Finding great B2B technology copywriters is extremely hard, and getting harder.
As well as being able to write well, writers in our sector have to understand all kinds of obscure business-y things (‘what does a supply chain operations manager worry about?’) and some gnarly and arcane technology (‘virtual machine sprawl in the cloud’ is one that comes to mind).
We also need to understand B2B marketing, so we don’t go all boggle-eyed when a client asks for a four-stream nurture campaign with TOFU, MOFU and BOFU assets and multiple CTAs per touch.
In the old days, the ability to write well, get to grips with complex technologies, understand what an HR business partner or customer service director worries about, and know what ‘CTA’ means was enough to be a great copywriter in the B2B tech industry.
B2B content is evolving – and copywriting must, too
But now, copywriters in our sector need an even broader array of skills.
That’s because content formats are evolving and fragmenting at an incredible rate. A few years ago we were mainly writing white papers, email blasts and case studies. Today, copywriters need to be able to write in all kinds of weird and wonderful formats.
Look through Radix’s project archive for 2014 and alongside the white papers, emails and case studies, you’ll see video scripts, ebooks, brainteasers, SlideShare rants, parallax scrolling sites, awards entries, comic strips, infographics, Tweets, blog posts, newsletters, podcast interviews, checklists, workbooks, magazines, snapstats, infobites, and live-performance comedy sketches (our – French – client’s instructions: “Make it funny. And I mean properly funny, not British funny.”)
B2B content today needs to be not just informative but also entertaining; not just persuasive but also warm, funny, engaging, and empathetic. Recent briefs have asked for copy that’s ‘carnivorous’, ‘muscular’, ‘ballsy’, ‘passionate’ and ‘angry’, which sounds more like a bad day on the set of Fifty Shades of Grey than a SlideShare about accounts receivable software – but that in itself is indicative of how much B2B is changing.
Most of all, B2B content needs to tell human-centred stories that incite empathy, recognition and desire: stories about customers, about brands, about problems that get solved and the people that solve them.
No writer can do it all
Mastering all of this stuff is a massively tall order for any writer. A traditional B2B copywriter may know lots about technology, but be lost when it comes to writing a funny (not British funny) Avengers-themed sketch for a French sales VP to perform to an audience of Eastern European executives.
Another may be a brilliant business journalist, but lack the empathy and persuasiveness to spur a network manager into taking a 30-day trial of a new monitoring tool. And a third may be able to turn out meticulously-researched white papers, but struggle to write a snappy video voiceover.
Finding one writer who can do it all is next to impossible. Finding a talented team who know what a good story looks like, and who can apply that knowledge across a huge range of formats, is the key to producing great B2B technology content.
I’m very fortunate to have found – and hired – a crack team of such beasts here in Cornwall. Apart from myself, none of the Radix in-house team comes from a conventional B2B copywriting background – and in the age of content marketing, that’s a good thing.
Content is borrowing from pop culture
In the age of content marketing, brands are borrowing ideas and techniques from everywhere: from journalism, from blogging, from pop culture, from film, from television, from comic books, from fiction, from pop music, from videogames.
(We’ve not yet witnessed epic poetry, glassblowing or board games, but it can only be a matter of time…)
And why not: these are formats that people demonstrably enjoy spending time with. It always perplexes me when marketers say “people’s attention spans are getting shorter”. It’s probably true that tolerance thresholds for crap marketing content are getting lower. But attention spans getting shorter? People will pay good money to sit through a three-hour movie of part of The Hobbit. They’ll spend entire evenings crafting iron daggers in Skyrim. They’ll binge-watch whole series of Homeland in one sitting. Attention spans are as long as they ever were – if the content is good enough.
So in hiring my team, I’ve singled out people with a natural talent and enthusiasm for communicating along these storytelling vectors.
For me, that’s meant recruiting ‘natural’ writers: people who write all the time; for fun, for their own entertainment and for other people’s. People who can’t help but write, whether they’re paid for it or not. People who love to experiment with formats and techniques as well as with language itself.
Why I hired my team: the forensic breakdown
Matt was my first full-time hire. He’d never written so much as a webinar registration page, since his job at the time involved managing a branch of a well-known educational toy shop. But he did write a blog; the fictional rantings of a somewhat unhinged character called Angstrom*.
This blog not only made me laugh; it also showed that Matt could skilfully twist language this way and that – which indicates an ability to escape cliché and convention and find new, surprising ways to frame facts and ideas. And that’s a skill that’s desperately needed in B2B marketing.
Five years on, Matt’s now a director of the business, has grown our main client from £8k a year to £120k a year, and makes clients deliriously happy with his spot-on, right-first-time copy. These days he mainly spends his non-work time fathering children – but you can still occasionally glimpse his dry wit at work in his all-too-rare blog posts for us.
Kieran came to us with a first-class English degree, an MA with distinction in Professional Writing, and a superb graduate portfolio that included a mocked-up direct mail campaign for Help The Aged, called ‘Don’t Help The Aged’. It was a lovely piece of attention-earning, thought-provoking, counter-intuitive marketing. I would have hired Kieran just for that, but into the bargain he’s also a novelist, novella-ist, songwriter, and occasional contributor to the New Statesman – and thus a prolific storyteller in many different mediums.
(In fact, Kieran is such a Renaissance man that we let him have Fridays off to pursue his creative writing career.)
Kieran is a hugely talented writer whose work is full of warmth, wit and personality (and more than a few puns) – which is why these days we’re constantly fielding client requests to have him personally work on their campaigns. Some days I still can’t quite believe our luck that he works for us.
Where would content marketing be without listicles? The format that made Buzzfeed’s fortune has taken root in B2B: just last week we’ve worked on Seven Myths That are Stopping You Virtualizing Your Business Critical-Apps, and Five Principles for Finding and Fixing Marketing Problems in Real Time.
Lots of people scoff at listicles but the truth is that people like them. And they like them even more when they’re funny – which is why, when listicle king John hoved into view, we snapped him up.
Before joining Radix, John was producing rib-tickling pop-culture listicles for the likes of Sabotage Times and (the now-defunct) The Fly, and has even taken his listicle A-game to The Guardian with this comprehensive rundown of Macaulay Culkin’s musical outings.
If you want a funny listicle, John’s your man. He’s pretty good at Tweets, brainteasers and infographics too. But you can’t have him this month: he’s gone to New Mexico to look for buried treasure. We’re just hoping he comes back.
I knew about Emily long before she applied for a job with us, thanks to her indefatigable production of all kinds of multimedia content.
I’d seen Emily fronting videogame vodcasts, writing columns for local newspapers, reviewing games for online publications, writing graphic novels, updating her Twitter feed and even tracking down Ian Livingstone, the UK government’s games industry champion, for an exclusive interview – an impressive feat and the main reason I hired her.
Emily is a total nerd – the fact that she runs a weekly podcast called Nerds Assemble is a bit of a clue – but a nerd who’s curious about industry dynamics and developments, and who can’t resist exploring all of the connections and avenues and ramifications of the topics that interest her. All of which are essential attributes for anyone who wants to produce thoughtful and original content.
Early in her career at Radix I saw that Emily could help us launch and manage our own multimedia content marketing programme, and she’s done so brilliantly. Under Emily’s watch we’ve produced a monthly copywriting podcast and newsletter, continuously updated our blog, and created our first ever ebook. Long may her many and varied content creation skills serve us.
I’m convinced the future of B2B technology content lies in the ability to borrow from journalism and entertainment to tell intriguing and enticing stories – but that mustn’t come at the expense of commercial awareness and the ability to sell when needed.
So when Steve appeared on the horizon with a degree in business and management – and a background in games journalism – it seemed a great opportunity to hire someone with both pop-culture writing skills and an appreciation of how business and marketing work.
Steve joined us on a short-term graduate placement through Unlocking Potential, but proved himself from the off by producing strong, commercially-aware copy in response to an unforeseen deluge of briefs we happened to receive during his two-week internship. Once his placement was over we snapped him up as a full-time writer, and he’s never let us down.
Despite his business-focused degree, it must be noted that Steve is as gloriously nerdy as (most of) the rest of the Radix team – and if any B2B technology companies feel like designing an epic fantasy trading card game as part of a content marketing programme, Steve is ready for the challenge.
Hiring graduates straight out of university into a B2B writing role can be a gamble, but George hadn’t spent the three years of his English degree closeted in an ivory tower reading metaphysical poetry.
Rather, he’d honed his real-world writing skills by supporting himself throughout his degree working as a games journalist, writing over 10,000 words a week for a popular review site, as well as interviewing industry executives and reviewing and editing colleagues’ work.
Not only this, but he’d also been lead writer for a small indie videogame developer; a medium in which storytelling skills are vital to satisfying gameplay but often sadly lacking (a bit like B2B marketing content, eh, readers?)
George had a great set of skills: a relentless work ethic; ability to deliver to deadline; an intuitive feel for what constitutes a good story; and the confidence to ask questions of industry figures (essential to getting good stories out of clients on briefing calls).
As B2B tech content heads into more creative and inspired territory, George stands ready to apply his storytelling skills across all manner of traditional and non-traditional formats. Bring it!
This post has mainly been about the skills I’ve looked for in a writing team – but a writing team on its own is a hopeless, shambling mess without an organising force to keep it focused and on track.
By mid-2012 we desperately needed a project manager to co-ordinate our work, respond to client emails, make sure briefs arrived when they were supposed to, and generally keep everything ticking over efficiently.
The moment Sophie arrived on interview day, I knew she was the one. She was engagingly open and honest about everything, especially when she didn’t have an answer to our questions, which made me feel that this was a person that I – and our team and clients – could trust completely.
Sophie also had a background in the software industry, where the vast majority of our clients operate, so had first-hand experience of the pressures and foibles of multinational technology businesses. A rare find here in Cornwall!
I was a bit worried we might have scared Sophie off before she even started work, since she came to visit us a few days before she started to find the entire Radix team geeking out over a set of Game of Thrones mugs that Matt had bought. But mercifully that didn’t put her off – and these days Sophie is our operations director, top commercial thinker and key member of the management team. We’d never have made it this far without her.
All in all, a fabulous team with huge amounts of writing and storytelling experience across an impressively diverse array of formats and platforms. As a team we’re well up for creating the future of B2B content marketing. Are you?
* Angstrom is sadly no longer available on the public internet. “Probably for the best,” says Matt.