Writing Captions

The Frank Gehry-designed bandshell in Chicago's Millennium Park provides an exciting visual anchor to the end of East Washington Street. Without this caption, however, you might not have recognized the view nor known what I felt about it. (©Michael Chusid 2011)
Writing captions for a magazine article or internet posting is an art. Here are some guidelines: 

Captions Sell the Article: The typical magazine reader flip through an issue to see what captures the eye. If a photo or illustration captures attention, the viewer is then likely to read the caption. If the caption conveys useful or intriguing information, the reader may decide to read the rest of article. 

Captions Summarize Article: Use illustrations and captions to summarize the article. That way, the reader gets useful information -- and you get your point across -- even if the reader does not read the body of the article.

Tell a Story with Captions: A caption should do more than just identify the content of an image. It has the opportunity to tell a story. Even a short caption can explain who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Caption Stands Alone: To the extent practical, a caption should be able to stand alone so the meaning of the photo is understood even before someone reads the article. This means, for example, that abbreviations and jargon should avoided in the caption, or at least succinctly explained.

Search Engines Like Captions: When writing for the internet, captions help search engines find your illustrations.

Editors like Captions: Editors hold the key to getting your message out. So anything you can do to make the editor's job easier will help you get exposure. I found this to be the case when Carolyn Schierhorn, the former editor of Masonry Construction, expressed her appreciation for an article I contributed: “It was a pleasure to receive an article so well-organized and mechanically flawless that almost no editing was required. That you included detailed, beautifully written captions as well is nothing short of miraculous.”

Finally, remember to include copyright notices and other identifying information required for use of the photo or artwork.

Does uncertainty sell?

Part of the benefit of expertise, says conventional wisdom, is certainty in the answers it produces. Complete factual accuracy, combined with a total absence of doubt. In fact, that is one of the defining characteristics of expertise, and a part that most sales reps strive to project when asserting their own expertise.

Recent research by Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala suggests a different possibility. In his study, experts that showed uncertainty were found to be more persuasive, while non-experts benefited more from certainty. These findings could have significant implications for companies building a digital marketing program, both in terms of the content you create and user generated content.

The finding that experts should show uncertainty to be persuasive is, at first glance, very counter-intuitive. We go to experts for their certainty, and so we can feel certain ourselves. Looking at it more deeply, though, it might not be so surprising.

First, remember that many questions asked of experts are not purely factual. This means there is no objective "right answer"; there are conditionally-correct answers, and deductive chains based on particular assumptions, but very few absolutes. Especially since so much in construction depends on the project's specific goals. Which is more important: durability, sustainability, functionality, or cost? When purely factual questions do arise, certainty is a benefit. What's your product's R value? Can I get it in red?

For more complex answers, however, expressing some doubt or reservation strengthens your position because it shows you understand how complex the issue is. In fact, Professor Tormala also found that changing your answers later could also improve persuasiveness. (I've been thinking about what I said last time, and upon further reflection...)

He postulates this is because of the surprise factor. We expect experts to display certainty; when they do not, potentially calling their expertise into question, it is notable so we pay more attention to what they say. I suspect this is a large part of it, but also think it helps the audience relate to the expert by making them more approachable, and less of a distant, perfect theorist.

Conversely, non-experts benefit from displaying certainty. This is important to remember if you are developing a Facebook page, forum, blog comment area, or similar interactive site. Look for the users that seem certain your product is the best, and are certain about why. Promote them; nurture the relationship, invite them to do guest posts, get them to work your trade show booth, and help the rest of your clients feel as certain as they are.

18 Hidden Rules for Trade Shows

Skyline posted a list of "18 Hidden Rules for Trade Shows" on their blog. The list is great for two reasons.

First, it's a great example of posting content useful to your customers to encourage a sale. Skyline is a trade show exhibit manufacturer; this list encourages prospects to visit their site, helps them make better displays, and increases the likelihood readers will buy their future displays from Skyline.

Second, the list has some good tips. I've reposted some of the best points below with my commentary; read the article for the full list.

1. The more words you put on your trade show display, the fewer times they will be read.

Very true. The display should be mostly graphic with simple, easy-to-read text. People should want to take your literature, or talk to you, to get more information.

2. The larger the crowd of people already in your booth, the more other people will want to visit your booth.

My only caveat to this is at some point the booth becomes overcrowded, and people decide they're better off coming back later when the crowd is gone and someone is available to speak to them. Frequently, they never come back. To prevent this, be sure your booth is big enough for your anticipated crowd, and optimize your use of floor space to maximize available space.

4. The more fun trade show attendees have in your booth during the show, the more serious business you will do after the show.

I have mixed feelings about this. I would say that the more fun attendees have, the more likely they are to remember you when you call afterwards. I would also say that for many manufacturers, "information" is as important to your target audience as "fun".

6. Your best booth staffers are usually the ones who talk the least and listen the most.

Amen. It's amazing how many booth workers talk so much that attendees never have a chance to ask to make an order!

8. The colors of your trade show display will likely be determined by: 1. your brand colors, or 2. the latest design trends or 3. your company president’s spouse.

Question: which of these do you think is the best method of selecting colors?

10. The greater the distance a visitor has traveled to attend a trade show, the higher the level of hospitality you should provide.

My only problem with this philosophy is the implication that it's ok to be less hospitable to in-town attendees.

13. The more years you exhibit at the same show, the more you will have repeat customers visit you in your booth.

Yes, but weigh the value of this repeat business against the overall value of the show. If only three people visit your booth this year, seeing the same three people again next year probably won't help you much.

18. The faster you follow up your trade show leads, the greater the sales you will generate from that show.

Absolutely. It's a common problem; people come home from a trade show with a suitcase full of business cards, and honest intentions to call them all right away. Three months later, they've turned into a pile of cold leads on your desk. People you meet at trade shows should receive some form of contact from you the week after the show; this is a great way to introduce a social media element by sending them your e-newsletter, and follow-up with more personal contact within the month.

What other "hidden rules" have you found for trade shows?

Signs of Change: "Shocking" Text Message Habits

New research from Nielsen shows that while teens 13-17 are still the most frequent texters, college students (18-24) are averaging 3 texts per hour. The "shocking" part is that they do this during classes.

I know, right? College students not paying attention to a lecture; who could have known? 

What does this mean to you?

The simple message is that 78% of your next generation of customers use text messages, and a growing number of them consider texting easier and faster than voice calls.
The advantage of giving out your cell phone number is it offers flexibility for clients to call or text you, but have you ever invited a client or prospect to text you with their questions? Have you ever responded via text?

In the business environment it is tempting to split immediate customer communications into voice or email, but consider that something you could respond to with a one-line email could probably be handled as well via text message. Is there an advantage to doing so? Maybe; it's one step easier for me to read a text message than an email on my phone; however, if it's your client's preferred method of communication, that becomes a huge advantage. 

Not everyone has text messages in their cellular plans, or feels comfortable using them, so I would ask before assuming you can communicate with a client this way. Make a note of their preference in your contact database, and start experimenting with using this communication medium to develop your comfort using it in a business environment. 

And please, resist the urge to use Twitter-speak in any of your business communications. I know there's a limited character count, but it just looks silly.

[h/t ReadWriteWeb]

What's this [h/t] thing under my post?

You may have noticed a bracketed [h/t ] link at the bottom of some of my posts. A colleague asked me last week what it means, and I thought I should share the answer here.

In brief, h/t stands for "Hat Tip", as in "A tip of the hat to...". It is used on blogs to indicate, thank, and send traffic to the source you learned about a story from. For example, I learned about Autodesk's Project Bluestreak from BD+C's Building 360 blog, so if I wrote a post about it I would link directly to Autodesk's site in the body of the post and include a link to BD+C's post at the bottom of the page like this: [h/t Building 360]

Why do this?  Two main reasons:

  1. It's good netiquette. Someone wrote an article good enough and informative enough that you made use of them; give them credit.
  2. Cross-linking improves SEO. Linking to someone's blog improves the likelihood they will link back to you; search engines like this.
Ok, so that's why I want to give someone credit; why bother linking to the original source then? 

I recommend linking to the original source wherever possible. It's more authoritative, and reduces the number of clicks your readers need to make. Plus, the original source will probably be available longer than the articles linking to it, reducing the risk of dead links on your blog. It also improves the variety of sources you cite. Again, this improves your SEO by connecting you to more corners of the web.

Some people link to the blog's homepage; some link directly to the post they are referencing. I do not think it matters which way you go; the important part, in the spirit of last week's holiday, is that you give thanks.

Cost to Correct Errors in Construction Documents

This graph illustrates that the cost of correcting defects in design and specifications can quickly escalate if not mitigated early in a project.

For building product manufacturers, this suggests the benefits of having a proactive sales force during a project's design phase, and of reviewing bidding documents carefully prior to entering into a contract. If you can help an architect, engineer, or other specifier to use your product correctly during the design phase, there will be less economic risk during construction.

Graph is from "Using Spec Writers Properly" by Derek B. McCowan, PE in the June 2010 issue of Consulting-Specifying Engineer.

What Your Email Address Says About You

Are you still using your original AOL or Hotmail email address? The editors at Lifehacker have some compelling reasons why you might want to change it.

One of the most important points raised for companies evaluating their online presence:
More concerning than people using inappropriate emails handles on their resumes? Businesses that don't have their own domain and personalized email. or were huge turn offs to readers and many expressed that they would question the professionalism of a company with such an unpolished image and do business elsewhere.
Read the article with a grain of salt; Lifehacker is a site for tech enthusiasts, and most of the respondents to their survey work in IT or for high tech companies. This may not be as vital an issue for us in the construction industry but it is still important to consider, especially if your market includes tech savvy or design sensitive audiences.

Decision-Ready Information

What information do you bring to a meeting? Does it help drive design and construction decisions?

I heard architect Scott Simpson speak several years ago, and he described a concept that has stuck with me ever since. He was speaking on HyperTracking, which The Stubbins Associates (now KlingStubbins) called a team structure we now call Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). The concept is key for this collaborative project approach, but its importance is more universal. The phrase that stuck with me was “decision-ready information”. Decision-ready information consists of the key facts required for a meaningful, final decision about a subject to be decided.

In an IPD project, major decision-makers are expected to attend every meeting, so that decisions made in the meeting have meaningful buy-in and closure. These meetings can be intense, not to mention very expensive. It’s the responsibility, therefore, of each team member to bring decision-ready information for the decisions on the agenda. If the owner, lead design professional, and contractor are all present and ready to make a decision between two systems, and no one has brought a cost comparison of the two systems in contention, the decision can’t be closed until the information can be found. Team members all have to do their homework, before the meeting, so that the meeting is effective and the project can stay on schedule.

This concept contains a lesson for product representatives, as well as the rest of project teams, regardless of the team structure. Before a meeting, try to anticipate the decisions that should or could be made. (Can you ask? Ask.) What key facts will be required to complete these decisions? Prepare that information well, and bring it to the table.

Even if the key players aren’t at the table, well-presented information can be carried up the chain of command by the people in the room. These key facts will become the decision-ready information in the next meeting, where you may not be present. Clearly stated, decision-ready information helps your teammates look good to their teammates. Design professionals love representatives who help them look good. (This is also the old-fashioned way information "goes viral": good information gets carried along.)

And manufacturers, are you arming your representatives with decision-ready information? Think about what information about your product might drive project decisions, and make sure it's available in an easy format for your representatives to bring to the table.

How to Write & Design Holiday Greeting Cards or Gifts for Your Clients

It's that time of year when holiday greeting cards are arriving in full force. If you haven't already sent them, you're probably in crunch mode trying to get them out the door. Today I received a very well designed greeting card from an architect associate of ours which inspired me.

If you're going to the extent of sending holiday greeting cards or gifts to your clients, make sure you tailor your cards or gifts to your company's promotional message (without being blatantly commercial).

Here are some examples of holiday greeting cards and gifts our clients have sent (or we have received):

1. Our client used several thousand square feet of his product in the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles, so they made a holiday greeting card with the photo of the angel statue (with light shining onto it through a halo-shaped cutout in the ceiling). The caption below the photo stated that they used X number of square feet of concrete pigment in the Cathedral project. The inside included a typical "Happy Holidays" greeting.

2. Another one of our clients is a ceiling manufacturer, so for their holiday gift giveaway, they used their sheet metal machines and punched perforations into the shape of Christmas trees and shooting stars onto a 4-sided red luminaria candle holder.
3. Our architect associate sent us a greeting card that arrived today. Since he incorporates ecological design elements in his work, he customized a greeting card (which also shows his creativity). The front of the card has about 20 ornaments hanging and each ornament is something that could be recycled so it has a recycling symbol on it. In the inside of the card, he has 10 New Years Resolutions for becoming Greener. The greeting card is printed on recycled paper. He also personalized the card by saying it was from his family and then he signed each of his family members' names. This was a great greeting card in that it combined business, New Years goals, and a personal touch.

Happy Holidays From Chusid Associates! (<---Our way of sending a paperless Holiday Greeting Card :) )

Dont SCIP These Specifiers

Here are over one hundred of the most important prospects a building product manufacturer can know. Specifications Consultants in Independent Practice (SCIP) is a nationwide organization of professional specification writers who practice as consultants rather than on the payroll of an architectural or engineering firm. They are, by and large, fiercely devoted to their craft and passionate about understanding building products.

Because they typically consult to several design firms, each independent specifier can have a broad reach within their community; their opinions and recommendations count. Make sure your local reps know the SCIP members in their territories and provide them with service. A directory of members is on their website at

Correcting Online Mistakes

Anything that goes on the web is permanent, which means when mistakes happen – and they will happen – there is no way to undo them. So how can you fix them? Admit the mistake and issue a correction. Admitting your mistakes builds trust with your clients and gives you a chance to apologize, if necessary. It also gives you a chance to respond before your competitors do, playing a type of proactive defense. As an added benefit, search engines tend to prefer newer results for a given search, making it likely that people will see the correction before finding – and acting on – the erroneous information.

I have increased respect for STRUCTURE magazine because they did just that last week. An email announcing a new online video about BIM was sent to their mailing list before the video was available on the webpage. This is a good example of the need to double check that information is ready for release before posting, but more importantly within three hours the staff had noticed the mistake and sent out a correction via email. This simultaneously prevented the inevitable flood of “broken link” emails from readers and provided an additional point of contact, reinforcing the positive message that STRUCTURE is responsible and responsive to their readers.

It takes a lot of courage to admit when we are wrong; most of us don’t like to admit our mistakes, preferring to cultivate an image of competent perfection. But the truth is mistakes happen, and how we deal with them says a lot about who we, and our companies, are.

Monitoring Your Online Brand

What are people saying about your brand? Your products? Here is an example of why its so important to monitor your online brand:

We have search engine set up to alert us when our clients are mentioned online. We monitor for trends, positive and negative mentions, and especially for inaccurate information. In the construction industry, inaccurate information can be a safety and liability issue, not just a marketing one. 

A few days ago we got a hit on one of our clients, an engineered stone manufacturer. Here’s what we found (company names have been removed, but you know how to search for the quote if you want to):
“As a kitchen and bath designer do I continue to recommend or specify man made stone counter tops to my clients? Has a manufacturer like XXXXX or XXXXX been linked to the inclusion of coal ash in their product. I wrote to XXXXX but I doubt I'll get an honest reply. I can see the manufacturers of man made stone products ducking and covering as I type.”

This type of post creates several kinds of hazards. First, by naming specific companies it impacts search engine results, especially if the story it’s linked to becomes popular. 

Second, it attacks the companies named on two fronts, implying the presence of harmful materials as well as poor customer service. Either of these attacks could be damaging individually; combining them increases the impact.

The third major issue is the forum’s anonymity. We don’t know who is behind the user name; I suspect the poster is a shill for a competing company or industry. Reading through the comments, only one other poster mentioned counter tops – as part of a larger list of products – and no one else mentioned “man made stone products” at all. The fact that this post specifies material, product, and company – and does so vehemently – makes it suspect. 

An anonymous, inaccurate “whisper campaign” such as this can be incredibly detrimental to a company, especially since people tend to base purchasing decisions on word-of-mouth and online reviews. If a story becomes popular, millions of people could be exposed to the comment, tainting their opinions, and you would never know it was happening. We only found this one because we had set the alert. 

We cannot prevent postings like this, but it does give us and our clients the chance to respond immediately.

New Product Announcements in Architectural Record

Architectural Record has issued a call for entries for the best building products of 2009 for exposure in their December issue. See Product Reports or contact Chusid Associates. Deadline for submittals is September 11.

Do a Webinar for CSI

Webinars are an increasingly effective means of providing continuing education to architects. They are also economical: You don't have to travel, and you don't have to buy lunch for a roomful of disinterested people.

Here's the link if you want to propose a webinar to CSI National:

Look for "propose a webinar" on the right. The person at Institute to talk to is Josh Spiler.

One of our clients will be presenting a webinar through CSI later this month. Not only does he get exposure during the webinar, but his message has been distributed to thousands through CSI's website and newsletters. We will record the presentation and post it on our client's website for future training purposes.

Society of American Military Engineers (SAME)

SAME provides networking opportunities for building product manufacturers wanting to do business with the US uniformed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and U.S. Public Health Service). In addition to construction on military bases, SAME members are responsible for billions of dollars of civil construction through the infrastructure projects of the Corps of Engineers.
Its mission statement is, “To promote and facilitate engineering support for national security by developing and enhancing relationships and competencies among uniformed services, public and private sector engineers, and related professionals.” (Emphasis added.) As a long-time member explained it to me, "Military officers, including those charged with construction, are regularly transferred for post to post. SAME gives them a networking group so they can quickly get to know the local expertise and resources available at each posting." In addition to meeting the brass, participation in SAME allows you to meet the design firms and contractors vying for work in the area.

In addition to participation in local Post (chapter) activities, SAME offers plenty of opportunities for sponsorship. Its magazine, The Military Engineer accepts contributed non-proprietary articles, and its Directory is a great prospecting tool. Individual membership is surprisingly affordable.

Buy American!

Federal stimulus funded jobs are requiring domestically-manufactured products.

On a office complex in Baltimore, MD, a popular imported threaded-rod hanger was thrown off the job and replaced with a domestic product. The new product performed as well, if not better, and was priced comparably, but the changeover caused delays and paperwork. Stories like this are encouraging an increasing number of federally-funded projects to start with, and use only, "Made In America" products.

LEED got people thinking about locally-sourced products; the economy is getting us to redefine our conception of local.

Successful Email Campaigns

A fast and wide-reaching way to reach your customers, email marketing continues to grow each year. A well-done email blast can be very beneficial:
  • Scalable - it costs as much to email 10 people as 10,000
  • Fast - your message arrives within minutes of pressing "Send"
  • Viral - write a good email and people send it to their friends, increasing your reach and adding a word-of-mouth component
  • Simple - using a good program or online service makes it simple to design and send your email
  • Low-Cost - beyond the initial software investment, there is little added cost beyond your time
As more and more companies move to take advantage of the technology, there are several common pitfalls that have emerged that can destroy an email's effectiveness.

Virus Check: This comes first. Scrub your computer, scrub your email, and keep your anti-virus software up to date. You only get one shot at this; send a virus to 6,000 prospective customers and your email newsletter is done.

Unsubscribe Option:
One of the most important pieces to include in every email blast you send. In addition to being illegal, few things sap customer goodwill faster (for example). Even among opt-in subscribers, having the ability to unsubscribe is very important to net citizens.

SPAM Filters: We all get spam, the modern evolution of junk mail and telemarketers. Spam filters are sometimes overenthusiastic about blocking emails to large numbers of undisclosed recipients. There are online tools that examine your emails and warn you if it is likely to get filtered, as well as easy steps to take in writing. Most importantly, encourage recipients to add you to their "safe senders" list.

Too Much HTML: HTML emails are great; they're pretty, they're fun, and they send readers back to your website with a click. But only if the HTML loads correctly. My email is set up to only show pictures if I tell it to; otherwise all I see are boxes telling me where pictures should be. If your entire message is in those pictures you've lost me. Use HTML and graphics as the icing - or the architectural details if you prefer - but use plain text for the main structure.

Window Size: A related issue to HTML. When designing your email remember that not everyone uses the same size email window - or browser, or monitor - that you do. What happens if it's too wide? Too narrow? Is it still readable? Check a wide variety of sizes.

Message Size:
This is just a courtesy issue. I already get hundreds of MB of email a day; your 5 MB missive, no matter how pretty it may be, becomes part of the problem. Keep emails small, light, and easy to download. CSI's NewsBrief routinely weighs in under 90 KB, and the largest newsletter I get is only 120 KB. Or at least, the largest one I continue to get.

Finally, be sure to send a test message before sending the full blast. Send it to yourself, the rest of the office, and a few 'net friends; have everyone read it carefully and click every link before it goes out.

Good luck, and happy emailing!

No, You're Not Weird

You're just smarter than your customer.

In a recent post Jill gave an example of a brochure graphic that did not convey the message it was intended to convey. A commenter gave a response that is important enough I want to address it in a new post instead of the comments thread:

Anonymous said...

Guess I'm weird, then, because I read the heading, saw "Flashing" and immediately saw the actual *flashing* (the shadow line helped) and knew what they were trying to sell.

No, you're not weird; you're knowledgeable about the topic. You've dealt, I'm assuming, with bricks and mortar and flashing enough in the past to tell them apart and know what you're seeing.

Problem is, your customer has not.

Repeat customers know - hopefully - what they are seeing, but new customers, completely unfamiliar with the issues, are looking at this and seeing bricks. If your target audience is graphically-oriented, as most Americans are, you've missed an opportunity.

This is why it's important to get an outsider's perspective on all sales literature and marketing collateral. If someone new to the field cannot determine what you are trying to sell, all your brochure does is waste paper.

The RIGHT Way to Speak to Customers

New research confirms that, "humans prefer to be addressed in our right ear and are more likely to perform a task when we receive the request in our right ear rather than our left." (Science Daily, June 24, 2009).

With this in mind, try to sit on the right side of a prospect or someone else you are trying to influence. Of course, be aware of indications (such as a hearing aid) that might suggest an individual's specific preference.

Tradeshow Lanyards

What are the strongest graphic impressions in this image from a recent tradeshow?

After noticing the model's smile, you probably saw "Arcat" emblazoned on the lanyard around her neck. Arcat, a building product catalog, bought the rights to have their lanyards distributed with attendees' registration packages. It exposed their brand hundreds of times a day to each show attendee. That attention may have been beneficial to Arcat, but it could have distracted from your sales efforts if you wore one at the show.

If you are working a show, do not wear lanyards unless they display your brand. As shown in this image, lanyards distract from your message. Half the time your name badge will not be properly displayed. And the readability of your badge is reduced by suspending it well below eye level.

This is the preferred location for your name badge - pinned high on the chest or lapel where someone can read it with only minimal disruption to your eye-to-eye contact with a prospect. I prefer the right side of the chest so that it is closer to the person you are addressing when you extend your right hand to shake.

Many thanks to Kari Moosmann for posing at the recent Construct 2009 trade show. Kari is a first class construction writer and was, until recently, an editor for Hanley Wood. She is available for assignments.