Signing up for Healthcare.gov was easy. But using my coverage wasn’t.

Why I’m leaving the healthcare exchange, for now (but hope to someday return). 

I didn’t want to write this article. I still don’t.  I want Healthcare.gov to succeed, despite its initial stumbles.  But when yet another healthcare provider in a long list told my wife today that they aren’t accepting policies from the government exchange, I had to speak up.

Because signing up for healthcare coverage at healthcare.org isn’t the problem. Using it is.

To be clear, some of this is my fault. By choosing a “silver” rated policy on the exchange from Cigna (NYSE: CI), I assumed my investment in one of the largest insurers in the nation would shield me from cut-rate providers and ensure my family could continue to see the doctors we have seen for years.  When I resigned from my corporate job in late 2013 to start my own marketing content firm, I consulted Cigna’s provider directory, saw that our family pediatrician and OBGYN and other specialists were accounted for, and chose one of their exchange plans.

I was excited.  For years, I had heard how hard it was to find good insurance, as a self-employed individual. I wasn’t expecting any subsidies — although my wife stays at home with the kids, we’re lucky enough to have an income that disqualifies us. I just wanted an easy way to research and sign up for coverage, without worrying about preexisting conditions, lengthy and difficult comparison-shopping, and a ton of red tape.

We all know the signup snafu that ensued, and that’s not what this article is about. Suffice it to say, I managed to sign up after several months of paying for COBRA (at nearly $1600 / month) through my previous employer.  Although our new premium of nearly $1100 a month would still be a significant financial liability, it saved us nearly $500 a month over COBRA, and didn’t look (on paper) to represent a serious change in quality of care.

Sure, our deductible was quite a bit higher. And no, we wouldn’t have an HSA anymore, from which we had enjoyed a nice tax savings.  And without an employer contribution, nothing about the coverage would be more affordable — but these were all concessions I was willing to make for my new self-employed lifestyle and the ease (and purported long-term “do-good” benefits) of the healthcare exchange.

And then we tried to use it.  The first time was at my general practitioner’s office, a major regional healthcare group.  I had mistakenly asked the question “Do you accept Cigna?” on the phone while scheduling an appointment, to which they answered, “Yes.” Imagine my surprise at the check-in window when I presented my new insurance card, only to be told, “I’m sorry . . . we accept CIGNA, just not CIGNA LocalPlus.”

LocalPlus. Sounds great, right? Sounds like it should translate to “works in your community,” does it not? Yet the general practitioner was just my first of a long list of rejections.  After finding a new GP that would take my policy, Walgreen’s — yes, the largest chain of pharmacies in the nation or world or galaxy, perhaps — turned me down, as well.  That was my first indication of major trouble.  When Walgreen’s refers you to CVS, something is amiss. Worm holes open that can never be closed.

Next up on our list of rejections? My wife’s OBGYN. “We DO take CIGNA . . . but we don’t accept CIGNA LocalPlus. In fact, there are only a couple healthcare exchange policies that we DO take,” the desk clerk explained.  “We don’t take LocalPlus” is now firmly cemented as the standard response I expect from anyone I present my healthcare card to.  Like the emergency care clinic inside CVS, who also did not accept my insurance, even though the CVS store they are located within, does.

And that’s why I am writing this.  After being turned away by nearly all of our doctors (and Walgreen’s – WALGREEN’S, people!), I am starting to wonder what I am paying for. The right to seek out a substandard level of care and still pay full price? A continual reminder of what rejection feels like?

Since the plan we chose (and could afford) is already a high-deductible plan, it basically means most of our health care expenses until we meet our family deductible are out-of-pocket anyway. With out-of-network provider visits not contributing to our in-network deductible, it translates into over a thousand dollars a month (plus hundreds for out-of-network doctor visits) for absolutely no benefit in return.

I voted for President Obama, and indirectly, for the Affordable Care Act, because I do believe everyone deserves access to quality healthcare, no matter how little they earn.  Many reading this may be tempted to cast off my complaints as spoiled or entitled – what’s the big deal if I my biggest inconveniences are having to find a new group of physicians and a new pharmacy?

On the surface, I would agree. My family is healthy and happy. We will find new doctors. We have healthcare, after all — it’s just lower of a lower quality than we are accustomed. We can pay out of pocket when we need to, barring something catastrophic, of course. I earn a decent wage, but not good enough to cover the cost of a heart operation or a lengthy hospitalization out of pocket.

But if you look deeper, you understand the implications. The Affordable Healthcare Act cannot succeed financially without people that pay full price.  The idea is that subsidies can be granted to the less fortunate if enough of the fortunate also buy in.

Who will buy at full price if they know up front that their first act as a newly insured policyholder will be to get declined by every physician they have grown accustomed to seeing?

Truth be told, I feel a bit used by my insurance company, and possibly my providers. Whether intended or not, my family’s experience feels like insurers and providers are taking their dislike of recent healthcare legislation out on the consumer.  It feels like finding out the car I just purchased (at full price) from the Ford dealership, with a Ford badge, is actually a Ford “LocalPlus” that can only drive on certain roads that are miles out of the way, crammed with traffic, and seldom maintained. It’s not what they advertised and sold, it’s what they didn’t advertise — the differences between an exchange-traded and private-market policy, that has left a bad taste in my mouth.

With hundreds of policies available on the exchange from dozens of providers, each its own tangle of legalese, intentionally ambiguous language, offsite links to a myriad of documents and directories, it is virtually impossible for the average consumer to compare apples to apples.

I won’t claim to understand the economics or politics of the healthcare industry at all, and yes, I am at fault for not consulting the specific provider directory for Cigna’s LocalPlus network.  But in bringing their big brand names to the exchange, I assumed I would have access to the same providers that their non-exchange policies do.  It cannot be a coincidence that many of our family doctors are considered in-network by every other Cigna policy except their health care exchange policies.  As providers continue to opt-out of accepting exchange-sold policies, the national dialog is still focused on the initial difficulty of signing up, or the slow initial numbers to register.

Almost no media coverage of the Affordable Care Act has exposed this, though — a seemingly industry-wide refusal (or major hesitation) to accept the policies offered by our shiny new national healthcare exchange. Yes, you can point at a long list of providers that DO accept the coverage. But how much longer is the list of providers that don’t? And what good are lists, anyway, if almost none of the providers you have grown to trust and depend on for your family care make the cut?

Would I buy in again, knowing what I know now? Absolutely not. As of today, I am back to researching my options. I have no idea how difficult or costly it will be to restore the standard of health care my family is accustomed to, but I will be taking the steps, even if it means finding a catastrophic-only plan and self-paying for our medical care, or foregoing care altogether and reinvesting my premium payments on the open market.

Am I open to returning to Healthcare.gov in the future? Without question, as soon as it appears that the playing field has leveled, the grand standing has stopped, and it is far easier to evaluate and ultimately use the coverage you select. I still support the premise behind the policy, just not the way the government and healthcare industry have worked (or not worked) together to protect families like mine from spending big and yielding little. Until that improves, buying a Healthcare.gov policy like the one I did is just trading a hard-earned nickel for a wooden one, in my experience.

Cindy Crawford’s rare, rare melons

I’m at McDonald’s eating an egg, cheese, and bacon biscuit because I am weak and human and dammit if it doesn’t taste amazing. Besides, I’ve been strong before, when I was twenty five and I gave up smoking and drinking and sugar and fast food. Today, I will eat. There is a time for guilt, and it is always later.

Cindy Crawford is on one of the TV’s selling skin cream made from melons that her crackpot French doctor claims are immortal. Cindy walks us through her amazing discovery that the fountain of youth is actually a small field of “rare melons” (jokes abound) in the South of France, with a rustic barn house and no armed security anywhere in site.  This is what my friend Xavier has been hiding from me all these years, I think. He lives in Provence and he must be eating these melons every day in the middle of that very field, rubbing the fruit all over his wife and children’s faces and they will live forever with smooth, radiant skin. Cindy goes on to show how time lapse photography proves beyond doubt that these melons ages slower than your garden variety melon, which is great, except we are not melons.  I keep my credit card in my pocket.

Cindy Crawford's rare melons

Cindy Crawford’s rare melons

The Loudest Man Ever is here, too. I’ve seen him here before, he sits at the counter height table with The Homeless Man Who May or May Not Actually Be Homeless and his travel companion, The Quaker Girl With Large Buttocks, who is likely not actually a Quaker but does, in fact, have a very large buttocks. What strikes me about The Loudest Man Ever is that he is a very, very stupid man, but what he lacks in any measurable sign of intelligence he makes up for in sheer volume and excitement. Who in their right mind would choose to be smart and sad when you can be completely dumb and happy?

Here’s the most exciting news: The Loudest Man Ever has won a Quarter Pounder with Cheese from his McDonald’s Monopoly coupons! This is undoubtedly a sign, this is surely his luckiest day ever! He’s been saving it for tonight, when he will redeem the game piece and eat the burger just before he boards the casino bus. It costs twenty dollars to ride but you get the money back in casino credit when you arrive in Oklahoma, because there are no casinos in Texas. He highlights the route: South San Antonio to North San Antonio, San Marcos, Buda, South Austin, North Austin, Georgetown and maybe even Waco, he can’t remember.  Oklahoma by midnight, chips in hand by 12:15. Back on the bus at 9:30 a.m. sharp, lunch in Waco, home by mid-afternoon. I consider telling him that 12:15 a.m. is tomorrow — if today is his luckiest day ever, it will be thinning out by the time he crosses the state line. But he is happy, and I have sandwich in my mouth. I sip my Coke instead, listen.

“Keeping the poor people poor,” is all the Homeless Man Who May or May Not Be Homeless has to say about that.

Except The Loudest Man Ever says not all the people on the bus are poor, some of them pull up to the bus station in Cadillacs and everything. He doesn’t know that there are poor people with Cadillacs. He would not understand, or the news would change him, destroy his hope or his luck or both, and who would do that? Because you can make good money in Oklahoma, the Loudest Man Ever proclaims to nobody and everybody all at once. Hell, one guy even had four or five vouchers in his hand at the end of the night, and each one of them had to be worth at least fifty bucks.

Adeline Cooks (or how I almost landed my daughter on the Rachel Ray show)

It’s been a few years now, but when my oldest daughter was three, she was obsessed with cooking shows. Sure, she loved cartoons, but what she liked even more were cooking and DIY home repair shows — what kid doesn’t, right?

I asked her one day if she would like to make her own cooking show, and armed with a couple HD cameras and my ProTools audio rig, we made a couple episodes:

A few weeks after the episodes posted, Rachel Ray’s producer gave me a ring and asked a bunch of questions about Adeline, who needless to say was thrilled. When Adeline got on the phone and answered questions like “What’s your favorite food” (Adeline: “pizza”) and “Do you want to be a chef when you grow up (Adeline: “No”), I think they quickly ruled her out as a candidate for the show.

Making these was so fun, and five years later they carry quite a bit of sentimental value. Somewhere on my computer is a long-lost, unfinished third episode. I’m saving it for the special features on the DVD release :-)

Stuff my mom never bought me – and neither did Rachel’s

Rachel at blogumutha and I lived parallel lives as kids. We were deprived of orthodontic devices, which explains my extreme self consciousness about my smile and the fact that she actually owns a grill (like Lil Wayne, not George Foreman.) I’m really not lying. She works in enterprise software at a big publicly traded corporation in a big girl job and she has a grill and probably has her own golden pimp cup. We both also yearned from the deepest depths of our pubescent souls for a Hypercolor t-shirt.

Very few kids at my middle school were wealthy, though there certainly were a few. Jason Zimmersham (name changed to protect, well, the poor) was not one of them, broke ass fool. But even that fool had a Hypercolor t-shirt. In retrospect, though, I think he may have spent his entire school clothing allowance on it, because it is the only shirt I remember him in. Ever. For grades eight through twelve. After a certain number of washes, the hypercolor stopped working and all you had left was a tie-dyed t-shirt, which was uncool. In case you don’t remember, Hypercolor was also kinda gross – they shouldn’t have treated the armpits of the boys t-shirts, because dudes would work up a sweat and the whole shirt would be one color and the armpits a different one entirely. Sucka’s paid good money to have a visual representation of pittin’ out.

Okay, now I’m starting to freak out, because Rachel is a girlio and I am a dude and I kinda wanted almost everything on her list, too (that rabbit coat is looking all sorts of lush). Well, maybe not Glamour Shots. But yeah, kinda. If I could have pulled off putting on a gold lamé jacket and a feather boa and a dab of blush and made all my ugly go away and not been beaten to death by the northwest Houston jimbo’s I grew up with, I definitely would have. I’m progressive. I like glitter. I kiss my dad on the lips.

Rachel never had Kaepas, but I did, chump. Two years after they were in style. My mom bought them at Weiner’s, which is where clothes go to die after Marshall’s won’t take them. You would see someone else you knew from your class at Weiner’s, and the race was on to spread the rumor that the other kid shopped at Weiner’s. Weiner’s smelled like . . . . no, that joke is too obvious. It smelled like desperation and layaway and future therapy bills. It smelled like suburban childhood during the oil crisis. It smelled like Reagan, K-Mart po-boys, and pleather shoes. Michael Jackson Moonwalker Court Shoes, because nothing says hoop it up like a little Jacko on your hooves.

Watch this Weiner’s commercial and imagine me dancing along in front of the TV, because I probably did in the 80′s:

The best thing about Kaepas were the interchangeable triangles in different colors that came with them. I promptly lost most of them and broke off entire fingernails trying to swap out the remaining few. Instructions: Using your entire fingernail as a lever. . .

I also had the male equivalent of the Blossom hat, which was the Joey McIntyre NKOTB hat. I wore it everywhere, which might not be so bad, except that I think I also wore a bolo tie. Seriously, with turquoise and everything.

So what didn’t I have? I’m so glad you asked, just in time for Christmas. Because I still want these things, I’m not even lying.

1.) A GT Performer BMX bicycle

If I had one of these I would be a CEO right now, or at least in prison.

Straight up and down, this is the culmination of everything I have ever wanted and never had. Kids that rode these were capable of awesome things, like vandalizing cars senselessly and growing their bangs out over one eye like a cartoon dog. WANT.

Instead, at the height of BMX fever, my mom and dad bought me a red Schwinn ten speed bicycle with ram’s horn handlebars. And a speedometer. While other little boys were breaking faces on half pipes, pumping other kids to school on their pegs, I was running time challenge sprints up and down the street. I had a built in waterbottle cage and an air pump. Take that, Matt Hoffa.

2.) Z. Cavaricci pants – with two belts.

Two swatches. Two belts. Zero friends.

Mom, the reason I can’t take care of you and dad in the old folks home is painful and difficult to discuss. But it really comes down to that lie you told me about not being able to afford a week’s worth of Z. Cavaricci’s for me in the sixth grade. $500 dollars for 5 pairs of little tiny boy pants seems perfectly reasonable. You get 10 belts! They practically come with a girlfriend, too! And instructions on how to make out with her at the skating rink. You still stand behind your decision? Rot in adult diapers, mom. I hope you and the bathrobe you stole from the senile lady’s room next door are happy together. Tell dad next time I win a box of Kleenex’s at old people bingo, I’m not letting him fold them obsessively into small treasures like he does with his liver spotted grandpa hands.

3.) A pierced left ear

Everybody knows you’re gay if you pierce the right one, duh. Until you do, and you aren’t. Or you are, and you like it.

Eventually, this fantasy turned into getting a suicide chain like Rachel Bolan from Skid Row. Because who wouldn’t let their 7th grader connect their nose to their ear with a rip cord?

What? What do you mean I didn’t get the job?

4.) An electric guitar from the Sear’s catalog

If they had a double necked one shaped like a skull, I would have bought it.

This was not a short-lived want. Every year, Sears put out the “Dream Book,” which was their Christmas edition of the Sears Catalog. Every year, I asked for an electric guitar – preferably either the one with the built in amplifier, the one without a headstock, or the one with the Eddie Van Halen paint job – and every year I got a completely different instrument instead. It started with a harmonica. Then, an autoharp. I’m not kidding – an autoharp. I had one of those. I played it and sang along with it and tried to figure out if you could mic it and play badass solos. You cannot.

Finally, I got the closest thing I would ever get to an electric guitar. Mom and dad pinched pennies and saved dimes and bought me – wait for it – a key-tar. I am actually dead serious when I say this is the closest I ever came, ever, in my entire life, to being cool. Think about that a bit, if you will.

I asked for an electric guitar. I got a keytar.

 

5.) British Knights (BKs)

I don’t want these anymore, I can safely say.

I never wanted a pair of shoes more than I wanted a pair of British Knights. I remember standing at Foot Locker debating between the hi- and the low tops, knowing I would get the no-tops since I was broke. Actually, I can say with 100% honesty that I DID get the original version of these (at Weiner’s):

Are these cool again? Maybe I’ll get another pair. Mom?

I’m just going to end the list here. I’ve gone off and stirred up a bunch of feelings of inferiority and jealousy and my insurance won’t cover another therapy session this week and I’m afraid the hotline won’t take my calls about Air Jordan’s and Girbaud jeans anymore, as if they aren’t a “clinical” enough emergency. Shyeah, right, as if.

Hate writing landing pages? So did I. Here’s how I got better at it.

Oli Gardner (@oligardner) gave me a chuckle this morning as he punched landing pages in the throat, then apologized and made googly eyes at them. I was laughing with him, not at him. . . I have had days where my own hate for landing pages flares across my pulmonary trunk down into the lobes of my left lung before swan diving across my transverse and ascending colons and then skipping past my no-no parts into my gracilis. You know, the typical flight pattern of landing page hatred.

Why all the landing page rage? Easy. I hated writing them. Add an f-bomb into that previous sentence and you still can’t get close to how much I hated it. I had used up all my good ideas writing email copy to push people to a landing page.  I had nothing left, and the act of writing landing page and / or webform copy was an act of trying to take the same meager crumbs I scraped from the cold, naked input brief and spread them across a few more deliverables that were supposed to be amazing.

Rant: If I had a shovel, and the person that came up with the word deliverables was standing in front of me, I would promptly give said person a dull metallic thwack in the thorax with said shovel and leave them with the words “work,” “projects,” “products,” “output,” and the phrase “things you are working on” to heal them back to tip top condition.

Tweet from @joshuacmerritt: Friends don't let friends say "deliverables"

3 reasons I wanted to shank landing pages in the knee caps

I probably did go through denial, and anger for certain, although I don’t remember grieving landing pages. For me, acceptance of my hatred came in the form of understanding why I felt the way I did. It boiled down nicely to three reasons:

1.) When I had already spent a long time working on the first part of a project – say, an email or a display ad – the landing pages become the last barrier between my work day and freedom. Not a good place to be.

2.) Subject fatigue. I’ve written about the same topic for hours now – what more can I say on a landing page?

3.) Landing pages are sooooo not sexy. Not even dorky twenty-something librarian cute, or “I wonder how Helen Hunt looks in The Sessions” intriguing. It’s a landing page.

I’d be surprised if most other copywriters haven’t felt some version of these same thoughts. So what can we do about them? Here’s how I changed my own landing page languish into a much healthier stalker / stalkee relationship.

Stop saving landing pages for last.
First up is the matter of my lazy, skinny rear end procrastinating the entire project to a single day. Most writers work in high volume environments, and few (that I have ever worked with) are really great at time management. Since being recently introduced to David Ogilvy’s 24 hour rule, I’ve altered it a bit for unintended uses, and it’s worked quite nicely across the board. Ogilvy’s original memo encouraged writers to step away from an important piece they have worked on for 24 hours, then revisit it, before sending it off for client review. This allows you to see it in a new light. I’m taking this a bit further, when it comes to projects with multiple pieces like a series of emails that also require landing and form page copy.  Now, I write the emails, then set the entire project aside for 24 hours. Then, after reviewing the emails again and tidying up the dust balls, I tackle the landing page copy, etc. It’s all about time management, but it makes a world of difference. Writers need space to create great work, and it’s my job as a writer to protect my own space.

Spread the good ideas around – don’t use them all up front
Truthfully, this one is less about being tired of the topic or out of ideas, and more about not properly spacing my ideas across the full project I am working on. What do I mean? Let’s say I am writing an email with the goal of driving the reader to a white paper. There are two pieces I need to deliver: 1.) The email (with a few subject line choices and calls to action) and 2.) The form page copy. In the past, I’ve gotten myself into trouble because I’ve spent so much intellectual capital kicking out the email, that I feel like the landing page ends up just being a rehash of what the reader will already have read in the email.

For the longest time, I blamed this on my clients. “They didn’t give me enough material to write about, or enough direction on what THEY WANTED the form page to highlight.” Horse patties. I may as well ask my daughter’s Polly Pocket what the page should say before I ask the client – it simply isn’t their job, and certainly not (often) their skill set to know about landing page strategy, or what the most compelling thing you could put on the page would be that would drive the visitor to convert. I’m sick of the passive writer, and it makes me sick when I find myself being the passive writer. I’ve written thousands of pages of marketing copy in my life – if anyone is the expert on what will work, what we should highlight, it’s me.

So I took ownership of subject fatigue. I realized the problem was in my pacing, that I was giving all of the information away in the email and not saving anything for the landing page.

My rule of thumb is to treat every component in a multi-touch project as an extension of where the last conversation left off. Every component – from email to landing page to registration page and thank you copy – should ADD something to the experience. When you change your mind to think of the project end-to-end, as the sum of its parts, instead of as individual, standalone pieces, you can lay out a story that makes the result much stronger and more intentional.

Example: In the email, when I introduce the whitepaper offer, I may give away 1 or 2 compelling facts or stats or tips as a teaser. On the registration page, I throw in one more, instead of giving all three away in the email. This might seem obvious, but I assure you, it’s not when you are heads down in hour six of email writing.

The goal of every line of copy should be to get people to read the next one. If we rehash the same stuff, or worse yet, paste the copy from the email into the landing page verbatim, it gives me no incentive to move further. It looks lazy. Quite frankly, it’s shite.

Wake up and smell the entire experience
Average writers think about the piece they are working on. Great writers think about how all the pieces connect. It took me a while to get here on my own, but I realize now that landing pages and forms are probably the most strategic part of most marketing campaigns. I’ve completely changed the way I think of landing pages. I actually view them as one of the most important parts of the written experience. I’ve even thought about hiring a writer dedicated to landing page and web form copy – these are the gatekeepers of conversion, after all. I think it’s truly easier to get someone to open an email, or click a link in an email, than it is to get someone to take the last step and commit, registration required or not. The stats would support this, too – open rates and click thru rates are exponentially higher than conversion rates for a reason. Once I changed my own perception of landing pages – from “annoying afterthoughts at the end of the day” to highly strategic tools worthy of my most intentional, careful copy, they became a much more worthy challenge.

I’m a better writer for it.

Bowling, dining, revelry: Building a brand around an amazing word.

Bowling. Dining. Revelry. The Goodnight, Austin, TX.

Bowling. Dining. Revelry. The Goodnight, Austin, TX.

I’m a word guy. Not a big word guy – I don’t claim to have a prodigious vocabulary (and yes, I did get prodigious from an online thesaurus). Mostly, I just love good words, the ones that make the common man feel something reverberate in his inner dictatal gland, which is the organ that stores and secretes words.

Down the street from my house, some dapper young whippersnapper is opening a joint called The Goodnight (pictured). I’m imagining it to be very similar in concept to the Highball, with one key addition. The Goodnight, on their highly visible street-front signage, promises “revelry” in addition to the standard bowling & dining combo (see their full menu of revelry).

“Revelry” alone is enough to make the promise of The Goodnight stand out as interesting and different in a city saturated with bar and dining choices. Sure, the experience will matter – it would take quite a bit of merrymaking and general carousal and glee to make up for crappy drinks and frozen corn dog nuggets – but if The Goodnight’s owners can pay as much careful attention to the details on the inside (decor, menu, service, consistency) as they have to the word choice on the outside, they can count me in for a shekel’s worth of skeeball and a chicken fried antelope (I wish I made that up – it’s actually on the dining menu).

I’ve heard this called creating a moment. A moment is when you do something (positive, hopefully) that makes your customer take notice, and if you’re lucky, tell someone else about. Not to be confused with a movement, which is when . . . well, try the chicken fried antelope and wait a few hours, you’ll see.

Writing this article, two things stand out: 1.) Antelope sounds like it is just one letter shy of cantaloupe, and chicken fried cantelope sounds oddly appetizing (it’s salty, sweet, and juicy!) and 2.) Words never went out of vogue. In fact,  marketers just stopped trying. With all the buzz around Pinterest and infographics and visuals, I’ve heard the “word are dead” argument quite a bit as of late. Twitter + content strategy + search engine optimization are three clear proof points that they are far from dead – we just haven’t done much innovating with them lately.

Marketers are cage fighting over the same old words – and they aren’t even good ones

There are 400,000 words in most big dictionaries, and when you add in slang and jargon and tech speak, you have a million or so to choose from. The word revelry isn’t in the common vernacular of most dining and entertainment establishments – The Goodnight searched for a word that would resonate and differentiate them from the rest. The industry I write for – information technology – is arguably suffering from a collective nervous tick. We keep spewing the same words, over and over. And they aren’t even great words we are all cage fighting over. Innovative, revolutionary, next-generation, proactive, automate, empower.

Look, I’m not saying I’ve solved this problem. Quite the contrary – I think and work on this every day at my company. We’re as guilty as the next scrappy little company with a multi-billion dollar market cap.

Key takeaway: There are tons of companies doing mostly the same thing. One way you can stand out is how you talk about what you do, and the experience you create in doing it. Start with good words, and deliver on the promise of those words in every decision you make.

Want to get my attention? Catch me (slightly) off-guard

One of the reasons “revelry” is so great in this context is that it fits into the rule of “one of these things is not like the other.” Combine that with the rule of threes, and psychologically, we are born to respond to it, IMHO.

 

Bowling. Dining. Fun.
vs.
Bowling. Dining. Revelry.

The subhead to this section says to catch people slightly off guard, and I think that’s an important point. Revelry isn’t entirely random or ridiculous in the context of a place that offers high-brow cocktails, shuffleboard, and fried game animals. Effective word choice means picking something both unexpected and welcomed to your target audience. My colleagues Chris Rixon (@messagemonger) and Alena Bowen (@IT4GenY) talk about this regularly regarding email subject lines and web copy headlines: particularly in B2B, humor or eccentricity alone are not enough. You have to add relevance to the equation. Some of the most effective subject lines I have written have struck a very nuanced balance between having a unique, interesting, or humorous angle while simultaneously containing enough context and substance to pass the refined b.s. meter that people in our industry seem to possess.

A top performer we wrote a few years back for cloud computing was:
Watch the birth of a cloud service, captured on film for the first time in stunning detail

The open rate on this email was very high compared to our own baselines. The call to action was a short video demo that showed BMC Software’s cloud management software in action. Our subject line struck the balance between relevance (watching the deployment of a new cloud service) and being just enough left of center (the play on nature videos) that it worked incredibly well.\

Honesty in marketing? Why you should always deliver on the promise of your amazing words
I shudder at the use of the word innovative, or next generation, or cutting edge, or heaven forbid bleeding edge, because almost none of the brands and products that choose these words actually exhibit the qualities of these words. Detroit automakers were claiming innovation and style and durability at a time when their products were absolutely none of these.

If The Goodnight opens and the place is packed out with blue hairs playing canasta, the promise of Revelry is broken, and every time I drive by it on my way home from work, I will remember a broken promise.  I love nothing more than honesty in marketing. One of the most memorable ad campaigns I saw in the last decade was for a three wheeled motorcycle contraption that came out right in the middle of the recession. It was a hopped up, testosterone fueled play toy, and it would have been impossible to pass it off as something anyone actually needed, or even as a viable replacement to the practicality of a motorcycle. So the ad agency chose words that were so dead true, that it changed my perception of the ridiculous contraption they were marketing from a negative to at least a slightly positive. The headline was something to the effect of, “Of all the things you don’t need, you need this the most.”

Pick an amazing word and build a brand around it
How long is your elevator pitch? If you can’t articulate your brand or product’s promises in a handful of well-chosen (and true) words, you haven’t been surgical enough in the art of subtraction. Yes, you can have two words, or even three. Zappos.com has “amazing service.” The Goodnight has “bowling, dining, and revelry.”

My now defunct clothing line, ClothMoth, was built around the promise of Clothing + Kindness. At the same time Blake Mycoskie was starting TOMS, I was designing offbeat t-shirts with slogans like “YAY! Serotonin” and “Craft Girls Get Me Hot,” and (in a model much less innovative than Blake’s deservedly celebrated buy one, give one charitable structure) encouraging both random acts of kindness and performing them as part of the brand. I hand wrote notes with inspirational quotes to my customers, donated proceeds to amazing causes in their honor, etc – and the juxtaposition of “clothing” with “kindness” carried the brand quite far for a small start-up. I’ll talk more about the ClothMoth experience and how we differentiated our brand at trade shows, through our email lists, and even in the process of buying our products, in a later blog post. It was the most fulfilling work I have ever done, and had I been more savvy with mathematics and not spent every penny I earned on hair brained schemes, I could still be doing it today.

Are you a drive thru oil change garage? “Oil changes” is true, but common. “Five minute oil changes” is appealing but probably not true. “Oil changes + massages” is creepy. Sometimes, the best words are those that counter the common misconceptions of the business you are in. When I think of getting my oil changed, I think of stale coffee. A tiny waiting room full of people in a hurry. Not so friendly technicians eager to upsell me, or to ignore me. A word like “happiness” feels opposite to oil change, and a stark contrast to dirty, goopy oil. Hassle-free is a great promise, but is overused and seldom delivered upon. What if it was simply nice people? Friendlier oil changes is a nice promise. It adds the all important human component – we aren’t just a faceless product or service, we are people, and we care about your experience. I’m not striking gold here, but I’ve been working on this for exactly 15 seconds and I’m already at a better brand than 3/4 of the quick lube places. (Branding note: lose the word lube if you are starting an oil change place. It’s also very, very creepy.)

Why settle for me-too words? If everyone is claiming the same thing, be different. Stay tuned for how we do this at a major software company. I promise you, I practice what I preach.

 

 

 

Grammar nerds, what’s wrong with this Lean Cuisine package? Can you chipotle-mash something?

Is it chipotle mashed - or mashed chipotle?

There is a guy at my office that eats Lean Cuisine’s for breakfast. And not breakfast Lean Cuisine’s, mind you; he eats the lunch and dinner varieties. Turkey tetrazzini. Meatloaf. Swallowed down with a liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Rise and shine, Matt, your Philly Style Steak and Cheese Panini is piping hot out of the microwave.

But that has nothing to do today’s grammar nerd challenge. The Lean Cuisine part of it is highly relevant. My co-worker’s propensity to start his day with a prepackaged dinner is not.

Today’s lunch conversation centered around my good friend Donna B.’s Lean Cuisine (or lean cuisine, without the capitalization, as they are apparently now branding themselves) packaging. As she was nuking this scrumptious ranchero braised beef concoction, I took note of the description of the side item: chipotle mashed sweet potatoes.

My first thought was Eats, Shoots & Leaves. How do you chipotle-mash something? Wouldn’t it be mashed chipotle sweet potatoes?

I’m not asking what sounds right. I’m asking what is right?

My friends threw out tons of examples, with garlic mashed potatoes being the first up for consideration. My stance? You can’t garlic mash something, either. You can mash garlic sweet potatoes, though. “Garlic-ed” mashed sweet potatoes makes sense, too, following the same convention as buttered popped corn.

The garlic, or in this instance, the chipotle, is typically mashed along with the potato, is it not? And along the same lines – ranchero braised beef? Am I missing something in the proper ordering of words here? Do you ranchero-braise your beef, or braise your ranchero beef? Oy vey.

Since I am a slightly grammatically challenged writer, I thought I would put this one to the general blog and tweetosphere and see what comes back. . . grammar nerds?

 

How I crowdsourced my wardrobe decisions to my social media network

In middle school, despite a raging astigmatism, I decided glasses were for dorks and begged my mom to get me contact lenses – for my birthday. Seriously. This was just a year or so after I asked for (and received) a full motion waterbed for Christmas, which my parents probably bought me knowing darned well and good that it would serve as an auditory alarm (swoosh!) and nauseating (Dramamine!) deterrent from the celebrated high school past time of climbing in bed with girls. I realize now that this is all evidence that something was off from the get go with me. Freaking waterbed.

Read More…

6 rules for repurposing marketing content

First and foremost, this blog entry is fresh content. It’s not compiled from 15 other blog entries, is not also a podcast, and was not promoted last week via Twitter under a different title and byline.

Do you really care? Or more precisely, would you even know?

Marketing Sherpa released a chart showcasing the top tactics for developing effective marketing content and it should be no big surprise that repurposing and reformatting existing content came in at numero uno. Before you upcycle every has-been whitepaper in your “collateral tree” (my second least favorite tree, 2nd only to cedar) into a mish-mash of undigestible fluff, I thought I would add a healthy dose of caution into the conversation.

Point the First:
We’re all smart enough to know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Repurposing content does not make the resulting content inherently effective. This is where the sherpa’s may have over-sherpa’d a bit in the title of their article. “Top tactics for developing marketing content” would be a more accurate title, since their is no evidence in the chart to qualify effectiveness.

Point the Second:
Junk in, junk out. Bad content is bad, no matter how many different spins you put on it.

Now for a couple practical suggestions that I think even the sherpa-y-est of sherpas would agree with.

  1. The fact that you have a bunch of content sitting around does not mean it needs to be repurposed. Instead, look for buried gold. At my day job, we use personas to define all of our content needs. If the content isn’t answering a key question that one of our personas needs answered in order to move further down the buy cycle, we don’t prioritize creating it. So when we repurpose content, we are looking for ways to bring the answers to our personas questions into more prominent positions. An existing white paper may include the information the persona is looking for, but it’s buried deep inside the paper. Simply extracting that information and turning it into its own standalone blog post, or a quick how to video, may be a more direct answer to the persona question. For more on personas, I suggest starting with Ardath Albee’s book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale
  2. Strive to make something truly new out of the old materials you work with. Etsy craftspeople aren’t successful because they take an old men’s shirts and change out the buttons. They turn old men’s shirts into woman’s dresses. The result is exciting and different and you can’t even recall what the piece originally looked like. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught publications and companies in the act, reading an article today that I know I read yesterday with a slightly different headline and ending. This is called tiresome, copycat content. It’s plagiarizing yourself. It’s not a trust builder.
  3. Create every piece of content assuming it will be read and remembered. You and I know it won’t. But if you create it under that assumption, you protect your brand’s reputation from becoming a content mill like articlesbase
  4. Never promise what you won’t deliver. A major strategy over the last few years, in both marketing and media, is to give something an incredible headline that makes the user click – and then deliver an article that only scratches the surface of what the title hinted. It’s the content version of a bait and switch, and if I could drop everything I am doing and be profitable litigating content creators for baiting and switching, I would start that legal firm in a heartbeat.
  5. New topics deserve new, original content. Don’t muddy your brand’s position on a “trending” topic by rehashing messaging and content that is still “somewhat applicable.” Demonstrate your leadership with new thoughts, things people haven’t heard before, or at a minimum said in a way that they haven’t been said before.
  6. I said this in my recent post on being an effective content curator in the social media space, as well: Stay out of the volume game. It’s tempting for content owners to measure their worth in the number of things they create, and it’s a slippery slope. Kristina Halvorson’s book Content Strategy for the Web, 2nd Edition introduces (quite nicely) the concepts of content governance and maintenance and makes a great case for only creating what you need and are willing and able to perform upkeep on.

There is no denying the potential value of reusing – as one trick in the content arsenal. Just remember to ask yourself first if you are repurposing for a reason, or just repurposing. Your answer will be a major determiner in just how effective your content strategy is.

Screw best practices. Why marketers should try new things fearlessly.

Screw best practices. I really mean it. Well, mostly, at least.

We hear the phrase a hundred times a day, no matter what field we work in. IT, sales, marketing, finance – everything is about following best practices, taking a “best practices approach,” learning from industry best practices, blah blah blah blah. So when should you use best practices in marketing – or anywhere else – and when should you march to the beat of your own drum? What’s so wrong with going the proven way to begin with? Read More…

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