Did Ignite inspire you to be more human? Good. Now tell your copywriter.
David McGuire of Radix Communications fears your urge to be different could get strangled by B2B’s identikit voice and tone.
Everything about Ignite 2018 screamed of B2B’s urgent need become more human. From the moment Rory Sutherland told us “The last thing you want to be is rational”, the message was clear: B2B needs to change. To think differently. To put people first.
The theme came through in probably a dozen ways. Rooster Punk Paul Cash told us: “People buy with emotion and justify with fact”, and Giuseppe Caltabiano of Contently explained the psychology of B2B content. Sally Wright from Tektronix shared breathtakingly personal stories about staying human, while Siemens’ Pauliina Jamsa said: “Speak from the heart, and you capture theirs.”
By the time rap-battling teacher Mark Grist was telling us about taking a leap outside of his comfort-zone, and the life-changing impact it’d had, we were sold. Stand out. Make a change. Be human.
You decided to change. So now what?
Fast forward a week. I’m sitting in the Radix office, surrounded by ten B2B copywriters – and frankly, if there’s a sudden surge of humanity sweeping through the industry, we’re yet to feel it.
To my right, Steve’s writing a perspective paper about automating legacy IT. On my left, Nick is drafting a technical article on refrigeration compressors. And opposite me, Katy’s putting the final touches to content assets for a data warehousing campaign.
Each one is writing on a different subject, for a very different audience, on behalf of a different B2B brand. And yet each one’s working to a brand voice guide that sounds very much the same.
You know the kind of thing. Confident experts. Passionate and straight-talking. Concise, challenging and approachable. Trusted advisors. Intelligent, but not boastful.
There are thousands of B2B brands in the world. Tens of thousands of pages of brand guidelines. And the writing styles they describe run all the way from “Professional but conversational” to “Conversational but professional”.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Sure, it’s a missed opportunity to differentiate yourself by sounding different, but a lot of B2B marketing is about getting into a consideration set. Getting yourself on the shortlist. So maybe you want your brand to fit in.
No, the problem isn’t that so many B2B brands want to sound alike. It’s that the one voice they’ve all converged upon – ironically while trying so hard to sound “human” – is the kind of language your customer would never use, ever.
Who are you writing for, exactly?
Let’s face it. B2B brands like short sentences. All the time. It makes them sound confident. Maybe even kinda irreverent. (See how we used ‘kinda’ there? That’s how conversational we are.) Sometimes, we might use brackets. But only in the style guide. Nobody uses them for real.
And just when the short sentences and random slang start to feel like you’re being jabbed in the chest by a boorish drunk who’s trying to sound hip, in come the buzzwords. Because all B2B buyers talk about Digital Transformation and Growth Hacking, don’t they?
And that’s how brands that are trying to sound authentic end up saying things like:
“Nail your CX transformation with our customer success platform-as-a-service”
“Accelerate your cloud-based tomorrow. Grab the playbook now.”
That’s how real people speak, isn’t it?
Well, maybe not. But your stakeholders like the sound of it, which is close enough. Which gets us to the truth of the matter…
If we’re honest, most B2B tone of voice guides aren’t about the customer at all. They’re about looking slick, winning brownie points for marketing, and making B2B people feel trendy and relevant.
If we’re really going to follow through on the decision to make B2B more human – to set brands free from following the herd – then we might need to stop writing the way we’ve been used to.
Fortunately, as a marketer, you’re in a great position to make that change.
Three ways to make your B2B content more human:
(You’ll note I didn’t say “three easy ways”. The reason for that is about to become clear.)
1. Get to know some real customers (not just imaginary personas)
I’m blessed that I was not always a B2B copywriter. In a previous century, I worked in fleet management, the public sector, and offices of all sizes. I know HR managers. Software developers. Finance directors. Design engineers. And it really helps. (I explain why, here.)
Make a point of meeting people who might actually use your product or service – and not just your biggest fans, either. Get a sense of what they really care about, and what really competes for their attention. Most importantly, pay attention to the actual words they use in the real world.
Buy someone a coffee. Go to a tradeshow (and not just to set up your stand). Hang out on relevant subreddits if you like (without promoting yourself). Hear how the conversation really goes.
2. Stick up for your customer (like, religiously)
Now you know who you’re talking to, it starts to get difficult. Because somebody in your organisation needs to be your bullshit filter – to weigh everything you do against your customer’s reality, and be brutally honest about what they’ll really think.
That somebody might not be popular. And it might have to be you.
It means briefing your copywriter to write content that answers the questions your customers really ask – not just the questions you wish they’d ask.
It means writing in language that means something – not just the words that make your stakeholders feel happy, or rearranging the same the words your competitors use.
It means telling it like it is.
3. Make peace with the fact you work in B2B
As my twelve-year-old son is fond of saying: “Dad, stop trying to be cool. It’s embarrassing.”
Don’t get me wrong; I adore B2B, and wouldn’t work anywhere else. But I do sometimes wonder how much of the shiny, macho crap that gets written is basically B2B people trying to live up to the stuff we see when we’re consumers.
For example, a lot of forklift truck marketing is written to sound like a prestige car. But research suggests the buyer doesn’t actually care about speed and handling; they just want it to work quietly and cheaply, and never break down. And when it does, they want it fixed quick.
It’s not like buying a car. It’s like renting a photocopier.
I’m not saying the purchase is not emotional; anyone who’s cleared their twentieth paper jam of the day can tell you a copier is a deeply emotionally-charged thing. I’m saying materials handling marketing tend to focus on the wrong emotions, and I’m guessing it’s because somebody somewhere is trying to make their job more glamourous.
Maybe if we compared ourselves with B2C a bit less, we’d have less “Confident. Approachable. Expert.” and more of the real stuff – talking to people in language they actually use, about how we can actually help make their job a bit less annoying.
Trust me: your copywriter is waiting to help
Every copywriter wants to create something that really connects with its audience – so believe me, if you want to make something different, something real, you’ll find no shortage of support. Which is handy – because challenging the status quo is a lot less glamorous than it sounds.
But ultimately, everything you heard at Ignite is still true. B2B marketing does need to change. We do need to become more human. Less conventional. And the marketers who do it first – and do it well – will reap the rewards.