When it comes to digital communications, keeping up with new techniques, insights and trends is critical to being able to do your job well. As a big believer in never resting on what you know worked two years ago if you can learn what works now, I was excited to attend this year’s Digital Summit DC at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (which, incidentally, hosted Greenbuild in 2015 with an 84% waste diversion rate).
The presentations covered all aspects of digital marketing, such as email, social media, content marketing and UX. I focused mainly on content marketing, with a sprinkling of other topics that felt relevant to my work at USGBC.
Here’s a rundown of my top takeaways from the event:
1. SEO is a moving target.
In 2019, SEO is no longer primarily about throwing as many keywords into your content as possible. As Google’s algorithm continues to evolve, so must marketers. From Janet Driscoll-Miller, I learned that adding structured data is a best practice for webpages dealing with products, events, how-tos and FAQs. This allows rich snippets to share relevant details of your content right on the Google search results page, making them stand out even if they’re not the top result.
Several presenters mentioned the huge boost that having video on a page gives to its SEO rankings. In addition, Matthew Capala shared how factors like your content’s thoroughness and length have moved up in importance. For me, this will mean emphasizing USGBC’s evergreen content more and creating new content pieces that showcase our company’s authority as an industry resource.
2. Authenticity can’t be faked.
A common refrain at Digital Summit was “be more authentic.” Users are increasingly accessing web content via their phones, and social media has shown us how easy it is to create instant, personal snippets of content about our experiences. Customers don’t want to be told how great a product is—they want to see it, from other users, not from stock images.
Debra Mastaler explained to her audience that people actually respond more positively to less polished videos than to highly produced ones, because they seem more trustworthy.
When it comes social accounts, Carlos Gil recommended sharing behind-the-scenes views of people doing what they do every day in your industry. Gil also emphasized the importance of liking and commenting on all your reader interactions on social, so they can see the company is composed of real, responsive people.
3. Making things easy results in conversions.
In a competitive marketing landscape, according to Hilary Sutton, it’s imperative to “make the first ‘yes’ easy.” Sutton challenged the audience to think about how they can make conversion as simple as humanly possible, especially for the new customer. Start with a painless way to buy in, and then overdeliver so that users are impressed, she advised.
This theory came up in Capala’s session as well, under the concept of zero risk bias. This cognitive tendency causes people to prefer choices that have no risks associated with them, such as free trials, easy-to-cancel subscriptions and signups that don’t require a credit card number.
4. Analytics are a testing ground, not an endpoint.
Although we all use analytics to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, marketers could take a more experimental approach to using this data, said Madeline Gryczman in her presentation. She encouraged creating a culture of “test and learn” that allows your team to set hypotheses about content performance, then to review the results, to try it again on different channels or at different times of year, and finally to reuse the best-performing aspects of your trials in future content.
Making time for more in-depth analytics can allow marketers to make better strategic decisions. Also, when sharing data with internal customers, it’s good to pay attention to the visual aspects of reports, like spacing, colors and graphics, to direct attention to the most relevant insights.
5. Community connections take work.
Another common theme at Digital Summit was that communities of members, users and customers need nurturing.
In her presentation, Leigh George emphasized that it’s critical to think about what you can do to help connect the community you serve, both on and offline. This means connecting them with one another in a meaningful way, not just with your own company or product.
Also, she said, when it comes to in-person interactions, customers seek “experiences they can’t get anywhere else” to make them value IRL events over digital opportunities. Building exclusive, creative happenings that aren’t just the same old thing will drive engagement much deeper in today’s world.
Last, how do you learn what your community needs from you, exactly? The best way to find out is to ask them. Mastaler suggests polling your users once a year, at minimum, to directly ask them what they want. To gain unfiltered insight, she says, it’s also helpful to explore message boards and social media in depth to find out what your industry is talking about in general, and how they are discussing your company in particular.
Digital Summit gave me a lot of new perspectives on the challenges we face as content professionals, plus ideas on how I can best achieve USGBC company goals in the ever-changing digital landscape. I’m excited to implement some of these new strategies going forward.
In March, the AP Stylebook updated its guide to all things stylistic. The publication’s annual updates are eagerly gobbled up by America’s journalists, writers, editors, PR professionals and marketers, who all want to keep up with the latest decisions in usage.
The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law exists in both print and online form, and is the main arbiter for consistency in English usage, grammar and style across many platforms. (Some publications, though, prefer to use Chicago style or AMA style.)
Every year, there are a few changes or new entries that create excitement, a sense of, “It’s about time they did that!” Equally common is a bit of grumbling among those of us who were used to a different style. If you missed the spring release, here’s a breakdown of the top 2019 changes.
Race and ethnicity
In a time when race-related issues and inclusivity are especially important topics in contemporary discourse, the AP has responded by creating an extensive new section of guidance for writing about these matters. Read the changes and new entries.
Highlights include updates to preferred terminology, taking into account the feedback of several journalist organizations, and instructions to be mindful of whether racial identification is even relevant to describing a person in a story. The updates also clarify the meaning of “racism” and discuss terms that are becoming outdated and should be avoided.
As a writer and editor, I feel it’s especially important to keep up with preferred terms and usage when it comes to how we talk about people. Words have power, and preferences shift. Writers have a responsibility to express things in a current and sensitive way.
The most shocking AP style update this year was also the most trivial: the directive to use of the percent symbol instead of the word in most instances. In running text, where you used to write “a 20 percent increase from last year,” you’ll now write “a 20% increase from last year.” Twitter is still chewing this one over.
USGBC uses a lot of data in our articles, so this means one less edit needs to be made when I receive an article about a LEED project that saved 40% on its energy costs through making efficiency upgrades.
The category of hyphenation received an update when AP decided that we no longer need a hyphen for compound modifiers if the modifiers are “commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.”
So, using one of their own examples, “real estate transaction,” as long as the average reader would know the phrase means a transaction in real estate, not an estate transaction that is genuine, there’s no need for a hyphen.
For USGBC, this decision gives weight to the way we’ve already been styling terms like “net zero energy,” which used to be hyphenated as an adjective as recently as a couple of years ago by many outlets. However, it’s been more common usage for a while to use the term without hyphen (“a net zero energy school”).
In another minor update, the stylebook tells us that quotation marks are no longer required for “such software titles as WordPerfect or Windows.” If you are still writing about WordPerfect, though, you probably need to update to 2019 anyway.
At USGBC, the articles on our website serve many different purposes: sharing information; encouraging advocacy; and promoting our products, events and education. It goes without saying that a registration launch or an update to LEED deserves an article—but what about those webpages or aspects of certification that our customers may not be aware of, or may not quite understand?
Pointing people to existing resources and helping answer more of their questions became a big priority for me in my second year at USGBC. I wanted to dig deeper into how content marketing could support our organization and our customers alike. One way I did this was by creating the “LEED Link” article campaign.
This campaign has been a win-win: We are able to publish LEED-centered content even during times when USGBC doesn’t have major announcements or case studies, and we are able to give people searching for specific topics a quick summary with links to deeper engagement.
Consider these questions when planning a campaign to drive traffic to your existing site resources.
What are people looking for?
Start by taking a look at Google—both on the analytics side and by playing around with searches. On the Google Analytics Home section for your own website, review the stats under “What pages do your users visit?” and “What are your top-selling products?” Under Behavior/Site Search, find out what terms people are looking up on your site.
I like to periodically search Google for keywords and questions related to products of ours. This shows me what is coming up first in public search results. Sometimes, it’s our relevant webpages. Other times, it’s coverage of our resources by another organization. Obviously, we’d like our USGBC pages to be the first links that come up, so that we can ensure people are getting accurate information. Learn about ways to enhance your search engine rankings.
A top-searched term on our website recently has been “regional priority credits.” I published a LEED Link explaining what these LEED credits were and linking to additional information on our website. Now, this article is the first Google result for those keywords.
What’s useful, but not in your main navigation?
Like many organizations, we try to keep our main nav clean and high-level, with just a few landing pages, which in turn link to further information. This is a UX best practice, but it also means that some very useful info can be “hidden” on the site. If this is true of your website as well, create articles that bring those resource pages to the surface. For example:
- LEED Online is our portal for LEED project management, but it’s not in our main nav. Our LEED Link on that topic is now the third Google result after the two actual portal URLs, with pageview stats in approximately the top 5% of our total articles.
- After LEED v4 was launched in 2017, I drilled down into the new landing page content and discovered “impact categories,” which in the new version of the rating system had been updated to better reflect the goals of LEED.
- Similarly, the LEED credit library is used and searched for constantly, but is not directly linked from our top nav.
What do you want people to know more about?
This falls into two categories:
- New content. If USGBC has recently launched an update to LEED or a new study pathway for aspiring credential holders, I will put out a LEED Link about it a few weeks after the initial launch campaign. You may have done a first round of promotion for your latest and greatest resource, but don’t stop there. You’ll get even more eyes on it—or remind people who were interested the first time, but didn’t click—if you do a follow-up piece.
- Underused content. We have a stellar, searchable project directory where buildings and sites that have achieved LEED certification can have a profile page to share photos and descriptions. However, project teams don’t always take advantage of this resource, so I promoted it in a LEED Link. If there are pages on your website that you think people would find useful if they used them more, promote them!
This is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. I love exploring the nooks and crannies of our website and our analytics to create content that leads people to what they need to know, what they want to know—and what they didn’t know they didn’t know. As a content marketer, you have to also be a detective. Get out your magnifying glass and see what you learn.
The hardest part is done—you’ve pulled together information and framed it with the right messaging, and now you have an article, blog update or press release. Ready to post? Not quite. Next comes the essential step of proofreading and shaping the text.
When you’re a writer, marketing expert or PR professional, you may not always have access to editors who can fix errors and help polish your work—and for those times, you’ll need to know the basics, so you can be your own editor.
Here’s a quick rundown of ways to keep your writing clean and expressive.
Check the structure.
Is your piece using the right structure? In the process of writing, you may have placed some of the most relevant information further down, rather than at the top. Make sure you don’t “bury the lede,” and always include the main takeaway for the reader in the opening paragraphs.
Imagine that a reader would follow a link to your content, then scan only the first few lines before clicking away—what would you want the person to learn in that time?
At the end of the piece, insert a call to action, or leave the reader with a memorable statement about the subject.
Review the punctuation.
Punctuation is how we break up text to make reading English easy and understandable. If you’re not sure whether to use a comma or semicolon, stick with a sentence structure that you know is correct, or browse the internet for tips.
Depending on whether you use AP, Chicago or another stylebook (or your organization’s house style), certain preferences are worth making a habit, so that all material from your company appears consistent. For example, at USGBC, we use AP style, which means we don’t use the serial comma.
As an editor, I also look up usage questions in the AP style guide almost daily, to make sure I’ve got things right—it only takes a moment, and it’s worth it for the consistency of our content.
Eliminate extra words.
“Omit needless words,” counselled Strunk and White in their classic 1918 guide “The Elements of Style.”
A first draft usually contains redundancies. That’s just how writing works, as you put ideas onto the page. As your own editor, you must go back and examine where you can make your content more succinct. Streamlining your message will enhance its impact on the reader.
This advice also applies to the title itself—is the title short enough to work for a digital format, but still descriptive of exactly what the piece is about?
In an ideal world, you’ll have time to let content sit for a day or two before reviewing it, but attending to another task for even a couple of hours can make it easier to go back to a piece of writing with fresh eyes.
Run spell check—and then do your own spell check.
Always run the own spelling and grammar check provided in your software, or use another plugin. Nobody’s perfect, and chances are, something has slipped past your first review.
It’s easy to rush past common misuse errors, such as putting “principle” where you meant “principal.” These types of mistakes won’t be caught by automated spell check, so look carefully at context to make sure you’re using the right words.
Also, to avoid embarrassment later, double-check any proper nouns like the names of people, organizations and geographic locations.
With a little extra attention, you can ensure much cleaner, more professional-looking copy. It’s not just about correctness—having enough respect for your readers to put in this effort will pay off, as your readers will, in turn, have greater respect for your organization and trust in its message.
As we’ve learned at USGBC, quizzes are a popular way to engage customers. Since content can be placed into any kind of container—article, social post, podcast—marketers have license to get creative with the methods they use to share information. The interactive format invites people to take a moment out of their day to play a little, so a quiz is the ultimate clickbait.
Here are three things quizzes can do for your marketing strategy:
1. Funnel people to the things they need.
Using quizzes to promote your events lets you kill two birds with one stone: bring attention to registration and help attendees narrow their focus to which education sessions will help with their current challenges. We did this for one of our regional conferences with “What’s the right IMPACT session for you?” Asking potential attendees about their current job roles, pain points and goals, we generated session track recommendations for them with links to individual sessions.
Similarly, to promote our professional courses, we published “What’s the right Education @USGBC course for you?” Filtering for job title, experience level, and current green building interests, we gave people customized recommendations for a particular education course.
2. Strike up a friendly conversation.
Your customers are people too, and a quiz is a great place to use a friendly, informal tone to relate to your audience, even—or maybe especially—if your corporate voice is usually more buttoned-up. With “How well do you know your LEED trivia?” we inserted facts about famous LEED buildings and links to further details. The post-question feedback was breezy as well as informative:
3. Allow customers to test their expertise.
Structured around our LEED professional credentials, the “LEED Green Associate Playbook” and “LEED AP Playbook” marketing campaigns were among USGBC’s top-performing in 2017 and 2018. We knew that our customer base was deeply interested in content related to achieving these credentials, so we built an article series for each.
Sample questions from the credential exams went into “Are you ready to take your LEED Green Associate exam?” With more than 13,000 pageviews, the article is among our all-time best on usgbc.org. The quiz itself has been completed over 3,800 times. For our smaller, more expert LEED AP candidate pool, we posted “Are you ready for the BD+C exam?“, which has been completed almost 1,500 times.
By offering real sample questions, we allowed readers to test their knowledge of the rigorous exam content, and we included customized responses for different levels of success. For those who didn’t do as well on the quiz questions, we linked to further exam prep resources.
Keep it short, but put in the work.
For the best quiz completion rate, ask about 5–10 questions. People are busy and won’t always finish a long quiz, so you have the best chance of engaging them with a brief series of questions.
However, for the best user experience, you’ll need to make plenty of time on your end to come up with good questions and add useful responses and links for each answer. The more targeted and specific your responses, the more likely your quiz will result in conversions.
As part of the USGBC marketing and communications team, our design team works on many kinds of projects, from brand identity to article images to print collateral. Not content to rest on their current expertise, they are constantly seeking out what’s new in the design world and incorporating ideas from the wider world into their projects.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of the websites where they find inspiration:
Annie Patton, Director, Creative Services
- I like Fast Co. Design. They send out a daily newsletter focused on articles relating to design and business. They cover lots of different topics and industries, which gives me the opportunity to look at our work from a different perspective.
Amy Civetti, Art Director
- Brand New is a division of UnderConsideration, chronicling and providing opinions on corporate and brand identity work. The reason I love the “reviewed” section of the blog is that they cover current design trends and show what the updates look like. It’s a really great way for me to stay up to date on other branding out there that I may not otherwise be exposed to.
- Resource Cards is a growing list of free resources that help creatives with their next project. I love this because it pools tons of resources into a really easy-to-use page. I have a few go-to free sites in my brain, but when I am struggling to find something, I know I can go to resourcecards.com and find some alternatives!
Nia Lindsey, Senior Graphic Designer
- When creating new brand identities, developing the color palette is my favorite part. I love that Coolors presents the colors full width, with most of the necessary color values calculated.
- Mattson Creative‘s design blog is, hands down, one of my favorite design studios. Every post inspires me to find unconventional ways to innovate and perfect my craft. They recently completed Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary identity, and it is amazing! #goals
In a time when a lot of content marketing is done on the internet, writers and editors must consider the specific needs of readers who are accessing their articles online. Here are my top three tips for how to reach them with clear headlines:
1. Keep titles as short as you can.
Writing for a print layout gives you the luxury of being creative and clever with your titles, such as by using metaphors, imagery and colloquial turns of phrase. This often manifests as what I call “university press style”—a general phrase followed by further context.
Example: “Playing with fire: Global climate change and the catastrophic rise in forest fires in the American west”
However, writing articles for the web means your title needs to be concise. It will be squeezed into preview boxes in social media and into modules on webpages. If the title is too long, the whole line won’t appear. This limitation can be good, though—it forces you to focus on the main point of your article.
Edited version: “Study shows climate change worsens forest fires”
Titles must often fit within modules on a website layout.
2. Make titles describe what the article is actually about.
Making your title clearly reflect the subject of the article works on two levels. One, readers who are scrolling through content on their mobile devices or scanning a list of recent articles in an email digest are able to quickly see what content is available and to click on what’s relevant to them. Two, it’s good for SEO. Organic search terms will be reflective of readers’ keywords or questions, which tend to be very straightforward.
Be specific, and be factual, to reflect the news content or product you are writing about.
Example: “Leading with a sustainability mindset brings it all together”
Edited version: “Mayor of Anytown adds LEED certification to 2018 building code”
3. Use a number—listicles really do work.
The stats don’t lie. Our analytics have shown that readers love to click on pieces that break down a topic with a number, through titles similar to these: “Top 10 States for LEED,” “Top 4 benefits of installing solar panels,” “3 reasons to earn your LEED Green Associate credential.”
You don’t want to do this for every article, of course, and you must deliver on your title’s promise, not make it mere clickbait. But it’s a good idea to use numbers where appropriate in your content marketing, along with other terms that trigger the same sense of “this sounds easy!” For example, “Top 4 benefits of installing solar panels” could also be “How to install solar panels on your home” or “Simple steps to solar panel installation.” People google “how…” more than just about any other term. It’s all about making your content relevant to the reader.
Content marketing encompasses a range of formats: articles, blogs, infographics, videos and social media posts. What they all share is a goal to increase engagement or drive sales of a particular service, product or publication through providing information or storytelling that is compelling for the reader.
At USGBC, I work on the article component, creating and editing website content that shares information about our products, such as LEED. In 2016, we published over a thousand articles. We have a lot of brands and stakeholders, so we have a lot of content—and it needs to be prepared quickly. Here are the main four things I do to shape an article:
1) Highlight the goal.
When writing an article, make your headline and your call to action obvious. For example, our LEED Link series promotes products that our website users are already searching for and reading about. In bite-sized amounts, the articles share some of the details users need and ends with a button that leads them to further resources or products.
Even when an article highlights an individual or event, not a product, tie it back implicitly to why the reader should care. A simple example: “LEED credential holders make an impact as Pros, Fellows and Faculty” could have been titled “Meet our top LEED Pros, Fellows and Faculty,” emphasizing the personal. But readers may not know these influencers. What they are interested in is how they themselves can make a difference through attaining LEED credentials. Through that framing, they are more likely to click on the examples of the people who have attained this goal, as well as the ultimate call to action.
2) Keep it short, and break up the text.
Your customers are busy people, and they appreciate articles that get to the point. At USGBC, we recommend 300–500 words for most pieces. Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print, and the skills we learned in school about long-form writing need to be adapted to the digital world.
Add subheads and bulleted lists as ways to break up your text and allow customers to scan for the information they need.
3) Use images, graphics and interactive content.
Use a feature image or header that expresses your article goal simply and appealingly. Embed photos, quizzes, maps or infographics, as in our article on LEED-certified hospitality destinations, to further draw the reader in and make your topic more concrete and resonant.
One of our most successful posts each year is the Top 10 States for LEED, which includes an infographic breaking down the hard numbers and highlighting each state’s achievements.
4) Show how the customer belongs.
Whatever kind of business you have, your customers are part of a community that shares a common goal. At USGBC, the common goal is global sustainability and health through high-performing green buildings. Most of our articles recognize that sense of being part of something larger than ourselves and encouraging greater involvement.
This can be done in a playful way, as with our test-your-expertise quiz on green building, or a more serious way, as in our article on how building to LEED standards combats climate change. As you create your content, think about ways you can add a sense of community to your marketing in an organic way.