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.
B2B writing is becoming an increasingly popular endeavor for journalists and technical writers. And why not? It’s a field where they can use their well-honed communication skills to do well-paying work for companies that value good writing.
At the same time, businesses are starving for better and better content to help their solutions stand out, attract more prospects, and demonstrate superiority.
To be extra-super clear, that does say “better and better” content, not “more and more.” Already the content marketing landscape is littered with copycat, tactic-du-jour storytelling sameness and information overload.
The problem with most of what’s out there?
Well, according to buyers, it fails to communicate value that’s relevant to them.
Which is a waste. Because that’s what B2B buyers are actually looking for. Not creativity, not persuasion, not (strictly speaking) storytelling. Certainly not more to read.
They’re looking for value.
B2B Writing 101
True confession: I’m a B2B marketer who didn’t start out with a marketing degree.
My background is in journalism, and early on I took a left turn into technology communication. Like many writers, I’ve had to take some short and long leaps to work my way over to the B2B writing field.
For 15+ years doing this work with progressively higher levels of business outcomes (which are, after all, the measure of success in B2B writing), I’ve researched, uncovered, and analyzed the specific skills and mastery needed.
And, surprise, the competencies can’t be found in a template and replicated with a system.
But they can be learned.
These days, I train communicators on how to develop them. And the good news is, any decent writer can pick them up with practice.
The better news is that mastering these competencies lifts writers so far out of the Upwork masses that you might even stop calling yourself a freelancer and start saying you own a B2B writing business.
This post is for any communicator who started out in a different career, but wants to become a (better) B2B writer.
The 13 new skills you need to become a B2B writer
Do you have expertise 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.
Newbie or pro, 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 possess in yourself.
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.
1. Audience empathy
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.)
Empathy is the foundational attribute, and it’s also the most closely related to the most important skill you can master, which is…
2. Value forensics
Audience comes first in the actual sitting-down-and-writing. But this skill is the most important in marketing, and the most elusive to content writers. (Journalists may have an edge here.)
Forensics is following the line of reasoning from audience need to solution outcome by making connections that are specific to your audience’s scenario.
This aspect of value communication can’t be achieved by merely dropping in ad hoc stats or numbers (ROI, cost reduction, time savings, etc) and calling them “results.” You must make clear, relevant connections for your specific audience.
Making value concrete will be the goal of the majority of pieces written for B2B. We use a litmus test for value called “HONEST” to make sure each piece hits this goal.
Mastering this competency allows you to write credibly in an industry where you’re not already an expert.
When you possess transferable business acumen, you can apply your knowledge of other industries, and extrapolate the most important, logical information to the audience in this new industry.
Say you don’t know anything about insurance, but you’ve written a lot to support actuaries making a business case for financial advisory. You can use your previous work as a foundation, do some deeper due diligence, then transfer your business vocabulary and 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 handed to you (in great volumes) as the raw material from which to sculpt B2B content and marketing material. Your job is to put the specs, features and benefits into the right context for your buyers.
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.
5. 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.
That means strict meanings and colorful turns of phrase 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 your maturity around when to dig your heels in on changes that your clients or colleagues want to make on your writing, and when to just let it go. This takes practice and some critical thinking, but it definitely can be learned.
We used to call it chest-thumping: that old-school way of “being right” simply by aggressively declaring superiority more strenuously. Now people are on to that tactic… mostly.
Here’s the thing: 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 a business argument—not a debate—in your B2B writing that they can use to defend their selection.
That doesn’t mean invoking claims of superiority; rather, it means using inductive and deductive reasoning and examples to lead the audience to make their own conclusions.
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.
9. Neutral partisanship
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, your editorial technique ultimately needs to arrive at your product as the obvious conclusion.
This is not to say your content doesn’t take a stand, by the way—but that’s a brand decision, not the writer’s.
Rather, this point is all about how to maximize the credibility of your solution, and its claims, in the view of audiences that need ammunition to defend their buying decisions.
Know how to find objective support for your position by incorporating credible, external sources like impartial third parties, research reports, surveys, and data.
10. Revelatory curiosity
Revealing new information— telling buyers something they don’t already know—may be the most compelling factor for B2B writing. Even more than storytelling.
It’s certainly true that colorful prose and personal anecdotes make for delightful storytelling. But to make B2B writing compelling, don’t crowbar storytelling into your material by bending your topic to make it fit a formula. Instead, master the ability to evoke curiosity about the topic and, ultimately, the solution.
Arguably the most important tool for evoking curiosity by revealing new information 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, making a new connection between where buyers are today and where you want to lead them with your copy (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.
11. Metaphor and simile
Now, you might think I’m bashing anything that traditionally falls under ‘creativity’ as irrelevant once you become a B2B writer. Not true. There are many places for creativity in B2B writing, and the skill for metaphor and simile is 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 concepts into concrete results. Making arcane regulatory compliance come alive for entry level analysts. Or illuminating the dark corners of patent law for the tech entrepreneur.
Since the audience is not necessarily the experts—yet—in your offering, an aptitude for analogy helps paint a vivid picture with your B2B writing.
12. Tone-of-voice modulation
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.
13. 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 ideas, 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, this list is 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 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.