How to give feedback on B2B writing (that might actually improve your content)
David McGuire of B2B writing agency Radix Communications says making your feedback more objective will give you better content – and better results
If you’ve ever told a B2B copywriter that a piece of content “reads well”, this blog post is for you.
(In fact, this is for anyone who struggles to give useful, specific feedback on writing work. Or who wants to make their marketing content more effective, engaging, or distinctive, but doesn’t know how.)
Ultimately, we all know that great writing is a key differentiator – and how often B2B marketers struggle to produce content that has any real impact. But nobody tells us what that writing looks like, or how to spot it.
So if we’re not careful, we can fall back on the basics we learned at school. Looking for a logical argument, and spotting errors in spelling and grammar. Judging whether something “reads well”.
The problem is, from a marketing point of view, that’s no help at all.
The problem with “This reads well”
If you do nothing else as a result of reading this post, resolve to never use the phrase “this reads well” ever again. It’s a crutch when you have nothing else to say – and it sabotages your ability to give good feedback for three important reasons.
1. It sets the bar incredibly low
Any half-decent writer ought to be able to make something sound nice, and avoid obvious mistakes. But copywriting as a professional discipline is about so much more than that base level. It’s about understanding your brand, your objectives, and your audience, and answering your brief in an effective and (hopefully) creative way.
2. It’s completely divorced from your marketing objectives
You’re not judging a short-story competition; you’re evaluating a piece of marketing work that’s designed to do a specific job. You need to evaluate it in context, as a piece of a bigger picture. Deciding whether it’s nicely written doesn’t get you any closer to working out whether you’ll get the results you commissioned the piece to achieve.
3. It doesn’t help your writer improve
“This reads well” is impossibly vague. Even if you’re perfectly happy with the piece, it doesn’t tell your writer what they’ve done right. We don’t know what the highlights were – the parts you particularly felt would resonate with your audience – so next time we write for you, we have nothing to build upon. We’ve learned nothing.
To give objective feedback, ask objective questions
But solving this issue isn’t easy. Writing and reading feel very personal, and nobody teaches us how to evaluate them from an objective point of view – other than a few “rules” we learn at school (most of which aren’t actually rules anyway).
So in a scramble to add any value, stakeholders end up nitpicking, wondering if something sounds nice, or comparing every piece to a mental idea of what they, personally would written – rather than figuring out if it does the job.
At Radix, we needed to crack that, and fast. We have ten writers, and every piece is internally reviewed – so we can’t afford to miss the mark, or judge each piece on the basis of our own writing style.
We needed a clear, consistent structure for each review – so we developed a hierarchy of B2B copywriting competencies, with five key tests that each piece needs to satisfy before it leaves the outbox. (We’ve had it made into posters, so if you’d like me to post you a copy, drop me a line.)
This structured approach works well for us, and keeps our feedback both specific and objective. But the tests are quite broad, and take a little practice and expertise to apply.
So to help you, the time-poor B2B marketer, we’ve come up with some simpler, more direct questions you can use right now. They don’t cover everything, but they’ll immediately start to make your feedback more constructive – and, more often than not, improve your content’s results.
Five questions that will instantly improve your feedback (and your content):
1. Does this answer the brief?
The brief is where the copywriter starts; it’s the problem we set out to solve. And if you’ve done it right, your brief will contain valuable guidance on the audience, the context, and – crucially – what the piece needs to achieve.
For that reason, the copywriter will have your brief open all the time they’re writing. But I’ll bet most marketers don’t refer to it at all when reviewing the piece.
The result? You’re not judging how well we’ve solved the problem; just how well it compares to the piece you expected. And over time your writer will learn that, and stop trying anything that might surprise you. Which stops us adding value – and makes for dull, predictable content.
2. Do the first two lines make me want to read on?
In today’s fast-moving, content-swamped world, almost any piece of B2B writing is made or broken in the first few seconds. And the start of the piece is usually what shows up in search and social, too.
So right from the first words, your content needs to speak directly to the reader. It needs to promise value, pique their interest, and make it clear why they should read on. And that applies to every section. Every paragraph. Every page.
(Bonus tip: starting any piece of writing with “In today’s fast-moving world…” or similar – like I did here – is redundant, and a complete waste of time and words. But it’s so ingrained in business speak, you didn’t notice that, did you?)
3. Is it clear who this piece is for?
You might be enjoying the content very much, but it’s not for you. You need to read from the mindset of your intended audience – as set out in the brief.
So put yourself in their shoes for a minute. What do they care about? What language do they use? What do they hope for, and worry about?
Very often, B2B content is aimed at someone who’s an expert in their own right. And still most pieces waste time and effort – and patronise the audience – by telling them things they already know. Worse still, there’s a tendency to summarise what the industry is and why it’s important.
This is the kind of thing that happens when you forget who you’re writing for – and as a reviewer, it’s your job to pick it up.
4. If I scanned it for ten seconds, would I get the point?
A lot of the time, our lovingly-crafted copy doesn’t get read at all. At least, not in any detail. People scan; they cast an eye cross the page and get the gist of what’s going on. That’s reality, and we need to roll with it.
So as a reviewer, it makes sense to do the same. Imagine you have no knowledge of the subject, and see what the piece can tell you in ten seconds flat. How many of the key objectives can you still achieve?
Doing this transforms the way you look at things like sub-headings and captions (you’ll quickly see how a heading like “conclusions” or “benefits” doesn’t actually tell you anything) – you might even begin to ask what a subject line tells the majority of recipients who don’t open your email…
5. Did I get to the end faster than I thought I would?
A more empirical way of working out whether something “reads well” is to judge how much effort it takes to read. At its best, copy has a light touch that makes you forget you’re reading… you’re just engaged, and suddenly you’re at the end of the piece.
If a piece of content feels like hard work to read, ask yourself why. Is the language needlessly formal? Is it labouring a point? Or is the sentence structure tricky – so you keep having to read the same passage over and over?
Find the places where you get stuck, and you’ll help your writer to smooth out the wrinkles in the work – meaning more of your readers stay engaged for longer. That means better results.
Feedback doesn’t finish when you publish
You’ve given your writer your comments. The piece has been revised, and finalised. You’ve published it online. Emails have gone out. It’s being shared on social.
There’s still plenty your writer can learn, if you’ll let us.
It’s easy to think the job ends at signoff. But now we get to test our theories – and yours – and see what actually works, out with your audience in the real world.
You’d be amazed how rarely, having written alternate copy for A/B testing, I actually get to hear which version outperformed the other. I’m sure somebody’s learning something, somewhere, but I’m still guessing. That can’t be good.
If you want to keep improving your copy, keep giving feedback. Especially after sign-off.
Remember: give credit where it’s due
But I will say one good thing about “this reads well”.
The best clients intuitively know the power of praise, but it’s worth repeating. Because – professional as we are – your B2B writer is ultimately a human being too.
Telling us which bits surprised you, which sections work, and which you feel will resonate with the audience helps us to hone the message in future, and double down on what works.
And, if I’m honest, it’ll also encourage us to try that little bit harder for you. To try to surprise and impress you more often. Because there’s nothing a copywriter likes more than a client who understands the value of good writing – and if you take the time to really engage with the piece, and give us specific, constructive feedback, that’s better still.
In return, you’ll get better writing. And better results.