“I just don’t ever want to be in the situation again where we’re at version 12 and the final copy is still nowhere in sight.”
So said a prospective client to me once during a pitch, as I was explaining how Radix approaches client writing projects.
(Spoiler: we got the work, and I’m happy to report that nothing we wrote for that client ever got anywhere near v12. We don’t let that sort of thing happen on our watch.)
For many marketers – not to mention copywriters – the spectre of approvals limbo is all too real. The ebook that was meant to accompany a product launch in April? Still doing the rounds of stakeholders in September. The new website that was meant to go live eight months ago? Nobody can agree on the copy, so the embarrassing old site is still there for all the world to see.
A fatberg of unapproved content
We’ve all seen the stats about how 60% of B2B marketing content never gets used. But the stuff Sirius Decisions was thinking about had at least been approved. I reckon that lurking beneath the surface is a problem of equal if not bigger size: a fatberg of content that never even gets signed off.
So what causes a piece of content to go to 12+ rounds of edits – and more to the point, how can we B2B marketing types stop it from happening?
10 root causes of approvals limbo
Bitter experience has taught me that there are at least 10 factors that can cause a piece of written work to get stuck in approvals limbo. Luckily, they’re all avoidable – or at the very least, manageable.
Here’s a handy root-cause diagnostic to help you uncover why your written content has gone wrong, who can fix it, and how we can all avoid v12 hell:
#1 There was no brief
Why it happens: The content was needed in a hurry, and nobody had time to write one. Or the briefing was done in person or over the phone, and the writer lacked the confidence or experience to ask for the kind of information that results in a great piece of work.
Who can fix it: Writers and marketers can both fix this one.
How to fix it: The writer should decline to start without a brief. They can speed things along by a) having a briefing template that the marketer can fill in, or b) asking the right questions on the briefing call to get the right information. Marketers can fix it by writing a clear brief, ideally to the writer’s template. It may seem like a lot of work upfront, but it saves a lot of rework down the line.
#2 There was a brief, but it wasn’t good enough
Why it happens: The person giving the brief didn’t have a clear understanding of essential factors like the objectives of the piece, the target audience and what they’re interested in, or the role of the piece in the overall marketing strategy. The writer didn’t have the experience or the confidence to request the missing information.
Who can fix it: The writer can – and should – fix this.
How to fix it: Writers, don’t be scared to ask for the information you need. If there’s a written brief and it seems to be missing important details, don’t second-guess: pick up the phone to your client and get what you need. Even if it seems clear, it’s always worth a quick call to make sure you’ve understood it properly. We make this a part of our process at Radix and it’s made a huge difference to the quality of our work.
#3 The writer isn’t the right fit for the project
Why it happens: Not every writer is a great fit for every project. Some briefs may require industry or technical knowledge – or creative flair, or experience writing for a specific format – that the chosen writer doesn’t have. Way back in the day we identified seven different types of B2B copywriter, and it really matters which one you use for your project.
Who can fix it: Marketers and writers can both fix this (if they want to).
How to fix it: If you’re a marketer, make sure your chosen writer has a great track record of producing the kind of content you’re after. If you use an agency with a team of writers (*ahem*), ask them to recommend the best writer for the job. If you’re a writer, be honest about your areas of strength and areas where you’re less likely to produce a brilliant piece of work. If you take on a project you’re unlikely to excel at, be prepared for a lot of back-and-forth after the first draft.
#4 There wasn’t enough time for a solid first draft
Why it happens: The deadline was unrealistic for the amount of work involved, or the writer promised a quick turnaround and then found the job more difficult than they expected.
Who can fix it: Both marketer and writer – but it needs a frank conversation.
How to fix it: Marketers, if you want a high-quality piece of work, give your writer time to interview,
research, think, plan, and produce a great first draft. Even better, give them time to research, think, and write you an outline, so you can check the direction they plan to take. You’re not going to get a brilliant piece of work if you expect it back the same day. Writers, be honest with your clients – and yourself – about how long a piece of work is going to take.
#5 More than one stakeholder was involved, and they couldn’t agree what they wanted
Why it happens: Multiple stakeholders are a fact of life, especially in larger companies. The problem becomes particularly acute when the piece of content spans two or more business units: like product and industry. The product stakeholder wants to big up the product; the industry stakeholder wants to focus on industry issues. The writer is stuck in the middle trying to incorporate everybody’s feedback – usually to nobody’s satisfaction.
Who can fix it: Marketers, this one’s on you.
How to fix it: If your stakeholders aren’t aligned on what they expect from a piece of content, it’s too early to get a writer involved. Often it’s a case of identifying at the start which stakeholders will have input, clearly briefing them on the purpose, objectives and direction of the content, and making sure they’re all on board with it. This Velocity Partners interview with PathFactory’s Elle Woulfe has some great pointers from an experienced stakeholder-wrangler.
#6 The stakeholder couldn’t articulate what they wanted
Why it happens: A stakeholder briefs the writer, but the briefing doesn’t go well. The stakeholder hasn’t had time to prepare, or they haven’t been briefed, or they’re distracted because they’re driving or getting on a train. They may not know enough about the proposed topic, or they may know a lot but they’re not an accomplished verbal communicator. Any of these can lead to a sub-par first draft that delivers diminishing returns after that.
Who can fix it: Mainly the marketer, but the writer can also help here.
How to fix it: Marketers, make sure your stakeholder has the right knowledge, is fully briefed and has time to prepare and talk to the writer. Ideally, join the call yourself, to make sure the writer gets what they need. Writers, don’t turn up to the call expecting to be spoon-fed. Prepare for it, write out your questions, and use them to get the information you need. If the call goes wrong, work with the marketer to fix the problem – maybe by organising another call, or talking to a different expert.
#7 The stakeholder knew what they wanted, but it got lost in translation
Why it happens: The writer is briefed second-hand, often by an agency that’s reluctant to put the writer in direct contact with the client. Or the first writer on a project failed to deliver, so a second writer is brought in to fix it – but they aren’t given access to the subject matter expert.
Who can fix it: The marketer can fix this, and the writer can help.
How to fix it: Marketers (whether client-side or agency-side) should allow the writer to interview the expert directly, so none of the nuance gets left out or lost in translation. If the writer feels they’re not getting what they need from the second-hand materials, they should insist on an interview.
(Incidentally, getting a second writer on board because the first failed to deliver is almost never an easy fix, as our senior writer Steve explains in his post: What to Do When B2B Writing Goes Wrong.)
#8 One or more stakeholders got involved part-way through the project
Why it happens: A new stakeholder joins the company, or someone from another business unit takes an interest in the content piece. Their feedback gets added to the pile. Bonus frustration points if they feed back on an earlier/different version of the piece.
Who can fix it: Mainly the marketer, but the writer can help.
How to fix it: Marketers, decide upfront who will be involved in reviewing and providing feedback. Make sure everyone reads and feeds back on the same version. Writers, clarify upfront with the marketer how many stakeholders will be reviewing, and ask for consolidated feedback rather than implementing everyone’s feedback at different times.
#9 The primary stakeholder is a frustrated writer
Why it happens: The stakeholder would like to write the piece themselves, but doesn’t have time. Nothing the writer produces will live up to their idea of what the piece should be like. Cue endless rounds of demoralising amends (until the stakeholder decides to rewrite it themselves anyway).
Who can fix it: The writer can fix this (if they’re brave), with support from the marketer.
How to fix it: A frank conversation between writer and stakeholder, to persuade the stakeholder to trust the writer’s judgment. If the marketer can back the writer up, so much the better. We’ve also found that explaining your thinking through margin comments or a rationale, can work wonders.
#10 The world has moved on since the content was commissioned
Why it happens: While the content piece cranks through endless rounds of approvals, the world continues to turn. And the world of B2B tech turns faster than practically any other. By the time the piece gets to version 5, a new CMO might have joined, or the business might have pivoted or been acquired. Cue another 5+ rounds of amends as the writer is asked to “incorporate the new positioning” into an already-moribund piece.
Who can fix it: The marketer must fix this, swiftly and decisively.
How to fix it: If the world has moved on, the best way to fix this is to kill the piece and start again – this time avoiding all of the above scenarios.
Escape approvals limbo for good
Everybody wants the content creation process to go smoothly, and end in a wonderful piece of work that’s delivered on time and achieves its objectives. But all too often, these 10 scenarios consign the content to approvals limbo, sometimes never to resurface.
If you recognise the warning signs early and take the right action, you can stop that from happening. And if you’d like to talk about how an experienced B2B writing agency can help, do get in touch.