Can you teach great B2B technology copywriting?

It’s no secret that B2B copywriting is hard. But is it a skill that can be learned, or are some people just born with it? George taps up some experts for their thoughts.

Is it possible to teach good B2B copywriting?

If you find it hard to write persuasively for a B2B tech audience, you’re not alone.

All copywriting requires some degree of skill, but convincing a busy CIO to spend half an hour reading your white paper about data centre virtualization requires zen-like levels of expertise. Especially when half a dozen other vendors are jostling to get their white paper read as well.

So is great B2B tech copywriting a skill that can be learned, or do great B2B technology copywriters spring into the world fully-formed, ready to start scribing irresistible calls to action?

Having recently made the journey from amateur to (hopefully-at-least-semi) competent B2B technology copywriter myself, I can tell you how it looks from the view of a humble student. But to get a more rounded view, I’ve also asked four experienced B2B copywriters to share their thoughts.

Learning the t(ropes)

When people make their first steps into copywriting, they generally come at it either from being an expert in a particular field, or from being a decent writer with a desire to learn about a new field.

As an English graduate I came very much from the writing side, which can often be a quick road to frustration when you’re trying to write about a complex B2B technology topic.

While I certainly had reasonable tech knowledge from a horribly misspent youth face-deep in solder and commodity PC hardware, I had an empty space where the business and marketing knowledge should be—a space that needed filling.

It’s one thing learning about the complex worlds of business and marketing; it’s another thing writing convincingly for business prospects. There are so many expressions, phrases, tropes and ideas that need to be expressed in particular ways for particular audiences that it would be very difficult to learn it all from a book.

On top of all that, the type of copy that “works” is constantly changing, so staying on top of the game requires a process of continuous learning.

That’s why B2B technology copywriting must be taught “on the job” – in person and over a long period of time. You need a mentor or senior who can critique your work and point out why some phrases and ways of thinking are better than others.

That’s my view, but what do more seasoned copywriters think? I asked four of them to weigh in on whether great B2B copywriting can be taught – and you can find their thoughts below.

Matt Godfrey, people & skills director, Radix Communications

You can teach people about the individual parts that make up B2B technology copywriting (so your tech, how to communicate with a business audience, and how to write clearly), but putting it all together can be a challenge.

This is made even harder by how quickly everything changes. The technologies change and expand at a rapid pace, trendy terms and phrases are introduced, overused and abandoned before you can even blink, and the popular channels and trends of today are tomorrow’s sly in-joke.

We make a fairly big deal of coaching in the Radix funhouse, scheduling regular one-to-one training sessions to keep our writers’ craft honed. Some of the techniques I use are:

  • I show writers my own work and explain why I’ve written it that way (I am, obviously, perfect)
  • I talk with them in as much detail as possible about their own work – highlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly (and explaining why it’s good, bad or ugly)
  • I challenge them to justify the decisions they’ve made when writing a particular piece
  • I encourage them to challenge me (and each other) to create more engaging and compelling copy

Beyond this, we also share examples of great work around the team to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and supplement this with regular group training sessions to keep us on our toes and help us find new ways to approach trickier writing projects.

Henneke Duistermaat, Enchanting Marketing

Most people can become good business writers. It’s certainly a skill that can be taught, and it often starts with changing our perspective. Rather than write what we as a business want to write, we need to take the reader’s perspective. How can we help them? What do they want to know? What’s stopping them from taking action?

A good understanding of our audience is the basis of good copywriting, and then we only need to apply a few basic copywriting rules:

  • Have a clear purpose for each piece of content
  • Translate all features into benefits to explain why your readers should care about your offer
  • Avoid marketing fluff by using specific details to boost your credibility
  • Tighten your text by removing each redundant word

A little practice, discipline and perhaps feedback from a more experienced writer can quickly boost the quality of your content, so you can get better results.

(Henneke’s 5 Critical Rules for Writing Compelling Copy SlideShare goes into further details on the basics of learning the craft. We’d highly recommend it!)

David McGuire, creative director, Radix Communications

I think you do need a degree of natural talent (if someone simply has a tin ear for a sentence, it can be a hard gap to bridge) but there’s lots we can do to make people better.

Sometimes, it’s about helping people to think about things in a new way – considering things from the reader’s point of view, or focusing on how people actually use the internet in the real world.

Other times, it’s more a case of freeing people from a self-imposed sense of having to be “proper” in the way they write, or limiting themselves to assumptions and conventions.

And I think it can help to have a structure, to give a framework to start from. If you know what the first sentence of a blog needs to achieve, or what goes in a nut paragraph – if you have a character count to hit, or specific words to avoid – those rules turn the job into a game, and mark out a space to get creative.

(You can break the rules if you like, but at least then it’s an informed decision.)

Finally… experience helps, but not necessarily experience of writing. Being able to picture the kind of person, environment and job you’re addressing can make a huge difference. Likewise, a couple of years of having to sell for a living can really focus your copy.

It worked for me, anyway.

Tom Albrighton, ABC Copywriting

I don’t have any experience of teaching or learning B2B copywriting in a formal context, so I can only answer indirectly.

I think you need many of the same traits as for B2C, but arguably more so.

Curiosity is a good example. You need to be very curious about the product or service, how it works and who it helps. It might meet multiple needs, or benefit multiple groups in multiple ways, and you need to get your head round them all. And it follows that there might be several different people involved in the buying decision, maybe at different stages, who all need to hear the right message.

You might also need to learn some industry background to understand the context: the path-dependencies that have shaped previous developments in the client’s world, and how this product/service fits into that story. Where does the product sit in the market? Does it lead on price, capability, quality, service, flexibility, or a combination of these factors? If it’s not a leader (which the vast majority of offerings aren’t), what shape is its ‘value curve’ – what unique mix or balance of benefits does it offer? In B2C, some differentiation can be had purely from the brand – but in B2B, you really need to know who’s going to buy, and why, before you can sell to them.

Having gathered all that stuff, you need to be able to distil it all down to its essence and turn it outward so that it speaks to the prospect. Again, that’s the same skill as for B2C, but here I would suggest it’s less about dramatising a key benefit than about selecting and prioritising which benefit(s) you’re going to predicate your sell on. ‘One benefit, one strategy’ is always the ideal, but for some B2B offerings it’s just too reductive, and if you push too hard for it you’ll end up with something too insubstantial to cut through. With B2B, authority is in the details.

What can we do to help other people learn how to write great B2B copy?

Encourage them to be curious about businesses, the stories behind them and what makes them different. If they work in-house, get them involved on the commercial side as well as the creative, so they can see the sorts of issues that drive B2B first-hand. Make opportunities for them to talk to people who use B2B products and services, so they can understand how B2B buying decisions get made.

In summary

B2B technology copywriting is hard. Like, super hard. But there are some things to look out for that can help you avoid the common mistakes.

Whether you’re learning or teaching the craft, you should watch out for:

  • The audience – not just who will be interested, but also who will be making the final decision
  • The product – B2B tech can be a crowded space, one lacking the instant brand recognition of B2B. You need to know a product or services USPs before you start writing about it
  • The structure – a good structure goes a long way in B2B tech copywriting
  • The end-reader – as much as we love our clients, they aren’t the ones who need to read our copy. What would the target audience want to read?

Thanks to all four copywriting gurus who contributed to this piece – we really appreciate it. And we’d love to hear your views: do you think great B2B copywriting is a talent you’re born with, or a skill that can be taught? Let us know on Twitter @radixcom.

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