B-to-B Insights: Technical Know-How
A lot of B-to-B marketing either promotes technical products, sells to a technical audience or both.
The technical nature of these marketing campaigns poses a challenge to those who must create them, because the marketers tasked with executing these high-tech marketing campaigns often lack a technical background. Therefore, they may have a steep learning curve and difficulty understanding what they are selling and to whom they are selling it.
I have been writing copy to sell technical products to engineers, scientists, programmers and other techies for 34 years. Here are some tricks of the trade I use to give me an edge in creating copy that both pleases the client, as well as persuades the target prospect:
1. Build an Accurate "Fact Bank"
A fact bank is a series of statements describing the products and its features that have been vetted by a technical expert. Before I start writing my copy, I go through the source material for the project and write down a series of five to 10 sentences that precisely describe the product, its major features, how those features translate into important use benefits and how the product works.
I email these sentences to my clients with the request that they review them and make any necessary corrections, additions or deletions. After they do so, I make their edits. Now I have a "palette" of pre-approved sentences I can use to construct my copy, with the added confidence of knowing what I am writing is technically accurate. The clients, in turn, get a first draft of copy on a highly technical subject that is surprisingly correct and on the mark.
2. Buy a Children's Book on the Topic
If you have to write copy about a technical subject, buy either a children's book on the subject or an adult nonfiction book aimed at a lay audience. For example, when I had to write copy for an aerospace contractor, I was aided by an Isaac Asimov book for young readers about satellites.
The children's books especially will provide clear, easy-to-understand explanations of key terms and concepts. The adult book will likely have descriptive phrases of features and functionality you can paraphrase in your own copy. If I "borrow" from books, I alert the client by adding a footnote and make sure I am not plagiarizing.
Another good purchase for the high-tech copywriter is a dictionary of industry terms. I have owned, at various times, dictionaries for computers, telecom, banking, finance and aerospace.
3. Ask the Client for Copies of PowerPoint Presentations.
Engineers, in particular, are visually oriented. So you should have visuals to accompany your text.
Rather than draw a lot of charts and graphs, I ask the client for copies of PowerPoint presentations given by their technical and sales staff. I then extract and paste into my copy whatever visuals I think would work best, carefully noting the name of the PowerPoint and the page number from the source.
Sometimes, I find an ideal diagram for illustrating my point on a website that is not the client's. If I use it, I add a note explaining to the client that it is for reference only and must be redrawn to avoid copyright infringement.
4. Understand Graphics Have Meaning
Unless you understand what a chart or graph means, don't use it until you do. It is extremely embarrassing to cut and paste a diagram out of a client's PowerPoint into your copy and then, when the client asks you why you used it, to have to answer "I don't know." You should understand each visual so well you can write a clear descriptive caption for it—and then do so.
5. Use Email for Interviews
I often interview subject matter experts (SMEs) over the phone when writing copy. But occasionally, I get an SME who cannot express himself well verbally, making it difficult for me to extract the information I need.
In that case, I may suggest that I email him questions and he, in turn, can email me his replies. Often, technical people who cannot speak English well can write decently—perhaps a result of the rise of email, which forces people who might not otherwise do so to write often.
At times, the email replies are so clear I can almost cut and paste them right into my copy.
If the answers are still unclear, I rewrite, in plain English and to the best of my understanding, and then email my rewrite back to the SME for review. Usually, the SME makes a few minor edits and, after that, that text is ready to use.
6. Use Wikipedia—With Caution
You can't wholly rely on information in Wikipedia to be accurate, because amateurs compile it. However, I've found that entries on technical terms usually start off with a clear, plain-English definition of the term, which is invaluable for gaining a quick understanding of what a thing is and its usage.
When you are researching statistics to augment your copy—for example, the date the laser was invented or the speed of sound in a vacuum—most clients, in my experience, want a better source than Wikipedia. Websites also are an iffy source when you don't know who is running them, as are blogs. I prefer citing an article in a respected industry or scientific journal.
7. Get Smart
If you are going to be writing about a product or technology on an ongoing basis, it makes sense to get some additional education on the topic.
An ad agency president told me he assigned one of his account executives to handle an industrial welding account. On his own, the account executive took night school courses in welding, eventually becoming a certified welder.
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter who has written copy for more than 100 clients including IBM, AT&T, Praxair, Intuit, Forbes, and Ingersoll-Rand. McGraw-Hill calls Bob “America’s top copywriter” and he is the author of 90 books, including “The Copywriter's Handbook.” Find him online at www.bly.com or call (973) 263-0562.