Corporate Storytelling

SEO: Storytelling Equals Opportunity

Flickr Creative Commons photo, courtesy of tvorbaweb-stranok.sk

Flickr Creative Commons photo, courtesy of tvorbaweb-stranok.sk

Once upon a time, the Internet gave birth to something called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO. 

As its name suggests, SEO was cold and calculating.

It was also quite imperfect — and easy to manipulate.

Robots and ‘content farms’ gamed the system by cranking out keyword-riddled clickbait and unreadable copy.

Often, the most useful — and best — content was buried in search results, left behind by computer-generated garbage.

But then Google — the Dr. Frankenstein in this story — decided to try to reign in the monster it had inadvertently created.

Google took a good hard look at what had happened with SEO and vowed to make big changes

It placed increased value on well-crafted stories aimed at helping people solve problems, learn new things, or be inspired to action. 

Instead of putting too much value on the almighty keyword, Google aimed to reward humans beings writing real human thoughts and sharing real human emotions.

There is still much work to be done, and certainly new challenges await, but SEO has started to become real.

To honor this ongoing transformation, when you’re thinking about your content through the lens of SEO, I challenge you to think about it not only as Search Engine Optimization.

Think about it under a new rubric: Storytelling Equals Opportunity.

Instead of keyword density, focus on finding good stories and telling them well.

Certainly, pay attention to technical fundamentals of sound SEO.

Yet, ultimately, you’ll be rewarded if you get to know your audiences better and then execute on a thoughtful content strategy that focuses on telling stories that connect with those who matter most.

3 Secrets to a Great CEO Letter

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With the fourth quarter in the books, corporate annual report season is now in full swing. Of course, the heart and soul of that report is the CEO letter to shareholders.

There’s a lot riding on this letter. It’s a once-a-year opportunity for a CEO to speak directly to key target audiences to share his or her insights on the achievements, performance and challenges of the previous year. It also offers a platform to lay out the strategic vision for the future, and how your organization aims to execute, grow, and make the most of new opportunities.

You don’t have to work at a public company—or even in the corporate world for that matter—to learn from a good CEO letter to shareholders. Many of the elements of a strong letter can be useful to leaders everywhere, whether they are running a non-profit, foundation, school, or government entity.

Here’s three keys to making a CEO letter sing:

Start with the end in mind: A good CEO letter can succeed—or fail—before a word is ever written. How? By not taking the time to think through what you are trying to achieve. More specifically, what do you want your audience to be thinking, feeling, and maybe even doing, after they have read the letter? Working backwards from there will keep you on track for what you're trying to accomplish. Thinking through the various ways you might leverage your annual report on an ongoing basis can help focus your thinking as well.

Find the right voice: Whether your CEO is partnering with a ghostwriter or crafting a first draft, make sure a tone is struck that authentically conveys who he or she really is. If the CEO has a folksy nature then let that shine through in the letter. On the other hand, if he or she is more button-down and straightforward, the writing should reflect that. It’s not only about tone, but also style. I worked with a CEO who was a natural and gifted storyteller so it made sense to weave some relevant personal anecdotes into his letter. Another CEO I worked with was a no-nonsense number cruncher so including a personal story would have seemed forced and disingenuous. Each of those CEOs had distinct approach and strengths that were effectively conveyed through the tone and style of letter.

Tell the story behind the numbers: There are plenty of financials and data that occupy page after page of an annual report. They certainly serve a valuable purpose. Yet your CEO doesn’t need to cram them all in the letter. A better approach is to turn to the old journalism maxim of 'show don’t tell.' Describe in concrete ways what some key numbers mean—and how they are making a difference. So if you’re a bank that experienced a 40% increase in commercial lending, focus on how that came to life in the form of a plant expansion that kept contractors hammering away for six months and 30 local people landing good-paying jobs.

Don’t sugar-coat: Authenticity and transparency. You might want to post those words somewhere you can readily see them. More than ever, they are the foundation to building strong connections and trust with your audience. Obviously, your core aim is to highlight your organization’s strengths, success and potential. And you absolutely should tell that story in the most effective way possible. Yet your credibility regarding your achievements is directly tied to your ability and willingness to acknowledge challenges—and, at times, admit mistakes. Take a problem-solver approach to addressing major challenges, and lay out your plan to deal with them moving forward. Your audience will recognize your candor and reward you for it.

A good CEO letter can build confidence and trust in your organization, position your CEO as a thought leader, and set the tone for a promising future. Make sure it’s not an opportunity lost.


How to Combat the Content Crooks

Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Adrian Scottow

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Adrian Scottow

Poet T. S. Eliot once famously quipped “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” 

T.S. would likely have a different take in today’s cyber age where there’s plenty of borrowing and stealing going on – but not by those looking to master a literary technique.

No, in the virtual cut-and-paste Internet era, content gets lifted at an alarming rate.

We’ve had clients and fellow writers voice concern that competitors are looting their content, changing a sentence here or there, and then passing it off as their own.

Yes, it happens.

No, there isn’t much you can do about it when it does. 

Yet there is solution: Create more content that is all but impossible to steal.   

Specifically, focus on your organization’s unique purpose and craft customized content that tells your story and highlights your strengths in ways only you can. 

For businesses, customer success stories and case studies do the trick. For nonprofits, it’s featuring a dedicated donor or someone whose life was bettered by your services. For any organization, it can be thought leadership content or op-eds that convey personalized insights or anecdotes.

Not only is this content well insulated from theft, it’s also much better than the generic copy that anyone can pump out and does little more than add to the clutter of the Web. 

Success stories from your customers or clients bolster your credibility by doing much of the heavy lifting to highlight your strengths. Meanwhile, thought leadership pieces helps your key leaders develop their own unique voices and share experiences and insights to connect more meaningfully with readers and set your organization apart. 

Creating steal-proof content doesn’t have to be a lot more work either once you get in the habit of branding your content as your own.

For even routine how-to or educational content, you can find ways to pepper in customer or client examples, or have the content bylined by a leader or subject-matter expert who can share personal lessons learned. 

Another T.S. Eliot quote that does stands the test of time is this: “Business today consists in persuading crowds.”

Whatever your business, a key way to persuade your crowd – while thwarting the thieves – is to create content that is uniquely your own

10 Tips for Positioning Your Annual Report in a Banner Year

Corporate annual reports

For many companies, this year’s annual report will feel something like a victory lap.

The stock market’s bull run has become a stampede, smashing record highs time and again. As of this writing the S&P 500 Index is up 19% year to date, with strong returns rippling across most sectors.

Barring any last-minute calamity, most annual reports will come bearing good—if not great—news for shareholders.

Of course, amid the investor euphoria it may be tempting to view this year’s report as a slam dunk. Roll out the great news, sprinkle in a few notes of caution about the future unknown, and call it a day.

Yet, we would argue that positioning an annual report for a good year can be every bit as challenging as doing so in one when your shareholders got clobbered. It’s essential to be thoughtful and strategic, both in advising your leadership and executing the report itself. 

Here are 10 things to think about as you consider how to tell the story of a banner year.

1.     This one will get read. Everyone likes a winner, and odds are your shareholders will be still basking in the glow of solid returns when your annual report arrives in their mailbox or e-mail.  Unlike tough years, when some shareholders first instinct might be to pitch the report in the circular file, many will be eager to dig into the breakdown of what led to your success, and how you aim to maintain it. Make sure every aspect of your 2017 report shines, and that the content reflects your strength, showcases your management team, and reminds shareholders why they invested in you in the first place.

2.     Don’t go overboard on your theme. The tricky thing about annual reports is that they typically come out well into the new year when the economic landscape can be decidedly different. So instead of rolling out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, consider a theme that highlights your momentum and strengths, rather than just focusing on great results.

3.     Be true to your voice: Analysts and serious investors love nothing more than consistency. Keep that in mind when framing the approach and messaging of your report. While it’s OK to highlight great results, make sure the tone rings true with how your leadership has been talking about your company on quarterly calls and throughout the year.

4.     Play up the good news. Don’t be afraid to tout your success, but make sure you do so in a way that is authentic and acknowledges the benefits of a sound economy and unprecedented stock market.

5.     Don’t bury the bad news. With strong results making headlines, the temptation will be there to ignore or gloss over any significant challenges that may have affected the business in 2017. Resist it. Address the hurdles and missteps head on, and make it clear how you are attacking them moving forward. Your shareholders and analysts will appreciate your candor, and you will benefit from the cover of strong overall performance.

6.     Focus on what sets you apart. Michael Scott could have run a company this year and shown positive gains. Well, that may be a stretch, but it’s essential to highlight actions you took to differentiate from your competitors and how those actions made a good year even better.

7.     Show you're playing the long game. The phrase ‘past results are not an indicator of future performance’ is never far from a savvy investor’s mind. The smart companies are always preparing for rain, even when it seems like the sun will never stop shining. Highlight the proactive moves you have made to thrive – or at least limit the pain – in any economic conditions.

8.     Manage expectations. You don’t want to burst everyone’s balloon, but in the wake of what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime year for stocks, a solid dose of reality is in order. Make sure your CEO’s letter frames out realistic expectations of what is ahead.

9.     Show you care. A great year offers a prime opportunity to demonstrate how a rising tide lifts all boats. Make sure to highlight concrete examples of how you are fulfilling your company’s purpose beyond the bottom line through community involvement and charitable work. Acknowledge the contributions of employees, show appreciation for your customers, and let your shareholders know the ways you are engaged with the communities you serve.

10.  Create a report that works all year long. It’s not just shareholders who can benefit from an annual report. Your report highlighting your strong year can be an essential tool for your sales team to share with clients, or with HR to show to prospective hires. It can also serve as the foundation for your content and marketing efforts moving forward. Make sure the report is designed and presented in a way that offers the best ROI.

History tells us that it is unlikely we will see a stock market like 2017 any time soon—or ever again. Make the most of it through a well-crafted and well positioned annual report that works for you all year long. Then go ahead and take that victory lap. 
 

Scott Westcott is Corporate Practice Leader for Turn Two Communications.