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B2B copywriting: Is “human” the best we can do?

David McGuire of B2B tech writers Radix Communications says it’s time B2B content aimed higher.

Here’s a fun game. Open up your brand’s tone of voice or writing style guidelines, and I’ll guess what they say.

“Conversational”, possibly. Perhaps “confident”. Likely “concise”, and almost certainly “clear”. And here’s a strange one: “human”.

I don’t know what’s weirder. The fact that almost every B2B brand writing guide stipulates humanity, or that nobody in the industry seems to notice what a bizarre indictment that is.

It’s weird that “human” needs saying

Because what exactly is the alternative? I find it hard to believe that any company makes the conscious decision to sound like a robot, an alien, or – worst of all – a management consultant.

Plenty of B2B brands do sound that way, of course. But not usually on purpose.

It’s weird that “human” is enough

7.8 billion humans on the planet. And if your brand voice can do a passable impression of any one of them, that’s supposedly a differentiator.

It doesn’t seem to matter which human. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Elizabeth I. Greta Thunberg or Donald Trump. As long as it’s a human, it seems like it’ll do.

And the weirdest thing? It’s true

The sad truth is, even in 2020, you probably do still need to explicitly say if you want your brand’s content to sound as if it was written by people. And if you can achieve that, it probably will set you apart in many areas of B2B.

True story: because my life is immeasurably glamorous, I recently had the pleasure of analysing 50 pieces of B2B thought leadership content by five well-known IT and management consultancies. (Yes, I know; I can feel your envy.)

I ranked their readability using the Flesch-Kincaid test – a crude scoring system, showing broadly how easy or difficult something is to read. One version scores text out of a maximum of 121 points for readability. Any score below 50 is classed as “difficult to read”, and anything below 30 is described as “very confusing”.

Of all 50 pieces I checked…

  • The average score (out of 121) was 27.4
  • No piece scored higher than 47.5
  • Only one brand averaged over 30
  • Several content pieces scored in single digits

Readability and humanity are not the same thing, of course. But it’s a good place to start. It’s hard for your audience to build a rapport with your content when reading it feels like Andy Dufresne’s crawl to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption.

Readability and humanity – an illustration

Low-readability content sounds like this:

“In B2B, is widely believed that highly-educated audiences necessitate a commensurate complexity of language in marketing communications. Marketing practitioners who attempt to create impactful content assets are commonly accused of "dumbing down" by experienced stakeholders who have studied for years, or in some cases decades, to acquire world-class expertise and are, understandably, anxious to avoid oversimplification of the subject matter.”

But increase the readability a little, and it sounds more like:

“In B2B, people often think marketing language needs to be complex, because the audience is educated. Experienced stakeholders might tell a marketer they're "dumbing down" if they try to write clear, direct content. After all, if you've worked to become a world-class expert in a subject, you don't want that knowledge minimised.”

It’s worth noting the second example is far from “dumbed down”. It has a Flesch-Kincaid readability score in the mid-fifties, about the same as a broadsheet newspaper. For the most part, it also includes all the same details.

(This is actually part of a longer example that we cover on the B2B Marketing copywriting course. We go into a lot more detail there.)

The problem isn’t the guidelines (and it’s probably not the writer)

Whatever the guidelines might say, there’s clearly a problem here. Your content can’t start to sound human until it’s readable – and a lot of B2B still struggles to achieve even that. The brand book might say “human”, but in practice the content is anything but.

I’d love to tell you the answer is to hire a great B2B copywriter, or to attend the copywriting course. And sure, both of those things will help.

But in my experience, the problem is more often to do with stakeholders in the approvals process – people for whom good writing and academic writing look the same. They’re the ones who insist on adding complexity to show how much they know. Or who see the buzzwords in your competitors’ content and believe you won’t be taken seriously unless you follow suit.

(Research says the same: 86% of B2B content marketers have stakeholder issues, and 59% say their signoff process makes content outcomes worse.)

To an extent, you can combat those issues by building a fact-based business case for clarity – or by using tools like Flesch-Kincaid to make language decisions more objective. But it’s an uphill battle – and we also have to look at ourselves, and our hiring decisions. There are plenty of examples where CVs stuffed with buzzwords get more interviews than clear ones with facts and data. What’s the impact of that on the content organisations produce?

For now, maybe human is the best we can do

At its best, B2B marketing content can tell beautiful, engaging stories that inspire the reader to feel hope about the difference they can make in their job, or even the world. B2B content can make us laugh, and cry. It can build rapport and trust. It can speak with a warm, recognisable voice.

But that kind of content needs the stars (or rather, the stakeholders) to align in an almost miraculous way. It needs the right input and insights at the right time, and for the organisation to trust its marketers to do what they do best.

And the research suggests most B2B marketers don’t have an environment like that. At least, not yet.

So maybe, for now, “human” is a good thing to aim for. It’s a time of new normals, and if we can make warm, engaging, readable writing the default, then maybe stakeholders will start to view that as the standard we need to meet.

Even though that’s actually what the guidelines said all along.

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