Archive for the 'General' Category

The awful truth about online customer reviews

August 25th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The notion of posting online customer reviews of products and
services — such as is done on Angie’s List and Amazon — has some
troubling flaws.

I will focus here on Amazon since I have never used Angie’s
list … and as an author, I have a lot of exposure to the reviews
posted on Amazon.

The first problem is what book marketing guru John Kremer,
author of the classic “1,001 Ways to Market Your Book,” calls
“agenda-driven reviews.”

One example is when I am looking at the page on Amazon for some
marketing guru’s new book and I see immediately two dozen
five-star reviews and nothing lower.

I can’t help notice that virtually all the reviewers are the
author’s friends, associates, joint venture partners, and
affiliates.

The reviewers’ agenda is clear: to help the author hype his
book. The motive? To have the author reciprocate and do the same
for them.

The opposite situation is when the reviewer clearly has a grudge
either against the author or his philosophy or ideas — and posts
a one-star review for what any sensible person would agree is a
solid, good book on the topic.

The second problem with the Amazon review system is that,
incredibly, I have seen a number of reviews where the reviewer
says she has not read the book yet but will get to it soon — and
amazingly, Amazon has let the review stand.

Can you imagine a book reviewer for the New York Times Book
Review writing in his review that he has not yet read the book
in question?

The third problem, which brings up a broader issue I will
address in a minute, is reviews written by reviewers who are
unqualified to evaluate the book in question. A related problem
is when the reviewer’s comments are just plain stupid or
trivial.

I subscribe to the New York Review of books, and if they are
running a review of a new biography of Abraham Lincoln, the
reviewer they hire will most certainly be a historian or
presidential biographer or Lincoln scholar.

But on Amazon, you can post a review of a book on woodworking
even if you have never in your life driven a nail into a 2X4.

And in your Amazon review, you can blatantly say things that are
wrong, because Amazon doesn’t seem to check it or prevent it
from being published.

As for stupid or trivial comments: one of my books got a
one-star review because the reader did not like the paper it was
printed on.

The reason I like traditional print media like newspapers,
magazines, and published books is that the authors and their
writings are vetted by editors and publishers.

A columnist for PC Magazine once wisely observed: “The worst
thing about the Internet is that anyone and everyone can publish
anything to it.”

The Internet in general and social media in particular
encourages the belief that everyone is entitled to their
opinion. And it has given those people a vehicle for easily
publishing those views, no matter how wrong or inane.

Writer Harlan Ellison correctly states: “Everyone is not
entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to their informed
opinion.”

“Informed opinion” means you have some experience, knowledge,
qualifications, or credentials in the subject you are writing
about.

For instance, is it OK for me to write a negative review of a
book on home schooling if I have never tried the author’s
methods or worse, never home-schooled my kids — or even worse,
don’t even have kids? I think not. But I can do it on Amazon all
day long. And so can you and everyone else reading this e-mail.

If the NY Times Book Review hired me to review a book on home
schooling, you can bet I would have to be a parent and probably
a pediatrician or parenting writer to get the gig.

Another example: I once was hired to write a direct mail package
being mailed to engineers selling them a membership in a
professional society.

The client gave it to a dozen people to review. Many of them
suggested changes that made no sense to me, mainly based on the
fact that they did not understand some of the technical topics
discussed in the letter — for instance, why chemical engineers
want to increase process yields.

It turned out that none of the reviewers was an engineer. As
such, I considered their opinion as to what would or would not
engage engineers to be extremely uninformed.

The only one involved in the creation of the DM package who was
in fact an engineer was the copywriter — me.

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Everybody writes … but should they?

August 13th, 2014 by Bob Bly

My colleague Michael Stelzner recently did a podcast with a woman, AH, who wrote a forthcoming book called “Everyone Writes.”

AH is right: everyone writes. But I have always wondered whether everyone should write. And I have come to believe that they should not.

Reason: In the good old days, just because you wrote something didn’t mean it would be published. In fact, likely, it would not.

To get published, you had to convince a publishing house to buy your book – or a newspaper or magazine editor to print your article or your letter-to-the-editor … and most people were not able to do this easily. So what got published was vetted by professionals – and the quality reflected that editorial guidance.

But today, in the digital era, anything that anyone writes can be and often is instantly published to the Internet where theoretically millions of people can read it – and at least a few people, if only just your Facebook friends, almost certainly will.

Some people see this “everyone writes (and publishes)” phenomenon as a wonderfully liberating new age in human communication.

To me, it is the end of western civilization as we know it – and the death of literacy – and the heralding of an unceasing age of what I call endless “content pollution.”

Content pollution is everyone publishing every thought they have, and almost everything that happens to them, without the benefit of an editor or publisher to filter what goes out into the ether.

The job of the editor is quality control for written communication. Without editors, which the Internet has largely removed from the equation, the quality of published writing has fallen to a new low – not an easy accomplishment.

Example: Facebook posts featuring a picture of what the person has just eaten for breakfast. The amazing thing is that some readers actually seem interested!

The ease of publishing blogs, online newsletters, online articles, posts, and the like has caused amateur writing to flourish. And that’s bad news for professionals: it’s difficult to command a living wage for something thousands or even millions of people are happy to do for free, even if you are ostensibly better at it.

People ask me why I take the old-school stance of preferring traditional book publishing with NYC publishers to self-publishing on Amazon with Kindle.

The main reason is this: with traditional book publishing, you know that at least one person – the editor at the publishing house – thought highly enough of the work to pay for it. That’s a quality control self-publishing is sadly lacking.

Normally at this point in my essay I suggest solutions or give tips for profiting from the situation.

But I don’t really have a solution to content pollution. People feel compelled to express their thoughts, and thanks to the Internet, can do so at any time and are assured of at least some readers taking note.

There is nothing I can do to change the human compulsion to write and publish. I just wish more people who feel this compulsion would produce content at a higher level – that is, writing actually worth reading — and filter what they put on the web.

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Is writing this book a waste of time?

August 6th, 2014 by Bob Bly

Anne Fernald, an English professor at Fordham, has spent 10 years — that’s right, a full decade — working on a scholarly edition of the Virginia Woolf novel “Mrs. Dalloway” … and she’s not even done yet.

Mind you, she’s not writing a novel. Virginia Wolf wrote it in 1925. All she is doing is annotating it with footnotes.

When I read about this in the 3/31/14 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, I had 2 immediate reactions.

First, 10 years to annotate an already written book? Seriously?

And second, who on the planet aside from a few scholars and Woolfaholics would read what sounds to be a really boring book like that?

I ask because there is a broader question: With so many books on just about every conceivable topic under the sun already out, should you and I even bother to write yet another book on one of these subjects?

For instance, it almost causes me physical pain when someone sends me a new marketing book with a request to review … because I know without looking that, with rare exception, it’s just the same old thing already done to the death in hundreds of other books.

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Can robots replace human writers?

July 18th, 2014 by Bob Bly

It appears that they can, at least as far as content writing is concerned.

According to the article below, Wikipedia “bots” – software that writes without a human operator – write a staggering 10,000 articles a day for the site:

http://news.discovery.com/tech/robotics/wikipedia-bot-writes-10000-articles-a-day-140715.htm

The quality is apparently good enough that the articles pass muster – people read them and don’t know a robot wrote them.

Does that mean content writers are obsolete and irrelevant, much like factory workers who have been replaced by robots on factory assembly lines?

For decades, my dad worked in an office building with a manual elevator run by an elevator operator, Frank. The day the building unveiled its new self-service push-button elevator, Frank was gone.

I know a number of older IT professionals who became obsolete and were fired when either their technical skills became outdated or were outsourced to India. Not exactly death by bot, but the same idea.

Do you believe that bots will become powerful enough to handle more sophisticated writing tasks – including poetry, novels, movie scripts, and sales copy?

Just because I cannot see my way clear to believing that what I do as a copywriter can ever be captured in software does not mean that it won’t happen.

What’s scary is the possibility that almost any worker living today may become obsolete in ways he or she never expected.

There are already robots that help perform surgery. Who is to say one day an AI (artificial intelligence) bot won’t eliminate the need for a human surgeon?

Do you feel sorrow for people who are being made obsolete and unemployable by advances in technology or do you see it as their fault: they didn’t keep their skills state of the art, and so they get what they deserve?

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What’s a good idea really worth?

July 11th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The late, great speaker Dottie Walters once praised me by
writing, “Bob Bly is a magnificent idea man.”

But that actually made me uncomfortable … because I do not think
of myself as an idea man.

I am something that, in my humble opinion, is much more
valuable: an action man.

My writing hero, Isaac Asimov, said he was often besieged by
people who had an idea for a science fiction story.

Their offer: “Take my idea, write the story, sell it, and we
will split the money.”

Asimov’s reply was always the same.

He told the person, “Tell you what. I will give YOU an idea. You
write a story, sell it, and split the money with me.”

His point: coming up with ideas is easy. Implementing them is
hard.

In this regard, my pet peeve is marketing consultants who want
to look smart to the client, and so they spew out idea after
idea without regard to the client’s time and resources available
to execute — or whether the idea is merely creative or will
actually generate positive ROI.

But when it’s time to actually do the suggestions, they run for
the hills. And when you ask them for guidance, they tell you
they just concern themselves with the big picture and are not
“detail people.”

Recently I hired a marketing consultant and writer, GF, to write
an e-book for me.

Right away, he became hyper-excited and started spewing out
ideas for the book I hired him to write.

For instance, let’s have a contest … let’s start a Facebook page
for the book … let’s make online videos … let’s sell advertising
in the book … let’s partner with Amazon.

“Relax, Spanky,” I told him.

“Forget about all that hooey. Just write a good book for me.
I’ll be happy with that.”

Guess what, Mr. Smart Marketing Consultant?

An idea that you toss out and that just lies there … and that
you never help put into practice for the client … is worthless.

When I was a kid, my dad, whom I worshipped, had to lift Heidi,
our huge collie, onto the exam table at the vet.

He said, “I have a great idea. Build the table with a hydraulic
lift.”

It was a great idea, and now many vet exam tables have a lift.

But dad didn’t make a dime from it, because he never did a thing
with the idea.

You see, the money’s in making the thing, not thinking of the
thing.

The Law of Attraction also places too much faith in ideas and
thoughts.

It says you attract abundance by thinking abundantly.

I prefer the guy — I think it may have been Edison or maybe
Stephen King — who said: “Success usually wears overalls and
looks like hard work.”

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Are you a good listener?

July 2nd, 2014 by Bob Bly

In the 1980s, when Burroughs announced its plan to merge with
fellow computer giant Sperry, they turned to a big NYC ad agency
for help naming the new company.

The ad agency turned to me … and a bunch of other copywriters …
and paid us for name suggestions.

My simple-minded solution, Sperry/Burroughs, was not chosen. Nor
was my alternative: Burroughs/Sperry.

The winner, as some of you may know, was Unisys – and I can’t
say the freelancer who sold that to the agency and its client
earned his fee.

I bring this up because, for reasons unknown, a few years before
the merger, Sperry ran a major corporate ad campaign around the
theme of “listening.”

Although I think the campaign was a dud, the idea of becoming a
good listener is a valuable one.

I will never forget a line in one of their content pieces on
listening: “Remember, you have only one mouth but two ears. So
you should listen twice as much as you talk.”

It’s relevant, because increasingly people ask for my advice
and counsel, and then when I try to give it, constantly talk
over me and never listen to a word I say.

For instance, entrepreneur CM called a few weeks ago asking for
advice on how to market his business.

He did not want to become a paying client. He just wanted to
pick my brain for free.

As is always the case, I said yes, with a line I learned from
speaker Patricia Fripp.

“CM, I charge $500 an hour, but I will give you 5 minutes,
starting now.”

By the way, if you charge $500 an hour, 5 minutes of your time
is a gift worth $41.67 — a nice freebie for a stranger you don’t
know.

So CM told me his marketing idea. But instead of shutting up and
getting the answer, he proceeded to tell me why he was convinced
it was brilliant, his life story, and on and on.

Finally, I said in a loud voice what Charlie on “Its Always
Sunny in Philadelphia” loves to say to talkers: “Stop talking!”

CM stopped, and I said: “CM, you asked me the question. I know
the answer. Can you be quiet and let me tell you the answer?”

Actually, I insisted that he stop talking because (a) my time
is valuable and (b) since he was not paying me, he was wasting
it. And what would be my incentive to allow a non-client to do
so?

The kicker to the story: When I told CM his idea will not work,
he began arguing vehemently. I (figuratively) held up my hand
and said once again:

“Stop. I don’t care what you do. Do what you want. You asked
for advice. I gave it. Five minutes up. Goodbye and good luck.”

Some days it does not pay to get out of bed, but despite that, I
am here at the PC every day by 6am, in case you have something
to ask me.

Only … whether you are a paying client or a freebie … wouldn’t
it make sense to stop talking enough to get my answer?

If you are a paying client, I will gladly debate its merits
until you are comfortable with my explanation and can make an
informed decision about whether to accept my advice.

If you are a freebie seeker on my 5 minute meter, I will not.

Action step: implement Sperry’s 2:1 rule in your life: Listen at
least twice as much as you talk — and you will be well served
whether you are a customer, a vendor, or a moocher.

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Are you a digital potty mouth?

May 12th, 2014 by Bob Bly

One of the worst things about the Internet is the anonymity.

Reason: because anyone can post or e-mail without revealing
their identities or facing those they communicate with, people
on the Internet think they can say anything to anybody – and get
away with it.

A case in point: on a popular blog, a contributing author wrote
an otherwise excellent article about digital marketing in which
she said something she tried worked “like a mofo.”

I commented that, in my opinion, she should have communicated
her ideas without using an abbreviation for an obscenity.

I was widely attacked by the blog readers for being an old
fogey, conservative and out of touch with the time.

Incidentally, shortly after the incident, the blog suspended
comments. I do not think I am the cause.

Anyway, I was tempted to humorously reply “%&^(&* you” but
refrained.

One of my critiques wrote: “Can’t believe you’re such a whiney
bitch on the blog post where the word ‘mofo’ is used.”

Maybe I am, but I was raised in a generation which, I believe,
had slightly better manners than the current one – though
perhaps I am delusional.

For instance, when I communicate with someone I do not know, I
don’t call them a bitch.

People love swearing and do it frequently, but they and I differ
on when and where cussing is appropriate.

I contend that in articles published online and offline on
business topics, it is completely unnecessary, and people do it
primarily to look cool and hip to their counterparts.

But by doing so, they turn off a large segment of their
readership, me included … mostly the 50 and over crowd.

If you are a marketer, I would warn you not to alienate
oldsters, as we control most of the money in the United States.

A survey reported on the Joshua Kennon web site found that
households where the head was age 35 and younger had a median
net worth of only $65,000.

By comparison, households where the head was 55 to 64 years old
had a median net worth of $880,000 – nearly 14X richer.

I have the same objection to gratuitous swearing in media other
than business blogs, by the way.

For instance, I find Chris Rock very funny. But his use of f–k
every other sentence is wearisome.

He may do it for effect, but listen to his CDs … they would be
just as funny without the F word, in my opinion: it adds nothing
to the humor.

I admit there are some comics who use occasional cursing to
good effect, George Carlin being one of them.

And I also admit the F word can enhance a character’s emotion in
certain tense movie scenes … though if he says it every 2
minutes, it again becomes tiresome.

But I believe swearing has no place in business or marketing
writing.

Of course, if you disagree, I suspect you will flip me off … and
keep on doing it.

Just remember: for every complaint you get, there are probably
dozens of readers who also don’t like it — but are not speaking
up.

So the number of people you alienate may exceed the number of
those who think you are “with it” and groovy for cussing.

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The awful truth about content farms

April 23rd, 2014 by Bob Bly

Subscriber SJ asks: “Can you give us your take on the
advisability of writing for the content farms like Demand Media
Studios (Ehow)?”

A content farm is a business that hires multiple writers to
churn out articles that clients post on their web sites to
improve their search engine rankings.

In my experience, the writers who write for content farms are
for the most part minimally skilled. Often English is not their
native language, which shows in their writing.

Articles from content farms are typically produced by writers
who are not experts in the subject. They just go on Google and
cobble together an article on the topic from 5 or 6 other
articles they find online – frequently without giving credit to
these sources.

Content farms are famous for the miserable fees they pay
writers. One I saw offered $5 per article. How good are those $5
per article writers? Not very.

And I know that from experience: I stupidly hired a content farm
writer to write content for my chemistry web site at
www.mychemset.com.

In an article on careers in chemistry, she actually wrote
“People interested in a career in chemistry should study
chemistry.” Duh.

Unbelievably, she also wrote in the same article “Chemistry is a
good career for those who are fond of atoms.” I am not kidding.
This at least gave me a good laugh.

Writers have a long tradition of getting started in their
freelance careers by writing for low pay or no pay.

Back in the day, it was mainly for small magazines that paid
writers in contributor’s copies. Today, the articles are for web
sites, and they are written more for search engines than human
readers. The content farms seem not to care much what’s in the
article or how well it is written as long as it contains the
right key words.

Subscriber MZ, a freelance writer, notes, “An infinite supply
of low, low, insultingly low paying outlets have cropped up like
an unkillable fungus. It’s made a lot of writers very angry. Not
only do we refuse to work for these absurdly low rates, we feel
deeply offended that our work could be valued so poorly.”

“But I am a beginner,” you object, “I need to get some writing
samples to launch my business.” However, if the samples are
articles published by content farms, good clients are unlikely
to be impressed.

A better option than working for peanuts for content farms is to
get hired by real clients for smaller, noncritical assignments
until they get to know you well enough to try you on a bigger
project.

For instance, a newsletter publisher might not hire an untested
writer to write a full-length promotion for them. But they might
hire you to write an article for their free e-newsletter, a
special report used as a subscription premium, or some banner
ads. And they will pay you a fair rate for the work.

So my advice to SJ and all other freelance writers is to avoid
content farms like the plague. They are truly the cesspool of
the freelance writing profession.

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