Six Tips on Hiring a Technology Copywriter

It’s a nice relief point when you find a copywriter, internal or contracted, where the whole thing’s easy. You tell them what you want, they go and write it, they deliver it on time, and you like it right away. They understand what you do—eventually to the point where they find topics on their own. They learn the lexicon of the marketplace. They become reliable.

It’s great when it’s that easy.

But finding that writer isn’t so easy. How do you tell when you’re interviewing someone—across a desk or a satellite link—if they can deliver that? A little part of that answer is you can’t. All hires involve risk. But there are some tell tale signs you can follow—beyond the portfolio and the testimonials—that can give you a hint or two as to the quality of goods you’re buying.

With that out of the way . . .

If I were you . . . and you were me . . . and I liked your portfolio and was interviewing you to take on some copywriting projects . . . what would I be looking for?

  1. How much about my company and my technology do you already know?

The whole tabula rosa thing won’t work for me. My first question is whether you’ve had a chance to learn who we are and what we do. If the answer is any of the billions of versions of “No,” it’s Beulah the Buzzer time. (I wouldn’t be much gentler if you said “yes but I didn’t understand it”—a flat dud when it comes to demonstrated research skills.) You don’t have to master the topic. But you have to show me right then and there that I’m not looking at the prospect of delivering Product 101 courses.

  1. You have to know what you charge.

My fillings start to hurt when I hear the dreadful phrase “it depends.” I don’t mean that, sight unseen, you should be able to quote a particular project that exists only in my head. But you should be able to tell me how you structure rates, your range and rationale, how you discount larger or retained engagements and so on. If all I get is “every job is different”—or if I have to answer a ton of questions—I’m thinking you don’t really look on your business as a business.

  1. You have to know how technology marketing organizations operate

Since we’re on the subject. I want you to understand how I operate. People above me. Below me. People outside of my world who read and comment on the copy. Things take longer to review but deadlines are unmovable. Ten plates spinning at once. Budget struggles. My probe here is on how your other client organizations operated, and how well that worked for you. I’m listening for clues that you were uncomfortable or unfamiliar with it. Writers without that experience can get frustrated quickly.

  1. You don’t expect me to make everything tidy for you.

I once had a client tell me that another copywriter sent her a nine-page questionnaire to learn about her company. Bad idea. I don’t have time to do that—although I will put some effort into orientation at the start. After that I’m just going to send you links or dump files in Dropbox and leave you to handle it. During the interview, I’m going to initiate a process discussion and ask about the source material you received from other clients, how you processed it, and how you managed holes in the information or your understanding of it (the correct answer for this last one is “I looked it up”).

  1. Explaining how you work should take about a minute.

The process of writing is pretty simple. You learn (the data dump). You write. You revise. You deliver. Honestly, if there is much more to the process than that—you know, multiple meetings and orientation sessions and abstract reviews and so on—I’m thinking I need someone a little more confident.

  1. You don’t tell me how important great writing is to revenue

Or any other similar nonsense. In fact, you do as little talking as possible, listening instead to me explain what I need and what my company does, and answering my questions—including the ones I’ve brought up here. Your work already speaks for itself, I brought you in for the interview: please don’t give a value pitch to me.

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About Agencies, Content and Tech Marketing

As a rule, we don’t hire marketing agencies because of their rich understanding of our expert markets and buyers, of our technologies and processes. (Those of you who can push back on that—those with a truly tech savvy agency—should thank your lucky stars every day.) We hire them for many other—solid as rock—reasons. We talk with them about brand and style and imagery, but not often about product: about the way it connects data streams to rules engines to tiered, secondary storage. (Unless you’re in one of those moods where you feel like making someone’s head swim. And which of us hasn’t been there?) It’s almost a given that they just really won’t understand. When it comes to expertise, that’s your job.

But that’s OK, isn’t it? Agencies don’t need to go in the weeds to professionally present your product. To get ads placed in the right rotations. Or design signage. Or produce videos. Or write content.

Wait a minute.

What was the last one?

Write content?

How does that work? How can an agency that doesn’t understand what you make or sell—nor to whom you sell it—write smart, relevant content about it?

The answer is: it can’t. It can’t create smart, relevant words about something it doesn’t understand. It can create well-written words. It can create clever words. It can create all kinds of words. But not smart, relevant ones.

I’m thinking maybe you’ve experienced this. Your agency delivers the copy and you read it and all you can think is: “O well this is going to need some work.” All the bullet points you fed them are there and they’re all so nicely dressed, but the conversation is still not peer to peer—two experts sitting around having a beer. It’s very clear that it’s Marketer to Technologist. Like a Brit and a Yank having a beer: the same language but two culturally distinct lexicons.

So you—often, you personally—have to turn your attention to those words, and you correct it, or you rewrite it, and eventually it’s what you want and the end product satisfies you. But it took a lot of your time—often to the point where you say the dreaded phrase: “it would have been faster just to write it myself.” Which often is what you end up doing moving forward. All bad ways to allocate your time.

Some agencies understand this and ask you to provide the content (I get a fair amount of that work). But there’s money to be made in content, and many agencies want that revenue. If your agency wants to take on content, make sure you set the rules. Insist that it assign a copywriter who knows how to spin a sweet sentence, and who understands what you sell and who you sell to. That means you have to interview those writers—and be ready to do some rejecting. When you do select one, you have to do the briefing directly: you can’t expect the agency to do it. You have to open direct communication, so questions (of which there should be a few—fewer and fewer as time goes on) can be answered simply and quickly. If the agency doesn’t have one of these birds on staff (the most likely case), have them subcontract to someone who meets that standard (and put those subs through your approval process). And of course you can always find one yourself on your own and require the agency to use the copy.

This is why the role the copywriter plays in tactical marketing is unique. We’re not supposed to be just talented. We have to be informed and knowledgeable. After all, we’re the ones making the words your expert markets will read.

I can’t think of another craftsman on the agency roster who carries that extra burden—another that has to really know what they’re talking about.

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B2B Content and Those Stubborn Ground-in Stains

What’s the difference between B2B and B2C content? I’m not going to tell you. I’m going to show you.

Let’s go and wash our clothes.

Here’s how B2C P&G gets its clean laundry message across:

NEW! Tide Ultra Stain Release is supercharged with specially formulated ingredients to help remove 99% of everyday stains, including greasy food stains. It also boasts the innovative “Zap! Cap,” a unique pretreat cap with scrubbing bristles to provide a deep-down, pre-treat option. The cap features two textures; bristles for deep down scrubbing and a flatter portion to spread the detergent around. Put Zap! Cap to work for you with Tide Ultra Stain Release – even the cap fights stains.

Here’s how B2B Sunburst Chemicals gets its clean laundry message across:

COMPASS is a revolutionary one-shot system that most often requires NO additional chemicals in the washing process. It is 100-percent biodegradable and is made from a 100-percent “green” formulation. It has no phosphates, caustics, nonylphenol ethoxylates, toxic polymers, solvents, dyes, or perfumes. It cleans by breaking apart soils and other tough stains which can then be easily washed away. It packs a powerful cleaning punch, and allows users to save, save, save!

My takeaways:

  1. The emotional:rational (or benefit:feature or me:you) ratios for the two are mirror images. (Although, in fact, Tide is more product oriented than I expected.) Tide is almost exclusively emotional/benefit/you and Sunburst exactly the opposite.
  2. The need for Truth with Tide is low. Do you believe that they remove 99% of everyday stains? Do you care? On the other hand, if COMPASS isn’t 100% biodegradable, Sunburst is going to face some legal issues.
  3. The need for detail is zero for Tide. In fact, the only technical language in there is “specially formulated ingredients.” The need for detail is unending with COMPASS.
  4. Tide tells you what its product features do for your clothes. COMPASS tells you how its product works.
  5. If you don’t understand the first thing about laundry detergent, you’re going to do just fine with Tide content. Sunburst is over your head mid-way through, unless you understand the chemistries of clean.
  6. Tide is high energy. “Supercharged,” “Ultra,” “boasts,” “innovative”—infused with active, powerful language. Sunburst: not so much.

I’m not at all suggesting that either of these is a model of great content—there’s much to criticize in both of them. I just wanted to crack them apart a little to share a contrast that accurately reflects the difference between content for B2C and B2B.

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B2B Marketing Is Harder than B2C Marketing

Reason # 1 — We’re Not Natural Members of the Marketplace

We marketers are (generally) not a member of the Tech marketplace we’re marketing to. In B2C spaces, we’re all familiar with the products we market—Milky Ways to mattresses to whatever. We use them, we know someone that uses them, or at least we’ve seen them used: we’re members.

Not so in our world. Marketers are very rarely users of storage farms or omnichannel OS’s or ERP systems. That means we have a lot more to learn than B2C marketers before we can even begin to connect relevantly with our marketplace. How well we do that–how well exposed we are to the mindset and needs and even personalities of our targets–drives the quality and outcome of our Marketing.

Reason # 2 — Agencies Don’t Understand What We Do

B2C has it easy when it comes to agency relationships. There are lots of good ones to choose from and they all come to the table, since they’re consumers too, pretty much understanding what it is their client makes, who the market is, how to approach the market and so on. It may be the first client they have that makes television sets . . . but TV is not an unknown. There’s a learning curve—demographics, brand strategy, corporate messaging and so on—but it’s a straightforward one.

B2B technology companies have no such resource—at least not very often. With few exceptions, every tech product is—in its market, its features, its processes—a mystery to agencies. You may be introducing them to their first transport layer or their first federated database–much to learn.

Engagements with agencies involve a learning curve that’s much steeper than in B2C. The brunt of that learning process falls on your primary contact people who are working with the agencies. It’s really they who have to explain the product and its value, and then work through the agency’s output, correcting it, shoving it back on target, removing misstatements, weak imagery, conflicting messaging . . . before it gets sent up the ladder where everyone’s just waiting for something to shoot at.

That’s a tough job. It’s harder to make things right than to make them sizzle.

Reason # 3 — We Have to Tell the Whole Truth

B2B or B2C: neither can lie in their Marketing. But B2C gets a pass on telling the Truth. They’re free to make improvable claims: “gets your whites the whitest”. They’re free to play on our emotions: “This holiday, drive the car you’ve always wished for.” They’re free to make Giant Promises. And let’s not forget that side order of sex with our hamburger ads. Good brand marketers use all of these tools—and more—to connect their brand and product stories with consumers.

Lucky them. We can’t do any of this. We have to do more than not lie. We have to tell the Truth. More than that, we have to tell it accurately. We can’t say “blazing speed”: we have to say “up to 100,000 IOPS.” We can’t say “you’ll save money every time you compute!” We have to say “up to 30% reduction in CAPEX.” (That almost mandatory “up to” is a real pain, isn’t it?) We can’t say “the in-memory database you’ll love forever!”

We have to work harder at our messages across all the media they’re deployed. We have to do more research. We have to go through more review cycles with more people involved. We have to exercise a much higher attention to detail.

And still, without all those great B2C tools, our stories have to be creative. Our production values excellent. Our campaigns interesting to the marketplace. It still has to be good Marketing.

Would be a lot easier to just market SSD with sex, don’t you think?

<IMAGE> One of the hamburger girls, in the traditional hamburger costume of her people.

<VO> “Acme Solid State Drives. Bringing a whole new layer to the storage stack.”

Took me two seconds to come up with that.

B2B is lots harder.

Reason # 4 — We Have to Market More than Just Outcomes

I went deep in my archives, on a 5.25 inch floppy, to find this treasured Marketing Maxim:

People Buy Holes, Not Drill Bits

That’s very true for B2C. The buying motivation is very singly focused on Outcome (some major exceptions, like automobiles, but still generally the case I think). If I buy this, will I get that? A promise of Yes fulfills the market’s core barrier to entry. There are really no other considerations (like “will this detergent mean I have to expand my laundry room?”). Marketing can focus on making its messages as emotional, appealing and memorable as it can.

Not us. Oh sure, our markets demand a positive Outcome. But they also want to know how that Outcome will be reached, how it will affect other Outcomes of other systems, what other ongoing costs there will be to maintain that Outcome over time, which Outcome architecture it uses . . . oh they want to know all kinds of stuff before they get serious with a sales rep. That makes it a harder message to deliver, a harder story to tell well . . . and a much more demanding audience to tell it to.

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What 400 Technology Companies Have Taught Me about Content

The tech marketer’s search for credible data against which to benchmark their content strategies and tactics is an ongoing process.

I think I can save you some time.

I’m a sort of walking survey about how technology companies think and act when it comes to content. My over 400 tech clients range from monster enterprises to startups. And while, no, I didn’t survey them, I have participated in thousands upon thousands of technology marketing content projects with them—from planning to publication.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how tech companies deal with content.

They Respect Their Market’s Expertise

My clients use as little GMB as possible: they know their markets are too smart for it. These are experts. Generally speaking, they know the substance behind marketing content better than the content creators do. They’re annoyed when you dance around the topic, fluff up the story—or do anything else but tell them what they want to know. It might take a little sizzle out of the content, but they’re more Dragnet than NCIS. Just the facts ma’am.

They Focus on Features Not Benefits

That expertise means that the markets already know the benefits (and let’s face it, in technology you really only get two: save money or make money). After all, they’ve read all about them on every one of your competitor’s web sites and data sheets and on and on. Don’t get me wrong. They do talk benefits in their content. That’s how they let readers know everyone’s on the same page. But, I’d say, off hand, without using a ruler or anything like that, that the ratio of features to benefits content is something like 5 to 1.

In and Out

The people that we target are busy—the highlight of their day is not reading product promotion or white papers or anything else. Get to the point, and get them moving to the next step in the cycle. I know it’s harder and takes longer to write a short piece than a long piece, but for my clients that’s what works. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said, when asked how long technology marketing content should be: “Long enough to reach the market.”

They Expect Interesting Content

That’s why they hire copywriters like me. The fact that we’re dealing with facts and features doesn’t mean that they expect the end result to be dull. Just the opposite. I’m charged to find the story in the topic, to create a structure that keeps a reader interested, to find the right style and lexicon to connect with the market. It has to be interesting. But they don’t want me to make the piece interesting to me; they want it to be interesting to their prospects.

They Use a Few Cooks

A heresy I know—too many cooks may spoil the broth, but not if they know what they’re doing. My clients engage product management, sales, PR, and definitely engineering in the content process. Of course, it’s well managed; we’re not looking for a salad chef who wants to tell us how to season the salmon. But bringing their knowledge of the customer, the market, the technology—and more—to bear is a standard part of the best processes.

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Getting to Know You–The More You Know the Less Hot Air You Blow

When I ask my clients: “who’s your marketplace?,” the answer I hear most often is a variation of “Enterprises between 300 million and 1 billion dollars.”

That’s not a marketplace. That’s a business classification.

A marketplace is made up of people, not categories.

Your marketplace isn’t “the IT department of a Fortune 1000 company.” Your marketplace is “the senior manager in an IT department under 10 people handling workload X and infrastructure Y.” Even that’s not complete of course. You have multiple markets for your product. Your marketplace is also the woman he works for and the people who work for him. All the researchers, influencers, obstructionists and buying authorities who are involved with the purchase of most any B2B tech product.

These people have personalities, buying habits, purchase authority, often an established budget, Oh yes, they have one other thing. Expertise.

So as I read content I ask: “is any of this talking to that person?”

Generally the answer is no. It’s all GMB and benefit blather and the usual indistinguishable stuff. And your expert, buying-cycle participants pay absolutely no attention to any of it. Wasted words that do nothing to differentiate you to an indifferent marketplace

There’s a reason we marketers don’t write more knowledgeably to our marketplace.

We don’t know anything about them.

That’s something I’ve learned from working with some of the most successful companies in their markets. The more marketing knows about the markets—about the people—the better they are at building content those markets respond to.


Learn about your marketplace from your sales force. They’re the people that connect with customers and prospects every day. Want to learn what your marketplace is like? Ask your sales team.

You’ll learn how a real client operation works, you’ll learn what kinds of actual challenges they face, you’ll learn what kinds of goals they really have, you’ll learn what kinds of pressures they endure, you’ll learn about their expertise—even their demographics.

In fact, make it a regular event. A couple of hours in conference a few times a year—especially when rolling out a new product or new selling strategy. Record the meetings so new people can learn too.

Send your people for a ride-along or two with the sales team. Let them meet those customers and prospects themselves—a fly on the wall. (Customers don’t bite.)

Survey your customers. Use the survey to fill in your fluff. For instance, if one of your Generic Talking Points is “free up your staff for more strategic tasks,” a survey will find out what kinds of tasks, how much time they free up . . . or even if it’s relevant to your marketplace at all.

There’s nothing magical about this. The more you know about something, the better your content will be. The more you know about your market, the better response you’ll get to that content.

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The Lone Ranger and Me: Following Our Creeds

The metaphor of The Lone Ranger is a common one for folks in my line of work–we swoop out of the prairie, help the widows and orphans keep their homes, and ride off into the sunset. There’s another similarity: just as does the Ranger, I have my own Copywriter’s Creed–rules I follow to ensure the best experience and the best outcome for my clients.

1. I learn the topic. I can’t write about something I don’t understand.

2. I start that research before the project kickoff. Clients like it when I don’t start with a blank slate. 

3. I learn the vocabulary of an audience that knows more about their products, markets and messages than I do, and always will. 

4. I’m patient. Just like me, my clients may not know what they don’t like until they see it. 

5. I never ask a question I can find the answer to on my own. 

6. I don’t veer from the client’s message even when I think of better ones. It’s probably tied in to a larger strategy that I’m unaware of. 

7. I twist and turn with the project. Marketing campaigns are always full of switchbacks. 

8. I’m not an artist, I’m a herald. My job is to get the message out, not to achieve the Sublime. 

9. I make the process of working with me as easy for the client as I can. That’s how I get the next job. 

10. I don’t argue with a client if they dismiss one of my ideas. After I tell them what I think, I gladly do what they want.

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