How to Create Killer SEO with the Oldest Stories in the World

Bristlecone pine displays its characteristic gnarled, twisted form as it rises above the arid, dolomite-rich slopes of the White Mountains at 11000-foot elevation. Patriarch Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

It’s so easy to get lost in today’s mobile, multi-channel, programmatic, brand story mishmash. Curated content, trending hashtags, targeted keywords–good God get me a fifth of Jack Daniels and lock my office door!

There are only two things you need to know, and I’m going lay them on you with the same fire and brimstone that Samuel L. Jackson evoked in Pulp Fiction when he was about dispatch the poor unfortunates at the other end of his revolver:

1) It’s the quality of your copywriting.

2) And it all depends on your copywriter.

Stories that never die are called archetypes. There are seven of them, popularly identified as follows:

1) Defeating the monster. The protagonist–or hero–sets out to defeat an evil force, also known as the antagonist. Popular versions of this timeless theme include everything from Star Wars to the Guns of Navarone to The Magnificent Seven.

2) Rags to riches. Trading Places, Cinderella, The Prince and the Pauper. See, no further explanation required?

3) The quest. An odyssey to acquire something necessary or valuable. Indiana Jones, The Maltese Falcon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, etc.

4) Voyage and return. Gone With the Wind, Apollo 13, The Wizard of Oz.

5) Comedy. The happy ending, romance. A confusing conflict–which causes drama–is unwound after seemingly endless twists and turns. Shrek, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Gods Must Be Crazy.

6) Tragedy. Our hero has one major character flaw which leads to his or her undoing. Folly and pity combine in movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Breaking Bad, Julius Caesar.

7) Rebirth. Beauty and the Beast, Edward Scissorhands, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (though arguably birth and death have been cleverly flipped on their heads in Benjamin).

OK, Ok, so what do any of these timeless themes have to do with SEO, my client’s or my brand and bristlecone pines for the love of God?

Here it is: SEO today rewards original content, which is not easy to create. But brands, the very best ones, all have timeless stories of value and benefit to the consumer. Your copywriter needs to be able to understand and articulate your brand’s story or narrative in such a way that both consumers (buyers) and search engines are compelled to follow.

Merely jamming buzzy keywords into some light or flimsy content or exploiting the endless loop de loop of One Weird Trick That Helps Men Lose Their Beer Bellies or 37 How-To Headlines Guaranteed to Get Clickthrough with brand banners slotted in throughout does not cut it.

The Holy Grail: Telling compelling stories about the consumers interaction with a brand is the best way under the sun to drive likes, shares and purchase decisions. Blogs that catalog multi-part stories over time are one way to do it. Maybe the best way.

But you need a seasoned copywriter to produce that sort of content. If you can find one, your brand may live as long as the bristlecone pine at the top of this article.

Timeless content is compelling content. And compelling content makes the cash register ring–or the point-of-sale terminal light up. As the case may be.

Then again, most agencies don’t want copywriters as seasoned as bristlecone pines.

(Psssst–the smart agencies do)

Tom Stevens is more than 4,900 years younger than the oldest bristle cone pines. He writes the kind of copy your brand needs. Give him a holler if you want the good stuff.

Don’t Worry, You Too Can Content Market Like the Fortune 500


Building and sustaining a robust content marketing program for your brand is a withering prospect.

Who will write compelling, entertaining and useful blog posts, source or create original graphics and video, maintain and grow an HTML-based email list and cross-post on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat?

(Not to mention seeking out and sharing/backlinking content with other complementary blogs or platforms to raise your organic SEO, putting your content in front of a wider audience?)

Good news. You really can meet and beat those Fortune 500 brands and their behemoth budgets on their own turf. 

For two reasons: 

1. Many big brands are mired in their own bureaucracy and can’t move as quickly or adeptly as you –a hungrier, less risk-averse competitor–can.

2. Big brands are still confused about what social media and content marketing is or isn’t, and often proceed clumsily at best.

Even when the big guys have dedicated staff in place,they still aren’t sure how to really connect on a visceral level, in an authentic way, with their customers, clients and prospects.

So: Maybe (probably) you KNOW that you need to be active across the digital landscape. You KNOW you can’t rely on trade ads in print pubs, or a few random videos that you hope will go viral, or one blog post a week that is rarely if EVER cross-posted, promoted or re-purposed in well written direct email blasts.

And, you probably also know, or are about to find out, that besides paying for someone to produce and promote your content you are also going to have to pay for space on Facebook, and probably Twitter, or on Adwords that lock search terms to your products or service.

More good news: Instead of spending promotional and advertising dollars on advertising and promotions that can’t be tracked or measured, you can spend that money on a freelance or contract resource to produce and broadcast your content more effectively and for less than an on-board, salaried employee.

Someone who can and will work with your current staff–or directly with YOU–to show you how to create and sustain a strong content marketing program.

Someone, more likely than not,  who brings the knowledge and techniques of the young and the Web savvy along with the dry-aged seasoning of a journalist…someone who knows how to write headlines, and body copy that is sticky, that gets read, and shared. In other words, a happy huckster.

“Where do I find such a resource?” you ask.

Call me. Let’s talk. For half the in-house cost of a social/content guru, you can get a gun for hire.

Stop worrying about whether or not you turned the stone off.

We’ve got this.


Why You Will Live or Die by Your Ability to Write “Content”


EH 8410P Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1954.  Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

EH 8410P
Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1954.
Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

In academic circles, publishing in peer reviewed journals is considered the indispensable route to becoming tenured.

In producing a paycheck, writing–and becoming “published” in the form of your correspondence, your business letters and emails, your marketing and advertising campaigns and your social footprint (articles, white papers, blogs, videos) is even more critical.

Once you’re tenured, you’re more or less locked in to your job for life. In business, every subsequent check you receive is dependent on your ability to communicate and persuade effectively. Or, you’re only as good as your last campaign.

As an art director or a video editor or janitor, you express yourself graphically, visually and in the results you achieve. (That’s a nice shiny floor, Joe, good work).

But if you’re a creative (and I’d argue that since we are all selling ourselves all the time, we had all better consider ourselves creatives) working for yourself or “the man,” and even if you’re account side…you’d better know how to write compelling, actionable content or be able to pay someone who can.

In this, the era of pull vs. push, engagement-oriented sales and marketing, there are tons of garbage diatribes with plenty of confusing jargon to contend with. Much of it is written by bloggers or hustlers trying to sell you their system of “tripling your conversion rate with these 9 subject lines” or “keeping your sales funnel full of premium customers who will beg you to buy” without you needing to do much in the way of selling.

A good pitch, a great blog, a complete and on-going content-built campaign are all built on three simple, immutable principles:

1. Keep the attention of your prospect or audience. If your letter, blog, email or even brilliant marketing book (especially a whole book!) doesn’t GRAB and HOLD the attention of the reader, you’re dead meat right out of the gate.

2. Engage, inspire, inform and entertain your prospect or audience. You’ve got ’em for now, but you’d better rub their feet, cook for them a gourmet meal in 5 minutes (or show them how to do so themselves) and make them want to read every last word of what you propose while leaving them wanting more.

3. Be the resource, fulfill the promise. Everything we do every day arguably consists of “selling” something…from the merits of beef vs. quinoa to your skeptical spouse or family, to yourself or your firm for the account, the contract or the job. Hyperbole is no better than bragging these days, even if, as they say, it’s true or you can back it up. Or, in the event you’re hawking Shamwows, maybe.

Everything, from your résumé to your strategic or creative brief, to your account analysis and recommendation and justification for budget MUST be as compelling, as reasonable and logical and as moving as an excruciatingly well-turned sentence from a Hemingway novel.

Go easy on the jargon and the hype. You don’t care to be spoon fed that tripe any more than your audience or prospect does.

So–how, or through the assistance of what how-to book or writing seminar–can you achieve this level of writing great content? From a classified ad to a complete campaign, Website or direct email program?

By reading great writing that grabs your attention, engages and inspires you to action and leaves you with a clear or implied call-to-action and emulating said writing. That means copying, to use plain English, in your own words. 

As Picasso famously said, it’s impossible to simply copy someone else’s work or technique–in doing so you inevitably flavor it with your own peculiarities.

That’s what makes YOU unique, of course. And practice. Lots and lots of practice. And testing. And refinement.

And consistency when you find a style that works for you.

Why You WILL Need Web Video (But Who’s Gonna Write It?)

ABOVE: A video written and produced on the proverbial shoestring by Vonstipatz for ReCellular, which as recently as 2012-13 was up-cycling as many as 400,000 feature phones every month. View it by clicking here.
Everywhere you look in content marketing, or social media if you prefer, there’s video along with copy. Short videos of :30 seconds to longer yet digestible lengths of :60 seconds to 2-3 minutes. If it’s longer it had better be damned gripping or you risk losing your viewer and your reader both.
We are told that not only does content with video grab more eyeballs and create more actionable impressions, but that video can provide a big boost to SEO. The cost and difficulty of producing good video for your brand, product or service (despite the millions of videos online) means search keywords in your video taking prospects back to your brand or message are that much more valuable.
The good news is twofold: 
1) Producing good, short video is more affordable than ever (big downward price pressure on video creators).
2) If you’re a writer–these videos have to be written before they can be produced!
Contently has a great blog piece that goes into depth about the growing need for writers for the ever increasing demand for Web video, read it here.
For you–whether you’re a brand or a writer in the content/social category–video is a powerful tool you should be using to augment your brand marketing, and a growing way to keep from being a starving writer.
Video now can be, at its most basic, words as graphics arranged in an attractive way with simple motion effects and a voice over. It can also be simple graphic animation or cartoon animation, or an arrangement of still images that have subtle moves on them–like the famous Ken Burns documentaries Civil War or Prohibition…wholly derived from still shots.
So, if you’re not yet in the game of creating (or contracting) video for your needs, what’s the fastest way in? Like anything in life, you’ve got to get your feet wet. There are 1000s of video clips and graphic effects you can buy and download on sites like Same for royalty-free music clips.
Or, similar to videos you’ll see on Kickstarter (an excellent reference for low-cost production ideas) you can do a simple interview or talking head format where a spokes person for your brand delivers on a script. A one-camera shoot with a simple backdrop, you can edit this yourself with iMovie, for a song. A DSLR with a pro, after-market microphone (doable for $1000 ballpark) and you’re in business for years to come. One short video can pay for the equipment and software investment.
For those of you who need more help, especially with the writing, find a writer who has written and/or produced videos, or for that matter, radio scripts–old school talent who have this experience have to know how to write a robust script that fits EXACTLY into :30 or :60 second formats, and comfortably so. If they can manage that, any other length will be a piece of cake.
Even if you’re a big, fat Fortune 500 brand, or work for one, Web video is just as important–and more demanding–than mass market “television” spots. Why? You know why. Your viewer can click PAUSE or QUIT anytime.
And if you’re a smaller brand, product or service, you can find parity with the big brands that was very difficult or expensive just a few years back.
One of the last “big budget” TV :30s I produced, a simple 2D cartoon animation, was budgeted at $25K–that’s $833 a second. If I could get those rates M-F in 2015, I’d be driving a Lamborghini right now. For comparison, the video at the top of this post was produced for less than $2K.
Then again, you could realistically shoot and edit video on a iPad now, and save up for the obscene ride.
What are you waiting for?
Tom Stevens has written and produced radio, video and animation for budgets ranging from $500 to $30,000 and up. If you have any questions about how you can get in the video game, give him a yell.


How to Get ANYONE On the Phone (And What To Do When You Do)


When I was 10 years old, and a huge fan of the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz, I wanted nothing more than to be a syndicated cartoonist like he was.

In my wildly optimistic young mind, I thought that if I knew what kind of pen he used to draw Peanuts, I could somehow replicate his success. But how to discover this revelatory information?
In a paperback bio of Charles Schulz my mom had bought me, I learned that the famous cartoonist was an avid hockey fan–and amateur player–and that he owned a hockey arena in Northern California. The named facility was easily looked up by calling 411, and so, one Sunday dinner at my grand-parent’s home, while the adults were having their pre-meal cocktails, I was upstairs in the bedroom on grandma’s pink princess rotary-dial.
I had deduced, quite logically, that Mr. Schulz probably enjoyed his weekends at his favorite past time and it was worth a shot to just call up and ask if he happened to be in the building. Lucky shot!
“Hello, is Mr. Schulz there please?” I was taught polite manners from a very early age.
“Yes, I believe he is around here somewhere,” said the person who answered the phone. “Whom shall I say is calling?”
“I’m Tommy Stevens,” I replied. (Certainly Schulz had close friends out of state who were children!)
A minute or two later, another voice came on the line.
“Hello, this is Charles Schulz.”
Wow. What a score!
“Um, hi Mr. Schulz, this is Tommy Stevens calling from Detroit.”
“Yes, and how may I help you?” Mr. Schulz was very polite, and patient with me.
“Well, I like to draw comic strips just like you, and I was wondering if you could tell me what kind of pen you use to draw Peanuts?”
The long and short of it is that Charles Schulz gave me a brief and good natured lesson on the merits of discovering my own preferences for pens and magic markers. He advised me to find a tool that I was comfortable with and to find my own style.
Although disappointed I did not get the exact information I’d desired, I was elated at having succeeded in getting one of my heroes to talk to me–and long distance at that.
This is a skill that I’ve used throughout my life, particularly in matters of business. And I regret that I don’t use it more often, as it can pay great dividends.
But, like the dog that perpetually chases cars, the question is: What does he do when he catches one?
It depends on whether you’re just “trophy calling” for the sheer joy of scoring a connection with a famous person, firewalls be damned…something authors like Tim Ferriss (The Four Hour Work Week) advises to practice getting out of one’s comfort zone.
If, on the other hand, you have a specific question–such as asking asking success author Tony Robbins if he might share the name of his literary agent–go for it. But you’d better have (or you are best off having) a bonafide use for seeking said info.
It’s popularly called being able “to cash the checks you write with your mouth.” Or at least to have enough confidence in yourself to shoot for the moon.
In my upcoming book, The Method, Everything is Possible* I go into greater detail on how and why you can and should use the telephone (and snail mail too!) to reach out and expand your sphere of influence.
The only questions are, what is it you want to know or learn from the target of your aspirations–and always: What are you selling?
You may well end up with an open door to the new contact you forge with these ambitious, cold call communications…just make sure you’re the dog who actually wants to drive (or at least catch a ride in) the Maserati you choose to chase!


This Story Made Me Sick, But in the End I Pulled Out My Credit Card


It was my last day in the Alaskan wilderness, and I knew there was a fiercely protective mother bear between my 3-person hiking party and our bush plane; we had seen her and two of her cubs, passing ahead of us on the narrow trail only 20 minutes earlier. We had hoped that brief encounter would be our only one.

It was not to be. I’d fallen maybe 50 yards behind my companions, taking my time and enjoying the warm, late afternoon sunshine. Suddenly, I heard the sharp sound of twigs snapping and leaves rustling to my right. I froze in my tracks and turned in the direction of the sound: there she was, not a stone’s throw away, firmly planted, panting and drooling with flared nostrils. Her eyes locked with mine.

The charge caught me by surprise. Instinctively, I unslung my rifle from my shoulder and began to raise it just as the grizzly reached me, snarling, rearing up, and looming above me so close I could see the yellow on her massive teeth. I had one chance at this close range, but a good one.

I squeezed the trigger, barrel pointed straight at the bear’s chest. There was a sickening click…

So: Curious to know what happened next? Would you like to keep reading to the end and find out all the–pardon the pun–grisly details?

Read on, it gets better.

And that, in essence, is my job as a writer and a marketer–to grab your attention, engage your senses and get you to commit to the book, brand or service I am representing. You can easily see from this naked example that the technique works, but there is also plenty of practical scientific research behind why such story telling works so well for today’s big brands. Especially in the demanding and crowded social media space that we’re all forced to function in.

It may just be the oxytocin, the same powerful chemical that bonds people together after intense lovemaking. According to Claremont Graduate University’s Prof. Paul Zak, who studies the effects of oxy (and who has drawn blood of those who watched or engaged in powerful, character-driven narratives first) the chemistry can even predict which TV commercial will pull best during the Superbowl.

It’s an expensive lesson to ignore. With an ever more important emphasis on creating compelling, on-going stories to differentiate our brand (or our clients’ brands) we likewise need talent who can keep powerful narratives coming day in and day out across deliverable channels–from :30 broadcast spots to brand blogs to well-placed PR.

Even a sixty second ‘elevator pitch’ for a venture investment or a movie project can benefit from one’s ability to tap into and grab the audience’s attention and leave an indelible impression behind…an impression that can separate your product or service (or even just you, yourself) from all the other voices clamoring for the sale, the contract or the job.

Does your proposal–or even your résumé–create an oxytocin-worthy result that showcases your strengths, burns you into your prospect’s psyche and gets you the callback you deserve?

Companies like Narativ, which charges companies from $6000 to $25,000 to learn how to connect through speeches and corporate training in story telling, has built a successful 20-year business on this science.

In my personal experience, I can attest to the efficacy of using a great yarn to bulk up your brand message as if it were on steroids.

Crime writer Mickey Spillane had the formula down cold. “Grab your reader’s attention from the opening paragraph of your book,” he advised, “and hold onto them until the very last word of the last chapter.”

Kind of like a grizzly bear with a rag doll of a human in her jaws.

Want to know more about how you can integrate powerful story telling into your brand? Have I got a story for you!

Tom Stevens is a writer who specialized in “content” when it was still called “copywriting.” If you want–or need–words that can spark revolutions or merely cause people to pull out their checkbooks or credit cards, call or write him before some third world despot has him kidnapped to write propaganda for their rotten regime. For more from Tom visit

The Raw Magic of Desire & Brand


In my previous post I wrote very simply about some rather obvious truths related to brand building.

Broken down, building a brand is selling whatever that brand produces…whether you are a brand of ONE or a monolithic corporation like Apple.

I believe, however, that I neglected to offer more precise and practical instructions on how to achieve the kind of success we admire–and lay our $$$ down for–and that is the magic that makes us desire what we see so strongly that we will go through hell and high water to pay for it.

Remember: virtually every purchase decision beyond necessary commodities (soap, water, tires for the car) is driven by desire. Illustration? We have to have soap that we may be able to get for 50 cents a bar, but we’ll pay $7 a bar for L’Oreal; water we can get for pennies from the tap but plenty will pay $8 for a six pack of Fiji water.

All desire contains two stories–the internal story that is in our minds and fantasies alone, and the external story that smart brands create and tell to us, and when the two resonate another effect is created: cha-ching!

So, what are you selling…and what is it that you, the sales person desires besides the sale? What motivates YOU?

The answer is, the same thing or things that motivate everyone. Your job is to dig deep and get to know and understand your desires, to become fluent in the language of desire, so that you can speak it loudly on behalf of your brand.

Why is the Apple iPhone so desirable? Or the Ferrari? Or Tiffany jewels?

Can you fund a way to elevate the quality of your brand to those levels? If not, maybe you need a better brand, or else a lot of make up and maybe some smoke and mirrors.

The more pure the product or service, the easier it is to sell.

Now we’re talking about quality, and quality control. A subject of my next blog.

Zero Marginal Cost: We Can’t Give It Away!


The Internet economy is famous—make that infamous—for disrupting just about every business model, product or service out there, with notable examples being free music (Napster), free news (bye-bye newspapers), free porn and not least of all, free software. Think of all the apps and games that let you download them for zilch and then make bank on advertising.

Combined with the evisceration of middle management over the last 10-15 years (along with the asphyxiation of the middle class) as well as profoundly rising rates of productivity…well, kinda makes you wonder if your next gig is going to be Wal-Mart or not. That is, IF you can get in.

Yet we hear everyday about sales of high-end luxury cars—Jags, Lamborghinis, Ferraris—along with super-premium real estate going through the roof as the plutocracy (the reviled 1 percent) gets richer and richer.

So, what does that mean for us in advertising, branding, and marketing? What are we selling, really? And, just as pertinent, what are we buying, or able to buy?

Inflation is when prices rise rapidly to the point that we can’t afford the things we want or need. Deflation is when people stop spending because they have little or no money, and the cost of goods drop lower and lower chasing the bottom of the market.

All Vonstipatz knows is you’d better have either a skill, or a scam, at your disposal. Although it looks like capitalism has lots of life left in it, we have to wonder when out-sourcing everything from widgets to digits (manufacturing to software design) will cannabalize what’s left of our economy, reducing the United States to a place where the glistening suburbs are the new ghetto, and gated communities come with small armies of assault-weapon-toting goons.

A little too bleak for a Monday post? Naaah. The Dow is still well over 16,000, and I’m a stone cold optimist.

How about you?

What is Life?

“Inanimate” objects seem to be alive. Are they not alive? You be the judge.

Forgive me.

This post is not about branding, per se, or SEO or geo-local-mobile-responsive UI or UX or any of the above.

It’s about Life…and what life is or isn’t—as we toil diligently, or operate recklessly, or wander ineffectually—under the brilliant, burning star we call the Sun.

We’ve all got to work, to pay the bills, to support our children, to build a retirement, to purchase groceries and health insurance and all of that tommyrot we don’t really have much choice about…unless we want to try living off the grid in a rain forest somewhere. Maybe not a bad idea, but…

In the meantime, where do we draw our sustenance? Our spiritual sustenance, that is? What is life? Is it a life without love? And what exactly is love? Where is love encoded in the construct of the universe when we–the beings who experience it (if we are lucky) disappear, along with the planet, when our star the Sun burns up all its nuclear fuel, reducing us and Earth and everything on it into a cinder?

So, as we look up from our computer screens, to look into one another’s eyes…and I hope you will take the opportunity to do this today, for only a few seconds, with purpose and sincerity…what do you see? What animates us?

What indeed is life? There’s a great article in the New York Times on this very subject, that led me to this video, possibly one of the most moving, emotionally poignant videos I have ever seen. Maybe it’s the beautiful classical music on the video that amplifies my emotions; like love, and life itself, what makes such beautiful music what it is?

What intangible qualities constitute life, life that transcends death and reappears over and over in different forms and in different places–both on our planet and throughout the universe?

A nice break from branding and SEO, don’t you think?