Digital product marketing is the same as any other kind of marketing, but it has its own quirks. I won’t be talking about getting to know your audience here; hopefully, you’ve done that already. Analysing your customer base and thinking about the type of products they need helps you ensure you create the right digital products.
Here are a few things to think about when you’re marketing your digital products:
Create a compelling product description
Good product descriptions help your customers understand what they’re buying and what they’ll get out of it. They’re typically relatively short and are designed for people with a good idea of what they’re looking for and need to know if your product fits the bill. You can offer technical information if relevant but put most of the effort into telling your customer what your product is and helping them imagine using it.
Write a landing page
A landing page is a standalone page on your website focusing on one product. They’re great for digital products as they allow you to expand on the information you provide in your product description for people who might not be sure whether your product is for them. Where product descriptions are for people who know roughly what they want, landing pages help people who know what problem they need to solve but not how to do it.
Plan your launch
Even if you think big launches are too stressful (I agree), setting a target for getting your digital product out into the world is a good idea. It stops you from faffing over whether your product is perfect (there’s no such thing). Even if you choose a random date, it helps you work backwards to build up excitement before it becomes available. You can plan your marketing around your product to educate your audience and build excitement by sharing what’s going on behind the scenes.
Tell a story
Storytelling is a great way to market anything because it helps your audience engage with what you want to tell them. It shows them you understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. For example, a post that tells a story about the lowest point in your business journey and the revelation that helped you solve it is far more powerful than “I’ve got this brilliant new product, and you need it”. You can use storytelling everywhere: your product descriptions, sales pages, posts and emails. Highlight the pain points and benefits but make it fun.
Think about platforms
If you want to sell products, you need to make it easy for your customers to buy. You can send them to your website or create a shop on Facebook (unfortunately, Instagram only lets you sell physical products just now). You might want to go to a third-party site such as Amazon or Etsy.
The platforms you choose will influence the type of marketing you can do. You’ll have more freedom on your website, but each third-party site has its own rules.
If you plan to add digital products to your business, I can help you create and market them too. I’ll write blogs, emails and product descriptions and repurpose them to make your content go further. If you’d like a chat to find out how it works, you can book a call here.
If you want to add digital products to your Christmas shop, sign up for festive marketing emails here. You can also sign up to receive my monthly emails packed with helpful content writing and marketing tips using the form below.
Mary watched the fields flash past her window in a green blur as Sam steered the car along the narrow country road. They’d only just left the M1, but she already felt like they were in the middle of nowhere. Bliss. She flinched slightly as the branches of a dark green conifer clattered against the window. The sat nav announced their destination was half a mile on the left. Mary leaned forward in her seat, hoping to see the little house where they’d be spending the next three days.
She tried to forget how her mum had looked at her as they packed up to leave — disheartened and a little bit sad. Mary had known in advance that two days would be enough. Christmas Day with her parents and her younger sister was always fun, and she loved seeing the extended family on Boxing Day, but she knew Sam struggled. Her family’s Christmas centred around eating, drinking and watching TV, and Sam started to get cabin fever. They’d gone for a walk, but a stroll around a suburb was a long way from his childhood, spent climbing the Malvern hills whenever he got the chance.
Mary remembered her childhood Christmases when everyone had stayed together in her grandparent’s house from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. It had been heavenly when they were children, but now she wondered how the adults had managed to stay sane. Perhaps that was why her Dad and Uncle John had started drinking so early on Christmas morning.
Next year it would all be different.
“There it is!” Sam said, sounding as excited as a five-year-old. He indicated and turned off the narrow lane onto a block-paved drive. Mary sighed happily. The cottage was just as lovely as the photos suggested, with beautiful red bricks and fields stretching away into the distance. She turned to look at Sam, and her smile widened when she saw his face. He looked more relaxed than she’d seen him in months.
“It’s beautiful, Sam.” They climbed out of the car, and Mary stretched her arms upward, lowering them again to rub her back. “Oh, God.”
“What? You OK?”
“Yes, I’m just such a cliché. A little Weeble with an aching back.”
“You don’t look remotely like a Weeble. Much sexier.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Remind me of that when we’ve got a newborn, and I feel like I’m made out of rice pudding.”
Sam looked down and rubbed her belly. “It’s a strange thought, isn’t it? Next Christmas, we’ll have a ten-month-old crawling all over the place.”
“Yep. Weird. Anyway, let’s make the most of the peace and quiet and get inside.”
“Your wish is my command, oh Weeble-ish one.”
Mary laughed, reflecting that Sam was lucky she hadn’t picked up her handbag, or she might have walloped him with it. She watched as he took their suitcase out of the boot, opened the passenger door and retrieved her bag from the footwell. They definitely wouldn’t be able to travel this light next Christmas. She realised they’d have the perfect excuse to stay at home.
“They’ve left us some teabags and milk,” Sam called as Mary shut the front door behind her. She smiled at his unerring ability to find the kettle wherever they went and followed his voice into the kitchen, where he was already rummaging in cupboards looking for mugs. “I’ll take the case upstairs when we’ve had a cup of tea. What are you smiling at?”
“The fact that nothing starts without tea.”
“Quite right too.”
She wrapped him up in another hug, stroking his cheek as she kissed him.
“Do I need a shave?” he asked, feeling for stubble.
“Nah, you’re OK.” She groaned as he rubbed her back, then felt him hesitate. “Don’t worry, that was a good groan.”
“Did you see the pictures of the bathroom?”
“With the lovely slipper bath? Yes. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a proper soak. The only problem is, you might have to hoist me out.”
Sam tried and failed to suppress the snigger. “Sorry. Tell you what, let’s have tea, and I’ll check whether I’ve got a signal in case we need to call the fire brigade.” He ducked away as she tried to slap him on the shoulder.
Mary followed Sam up the stairs as he carried the suitcase into the main bedroom. It was glorious, with a king-sized bed and views out over the fields to the woods beyond. The listing had said that there were 14 acres of land across the farm, and they were welcome to walk anywhere they liked. Sam had put the case down and was gazing out of the window. She told him that she was going to run a bath and headed across the landing to the bathroom. The smell hit her before she opened the door. She hesitated, half wanting to know what was behind the door and yet not feeling ready to face it. She realised she was standing completely still with her hand on the doorknob and felt faintly ridiculous. Eventually, she decided to stop dithering and turned the knob, pushing the door open in a single movement.
It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a dead body. She’d been there when Sam’s mum had died eighteen months ago when cancer that treatment had held at bay for three years had finally overtaken her. This was different. Emma had looked peaceful. This man’s life had clearly ended with violence. Even if the rope hadn’t been left, tied tightly around his neck, his face would have told her that. Mary had always thought that people who found dead bodies screamed, but she didn’t feel the need. She was shaking, transfixed by the man’s contorted face.
“Mary? Are you OK? Is anything wrong with the bath?”
She almost called back to tell him that, yes, there was a dead body in it. That made her feel ridiculous, and she giggled, clapping her hand to her mouth at the inappropriateness of it all. She turned and headed back to the bedroom. “Don’t go in there,” she said, “because there’s a dead man in the bath.”
“What? Are you kidding?” He turned to look at her and realised that she wasn’t. “God, you’re shaking.” He took hold of her and sat her down on the bed. “You’re sure he’s dead?”
Mary nodded. “We need to call the police.”
DI Fitzgerald and PC Jones had been impressively efficient, arriving within an hour of Sam’s call, shortly followed by a pathologist and two forensics staff. Mary sat on the sofa next to Sam as DI Fitzgerald asked her to tell him about her discovery. She’d been surprised at how easily the details came out; the smell, the position of the body and the cord around his neck. Fitzgerald had nodded encouragingly, watching her with his piercing blue eyes. She wondered what it would be like to be a suspect facing that searching look.
“That’s excellent, Mrs Collins, thank you. Can I ask, have you ever seen him before?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“What about you, Mr Collins?”
“I didn’t see the body. I’m a bit squeamish, to be honest.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a cough from the doorway. The pathologist had appeared and asked to speak to DI Fitzgerald. They disappeared into the hall, and when the police officer returned, he was smiling.
“I have some good news for you. We’re ready to remove the body. It looks like we might have a possible ID. You’ll be relieved to hear that I won’t be asking you to view the body, Mr Collins. Hopefully, you can both have a restful night, even if you don’t fancy a bath.”
Mary groaned, “I was looking forward to that.”
Fitzgerald smiled. “A warm bath was the only thing that helped my wife’s backache when we were expecting. The forensics officers have almost finished with the bathroom, so we’ll be out of your way shortly.”
Mary and Sam wished the departing officers a happy Christmas as the last cars pulled away from the house.
“Alone at last,” Sam said. “They were a lot quicker than I thought they’d be. Are you OK?”
Mary nodded. “I’m fine, and surprisingly hungry. What have we got for dinner?”
A large pizza, garlic bread and ice cream later, Mary lay back on the sofa, rubbing her belly. “I think the baby likes pizza; she’s kicking like mad.”
“Don’t you mean he?” Sam teased, sitting down next to her with a glass of red wine. “I’m sorry you didn’t get your bath.”
“I don’t mind. I’m just happy to be here, just the two of us.” She lifted her glass of elderflower fizz and clinked it against Sam’s. “Here’s to the next adventure.”
“Cheers,” Sam replied. His face creased with concern as they heard a knock at the door. “Who can that be? It’s pitch black out there.” He heaved himself off the sofa and put his glass on the table.
Mary felt a shiver go through her. She felt that something wasn’t right, and got up and followed him, reaching the door just as he opened it.
“Mr and Mrs Collins? I’m sorry it’s taken us so long to get to you. It’s been a busy night.”
The two police officers extended their warrant cards into the light.
When I first started my business, one of the main reasons was the flexibility it gave me. When I was a solicitor there was a flexi-time policy and I changed to part-time working to give me more time with the kids but I was still basically working a 9-5. I couldn’t take an afternoon off on a whim or disappear early because it was sports day at school. Flexibility had to be planned. I was able to plan and prioritise my work but I wasn’t high enough up the food chain to decide that some things weren’t essential. Still, as a business owner, it’s taken me a while to truly embrace letting things slide. Here’s how it happened.
I took part in a challenge
Does anyone else feel as if we’re constantly batting away advice about the new thing we must do if we want our business to succeed? This is particularly true in marketing. There’s always something about why you need to add another social media platform or what kind of content you should be producing this week.
It used to make my head hurt. Then I did two things. I subscribed to emails from Anita Popat, who only tells you the social media stuff you need to know. Then I did a 3-day Facebook challenge with Libby Langley designed to help you make marketing decisions based on your personality and values. It taught me what I already knew. Stop listening to people who say ‘should’ and do what feels right for you.
The family holiday
Then came the Easter holidays. You know the drill. I’m a business-owning mum so the school holidays are always a balancing act. The first few days after the kids broke up were fine because I was still in work mode. I had a plan and there was work I’d promised to do. Then I went on an actual holiday. We got on a ferry and went to Holland for a long weekend. It was glorious (the weather and the place) and I realised how much I’d needed some time out. A chance to play with my kids, go swimming every day and drink lager on a weeknight. I hadn’t realised how tired I’d been. I told myself that I’d have a day off when we got back from Holland then I’d start working again.
We got back from holiday and I didn’t get back to work. My brain didn’t want to. I read some emails but mainly I wanted to have days out with my boys before they went back to school. At first, I thought I was being lazy. I told myself I should have been working. Then I remembered that I don’t listen to people who tell me what I should do and gave myself a break. I didn’t post a single thing on social media for a whole week. The world didn’t end. No one forgot I exist. All the work that pays my bills is still getting done. Those extra few days gave me the headspace I needed to decide what was important in my life. I realised that letting things slide was the best thing I could have done.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s because sharing our stories is important. When you’re a business owner people sometimes forget you’re a human being as well. I hope that by giving you a glimpse behind the scenes I’ll encourage you to do the same. If you’d like to have a chat about it, you can book one here.
I’m a big believer in sharing some of your life in your marketing. Here’s why. The question is, how much do you share? It’s one thing to give your audience a glimpse behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean giving them access to your entire private life. Everyone is different; what’s right for you may be inappropriate for someone else. Here are some of the things I thought about when I was setting boundaries between my marketing and life behind the scenes. I hope they help you too.
Can you talk about work?
I ran a blogging workshop at a business retreat a few years ago and one of the attendees told me that she couldn’t talk about her day job. At all. She’d signed a non-disclosure agreement. She was building a business on the side and could talk about that but couldn’t share any anecdotes about her work history or experience. It’s an extreme example, but if you work with sensitive information or have a duty of confidentiality towards your clients this could be an issue for you. The problem is that case studies are a great way of showing future customers the kind of challenges you deal with. I often share an anonymised version of a case study in these circumstances. If it’s something distinctive or highly personal I’d still recommend contacting the client in case they recognise themselves.
What do you want to protect?
Your family might support you in your business but that doesn’t mean they want to feature in your marketing. My husband has appeared in the background of a few Zoom calls, but he’d be deeply uncomfortable if I put him on Instagram. I talk about my children because it helps me to connect with other business-owning mums, but I never share images of them or mention their names. This is the kind of boundary that it’s best to set by having a conversation with the people closest to you. My kids aren’t old enough to consent to be on social media, so I don’t put them on there. That’s why I acknowledge their existence but don’t share details.
You might think this is a small issue, but it can cause rifts if you make assumptions. (Google ‘why don’t we see Aimee Osbourne’ if you don’t believe me.)
Setting boundaries around personal details
Setting boundaries isn’t just about protecting your family members and throwing caution to the wind when it comes to your privacy. On a practical level, sharing too much personal information puts you at risk of identity theft or being scammed.
You might have started your business because of something you went through and want to help others with. Connecting with your audience might mean sharing some incredibly personal details. You might be talking about your experience of baby loss, medical treatment or mental health issues. Your audience might read about your experience and emotions and be relieved that they’re not alone. At the same time, you might feel that some details are too personal. Remember, it’s your decision. If it feels like too much, leave it out. I know you want to help your audience but think about what’s right for you too.
Do you need some help creating marketing with the right boundaries? I can help with that. Book a call here and let’s have a chat. Or, sign up to my mailing list for blogging and marketing hints and tips straight to your inbox every month.
You’ve probably seen loads of marketing advice telling you that you need to share your knowledge and establish yourself as an expert in your field. That’s all true. When you have a small business, you need to go one step further and share a bit of your life with your customers. The big brands can build a corporate image around their values, but you need to show your audience who you are as a person. Here’s why you need to put some of your life into your marketing.
It makes your audience feel part of something
Content marketing is designed to help you build a relationship with your audience so that they’ll buy from you. When your marketing creates a community, it helps your audience feel as if they’re part of something amazing. That might happen because of chats in the comments on your posts or what you share in your Facebook group.
The easiest way to make your audience feel included is by giving them a glimpse behind the scenes. If you create products, you can share videos or posts of you making something. Someone might see the work in progress and decide they must have the finished product! Case studies are brilliant if you’re like me and offer a less visual service. You can show prospective customers the process so they know how you work and can read about the results.
Shared experience connects you with your customers
Maybe you started your business because you came through a challenge and wanted to help other people do the same. Your story needs to be central to your marketing. It shows your customers that you understand what they’re going through because you’ve been in their shoes. You can build trust by talking about your experiences. This is particularly good for business or health coaches, personal trainers and parenting experts.
Showing your life and the experiences you share with your customers can also work in another way. Whilst it might not be directly relevant to your business, sometimes you just want to work with someone who’s on the same wavelength as you or support their business. I work with lots of business-owning mums and it gives you a shorthand that makes communication easy and fun.
Sharing your life shows people you’re human
When you spend time running a business online, you’ll inevitably come across people who forget you’re a human being with feelings. They think that those nasty comments will bounce off (if they even think before they type). Sharing posts that show people what your life is like when you’re not at work helps to remind people that you’re a real person. It could also help to distinguish you from another, similar, business. I haven’t had anyone tell me they want to work with me because I’m a rugby fan so far, but you never know!
One word of caution; use posts like this sparingly. Every so often is fine but your customers aren’t your friends. They don’t need 500 pictures of your baby, cute puppy or to hear about how hungover you are. Just an occasional reminder that you have a life outside business.
Are you ready to put some of your life into your marketing? I can help with that. Book a call here and let’s have a chat.
I don’t think I’m alone in having a lot of different things in my life. We’ve all got those metaphorical balls (the ones we juggle, but occasionally the other kind too). There’s all the life stuff; the home, partner, kids, family and friends. Delete or add as applicable. I keep finding myself saying ‘let’s have a catch up soon’, then organising a coffee takes about a year. That’s even before I get to the bit where I run a business too. You’ve heard all this before, I know. The only reason I’m talking about it now is because I seem to have had an influx recently. There’s been more paying work, which is extremely lovely. Conversations about self-care seem to have become a thing too. As I write this the words of a wise woman telling me I’m hearing it for a reason are floating at the front of my brain. There have been new ideas that I can’t seem to make a decision on. Then there have been people asking about my book. Have I told you about the book? Maybe I haven’t, so let’s start there.
It’s always been about the book
Before I had the faintest idea that I might write content marketing for businesses, I wrote stories. I know that we all did that at school, but I carried on. Ideas for crime novels pop into my head at regular intervals. The one I’m working on now existed as an idea for a few years before I started making some notes, writing random scenes as they occurred to me. When I was a commuter I wrote on the train. Now I’m editing; it feels as if I’ve rewritten the thing about eleven billion times but I could be exaggerating. It’s a murder mystery, set in Leicester and I’m almost ready to send it out into the world.
I think I might be scared
There’s the problem, you see. I feel as if everything has been pushing me towards this point. Even the self-care conversations, because I know I need to look after myself to deal with whatever different thing comes next. It’s also why I keep getting new shiny ideas. A bit of me wants to get on with it. A much bigger bit is utterly terrified. What if it’s rubbish? (Apparently most first novels are.) There are characters inspired by people I love and tiny snippets of my life in those pages. It feels personal. The other nagging feeling is the fact that being a published novelist is my dream. I don’t know what happens next if the dream comes true. Will my life still be my own if I take it in a different direction? Will I become a magnet for trolls on Twitter? No idea.
What shall I do next?
This is a silly question, isn’t it? I need to finish the two little edits that are bugging me and send my manuscript out for someone else to read. I’ve got friends who’ve offered and I know where to get a reader’s report. An author friend (yes, I have one of those) even got me an email address for a published crime writer who’s happy to look at a couple of chapters for me. So, I know the answer to my own question. I just need to get on and do it.
Why am I telling you this story? It’s because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. I can help you find the right story to tell in your marketing so you can attract wonderful new customers. If I can help you with that, let’s have a chat.
I’ve talked about sharing your story in your marketing so many times, yet there’s one story that I’ve always held back. As I write this, I’m still wondering whether it will end up out in the world for you to read. The only reason I’m even considering it is because I know I can’t be the only one who’s had the same experience. I’ve been bullied more than once during my life. It would be easy to focus on the negative beliefs that come from that (and on a bad day, I definitely do). The years have given me perspective, so I’ve decided it’s time to tell my bullying story in case it helps you too.
The school bullies
I reckon most people must have their own version of this story. I went to a tiny primary school followed by a bigger middle school. The bullies singled me out as I was a clumsy bookworm. Not just a swot but too poorly co-ordinated to be good at either gymnastics or dancing. As far as my peers were concerned, I was utterly useless. I longed for anonymity. Thankfully senior school was better; there were more people like me and became invisible to the bullies. It was the first time I learned the importance of finding your people and I still use it today.
Bullying at work
I didn’t go to university straight from school, but took some time out, did other courses and ended up in the job from hell. I worked as an admin assistant (aka lowest of the low), with colleagues who didn’t like people with A-levels. There were times when my supervisor told me there wasn’t anything for me to do, but in the next breath would go and complain to the boss that I wasn’t pulling my weight. Anything that came out of my mouth was treated as an opportunity for a sarcastic comment or outright sneer. On the plus side, it made me realise that I did want to go to uni.
How it holds me back
Those days are gone, but some of the scars remain. When you’ve been treated as if you don’t belong you start to believe it. You think your feelings don’t matter and you don’t have the right to be considered. It’s easy to adopt a mindset where you don’t try new things or talk to new people because then you can’t be rejected. Yet I find myself here, with a business that depends on me promoting it. I fight the instinct to ‘not be a nuisance’ every time I market my business. It makes me wonder whether I’d do more if I didn’t feel this way.
What it’s taught me
I don’t know what my life would have been like if the bullying hadn’t happened. There are some positives; I’m aware of the mind monkeys that hold me back. Silencing the chatter has become a skill, although not an infallible one. I’m selective in who I trust so I’ve learned to listen. There have been people in my life that others regarded as a ‘good bloke’, when they were anything but. I’ve learned to observe and work out who they really are. That comes in handy when I’m writing for clients and being their voice. In that respect, it could be a gift.
Sharing stories like this one help your future clients to see you as a human being, not just a business. It doesn’t have to be as personal as this. If I can help you find the right story to use in your marketing, let’s have a chat.
I was listening to the news recently and heard Michael Rosen talking about ‘that’ Downing Street cheese and wine party that wasn’t a party. As you might remember, Michael is a poet who was hospitalized with Covid-19 and spent several weeks in intensive care. He compared lockdown to the blitz during World War 2. Here’s the quote that stuck with me:
“Instead of the equivalent of wreaths at the Cenotaph, what we’re getting is ‘oh, we were partying while you were doing that’.”
It bothered me and I couldn’t work out why. Then I realised that we’ve been hearing this kind of Blitz spirit stuff all the way through lockdown. It’s the people who say you’d never have survived if you’re hoarding toilet rolls or can’t even cope with staying at home. They say that everyone pulled together and no-one was out for themselves. The trouble is, it’s rubbish.
Michael Rosen was right
When Michael Rosen was talking about the Downing Street gathering, he referred to the social trauma that we’ve all been through in the last two years. In that sense, it’s a fair comparison. We’ve been isolated from our loved ones and faced huge uncertainty. We’ve longed to get back to normal (whatever that might mean). There has also been fear. We might not have faced being sent out to a foreign battlefront, but we’ve certainly dealt with the reality that a bomb might drop in viral form.
We don’t know what the long-term impact of Covid-19 will be. The Blitz generation grew up (and grew old) in a world very different from this one. I’m still absolutely certain that comparing our society to that one isn’t helping.
People cheated during the Blitz too
The reason I have a problem with the whole idea of a modern day ‘Blitz spirit’ is that it glosses over historical reality. There’s a nostalgia which imagines that every generation before this one was somehow perfect. We’re fed a wartime image where every neighbourhood pulled together. The trouble is, not everyone did. There were lots of examples of neighbours looking after each other and community groups organising resources and support. But then, as now, there were plenty of people out for themselves too. The blackout provided plenty of opportunities for crime. People behaved badly when they got the chance because they didn’t know when the bombs would drop. Even fundamentally decent people found ways to bend the rules. Which reminds me…
The rules are different this time
Covid-19 brought a set of rules that separated us from our loved ones so we’d all stay safe. In the 1940s my dad didn’t see his parents for months at a time because he was in a ship on the Atlantic. Near the end of his life, he told me that every day had been a bonus since then. He knew that a torpedo could come through at any moment and it would all be over. The difference was that when you got the chance to let off steam, you could do it in a crowd. The party that’s unforgiveable now would have been part of life then. The trauma might be the same but we processed it differently.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because even though no two lives are the same, we’ve all got shared experiences and it’s important to talk about them. You might not think that your personal stories can translate to your business marketing, but they can. If you’d like to find out how, send me an email or book a call and let’s have a chat.
DI Alan McLean sighed and looked at his watch. Only ten minutes until sunset. He could only guess what time Victor Alexander would return home from work and find whatever he was going to find. McLean pulled the file across the desk and opened it again. It was certainly an unusual case. He wondered whether he’d have been sent the file if half of the station hadn’t gone down with a spectacular vomiting bug. Probably not. It wasn’t a major crime yet, although it certainly had potential. At the moment it was a just bizarrely seasonal stalking.
The first photo in the file had been taken on 22nd December, when Mr Alexander had arrived home to find that the front of his house and two shrubberies had been festooned with fairy lights. It was the Santa dummy on the doorstep that had rattled him. Or rather, the sign around its neck that read ‘what will you be getting for Christmas little boy?’ He wasn’t alarmed – far too level-headed for that – but it was a nuisance. He wanted it on record in case something else happened. The Santa was certainly creepy. A real-life version coming down the chimney would have been enough to send you running away screaming. McLean had taken his daughters to a grotto with a far more avuncular specimen.
He looked at his watch again and wondered what they were doing with their Christmas Eve. Was there a festive movie playing at home? The sky had turned orange and it would soon be dark. Had they talked their mum into making hot chocolate yet? He didn’t yet know what time he’d get home. One call from the officers stationed outside Alexander’s house could give him an idea, but his phone remained silent.
He turned back to the file and another photograph. The 23rd of December had brought a new display. Mr Alexander arrived home to find a series of photographs showing happy families celebrating Christmas. They all looked happy, eating and drinking or exchanging presents. The photographs had been blu-tacked to his front door, along with a wreath saying ‘Merry Christmas’. The FIs hadn’t found any fingerprints but they’d sent the whole lot for further examination, just in case. McLean wondered whether they’d been decimated by vomit too.
Now it was Christmas Eve. Time to find out whether Mr Alexander would come home to another prank or something more serious. He read Alexander’s statements again. He was the senior partner in a firm of accountants based in Leicester city centre. It clearly paid well – the house was large and in an affluent part of town. Yet he lived alone. Conversations with his neighbours revealed a man who worked long hours and didn’t socialise. Perhaps that was why they hadn’t noticed the new decorations being added to his house. McLean wondered whether he should feel sorry for the man, or whether he liked things that way. He drummed his fingers on the desk. It was finally dark. Surely something had to happen soon. There were two plain clothes officers in a car outside the house and a patrol car nearby. His phone buzzed. Mr Alexander had arrived home and there was no obvious sign of any interference with his property. Maybe it had just been a strange practical joke that had fizzled out. Hopefully that meant that he could go home soon. He liked Christmas Eve better than Christmas Day; there was something wonderful about the anticipation. He’d loved sharing the traditions from his childhood in Glasgow too. Most of them had been the same as the English customs, except one. His wife had never heard that you should light a candle and put it in your front window to welcome strangers. Their children had turned it into a candle to welcome Santa instead. He smiled, wondering if the candle would be there to light him home. The phone rang.
“Go ahead. Understood. I’m on my way.”
Alexander’s house looked even more impressive in real life than it did in the photos. The fact that there was a top of the range Jaguar parked in the drive didn’t hurt. McLean knew the plain clothes officer who answered the door.
“Evening sir. We found him in the garage, turning off the power. He’s in the living room now. Mr Alexander wanted a word.” He ended on an eye roll. It had obviously been a trying night already.
As McLean entered the room, his eyes were immediately drawn to the display on the wall next to the fireplace. ‘How does it feel to spend Christmas alone in the dark?’ It had been created by a projector that sat on the carpet.
Another officer rose from the sofa as he entered the room. He’d been sitting next to a pale young man in handcuffs, who was shaking so much McLean wasn’t sure he was capable of standing. It was a stark contrast to the beetle-browed man in the armchair. McLean knew it was Victor Alexander before he stood up to identify himself and shake hands. He had a firm handshake and a piercing gaze. McLean remembered his neighbours’ comments and wondered what it would be like to work for him. You certainly wouldn’t argue with him. The man was physically unremarkable yet somehow, he had force.
“I know it’s not the usual form, but I wanted to hear his explanation before you took him away.”
McLean nodded. “Have you had an explanation?”
Alexander shook his head. “I’m waiting for him to stop trembling. Come on, pull yourself together man!”
There was another chair opposite the sofa and McLean sank into it. He looked into the eyes of the handcuffed man and saw the effort that he was making to form a sentence. Finally, with a gulp and a deep breath, he spoke.
“He doesn’t remember who I am.”
“We’ve met a few times. I used to come and pick Fiona up when she was working late, save her getting the bus home.” He glanced at Alexander. “That happened quite a lot.”
“Fiona?” Alexander said. “Do you mean Fiona Mitchell?”
“My wife. I’m Mark Mitchell.”
“She was a good worker; I was sorry to lose her.”
“I bet you were. All that overtime for no extra pay.”
“She was dedicated.”
“She was overworked!”
“Is that what this is about?” McLean asked. “Getting your own back on your wife’s old boss? Why?”
Mark was shaking his head. “That’s not it. Let me explain.”
He fell silent until Alexander ran out of patience and told him to get on with it.
“I met Fiona when she was a trainee accountant. She was already working for Mr Alexander’s firm and they were paying for her training. I had quite a few friends who’d gone into law and finance so I knew you had to work hard to make it. The trouble was it never stopped. She told me that once she was qualified, she’d have more of her own clients so she could plan her workload. No more late nights because one of the partners needed her to do something urgent. Except it didn’t work that way. She became a safe pair of hands, someone he,” he nodded at Mr Alexander, “could rely on for sensitive work.”
Alexander nodded. “That’s true enough.”
“When we got married, she had to beg for two weeks off to go on honeymoon. Her Dad had a heart attack and he rang her to ask her to come in while he was still in surgery.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t. You don’t exactly encourage personal confidences. But how hard is it to realise that you don’t call someone into work on a day their relative is near death?”
Alexander didn’t reply.
“Christmases were the worst. They always open because tax returns are due at the end of January and their clients often use their Christmas down time to get up to date. Somehow Fiona always ended up working because she didn’t have children.”
“That wasn’t my decision. I left all of that to the office manager.”
“Yeah, but plenty of people asked you to intervene because it was unfair. You could have done that, but you just closed your office door and let the office manager’s cronies get their own way. Every Christmas I’d have to go and visit my family on my own. Every year I’d sit there, seeing the sideways looks between my aunties. Their poor neglected nephew with a career woman for a wife. As if she had a choice. All because you don’t need a break if you haven’t got kids. The irony is, we really wanted them. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.”
“Is that why she left?” McLean asked.
“Yeah. She got home from work one Christmas Eve and just sobbed; she was exhausted. We had two days leave together before she had to be back in the office. I wanted to wrap her in a blanket and sit her on the sofa but she needed to see her family. We spent the whole time travelling around to visit everyone, then she went back to work. She handed her notice in a couple of weeks later.”
Alexander was nodding. “I remember. I still don’t understand why you did all of this. Were you trying to give me a terrible Christmas as some sort of revenge?”
“No. That wasn’t it. Have you read ‘A Christmas Carol’? Charles Dickens?”
Mark looked around the room, addressing the question to all of them. Someone muttered that they’d seen the film and McLean wondered if they meant the Muppet version. “Scrooge didn’t understand Christmas. He thought that life was all about money so he ended up alone and friendless, with no-one to mourn him. You reminded me of that story. You’re all alone in this lovely house until you go back to work. Maybe you’re happy that way, I don’t know. It sounds daft now I say it out loud, but I thought that if I could recreate the ghosts, it would help you to understand what Christmas is for. That it might make you think about your employees and look after them a bit better.” He went quiet but McLean had a strong impression that he was holding something back.
“Did you have something else to say?” McLean asked. “Now’s your chance.”
“It’s just – are you happy Mr Alexander?”
Alexander looked surprised. “I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me that. No, I don’t suppose I am. I grew up in a family where hard work and fun were equally important. Oh, we had the most wonderful Christmases back then.” His eyes shone as he spoke. “My father used to dress up as Father Christmas for the children’s party at the factory and I had to pretend I didn’t know it was him. Then over the years, hard work took over and the fun stopped. My wife, Belinda, died.” His voice faltered. “She had breast cancer. We didn’t have children so when she went I was all alone. It’s easier to bury yourself in work than to submit to the sympathy of well-meaning neighbours. Then one day you find that work is all you have.”
He looked up at Mark. “I’m sorry about Fiona, I didn’t realise she was so unhappy. The truth is, I liked it when she came in over Christmas. I don’t suppose she liked me very much, but she was kind. It reminded me of Belinda. She was good at looking after people, I expect Fiona’s the same.”
Mark nodded. “She is. Everyone except herself. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” He looked up at McLean. “I don’t think I want to press charges. Am I able to do that? Can you just let him go?”
“We can. He broke into your garage, but that’s his only offence.”
Everyone stood up and the sergeant removed Mark’s handcuffs.
“There was one other thing.” Alexander said. “Why now? Fiona left nearly two years ago, what prompted you to visit me this year?”
Mark smiled and reached into a pocket for his phone. He found what he was looking for with a few taps and held it out towards Alexander. “This is our daughter, Angela. It’s her first Christmas.”
The sergeant went ahead of McLean to stand down the patrol car that had pulled up in front of the house. Victor and Andrew shook hands on the doorstep.
“I can’t supply you with a giant goose, but I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”
“Thank you. The whole family are descending tomorrow so it’ll definitely be busy, but at least we’ll have a few quiet days afterwards. What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
As they walked down the path, a woman of about fifty walked up. “I’m sorry to intrude, but I saw the police car; is everything all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” Victor replied. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“Oh, that’s good.” McLean saw her hesitate, biting her lip. “Look – I know we don’t really know each other, but Belinda was a good friend to me. I loved her very much and I don’t believe she’d want you to be on your own at Christmas. Would you like to come over for a drink?”
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
McLean smiled. It was a lovely gesture but he still felt as if he might throw up. He checked his watch. If he was lucky, he’d be home in time for hot chocolate.
It’ll soon be time to hang up the ‘closed’ sign and head off for Christmas. (My closed sign is metaphorical – my office is in the garden and I don’t get visitors.) I know that there are lots of things that are traditionally great about Christmas, but it can also be hugely stressful. The conversation at a recent networking event turned towards gratitude and how much it can benefit our mental health. It got me thinking about the things I actually enjoy about Christmas, so I decided to write them down. Here are my 5 favourite things about Christmas…
I love taking the school holidays off. There’s nothing quite so joyful as turning off the alarm clock until January. I get to visit people I don’t get to see and spend more time with the ones I live with.
My favourite day off is the one I take on my own before school finishes. I know, I’m weird. I spend the day pottering about doing whatever festive thing comes to mind. It might be ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ (again) or it could be wrapping presents with a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie. Bliss.
I’m a vegetarian so I’m not talking about turkey (although I do love Paxo). It’s all the other stuff that goes with Christmas. The cheese, the mince pies, opening the Prosecco at breakfast time. It’s the ridiculously huge tubs of Twiglets, Cheeselets and chocolates that you don’t get at any other time of year. I know I could eat pickled onions all year round, but I don’t. It’s all part of the festive feast and I love it.
If Christmas trees were banned tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind, as long as I could still have my lights. I love wearing jumpers and scarves and the fact that cold weather makes hot chocolate essential. The only thing I struggle with is the lack of light. A lot of my favourite things about Christmas involve lights – the Christmas tree, the candles and the high street displays. When January comes and the Christmas lights go out, the winter always feels just a little bit harder.
I’m not a religious woman, but I always head to church at Christmas. One of my relatives is a churchwarden and it’s always fun going to Christingle and watching lots of small children handle naked flames. Also, Christmas carols are brilliant, even if you’re not a believer.
There are also loads of good tunes on adverts and in the shops (although I was once a Christmas shop assistant and I know how wearing they get by Christmas Eve). It’s the one time of year that you can sing to your heart’s content and no-one bats an eyelid.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to start bumping off family members. Christmas is often associated with ghost stories, but I’m a crime writer. ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ is a fixture in my festive viewing, along with any new Agatha Christie adaptations that pop up. My husband bought me a copy of ‘The Mistletoe Murder and other stories’ by PD James a few Christmases ago. Since then that bit between Christmas and New Year, when you can’t remember what day it is, finds me curled up on the sofa with a new seasonal crime collection.
What are your favourite things about Christmas? Leave a comment and let me know!