23 Tips to Better B2B Writing


Perk up your marketing materials with a few well-chosen words

By Henry DeVries

This is not the product of original thinking, it is something better. You should know that we are a team that believes in doing our homework. What we have done is study the campaigns of hundreds of successful companies. We’ve discovered the trick is to take these ideas and execute them well, and always with a bit of a creative twist. Here are 23 ideas to perk up your business-to-business (B2B) writing.

1. What, me worry about the writing? As we figure it, more than half of the success of your B2B offers depend on great strategic writing. Direct mail pioneer Ed Mayer is credited with coining the 40-40-20 rule. Simply put, 40 percent of your success will be determined by how well you define the audience (the list). Another 40 percent will be determined by how the audience responds to how it perceives your product, service and offer (writing the offer). Another 20 percent is determined by the creative package, which includes artwork and the copywriting (again writing).

2. You’re on my list. Varying direct mail lists can change response rates from plus or minus 100 to 1,000 percent. (A favorite story of ours is about the upscale business that had an envelope come back stamped “cannot deliver without inmate registration number”).

3. Make me an offer. In B2B direct mail it is crucial to have an offer that is quickly and easily understood. Offers are really a combination of the product and service, the price and payment terms, incentives and specific conditions.

4. Salesmanship in print. Interview the sales force to learn what messages the customer is responding to in person. Then translate that information to your offer. Direct mail advertising is, and always has been, salesmanship in print.

5. Trash the flash. Use a low-key approach for a B2B envelope. Most B2B mail has to pass through a gatekeeper, such as an administrative assistant. If it looks too much like advertising, it might go right in the waste basket.

6. Check your e-mail stats. There is no more cost-effective way to reach individual customers than with e-mail. While a response rate of 2 percent might be considered good for direct mail, some e-mail marketing campaigns are reporting response rates of up to 40 percent.

7. Permission granted. With e-mail marketing you can benefit from a level of selling that is unavailable in the direct mail world. The key is the opt-in approach, in which prospects give their permission for you to contact them with offers. Here are 10 ways to leverage the power of e-mail:

  • Build a permissible e-mail list of prospects who would like to receive more information about your product or service.
  • Diligently collect e-mail addresses during all your lead-generating efforts, including trade shows and telemarketing.
  • Embed links to a merchandising Web site in your e-mails, giving you an instantaneous fulfillment package online.
  • Avoid e-mail clutter by customizing. By extracting specific information from your customer database, you have the ability to construct personalized messages for each reader.
  • Test, test, test your e-mails. You can test headlines, offers and lists in a fraction of the time it takes to test traditional direct mail.
  • Research the best resources for outsourcing e-marketing support.
  • Reinforce customer purchase behavior by communicating after the sale via e-mail.
  • Cross-sell and up-sell customers through the use of database information and targeted e-mails.
  • Conduct market research using your e-mail audience of prospects.
  • Remember the golden rule of B2B marketing: communicate to prospects in the way they want to be communicated to. Some prefer e-mail, some prefer snail mail. For best results, combine e-mail with traditional direct mail.

8. Opt for opt-in. With opt-in lists prospects gave their permission to be contacted with offers, while opt-out lists assume that secondary users of data are acceptable unless a person registers an objection to them. Many people (including us) consider sending e-mail to opt-out lists to be the unsavory practice of spamming.

9. Swimming the channel. Public relations is the only marketing communications channel capable of cost-effectively handling the complex task of delivering multiple messages to multiple audiences reading multiple publications.

10. The art of being newsworthy. B2B publicity is the creative use of newsworthy events, publications, social investments, community relations and other means to raise awareness, build traffic and otherwise distinguish a company and its products from its competitors.

11. Shift happens. B2B publicity doesn’t replace advertising, but many savvy marketers are shifting increasing portions of their budgets to the art of being newsworthy. In a front-page story, The Wall Street Journal commented on the cost advantage of public relations over advertising, noting that “a p.r. budget of $500,000 is considered huge, while an ad budget that size is considered tiny.” Companies can buy a full year’s B2B publicity program for the cost of a single ad in a business magazine. Basic programs start for as low as $20,000 per year.

12. May I have your attention please? Another reason for the shift is the increased attention that potential B2B decision-makers and decision-influencers pay to coverage in the media. Noted author David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather pointed out: “Roughly six times as many people read the average article as read the average advertisement. Very few advertisements are read by more than one reader in 20.”

13. Sorry, not for sale. Another fact to consider is that some things in life are not for sale at any price. You can’t buy the Mona Lisa. You can’t buy the Grand Canyon. And you can’t buy an ad on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. But public relations can get you there.

14. How to turn $1 into $3. Creating awareness is what B2B publicity does best, but it has its drawbacks. You can’t control the timing and the message like you can with advertising. But in the long run, nothing is more cost efficient for building awareness. A good rule of thumb is that your publicity budget can get you three times more exposure than an equivalent advertising budget.

15. Free advice on offers. “The sun comes up and the sun goes down, and nothing else is free” goes the old adage. But that doesn’t mean we stop looking for a deal. Providing something for free works magic. Here is a list of free offers that you can test:

  • Free information
  • Free brochure
  • Free catalog
  • Free self-assessment tool
  • Free planner
  • Free demo disk
  • Free audit
  • Free Web site demo
  • Free trial
  • Free gift for inquiring
  • Free fact kit
  • Free demonstration
  • Free white paper
  • Free sample
  • Free needs analysis
  • Free initial consultation
  • Free cost estimate
  • Free guide book

16. Take the long cut. Don’t be afraid to write long copy in fulfillment brochures, sales sheets and collateral materials. The B2B reader is a seeker of truth, or at least a seeker of information to help them with their decision. These are sophisticated readers who want to buy products and services that will allow them to perform faster, better or more profitably.

17. The “you” approach. So who’s more important, you or the reader? A common mistake in B2B collateral writing is the emphasis on the company, not the customer. Beware of copy that focuses on “our” company history, “our” company philosophy, “our” commitment to quality, and anything else that starts with “our” or “we.” The more sentences that start with “you,” the better the results.

18. Technically speaking, try English. Great B2B writing is the art of turning the technical into the understandable. Sometimes plain English seems in short supply these days. Sticking to the facts is a great start to make your offer more understandable.

19. Engineered for success. If you are targeting engineers, remember that this group is anti-glitz. Forget the fancy promotional packages and stick to a straightforward, low-key approach. An engineer prefers to make purchase decisions that are logical. (Think of Dr. Spock on Star Trek and you are on the right track). Respect the fact that engineers will carefully weigh the facts, make comparisons and buy based on what product or service best fulfills the requirement.

20. It’s newsletter to me. Newsletters are great, if they are newsworthy. Newsletters are poor marketing investments if they are not read. Just throwing in the company news releases from the past quarter is not a good idea. Instead, stimulate your editorial thinking and identify topics with high reader interest.

21. To get their attention, try grabbing them. How good are the lead paragraphs of your articles? The most important paragraph in a newsletter article is the first one. If you want to increase newsletter readership, you need articles with attention- grabbing leads. Here are a dozen lead paragraphs that grab attention:

  • alliteration
  • anonymous person (not their real name)
  • epigram or famous quotation
  • historical anecdote
  • humor/pun
  • paint-the-picture description
  • philosophical statement
  • poem/song lyrics
  • pop culture allusion
  • question/do you
  • quote
  • round-up of illustrations

22. Here’s a tip. Include stories with tips, trends and tactics. Newsletter eaders always welcome tips on product selection, installation, maintenance, repair and troubleshooting.

23. News you can use. Another winner for newsletter readers is a how-to article. Similar to a tips story, a how-to article includes more detailed information and instructions. You can explain how to use the product, how to select the right model or how to maximize performance.

Back to How-To Articles

About Henry DeVries

Best-selling author and “marketing with a book” expert Henry DeVries is an authority on typing and talking: how to maximize revenues by writing books and making speeches. He speaks to thousands of business leaders, professionals, and consultants each year, teaching them successful tactics that shine a spotlight on their company, cause, or career. Along with his best-selling books — Self-Marketing Secrets, Client Seduction, Pain Killer Marketing, and How to Close a Deal Like Warren Buffett — the buzz-building tools of Henry DeVries have been used to dramatically increase revenues and leverage marketing budgets for two decades. He speaks to thousands of professionals and consultants each year, teaching them scientifically proven tactics that bring them new clients.

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