Sell Drill Bits Not Holes

Benefits bore the bullet points out of me.

I’ve probably read more benefits lists than any other human being in history. For every project, I look through a lot of information—including a ton of competitor content. And no matter what the technology I’m researching, the benefits are all the same. I don’t mean just that all the benefits for a given product category are the same—every performance management solution for instance. I mean the benefits for every technology are the same: performance management, omnichannel, interactive TV, digital signage, SCM solutions—it really doesn’t matter. You know the list of benefits I’m talking about. Infinite scalability. Decreased costs. Accelerated time-to-market. Easiest-to-use. Blahde-est-De-Blah.

If every competing product presents the same benefits, then those benefits can’t differentiate—your product minimizes resources and so do your competitors’.  To talk about “decreased costs” (for instance) as a benefit of technology is to talk about “goes forwards and backwards” as a benefit of automobiles. Cutting costs (or ROI or ease of use) is a condition of entry for tech products, not a unique sales proposition.

But we tech marketers go on—banging out the benefits in web and print and everywhere else. We try to make them interesting with unique adjectives and innovative superlatives (“hey, no one’s ever said ‘access data with superhero speed’”). But, of course, that just differentiates the bullets not the technology. And we do it because we believe—because we’ve always believed—that that’s what we’re supposed to do. People, the Primal Marketing Truth tells us, don’t care about features—they’ll deal with features later—they care about what the product will do for them: what its benefits are. Nobody wants to run through a mind-numbing discussion of protocols and APIs and schema. That’s not the way people are and, after all, technologists are people too.

People, we’re certain, buy holes, not drill bits.

People might. Carpenters don’t.

Carpenters take the hole for granted. They buy drill bits. Carpenters buy based on purpose, material, shank length, type of cutting tip, TiAIN or TiCN.

The technologists I’ve worked with—well over a thousand of them, Buyers and Sellers—are just like those carpenters.

They know your technology is easily integrated with other technologies to leverage existing investments—because they know that if it weren’t you’d be out of business. They assume your management dashboard is familiar and easy to use: that it uses the same interface conventions as every other management dashboard in the known universe. They want to know how to modify it, share it, protect it. They know it reduces steps, because they’ve never—ever—heard of a technology that increases them.

Everybody in tech companies seems to know this except us. Salespeople don’t talk about benefits. Sales couldn’t close the door, much less a deal, talking about benefits. Sitting across from technologists at any level—even at the first meeting—no rep with her slides on straight would spend more than a gratuitous minute or two going on about ease of use and scalability and so on. She’d be asking and answering technical questions—not about “ease of integration” but about adapters and message libraries and APIs and number of seats. And I’ll bet my “minimize costs” against your “maximize ROI” that nary a superlative—fastest, easiest, leanest—would escape her.

The same is true across the enterprise. Name an organization. Executives talk vision with prospects. Finance talks deals with prospects. Support talks tech turkey. R&D—well, they do as little talking to customers as possible. But none of those organizations would stick more than a toe in the benefits bog. And customers, well, they never talk about benefits.

It’s just us. We are the last bastion of the bull. The keepers of the clichés. The guardians of the generic. We alone persist in saying uninteresting things to a disinterested marketplace.

Marketers, Meet Your Markets

The reason we don’t deliver relevant messages to our markets is because we don’t know our markets.

Marketers rarely meet the markets they market to—how many sales calls have you and your team gone on? We hear about the markets. We imagine them. Some of us (come on, we do) make fun of them (pocket protector anyone?) But we don’t sit in the rooms with those rational and impatient technology buyers and listen to them, learn what they need to know, what they object to, what they spark to, what they laugh at, and what they don’t. Without that direct knowledge, without having some kind of first-hand relationship with the markets we communicate with, what kinds of messages can we create other than vacuous, hyperventilating fluff?

You know. User Benefits.

If we get out there and meet the people who take in our messages, it wouldn’t (at least, it shouldn’t) take us long to learn that our expert markets don’t buy based on bennies. They want to know about the features . . . they’ll figure out if it has any benefit without any help. And a good marketer, like you and me, would quickly adjust our messages so it matched the mind of the marketplace. We’d learn that “a library of 32 preconfigured adapters supported by a J2EE development environment” is a lot more compelling to them than “minimize CAPEX by connecting to virtually any existing resource.”

Make this a mandate: every Marketer sits in on at least one sales event—let them watch (silently!) the pros sell. And, yes, I mean every Marketer: designer, intern, Marketing chief. Let them audit sales meetings where pitches are worked on. Give them the opportunity to learn the real market’s real issues—many of which will surprise them, and some of which will befuddle them. When they do this, they’ll learn that much of the “benefits oriented content” (I had to use the dreaded phrase at some point) they create is about as meaningful to their markets as a Paul Revere and the Raiders reunion concert—maybe less

Direct experience will guide their messaging in a different direction. You’ll see a fascination grow with product features, along with the ability to communicate about them in smart, interesting ways. They’ll understand they’re marketing drill bits not holes. They’ll dig up detail upon detail instead of benefit upon benefit to deliver your message. They’ll avoid the adjective. Shun the superlative. And catch the market’s interest.

This is not a mandate for monotony. You can be interesting, creative, clever, colorful, playful—in other words you can create quality design and content—as long as you remember the market and talk about what it wants to hear.

You want to talk about how my HTML 5 Web Sockets envelope maintains connection across a hybrid infrastructure during a DoD attack?

Have I got a story to tell you.

Connecting Message to Market

Think about something you know about. I’m going to say automobiles. At some level—maybe it’s just at the user level or maybe it’s at the engineering level—we all know about cars. We know what they do. We know how to make them go forward and backward, turn left and right, stop, turn on the radio, and so on. When it comes to cars, we’re an expert marketplace.

Now, imagine an ad or a brochure with this kind of content:

With today’s increasingly mobile world, supported by highways and regulated by traffic signals, the need to have a car that can both accelerate and stop has become an imperative for people across the country.

You’d laugh at it wouldn’t you? Clearly, the writer didn’t understand the market. And I think it would make most people feel disconnected from the message.

Now, ask yourself: When you create your technology marketing messaging, how much of that same type of content are you delivering to your market?

I see it often in most every kind of content. I imagine you have too. Those long (usually introductory) paragraphs that describe “the state of things today.” Fifty, maybe even 100, words spelling out in dense and sonorous language exactly what the marketplace already knows. Knows as well as you know what a car does.

This wastes time, wastes content real estate, and disconnects your message from your market.

It’s OK to have a problem definition section—it’s a good way to let your market know that you know what they know. But make it real and make it specific. Don’t explain, empathize.

CIOs (just as an example) know the state of things today and they’ve read the statistics you cite. That’s not the problem you can help them solve. They have problems like staffing and training, integration, transition, hidden costs, budgeting, device management, political opposition, and so on. You want to talk to a CIO about problems—well, that’s the list that troubles them.

And that’s where your conversation with them should begin.

The Yossarian Way–An Editing Exercise

Here’s a little exercise that might prove useful to you.

Catch 22 opens with the protagonist, WW II bombardier John Yossarian, faking jaundice to avoid flying more bombing missions. As with all patients, he’s given letters the troops send and receive and ordered to censor them. He gets bored with just removing sensitive information so he decides to have a little fun. At one point, he decides that he’ll black out only the modifiers–adjectives, adverbs, participles: the whole group of them.

Try that on your content. Turn on rev tracking (and turn off show revisions) and just go through a wholesale obliteration of them all.

Now see what you’ve got left.

Does the content still make sense? I don’t mean does it read well. It won’t. But, for a second, forget about that. If you take out all the descriptives, how much real meaning has it lost?  Is it still getting its point across, however inartfully?

If so, you’ve uncovered your fluff.

Now let’s put the modifiers back in.

But only some of them. Only those that are important to the meaning. If you’re talking about security you can return “appliance-based protection,” but “bulletproof protection” has no home. The first provides information, the other provides GMB. And be hard on your draft–a modifier either does or does not change the actual meaning of the sentence and there’s really no two ways about it.

I’ve cut copy by as much as 35% just cutting fluff. And I don’t think my clients have ever gotten market feedback that says their content isn’t long enough, or fluffy enough.

Five Don’ts of Technology Copywriting

I thought I’d focus today on mistakes writers make when they create tech marketing content. I chose an Adobe piece at random: they were the first site I looked at and I found something I could use. Not meaning to pick on them specifically at all. These are mistakes I find everywhere–including in my own stuff.  The piece I’m talking about can be found here.

So, here’s my list of Don’ts.

1. Don’t Compare.

Unless you’ve got some real hard numbers to drive the comparison, don’t talk about how much better your product is than the others.

Here’s an example:

Gain the deepest insights and most concise visitor segmentation available.

When you make comparisons, you start a conversation you can’t win. If the marketplace wants to compare depth of insight, let it start the discussion.

2. Don’t teach.

Your markteplace knows its business. You don’t have to teach them about it.

You cannot effectively optimize your marketing efforts unless you are analyzing and reporting on those efforts to make the right data-driven decisions. Guesswork doesn’t cut it anymore in marketing— marketers must be able to determine what the business impact of their marketing efforts is.

This isn’t such a gross violation, but it makes my point. There’s a certain “Analytics 101” feel to it. Better to get straight to the point.

3. Don’t make big statements.

Adobe Analytics is the industry-leading solution that delivers the analytics and reporting capabilities to enable data-driven decision-making.

That’s such a sweeping statement. I looked it up for a minute or so. There are a lot of companies that make the same claim. Usually this is something that little companies do to puff themselves up. There can be only one leader, and that’s the only one who should make that claim. It might be Adobe, in which case: go for it.

4. Don’t leave in the fluff

Edit your content for the phrases that just don’t contribute to the message. It’s OK to say just what you need to say–the market appreciates it.

Here’s the original:

Quickly analyze large volumes of rapidly evolving big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Powerful visualizations make it easy for users to immediately infer meaning to make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve overall business performance.

Here’s an edit

Analyze big data from multiple channels and data sources in real time. Clear visualizations let you instantly make timely, customer-focused decisions that improve business performance.

5. Don’t be afraid of Features.

My final impression is: the piece is Feature shy. The precept that you sell holes not drill bits isn’t true when you’re selling technology. Carpenters know all about holes—they buy drill bits. Marketers know all about marketing: they buy marketing tools.

Features are your differentiating point—“how” you do something is a lot more interesting to your market than “what” or “why.”

B2B Messages: Just the Facts Ma’am

What are your areas of expertise? Z Scale railroads? Cooking? Sailing? Carpentry? Telescopes? Big Bands?

Whatever it is, put it in the front of your mind for a moment to answer a question.

Within your areas of expertise, what marketing messages do you respond to?

I know the answer for me. I respond to nuts and bolts. All the hype and superlatives and flash go unnoticed by me–unless they annoy me.  For me, an area of expertise is the guitar. I’m a mediocre player, and I’ve been a mediocre player for 40 years. I know about the benefits of a guitar.

So when I go to read about or buy a new guitar, I bypass all the information meant for amateurs–stunning highs, large sound, low action, beautiful rosettes.  I want to know about construction, materials, components.

B2B markets are made up of experts–just like you and me.  They don’t listen to the messages meant for the non-initiated. And, in B2B, there are very few amateurs, very few people who don’t already know about their products and markets.  And just like me, when they read messages they want the facts, the details, the data–not the benefits.

Limited Time Only–Free Elevator or Landing Page Content–While Supplies Last Only

Here’s something for nothing. Perfectly suitable for landing pages, elevator speeches, or a wealth of other important message elements.

YOUR NAME HERE delivers industry-leading YOUR CATEGORY HERE lifecycle solutions, aligned with your critical business needs, that drive down costs, satisfy customers and improve the bottom line.

Now, how easy was that?

All right. It’s a trick. If that sounded at all good to you, like something you could work with, think again.

I see this kind of one-size-fits-all content all the time–and I look at more product content then any ten men alive. Absolutely meaningless content. Content that tells me absolutely nothing about what the company does. Content that, put in with all the other simliar content from all the competitors, makes the product exactly one more brown cow in the brown cow herd.

I remember when I learned the technical term for this.

I was running marketing for a company. We were in a meeting about brochures or something. One of the attendees was a founder and the CFO. Dick’s background was Sales. We were dealing (as I recall) with some feature or function that we wanted to promote that wasn’t ready yet, nor even fully defined.

I was going on about what we could say, and Dick finally said “So, we’ll just throw in some more Generic Marketing Bullshit?”

The answer of course was yes.

GMB is an ugly thing. It does nothing to communicate with B2B tech markets. It does nothing to inform. It does nothing to move a selling cycle into gear. It’s just wasted words.

The cause of GMB is fear. Fear that if we don’t dress up our product in fancy fluff-and-feathers messages, our markets won’t be compelled, or magnetized, or excited, or whatever superlatives and fluff are supposed to make them be.

But here’s the thing. You really can talk about what you do. It’s all the market wants to hear about. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you make. Don’t be afraid to talk features. Go ahead. Talk turkey with your tech markets.

Free range turkey, that is: without any added fillers or GMB.

The Value of Copywriters

The value we bring as professional copywriters isn’t that we write well. A lot of people write well. Many of the Marketing executives I deal with came up through the copywriting ranks. I’m very good. Some of them are very good.

The value we bring is not about writing. The value we bring is:

  1. We learn the topic/product on our own.
  2. We listen well, take notes, understand the key points.
  3. We don’t need a lot of handholding, asking question after question–we know how to research
  4. We understand the market/audience–we know how to talk to experts.
  5. We make smart decisions on our own–we know how to solve issues of structure and theme without help.
  6. We hit our deadlines. Every time.
  7. We write drafts that don’t need a lot of revisions–we get it right the first time.

Once we get all that down, the writing is the easy part.

Eschew the “New”

Hey old timers. Remember when the coolest thing you could put on your web site was some pea-green, football-shaped, spinning animated GIF with the word NEW written on it?

Many B2B vendors, especially in the tech world, are still at it.

They love to promote their latest releases, and their latest functionality. So when they update their data sheets or their web pages, the word “new” appears often.

“New! Full support for mobile integration!”

They’re proud of what they’ve built and they want to share it with everyone.

Not a good idea.

First of all, when does a new feature become a standard feature? Many sites are still promoting “new” features that are in fact many months old. Just one more thing to maintain.

Second, why expose where you are on the innovation curve, compared to your competitors. If your Report Dashboard is new, why advertise it, since Acme may have had one for years?

Most importantly, the only people that care whether your features are new are existing customers you’re trying to upgrade. For new customers, the age of the feature is completely meaningless.

The Best Tip You’ll Ever Get on Creating B2B Headlines

You can’t swing a mouse online without hitting foolproof tips for writing headlines–compelling, effective, magnetic, sure-fire–all kinds of headlines. All the same advice, and not all of it applicable to B2B copy.

Here’s a better way

Copy the trade magazines.

Headlines attract readers and readers attract revenue. Editorial boards spend money answering the big Headline questions. Their magazines are where the research exposes itself. Analyze them. When do they use rational verbs and when comparatives? How many ask a question? How many puns? When are they dull?

That forms a real basis for both the structure and creativity of your headlines.

A Few Research Tips

Some quick and basic tips to make research easier and more successful.

Naturally, search first for the product category–like “Enterprise Content Management.” That will get you to the Wikipedias and other general information sites.

For a deeper, more detailed, dive grab some particularly beefy phrase and search on it. I’ll use content from Oracle’s Enterprise Content Management pages. Here’s what I pulled:

Provides complete management of document images within transactional business processes, including content management and business process management.

The first thing you’ll notice in the search results is that Oracle’s content is listed first–no surprise there. Get rid of the Oracle stuff by adding


to the search string.

To find statistics and analyst opinion, add this to the search.

+”according to” percent

If you want to find academic papers on your topic add this to the search:

If you want to find what associations and organizations have to say, add this to the search

If you want to get a feel for what ECM users think and say, use this string

ecm forum