kind of subject that just raises curiosity -- people think, "Gee, how can I use postcards?" It's a world of hybrid marketing ideas, that's for sure. What are the ways in which a blog can really help a business or organization accomplish its goals?
Weil: Well, there's a couple of ways. One is to first figure out who in your organization or company should be your blogger, and perhaps it's a couple of people, but let's just say it's one person. What that person does, in a sense, is give your company a voice, give your company more of a personality. So what they're doing to help the company, again, is sort of shortening the distance between company as a corporate entity and customer, shortening the distance between customer and prospect.
There tends to be a gulf there -- there's the company, and we have to reach out to the customer, and there's this gulf in between. We're spending a lot of time and effort trying to reach the customer. Everyone talks about, "How do you reach your audience?" And with a blog, you can simply connect with them. You can even invite them to comment, to add comments to what you say. Other blogs can do what are called track backs, basically links to your blog. So that's one obvious instance.
It's basically just leadership credibility. I mean, you should probably be blogging yourself. You can also talk about your products, but do it in a way where you're maybe talking about some of the interesting hurdles you got over in developing a new product, some of the things around the edges of, "Hey, we have a new product, buy it."
Microsoft is a great example. Microsoft has, I believe, about 800 bloggers who are allowed to blog -- Microsoft says, fine, go ahead and blog. Some of them even say things that are sort of negative about Microsoft, but it doesn't matter, because they have people reading these blogs, interacting with them, and they're all talking about Microsoft operating systems and their new products, and they're basically sucking people into the whole Microsoft machine if you will, by getting them to interact.
Not everything has to be perfectly positive between your customer and your company. Sometimes you learn the most from a disgruntled customer. Again, that's real, that's authentic, people are looking for that. So that's an example. You create this by saying something interesting, linking to products on your site, linking to articles about issues or topics in your industry. The key ingredient of blog writing is to provide links to other sources. You don't have to make everything up yourself. So then your blog becomes a useful resource. If you get up in the morning and you troll through Google and you come up with the three most interesting links that day about articles related to e-mail marketing or combating spam, you're doing a service for your readers. You're aggregating and editing what's important for them.
Mike: Interesting that you bring up linking -- there's been quite a bit of controversy recently about some of these paid links in blogs. What are your thoughts on these infomercial-type paid links?
Weil: I think in general, if people know what they are, they're not going to work. So, to be honest, it's not something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, once people smell out that it's not authentic and it does not work. A perfect example is the 7UP Raging Cow blog -- the whole thing was fabricated. Raging Cow is the name of their new milk-based drink. The PR folks, the marketing people over at 7UP said, "Hey we've got a great idea here. We're going to create a fake blog, and we're going to get some bloggers, some young people who drink this drink, to blog about all the cool things related to Raging Cow." They did, but it was totally fabricated.
Mike: And people knew that?
Weil: People sniffed it out immediately. There was a very negative backlash. The real bloggers immediately jumped on it and said, "Hey, this is fake! There's no groundswell of enthusiasm for this new drink called Raging Cow. This is a publicity stunt."
As for the paid links, are you talking about paid links within the actual post?
Mike: Yes, the controversy was about bloggers who were taking money for links and not informing their readers about it. So they weren't affiliate links, they were plain links, but they were receiving funds for it.
Weil: So they would just mention a company, for example…
Weil: Well, see, I'm a purist. The answer is I absolutely do not approve of that. I don't think it really gets you anywhere, because if you really had something interesting to say about that company, you wouldn't need them to pay you to say it.
Mike: I agree.
Weil: You'd be linking to their site anyway. And I think you can add advertising to your blog by adding Google ads, for example, you know in the right or left hand column, even little links or little pictures that go back to products and services on your site -- that's very clear. You're saying, "Okay, these are things we're advertising or promoting." But to do it within a blog is, I don't know … I used to be a journalist, so I kind of go back to those roots, a kind of separation of church and state between editorial and advertising. That separation doesn't exist on the web. The line is blurred. I'm comfortable with that, but not so comfortable that I would have you pay me to mention Arial Software in a post. I would say, "Well, Mike, you don't need to pay me, because I can already say wonderful things about Arial Software."
Mike: Right, and the first time someone finds out that you've sold out, then your credibility is down the tubes.
Weil: Exactly, and that is key.
Mike: A lot of people don't think that they have the ability to write well. They're not skilled at communication through text, and I'm sure you hear this a lot, too. What can people do to write better-quality web content and email newsletter content if they don't think of themselves as good writers?
Weil: That's a great question. I think there is one obvious answer, which is you hire a terrific freelancer -- a freelance writer or a freelance editor. You can even hire a blogger. There's at least one site that I often use as an example. It's a business travel site called BizNetTravel.com. They are based in New York and it's a travel site for business people who want to book their flights and so forth, and they obviously thought, "Gee, well how can we make our site more interesting and keep the content fresh?" And they had this idea where they started Travel Log -- it's like a blog. But they don't have time to keep it up, so they hired two bloggers who trolled through all different kinds of news stories and other travel websites and come up with sort of fun, interesting tidbits and that's what's in their blog.
I have no idea how they manage to pay them, but it's like anything else -- the problem is if you hire a copywriter to write your homepage, it's usually not quite right. Even if you started out with a brief telling them what you want and all the things you do, and proper offline marketing communications, it just sometimes doesn't ring true. So I tell people, "Don't be afraid of reading something that you've hired a copywriter to do and change it." Or maybe even just do it yourself and then have a good editor look at it and help you sharpen it up. Because going back to what we said in the beginning, it's the authentic voice that works. As the representative of your company, you have the authentic voice that works, that connects with people online. It just does -- the corporate speak and marketing buzzwords don't really work. So, the answer is, hire an editor, but don't be afraid to try it yourself.
Mike: Sure. No one else is going to understand your organization more than you do. But that brings up an interesting question. Let's take an index page of a typical website. Maybe it's a non-profit foundation or a for-profit company -- do you think that index page should be written more along the lines of marketing speak, or authentic blogging style, or somewhere in between? What's the right tone?
Weil: Well, I don't think you start with tone. I think you start with what the objective of the page is. I think that is absolutely key for the homepage index of any business site. You ask yourself, "What is the business goal of this page?" If it's really not to sell but to collect opt-in email addresses, then make sure that that opt-in box is absolutely front and center, or maybe it's in the right-hand corner and it's really obvious. If your objective is to get them to a certain part of your site, make sure that's really clear in the navigation.
Mike: What about with your own site? Let's take WordBiz.com, as you have a very personal style, and you're a prominent figure in your site. What's your goal from the index page there?
Weil: I'm constantly rewriting my home page, which I probably shouldn't do, but I experiment, basically. Right now it's actually quite long, and one of the things I’m experimenting with – and I think other sites do this as well – is I have my basic navigation, which is pretty obvious at the top. It says "Home, Store, Newsletter, Advertising," and so forth. There's also a tab for my blog.
But then in the copy, basically in the center column, I talk very conversationally about what's on the site and what people can find. Basically, what's in it for them. And in doing so, I sprinkle throughout the copy links that go to all the different main sections of my site. So what I do, in effect, is I talk to them and say, "Here's how to use my site. Here's where you can go. Here's what you'll find when you get there," rather than just assuming that they'll look at the navigation tabs and know what to do.
So I think it should be a constant, evolving process of asking yourself over and over again, "What's the purpose of my home page?" Or, "What's the most important purpose, what's my second goal and what's my third goal?" Ask yourself what you are accomplishing with the design and with the copy. A lot of home pages just have a little bit of copy, but that's fine, because they make it clear what to do and where to go.
Mike: One of the things you seem to have on almost every page of WordBiz.com, is an email subscription box.
Weil: Right, I'm just a huge believer in that. If you're going to use an e-newsletter as part of your internet communications mix, it's just obvious -- you put a big ugly sign-up box. The sign up there should be a gray button -- not a pretty yellow and red button, but a gray button that says, "Sign Up Here." People visually recognize that and it says to them, "Oh, I'm supposed to do something here. Oh, there's a form, I'm supposed to put my email address here, I'm supposed to click that button." Because people now understand the language of the web and that's basic web design.
If it's part of your strategy, and it should be, because it's the easiest way to grow your prospect list, then make it really obvious. Don't put it below the fold; don't make it just to length, because people won't see it. I see people make that mistake all the time. You've got to remember, you go to a new home page and there's so much to look at, but a few things will jump out at you. If there's a fill-in form, your eye sees that. It says, "Oh, here I'm supposed to sign up for their newsletter."
Mike: I just want to encourage the listeners and readers of this to visit WordBiz.com just to check out that form, even if you're not interested in some of the other products and services they offer, although I’m sure many will be, just to look at the design there and how well the site drives people to take action. It's an excellent lesson.
Weil: Let me add one more thing about sign up boxes, because I meant to say this earlier. Call it a trick if you will, but it absolutely works, and here's the trick: People no longer are impressed that you're asking them to sign up for your e-newsletter, because everybody has an e-zine or an e-newsletter. So, don't ask them to sign up for your newsletter. Instead, tell them that you're going to give them a free top tips report.
Say, "Get our free report on X." And then, "All you have to do is enter your e-mail here." And then basically underneath say, "And when you do, you'll be subscribed to our newsletter." So you flip it around -- instead of saying "Oh, subscribe to our e-newsletter," say, "Hey, want to get our free report? Enter your e-mail here." You don't hide it from them that they're subscribing. But you flip it around so there's an obvious, tangible, instant gratification benefit they're going to get. Because who can resist a free white paper or free report? Basically nobody can, if it's on a topic that interests them.
Mike: And is that typically a PDF downloadable report?
Weil: It's usually a PDF, and again, there are lots of other steps and details about how this works, but just be sure you don't let them have it until you've confirmed their email address. I won't go into the details of how to do that, but don't have them enter the email address and say, "Okay, here you go," on the next page. You don't want to do that, because they may have given you a false email address.
Mike: So you're using a double confirmation process.
Weil: And the reason you use double opt-in is that you tell people, of course, we're doing this to protect you so that no one else will sign you up, but you can also validate their email address before adding it to your list.
Mike: A double benefit then. When you started using that technique or you've had your clients put that in place, what kind of increase in subscription rates did they experience?
Weil: To be honest, I haven't measured it recently for WordBiz reports, but I get a very, very steady number of signups, and I would imagine it would increase your opt in rate by at least thirty percent.
Mike: Interesting -- excellent tip. Once again, content-driven.
Weil: Absolutely. It's content. Because let's put it this way: editorial sells. I've always been skittish about PR and public relations, because, again, I used to be a journalist, but I do understand it. What you want is for your company to be mentioned in an article in the Wall Street Journal. That carries much, much more weight than you taking out an ad -- unless you can afford a full-page ad. In other words, if the reporter is validating your company and your process or whatever by writing about it, you know that's worth its weight in gold.
Mike: Sure, what do they say -- Walter Mossberg's recommendation is worth more than a full-page ad?
Weil: Absolutely. In other words, editorial sells because people are reading about it -- "Oh, see that sounds interesting." People don't really like to be sold to. Particularly on the web, because you're getting kind of close to them, you're getting in their inbox, you're getting in their face. They'd rather have you inform them about something, and then you make it clear that if they want to learn more, then they should go here and read this report. It seems very natural, there's a natural progression there. They go, "Of course, now I need to buy this, I need to learn more. I had this tantalizing taste, now I need to get more of it."
Mike: Let me ask you about your interactive teleseminar.
Weil: Well, I've experimented over the past year quite successfully with a bunch of different audio conferences, which is also a type of teleseminar. It's where you dial in to a bridge line and you listen to a seminar. For example, I will interview one or more experts on a topic related to e-newsletters or blogging. People like that a lot, but it's passive. In other words, you, Mike would dial in and you would just sit there at your desk, and you probably are checking your email while you're listening, but you're listening and you're thinking, "This is great, I'm learning something, I'm getting some tips, and she'll give me a link to download an audio recording later and I'll get something out of this." But what I'm planning is more an interactive teleseminar series that will be limited to probably fifteen people, and we will cover around six topics related to marketing through your website and they will actually do the work. There will be assignments and homework and reading and so forth, and lots of useful resources for people to check and use.
So we will start with the copy on their homepage, and everyone will work at coming up with a revision of the copy on their homepage. And so those enrolled in this teleseminar critique each other's efforts, in addition to having me as the moderator and the leader. They make comments and critiques and do a bit of editing. So you really are getting a huge benefit of having feedback from peers, even if they're from different industries. In fact, it's better if they're in different industries. Since everyone is always meaning to rewrite their home page – "Gee, I've got to get that auto-responder series going; gee, I'm thinking maybe I should add audio to my home page; I really need that white paper, but I just have no time to get around to it" -- we will basically get all those things done in this series.
Mike: What kind of experience level is required for participants?
Weil: I would say basic is fine, but I think people need to be very conversant with what you can do on the web. It's actually not so much your level of fluency with web or online marketing, but more your understanding of marketing in general, like what the purpose of a white paper is. So it's really more a sophistication about how you're marketing. In other words, why does an auto-responder series -- a series of email messages that are kicked out at predetermined intervals -- work? Well, it works because people respond to content. People respond to a repeated message for you to build on it every time.
Mike: So they need to have their feet wet with marketing concepts, but they don't have to be an expert by any means.
Weil: No, and for those who are interested in doing it, I'll do a little bit of checking them out and making sure they really want to participate, validating if they will in fact be participatory and offer good feedback to the other folks in the seminar. It's a virtual seminar, an e-course. I'll be announcing it soon.
Mike: Okay, excellent! I hope you'll share that announcement with us so we can pass it on to readers who are interested. Any closing thoughts there, Debbie? Something you want to leave readers and listeners with?
Weil: Well, there's just something endlessly fascinating about using the web as a marketing and communications medium. I know it's something that's caught me, that completely captivated me 10 years ago, and it hasn't let up, and I think it's going to continue. It's all about the words and about the content, because people are flooded with information. You can sort through the clutter, and help them in a friendly, clear, gentle way to make sense of whatever their problem is. I think you're going to do that with words, not pretty pictures. It's just a wonderful service, and you're also going to sell a lot of whatever it is you're trying to sell and be successful. It's like a puzzle and it's just never-ending. I guess that's why I like it. And just to end, if anyone's interested in any of the programs and so forth that I'm offering, there will always be clear links to them at http://www.wordbiz.com, and in my blog, which is http://www.debbieweil.com.
Mike: We've been talking with Debbie Weil, and I do want to encourage everyone to visit WordBiz.com. Debbie Weil is one of the most recognized and widely read authorities on the digital word -- that's email, blogs and website text. If you're communicating with customers or readers, I encourage you to visit WordBiz.com and find out how to do a better job of it. I want to thank you very much Debbie, for taking time to join us today.
Weil: Oh, thank you, Mike. My pleasure.
Interview with Debbie Weil, Wordbiz founder and online marketing expert