An Assignment Idea: Advising the Safe Use of–or Forbidding–Ear Buds

ipod-dark-photo-files-9-1242761I’ve been struck this fall, more than ever, by how pervasive ear buds are on campus and how oblivious many students are when wearing them. I’ve seen students step out into oncoming emergency vehicles, fail to see cars that are turning into them, and otherwise jeopardize themselves and others because of their inability to hear (and, sometimes, see—since, often, they’re looking at their phones as well).

I figure we can turn this situation into a teaching moment! Here are a couple of ideas for assignments built around the issue.

  • Have students, perhaps in groups, research the dangers of earbuds (and ear buds + cell phones) to find compelling data they could use in a safety message to students at their school. Then have them write that message. Have them discuss and choose whom the message should come from: head of safety and security, president of the student body, head of student affairs, the university president? The challenge of this assignment is that your students are probably not inclined to read or heed a message like this themselves. But that’s the beauty of it, too: They’re in a perfect position to figure out what it would take to overcome their readers’ likely objections. Tell them that when they’ve found data/arguments that would persuade them to change their own behavior, they’re onto something.
  • I found, with a little bit of Internet searching, that some workplaces forbid the use of earbuds on the job. Have your students, perhaps in groups, research this issue to find out why. Then create, or have them create, a scenario in which, playing some role in the company, they need to write the employees to state and defend the company’s ear-bud policy.

Either of these assignments will involve conducting research, evaluating evidence, persuading a reluctant audience, and writing clear guidelines. You can have great discussions around all these facets of the task. Let’s hope it also results in safer behavior on the part of our students! (How cool would it be to send the message to the director of campus safety and figure out a way to have it actually sent out? It could happen!)

If you’ve got an idea for a good informative or persuasive message assignment to use this fall, please share it!

A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from Jack@anyandalltextbooks.com (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,
Jack

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

(Arguably) The Fastest-Growing Genre in Business Communication: Content Marketing

If you flip through the journals and books in our field, you’ll find hardly a mention of it. But suddenly (it seems), it’s all over the place. It’s content marketing.

What is content marketing? The label doesn’t seem to indicate anything new. Don’t we always sell by using content?

The answer is yes—but content marketing differs from sales writing in that it gives potential customers free useful content to drive them to the actual site of the sale. In the words of the Content Marketing Institute, “Content marketing is the marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

An article in Forbes clarifies the concept with these examples:

  • Preparing an infographic on a hot industry topic and sharing it via blog post or Pinterest.
  • Posting a Web article on how to do something that your company is very good at (e.g., getting customers to subscribe to a company’s e-newsletter).
  • Uploading a podcast to iTunes that reflects on a topic your target audience cares about (and your company’s product/service can help them with).
  • Uploading a video to YouTube that does the same.
  • Selling a book that establishes your expertise in an area and drives readers to your company.

A content-marketing message resembles a white paper in that, typically using research, it explores a common problem for which the authoring company’s product is the solution. The difference lies largely in the format/channel. A white paper is a report in document format, whereas content marketing exploits all forms of media.

When preparing your fall syllabus, consider incorporating content marketing into your unit on persuasion. You could have your students, or groups of students, . . .

  • Prepare a report for a boss or client on how companies are using content marketing (or prepare a proposal for a company to get into content marketing).
  • Write a content-marketing blog post for a real or hypothetical company.
  • Summarize the key points of selected sources on content marketing, such as one of these five TED talks or articles on Copyblogger.com, the granddaddy of the content-marketing sites.
  • Create a social-media strategy for a company that includes one or more content-marketing channels.
  • Analyze the ways content marketers build interest and authority (students could choose a content-marketing expert to follow here).

If you add a content-marketing assignment to your syllabus, let us know how it turns out!

End-of-the-School-Year Resource Roundup

Yes, indeed, the end of another school year has arrived, and I am already thinking ahead to the next academic year. In planning ahead, I’ve also reflected on the past year and realized I have gathered a LOT of online resources related to business communication. I’m guessing many of you are like me in that you never really leave the classroom and are always thinking about the next semester, class, or lesson.

The articles below appeared in the news feed generated by my Zite app, and I then saved them to Pocket. (Zite and Pocket, by the way, are probably my two favorite apps.) You can also find more resources by following me on Twitter (@pjglentz) or viewing my teaching board on Pinterest. If you have any “must have” resources you’d like to share with us, please do!

Corporate Culture

Design & Typography

Email

Employment

Grammar

Interviews

Leadership & Teamwork

Persuasion

Presentations & Oral Communication

Research

 Rhetoric

 Technology & Communication

 

Should We Keep Teaching the Sales Letter? Absolutely!

Somehow I got on the email distribution list for TMR Direct, a company that specializes in direct-mail services. I’m glad I did, because they keep track of direct-mail trends and have a ton of research to back up their stats and recommendations.

With so much emphasis placed on e-marketing media—email, twitter, Facebook—you might think that direct mail is all but dead.

Au contraire! According to TMR, direct mail has a greater response rate than email, and people are far more likely to donate to nonprofits in response to a mailed rather than an emailed solicitation. Plus, in a sea of electronic messages, direct mail messages stand out, especially for the younger crowd (in fact, according to statistics gathered by ProfitFuzion.com, young people were the most likely demographic to respond to a direct mail piece in 2012).

So sales letters are still a worthwhile assignment for bcomm classes, and you can find good coaching tips on the TMR website. For example, . . .

–The latest TMR email I received was titled “Should Your Direct Mail Scream?” The article had good advice to share with your students when they’re trying to craft an appropriate attention-getter.

–“A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Customers” talks about the importance of giving your direct mail visual appeal—while also pointing out that the most important factor for success is the right distribution list, not words or pictures.

–One article gives “6 reasons Your Direct Marketing Strategy Should Include Coupons.” Until now, it never occurred to me to suggest that my students make coupons part of their sales messages. But in many cases, they should.

You can also download free whitepapers from TMR, such as Best Direct Mail Practices in an Evolving Marketplace, to learn about the role that direct mail can play in today’s multimedia marketing campaigns.

The sales letter has always been a popular assignment with my students, and I’m glad to have solid evidence that this is still an important genre in business writing. A well-designed sales-letter assignment can help students think through not only their verbal and visual choices but also how the message will function in relation to other media in an integrated sales effort.

So as you’re planning your fall courses, don’t feel shy about including the time-honored sales letter. Just be sure you have your students think about its new role and purpose in the e-media marketplace.

Classroom Talking Point: Too Cold for Persuasion?

Take one look at a weather map and you know winter is at its harshest in much of the country. If you are like me and live in the upper Midwest, phrases such as “polar vortex” have become part of your vernacular, and you spend much of your day putting on layers of clothing in a sad, futile attempt to make the -40 temperatures seem not so bad. In the spirit of all things winter, this week’s blog offers a classroom talking point on one university’s message regarding its decision to hold classes on a day when the high temperature was 15 degrees below zero (30 to 40 below with the windchill).

The message was posted on the university’s “Announcements” blog and linked to on the university’s Facebook page. While some took the message in stride, others (judging by their comments) did not appear persuaded that keeping the school open was a good decision. The text of the message appears below.

My thought is that this message would make a great talking point for a class discussion on persuasive writing.

  • What rhetorical devices does the writer use to justify the university’s decision to hold classes?
  • Are they effective in persuading the reader that the decision was a good one?
  • What, if anything, could the writer do to improve this message?
  • Does the writer follow what we discuss in class regarding the organization of a persuasive message: gaining attention, building the case, minimizing any possible flaws in the argument, and ending with an action item?
  • Some readers appeared so angry about the decision to remain open that they may not have been able to objectively consider the writer’s reasoning. How might business writers account for readers’ emotional reactions to persuasive messages?

Enjoy!

The Message

SUBJECT: Classes to be held as scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 28

The university is open and classes will be held as scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

There have been a number of inquiries about why the university is open and holding classes as scheduled despite sub-zero temperatures.

The university rarely, if ever closes. A number of criteria are considered when deciding whether to hold classes, delay the start of classes, or cancel select classes.

Those criteria include, but are not limited to, excessive snowfall and/or drifting, icy conditions, temperature, wind chill, visibility and condition of sidewalks and roadways both on campus and in the community. The university makes the decision based on actual real-time weather conditions, not what the forecast is predicting the day before.

Naturally, one of the most important considerations is safety of students, faculty and staff. If the conditions are deemed obviously unsafe for travel to and from the university, and to and from facilities on campus, classes are canceled or delayed. This can be a subjective judgment—but it is based on the best information available at the time the decision is made.

The university recognizes that some individuals have specific medical or physical conditions that prevent them from being able to venture out into the cold, or may have a lengthy commute to campus that may not be safe to undertake because of weather conditions where they live. That is why students, faculty and staff are instructed to exercise their best judgment in deciding whether to attend classes or report for work.

Chief Marketer and MailChimp: Two Good Resources for Learning about Email Marketing

I recently received an email article from Chief Marketer entitled “Crafting an Irresistible Email Subject Line.” The advice is helpful, so I thought I’d pass it on to you here.

 But the more I clicked on the links in the article, the more I realized that there’s much more to Chief Marketer than an occasional interesting email. In addition to offering advice about writing compelling email messages, they offer great information about the use of technology to conduct effective email, Web, social, and mobile campaigns. Through extensive research, they’ve gathered statistics about consumer behavior regarding each medium and developed marketing strategies based on that behavior. If you or your students have been wanting to go behind the scenes and see how the pros design electronic messages to sell through different channels, this site is for you.

As I was exploring this resource, one thing led to another, as Web clicking always does, and I came across a second site that is just as good: the Resources page of MailChimp, an email-campaign platform/service. Once you sign in for free, you can access some excellent material, such as their guide to conducting mobile-friendly campaigns, their mobile-friendly templates, their “Email Marketing Benchmarks by Industry” report, and their “Subject Line Comparison,” which examined the open rates of 40 million emails and compared the subject lines of the best and worst performers.

Did you know that most smartphone users check their mail first thing in the morning, even before getting out of bed? Many uses their phones as an alarm clock, so when they turn off the alarm, they also go take a look at their messages. The lesson: No garish colors in your mobile messages! This is the kind of interesting factoid you can find on these sites.

Not many of our students are likely to become email promotions specialists. But it can’t be a bad thing to understand how such professionals work, and some of their findings have implications for email that ordinary businesspeople write. And wouldn’t it be cool to have students prepare an informational report on current trends in email marketing, or a recommendation report on whether to contract the services of a provider like MailChimp, or two different email messages, one optimized for PC viewing and one for viewing on a mobile device? I don’t quite know enough yet to design such an assignment, but I’m working on it  . . . .