TL;DR: an English (or other) degree alone won’t prepare you to become a B2B writer. But gaining the right skills and experience will.
True confession: I’m a marketer who didn’t start out with a marketing degree. So I’ve had to take some short and long leaps to work my way over to the B2B writing field.
I’ve spent 15+ years doing this work with progressively higher levels of business outcomes. Business outcomes, after all, are the measure of success in B2B writing. I’ve researched and analyzed the specific skills and mastery needed—and trained communicators on how to use them. So this post is for anyone who started out in a different career, but wants to become a B2B writer.
The 13 new skills you need to become a B2B writer
Do you have a career in other writing areas, like journalism, technical writing, academia, magazine articles, marcom, or blogging? Then you’ve already got an enviably solid foundation in the craft, probably in addition to several of the skills below.
But what if you’re just starting out, or if your writing has been personal and not professional? My casual observation is that learning any of these skills will put you head-and-shoulders above 90% of others in your position that call themselves B2B writers. The more of these you master, the more your portfolio will stand out to well-paying business clients.
Two things to note. For one thing, generally speaking, this is not the list of the ingredients you need to include in your B2B writing. That’s a whole other list. Rather, this a list of the ingredients you, as the writer, need to acquire.
And second, this advice might not do you any good on the freelance job boards. Those are notably places where the best value you can add is to type fast and have the lowest rate.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to skill up to become a B2B writer who’s actually valued and in high demand, here’s the punch list of what it will take.
This is the intuitive (or learned) ability to identify with the target audience’s perspective and feel the challenges they face. That feeling, or lack of it, will come across subtly or overtly in your writing.
You can gain this skill through highly journalistic customer or audience interview techniques. (And in the meantime, get a boost from some empathy training wheels.)
Audience comes first in the actual sitting-down-and-writing. But this skill — communicating value — is the most important in marketing, and the most elusive to most content writers.
Articulating value (ROI, cost reduction, time savings, etc) in concrete terms will be the goal of the majority of pieces written for B2B. This can’t be achieved by merely dropping in stats; you must make clear, relevant connections for your specific audience.
Transferrable business acumen
Mastering this skill allows you to write credibly in an industry where you’re not already an expert. You apply your knowledge of other industries, and extrapolate the most important information to the audience in this new industry.
Say I don’t know anything about insurance, but I’ve written a lot about making a business case for financial advisory. I can transfer that line of reasoning to write an authoritative guide to making a business case for insurance.
By now everyone’s gotten the memo that specs, features and benefits are no longer the ingredients of effective B2B writing. Consequently you shouldn’t have to make them the focus of your writing. But they’re still used (in great volumes) as the raw material from which to sculpt B2B content and marketing material.
For this reason, your technical translation (and jargon-removal) skills are still in demand. The output of the translation will be – you guessed it – value.
International and cultural nuance
The language you’ll most likely write in is English. But the piece may be read by business buyers internationally or translated into other languages.
Strict meanings and colorful turns of phrase consequently will be lost in translation, or just fall flat. A clear, internationally flexible style will address readers effectively across the globe.
In essence, you need to hone your bullshit detection.
Discernment helps with jargon removal, product claims that can’t be supported, breathless cheerleading, superlatives, and identifying anything else that doesn’t pass the “straight-faced test.”
It also builds maturity around whether to dig your heels in on changes that your clients or colleagues want to make on your writing, or just let it go. This takes practice and some critical thinking, but it can be taught.
We used to call it chest-thumping, that old-school way of “being right” simply by aggressively stating claims more strenuously. Now people are on to that tactic… mostly.
In any event, business buyers who are evaluating solutions have to make the case to their superiors for the budget to invest in yours. You need the ability to build an argument in your B2B writing that they can use to defend their selection.
Here’s a bold assertion: if the piece that you write could have just as easily been written by one of your company’s competitors – simply by swapping out company, product or feature names – then it was a waste of time to write it.
Find differentiated value propositions in the solutions you write about, vs. the company’s competitors. (Whose marketing you should, by the way, be studying.) This will make it nearly impossible for the audience to put you in the same bucket with a competitor, and then just compare the two solutions based on price.
That’s known as commoditization. B2B companies hate commoditization. When you become a B2B writer, differentiation will be the ninja super power you use to combat it.
A tough conundrum in writing B2B content is that it requires you to subtly take a position. (In favor of your company’s or client’s product, of course). Rather than coming off as competitor-bashing or opinionated, you ultimately need to arrive at your product as the obvious conclusion.
Know how to find objective support for your position by incorporating credible, external sources like research reports, surveys, and data.
It’s certainly true that colorful prose and personal anecdotes may make for delightful storytelling. But to make B2B writing compelling, instead of crowbarring storytelling into your material, master the ability to evoke curiosity about the topic and, ultimately, the solution.
Arguably the most important tool for this skill is knowing how to answer “why?” for the audience – as in, “why does this matter?” And specifically, “why does this matter to me?” This can be a powerful bridge between where they are today and where you want to lead them with your words (and with your solution).
If the poetic discourses or the walks down memory lane don’t answer (or lead to) “why?” then go ahead and use them to energize yourself. But write the rest of the piece with “why” in mind and then cross out everything else.
Metaphor and simile
Now, you might think I’m bashing anything that traditionally falls under ‘creative’ as irrelevant once you become a B2B writer. Not true. There are many places for creativity in B2B writing, and this skill is among the most significant.
In essence, as the writer you’re the interpreter for someone who’s suddenly immersed in an entirely new language: Translating intangible technology into concrete results. Explaining arcane regulatory compliance to entry level analysts. Or presenting the finer points of patent law for the solo entrepreneur.
Since the audience is not necessarily the experts—yet—in your offering, an aptitude for analogy helps bring B2B writing to life.
Grammar, usage, punctuation, vocabulary, gravitas, and other “rules” of academic writing once informed how well a B2B piece was written. Now, the lens is its adaptability to engage business readers at all levels and from all over the place.
To become a B2B writer, sooner or later you’ll have to throw away your rigid textbooks and style manuals. Instead, play around with multiple conversational, casual, geeky, cheeky, natural-language, TED-talk, friendly, and authoritative writing styles.
Channel and platform savvy
Eventually, your B2B writing will be published on social media, content marketing, email, websites, sales collateral, campaigns, or other channels.
Each content type taps into variations of all of the above competencies, with their own built-in nuances. You need to know where yours will appear — and then make the appropriate editorial choices in order to be effective.
You’ll need a grasp on things like SEO, video, spoken vs. written messages, working with designers, repurposing, and conversational techniques. Remember the constellation of supporting content that surrounds the cornerstone work you’re creating, to ensure all your bases are covered.
Learn more (by learning more)
This may be a lot to take in, but in truth, it’s just the table of contents. Being effective in this field means growing your B2B writing chops quite deeply in each of these areas. And the more of these skills you can master, the more valuable your writing will be to businesses.
As a start, apply the same advice that’s given to new writers in any genre the same way as you would to become a B2B writer: Read.
Read in the genre you want to write in. Go online and read companies’ blogs. Download their B2B ebooks, sign up for their newsletters, read their trade publications, read their email nurture sequence. And practice writing what you see.
And then, keep practicing. You’ll automatically be better than most.