How To Write Brilliantly Decent Blog Posts

In recent months, several colleagues have approached me asking for help to become better writers. Why do they think I’m qualified? Aside from writing dozens of papers, scripts, sales sheets, articles, ads and brochures for my employers, I also cannot resist editing whatever is put in front of me. It’s my catnip – and they know it.

Since I am fascinated by the act and art of writing (and inclined to share some hard-won knowledge), I’m responding by writing a blog post about writing blog posts for would-be blog writers. Very meta.

I’ve just completed 16 posts in my first four months at my new job, so let’s just say the topic is fresh in my head. While there are entire books on the subject, I’m going to keep it simple and cover four areas: topics, flow, mechanics, and polish.

Sensing a Topic

This one is both easy and hard to explain. I recently heard the author Pam Houston speak, and she described her writing as driven by small moments of resonating clarity (my words). These could be triggered by the sight of a bird in a meadow, the perfume of a spring blossom, or an odd expression on the face of a sales clerk. Her computer desktop is crowded with these mental notes, which she injects into her writing as appropriate.

Remarkably, I feel the same mental buzz when a topic is ripe for the writing. The sensation comes from a blend of knowing the topic, finding it fascinating, and acknowledging that I could commit an hour or two to sussing it out. I would wager that most writers probably feel the same burst of confidence, excitement and persistence that I do.

I recommend cultivating that radar ping of recognition. Look for it when you finish a project, give a talk, go somewhere new or meet a fascinating person. Is this something worth explaining? Would YOU want to read about it yourself? What value can you provide for the reader’s time?

If you’re still sensing the thrill of the idea, it’s likely a winner. Capture it ASAP and store it in a place where you can find it. Bring it out when you’re ready to write and then think about the flow of the piece.

Dictating the Flow

Flow is important. Awkward segues will lose your readers. Some recommendations:

  • Create an outline. If not on paper, then at least in your mind palace. Know where you’re starting and where you want to go. Then fill in the details.
  • Begin with a memorable opening. Capture their attention ASAP and let them know why they need to read straight through to the end. You can also reveal the path you’re about to take them on so they get a glimpse of the journey (check out the third paragraph from the top).
  • Start at a high level and dig down. I like the inverted pyramid favored by journalists, and even if you’re not partial to it, it can help you with your flow / structure.
  • Finish with a flourish. At the end, provide a good summary of what you want readers to remember. Or like a good comedian, you can end with a surprise reference. If you’re writing for work, always add a call to action (CTA) to continue engaging the reader.

Earn an A+ on Mechanics

Just like in school, mechanics are critical. Some tips:

  • Spelling counts. Read everything you write two more times. And if you’re not sure of the spelling (e.g., straight-forward vs. straightforward) or meaning (e.g., continuous vs. continual), just type your word in Google to get a proper answer.
  • People read with their eyes. So use section headers like I do in this blog. Bold sentences you care about. Use italics for emphasis. NEVER use underlines for emphasis because people will think that the words are linked.
  • Add a graphic when it makes sense. There are plenty of sites with Creative Commons or royalty free images you can use. I love Pexels and Unsplash. The image of the writer at the top is free from Wikipedia Commons.
  • Keep it short.

Add the Polish at the End

Now that you’ve scraped away at your first draft, it’s time to add the polish. Like the dental hygienist does, but less minty.

Most professional writers have an editor (or, in my case, a wife who happens to be an editor), but if you don’t have a sounding board, it’s not a huge deal. I recommend putting the post aside for a day or two and coming back in fresh. You can review your work more objectively when you’re past the initial passion.

I review the language and remove repeated words, unneeded clauses, and stale adjectives that take up space and add no extra value. Sometimes I even take out whole sentences. I always find mistakes, especially if I’ve been extra sloppy with cut and paste. I add any necessary keywords I want Google or readers to see. Then, at the end, I create the best title I can think of.

Perfection only leads to insanity

Well, that may not be true, but let’s acknowledge that a post will never be perfect. However, it can easily be funny, informative, and on deadline. Those are what really count.

Just promise me you won’t give up after the first try and that you’ll strive to improve with each post you publish. Take chances, be memorable, and be meta if you have to.

Salt, By Any Other Name…

Is still salt.

In my days as a geologist, I was well aware of salt as the mineral halite. Primarily because, as less than mature students, we all dared each other to lick the mineralogy lab sample that had been touched by hundreds of undergrads every year. I’m not proud to say I know what it tasted like: old salt.

I also vividly recall when traveling to Israel at the age of 12, I inadvertently got a mouthful of salt water while floating in the Dead Sea. That is a taste you can never expunge from your gustatory memory: ancient salt.

Why is salt on my mind? Because no matter what mineral or color additives it includes, to me, table salt will always be salt. NaCl. Sodium Chloride. Common salt. The workhorse of the home cook. A quick review of our pantry shows me kosher salt, fine sea salt, rock salt, French Atlantic sea salt, iodized salt, and black salt from Hawaii: varietal salts.

So, imagine how surprised my marketing self was when I spied this little beauty in my friend Pete’s kitchen:


The Branding Gods who reside at Morton must have had a field day with this one. I fondly remember the extra fine Morton popcorn salt we used as kids because it stuck so well to the popcorn.  I also remember the “fun” chore of churning ice cream in our wooden bucket ice cream maker filled with ice and rock salt. But who does it that way anymore? Our Krups ice cream machine uses a frozen core base. No salt required.

So, was the packaging team bored with just the iconic Morton navy blue? Did their focus group research show that the ice cream display inspired purchases? I do suspect it’s a straightforward nostalgia play, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s led to an uptick in sales.

Pete bought it because he needed a little rock salt. So he now has 4 lbs of “ice cream salt.” When Restoration Hardware fuels the next ice cream grinder resurgence five years from now, I expect Pete will still have some around for me to borrow.

Marketing I Admire – Ibex

logo-ibexIbex is another company that clearly understands its customers, or “tribe,” as Seth Godin would say. I discovered this Vermont-based outdoor wool clothing company a few years ago when I was looking for a better quality vest than the ones on display at REI.

My older brother put me onto Ibex. I not only enjoy wearing their products (I refuse to share my ultrasoft, wooly hat with anyone), but I see them as a great example of a company that’s taken pains to know its customers and integrate its brand – “durable, evolving, active and modern” – into everything it does.

Their Web site ( exemplifies what I mean:

  • They openly involve and display their tribe. Ibex has a client base of dedicated outdoor enthusiasts. Each product features “verified customers” who have posted their ideas, opinions, and product reviews, even the rare negative ones. Ibex knows that their best advocate is the existing customer, not their own company copy. They have the confidence to let real customers speak for them. Not something you see often. AND they have Google+ and Facebook Like buttons for all their products so rock climbers, runners, and back country skiers can share their passions for fine wool wearables.
  • They gently educate their prospective customers. With only four main navigation elements, the site is clean and modern. The pleasant surprise comes when you mouse over one of these (Men’s, for example). Try it. Not only do you see the product breakdown, but you get a primer on their clothing lines (they call it Ibex 101). Their site navigation doubles as a dictionary! Phenomenal experience for a first-time visitor.
  • They reinforce their identity and engage their visitors with compelling content. Ibex does content marketing as well as anyone. They include high-quality video (including “The Art of Wool” on their home page), informative articles, and Instagram shots of their own employees wearing their products. Not overwhelming and enough to help bolster their brand. By far my favorite section is “Dogs Matter,” a jaw-dropping assemblage of the best dog photography I have ever seen. I’ve bookmarked this page and visit when I need an easy smile.

Sure, my own career (and the careers of many friends) is bound to business-to-business (B2B) marketing rather than business-to-customer (B2C) retail. Yet examples like Ibex are inspiring all the same. I only wish that the head of marketing had responded to my interview request for this post. It seems an odd miscue for a company that so clearly uses its customers as a tool in their sales process to ignore a customer request that would bring them positive PR. A broken process? Lack of staffing? Disinterested in small-time online media? High on maple syrup? I’ll never know.

Perhaps they are too busy trail running with their canine companions through the picturesque woods of Vermont…

Marketing I Admire – Caribou Coffee

As of late, I’ve been frequently asked: “Which companies’ marketing programs do you most admire?” I’ve never loved this question, in part because I’m not wired for blind marketing hero-worship, but more because I view companies over the axis of time, as their campaigns swing from delightful to dreadful and back.

No one, no matter how amazing their marketing prowess, can hit it out of the ballpark every time. Just look at Apple’s less-than-inspiring “Designed by Apple in California” campaign.

That said, I do feel a distinct thrill when I interact with a business that uses its brand to truly understand and engage the customer. Caribou Coffee does this so consistently well that after heading to the coffee line, I always take a moment to scan the signage, merchandise, cups, napkins, etc… for their latest messaging. They’ve generated a loyal following because they (1) totally grok the needs of their customer, and (2) carefully bake their brand into every possible customer-facing opportunity.

caribouAs an example, take a look at the coffee cup and holder pictured here on the right. After sucking down half my latte, I finally focused on the copy, which:

  • Perfectly captured their friendly “personality” (brand),
  • Teasingly asked for my opinion (compare this to my less salutary Excel Dryer experience), and
  • Succinctly delivered their memorable tagline on why most of us are really drinking coffee: to stay awake and alert for the moments that matter most. Like driving or interviewing.

Notice what’s missing: fuzzy bromides on the superb quality of their coffee, their exclusive bean selection process or why they’re so much better than the competition. They’re not talking about themselves. Instead, they’re purposefully dedicating this valuable space to build a connection, an ongoing conversation about values. It’s an essential two-way dialogue, like my friend Casey Demchak discusses in his books and Web site.

I bit down hard on the bait and found myself hauled onto their Web site, creating a custom cup message and even uploading a photo to match my note. For my time and effort, they rewarded me with a memorable, interactive moment and a downloadable jpg of the cup. In exchange, I gave them my permission to email me and even supplied my zip code, which I am sure they will use to track and target me. I also liked them on Facebook.

caribou3And I didn’t mind at all. They gave me a unique experience, made me stop and consider what I valued, and thanked me. That’s rare and refreshing, like the guy you meet at a party who – instead of monologuing his dreary life story – leads off by asking what you’re passionate about. The next time I am passing a Caribou Coffee store and need to stay awake, they’ve got my business, hands down.

They’re producing powerful, well executed brand and content marketing. I can’t vouch for what they will do with my data, if and how well they will nurture me to spend more money with them. Follow through is half the battle, and many marketing organizations still haven’t got that down.

But I will say this: I admire you, Caribou Coffee. Keep up the stellar work.

When and Why to Place Your Web Site

It’s now pro forma for organizations to include their Web domain on just about everything: stationary, email signatures, flyers, business cards and the tchotchkes you give away at tradeshows. Even tattoos.

And why not? The text doesn’t take up much room, it’s handy for prospects and customers, and it reinforces your organization’s name and brand. But before you go overboard placing your URL on every little thing, I recommend that you step back and see just how much more you can make of the opportunity.

Case in point: Recently, I was drying my hands at the airport (avoiding the use of a paper towel), and there, right before me was the name and Web site of the dryer manufacturer:


Spare, well spaced, and obvious. Nice work, marketing team. Check that one off the list. Probably thousands of people a day see that message in that one airport restroom alone.

But what’s the purpose here? Perhaps the marketing department requested the placement full knowing that, at some magical time, a restauranteur, contractor or titan of industry would make the instantaneous connection between the high quality of the hand drying experience and the immediate need for 15 hand dryers for the new building. Connection made, sale complete, ring the bell!

Not so fast. Two obvious problems here:

  1. There’s no way for a marketer to trace the sale to the source. The link is to the company’s home page, where the most Web traffic lands, and
  2. There’s no obvious reason or incentive to motivate a user to visit the company Web site in the first place. Where’s the Call to Action??????

My Recommendation

I see this happen all the time. Actually listing the Web site is a good first step. But why not take the opportunity to add a tagline/teaser and a unique URL? Add some character and verve to the space. Ideas off the top of my head:

  • FUNNY: Hands not completely dry? So sorry! Visit our Web site for your money back:
  • CARING: How do your hands feel now? Soft and dry? We want to know. Share your experience:
  • ADVANTAGEOUS: Are you a contractor? Find out how easy it is to buy and install our hand dryers:

And so on. Why not run multiple campaigns, each with a unique URL and call to action? Sure, those dryers will be in place for a good, long time, and you’ll need to like what you stamp there. It may even be costly or difficult to get the engineers and production line to adopt these changes. But you’ve got the full attention of your audience in the 15-20 seconds it takes someone to stand still and dry his hands.

And it’s the creative use of the moment that sets apart the savvy marketer.