Let’s cut to the chase: reviewing someone else’s writing – and especially giving objective feedback – is hard. Really hard.
That’s why, right now, copywriters all over the world are doing their best to action feedback like “this needs rewording”, “it just needs more… oomph”, and even “make it a bit more sparkly”. And not just from clients; even those of us who write for a living can find it tricky to put our finger on the thing that isn’t quite right.
It’s especially tricky here in the B2B tech sector, where the writing chops to hold your audience’s attention and explain things clearly are pushed to their limit – particularly when you need to write about some pretty niche subjects, in a way the audience will find authentic. You can find yourself reading a piece and thinking “It doesn’t quite work – but I don’t know how to make it better”.
The truth is, it’s not always easy to understand what good B2B copywriting looks like.
A pyramid of copywriting skills
Recently, a discussion in the Content Marketing Institute’s LinkedIn Group highlighted the issue again. A copywriter asking about clients’ expectations when hiring a writer drew such varied responses that it made one thing clear: there’s no consensus about what to look for.
One marketer argued writing with proper grammar was the most important thing… and yes, that’s pretty fundamental. But clearly, there’s more to great copywriting than just that.
So which is the most essential copywriting skill?
Actually, for B2B, I’d argue there are five core competencies – and importantly, each one builds on the one before, a bit like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (note: the version near the bottom of the article is the one I consider most accurate). The basic three levels make for pretty dull writing on their own, but the exciting stuff is useless unless you also get the fundamentals right.
“A fine sentence is just the veneer on the credenza.”
So, next time you’re evaluating some B2B tech marketing copy (including some of ours), ask yourself these five simple questions – and remember to ask them in order. It’ll help you to give much clearer feedback, and choose the best writer for the job.
Test #1: Is it free from obvious mistakes?
Harsh as it sounds, even the most brilliant, inspirational writing can be brought down if it’s full of basic errors. That’s not saying the grammar always needs to be fiddly and formal – that depends on context – just that things can’t be obviously wrong. It’s hard to take any content seriously if it confuses your with you’re, or losing with loosing.
So do check spelling. Check grammar. And, while you’re at it, check facts too.
Accuracy is the foundation on which everything else stands. Fortunately – unless a whole piece is based on obviously incorrect information – it’s also the easiest thing to fix.
(Naturally, this means you will now spot a horrendous typo within the next five seconds. Even the most fastidious proofing is no match for Sod’s Law.)
So in a way, the marketer from LinkedIn was right. Good English (or whatever language you’re using) is where we start. But we don’t finish there.
Test #2: Did I have to read anything twice?
A good writer needs to think clearly – and you should see signs of that in the way they put a sentence together. Explanations need to be logical, and it ought to be obvious what the point is (in an individual sentence/paragraph, and the piece as a whole).
If you find yourself re-reading a section (even if, when you eventually decode it, it makes sense), that’s often a sign that the writer is struggling, or that they haven’t really thought about what they’re saying.
Good copy is easy to read.
Test #3: Does this ring true?
Especially in B2B and tech, you need to get the feeling that the writer really knows about the subject. If they sound like a newbie, the piece won’t have authority with decision-makers in that sector. (At best it will fail to be read – at worst, it can undermine your brand.)
Using sector jargon is not enough; it needs to be used the right way – the way your customers do. Dropping sector buzzwords willy-nilly can make you sound stupid, if it’s clearly blagging. Do you feel like the writer really gets what those terms mean?
You can also test for understanding by looking at which points the writer has chosen to emphasise. If you know your subject, you’ll generally get a good feel for which bits are most exciting for the target audience. (Oh, it comes with a USB port? How interesting for you…)
Test #4: Who cares about this, really?
You can write as much accurate, clear, authoritative copy as you like… if the response is still “so what?” then you’ve probably failed. So be brutally honest: did the writer make you care enough to read to the end? More importantly, will your target audience feel that way?
For the best writers, this is not about the persuasive force of their prose; it’s their empathy with the reader… and good old-fashioned research. If you understand your audience, you can develop a keen instinct for what will appeal to their hopes, or what keeps them awake at night. If you can keep a sense of their context – when, how and why they’re reading – that’s better still.
If you’ve got all this, you’re almost there.
Test #5: Is this extraordinary?
Your copy is no good if it’s humdrum.
And that’s no less true just because it’s B2B tech. In fact, it’s more so – wherever you put your marketing message, it’s competing for attention with a million others. Everyone’s making more content. Sending more emails. Creating more STUFF.
In this climate, OK gets you nowhere; you need to be, literally, outstanding.
This is where great copywriting really pays off. But it’s also the part that’s hardest to quantify, or to be objective about. That turns into feedback like “make it more sparkly”.
So start by asking yourself whether it surprised you. Whether it stirred an emotion of some kind (joy, anger, humour, disgust… something). Ultimately, whether it would make you take action.
(Please note: surprise is a good thing – so if the piece isn’t at all what you were expecting, don’t be too quick to judge. It might be brilliant.)
“Brilliant” is the price of admission
None of this is about different types of copywriter (Fiona’s already covered that in meticulous detail, here). And it doesn’t vary depending on the format. These are the five core competences every B2B copywriter should be showing, on a regular basis.
At least, on a good day.
In reality, the best writers get there most of the time. But it’s certainly what you should expect from every piece of B2B copy and content you see… and hopefully, on those rare off days, these five tests will help you to zoom in on exactly where the problem lies.
(And naturally, this post will now be quoted back to me, at length, by my own clients. Well, bring it on. Life’s too short for copy that isn’t amazing – whether you’re reading or writing.)