Your “lollipop” doesn’t say what you think

Tuesday, Mar. 18th 2014

Choose your words with attention to the many ways they may be interpreted. As a hike in the Rhode Island woods reminded me, your terminology lollipopmay not convey the message you intend.

On a muggy summer day, my husband and I set off on a “2.3-mile lollipop” hike. Quickly eyeballing the trail description, my husband assumed that “lollipop” meant it was an easy hike, appropriate for little kids of a lollipop-loving age. Not so.

It turned out that lollipop referred to the trail’s shape. A path as straight as a Tootsie Pop’s stick led to a circular trail. As you can tell, the author’s lollipop image was misinterpreted by a reader in a hurry.

The author could suggest to my husband that he read more carefully. After all, if my husband had read the trail summary, and compared it to the map that appeared four pages later, he could have grasped the analogy. But it’s not realistic to expect everyone to read at such length and with such attention to detail.

In this case, writing “lollipop-shaped” trail could have guided my husband to the right conclusion, which making the trail’s shape memorable through the use of an analogy.

What are YOUR lollipops?

Are there financial terms that your readers find just as confusing as lollipop was in my example?

Do you find “lollipops” in writing about investments and personal finance? What are they, and how can we describe them better?

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Copyright 2014 by Susan B. Weiner
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Focus on readers with “The Language of Trust”

Thursday, Mar. 13th 2014

language_of_trust_final-coverThe Language of Trust tells you why and how you can sell more effectively by focusing on your buyers. The following statement stuck with me:

The first rule of building trust is to accept the fact that selling a product or idea has little to do with your company, what you’re offering, or your ideas. It has everything to do with your audience and what they believe, think, and want.

This is an important lesson and the reason why I urge my clients to talk about “you,” the reader, instead of “we,” the firm.

I believe financial advisors will find this book especially appealing because the authors use many examples from the worlds of financial planning and investments.

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Investment commentary–5 ways to outsource

Tuesday, Mar. 11th 2014

Market and portfolio performance commentary is an important part of communications strategy for most investment and wealth managers. But sometimes writing that commentary becomes a drag on the firm’s employees. Or perhaps the firm realizes that its employees are better at strategy and portfolio management then writing. If this describes your firm, it may be time for you to outsource.

I see five main models for commentary outsourcing,depending on the kind of commentary you need. These vary in terms of how much control you give up over the content and the process.

Option 1: Completely surrender control of your investment commentary

If investing isn’t a core part of your firm’s expertise, you may not feel the need to express insights specific to your firm or your portfolios. In this case, you can simply buy ready-to-use commentary or commission a trusted financial writer to create the market recap and outlook that goes to your clients.

Buying commentary from a provider who sells the same text to multiple clients is likely to be easy on your budget. You can find the names of providers on my list at “Ready-to-use content for financial advisors.”

Alternatively, there are writers—not me—who specialize in writing marketing commentary based on their own research. Both the content providers and the writers may allow you to customize their content. Before you edit or slap your name on their content, check the terms of your agreement with the provider.

Option 2: Hire someone to write interview-based market commentary

When you have distinctive, well developed views and the evidence to back them up, then this is a good option for you. Firms that struggle to find time to generate commentary also find this helpful, in my experience.

To ease your quarterly crunch, schedule your interview prior to the quarter’s end. I usually suggest seven to 10 days prior, so you have a good sense of how the quarter is shaping up.

Involve your key decision-makers in the interview. Sometimes that means only your investment strategist. Other times that may mean your investment policy committee, or one person who’s an expert on stocks and another who’s an expert on bonds. A good interviewer will give you questions to mull over prior to your call. This will help to find your commentary’s focus.

Here are some sample questions for your interviewer:

  • What is the most important message you want readers to take away from your commentary?
  • How did your clients’ portfolios perform relative to the market—and why?
  • What factors most influenced the market during the period? Do you expect their influence to continue?
  • Are there a few statistics that you’d like to highlight?
  • How have you adjusted your portfolios during the period under discussion and do you anticipate more changes?

Above all, it’s helpful to focus on how the information in your commentary affects your clients’ portfolios. After all, that’s their biggest concern.

After the interview, your writer will digest the information to create an outline or draft for your review. She will highlight questions or data gaps that she’d like you to fill. Then it’s your turn to provide the missing information and give feedback.

If multiple people give feedback, I suggest that you consolidate it in one document, with Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” turned on. “Track changes” will help your writer identify text to be proofed for grammar and related issues. If two of the evaluators disagree on a substantive issue, please reconcile your views before you forward your document to the writer.

What if significant new data comes in between the time of your interview an when you’re giving feedback to your writer? I ran into that with congressional negotiations over the sequester in 2012. One option is to discuss potential scenarios at the time of your interview, so your writer is prepared. Another option is to jot down your take on the news as part of your feedback to the writer, who can smooth out the words to make them more compelling, clear, and concise. Another possibility is to request a brief update call with your writer. Prior to that call, it’s helpful if you can send her some bullet points with your take on the news, so she can focus her questions to make the most efficient use of your time.

This interview-driven approach isn’t right for everyone. If your commentary typically changes significantly between the first and final drafts—or if it relies heavily on data that comes in late—you’re more likely to find option 3 more helpful.

Option 3: Hire an editor for your commentary

For investment professionals at some firms, putting their ideas into writing is a useful exercise. It helps them to discover their opinions and collect the supporting evidence. As the writing expert William Zinsser discusses in his book, this is a form of Writing to Learn: How to Write – and Think – Clearly About Any Subject at All.

However, the folks who generate this commentary become so engrossed in the details that they may find it difficult to edit themselves. It’s hard to get distance from material when you’re immersed in it. Plus, a financial education usually doesn’t include intensive training in copyediting or in understanding the reader’s perspective.

One of the most valuable things that an editor can do is to reframe and reorganize the flow of your information. For example, she can expand on the WIIFM—“What’s in it for me”—of the content. She can also improve logical flow of the piece, and apply my first-sentence-check test.

Other valuable functions that your editor can perform include adding informative headings, streamlining text, and checking grammar and punctuation issues. Headings make it easier for skimmers to absorb your opinions and perhaps even be drawn into the details of your commentary. Sentences that average 14 to 22 words and lack distracting errors also help with reader comprehension and retention.

Option 4: Hire a writer for attribution-driven performance commentary

In contrast with market commentary, attribution-driven performance commentary is specific to your firm’s funds or portfolios. Mutual funds’ annual and semiannual reports also fall into this category.

The components of this commentary may include:

  • Your portfolio’s returns versus the benchmarks for the relevant periods
  • Attribution analysis—for stock funds, this would include the impact of sector allocations, stock selection, and possibly the cash position
  • Discussion of specific holdings that contributed to or detracted from performance relative to the benchmark
  • Optional: market commentary, transactions during the relevant period, investment strategy

Some companies provide all of the necessary data directly to their writer, while others incorporate research or portfolio manager interviews conducted by the writer.

Option 5: Commissioning a critique for the DIY commentary writer

Some firms can boost the quality of their commentary simply by implementing suggestions they receive from a one-time critique of their writing. A writer-editor who’s familiar with commentaries can identify your commentary’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide guidelines for improvements.

For an assessment of your current commentary or newsletter, you can hire me to critique one example of your work.

 

What’s next for you?

If you’re rethinking your firm’s approach to your commentaries, contact me to learn how I can help.

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

 

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Blogging Q&A with James McDonald

Thursday, Mar. 6th 2014

James McDonald of Index Strategy Advisors, a Houston-based firm that manages ETF-based portfolios, has made social media a key part of his firm’s marketing. He has built his firm’s assets under management from zero to more than $50 million in a little more than two years.

This is part of a series of Q&As that I’ve conducted via email with advisors who blog. Previous interviewees included Michael Kitces, Jim Blankenship, and Carolyn McClanahan.

Q. When did you start your Insights blog?j2

A. December 20, 2011 — I launched my blog on my birthday to coincide with the public debut/announcement of my company on social media.

Q. How has your blog brought you new business or improved your existing client relationships? Please explain and quantify, if possible.

A. My blog was crucial in growing my business from scratch. It helped by displaying my expertise and research to three main audiences:

  1. Potential clients
  2. Potential employees
  3. The media, colleagues and potential partners in the industry.

It’s all about showing people what you know and what potential value you bring to the table without logistical limitations! I’ve acquired clients, employees, and partnerships from all four corners of the United States and everywhere in between based solely on my online presence. Without my blog, I could never have grown my business across the country, let alone persuaded anyone to do business with me.

I can trace some new clients directly to my blog. In fact, there’s one blog post that attracted dozens of clients for me over the course of several weeks.

Q. What blogging techniques or topics have most helped your business?

A. The two most effective blogging techniques for me have been the

  1. Presentation of timely, news-driven topics, such as the Facebook IPO, fiscal cliff, U.S. presidential election, and euro zone credit crisis—this works because it attracts pageviews from people trying to understand these topics

2. Integration of people I care about into my writing—for example, I’ve been thrilled to reconnect with friends from my high school in Bethesda, Md., from 20 years ago. I often remark about them or speak directly to them in my writing. In other words I usually make my narrative personal. This seems to resonate with my readers, who feel they’re getting to know me as a person.

Q. What are three of your favorite—or most effective—blog posts? Provide the titles, URLs and a comment about why you included them.

A. My three favorite blog posts:

  1. How To Invest Smarter: The 5 Reasons Your Portfolio Isn’t Growing — this post is a favorite because it demonstrates our core expertise directly. This is the blog post that attracted dozens of clients for me over the course of several weeks.
  2. A complex debate simplified by money — this post is a favorite because I learned something new (financial statistics about the gun industry) and was able to constructively get something off of my chest. After the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was a heightened gun debate in the U.S. I wanted to join that debate, but from the perspective of a parent and investment professional. This post attracted several new clients for me. It was also a catalyst for new relationships with journalists interested in the topic and my research skills.
  3. 4 reasons why I accept Facebook as a friend, but am ignoring the IPO request — this post is a favorite because I felt so strongly about the topic (opposing investment in individual stocks by retail investors) and the investment in question (FB IPO). It was a fun way to include my technical expertise and personal thoughts, while weaving in my friends on Facebook who I enjoy so much. In fact, I even dedicated the post to my FB friends and a hilarious video about a baby raccoon that I had just seen on FB.

Q. What’s your best tip for advisors who blog?

A. My best tip for advisors who blog is to track and measure your viewership analytics closely. If people don’t like what you’re writing you need to change it. If people do like what you’re writing, then you need to increase your emphasis on that topic or style of post

Google Analytics is a great free tool to measure how many have viewed your blog posts. The input from a good tracking tool will inform how you calibrate everything you do with respect to your blog. It will ultimately drive your ROI higher.

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How to blog without giving it all away

Tuesday, Mar. 4th 2014

sliced bell peppers

“I can’t guest blog for you because I don’t want to give away my secrets,” said a potential writer for my blog. My response to the author who made that comment? “Don’t give it all away. Blog about a narrow slice.”

Whether you’re an author, advisor, or consultant, there are many elements that combine to make your product or process special. Take away some of these elements, and it’s not the same.

Giving away one little piece of your knowledge won’t destroy the value of the entire package. For example, I’ve blogged extensively about “how to write blog posts,” yet people still sign up for my blogging class and buy my blogging book. In fact, my many posts on this topic are probably the main driver of my sales.

You don’t need to give everything away. Say, for example, you’ve developed a great way for young parents to save money for their kids’ college educations. You could write a case study or describe just one step of your process. Break things down into small pieces.

Have you tried writing about a narrow slice of your broader expertise? I’d like to hear about how it has worked for you.

Image courtesy of SOMMAI/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Don’t sabotage your website’s news page

Tuesday, Feb. 25th 2014
In the News page

Click to see my news page with items listed in the correct, reverse-chronological order

A news page featuring your firm’s mentions in the media can boost your credibility as long as you avoid one financial advisor’s mistake.

“Wow! This advisor hasn’t gotten any press since 2006.” That was my first thought when I looked at this advisor’s news page earlier this year. I immediately thought, “He should delete his news page.”

But then I scanned the rest of the page. I realized that the advisor had listed his media coverage in chronological order. He started in 2006 and continued up to the present day way, way down the page.

Unfortunately, most readers won’t scan the entire page. They’ll stop with the misperception that the advisor is a dud at getting the attention of the press.

The lesson for you? List your news coverage in reverse chronological order, putting the most recent items at the top of your page. For an example, see my “In the News” page.

Using the proper order is a small step with a big impact.

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4 e-newsletter landing page tips from “Epic Content Marketing”

Thursday, Feb. 20th 2014

“10 Ways to optimize your e-newsletter landing page” is one tiny but useful section of Joe Pulizzi’s Epic Content Marketing. It’s important to craft your landing page—the newsletter’s signup page—effectively because, as Pulizzi writes, “your email database is a significant business asset.” Your email list is valuable because you control it in a way you can’t control social media connections.

Here are some tips from Pulizzi that will help you attract more people to your e-newsletter list because you convey the benefits of your content and make your signup easy to navigate.

Tip 1. Describe newsletter benefits

Explain how your prospect will benefit from subscribing to your newsletter, as Pulizzi suggests. For example, say how it’ll help them achieve financial peace of mind or otherwise improve their lives.

The benefits needn’t be limited to how your newsletter articles help readers. You can also offer a special report as an enticement for readers. That’s what I do with Investment Writing Top Tips.

Sharing testimonials or awards for your newsletter, another Pulizzi tip, also reinforces your newsletter’s benefits for the reader.

Tip 2. Make your landing page layout effective

Make it easy for readers to find your signup form on the page. This is why it’s important to “bring the signup above the fold,” as Pulizzi suggests, so it is visible without the reader scrolling down the page. You can view my newsletter signup page for an example of positioning.

Pulizzi also suggests that your signup should “include a button that says ‘subscribe’ or ‘sign up’ (not submit),” taking advantage of words with positive connotations.

Put less important information farther down the page. This includes a privacy statement, which is still essential. Pulizzi also suggests that you tell subscribers “what you will and won’t do with their information. This can go bottom of your page,” says Pulizzi.

Another design tip is to rid your newsletter page of anything that might distract the reader from signing up, says Pulizzi.

Tip 3. Show readers what they’ll getNov 2013 newsletter page 1

Pulizzi suggests that you show readers a picture of your newsletter. I think he means a small image of your newsletter’s first page (see example of my newsletter on the right) or maybe just a table of contents.

Also, link to a sample newsletter. Until recently, I’ve handled this by providing an archive of my monthly newsletters, instead of one sample that I’d need to update periodically.

Tip 4. Limit your newsletter sign-up form’s fields

Limit the number of fields in your newsletter sign-up form. As Pulizzi says, “ the fewer fields, the more likely prospects will be to sign up.”

When I started my newsletter I required only two fields, first name and email address. Now that I’m more confident of my newsletter’s appeal, I request, but don’t require, last names and company names.

Pulizzi’s book as a content marketing resource

If you’re new to content marketing, Epic Content Marketing offers a great overview of content marketing’s many components. It suggests steps that the reader can take to launch their content marketing strategy and manage their content process. There’s information for more experienced marketers too. I noticed some items for action, such as checking out the persona creation tool at upcloseandpersona.com. I’d also like to take a more analytical look at my content strategy.

As a writer, I noticed that some of the writing isn’t as tight as I’d like. For example, information that’s presented as a series of nine bullets screams for a rewrite. Too many bullet points exhaust the reader.

On balance, I enjoyed the book because it made me think.

Disclosures: I received a free copy of this book from McGraw Hill in return for agreeing to mention it in my blog. If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

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How to give feedback to your ghostwriter

Tuesday, Feb. 18th 2014

Farming out writing to a ghostwriter can make the difference between ideas that remain stuck in your head and ideas that become persuasive prose.

ID-10079553

This may involve some give-and-take between you and your ghostwriter. I have some suggestions to help.

1. Give feedback promptly

Ghostwriters can edit your drafts most effectively when your content is fresh in their minds. Take advantage of this by quickly commenting on drafts. Responding within one week is ideal. However, this may not be practical if you’re dealing with a very long document, vacation schedules, or other constraints. Work out a schedule with your ghostwriter.

2. Consolidate feedback in one document

So your ghostwriter can accurately absorb feedback from multiple sources on your end, combine all of that feedback in one document. That reduces the chance that your ghostwriter will overlook an important change while juggling multiple documents.

Combining feedback into one document also lets you see if people at your company disagree about any aspects of the document. That’s something you should sort out before responding to your ghostwriter.

3. Be specific

The more specific you make your feedback, the more likely your ghostwriter will meet your needs. For example, instead of writing that “We need more on topic X,” write “Please add the three main points from page 13 of our handbook,” list the main points you’d like the ghostwriter to add, or simply insert them yourself.

4. Use “Track Changes” and “comments”

Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” and “Comments” features make it easy for your ghostwriter to see what you’ve changed and what you want them to change. This clarity helps them implement your wishes.

“Track Changes” also cues your ghostwriter that he or she should review new text for stylistic consistency and errors of grammar, punctuation, or usage. I often smooth out my clients’ additions.

 

Follow these tips and your ghostwriting revisions will go smoothly. I’ve tested and refined these tips through years of experience ghostwriting white papers and articles for leading investment and wealth management firms.

 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

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Blogging Q&A with Carolyn McClanahan

Thursday, Feb. 13th 2014

Carolyn McClanahan’s fearless sharing of her opinions across social media, including on her blog, spurred me to ask her to participate in my Q&A series with financial advisors who blog. She’s a great example of an advisor who communicates her passion about her topics, which include the intersection of medical and financial planning issues. Carolyn, who began her career as a doctor, is with Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Fla.

Carolyn McClanahan

Q. When did you start The Quest for Simplicity, your blog for Forbes?

A. November 2011.

Q. How has your blog brought you new business or improved your existing client relationships? Please explain and quantify, if possible.

A. Unlike most financial planners, whom I assume blog for business development, I’m blogging for my colleagues in the industry and opinion makers. The purpose of the blog is to educate other financial planners and the public about an area in which our firm, Life Planning Partners, excels—incorporating health conversations into all aspects of financial planning. The firm’s goal is to be an innovative financial life planning practice that is nationally recognized as doing great things for our clients and the profession, demonstrates a model other financial planners want to emulate, and serves as a base for us to make great change in the world.

Has my blog brought us new business? Probably not directly. Do our clients love my blog? Yes, they are very proud of the work we are doing to improve the financial planning profession. They participate in all our “experiments,” love when I share their stories (with permission of course), and refer clients to us readily. I think the referrals are not due to the blog alone – it is a combination of our great service and our ideals. Our business is so good that we had to close to new business for now. Our waiting list had grown to eight months long. I think we are doing something right. New business comes from a confluence of factors.

Q. How else does the blog affect your relationships with clients and prospects?

A. We actually share our business plan with our clients. By doing this, we’ve created a “tribe” of people who get what we do and are very supportive of the change we are trying to make in the financial planning profession. The blog is part of how we implement this change.

Most of the new clients who come to us have read the blog. My unbridled openness about some very controversial topics actually attracts clients to us. And the really good news—people who are uncomfortable with us do not come to us. Therefore, we have only ideal clients and our client retention is off the charts. We have authentic, deep, and difficult conversations with ease.

Q. How will you know if you’ve succeeded as a model for other advisors?

A. Our metrics are:

1. The number of people who read my blog.

2. The number of speaking engagements and type of topics I’m asked to provide.

3. The number of planners who ask about our business model so they can incorporate it in their practice. I will watch with interest how many firms move to retainers and hourly work over time.

Q. What blogging techniques or topics have most helped your business?

A. I think our authenticity and unbridled approach in discussing real problems goes a long way. Storytelling is the most effective way to get a point across.

Q. What are three of your favorite—or most effective—blog posts? Provide the titles, URLs and a comment about why you included them.

A. My most popular post is “Five Quick And Important Facts On Health Insurance Through Obamacare.” I think this was popular because it was practical.

Cliffs Notes Version of the Affordable Care Act — Again, a practical explanation of the law.

Gun Owner Rights and Obamacare – Yes It Is In The Law — Although I received a lot of flak about this article from the gun lobby, clients were overall very proud of this article. It was written right after the Aurora massacre, and was the first article pointing out the National Rifle Association’s hand in Obamacare. A reporter from Politico told me this article was the start of President Obama’s executive order protecting health care worker’s rights to ask about firearms in patient care settings. It shows how powerful words and calling out the truth can be.

Q. What’s your best tip for advisors who blog?

A. Writing a weekly blog is a lot of work, especially when you are running a small business. Over the past couple of months, I’ve run into a number of challenges. We are still reeling from the huge growth of our business, we are trying to hire additional help, and I spent some time taking care of loved ones.

A tip I read somewhere that I wish I would have followed? Have pre-written posts in place in case you run into a tight spot and have nothing to post.

Otherwise, only write about topics that you care about – your passion will come through.

If you enjoyed this post, check out this blog’s Q&As with Michael Kitces and Jim Blankenship. If you have a great blogging success story worthy of being featured in a future Q&A, please contact me. I’d like to hear from you.

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Repackage your blog posts to get more mileage out of them

Tuesday, Feb. 11th 2014

Blogging takes time and energy, so naturally you want to get the biggest possible return on your investment (ROI). Repackaging helps you boost your ROI. I have experience with three kinds of repackaging that you may consider using.

1. Round-ups on your blog

You can recycle your blog posts by linking to them in new posts with a theme, such as topic or popularity. For example, if you blog about different kinds of education savings plans, you could write one post that links to your posts about 529 plans.

“Most popular” round-ups give your readers more of what they’ve already proven they want, as measured by Google Analytics. I used to create such a post annually, as in “Most popular blog posts of 2012.” However, when I boosted my frequency to quarterly in April 2013, some readers thanked me for highlighting posts they’d missed earlier. That’s why I’m continuing on a quarterly basis.

2. E-book compilations

Investment Writing Top Tips is my annual collection of the best posts that appeared on my blog during the preceding year. New subscribers receive it when they sign up. Existing subscribers receive an invitation to download as part of a newsletter that goes via email.

I’ve generally formatted my Top Tips documents as Adobe PDF files. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can use an e-book format. Sites such as Amazon will give you instructions, but be prepared for hiccups in the formatting.

3. Other media

It typically requires some rewriting, but you can repackage your blog posts for other media. For example, there are slidecasts, podcasts, and video. I’ve used slideshare to repackage several blog posts. Different media will appeal to people with different learning styles. They may also work better for people surfing the web on a phone, rather than sitting in front of a big computer monitor.

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