Breaking Into B2B with Steve Slaunwhite, Part 1
Most freelance copywriters concentrate on consumer products and services, so there are big opportunities in the business-to-business market. The pay is great and the work is steady.
We recently sat down with B2B copywriting veteran Steve Slaunwhite to get his take on this increasingly popular (and lucrative) niche. Steve had so much information to share that we decided to turn the interview into a two-parter. Here's Part 1…
TGT: How competitive is B2B?
STEVE: It's gotten a little more competitive, but there are so many B2B companies out there that it's easy to find a niche market that you can go into where you're almost all alone.
One of my little specialties is writing copy for companies that build components for marine propulsion systems. I've had marketing managers in that industry say that I'm the only person they know of who does it. I write for other niches in the B2B market too. The competition is certainly not as extreme as it is in consumer direct mail.
TGT: Do you need to be a "techie" to write about technical products?
STEVE: Well, I didn't know much about marine propulsion systems when I started, but writing about them has turned into one of my specialties. I got my first gig in that industry because a company contacted me trying to find a copywriter who could do it. I once had a summer job working in the engine room of a big ship, so I told them, "You know, not only can I write for you but I've actually seen this stuff up close. I've worked in the engine room of a big ship, and I've seen marine propulsion systems … the bearings, the turbines, and things of that nature." So though I didn't understand that company's products technically, having had that eye contact experience was one of the ways I broke in.
I've written for a lot of companies that had products I initially didn't understand … and certainly wasn't adept at or an expert at. I would get a job and have to do some extra upfront research to get my head around it. But it really isn't that difficult. Once you get past the strange buzzwords and acronyms, even the most technical products fall apart.
TGT: How has the B2B marketplace for copywriters changed over the last decade?
STEVE: It's changed in a lot of ways. A broader range of companies, at least from my perspective, are using copywriters more than ever before. I think there's an increased awareness among marketing managers of how important copy is to drive traffic through a website, to generate leads, to create a successful mailing, even for tele-selling scripts.
And, of course, the Internet has been the biggest change.
TGT: How has the Internet affected your life as a freelance B2B copywriter?
STEVE: It's affected my life in two ways. First of all, the types of projects that I handle for my clients have changed from being primarily print brochures, sales letters, and other printed materials to online efforts like email marketing, Web pages, and websites. There's a lot of online marketing in the B2B world, and it's growing. Probably 60% to 70% of the stuff that I do is online in some way.
The second way it's affected me is in the way I market my services. I use a website and communicate with clients by email.
TGT: How has the shift from print to online affected your income?
STEVE: It's definitely increased my income. When email marketing was starting to become popular, one of the things I did to promote my expertise in that area was to write a little booklet called "101 Writing Tips for Successful Email Marketing." I used it as a giveaway to potential clients and, as a result, I got a lot of email marketing work. There was a time when I was writing two or three email promotions every week.
TGT: What kind of online copywriting assignments are the most common in B2B?
STEVE: Well, email is still popular. It's not quite as popular as it used to be, but I'm still doing a lot of email promotions. They tend to be shorter in B2B, two or three paragraphs.
Landing pages are very popular right now. If you get a letter in the mail with a Web page address on it or you get an email that says "Click Here" … that takes you to a landing page. The landing page has sales copy and an order form or some other way to respond to the offer.
Posting online case studies is becoming more and more popular with B2B companies as a way to drive people to their websites and generate leads.
Microsites are somewhat popular too, though I don't do a whole bunch of them. A microsite is kind of a mini website that is specific to a particular campaign. For example, if you do a mailing for a software product and you're offering a special price, you give people a microsite address to go to in order to get information specific to that promotion.
Banner ads, e-zine ads, and Google ads are becoming increasingly popular as well.
An e-zine ad is an ad that's inside an email newsletter. It can run anywhere from a couple of lines to even a couple of paragraphs, depending on what the email newsletter publisher allows. You don't get a lot of room. You get a headline, a paragraph or two, and then you put in a link to a full promotion, perhaps a link to a landing page or a microsite.
With a Google ad, you get even less room. You get 25 characters for the headline, 35 characters for another two lines, and then the URL. It's very, very short. It's a real art to create an effective Google ad.
Banner ads have the same problem. You don't have a lot of copy to work with, so writing them is a real challenge. Being a good headline writer may be even more important when you're working with limited space than it is for any other kind of copywriting.
And, finally, writing white papers is turning into a booming market. Basically, a white paper is an educational document, usually about 5 or 10 pages long, that's designed to help your customer or potential customer understand a new technology, methodology, or practice. Businesses produce white papers to generate sales leads and enquiries, to drive traffic to their websites, to give out at trade shows, and to position themselves as experts.
TGT: In your opinion, what's the difference between B2B and consumer copywriting?
STEVE: The main difference is that business buyers have what I call a split personality. In consumer copywriting, your copy must address the needs of the individual, that's obvious. In B2B copywriting, your copy must address the needs of the individual AND the needs of the business. That's because business buyers are making both a personal decision and a business decision.
For example, if you're writing copy that sells a business-writing program, you might address the individual's needs by saying something like, "This training program will teach you how to write faster so you can get the work done sooner so you can get home for dinner."
You might address the business's needs by saying something like, "This training program will improve your customer communications so you can keep customers satisfied and sell more products."
The second big difference is that business buyers can be, and often are, more sophisticated than consumer buyers.
For example, if you're writing copy to sell that business-writing program, your target audience might be training and development managers. Now, this is a very sophisticated group of professionals. They really know the training industry and they may even know more about business-writing training programs than you do.
TGT: If I wanted to get started as a freelance B2B copywriter, what would you tell me to do first?
STEVE: The way I started is by using a pitch letter. I wrote a one-page sales letter promoting my services, and I sent it out to a list of marketing managers that I got through a business directory.
If you want to be a freelance B2B copywriter, you'll need to spend a lot of time promoting yourself. Until you get your first few clients, that's almost a full-time job. So don't give up too soon. I talk to a lot of aspiring copywriters who tell me, "I sent out a pitch letter and it didn't work. What am I going to do now?" And they've only really been in the business for two weeks. It takes time to get things going. You have to work hard at the beginning to get clients, but it does pay off. You've just got to stick with it.
TGT: Do new copywriters need to have a website?
STEVE: That's a tough one … but I would lean on the side of yes. The good news is that it doesn't cost much to get a really good looking website produced these days.
It doesn't have to be super fancy. All you need is a clean, professional looking website that has information on who you are and your credentials. You want to make a potential client feel comfortable about taking the next step by giving you a call and asking you to quote on a job.
TGT: What if I’ve only taken AWAI’s basic program and all of my samples are consumer – will that hurt me in the B2B marketplace?
STEVE: It's not going to hurt you at all. The fact that you have good writing samples is what counts. Of course, it would be better to have a few B2B writing samples, so you might want to augment your portfolio by writing a couple of spec pieces (for either a made up company or a real company) and perhaps a sample web page.
[Ed. Note: Part 2 of our in-depth interview with copywriting insider Steve Slaunwhite will appear next Wednesday in AWAI's new free service: Copywriting Insider. Steve will help us dig even deeper into the lucrative B2B market, and share with us his best techniques for getting clients and pricing projects. He will even give you his #1 technique for getting additional projects from every client you write for.]
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