Rules of Order, the latest offering from Jeff Vande Zande, evokes an eerie feeling of déjà vu for more than one reason. Firstly, it features a group of people forced to live together who can’t agree on, well, anything. Sound familiar? It’s like a real-life depiction of current events set against a dystopian backdrop.
Secondly, fans that have read his previous work, The Neighborhood Division, recognize the characters and the storyline. The overarching theme in that collection of stories focused on battling with the instincts of the self vs. the community. One of the stories called “Load” left readers wanting more. Not one to leave his fans hanging, Vande Zande fulfilled their wishes by expanding the short into its own novel.
In the shorter version, readers are introduced to the main character, Harvey Crowe. He has good intentions but struggles a bit with the execution. When we meet Crowe again in Rules of Order, he’s still busy trying to convince his neighbors that they must get on board with strict guidelines for weight limits in their individual apartments to protect the entire building from collapse. Although this time around, we gain more insight into his motives.
If you’re asking why they couldn’t just move to a new building, readers get the impression that’s not an option in this dystopian future. Readers aren’t told exactly how it happened, but we’re led to believe that leaving the building and venturing into the outside world is akin to an immediate death sentence. It’s effective storytelling that Vande Zande leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks on how the outside world became so inhospitable to human life.
“The bigger message I wanted to convey is that it was probably a good dose of capitalism that destroyed the outside world, and somehow, capitalism still found a way inside the building,” said Vande Zande. “It just became a microcosm of how the planet used to conduct itself. We want more for ourselves as individuals, even if we’re hurting the group.”
The sky is falling…literally
Without spoiling the storyline, it’s safe to say for most of the novel, Vande Zande taps into the reader’s anxiety with a sense of urgency about when – not if – the building will collapse. This sense of impending doom led to Falling Sky as the original title of the novel.
“It was titled Falling Sky for a long time,” said Vande Zande. “But the publisher eventually decided it was too close to some other movie and book titles and that because of it, it just wasn’t grabbing him.” Vande Zande started brainstorming a new title and kept coming back to Robert’s Rules of Order, which he used as a frequent reference when writing the board room scenes for the book. “I thought about making the new title Rules of Order and the publisher loved it.”
Of course, with Vande Zande, there always is a hidden meaning behind his book titles. Not only is Rules of Order a nod to Robert’s Rules, but it also is a play on words for how the order of society – rich vs. poor – was conducted within the building.
The book title isn’t the only aspect of Rules of Order with a double entendre. Characters’ names also carried hidden meanings. One such character is the well-to-do Gerald LaMark, one of the newest and youngest members of the apartment building board. Vande Zande said he named LaMark after the character Lamarque in Les Miserables.
“It’s kind of an homage to him because there’s a line in one of the songs that only Lamarque speaks for we people here below,” said Vande Zande. “It seemed a good parallel since LaMark speaks for the residents on the lower floors of the building.”
Two of the most interesting characters in the book are the building supervisor, Sam, and his wife, Anya. Unfortunately for Crowe, he can hear every conversation the couple has through a leaky ventilation pipe between their apartments. Most of those arguments are about how much they dislike each other.
“Some readers have shared with me that the super and his wife represent the oversharing that happens on social media these days,” said Vande Zande. “For me, they represent the existential threat of nuclear weapons that we can’t control among all the things that we try to do to protect ourselves and our planet. The whole planet can get annihilated only on our inability to get along.”
It’s hardly a surprise the building in Rules of Order is an analogy for our planet. The world is facing an ongoing climate crisis, divisiveness, and authoritarianism – all things represented within the microcosm of Crowe’s building. Sam and Anya represent the overarching feeling that we’re in the palm of a hand we can’t control and that can crush us at any moment no matter what insignificant actions we take to prevent our demise.
“The more we try, the harder we fail,” said Vande Zande. “We’re really botching it as a species.”
Looking toward the future
Readers who enjoy The Rules of Order also may want to check out Vande Zande’s 50-page novelette, Parable of Weeds, which discusses the nuances of gated communities.
It may be a while before fans of Vande Zande’s brand of dystopian writing have a new story to immerse themselves in. After writing two novels in 2020, Vande Zande said he needs some time to restore his creative juices.
Not to worry, though. He’ll be back to taking aspects of the real world, turning the volume up on them, and creating an amazing tale again in the future. For now, readers can get their copy of Rules of Order on Amazon.
Building brand authority requires creating quality content that establishes your credibility. Think of it as street cred for the internet.
Many organizations struggle with this part of establishing their bona fides because they try to take a short cut with their content creation. They get sucked into the game of producing SEO keyword stuffed drivel that prioritizes search engines over the humans reading it.
It’s nearly impossible to shape a stellar impression of your brand if visitors to your website and social media feeds are greeted by inferior content.
Google finally has realized the error of its algorithm’s ways and has set out to correct course. By now, most people have heard about Google’s Helpful Content Update. If you’re among the few who missed the newsflash, here’s the long and short of it: Google is going to start rewarding content that puts people first, not search engines.
Good thing for me that my business motto is, “People First. SEO Second.” I’ve always put readers first when writing content for myself or any of my clients.
Getting people to your website or other online content is only the first part of the battle. If your content sucks, they won’t stick around (or come back) for more.
Building brand authority takes time and skill. One of the tools in your growth strategy should include HARO. We’ll talk more about that later. First, let’s break down why you should care about brand authority.
What is brand authority?
Brand authority is all about trust. Not just trust in your product or service, either. Brand authority should extend to include how your current and prospective customers view your organization as a trustworthy source of information.
You may have heard branding strategists and other marketing professionals talk about establishing yourself as an industry leader or niche authority. That’s just a fancy way of saying when you post something online, people believe it.
Let’s say you’re a physical therapist with a large customer base and online presence. If you create a social media post about a new product to help with stretching that can reduce the risk of injury, your followers won’t doubt your recommendation because they believe you’re an expert on the matter. That’s brand authority.
Why do I need to build brand authority?
Organizations that want to be successful care about brand authority. If no one trusts your brand or has doubts about buying your products or services, they’re going to spend their money elsewhere.
Trust goes beyond encouraging people to try your brand. It’s a critical component of keeping customers once you have them in the fold.
Brand authority mustn’t be confused with brand awareness. You can know a brand exists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to buy their products. An organization can be stellar at getting their name and products out there. However, that doesn’t mean they have a good product or service that people trust and rely on.
Unilever is a great example of brand authority. Under former CEO Paul Polman, the company redirected its focus from profitability to sustainability. The result was a positive social impact through its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan that reinforced the company’s business integrity and resonated with consumers.
Although its focus wasn’t on profitability, Unilever managed to increase its earnings over the eight years it spent concentrating on profit through purpose.
What is HARO?
As previously mentioned, HARO is one of the most effective ways to build brand authority. If you’re wondering what the heck HARO is, let me explain.
Help A Reporter Out – HARO for short – pairs journalists and other media outlets with reputable sources they can quote in their articles. Media outlets like ABC News, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, Reuters, The New York Times, Time, and Wall Street Journal all rely on HARO to find industry experts for their articles.
You must sign up for a membership to reap the benefits but it’s worth the effort. There are four membership levels from which to choose:
How does HARO build brand authority?
Now that you know what HARO is, you’re probably wondering how you can use it to build brand authority. It’s quite simple. Depending on the plan you’ve chosen, start looking for opportunities that fit your niche.
Let’s say you’re a pediatrician interested in growing your practice. You could use HARO to find opportunities to speak to local reporters about health and wellness issues affecting children. Once you see a good fit, submit a response to their query through the platform and wait to see if they select you.
The Write Reflection™ has had great success getting clients featured as industry experts using HARO. We’ve matched brands with journalists from high authority web domains, bloggers, and sites with the most interactive followers.
Tips for increasing your chances
As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of brands vying for attention on HARO. You must find a way to help your brand stand out in a crowd if you want to be chosen as the industry expert. Here are some tips for making it happen:
How do I use HARO to build brand authority?
It’s all about the backlinks, baby. A lot of organizations take short cuts when trying to get backlinks, including using Black Hat SEO techniques. Quick results can end up hurting your brand authority in the long run. It’s best to avoid them and build links the right way.
Some HARO journalists and media outlets provide backlinks to your business website or other online presence in their stories once published. Known as an earned backlink, it redirects their readers to your website or social media accounts to learn more about you.
Not only can you use HARO to establish yourself as a brand authority, but you also can use it to boost your SEO rankings with Google the right way. It’s a win-win!
How do I get started with HARO?
While it’s entirely possible to set up your own account and pitch yourself to reporters in HARO, you might want to consider hiring a professional to help you navigate the platform to increase your chances of success.
The Write Reflection has helped other clients build brand authority using HARO and other reputable methods. Reach out today to schedule your no-obligation consultation.
There’s a new sheriff in cyberspace, promising to rid our search results of low-quality content designed with one thing in mind: gaming the SEO ranking system. That’s right, y’all. Google’s coming for the SEO content mills of the internet and soon.
Google’s been known to change its algorithm more than most of us change our underwear. It can be frustrating for SEO content pros to keep up with all the requirements for getting their clients’ content found online.
One thing I’ve always hated about Google’s algorithm was its partiality to SEO keywords. You’re probably thinking about how weird that declaration is coming from an SEO content expert. Let me explain.
When you write content for search engines like Google instead of for readers, you end up with a bunch of keyword-stuffed gobbledygook. I’ve fought it kicking and screaming for the last 25 years because I know it’s a recipe for inferior content.
What’s the Google helpful content update?
Google has finally realized the error of its ways with the forthcoming launch of what it’s dubbed the helpful content update. I nearly spit out my tea when I saw Google’s official press release on the update, using the description “focus on people-first content.”
I’ve always put people first and search engines second in my content. Heck, my business motto is “People First. SEO Second” for good reason. It’s my mission in life to help your target audience do more than just find your brand online. I want them to discover value-added content that’s engaging and solves problems. That’s how you build brand loyalists.
For those who don't live and breathe all things SEO, Google’s update finds websites with high volumes of content that were specifically written for Search Engines and not people. When it finds them, it's not going to treat them favorably.
If you paid a content mill to produce mass quantities of SEO keyword-stuff content that otherwise is of poor quality, Google is about to ruin your day. Enjoy your page ranking now because it’s going to drop in a hurry when the changes become effective.
What the heck is a content mill?
A content mill is a service that produces subpar content. Sadly, there are quite a few of them operating globally. You’ve probably come across their ads that make bold claims like “Content that ranks for just $25!” Business owners trying to stick to a budget easily are swayed by those kinds of promises but soon come to regret falling for them.
Content mills never add value to your brand. They may get you on the first page of search results, but they aren’t going to help you achieve sustainable growth because their content creators often use bad SEO practices. Keyword stuffing is one of the go-to strategies content mills use.
Google used to reward websites that engaged in this Black Hat SEO technique. Not anymore.
Choosing to rank sites with content that keyword-stuffed SEO terms for the sole purpose of driving traffic to a page caused a much greater problem than even Google probably anticipated. It led to an internet full of poorly-written content that didn’t provide any value to readers.
Content mills thrived under that system, promising SEO content that ranked by drafting 600-word articles that contained plenty of SEO keywords but no real insights.
How do you write for people first?
Writing for people first isn’t as difficult as you might imagine. It comes down to basic storytelling 101. Depending on the content you’re creating, you can use one of four storytelling formulas.
Focus on user intent
Storytelling builds a firm foundation for your content, ensuring it’s serving your readers first. Examining user intent perfects it for search engines during the second stage of creation.
There are three types of user intent: informational, navigational, and transactions.
How do you find people-first content creators?
People-first content creators are rare (at least right now). Those of us who understand the value of storytelling and connecting with your target audience are unicorns for sure. But we do exist, and you must ask the right questions to pick us out in the crowded field of content creators.
Here are two important questions you can drop to make sure you’re not about to hire a pimped-out content mill.
1. How much do you charge for content?
If you get an answer of $15 to $25 for 800 words, you’re talking to a content mill agency or provider. When writers are paid so little to create content, they tend to cut corners. You’ll end up with poorly-written content that doesn’t engage or connect your readers with your brand.
2. Do you interview subject experts?
Content that doesn’t include extensive research or subject matter expert interviews is typical of a content mill. They instruct their writers to find similar pieces of content online and spin them into a new piece. Writers that aren’t great at this tactic often end up plagiarizing someone else’s content, which can spell bad news for your brand.When in doubt, ask to see samples of their previous work. If it looks and sounds just like everything else you’ve seen online about the topic, it’s content mill work.
A final warning about content creation
If you're resisting a content strategy that provides value-added content for your readers, you need to rethink your plans and fast. Panicking because you're not sure what to do? Contact me today and we can have a chat about the best approach for your brand.
Business owners must do more to help their brands stand the test of time. Gone are the days of developing a useful product and providing excellent customer service as the only components of longevity.
Case in point: visual branding.
If you’re wondering what the heck visual branding is and why you need to add it to your business model, you’re in luck. I sat down with visual branding guru Tina Wolfe of Tina Wolfe Creative Business Solutions recently to talk about all things visual branding.
Tina provided some valuable insights any size business can use to influence how their brand shows up in the marketplace. Check out her tips then reach out to her for any projects that require her expertise.
What the heck is visual branding?
I know what you must be thinking. So many marketing terms, so little time. Why must you throw one more at us, Shari?
If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you already know I’m not a fan of jargon. All industries have unique lingo that drives the common folk mad. Since I’m all about providing useful information my readers can understand and apply to everyday situations, I avoid jargon like most people avoid meetings that could have been an email.
Visual branding – sometimes called visual identity – is simply the fancy way of describing how you build your brand’s presence through visual imagery. There are four key elements of visual branding:
Now that you know what visual branding is, let’s break down how to do it the right way with some handy tips from Tina.
Branding vs. visual identity: what’s the difference?
Sometimes marketing professionals use these terms interchangeably. That’s a big no-no and can be confusing for the uninitiated.
Branding and visual identity are two different things. Creating a strong, positive perception of a company’s products or services is branding. It includes communication strategies, brand archetypes, and values. Think of it as that one thing that sets your business apart from every other business out there.
Visual branding promotes consistency of your brand through visual elements like colors, fonts, images, and logos. Plating these visual clues in every piece of content produced helps customers quickly and easily identify it with your brand.
Here’s a simpler way to describe the difference between the two. If branding is the bridge to your ultimate customer, then think of visual branding as the paint for that bridge.
“Visual branding is really just an extension of branding,” said Wolfe. “It takes it one step further and lets you do so much more with your ultimate customer.”
How is a visual identity used?
Before you can create a visual identity, you must familiarize yourself with all the ways it can be used across different platforms. Among the most common places businesses use visual branding include:
How do brands create a visual identity?
When working with clients, Wolfe uses a questionnaire to help identify the core values that define all aspects of a business.
“How do you, as a company, want to show up in the world? What is the most important thing to your business? Is your business service-minded? All these things come into play when you’re looking at crafting both written messages and the visual around those messages to attract your ultimate customer,” Wolfe said. “It’s just such a simple thing. It tells your audience that you care about how you run your business because you’re putting that attention to detail in all aspects of your business.”
Identifying the ideal customer
She also takes her clients through the customer identification process. Some marketing professionals use what’s known as an ideal customer avatar. Wolfe said she dislikes using that terminology because customers are real people that are best served when businesses keep that in mind during the visual branding process.
Regardless of what you call it, the process is the same. It creates a deep dive into the person behind a brand’s ideal customer to identify all the characteristics that make someone an ideal customer.
“Who is your customer? Who are you serving? What’s important to them? Why do they want your product? Why do they need your product?” are some of the questions Wolfe said she asks her clients during the visual branding process. The answer to these questions helps Wolfe craft a visual representation of a client’s brand.
Problem-solving with visual branding
Visual branding works best when it solves a problem, Wolfe said. Coca-Cola is an example of a company that has nailed the problem-solving aspect of its visual identities. You can find the company’s logo, color palette, signature font and imagery in every piece of content it produces.
Moreover, Coca-Cola creates marketing campaigns that are pure visual identity genius, featuring their products as the solution to everyday problems.
Take this ad produced for the 2021 holiday season. It takes problem-solving to a whole new level. The ad is chock full of visual identity, including a Coca-Cola box that puts the finishing touch on a community effort featured in the ad.
“Every time you see the Coca-Cola symbol or a bear at Christmas time, you know that’s a Coca-Cola commercial,” Wolfe said. “You automatically identify it.”
What visual elements make a brand stand out online?
As previously mentioned, there are four key elements of visual branding. Let’s break each of them down and talk about their importance to a well-rounded visual identity.
Colors evoke emotional responses. Warm colors like red can represent anger or hostility, while cooler tones like blue and green promote feelings of calm and relaxation. Before you choose a color palette to represent your brand, you must decide what emotions you want to provoke in your target audience.
Once you decide on colors, you must be consistent with their use in all digital and printed materials for your brand. Logos, advertisements, and website banners must all incorporate your colors.
Most people choose one main color, then form the rest of the palette around it. You can do this by choosing darker or lighter shades of the same color or complementary colors.
Fonts and typography
Fonts and typography are important components of your visual identity. Any graphic designer worth their salt explains this to their clients before they create a logo or a banner for a website. Big, block lettering exudes stability and strength. Swirly scripts tend to denote elegance and tradition.
Headers should be distinguished from body copy in digital and print media. The key is to choose fonts and typography that bring a balanced look and feel to your brand.
Graphic design and imagery
Graphic design elements like icons, patterns, shapes, and textures can add dimension to your visual branding. They can be used on websites, social media platforms, and even printed marketing materials. Be sure to use your color palette and fonts and typography in any design elements for consistency.
Illustrations and photos are part of this category. Custom graphics and photos must represent your brand voice. Custom illustrations should use your color palette when possible. A well-placed logo within an illustration also is advisable.
When choosing photos, make sure the objects, people, and places within the photo communicate the right message. Marketing pros call this “on-brand” visual messaging. For instance, if you’re a travel agent focused on exotic locations, choosing imagery that clearly illustrates some of the cool places you can send your clients would be on brand.
Logos are arguably the most important visual branding item in your toolkit. All other elements should be shaped around your logo.
Wolfe said one of her first clients – a chamber of commerce – had a logo but nothing else. While the logo was recognizable by everyone in the community it served, most people couldn’t explain the purpose of the organization.
She took that logo and created a visual branding package around it by adding a color palette, fonts, a stylebook, and a visual branding guide for their logo. “Everything we put out was then consistent with their mission statement and brand. When people saw a billboard, they knew that it was the chamber of commerce. When people saw a flyer, it was designed in such a way that it was obvious that the chamber was behind it.”
How does visual branding enhance the customer experience?
Every company strives to build trust with its target audience. After all, loyal customers refer your products and services to others, helping to grow your base.
Some of the other ways visual identity improves the customer experience include:
Tools for creating your own visual branding
“Canva is a great tool for business owners with small budgets who want to incorporate visual branding,” said Wolfe. “When you’re a small business owner, you’re wearing all the hats. Canva can help with creating basic visuals for all your marketing campaigns.”
Businesses can choose between a Canva free or pro account. User-friendly tools like a drag-and-drop editor and access to more than a million free graphics and images can make visual branding affordable.
Another tool Wolfe recommends is Buffer for social media management. Like Canva, it has a basic free option, plus three other plans at increasing price ranges. Businesses can prepare and schedule social media posts consistent with their visual branding to maintain consistency. Use Canva to create the graphics, then schedule them in Buffer.
Need more help with visual branding? Reach out to Wolfe today to schedule a hassle-free consultation.
Dishonest. Sneaky. Unethical. Call it whatever you want, but the strategy remains the same. When businesses manipulate SEO practices to deceive consumers, they risk harming their reputations and customer base.
Unethical SEO practices extend far beyond Black Hat SEO techniques like keyword stuffing and paid backlinks. They are more duplicitous, often deliberately misdirecting consumers to websites or other digital content that have nothing to do with their user intent. These tactics blatantly violate search engine rules and best practices.
What is SEO?
SEO is short for Search Engine Optimization. Great, so what does that even mean? To make it simple for those outside the industry, SEO just means you’re engaging in certain strategies to make your digital content more visible to your target audience.
SEO keywords are one component of an overall solid SEO strategy. Using specialized software can help identify which SEO keywords you should be using for your brand. Long-tail keywords often correlate with questions consumers type into search engines when they’re looking to solve a problem.
For instance, if you wanted to know if it was safe to take Tylenol and Advil together, you might ask Google, “How much Tylenol and Advil can I take together?”
Why do businesses use bad SEO practices?
Bad SEO practice cuts corners and cheats the accepted code of conduct with one goal in mind: to achieve immediate ranking results.
Sometimes the purpose of bad SEO is even more nefarious. Some businesses use SEO keywords that have nothing to do with their industries to deceive consumers into thinking they’ve gone to a site that has what they need.
What are popular bad SEO strategies?
Like every industry, there are bad apples in SEO. They don’t want to take the time to organically rank well in search results. To do so requires content development, keyword research, and on-site optimization.
There are many bad SEO strategies companies can use to cheat the system. Here are two of the most deployed tactics.
Blackhat Google Ads
Google Ads is a marketing service that allows businesses to pay to boost their rankings in search results. When you pay to boost an ad about your business, it can appear in Google search, Google Maps and across all partner sites.
Google Ads clearly are marked as such; however, some consumers don’t notice or don’t understand the designation when they see it. They trust they’ve been directed to a reputable site with information relating to their search.
The problem is that Blackhat SEO practitioners use a technique called cloaking. It tricks crawling bots on search engines into promoting sites containing specific keywords. Users can find themselves on a website that has nothing to do with their original search query because the website used cloaking to trick Google into sending them there.
Clickbait titles are a perfect example of cloaking. A website may create an attractive headline about a specific topic to attract visitors. However, the content below the headline has nothing to do with the title.
Negative SEO campaigns
Negative SEO campaigns target competitors to tarnish their reputation and steal search engine rankings for important keywords. Sometimes this Blackhat SEO technique involves hijacking a website with questionable banner ads. Other times, it can be more complex and sophisticated. Here are a few other ways negative SEO campaigns work.
How do search engines spot bad SEO?
Search engines like Bing and Google have ways to spot when a web page is deceiving an end user. We already discussed cloaking, which is one of the most common forms of deception. If search engines catch you cloaking your site, they can penalize you. In Google’s case, its PageRank algorithm can downgrade or delist your site from its search engine.
Another way search engines discover bad SEO practices is through reports from end users. If you suspect clicking fraud, you can file a webspam report. Suspected negative SEO campaigns can be reported using the Disavow Links Tool.
Sometimes businesses unintentionally cloak their websites. For instance, they may be using alt text for images on pages that do not accurately describe the content on the page. Check your alt tags to make sure you’re not an accidental offender.
How can you spot deceptive SEO companies?
Deceptive SEO companies exist, and they entice businesses with promises of quick results. When asked about their methods, they may mention some of the following bad SEO practices.
Bolded text signifies to a search engine that the words are important for your readers. Maybe they answer a direct question. Maybe they are a critical SEO keyword. Using this technique isn’t bad unless you overuse it.
If your SEO provider is bolding entire paragraphs or multiple sentences throughout the copy, it can ruin the user experience. Write for people first and search engines second. It’s our mantra here at The Write Reflection® for good reason.
Complicated link schemes
Linking schemes come in many variations. Any SEO company that guarantees they can get you thousands of links back to your site in a few days is using deceptive SEO practices. Some companies have networks of blogs that exist for the sole purpose of supporting these complex plots.
Another devious SEO technique is hiding links in the code or footer of a website. They’re hidden because coders make them the same color as the website background so they’re not visible to the naked eye. They often are unrelated to the website on which they appear and can get you banned by Google in a hurry.