Writing-Marketing-Tech: Merging Technical Writing into Effective B2B Content

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 22
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Market-Tech Writing: The Rising Values-Based B2B Branding Requires New Forms of Content Writing  

While 88% of B2B marketers currently incorporate content marketing strategies, 60% say they struggle to create “engaging content.” In other words, the rise in content marketing has not necessarily meant a rise in content that actually engages audiences.  Where’s the disconnect? 

For Ann Handley of Marketing Profs, the challenge of creating engaging content reflects fundamental challenges in the quality of content writing.  While 72% of B2B Marketers want to focus on creating engaging content, Handley notes that only 41% express interest in improving their storytelling skills.  And only 19% are focused on becoming stronger writers.  Hadley argues that the tendency to "undervalue writing" and storytelling in the content process “is why we have a tough time creating 'engaging content'—and why that has consistently been a top challenge in the past six years.”

 Quality Writing Depends on Purpose and Audience

I agree with Handley.  Of course, I would also add that the link between poor writing and low engagement depends on what one means by "poor writing."  In terms of "effective style," the list of poorly written bestsellers is endless.  The hugely popular Twilight series, for instance, pulls readers through some pretty clunky prose. Then again, few fans seemed to notice--or rather, they may have noticed, but simply didn't care about the niceties of style. Nor should they.  In terms of purpose and audience, the Twilight books did exactly what they were supposed to do: The series entertained its target readership.  When it comes to quality writing, my standard is relatively pragmatic: It's all about effective communication in a given context.  You have an audience, and you have a message.  If you can get the intended message to your audience in a way that supports your goals, you've pretty much nailed the whole writing thing.  

Alternately put, bad writing is any writing considered boring by your target audience. It can be boring because it is too confused or too logical, or boring because it is hysterical or lethargic, or boring because nothing really happens.  In any event, it's boring.  When marketers say they want to create more engaging content, they are inherently saying they want to create higher-quality writing.  And since higher-quality writing is writing that does not bore audiences, it's worth knowing something about how to avoid boring content.  As applied to the work of B2B content writing, boring generally stems from an overly focused concern with product functionality.  Let me explain.

From Functions to Emotions

“Our instinct, especially if we reside in the high-tech or a B2B sector, is to assume that customers are rational and will be swayed by functional benefits.” –David Aaker

In marketing, one surefire way to bore just about any audience is to over-focus on functional benefits.  Herein lies the more fundamental challenge of quality B2B content writing: A stubbornly insistent tradition of locating value in product-centered features and functionality, rather than client-centered needs.  

The focus on function stems from the false assumption that B2B buying is motivated by purely rational investments.  To test this assumption, CEB partnered with Google to survey the comparative role of logic and emotion in decision-making processes for buyers in B2B markets.  The study found that benefits that appeal to emotional/personal value played a greater role in buyer decision than benefits linked to purely rational/business values:

  • B2B decision-makers are 10% more likely to consider brands that consumers know and feel connected to.
  • B2B brands that connect with their buyers on an emotional level earn twice the impact over those marketed to business or functional value. 
  • Buyers feel a much closer personal connection to their B2B brands than to consumer brands.
  • 86% of B2B buyers see “no real difference between suppliers.” “Features, functions and business outcome” marketing has a 21% lift in perceived brand benefits. But “Professional, social and emotional benefits” marketing has a 42% lift. 

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By focusing on the wrong benefits, B2B marketers do not address the true needs of B2B buyers.  In terms of writing practice, content that focuses too exclusively on functional benedits  reads more like an instruction manual.  In an interview with CMO.com, Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council, comments that buyers do not trust vendors because “their content [tends to be] over-technical, product-centric, and self-serving.”

The Role of Technical Writing in Effective B2B Content:

One way to avoid creating content that focuses too exclusively on functions is to think of effective B2B marketing content as a productive fusion of technical and non-technical writing styles. Content marketing has much to learn from technical writing.   But in order to bring the two together, we need to clarify their differences.

Technical writing involves communicating complex technical information to those who need it to accomplish a particular task or goal.

Content writing provides educational and engaging experiences (often in the form of stories) that communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, the overall value proposition of a brand.

In other words, technical writing is instrumental: It provides immediate answers to very precise, narrowly defined functional goals.  While content writing should also provide guidance on how to solve functional problems, the protocols of effective marketing require content writing answer a broader range of other needs: 

  1. Engagement: Content writing creates an interesting experience. As Cheryl Connor writes in Forbes, “sometimes, for a service business, simply writing a post that engages is purpose enough…  On some days, simply engaging an aligned audience and getting them to connect with you for a note and a smile is enough.”  Traditionally, technical writing does not aspire to engagement, certainly not in such open terms.  Technically writing traditional requires a minimal, functional and often detached simplicity.  In fact, in the context of technical writing, stylistic nuances intended to heighten reader engagement could distract from the clarity of technical information. 
  1. Education: Content writing educates: In this case, the goals of technical writing and content writing come into closer alignment. One way in which content writing delivers value is by providing readers with practical, useable information. Much technical writing also delivers value by providing instructional information. Yet technical writing focuses on instructions relevant to functionality and use.  Content  writing, on the other hand, must convey information that speaks to needs beyond functional utility.
  1. Value Proposition: Following brand theorist David Aaker, we can understand these levels in terms of "functional," "self-expressive," "emotional," and "social" benefits. Technical writing communicates information relevant to functional benefits. While content writing also communicates the use value of functional benefits, effective content writing must also speak to the more abstract, higher-order levels of value associated with self-expressive, emotional, and social benefits:

A) Technical Writing and Functional Benefits: By focusing primarily on how a technology functions, technical writing communicates immediate use value: Use value consists of benefits based on product attributes that provide the customer with functional utility.  Functional benefits are commodity-level attributes that can be replicated by competitor companies.

B) Content Writing Communicates Self-Expressive Benefits: Self-expressive benefits provide an opportunity for someone to communicate his or her self-image.

C) Content Writing Communicates Social Benefits: Social Benefits are linked to a brand’s capacity to participate in or even drive one's relation to others: “When I buy or use this brand, the type of people I relate to are ____.”

D) Content Writing Communicates Emotional Benefits: Emotional benefits provide customers with a positive feeling when they purchase or use a particular brand. They add richness and depth to the experience of owning and using the brand.

  1. Storytelling: Not all content writing tells stories. However, while not a defining convention of content writing, many consider storytelling the most powerful way to present information about a product or service. Storytelling has thus emerged as a key aspect of effective content writing.  The benefits of storytelling include increased emotional identification, differentiation, higher engagement, and deeper memory retention.  Stories also communicate values and a higher sense of ethical purpose.  While technical writing presents information in sequentially arranged steps of ordered process, process-based writing is not intended to present a larger theme or value.
  1. Differentiation of Brand Voice: Effective content writing must capture a company’s distinct brand voice: The unique tone and style that reflects company values and expresses a personality.  Brand voice differentiates the brand’s value and presence in a particular industry.  While content writing must speak to the conventional language of an industry, content writing must also maintain a distinct voice and style that preserves the distinct brand identity.

Once we have a better understanding of the distinct goals that differentiate content writing from traditional technical communication, we can more effectively strategize a productive combination of both styles in ways that drive higher engagement. 

To learn more about the effective use of technical writing in B2B content, visit our website

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Topics: Creative, Business Communication, Brand, storytelling, B2B Marketing, B2B Content, B2B Digital Marketing

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