The Five Secrets of Great B2B Copy

“All people by nature desire knowledge”
– Aristotle, Metaphysics

Knowledge comes in many shapes and sizes, and that’s certainly true of copywriting. One of the most appealing kinds of knowledge is secret knowledge – tricks of the trade, little tools only experts know, that sort of thing.

But sometimes there are secrets that aren’t so much hidden as unexplored.

My marketing education taught me what tactics to use, what good writing looks like, and what to avoid. I had a lot of great teachers who helped me produce good marketing.

Here’s my chance to give you the secret principles of good B2B copywriting behind that good marketing. These are based on years of observing strong success and missteps among marketers, especially copywriters. These principles are also a good test for your clients. As you go through them, you can use them as a litmus test – if your client can’t help you follow the principles, odds are good that they’re not a good client.

Principle 1: Know your product

This is so obvious, and I see so many copywriters fail to do this. They wait for product knowledge instead of doing footwork. Go to the Internet and start researching. Start off by scouring the client website. But go beyond the website. You should look for reviews, user comments, owners’ manuals, complaint sites, whatever you can uncover. Ask your client for additional collateral as well.

But don’t rest on your collateral review. I strongly encourage you to go beyond that. Do your best to actually see or use the product. Don’t try to write about something you’ve never seen if you can help it. Years ago, I knew a car salesman who couldn’t drive. He was a good person – but not a good car salesperson. Don’t be that guy. Sensory impressions you gain from being near the product will help you craft effective writing.

For small products, ask the client to send you one. For large products, find out if there’s one nearby you can visit.

Principle 2: Know your client’s objectives

You must ask your client: why are we doing this project? What is the client trying to accomplish? Knowing the client’s objectives can have an impact on content, tone, voice, and even the length or shape of your copy.

I once wrote a series of demand generation emails that were rejected because I didn’t realize they were being used to open up a new market for an existing product. I had to include credibility copy about the company and its products. In more mature markets, that copy wouldn’t have been needed.

Principle 3: Know the route to customer

So many copywriters fail to think about how their copy will get to the customer. Will it appear on partner websites? Will it be mailed? Will it be hand-carried by a salesperson? Will a distributor send it as part of an info-pack? Will it be handed out at an event?

Writing styles and other key assumptions change depending on how the copy gets to the customer. For example, some clients want copy used in a handout to have a friendly and informal tone. With that tone, it doesn’t clash with the tone used by the salesperson. Unfortunately, clients are notorious for giving out projects without the full context. Ask how your copy will be used, where it will be used, and when it will be used. All those bits of context matter.

Principle 4: Know your competition

In many industries, competitors use the same words, style, logo color, and tools. By understanding the competition, you’ll have a better understanding of what to say, how to say it, and more importantly, what NOT to say.

Keep in mind: your client may be making a conscious decision to mimic a competitor – or be completely different. Ask how your client’s marketing is supposed to compare to the competition’s copy.

It’s also smart to know how your competition is talking about your client. Sometimes you’ll find informal commentary on blogs or from sponsored third-party reports. Sniff around and see what you can find.

Principle 5: Know your customers

If you have to sacrifice the other four principles for this one, do it. This is the most important.

You cannot write great copy without knowing the customers. Look for opportunities to talk to customers – win/loss interviews, focus groups, events, whatever. If you have to rely on a secondhand source of knowledge, like a salesperson or a marketing manager, you can do that, but it isn’t ideal.

If you’re forced to learn by reading case studies, know full well that your copy won’t be as strong as it could be.

One of my earliest marketing teachers told me that my writing has to find common ground with the customer. If it doesn’t, it fails.

And this last principle is, in microcosm, the fundamental truth behind all the principles. They are principles of knowledge.

It’s obvious that you can’t write well without knowing what you’re writing about. But it’s perhaps not so obvious that as you gain more and more knowledge about B2B marketing, certain industries and niches, your reputation and strength as a great writer will grow.

Here’s to the principles behind your success. Drop me a note or comment below if you want to learn more.

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Published: June 4, 2012

5 Responses to “The Five Secrets of Great B2B Copy”

  1. Brian,

    I've been writing for nonprofits for 15 years but am interested in B2B writing, because I like the idea of case studies and white papers. Where can I find info on B2B companies and niches?

    Niki Wanner

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for these tips. Very helpful! Can you tell me where (or what program) you studied to become a Copywriter?



    Guest (Warren)

  3. Thank you for writing this piece. This is just what I needed to read, so the timing was right.

    In the end, good copywriting is about being able to synthesize information from a variety of sources.

    The next step is to be able to sift through the fog. You've got to be able to write up that information in an integrated way that makes sense via coherent sentences and logical reasoning.

    You've got to be able to translate the jargon and technicalities into commercial language that makes sense to the layperson.

    Archan Mehta

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