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INNOVATE

20 Years Ago, Newspapers Were Nailing It. Here Are 6 Lessons That Apply Perfectly to Social Media

“Stories tell, but headlines sell” among the decades-old news axioms that provide a modern day roadmap for small businesses looking to connect with new customers.

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BY Dan Breeden - 07 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's often amazing how resilient sage advice can be, and how readily it can translate from one generation to the next, and from one industry to another.

Fresh out of college and trying to make my way as a newspaper journalist in an era when it wasn't unusual to still see a typewriter or two on desks, I had journalism proverbs drummed into my head. They were often delivered by an editor yelling across the newsroom, and many still reverberate. And despite being decades old and sometimes based on different technologies, those lessons still apply in a digital age.

A number apply particularly well to small businesses looking to find new customers, communicate the value of their products and services, and make the most of email marketing and social media.

Here are three of my favorites:

Don't tell the reader what happened, tell them why it matters.

This phrase struck fear into the heart of every young journalist who thought they would be able to return from a city council meeting, write a quick story about what resolutions passed and failed, file their story and get home in time for dinner. But savvy editors knew that the value of the story was in explaining to the reader why the report mattered and how those resolutions would eventually affect their lives.

So instead of getting by with writing that the council approved a new shopping mall, the story needed to expand to explain that it would result in a hundred new jobs, would increase in traffic on adjacent streets and would swell the city coffers with new local tax dollars.

The same advice holds true for product marketing. Unless you're selling something that your audience is already using and are competing solely on price, just stating the features of the product is unlikely to get much attention. You need to go a level deeper to translate features into benefits, and explain how those will solve a problem, improve a process or add some pleasure or joy to the buyer's life.

If you're in the business of installing smart home technology, don't base your marketing on your ability to connect audio, video, lighting, thermostat and security systems. That would be just telling the prospective customer what you do. Instead, focus on the comfort and convenience they'll enjoy, the safety they and their family will feel, and the energy savings they'll receive. Then you're making it personal, and telling them why it matters.

Stories tell, but headlines sell.

Transitioning from reporter to editor, you quickly learned that news stories were read by people who had already bought the newspapers, but headlines were read by people who still had two quarters in their pockets and were debating whether to drop them into your news rack.

The "headlines sell" axiom is one that is probably even more applicable and actionable in the digital age than it was when it applied solely to paper and ink. It can be equally applied to email and social marketing, website design, and blogging. No one looks at their list of incoming emails, sees a boring subject line and opens it to see if perhaps the body of the email is more interesting. Similarly, if you write a blog post about your product and are lucky enough to have that post appear in online search results, it's the headline will likely be the first words the searcher sees. If it's not what they want and not compelling, they'll move on.

Creating great headlines is both an art and a science, and guidance that works in one format may not apply in another. But trying different approaches and measuring your results is one way to hone in on what works best for you and your customers and will ultimately improve your ability to write headlines that sell.

There's no such thing as 'yesterday's news.'

On the surface, this referenced the notion that "yesterday's news" is inherently an oxymoron. But typically it was uttered to the perfectionist writer who was forever stalling on filing a story so they could get one more interview or check one last quote. Getting the story perfect is admirable, but little consolation if you watch it on the competing television station the night before you go to press.

If you own a small business, avoiding yesterday's news means doing everything you can to innovate in the products and services you bring to the market. Whether you're building pizzas or mobile technology, moving fast and being willing to learn from mistakes and correct on the fly will help you win new customers and differentiate yourself from the competition.

In the tech world, this is known as shipping the 'minimum viable product," with the intent that you will continue to make improvements as time allows and demand grows. For a small town restaurant, this might be simply recognizing a food trend, incorporating it into your menu as a "special" and getting customer feedback on whether it's worth additional research and development. Getting on the front edge of trends, regardless of your industry, can put you ahead of the "news cycle" and help you write your own business success story.

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