In my role at USGBC, I use my experience in communications and marketing, but I am not a subject matter expert in LEED certification or sustainability per se. I have to query our LEED team when there’s a detailed question about how rating system credits are referred to in an article.
Creating and sharing resources for sustainability professionals on the foundational LEED Green Associate credential is an important part of our work on the education and marketing teams. After spending five years at USGBC—and writing and editing literally thousands of articles on green building—I was ready to make the leap and try to earn the credential myself, both to expand my industry knowledge and to reduce the number of times I have to reach out to our staff experts.
Here’s my breakdown of the top benefits and challenges I discovered in my LEED Green Associate studies.
Benefit: You realize sustainability strategies are everywhere.
LEED plaques are visible. Usually mounted near the front entrance of a building or in the lobby, they proudly present the achievement of a whole team of people in building or operating a space in a healthy, environmentally friendly way.
On my way back from Digital Summit 2019, I noticed the LEED plaque in the Marriott Marquis lobby. Plaques are easy to notice. Strategies can be less visible.
However, a LEED plaque is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Underneath that is months and possibly years of planning, design, construction and operations to meet the goals of defined impact categories through specific LEED credit categories like Energy and Atmosphere or Materials and Resources.
The unexpected benefit of my Green Associate studies was that all this extra focus opened my eyes even more to more detailed examples of sustainability all around me. Not just the solar panels, but the pervious paving:
…and the electric vehicle charging stations:
It seemed like everywhere I walked, I found another example of a LEED strategy in action.
Challenge: Creating a study process that works for you.
Because of the COVID-19 closures that rippled through the U.S. in March, and then some further scheduling changes, my study journey was a little protracted. Plus, with a full-time job, it could be tricky finding times to study when my mind was still fresh. I found that lunch breaks and weekend afternoons were the best times to do my reading.
Studying with my sleepy assistant.
The many independent study resources available on Education @USGBC make it easy to find a format that appeals to you. I learn best by reading and writing, so I concentrated on reading the required publications and taking notes. If you are more interactive, you might want to ask someone in your home to quiz you with flash cards, or you might sign up for an instructor-led online workshop. Videos on the core concepts of LEED are also available.
Challenge: Taking the big, bad exam.
I thought it might be easier for me to retain the material because of my experience working at USGBC—and maybe it was, a little. But not much! I was a little intimidated by how in-depth and technical the study materials were. You don’t just need to understand green building principles and LEED categories—you must also know certain standards, entities and measurements exactly. Be sure to budget time for memorization in your studies, as well as conceptual understanding.
The best choice I made in my study plan was to take six or seven LEED Green Associate practice exams. Each time I took one, I’d write down what I got wrong or didn’t understand, and then look up more about that term or concept. Those practice sessions turned out to be absolutely essential study element for me when preparing for the exam.
When I took the exam, I used the remotely proctored online option available since May, using Prometric’s ProProctor platform. I didn’t have to worry about going in person to a testing center. The guidance sent to you when you register is comprehensive, so there are no surprises about the exam protocols. I found the pre-exam tutorial slides to be helpful and the exam itself to take less than the time allotted, but this will be different for everyone. As a bonus, you find out right away whether you passed!
Benefit: You can only go up from here.
Besides the morale boost of having a nifty LEED Green Associate icon on my usgbc.org profile, I’m also realizing that LEED credentials are meant to be built on. I could go for a LEED AP next, or earn some knowledge-based badges. In the next two years, I have 15 continuing education requirements to fulfill, which means I’ll be taking courses or reading case studies frequently—being motivated to stay on top of industry developments even more than I was as a straight marketing professional.
Plus, I’m now part of the very cohort of global sustainability professionals I’ve been writing for and about since 2015. This study process has helped me understand even better what our USGBC community does. In less than four months, nearly 3,000 people have taken the LEED Green Associate exam’s remote version. Current and future architects, engineers, LEED project managers, contractors, facility managers—and communications people—are taking steps together toward the same vision.
On May 21, the AP Stylebook released its annual list of updates. Although the online edition is updated throughout the year, the release of new categories that coincides with the hard copy version is eagerly anticipated by writers and editors.
At USGBC, we use AP style to make sure our content is internally consistent, as well as in keeping with current journalistic practices. I check the online guide pretty much daily on matters large and small (“How do we refer to COVID-19 accurately? And does ‘PhD’ have periods in it?”).
Here’s a breakdown of some of the recent changes and additions that I’ll be keeping an eye on:
Digital technology and security
With more than 100 new and updated entries on digital technology terms, the stylebook has an answer for just about everything, so if you weren’t sure whether to refer to virtual assistants such as Alexa with feminine pronouns, now you know. The different meanings of apps, platforms, services and sites is all explained, and you can now refer to “the cloud” in lowercase. The modifier “cyber” is considered largely out of date. View more new entries.
A new special section on digital security for journalists offers guidance on things like passwords, multi-factor authentication, VPNs, phishing and secure data storage, in a time when maintaining secure digital connections is an increasing challenge for web users.
Current medical terms
Because an enormous amount of media coverage is now in reference to the coronavirus pandemic, the updated stylebook contains a “Coronavirus Topical Guide” to help writers navigate the new terminology with accuracy. Where appropriate, we refer to this new reality in our articles, so it’s very helpful for me to know how to style references to COVID-19. (All editors are human—but I was embarrassed that I needed be reminded that “global pandemic” is redundant!)
Particularly relevant to our work at USGBC is the new section on climate change terms. It differentiates global warming and climate change, adds that “climate crisis” is now an acceptable alternative term and explains that single occurrences cannot be attributed to climate change. For example:
Don’t: “The spring hurricane season was the result of climate change.”
Do: “The increase in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires, is an effect of climate change.”
Don’t have an account with the AP Stylebook? Follow the updates on Twitter with #APStyleChat.
If you work in content marketing but look to sources outside your organization for content, you probably engage in content curation. This can mean simply aggregating and sharing content that you know your audience will be interested in, or it can involve doing research to generate your own content, when you are not a subject matter expert yourself.
Either way, you want to make sure that you are going about it the right way and providing well-sourced information. Here are a few things to keep in mind when curating content from the web to share with your audience:
Use the most authoritative sources.
Example: With our consumer-focused website, Green Home Guide, USGBC publishes articles not just on LEED homes, but on general green living and choices the average person can make to have a healthier home. Our marketing staff often does online research to find the best data and resources for our readers.
When finding content to cite or share, we make sure to focus on authoritative sources—websites from organizations that have a reputation (the U.S. EPA, the International Energy Agency)—and sometimes we also use well-known sustainability blogs. The name/recognizability, Google ranking and professional appearance of a site are all factors that can help you recognize a good source. Never use Wikipedia as a source, since it can be edited by anyone.
Check the footer if you’re not sure—sometimes, sites hide what they are really about and by whom they are run. What seems initially to be an informational article on indoor air quality and health may actually be a marketing piece by a litigation firm. If content is from a website run by a company related to your industry, make sure that the content is not overly promotional.
Search with strategy.
Be smart about the keywords with which you search—focus on the most relevant terms, and avoid emotionally or politically loaded keywords. If I am writing a piece on how new, clean energy technologies are helping to slow the effects of climate change, I will get back more scientific and useful results by Googling “climate change mitigation” and “energy-efficient technology,” than if I look up “global warming disaster” or “how to stop oil and gas industry.”
Also, if you are sourcing data from a news article, follow the links back to the original source: the academic study, publication or release being described. Use that original link in your piece.
Save time by zeroing in on what you need.
There’s a lot of information out there. Save content you come across as you find it, for future reference. I started a spreadsheet of academic studies relevant to our work at USGBC, with statistics on green building, nature and the environment, green jobs, and human health and wellness. I can go back to this document to use quotes and statistics when I’m writing on one of these topics.
When you’re doing research, scan potential content sources quickly, and don’t waste time wading through entire articles to get to the info you need. If what you need isn’t reflected on the first page of an article or clearly pointed out in a subhead, move along.
Then, take the time to craft the piece.
It takes time to create even short articles, if you want them to be useful. After doing your first draft, think about what questions the reader might have, based on that copy, and then answer those questions in your second draft. In my experience, the average time spent researching and writing a 300-word curated content piece is about 2–4 hours, depending on the complexity of the subject.
Structure your article to allow for easy scanning by the reader. Whether it’s a straight curation of other sites’ content, as in a weekly content roundup, or a weaving in of cited sources to an original article, make it simple for the customer to get the point, to scroll down for more detail and to click through to useful links for more information.
When presenting content you’ve researched, never cut and paste. That’s plagiarism. Always rephrase or summarize the source’s information, and link to the page where you found it.
Pro tip: Once you’ve got a good library of content, curate your own content and do a roundup of previous resources that had high engagement.
Doing your due diligence to present the best, most recent and most authoritative content for your readers will pay off! When I began generating more of our content in-house this way, we saw our pageviews almost double. Respect your audience’s intelligence, and they will return to your company for more of what they need.
It’s been a busy year for all our communications, marketing and design folks at USGBC. Here’s a handy guide to our tips from 2019, broken down by category.
Tips for graphic designers
- Keeping up with graphic design trends
- USGBC’s new LEED v4.1 advertising campaign
- Designing the Greenbuild booth for a great attendee experience
Tips for social media teams
- Social media strategy for live events: Working on-site
- Social media strategy for live events: The planning stage
- Social media strategy for live events: Post-show reporting
Tips for digital and content marketers
- 3 ways quizzes can help your marketing
- How to edit your own writing
- Sourcing sustainable merchandise and vendors
- Articles that point users to existing resources
- How to enforce brand guidelines
- Top 5 takeaways from Digital Summit DC
- Top 2019 updates to the AP Stylebook
- Tracking your marketing impact with UTM codes
Tips for email marketers
- Create a personalized email experience through segmentation
- The dos and don’ts of email subject lines
Tips for web designers
- Case study: Redesigning the Greenbuild international website
- How different web browsers affect user experience
What inspires us
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.