Insights (archive)



July 11, 2016

April 7, 2016 went by without me even noticing that I've been in business for a full calendar year now. I would say that's a good sign. But enough with the fake triumphalism - a year is nothing. Here's a quick overview of the things I think I did right, and the areas that are still up for improvement:

What I did right

Controversially, I stand by my decision not to pollute the social media airwaves with my business persona. Perhaps I had the luxury of already having had over seven years of experience, and a decent network to begin with. I think beginning to reject some types of work was also the right call, not because I didn't feel challenged, but because I knew I would have been unable to deliver quality. Crucially, about 75% of my customers have been satisfied and/or have done repeat business with me.

What I did wrong

Before I learned to say no, I said yes two times too many, with disastrous results that satisfied no party in the end. I also overestimated the fields of content I would be good at - my main expertises are still technology, finance and culture/history. The pragmatic rigours of the necessary but turgid manual and grunt writing are not my forte.


APRIL 9, 2016

Everyone knows that a good briefing is important for a project's first steps to be successful, but frequently, people overlook the debrief. After a project has been launched, colleagues rarely sit down to discuss their workflow, what they could do better next time or where things went well. Yet, it's the number one way to eliminate preventable mistakes and to make sure everyone is still on the same page.

So how do we do debriefing well? By going over the steps of the project and identifying the points where things didn't go as planned. Then, by listing actions for everyone to take and to come back to before a new project starts. Key here is that the team leader or project manager takes this responsibility seriously - I've seen debriefings reduced to worthlessness simply because the project manager did nothing with the information offered. It's not just about sitting down and having a cup of coffee together, but about improving the quality of your projects.


February 26, 2016

I'm faintly surprised by the fact that cold calls still exist. I suppose this means that somewhere, somehow, they are still a viable route to profit. While it's hard not to feel a twang of pity for the poor sods who can't do get any other job, some cold callers are nasty pieces of work and they make my blood curdle. Has anyone actually ever had a positive experience with a cold call? And why do companies still invest in them when other low-level ways of contacting people are much cheaper? Ah, the mysteries of life.

Response times

nOVEMBER 23, 2015

This doesn't have a lot to do with content creation, but it does set you up for success within and without the company: reply to e-mail quickly unless you have a good reason not to do so. I know many time management experts actually recommend just taking two or three moments a day to answer your e-mail to avoid continually getting distracted, but that highly depends on what you're doing and what your job is. In marketing and communication, sure, you'll need time every now and then to devote to a project uninterrupted. But the bulk of our job consists of minute tasks, small adjustments and responding to questions that don't require a multi-parapgraph response. Responding quickly lets people know you're available, you're there and that they are important to you. Since marketing people often live or die by the grace of perception, don't neglect this.



OCTOBER 8, 2015

Time for a lesser sort of first: I recently disappointed a customer for the first time. I hated doing that, but of course I had to analyse where I went wrong - as well as what I did right to handle the aftermath.

Where did I go wrong? I fell into the beartrap (pun not intended) of greedily accepting a job that would net me a hefty sum while I knew time was at a premium and the type of task wasn't one I was traditionally good at. What did I do right? I resisted the impulse to argue with the customer on points where their criticism crossed over into the irrational. I offered my apologies, slashed my rates by 50% and thanked them for their honesty.


been a while!


Summer happened and I was busy working on a couple of projects, so I couldn't offer any more of my probably sorely-missed professional wisdom. Irony and sarcasm are not always easy to do online. While I'm on the topic, in commercial copy, it almost always falls completely flat on its face. There are two main reasons for it: people either don't have the skills to properly understand irony (and you're trying to reach out as broadly as possible) or you're just not funny enough to pull it off in a creative way. Nobody likes a dullard, but to stumble in an attempt to be funny is possibly even worse.



June 4, 2015

While I don't believe customers will automatically flock to you if the thing you're offering is good, I do believe the days of awful, obnoxious and fake personable marketing are over. As a consumer myself, the type of marketing that works best for me is the type that does what it says on the tin, in line with the early-capitalist marketing charms like "Coffee is good for you". Strip away some of its clumsiness, and you get to the heart of what makes a service good, interesting and worthwhile. A second dimension to stop being obnoxious is to respect people's privacy. You may not want to be the company nobody's ever heard of, but being a known quantity with a shitty reputation is even worse, and that kind of stain is hard to remove.



MAY 17, 2015

My parents are wonderful people. Because they knew I was excited to start my business on the side, a little trinket caught their eye when they were scouring a local market: porcelain statuettes of polar bears (edit: also pictured on top of this page now)! While I've long outgrown the stadium in my life I need their financial support to feed and clothe myself, they have nevertheless made me into the person I am today. So thanks, mum and dad!



April 27, 2015

A blank page can be quite confronting, but an error worse than too little content, is too much content. This makes readers less willing to engage with what you have to say. Here's a hint: when you read you work again, try to remove as many words as you can that don't add meaning. In addition, words like "really", "very", "namely", "some" and their friends introduce vagueness where you don't need it.

You can also cut down on bloat by simplifying grammatical constructions, making your sentences active and using common alternatives for complicated words. This way, a sentence like "A state-of-the-art technology platform has been developed to ensure that companies can remain compliant with really quick, successive iterations of European directives" can become "We offer a platform that ensures you are compliant with European directives today and tomorrow."



APRIL 9, 2015

A lot of communication I read seems to assume the average reader has an IQ lower than the number of American presidents. Marketing execs achieve this feat either by talking down to the audience in snooze-inducing listicles, or by talking up their own smarts so much you'd believe that the product they're shilling is the product of pure rocket science.

Think of how you would like to be addressed. Do you enjoy the glib salesman tactic or the authoritarian professor type? I bet you don't. Be relatable, be clear, be nice. Sometimes it's not any more difficult than that.


APRIL 12, 2015

The target audience you're writing for can be different from your internal stakeholders. Balancing the two can be difficult. However, you can't convince your audience (who usually have no prior sympathy with you) to think like your stakeholders. You can try to make your stakeholders sympathize with your audience.


sEPTEMBER 2, 2016

Outbond, content or story marketing, call it what you will. It's not new, despite the hype in recent years. And it's a bit pompous. I recall sitting through one of my very first meetings in a corporate marketing context and inwardly rolling my eyes when the senior graphic designer worried about "telling our story", as if selling display equipment was a novel with characters, tension and psychological depth. But there's a kernel of truth here. Civilization is a collection of stories we tell ourselves and each other - for hunter-gatherers, they are the means of knowledge transmission, and for humans of the modern era, they remain powerful frames of reference to make sense of the world. In a way, for instance, the Bible and especially the New Testament are a marketing vehicle for the messages Jesus Christ was trying to get across (well, or Saul's, but that's another story). Some stories "market" only what the reader wants them to market, like 'The Lord of the Rings', which J.R.R. Tolkien always insisted had no hidden meaning. Not to him, at least.

In marketing, there isn't much story to "hey, buy this vacuum cleaner, it's good stuff". And that's fine. Not everything has to come with some sheen of faux-wisdom or how this and that was made with love. But it's true that the best-remembered marketing or branding campaigns have a story element to them (a "storeme"?). Lego could even afford to build an entire feature movie out of it. Apple, for its part, relied on the twin stories of Steve Jobs and its own rise from disgrace. Coca Cola claims ownership of the Santa Claus myth, plugging itself into the winter holiday cheer. So if you were to market what you do, what's your story? How does it unfold?


MAY 15, 2016

So, most of my daytime work is devoted to working for another company, as some of you may or may not know. I decided it's time to show off! These two animations, one about PDF in general, another one about the middleware used to power PDF engines, are in part the result of my work. What do you think? I think it's pretty neat, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Do you understand what they're trying to convey? Each is only a minute long.


MARCH 11, 2016

Some people labour under the idea that to be taken seriously, you must speak seriously and use serious words. In most cases, this translates into a corporate writing style, and in most cases, the end result is pretty awful. Even Microsoft, possibly one of the most corporate empires there is, uses lean language these days. In addition, I've seen companies wanting to jump on the story marketing bandwagon, but they come aboard with their corporate suits and ties, making an absurd impression of someone desperately trying to be hip while looking square as shit. Story marketing and telling stories in general are great tools, but you've got to ditch the corporate mindset first.

Is marketo the sap of marketing?

January 9, 2016

I always used to make fun of SAP, how they're basically a company whose marketing runs on making potential customers scared ("if you don't use SAP, the sky will fall!") and then creates systems that are so hideously complex customers are basically beholden to SAP for eternity.

Marketo could be similar. I don't like it. It was ostensibly designed by engineers and not by usability experts, and while you can use it as a pretty powerful tool to segment contacts, run campaigns and compose basic HTML and form pages, I have a keen sense that marketeers are just using it because there isn't anything more user-friendly currently on the market. Of course, once you master Marketo, you also have the added bonus of showing off that you've tamed the beast. But that's not what good marketing is really about, is it?

NON-Denominational holidays

december 17, 2015

Here's a conundrum every company has faced at one point: around Christmas time, do you wish your customers Merry Christmas, or do you go with the slightly more bland but politically correct Happy Holidays (some play it even more safe by turning it into Season's Greetings)?

1. People who take offense at being wished Merry Christmas may not be the people you'd like as colleagues or customers in the first place (caveat: the reverse is true if the majority of your contacts isn't from a Christian country).

2. Being inoffensive is a paltry achievement. How about being inclusive and referring to some other traditions? Instead of sticking with Christmas only, consider also letting people know you think about them as they celebrate holidays important to their culture, such as Eid or Chinese New Year.



OCTOBER 14, 2015

Turns out people are best at the things they love the most (usually). This is a lighter collorary to my previous entry, 'Fucking it up'. While I'm a generalist with a few odd areas of expertise, I find that both customers and me are pleased the most when I work on what I do best and love the most. And that's something with a story at its heart. A slogan, a folder of an ambitious company or a little blurb for a book: something that can be made compelling by using one of the oldest techniques available to human beings. It's no surprise that preliterate cultures teach and exchange knowledge through the ritual of story. This continues to hold true today, albeit in changed forms. We just can't stop being human.




Many people don't enjoy reading fiction. Many people do. But if you're a language professional and you don't read any fiction at all, I'd wager something is wrong with how you approach your job. Most bad commercial prose I've seen comes from minds who haven't read enough to avoid the dull or the overly florid copy that is, sadly, still all too frequent in this world.


why eisBär is not on facebook

june 30, 2015

I have an individual page and my fiction writing alter ego has a page, too. But I'm not making a page for Eisbär, although that seems par for the course for many start-up solo flyers. The reason I'm not doing it is because I don't see the added value. It's one of those things that you feel you should have to be considered a worldly entrepreneur, but doesn't actually do much. In addition, considering my last topic ("Being obnoxious") the cost of annoying my Facebook friends doesn't offset potential customer gains for me.



MAY 6, 2015

When translating, there are often issues beyond vocabulary or grammar. Idiom is notoriously hard to translate, and so are culture-specific words or expressions. The more poetic the language is, the harder it is to translate. Conflicts can arise between the letter and the spirit of the original text, leaving you with three major options:

  1. Don't translate. A lot of English technology and business jargon, for instance, is better left untranslated into Dutch. I once knew someone who consistently used "hersentumult" for "brainstorm". That just comes off pedantic. It's not just limited to English - German auto company Volkswagen got famous for leaving "Fahrvergnügen" ("the joy of driving") untranslated in its American campaigns.

  2. Leave the spirit, not the letter. Generally, this is the option I prefer because it leaves the heart of the message intact without twisting the target language into an ugly mess.

  3. Leave the letter, not the spirit. Except for some legal and political copy where the letters actually matter a great deal, I can think of no excuse to use this method. Can you?



APRIL 20, 2015

No matter how ugly a website is, how odd the product design or how stilted marketing efforts are, if a company and what it delivers is something customers believe in, marketing is merely the extra gold dust sprinkling. Does marketing even make a difference at all, then? It does: a solid branding campaign can go a long way to rope in new customers and attract attention to your credibility. But the reverse is also true. A marketing campaign that's a work of genius will end up dead in the water if the company behind it is running a scam or if it is selling hot air.


MARCH 29, 2015

While scouring social media and looking at various websites that ultimately have in mind to relieve me of my hard-earned money, I've noticed that I'm automatically friendlier to brands that hire visible faces to promote their stuff. In the drive for authenticity, nothing seems to beat real humans. I know I'd be more willing to listen to a curmudgeonly "Andy from Close Shave Inc." than interact with a slick, automated contact form system.


Eisbär Communications, HR 0885.342.457