Much of the marketing collateral we find when trawling the web is, to be blunt, a bit crapand even big companies with massive marketing resources and experience aren’t immune to putting out the occasional piece of rubbish.

Clearly, no marketer or agency deliberately sets out to do a bad piece of work. So what’s the problem, and how can we as an industry make collateral better?

After years of producing documents of all shapes and sizes, we think there are basically four primary ingredients that every good piece includes. Because everyone in marketing loves a good mnemonic, we’ve called them the “4 Ss”.

1. Subject

In brief: Make sure you’ve got something to say so you have an answer when the reader asks “why am I here?”

Whether it’s a whitepaper on a hot topic or a brochure on a new product, every document needs to have an idea, a problem to solve, a perspective, a raison d’etre. Otherwise, why should the reader even pick it up in the first place? Who needs to read your whitepaper on cloud or big data when there are a million and one perfectly good papers on those topics already out there? Obviously, in the ‘real world’, marketing functions are often tasked to support particular products or themes with collateral even when there’s nothing obviously new to say on the topicso you may have to work hard to find the nugget of gold. Nobody said being in marketing was easy.

2. Structure

In brief: Make sure you tell a clear story that leads the reader through step by step.

Choosing a good subject is just the start. Every piece of collateral, whether it’s a 200-word email or a 60-page paper, needs to take its reader on a journey with a beginning, middle and end. The ideas should unfold naturally with the inexorable force of logic, and the document should reward the reader with clear signposting to show that they’re making progress toward an inevitable and clearly focused conclusion. Messy, repetitive, contradictory or simply unclear content is one of the biggest problems we find when browsing for collateralit frustrates, confuses and exhausts the reader.

3. Support

In brief: Back your statements up with evidence so the reader can believe what you’re saying.

Every idea you’re communicating needs to be credible and understandable to the reader. Remember that many readers don’t trust vendors and marketersyou have to win them over. So you can’t just make bold assertions about the problems that companies are facing, the trends ahead or the benefits that technology can bring to them without backing each statement up. There are three ways to make your collateral more credible: use case studies, quote respected authorities, and use statistics from primary research. Show your knowledge and that you’re serious about your topic.

4. Solution

In brief: Give clear recommendations for actions that the reader can take in response to what you’ve just told them.

It would be a terrible shame to lead a reader through a perfectly structured and credible brochure or paper with a fresh and unique perspective… only to have them drift away at the end, back into their day jobs. Think of all that wasted effort! If you’ve got something worth telling a reader, there should be something for them to do about it at the endwhether it’s buying a product or changing their behaviour. We recommend (hah) including recommendations throughout, and putting a clear call to action at the end.

Four more tips to complete the recipe

With all four Ss in place, your collateral will be well on its way to another S: success.

Of course, there are plenty of extra qualities that make the best documents stand out from the rest. We call them “friction reducers” because, while they’re not core to how the piece performs, they make everything just a little bit smoother.

We’ve got four recommendations:

  1. Make it look great: people judge on appearances all the time, and it’s much easier to read a document that is clear and professionally laid out with attractive images. So spend time on the visuals as well as the words. A good layout will show off the structure and call attention to the recommendations.
  2. Keep it short: if you’ve got 8 pages of material, don’t write a 32-page paper. Keep it short and your foundational idea and logical structure will shine throughand the reader will have enough energy left by the end to consider attempting the actions you set them.
  3. Make it conversational: when you use simple, direct, active, conversational language, you make life easier for your reader. They can forget about having to unravel tortured sentence structures or penetrate your jargon and instead just soak up what you’re telling them.
  4. Think about format: we’ve all abandoned slow-loading 50-page slideshows on the web and 10 MB PDF downloads when we’re on a mobile data connection. Have some consideration for how your readers are going to consume your content and make it easier for them. Relentlessly optimise file size.

Put all those guidelines into practice and you’ll have collateral to be proud of.

Posted by John on 26 June 2013