How to create a great feature image for your content


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How to create a great feature image for your content

When creating a feature image for your articles, there’s a lot to consider. It’s important that you make something that catches the eye of your audience and entices users to investigate further. Here is a rundown of the most important things to keep in mind.

Know your context.

The first and most critical thing you can do is to understand the content you’re working with and its mood. Without understanding the context you’re designing for, you may miss key conceptual details that will create a disconnect between the text and the image. Take time to read the article, and if you need clarification from the author, don’t be afraid to ask.

Feature image for Arc webinar

Mood is important in a feature image. This example is an image for a webinar hosted by Arc. We wanted to draw attention to the program’s being online, while still presenting in a sleek and serious tone through use of typography and color. 

Stay up to date with trends.

Whether you’re creating images from scratch or using online resources, it’s important to keep in line with design trends. That’s why every week, I take just a bit of extra time to go online and look at what other designers are doing for inspiration. There are plenty of design blogs, and some do a great job of covering a wide variety of trends for the year. For instance, Behance has not only a vast array of portfolios, but also provides guidelines for keeping up with current trends.

Feature image about a YouTube playlist

This feature image for an article about playlists on YouTube integrates the YouTube color palette with one of 2017’s design trends.

Employ both consistency and variety.

Although it’s important that the image you end up with serves the story at hand, it’s also important that your feature images go together to some extent. As with any brand, consistency is key. When people go to your home page, they don’t want to be bombarded with chaotic, mismatched images.

30x30 Nature Challenge Wisconsin feature image

30x30 Nature Challenge Iowa feature image

The 30×30 Nature Challenge took place in several different USGBC communities, but we wanted all the branding content to be related. This was achieved through creating a work mark for the challenge and placing it on top of imagery from the state that was being highlighted in each article.

That said, users also don’t want to see too much of the same. Make sure you have a variety of colors, graphics and photos that look cohesive together, but also diverse enough to stand out from one another.

USGBC homepage design

It’s important that your images are consistent with another in some capacity; otherwise, your main page will look too chaotic.

Use the web for inspiration and resources.

Still having trouble coming up with ideas? Luckily, there are a lot of great sources online that provide free photos for commercial use, such as Pixabay or Unsplash. You can also look at Flickr’s creative commons for more photos. Other websites, such as The Noun Project, provide infinite icons for use for practically no money at all.

USGBC feature image

Although much of our content is serious, we also want USGBC to be fun and dynamic. Using bright colors and simple iconic imagery, we’re able to create clean works that still pop.

There is no one right way to create a feature image, but with understanding of your content, along with access to tools and trends, you’ll be on track to generating cohesive, eye-catching feature images for your articles. 

Learn how USGBC designs logos

Tips for creating an effective online customer survey


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Tips for creating an effective online customer survey

Wondering how well your content is doing? Just ask your customer. 

Online surveys are an easy way to gather customer feedback and research that helps you make better-informed business decisions. At USGBC, we recently launched a global language survey to see how we could enhance our international audience’s LEED experience.

Here are several guidelines to follow when launching a survey, from writing the questions to sharing the final results with coworkers.

Define your survey’s purpose, and write a marketing plan.

Before you get started on drafting any survey questions, ask yourself: What do you want to know?

After determining what information you’re looking to collect, write it all down by creating a marketing plan, which should include target audience and promotion tactics, to share with your team.

Our survey aimed to capture key demographic information about our international audience, so we could sketch a customer profile in terms of industry, job level, age, location and primary language.

We opted to keep the survey open for three weeks and distributed it through an article, emails and USGBC’s social media channels. We also leveraged our staff’s international contacts to help promote the survey.

Draft your survey questions, and share them with your team for their feedback.

Keep your questions as simple, direct and short as possible, so there’s no confusion about what’s being asked. Avoid any leading questions. 

Since we were looking for demographic information about our global audience, our questions centered on profession and industry, location and language. Some of our survey questions included:

  • What is your primary language?
  • What is your country of residence? How long have you lived in your country of residence?
  • What is your primary language? Are you fluent in any other languages Is English the primary language you use at work?
  • Which of the following most closely matches your job level?

SurveyMonkey has a great list of tips on writing effective survey questions.

After you’ve finished writing your questions, make sure to share the draft with your team for their input and pick a survey platform to use, such as GetFeedback or SurveyMonkey. Ask your team to do a beta test to get an average on how long the survey takes to complete and to determine if any questions need additional polishing. 

Reporting the results: Make sure to include key takeaways and charts.

After your survey is over and you have all the data, build out several charts and graphics to share within your company. Make sure to include within your report your survey’s duration, number of responses, methodology and high-level observations.

Our survey results suggested our international audience is fairly young, fluent in English and mid-level in their industries, with the top three being in design, engineering and construction. 

Spanish is the most popular native language, followed by Portuguese, English and Chinese. Interestingly, we found that the majority of our users preferred to use English resources in studying for a LEED professional exam or working on a LEED project.

Learn more about getting relevant data on your customers

How to make your emails more effective


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How to make your emails more effective

Written by Ursula Fox-Koor and Jake Rose.

As the email experts at USGBC, we use a number of strategies to make sure our email marketing is effective and useful for the customer. Here’s a breakdown of what we do, and how you can use these strategies to enhance your own email reach.

Collect data on new contacts.

All email contact lists slowly shrink, as people change jobs, switch email accounts and unsubscribe. To keep your email list at its current size, you need to continually add contacts to your database to offset this expected attrition.

The data you capture from new contacts is as valuable as the email address itself. The more data points you have on each contact, the better you can target them with different messaging. Examples of data points we collect at USGBC are job title, company, industry, location and LEED credentials.

You can prompt users to fill out a quick form once they click the subscribe button. It should be simple—you don’t want to include too many fields, or you will lose them. Conferences and events are another easy way to get new email addresses; you should have the email address of every person who registered for an event, even if they didn’t show.

Use list segmentation. 

Not everyone should receive the same message. Target your audiences, based on their data points, with different messaging. People will be much more receptive of your content if it is relevant to them. If you want to start an email campaign advertising an architectural conference, building contractors do not need to receive that message. A smaller, more targeted list is always better than a large list with no target. Think about what is relevant to people in different industries, with different titles, who live in different cities, and so on.

An easy way to clean up your deliverability and opens is to exclude those who aren’t opening your emails, or whose email addresses have hard bounced. Put these people into another segment. You way want to think about a reactivation campaign if they haven’t opened an email in a year. 

Incorporate A/B testing.

A/B testing is a great way to figure out what makes your audience respond. This is the practice of dividing an email segment in half and sending the two groups different versions of your message. Make sure that you only test one variable at a time. If you are testing both your subject line and the time of day the message is sent, how will you know to which program to attribute success?

The most common A/B test is the subject line, but you can also A/B test the “from” name, the time of day and the content of the email itself.

Make it visual.

Our recent USGBC email subscription update campaign is a prime example of including a stimulating visual. Rather than listing the steps of the call to action, we showed them through a gif.

We applied the same thought process to our email template redesign. Here’s what we kept in mind before we made the new design:

  • Feature the USGBC brand on top of every email; it should be clear who the sender is.
  • Break up the text with bullets, icons, buttons, gifs, images or videos.
  • Include a calendar reminder feature. This puts the event on the recipient’s calendar, giving the event visibility beyond the inbox.
  • Include a teaser headline. This helps with the flow of the email and emphasizes your call to action.
  • Be transparent with your branding. We took the footer as an opportunity to show the subsidiary brands under USGBC. This is also an opportunity to promote these brands. 

 

Email essentials

Take note of these general tips for effective emails:  

  • Never write out an email address or a webpage or tell readers to “click here.” Embed your links. Examples: Write “Get in touch,” not “email us at test@usgbc.org“; “Learn more about USGBC,” not “Click here.”
  • Make sure your call to action is clear and placed “above the fold” (you don’t want your audience having to work to find it).
  • Use the preheader text as a second subject line.
  • Use active rather than passive voice.
  • Include fun images and even GIFS to show rather than tell.

Apply all these tips to future email campaigns, and keep track of what you’ve learned. Continually test and improve your campaigns. You can test email color schemes, feature images, times of day, days of the week, etc. Have fun with it!

Email is a stand-alone tool, and is best used when in conjunction with other media. Posting on social or writing a related article are great ways to reinforce the message.

Learn more about email best practices



Award-winning designs at USGBC


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Award-winning designs at USGBC

High on my list of goals for the year was to take more time to recognize—and celebrate—our amazing creative services and marketing team at USGBC. If you’ve spent any time on USGBC Studio, you’ll have seen the caliber of talent stockpiled within the team, and you’ll understand why gratitude topped my to-do list.

My plan? Submit some of our favorite creative work from the past year into industry competitions. (Usually we’re too busy doing the work to take time to applaud the work).

I’m pleased to announce that our team took home a number of prestigious awards, including two American Inhouse Design Awards from Graphic Design USA and a Hermes Creative Award.

SITES advertising creative piece

  • Winner of 2017 American Inhouse Design Award

Screen-printed USGBC T-shirt

This limited-edition tee for Greenbuild 2016 honored industry champion Rick Fedrizzi and was featured previously on Studio

  • Winner of 2017 American Inhouse Design Award
  • Winner of 2017 Hermes Creative Award

See more of our USGBC design work



Becoming content experts with the LEED Green Associate credential [podcast]


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Becoming content experts with the LEED Green Associate credential [podcast]

For communications professionals who work in sustainability, earning the LEED Green Associate credential is the best way to learn about green building principles—and in turn, to help you produce stronger, more engaging content.

That’s why I took the test, along with my colleagues, communications manager Ali Peterson and content specialist Amanda Sawit. As any marketing and public relations professional knows, the key to being an effective communicator is knowing your subject matter like the back of your hand.

Ali, Amanda and I recently gathered with moderator and content marketing specialist Heather Benjamin to discuss tips on studying for the test, why we decided to pursue our credential and how earning our LEED Green Associate credential improved our content strategy and workflow.

Listen to our conversation:

About the LEED Green Associate Exam

The test involves 100 multiple-choice questions that you have two hours to answer on a computer. There are no eligibility requirements to sit for the exam. The test costs $200 for USGBC members, $100 for students and $250 for all others. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to the LEED Green Associate Exam for more information.

Looking for additional resources? Here were our essential studying materials while gearing up for the test: 

Listen to the podcast



Inspiration from the Content Marketing Conference: Connecting with your customer


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Inspiration from the Content Marketing Conference: Connecting with your customer

Do you ever feel you’re in need of a professional reboot?

It’s not so much the feeling of hitting a wall—I can certainly identify writer’s block when it comes along—it’s more of a confidence issue. Basically, I was feeling stale. 

That’s when I stumbled upon the Content Marketing Conference in Boston. I only had two weeks to get approved, booked and registered, but something about their superhero enthusiasm for writing got to me. Plus, they promised good laughs throughout. 

The experience turned out to be everything I needed. The speakers were engaging and dynamic, and that humor they promised went a long way in making me feel more inspired about my work.

In addition to the learning opportunities, conferences are a great place to get affirmation. There’s a feeling of validation in being among your tribe—in my case, my content marketing squad.

Here are eight takeaways from presenters who inspired me:

Ann Handley

“Don’t tell me what you do, tell me why it matters to me.”

Ann Hanley emphasized that content gives us the opportunity to offer our audience a full experience, a packaged story.“ It goes beyond just being “different;” the package must be extraordinary. “It should sound like a movement; it’s something you want to be part of; it’s your squad,” she said. Exceptional content builds an experience that offers much deeper value and translates into real life, seamlessly.

“Smart marketers don’t just join conversations, they lead them.”

There is stiff content competition on the web. We must ask, “What story can I tell with a depth and breadth that doesn’t already exist?” Fine-tune the brand’s tone of voice, first. From there, we can build actual relationships with our target audiences. Be someone they want to know. Today’s content marketer has to be “bigger, braver and bolder” with their creative choices.In a nutshell: “Does your content tell a different story with a specific point of view?”

“Pathological empathy.”

This is the “source of the squad.” Empathy builds trust. It takes walking the talk for a customer to believe you when you tell them, “we hear you; we see you.” The relationship between brand and consumer is real and impactful. We can creatively narrate a story that resonates and builds an emotional connection on its own. 

Brian Halligan

“Content marketing is hard work—you’ve got to actually rub some brain cells together and make friction.”

This comment echoed Ann Handley when she noted that content marketing is far more about “brains than budget.” There’s a crossover between psychology and marketing for a reason. The content marketer has to study and listen before executing any creative elements. It’s a lot of responsibility, but great content is useless if not planned and executed thoughtfully.

“If text is to Google is to 2007, video is to social is to 2017.”

That was self-admitted risky statement to make to an audience full of writers!

It was hard to hear, but important. We have to remain open to the changes in our industry—they are, after all, constant. Our role has to evolve with the digital landscape, and sometimes that means getting comfortable with new trends and new media.

“Engage them where they live.”

As a social media manager, I had to include this quote. It was followed up with the statement, “Invest more in social.” The opportunities to connect and build community are limitless. These people become that aforementioned “squad.” They can become loyal brand ambassadors. 

Larry Kim

“Sometimes success is random, but you need quantity to find the quality.” 

Let the data speak! Experimentation is necessary. Not every idea is going to work, but a fraction of those do work. If there is no process in place to track our content, we cannot measure performance. This is the longest haul of the process for many, but it’s essential.

Josh Bernoff

“Write without the bullshit.” That’s the summary—but for more, check out Josh’s infographic:

See more content marketing tips



Use contributing writer guidelines to keep your content on message


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Use contributing writer guidelines to keep your content on message

You might have heard the phrase “green buildings are about people.” And it’s true—who better to illustrate USGBC’s mission, to transform the way buildings are designed, built and operated, than those who are working to do this every day?

Contributing writers come from many areas of the green building industry—from design and construction to urban planning and building maintenance. Our contributors are experts in their fields. Whether they represent major brands, local governments or grassroots organizations, they offer their own unique perspectives on the challenges and opportunities in green building.

In most cases, a member of our communications and marketing team will work with writers throughout the development process, from brainstorming through publication. Once an idea is pitched, we can begin drafting. We listen to a writer’s messages and goals for sharing their stories. Our job is to make sure that the article, while remaining authentic to the writer’s voice and expertise, meets our needs as a content provider for a wide audience.

This is where setting expectations can play a vital role in shaping and delivering optimal content. Doing this up front ensures that we provide timely and relevant information for our customers. Having in-house guidelines for tone, style, length and format also makes sure that our messaging is consistent across the dozens of platforms we manage.

Here are a few of our high-level guidelines:

Keep content relevant.

The majority of usgbc.org readers are green building and LEED professionals. For your company, keep in mind whom you’re writing for, and consider what will be most useful to your target audience. Focus on the “how” and “why” of any content piece—going deeper into any challenges, solutions and benefits. Pro tip: Readers should be able to come away with an understanding of how to apply the information presented.

Keep it short.

We publish articles of about 300–500 words on our sites, and never more than 700 words. Having a word limit not only keeps content regular across channels, but challenging yourself to say what you mean in fewer words is an excellent exercise in honing your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. Pro tip: Get to the point early on. Express the main issue, opinion or purpose of the piece in the first or second paragraph.

Watch the tone.

Articles are an extension of your personal platform as a subject-matter expert, and reflect your ability to connect with audiences in a meaningful way. To that end, the tone of your article should be conversational and professional. Pro tip: Use clear, illustrative language that conveys the impact, benefit and implications of what you are writing about and avoids personal commentary.

Make it actionable.

Every article should include a clear takeaway, lesson learned or call to action. In addition to having information significant to the user within the body of the text, at USGBC, we include a button at the end of each article that links to further details on the topic, a sign-up form or an event registration page. Pro tip: Always include a way for the customer to take some type of action to further their journey.

For more tips, read our one-pager for contributing writers.



3 tips for better SEO


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3 tips for better SEO

Ever heard the old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

As a digital marketer, content delivery is important. Understanding your target audience and knowing what they want is key to crafting compelling product marketing material—and ensuring its success. After all, why make content if no one is going to see it?

One of the major weapons in your arsenal is SEO.

SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, is all about connecting users to the best, most relevant content. Here are three tips to help make your content more SEO-friendly and rank it higher in search results.

Make your content relevant.

At the end of the day, search engines are a business, and they’re looking to generate high customer satisfaction. To do their jobs as best as possible, their goal is to refer users to websites and content that’s most relevant to what they’re searching for, says Search Engine Watch.

Content that’s filled with keywords, which are the words and phrases you use in a search box, likely will be rewarded with better rankings. Some websites use sneaky tactics—such as using white text on a white background or setting a font size to zero—to boost their listing, also known as blackhat SEO. Avoid such underhanded techniques. They’ll earn you nothing but a hand slap from search engines, pushing your content further down in search results.

Ways to improve your content:

  • Write strong, clear and concise headlines that immediately convey what your content is about. Use headlines as opportunities for keywords. Check out NPR’s article on how to write great headlines.
  • Wrap hyperlinks around keywords and text. When search engines crawl the web, hyperlinking vague words and calls to action, such as “click here,” don’t mean much to them.
  • Make sure to provide “alt text” for images in HTML to give search engines a text description of your visual content.

Be authoritative.

Search engines have discovered that links can serve as a proxy for a good-faith vote in strong content, according to Moz, a marketing analytics software company based in Seattle.

Take Wikipedia, for instance. It consistently ranks as one of the 10 most visited websites around the world, according to Alexa, and it’s partly due to its content using a robust, comprehensive linking structure.

Additionally, use more synonyms to describe your product or a topic. Search engines register content that uses a variety of related phrases as higher in quality, said Arnie Kuenn, CEO of Vertical Measures, at Content Marketing World 2016.

Improve user experience.

Search engines look for the “long click”, in which users click a result without heading immediately back to the search page to try again, according to Moz.

Think about your website’s user experience. Is it difficult to navigate around your website? Does your website look safe? Does it have a high bounce rate? Those are factors that will play into how your website ranks.

Also, work on your URL structures. Search engines like Google display URLs in results, affecting click-through and visibility. Use shorter URLs and keywords wherever possible, and make sure to use hyphens to separate words for easier readability.

Looking for more SEO tools? Explore SearchMetrics’ SEO glossary, and check out Google Trends, which offers a broader picture of search query data. 

Learn more about best practices for your website



7 easy green DIY decorating projects for Halloween


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7 easy green DIY decorating projects for Halloween

The National Retail Federation projects that Americans will spend approximately $8.4 billion to celebrate Halloween this year, a record high in the annual survey’s history. Save a bit of green while being green, and make your home spooktacular with these seven eco-friendly DIY decorating projects.

1. Paper origami bats made with 100 percent recycled construction paper

Trick your guests into thinking there’s a flock of bats in your home by creating 10 or so paper versions to stick on a wall (instructions are at AGirlAndAGlueGun.com). You’ll need recycled black construction paper, which should cost $2–3. You also could create a paper bat mobile as Martha Stewart advises, by tying your winged creations to a tree branch.

2. Spooky terrarium jars

Decorate your windowsills with these DIY Network spooky terrarium jars, using recycled glass jars with spiders, cotton ghosts, moss and branches. Making these terrarium jars is fairly easy, and it’s a great project to get kids involved in. You can let them fill their jars with whatever tiny, terrifying toys they like.

If you have some old gauze tape lying around and extra glass jars, you also can make your own mummy luminaries from the blog “A Little Clairification.”

3. Dark paper flowers

Add a touch of shadowy glamour to your space by making a black flower arrangement using biodegradable crepe paper. If you have extra paper, you also can make a black paper wreath, as seen in “Country Living.”

4. Wooden pumpkins

Try something new this year, and make your own version of a pumpkin as Today’s Fabulous Finds suggests, by reusing old wooden blocks.

5. Spirit jugs

Light up the pathway to your home for trick-or-treaters with “Eighteen25″‘s spirit jugs. Take any old, used milk gallon jugs, and draw silly faces on them using a permanent marker. Make these ghost-like containers shine at night with low-wattage christmas lights.

6. Apple tea light holders

These apple tea light holders from “Woman’s Day” are an easy and quick way to illuminate a room during Halloween. After using the apples, you can give them to a local farm for animal food or add them to a compost bin.

7. Recycled K-cup garland of lights

Big coffee drinker? The “KimSixFix” shows you how to put those old K-cups to use by making a garland of lights to hang across your fireplace’s mantel for Halloween. Like the spirit jugs, you can draw a variety of scary faces on each cup.