All posts by Glen Gonzalez

About Glen Gonzalez

Glen is a Partner and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

And the Winner Is …

How one campaign wins four awards.

Wondering if you should enter your work in a workplace communication competition? Here are a few thoughts about choosing what to enter and where. 

I had a nice surprise in my inbox yesterday morning. I received notice that a communication campaign I worked on last year—a wellness program launch for CommonSpirit Health—earned its fourth accolade. 

I’ve earned awards throughout my career but not four different awards from four different organizations for a single campaign. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever entered a single campaign in more than one or two competitions. So, what made this one special? Why did it win? 

If you’re looking for some recognition for your communications team, here are a few thoughts on what to enter and where to enter it.

Je Ne Sais Quoi

I work on several campaigns for several different clients every year. Not every one of those is award-worthy. 

When I say a campaign isn’t “award-worthy”, I don’t mean the work isn’t good or that it failed. I simply mean it lacks that je ne sais quoi.

This lovely French expression, literally meaning “I don’t know what”, is sometimes used to describe an elusive quality that makes something appealing or distinctive. Based on my experiences, entering, losing, winning and judging these competitions, I think winning campaigns have that. 

When I sense the following while developing and executing a campaign, I start to suspect I might have a winner on my hands.

It feels different from the beginning. Not every communication project sets out to drive major change. The goal might be maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat, or (in the world of HR and benefits communication) meeting a regulatory requirement. These kinds of projects are important, essential, but they have a different vibe from the outset. They don’t necessarily stir the passions and they’re not as likely to produce the kind of work or results that turn a judge’s head. The CommonSpirit campaign was different right from the beginning. The project had visibility at high levels in the organization and it was clear that the project team had high hopes. They were passionate, energetic and eager to push the boundaries. They weren’t just trying to get this thing over with. They wanted to make a difference. I knew this was going to be a creative challenge and a special opportunity.

By the way … be open to your campaign’s potential regardless of its subject matter. Some of the most interesting, creative work I’ve done has been on topics ranging from annual benefits enrollment to workplace safety to compensation surveys. Sparks can ignite anywhere.

It looks and feels special. There are certain campaigns I look back on that surprise me. I wonder: How in the world did I come up with that headline? I can’t believe the client approved this photo! In retrospect, good creative can feel like the obvious choice. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. For the CommonSpirit campaign, we brainstormed for days, combing through samples, brand guidelines and company communications, which led us to scouring the Bible. During the ideation phase, after we get out all the obvious ideas, I will sometimes feel like I’ll never figure it out. We’ll go down dead ends and end up in unexpected places. These steps can be frustrating, but they are necessary and good. I think effective creative employs uncommon words and images in a way that will be immediately welcomed by the audience. That’s the needle to thread. But a lot of good creative ends up in the recycle bin precisely because it pushes the envelope. Fresh ideas can feel risky and they can make clients feel uncomfortable. But when those risky ideas elicit a positive response, you know you’re on to something.

It achieves something special. The CommonSpirit campaign had clear goals from the outset—and they felt aggressive to me. I had never worked with this client before and it was a big project. A lot was on the line. Before the launch, I felt confident that, on their own, the deliverables we had created could win awards. But when the results of the campaign started coming in—70,000 new wellness program registrations in three weeks—I knew we’d touched our audience’s hearts and minds. We had achieved something special.

Know What You’re Getting Into

While I was studying creative writing and poetry in college, I entered a poem in a contest. In a few weeks, I received a letter indicating my work had been selected for publication. Beaming with pride, I took the letter to my professor. He quickly pointed out the contest was sponsored by a “vanity press.” They’ll print your work if you buy their publication. Basically, the only people reading that book will be the people who wrote it. Hopes dashed. Lesson learned.  

Entering communication competitions can be expensive and time consuming. And, they will get your hopes up. I’m not going to place a bet of time, money and emotion on something as mysterious as “I don’t know what”. I want a level of confidence that I have a real chance at winning something that is worth winning.

If you think you have a winner on your hands, here are some basic steps to take.

  1. Make a list of competitions you want to win. Google searches will pull up all kinds of results. You likely know some of the big ones, but there are other good competitions out there that are regional or have a particular focus. Make note of all of them.
  2. Narrow down your list by time frame. Some competitions are annual. Some accept applications on a rolling basis. They will all have guidelines about when the campaign happened. Choose competitions that make sense based on when you did the work and when winners will be announced. If you missed the boat on an award you’d like to win, put it on your calendar for next time.
  3. Align with the criteria. Before you start working on your entry, be sure you understand the criteria. I categorize competitions into two main types:
  • Quality. These competitions base judgement solely on an evaluation of the work itself. They don’t ask for results and they’re not interested in context. Basically, these are creators evaluating the quality of what you’ve created in and of itself. If you have a stunning piece of work, give these a shot. They can be great validation of the work you’re doing and a nice recognition for your team. Check out lists of previous winners. Are these organizations you’d be proud to stand alongside? If so, enter.
  • Quality and Results. These competitions place great importance on achieving results. They’ll want a solid case study outlining your strategy and outcomes. If you have a stunning piece of work backed up by an insightful approach AND compelling evidence of results, take the time to enter. These kinds of competitions (e.g., IABC, Ragan, Communicator Awards) have higher standards and there’s more competition but they come with greater notoriety and, I think, an overall higher sense of achievement.

Let’s Connect

Do you have a campaign coming up that needs award-winning strategy and creative? What tips and insights would you share about entering communication competitions? We’d love to hear from you. 

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Better Headlines = More Readers

Why You Should Spend More Time Writing Good Headlines and Subject Lines

Extraterrestrial Buzz

When IFLS published the following article on its website the story got more than half a million shares. 

Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms

The thing is, if you actually clicked on the headline to read the story, you would have realized it was completely untrue.

Don’t Read it, Retweet it!

According to a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on Twitter have never actually been clicked by the person sharing the link. 

In other words, most people appear to retweet news based solely on the headline.

Did You Fall for This?

NPR found a similar result to an April Fools’ Day prank. They posted a headline: Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore? In the body of the article, they wrote: “If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’”

Nearly 50,000 people commented on the story.

Be Sure Your Headlines Do This

While these studies and pranks suggest how eager we are to share things on social media, they also highlight the importance of headlines. 

Headlines get people—a lot of people—to do things. 

If the thing you want the reader to do is actually read your article or email, you need to craft a headline or subject line that does this:

Make an intriguing but believable promise of benefits to the reader.

The alien DNA story and the NPA article don’t actually do this, of course. They use a different approach. They make a wild or provocative claim. That’s an effective technique for catching attention and generating shares but, if you want people to read your message, you have to catch their attention AND offer them something of value.

Use Headline Formulas

A quick way to improve your headline or subject line is to apply one of several so-called headline formulas. Headline formulas are types of headlines that have proven themselves effective at garnering responses to direct mail and email marketing. Below are a few examples.

How / How to … How to Choose 401(k) Investment Options Based on Your Goals
Numbered List 3 Tips for Choosing the Right 401(k) Investment Options for You
Secrets / Ways to The Secret to Retirement Investing
Why … Why Some Retirement Investors Do Better Than Others
Ought to Know What You Ought to Know About Saving for Retirement
Simple & Direct Get a 100% Match on Your 401(k) Contributions
Yes or Yes Question Do You Want FREE Money for Your Retirement?
News / Announcement Introducing 5 New 401(k) Investment Options

Take the Time to Write a Good Headline

Don’t let your headline or subject line be an afterthought. When I write, I sometimes start with the headline — the promise — and then make sure I fulfill that promise in the body copy. Or, sometimes I’ll write the copy, come up with a good headline, then go back and revise my copy to be sure it delivers on the headline’s promise. 

As I stated in a previous blog, People Don’t Read, your goal is to get people to pay attention to your message. Your headline is what will get them to pay. Just be sure your content provides them a return.  

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Struggling With the “Me” in Social Media

Lessons learned from writing for Smith’s Ideas page

As a communications consultant, I sometimes feel like a rock band roadie. 

My job is to understand what my client is trying to get across to their audience and then figure out how to do that in their voice. I craft the message, set up the equipment, attract a crowd, and crank things up to 11. (And, of course, my clients are all rock stars.)

But, when Smith launched its social media strategy in 2016, I was asked to share my thoughts, my experiences and my knowledge — all in my own voice. The mic was suddenly shoved into my face, and I froze.

It took a year of battling self-doubt before I could stop hiding behind endless revisions and actually publish my first article. That’s a strange thing to admit given that I write all the time and the content I’ve created for clients has been read by millions of people. But writing under a by-line is different than writing under someone else’s logo. When social media is about me, I don’t do so well.

Here are a few things that I did to shake off the stage fright and write articles more regularly. If your goal is to publish more of your own original content online, maybe you’ll find some of these tips helpful. 

Describe Your Audience

Knowing your audience will answer a lot of questions regarding what you write about and how. It will give you clarity and focus. Even if you’re publishing on a platform that gives near global access to your content, you are not writing for everyone. Choose who you’re speaking to. Your audience might be a demographic, a group or just one person. For me, I write like I’m writing to my best client, not my friends and not an anonymous “HR professional.” That puts me in a state of mind from which the words flow more easily.

State Your Goal

For some bloggers, the goal is to keep readers scrolling through ads. For others, it’s to sell a product or service. For others, it’s a form of activism. Know why you’re spending time on your blog — and write it down. Having a clear purpose will prod you forward.

Write from a Place of Authority

Whenever I start typing, this nagging voice in my head asks, “Why would anyone listen to you on this topic?” To silence this inner critic, I focus on things I know about and things that I’ve done. I avoid making unsupported generalizations and back claims with data or links to authoritative sources. This not only sharpens my copy, it builds trust with readers. 

Give Away Something Valuable

That nagging voice I mentioned above has another favorite question: “Why should anyone take the time to read this?”

I think the answer is in one of my previous posts: 

“The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.”

From “People Don’t Read.”

What you give away will depend on your goal, but try to make it tangible and/or practical. It could be product samples, discounts, recipes, tips, checklists, instructions, recommendations, etc. Your readers will appreciate and remember you for it. 

Don’t Not Be You

Finding a unique voice is something many, if not all, writers struggle with. For me, a more authentic voice began to emerge in my posts when I wrote regularly in this format, stuck to things I cared about, and let my personality shine through. 

There is one thing each of us has to offer that no one else does: our unique perspective and life experience. With that in mind I simply do my best to share personal experiences that I think my clients could benefit from. Maybe not everyone sees an obvious link between guitar tablature and employee communication, but I do. And maybe sharing that idea will give a client a different perspective, or at least amuse them intellectually for a few minutes. Your peculiarities will help you hone your voice and find an audience.

Sharing Is Caring

As that big purple dinosaur Barney says, Sharing is caring. That’s a handy way to sum up the advice above. Share what you care about, and care about your audience’s time and needs. Let your content flow from there.

Let’s Connect

Do you have any lessons you’ve learned from writing a blog? Are you looking for help getting your ideas into words? We’d love to hear from you. 

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Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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