Author Archives: Dawn

About Dawn

Dawn is the senior editor at The Simons Group. As a grammar queen, she'd rather lose her wallet than misplace an apostrophe. Fellow copy ninjas unite -- you have an ally.

10 reasons to appreciate a kick-ass editor

How editors transform contentEveryone needs an outstanding editor. Even those writers who have years of experience and the skills to match need fresh eyes on their copy. Great editors find and question holes, ensure stories flow logically, make dull copy shine, trim flab, erase errors, and work with writers to help them improve.

For many writers, the devil is in the details. They may not recognize that using five words instead of 50 in a paragraph can pack a powerful punch or that alliteration like the ps in this paragraph put pizzazz in ordinary prose. Editors do – and they often make magic.

Let’s explore 10 ways editors transform content. They:

  1. Create a smooth reading experience. Content should flow logically. It should have a strong beginning and end, answer readers’ questions, have clean transitions for each paragraph, and tie everything together in a nice package.
  2. Banish bloat. Unnecessary words are a distraction. Cutting them makes content direct and readable. Start by deleting “very” and “really.” Really, it’s OK. Another tip: Don’t start sentences with “There are.” It’s weak and lazy. Make every word count.
  3. Power up wishy-washy. A strong, confident writing voice instills trust. Starting sentences with “I believe” and “I think we need to,” is a power stealer. Delete these and the message will be clear.
  4. Vaporize redundancies. The Department of Redundancy Department gives editors plenty to do. Examples include “at the present time” and “the end result.”
  5. Boycott buzzwords and jargon. Content should be accessible and understandable. Don’t try to fluff up writing with big, important-sounding words and industry terms. No one will read it.
  6. Pummel passive voice. Active voice is clear and concise, while passive voice is impersonal and adds unnecessary words. Passive voice also makes the subject ambiguous. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.” Who scheduled the audit?
  7. Fact-check. Trust but verify. Dates, names and places are examples of the content editors target.
  8. Plug holes. Weak writing leaves unanswered questions and frustrates readers. Holes can range from a click-bait headline that doesn’t tie back to the content to a story that trails off without resolution.
  9. Spice it up. Varying sentence length and punctuation is one way editors put the sparkle in ho-hum content. Other tricks of the trade: incorporating long and short paragraphs, substituting power words for weak words, and making dull headlines shiny.
  10. Polish until its professional. Grammar, punctuation, spelling and style errors will burn a writer’s reputation faster than using alternative facts. Writers often miss these, especially when they’ve read their copy 10 times.

An amazing editor is behind every piece of effective content. Whether they work on websites, e-books, blog posts, case studies, email campaigns, articles, brochures, postcards, or other initiatives, editors make content the best it can be.

Have you worked with an editor? How did it help your content? Share your experience in the comments.

Never underestimate the power of must-click calls to action


must-click lead generationDoes this sound familiar?

You’ve poured time and energy into creating quality content and a beautiful-looking website, but no one is engaging with you or your company.

Crickets …

The problem may be that you don’t have clear goals for your content. Vague plans to “build awareness,” “engage customers” and “crush the competition” are as thin as cotton candy and impossible to measure. If you’re not sure what you’d like people to do when they visit your site, they’ll have no reason to stick around and interact with you.

Do you want to build an e-newsletter mailing list; get more prospects to sign up for product demos; expand your audience for webinars; or increase sales of your e-book? These are examples of solid, achievable goals. Now, you can ask for what you want. Read on for tips you can use right away:

  1. Make it compelling with a clear benefit.

To create an irresistible offer – also known as a call to action – think beyond “download,” “submit” and “click here.” Consider what motivates people to follow through. Would you respond to “Register for Our WordPress Class” or “Yes, I Want Exclusive Access to Insider WordPress Tips and Tricks?”

The first offer is boring and doesn’t give people any reason to sign up. Everyone wants to know what they’re going to get if they register. The second example is enticing because it suggests a rewarding, positive experience for those who take the class. It also hints that people will learn tips they might not get anywhere else.

Here are some compelling examples:

  • “Show Me How to Write a Killer Blog Post”
  • “Learn the Secrets to Successful Marketing”
  • “Do Less and Get More Work Done”
  • “Get Pro Tips for Doubling My Sales in Two Weeks”
  1. Write in first person.

Using “I” and “my” is effective because it’s makes a connection with people and helps them envision results. Instead of writing “Get Your Free E-Book,” write “Send Me My Free E-Book.” The easiest way to create first-person calls to action is to finish this sentence: I want to ___________.

Example: A construction company that’s expanding its green building division creates an in-depth report about how green buildings save money in the long term. The firm offers the report on its website in exchange for collecting prospects’ names and email addresses. As a prospect, “I want to” get the report. The call to action could be, “I Want to Save Money. Send My Free Report.”

Other options that are also in first person include:

  • “Get My Free Green Building Report.” (I want to get my free report.)
  • “Get Instant Access to My Report.” (I want to see my report now.)
  • “Discover How to Save on My Green Building.” (I want to save money.)
  1. Make your offer time-sensitive.

Creating a sense of urgency motivates people to act. Incorporate words such as “now” and “today,” or give deadlines for faster responses. Letting prospects know that you have a limited quantity of something can help drive procrastinators to buy.

One caveat: Be honest. If you discount a webinar by 50 percent for people who register within 24 hours, and then repost the same offer three days later, you’ll be perceived as deceptive and untrustworthy. Any profit you generated during the “fire” sale will go up in smoke with your company’s reputation.

Here are some examples of urgent offers:

  • “Start My Free Trial Today”
  • “Give Me Access Now”
  • “Yes, Sign Me Up Right Away”
  1. Keep it simple.

While it might be tempting to dangle multiple offers on a single Web page, you’ll run the risk of overwhelming prospects and they’ll click off before signing up. Stick with one or two calls to action and lead them to the main offer that ties back to your No. 1 goal.

A page that asks people to register for a demo, sign up for classes and subscribe to an e-newsletter is distracting and ineffective. By limiting their choices, you’ll make it easier for them to reach a decision and follow through.

  1. Use bright, easy-to-read buttons.

Vibrant, high-contrast call-to-action buttons are eye-catching and inspire action. If you Google “best colors for calls to action,” you’ll see many opinions and few solid answers. Big orange buttons seem to be popular among marketers, but they’re certainly not the only option.

  1. Test, test, test.

The best way to evaluate what works and what doesn’t in your calls to action is to test them. Try different messages, images, offers, colors and designs until you find the winning combination that gets the most responses. Small changes can make a big difference in how people react to your content.

Last, but not least

Following these steps will help you transform your offers into lead magnets. Keep in mind, however, that your content and offers need to benefit prospects. Share insider tips, industry news they won’t find anywhere else, product how-tos, and other helpful resources. Creating effective calls to action will come naturally if you provide valuable (not sales-y) content.

What approach do you take with your calls to action? Let us know in the comments.

Are you guilty of lazy marketing?

lazy marketingI have a confession.

It’s not as bad as stealing coins from a blind man or cheating on a test, but it ranks high in the thou-shalt-not-commit-marketing-sins category.

Ready? Here goes …

I’ve let an occasional hackneyed phrase remain in my content marketing, even though it made my teeth itch. The reasons are complicated, but let’s just say it was unavoidable. Mea culpa!

The truth is that it’s hard to be creative and compelling 24/7. When you’re digging for engaging content that converts – let’s say you’re writing about screws and toggle bolts for a living – well, you might resort to using “innovative” and “leading edge” out of desperation.

You’re better off leaving cringe-worthy hype in your back pocket, however. How many times will your audience read tired platitudes like “world class” and “robust solution” before they bail on you to call 1-800-KILL-CLICHÉ?

Clients and prospects don’t care that your products and services are “best of breed.” They want to know how you’re going to solve their problems. They want to know that you understand their businesses and their challenges and that you’re the right person for the job. Share success stories and results.

For example, nobody cares that your firm provides premier shipping services that meet exacting industry requirements. But people will pay attention if you guarantee 24-hour delivery for all packages.

It seems like a no-brainer and yet websites, email and direct marketing are appallingly full of generic drivel.

Here’s how to fix it: Ask “why” for every benefit you think you provide. Let’s say you’re a yoga instructor who offers classes for pregnant women.

Why do the women hire you? Why do they need a yoga instructor?

You might say it’s because yoga will help them relax. Why do they need to relax?

Because they’re expecting. Is that a sufficient reason to pay you for hourly classes when they could put that money toward their kids’ college funds. Nope!

Why would they want to give up an hour every week? Is it because they want to bend like a pretzel?

Maybe it’s because they want to experience less pain during delivery and prenatal yoga will help them do that. Or maybe they want a gentle way of de-stressing between diaper changes. Could it be because they want to regain their pre-pregnancy shape faster?

Try again. Why would women want to take prenatal yoga classes?

Maybe it’s because they need “me” time before their lives are completely disrupted.

Or maybe it’s so they can regain their pre-baby shape back faster.

Or maybe it’s because they want to make friends with other pregnant women so they have someone to lean on when they’re sleep-deprived and need adult conversation.

Focusing on the benefits that your prospects and customers really want – not superficial fluff – will help keep them coming back for more.

Does your marketing address your customers’ desires? How could your messaging be more persuasive? Let us know in the comments below.


Videos: Your essential step-by-step guide

Admit it …

You love watching crazy kitten videos. But “paws” them for a minute. Think about the power of videos and imagine how you could use them to captivate customers and prospects.

You don’t need to become an overnight YouTube sensation to get people talking about your company and what you offer. Irresistible, furry critters aren’t necessary, either. What you really need is a simple, well-planned idea and the time to execute it.

An example is this promotional video that The Simons Group just completed for Morrisey Associates, a national health care software company. The three-minute video shows how Morrisey Practitioner Performance Reporting™ (MPPR™) gives hospitals key insights about their doctors and features a customer interview that speaks volumes about the product.

Whether you’d like a video that’s similar in length and style to Morrisey’s, one that you shoot yourself using your smartphone, or your own wacky cat video, follow these essential steps for a production even Steven Spielberg would be proud of.

Read more…

What happens when spell-check can’t help (and what to do about it)


Building relationships and trust with prospects and clients requires a jaw-dropping amount of work. Once you’ve established your organization as a credible, reliable and legitimate source of information, don’t jeopardize your efforts with embarrassing spelling errors.

Quality writing isn’t just for style junkies. If I were trying to earn your business and sent you marketing email with grammatical mistakes, would you hire me? Imagine the message that would send to your audience. If you’re not minding the details, why would they plunk down six figures for your new product?

Read more…

Home sweet home or home sweet hell?

home sweet homeNothing says “charming” like a 1950s pink bathtub, a harvest gold toilet and moldy shower tiles. The owner of this apartment – one of the many places I looked at recently – had a different take on the word than most people. He also advertised an “organic garden” that, in reality, was a cracked concrete lot decorated with two dying plants.

So began my hunt for home sweet home.

Finding a place to live that is clean, safe and affordable and doesn’t look like it was designed during Lincoln’s presidency is a tall order. The rental market is sizzling hot, which means landlords are charging premium prices for shoeboxes and crumbling infrastructure. At the same time, competition is stiff for limited inventory, so decent places go fast.

Here’s a quick tour for the uninitiated:

It takes big bucks to get knobs on the kitchen cabinets: “Naked” kitchen cabinets must be cheaper than ones that come with knobs or handles. It’s the only reason I can come up with why so many landlords don’t provide a way for people to open the doors. It’s OK to look at the cabinets – just don’t expect to use them.

Photos are a poor substitute for the real thing: It’s amazing how the right camera angle or lighting trick can make a flophouse look like a palace. Be especially wary of advertised apartments that feature only one or two photos. Chances are the “missing” rooms are AWOL for a reason.

“Modern” décor can include fake wood paneling from the last U.S. bicentennial, green shag carpeting and full-length wall mirrors: Look at the bright side: You’ll save a ton on groceries because you’ll be looking at yourself all the time and thinking about how you could stand to lose 10 pounds. As a bonus, you won’t drive your significant other crazy asking questions like, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

“Courtyard Flats” isn’t an old-school hotel. It’s an apartment complex: Highlights include a low-rise building where tenants live neck and neck, no landscaping, a scary-looking rusted sign and a weed-choked parking lot. Run. Away. Fast. Next, take a friend’s advice and move to “Whispering Hills, “Le Jardin” or “The Hamptons by the Seaside.”

“Cozy,” “quaint,” “charming” and “newer” are code words: Translated, they mean “claustrophobic,” “lacking any redeeming qualities,” “overpriced” and “last updated in the Stone Age.” The more adjectives owners use, the more skeptical you should be – that is, unless you really want your sofa to double as a bed, storage unit, cupboard and desk.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is: Beware below-average prices, especially in combination with above-average features. The tight rental market means there are no deals or steals. You’ll either have to suck it up and pay big time for a roof over your head or share a closet with a guy who resembles Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Have you looked for a condo, town house or apartment recently? Did you find your dream home? Let us know in the comments below.

Disappearing ink: Are books becoming an endangered species?

Trekking to the Oak Park Public Library’s annual book fair is a tradition for me and my book-loving friends. We hope to find hidden gems, undiscovered treasures, forgotten classics and, admittedly, the occasional bodice ripper. The fair typically offers more than 100,000 books in every conceivable category, as well as CDs, DVDs and records.

old booksWe each paid $5 for early bird shopping on Friday night, hoping to beat the crowds who go on Saturday for free. Armed with cash and a game plan, we split up and dug in.

I hit the massive cookbook section first with the goal of finding canning how-tos. I canned with my grandmother every summer in Kansas when I was a kid. Sweat ran down our faces and backs as we “put up” quart after quart of tomatoes and sauce, corn, green beans, pickles and peaches, as well as many pints of jam. Hearing those telltale “ping, ping, ping” noises that signaled the glass bottles were sealing was rewarding after hours of blanching, boiling, peeling, chopping, measuring and pouring.

I’ve recently begun yearning to can again. Imagine what a treat it would be to tuck into a jar of sweet corn in the middle of another polar vortex. I’m fuzzy on the details of how to can, however, so I need a book to guide me. I could look up how-to videos on YouTube, but I’d rather not spend time weeding through dozens of clips to get specific nuggets of information when I can open a book and get instant answers.

The library tables were sagging with hundreds of niche cookbooks – everything from “slow food” while camping in the Australian Outback during a leap year to “famous 1920s” Asian recipes – written in Chinese. I must have spent an hour looking for a single canning book. Empty-handed and disappointed, I moved on to one of the largest collections: classic literature.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but was intrigued with John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” and the 50th anniversary edition of “The Yearling” from Marjorie Rawlings. I’ve always loved John Steinbeck, but was not familiar with this particular novel. I’m a sucker for any books about animals, so I couldn’t pass these up for 50 cents each. My neighbor who has a free book-sharing box in her front yard will appreciate having them when I’m done.

Next, I zeroed in on the do-it-yourself section, a hodgepodge of books covering everything from taxidermy and homesteading to repairing cars and installing plumbing. I found another item on my wish list – a bicycle maintenance book. It seemed like a bargain for $1. If I can figure out how to change a flat without divine intervention, I’ll be in good shape. Fortunately, I knew how to put my chain back on when it fell off on my ride to work today, because I haven’t had time to read the book yet.

As with canning, I’m sure I could find videos and articles online that cover basic bike repairs, but I want an easy reference that I can put on the basement floor and follow step by step when I’m elbow deep in grease and gears. I don’t want to gunk up my laptop.

The book fair’s music section was probably the smallest collection of all, but I headed over to see what I could find. I picked up a 1940s song book and laughed when it opened to the score for “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” No one was laughing, however, when it was published in 1942 as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was more familiar with other hits in the book, including “Sentimental Journey,” “Happy Days and Lonely Nights,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

I didn’t get anything for myself in the music section, but I found the perfect gift for a friend and singer who is a big Judy Garland fan. The May/June 1997 issue of Sheet Music Magazine (who knew?) featured the cover story, “The Judy Garland I Knew,” complete with scores for three of her hits. At 50 cents, it’s probably the cheapest, coolest gift I’ve found – and without trying. You can find the scores online, but they cost a heck of a lot more than 50 cents.

I asked a guy wearing a book fair “volunteer” shirt and badge what happens to the books that don’t sell. When the fair is over, the library allows nonprofit organizations to take as many as they want for free. The problem is that no one wants them anymore, so thousands end up being recycled, he explained. That’s an awful lot of toilet paper. I suspect more end up in dumpsters.

It seemed like there were fewer people hauling out boxes and wheeled suitcases stuffed full of books than in recent years. E-readers, YouTube and Google have changed the way we seek and process information. My friends and I also scaled way back. My total for the night was $5.50 for three paperbacks, one hardback and one magazine. I’ve been giving books away for a while now and while there are some I won’t part with, I don’t feel the need to fill the empty spaces on the shelves.

People are still nostalgic about print, but technology has changed the way we interact with books. At least one organization understands this shift and is doing what it can to preserve print for future generations. The Internet Archive and Open Library is a treasure trove of physical and digital reading. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the books from the Oak Park Public Library book fair find a home here.

Have you eliminated books from your home? What did you do with them? Let us know in the comments below.

How to turn mediocre copy into tantalizing content

OK handWe’ve all been there.

You write the best blog post, ad, white paper, story or (fill in the blank) ever. And then someone dumps all over it. The red sea of edits and corrections makes you wonder what went wrong.

The thrill is gone.

But you can bring it back. Here’s how …

Know the five signs of copy drivel and avoid them like the bubonic plague. They’re content killers and they’ll take you down every time.

  1. Long sentences
  2. Wordiness
  3. Jargon
  4. Passive voice
  5. Random capitalization

Let’s explore these in-depth so that you’ll be able to recognize and fix them in your own writing.

#1: Long sentences

The shorter your sentences, the more readable they are. Aim for a maximum of 15 words per sentence, but don’t be obsessive about it. Look for opportunities to cut when you can. This sentence from a daily writing tips blog (for real) screams for hedge clippers:

“Although variety of sentence length occurs naturally, it’s a good idea, when it’s feasible, to recite your writing aloud to ensure that stacks of sentences of repetitively equal or nearly equal length aren’t slipping through.”

Whoa! I dare you to get through that without stopping for a breath.

How to fix it

Short sentences pack a punch. Use them liberally. You can even write one-sentence paragraphs to help readers breeze through your content.

Push yourself to trim your word count. Turn a 100-word e-blast into 50 words and then slash it to 25. If you’re feeling brave, cut another 10 words.

Now, let’s rewrite the tip above:

“Vary sentence length to grab readers’ attention. Read your copy out loud and then rewrite any monotonous sections to spice it up.”

Got it? OK, let’s move to the next sign.

#2: Wordiness

You can’t help yourself.

You fall prey to deadwood like “in order to,” “in need of” and “at the present time.”

Does this look familiar?

“If you’re in need of a refund, please contact the corporate office immediately in order to get your money back. The local branch is closed for repairs at the present time.”

How to fix it

Resist the temptation to use three or more words when one will do. Trim wordy phrases and your readers will thank you.

Use this cheat sheet to get started:

Avoid Replace it with
As a result of Because
At the present time Now
At that point in time Then
At this point in time Now
Due to the fact Because
In close proximity Near
In need of Need
In order to To
In the event that If
Make use of Use
Subsequent to After

Prune as many words from your copy as you can. It becomes easier the more you do it.

Ready for the next one?

#3: Jargon

Your audience expects you to use inflated words, right?


If you use business and industry jargon, you could alienate readers who aren’t familiar with those terms, as well as bloggers, journalists and others whose attention you’re trying to attract. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it.

Try decoding this banking jargon:

“We must effect a needs assessment of the downturn in commercial lending package applications.”


Translation: “We need to find out why no one is applying for loans.”

How to fix it

Impress readers with clear, concise and benefit-driven content – not bloat. Simple words are approachable and meaningful.

For example:

  • Choose “rules” instead of “methodology.”
  • Use “improve” instead of “optimize.”
  • Select “think” – not “conceptualize.”
  • Pick “avoid” rather than “circumvent.”

OK, on to #4.

#4: Passive voice

Fizzle or sizzle? It’s your choice.

Passive voice goes down like a can of pop that sat open on the counter for three days. It’s impersonal and unfriendly, and often produces ambiguous, unsatisfying sentences.

Here’s an example:

“The database contains 1 million veterans’ records and can be easily viewed and searched online.”

The first half of the sentence is fine. The rest doesn’t tell readers who can view and search the database.

Check these out. They’re all in passive voice:

  1. “Mistakes were made when the cars were produced on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.”
  3. “Pat’s new car was driven too fast and the fender was scratched.”

How to fix it

Rewrite your copy in active voice. It’s easy: Determine who or what performs the action and use that as the subject of the sentence.

Now, let’s try those again:

  1. “The welders made mistakes when they produced the cars on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “Susan heard that the CFO scheduled a companywide audit.”
  3. “Pat’s son, Blake, drove the car too fast and scratched the fender.”

Last but not least …

#5: Random capitalization

“Hi, my NAME is [fill in the blank] and I have an overwhelming Compulsion to capitalize RANDOM words in my copy. Even Worse, I do it inconsistently. I Need HELP.”

Here’s the thing: Capitalization within a sentence implies a proper name, such as Anita Job or Acme Widget Co.

It confuses readers when you capitalize words or letters at will, such as “our Financial expertise,” and “I TRUST that you have Integrity.”

TRUST me – random capitalization doesn’t make a word inherently important.

How to fix it

If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, use bold text or italics, but don’t go overboard. Emphasize too much and you’ll diminish your point. Better yet, use plain text. It promotes readability and comprehension.

Take this example – it’s jarring to your audience:

“I’m happy to report that we’ve made excellent progress in reducing our PRICING MISHAPS, SHIPPING ERRORS AND BAD DEBT.”

Capitalizing these words is unnecessary and is the equivalent of SHOUTING AT YOUR READERS.

You’ve got this

The first step to turning ordinary copy into irresistible content is to apply these five fixes to your own work. It might take some practice, but everything worth doing requires a commitment. If this list intimidates you, master one or two and then work your way through the rest one at a time.

You can do it!

Do you have tips of your own for making middling copy magical? Let us know in the comments below.

Adventures in the wild, wild West (Side)

young scared woman in bed

Have you taken a risk and were surprised by the outcome?

Not anything crazy, but definitely an outside-your-wheelhouse moment?

It takes a lot of nerve to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Who knows what could happen? It feels scary, but even if something goes haywire, you will still wake up tomorrow. The sun will still rise and the Earth will continue to spin.

But you’re afraid.

You’re afraid of the unknown, so you imagine a million what-if scenarios that may never come to pass. You’re afraid of failure and that relentless voice inside that says, “I told you so.” You’re afraid of giving up the devil you know for the one you don’t.

And staying in your safe zone has its benefits. You get a predictable (often boring) outcome. You’re reasonably safe from failure. You don’t have to deal with naysayers. So you hunker down and tell yourself you’re doing the right thing.

Not so fast.

It turns out that smart risks can be richly rewarding. You never know what you’ll discover along the way.

When people find out I bike to work through the city’s Big Bad West Side, they look at me like I have three feet sticking out of my head. Although my route is the road less traveled, drivers who bypass the city’s West Side every day are missing an eye-opening experience.

Take “K-Town,” for example. The 16-block area of North Lawndale is known for its streets that start with “K,” and it gets a bad rap for crime. But the flip side is that part of K-Town is on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district features hidden treasures, including stunning commercial and residential architecture.

If flying buttresses, towering greystones and gleaming gargoyles aren’t your thing, maybe you’d prefer exquisite flowers, rare tropical plants and awe-inspiring trees. You’ll find this eye candy at the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the largest and most impressive conservatories in the United States. It’s open year-round, and while admission is free, you won’t leave without putting something in the till.

Chicago Blackhawks fans probably know about Johnny’s IceHouse West, because it’s the team’s state-of-the-art practice venue. Adult and children’s leagues play there, too. The rink also offers ice skating lessons. I used to think the rink was a beer distributor, thanks to Icehouse from Miller Brewing Co. Tommy Hawk on the side of the building should have been a dead giveaway, but I didn’t notice that on my early commutes to work.

Two weeks ago, the kindness of strangers in the Not So Great part of town totally saved my rump. Leaving work, I faced such a nasty headwind, I felt like one of those cartoon characters running in place. It was mind-blowingly exhausting. Halfway home, I gave up and jumped on a bus.

The only problem was I couldn’t figure out how to work the contraption you’re supposed to place your bike into on the front of the bus. The impatient driver was yelling and pointing, but I couldn’t hear a word he said or understand his confusing hand signals. Maybe it had something to do with the wind roaring in my ears or the honking, cursing motorists stuck behind the diesel-belching beast.

A man waiting for another bus saw me struggling and took pity on me. He lifted my bike up onto the front rack, secured the measly looking tire-holder and sent me on my way. I thanked him profusely, but it felt inadequate. I’m not sure what I would have done had he not been there. The same thing happened when I got off the bus. I tried to wrestle my 50-pound steel Schwinn free without success. Yet another stranger came up and helped me.

See, there’s more to the West Side than you thought, so why not try it? Isn’t it better to go through life enjoying the ride rather than having a so-so experience and regretting what you didn’t do?

It’s not easy to conquer your fears. But envision what could happen if you let go and bust out of your rut every now and then. You might experience life. You might realize your dreams. You might even have fun along the way.

Now, if I could only overcome the terror of singing on open-mic night …

Have you taken a smart risk and done something that scared you? What convinced you to take the plunge? Were you successful? Share your story in the comments below.


Why generic ‘Hi, [YOUR NAME],’ email wastes your money and the 5-step fix

Email marketing is alive and well, but I’m surprised some companies continue to send faux personalized messages with blind pitches like this:

“Hi, Dawn — hope you’re well. I’m hoping you might be able to help me out with a favor. I’m looking for an advertising contact at The Simons Group. Have you thought about utilizing this venue to engage with customers and potential customers? We’d love to set up a time to chat. Thanks so much!”

The make-believe familiarity is bad enough, but the sender clearly didn’t do any research or she would have realized we write and design ads. Within minutes of receiving this email, a consultant sent me a reminder to attend a hot marketing seminar that was starting that afternoon – in London.

targetThe big fail

Generic email marketing is about as effective as trying to win the gazillion-dollar lottery. In fact, the chances of winning the jackpot are probably greater than the odds of reaching prospects and customers with fill-in-the-blank offers. Playing the numbers game – sending email by the gross and hoping at least some of them stick – is also sadly misguided.

Recipients delete these emails instantly. Many of them probably also do what I do – create a filter that keeps future messages from getting to my inbox. So many outlets are already competing for my attention; anything that saves me from having to comb through junk “Hi, [YOUR NAME],” email is a blessing.

The antidote

Smart marketers know there’s a better way to attract and retain customers. Here’s a five-step fix you can use today:

  1. Do your homework. Rather than peppering 1,000 people with the same general offer, figure out who you want to connect with and what they do. In other words, don’t promote website design to an agency that creates websites. Not only does it make you look dumb, but it also wastes time and money.
  2. Identify your goals. Do you want to want to entice current customers to renew their maintenance contracts? Are you testing a new product and need to gauge how prospects will react to it? Having a specific goal will help you determine your campaign’s success.
  3. Pass the “what’s in it for me?” test. Every email should explain how the recipient will benefit from your products and services. Your offer may seem like a no-brainer to you, but you’ll still need to back it up. It isn’t necessary to send 1,000 unique messages – that would take forever – but be as specific as possible.
  4. Use short, punchy subject lines. Even if you have epic design and content, no one will open your message if you’ve got a boring subject line. Make it intriguing and include a clear benefit — see number 3.
  5. Follow up. Don’t send one email and expect instant results. Effective marketing campaigns have multiple touch points – often a combination of online and print initiatives.

Before launching your campaign, learn other good email practices and find out how to avoid the most common email marketing mistakes.

Is your email marketing intelligent and relevant? How do you ensure your messages are on point? Let us know in the comments below.