Or is that “Market, Human!”

A lot of marketing experts are finally coming around to the beating heart of product marketing: remember that a business title doesn’t buy your product; a person does. We’ve held that belief as our basis for B2B marketing writing for a long time, but we didn’t make it up. People have intuitively grasped for ages that there’s a person on the other end of a communication, making a decision about what’s on that page. So what could possibly go wrong?

Emergence of the Merge

After a post-collegiate stint as a broadcast producer and business journalist, early on in my very first corporate job, a manager asked me to help review resumes and cover letters for a communications position. I was happy to do it. Many of them were inspiring to read and to look at, since publishing software was finding its way from agencies to personal desktops everywhere. Creative people had grown past the ransom-note fontapalooza that haunted basic word processing back then. Well, some had, anyway. The most tech-savvy communicators who were sending out a lot of resumes at once had discovered mail-merge. Mail-merge pre-filled the personalized portions of their mass mailings, so they wouldn’t have to spend all their time typing out names and addresses on cover letters and envelopes. (Remember those?) But of course, there wasn’t an HR manager around who didn’t know that fifty other HR managers were reading the identical cover letter and resume a few city blocks away at the very same time. So in the most rudimentary attempt to personalize, some people would–just like today–find out the name of the hiring manager instead of using the dreaded “to whom it may concern.” All of this is pretty standard stuff in marketing today, right? We automate our communications to make them efficient at scale, and at the same time give the assets a bit of personalization, so the recipient feels connected to the conversation… not just like some anonymous mail reader.

Greetings, Earthling

Then the most beautiful, perfect-looking resume crossed the desk. The one with all the right touches – professional layout, subtle design, catchy headers, appropriate detail. And oh! the matching cover letter, with the clean font, balanced white space, three paragraphs, mention of meticulous attention to detail, customized to our address… and personalized to our Human Resources Department. Yep, you guessed it. “Dear Human.” Which somehow made us feel less like people, and more like we had intercepted an intergalactic communique that the HR manager of every other planet in the universe had received in triplicate too. And with a closer look, we could see that it was clearly a copy-and-paste form letter, genericized so that it could be peanut-buttered over any job description. You could almost measure the engagement metrics dropping with a barometer, if those had been invented then. (I remember, though, a hard copy of the “Dear Human” cover letter itself got a lot of shares on inter-office mail. Maybe that counts.) Here it is years later, and with all the technology platforms we use in marketing we still haven’t learned the important lesson the generic-personalization mistake taught us.

Make a Connection First

In marketing automation, we get away with blindly sending whatever impersonal message we want to the known universe. We slap a spreadsheet column into the recipient field to trick the reader into a false sense of familiarity, and hit “send” — just so we can check the box that says we accomplished our goal of getting hundreds or thousands of emails sent that day. The risk is that the message gets sacrificed for measurement’s sake, and we lose our fragile connection with the reader at “hello.” There’s far more to effective B2B content than just one reminder. But if you use these four “market human” anchors in your writing as touchstones throughout content creation, you can make your readers feel as though the message was intended just for them:
  1. Avoid industry jargon. Talk like the person talks.
  2. Rather than list features that (let’s face it) probably all your competitors have too, identify the crucial difference that only your company thought of will make that person more successful.
  3. Solve a problem. Solve little problems for free (with content) but make sure the big problem is something that they’d be willing to pay someone to fix.
  4. Know your ideal buyers and speak directly to them.
And one more thing. Once you’ve made the effort to address your audience through the lens of their concerns, please don’t throw it all away in quick-fix attempts to slap automation or machine-generated personalization to your communications and hit some checklist metric. At least not without thinking about the impact it has on the message. Just remember your target market is made up of humans. So market human.