Last week, I shared one surprising stat from our B2B research: Only 44% of B2B marketers know what success and effectiveness look like. Another finding that jumped out at me – having internal content creators become stronger writers was the lowest-ranked priority for marketers. Really?
We took this finding to our B2B research roundtable panelists, and they were surprised too, saying that writing is a discipline that needs to be prioritized and practiced. Read on to get some practical ideas from our B2B roundtable on how to do that and learn what the CMI LinkedIn community suggests you consider when looking for a great writer.
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Thanks to the participants: Ardath Albee, B2B marketing strategist with Marketing Interactions and author of Digital Relevance; Vishal Khanna, director of digital marketing for Wake Forest Innovations; Carla Johnson, president of Type A Communications and co-author of Experiences, the 7th Era of Marketing; Jeannine Rossignol, vice president of marketing for Xerox Consulting and Analytics Services; and Linda Crowe, vice president, digital marketing solutions of Brightcove.
The case for good writing
As you can see in the research below, creating more engaging content was a top priority, and becoming a better storyteller ranked in the middle. How can you do these things without becoming a better writer?
Jeannine explains that even though you may have great thoughts, if you don’t communicate them well, they won’t make a good story and your content won’t be engaging.
I don’t know how you can tell your story if you are not a good writer … For instance, things would come to my desk to take a look at, I would get out my red pen and sit there and I would mark it because it wasn’t good writing. It was a good thought. It was a good idea. It would have made a good story, but it wasn’t written well.
Poor writing also reflects negatively on a brand. Ardath cited research from Acrolinx that said the biggest turnoff for more than half of buyers was grammatical errors and bad writing on a website.
Suggestions for becoming a better writer
Why is writing perceived to be such a low priority? There are multiple reasons. Perhaps it’s because everybody considers themselves to be a writer these days. Or maybe it’s because people have other pressing priorities. Whatever the case, the group offered several suggestions on how to become a stronger writer.
Reading was the first tip that sprang from everyone’s lips. While this is not a new idea, it’s so important to read regularly, not only books and articles related to your industry but also classics and any other genres that interest you.
Copy great writing
I loved this idea from Vishal:
I have an MFA in creative writing and the favorite exercise I was given was to start typing Hemingway. Just type Hemingway and when you finish typing the chapter, keep on writing. What happens is you learn to write like Hemingway, because you learn the cadence of the rhythm of the author. I think you can do the same thing with writing good content for the web. Look at what works well and write that and go further and write your own content.
Have a structure
Ardath shared a story about how she trains writers, and she explained the general structure that makes a good story:
They don’t know how to structure things. What makes a good story? What creates a good flow? You need to start with a hook and then prove your premise with three points and then tie back to the hook and wrap it up with a bow at the end. That’s the basic structure. Most people don’t understand how to put those things together.
As with any skill, you need to continually write if you want to excel at the craft. Most of the panelists have seen their roles shift from writer to editor, and Carla and Ardath are big fans of writing something every day, regardless of whether it’s free writing, fiction, or anything else that suits your fancy.
Ideas for teams
Even when you find a great writer (ideas on that below), you need to train that person to write for your specific brand within your style. Here are a few other tips to help you work with your writers:
- Get out your red pen. Both Vishal and Jeannine quite literally use a red pen with their teams and give a lot of feedback, especially at first, so writers can see what you are changing. Vishal explains:
Going back to the first question on editorial mission – we have a mission that we want to have in all of our work. We train our writers, pretty in depth, to make sure they get it. But, what it takes is a red pen for the first two months. That’s usually what it takes to get a good writer. Then they get it and the red pen gets used less and less then they are on their own. Even great writers have to be trained to write within the narrow confines of your brand.
- Be nurturing in your feedback. (Ardath)
- Have a supportive environment where people can ask for help.
- Let your writers write where they write best. Vishal suggests his writers go home, to a coffee shop, or to wherever they can write.
- Consider writers to be a strategic part of the team, not just someone who is handed ideas. (Linda)
How to find a good writer
While the B2B roundtable didn’t spend time talking about how to find a good writer, this challenge was alluded to in a situation Ardath described:
My client came to me and said, “I need to hire 10 writers.” I said, ‘Oh great, this is wonderful.’ Then it took us six months and we interviewed a 100 of them before we found 10.
I couldn’t help but think of a recent and active conversation on CMI’s LinkedIn Group that addresses how you find the right writer. Here are several of the ideas:
Amanda MacArthur says to focus on a cover letter instead of a resume:
When we hire, we ask them to nix their resume, and write us a cover letter that explains their experience, passions, and why they want to work for us. This is writing sample No. 1. If they can’t sell themselves with their words, how will they do it for your company?
Doug Rekenthaler Jr. believes you need to find writers who can write specifically for your brand:
The content marketing space is choking on anemic writing that lacks distinction as well as a capacity for grasping a brand’s fit within its space (i.e., they crank out content that could fit you OR any of your competitors, which isn’t particularly useful).
You also need to define your project. As Jan Coopman explains:
First of all, the initial work will be on you. Define what type of work you need, and write an accurate job description. Blogs? Press releases? How much creativity is desired? How much initiative? Experience? Supervision? (You) can ask for samples and links to work.
Kate Eidam adds to this:
Also make sure to clearly communicate the goal, objective, and audience for each piece. In my experience, when this isn’t done from the outset, it’s easy for things to go off the rails.
Ann Gynn (our very own CMI editor) has the following tips:
I also recommend asking the finalist candidates to set up a project if you want to see their approach/creativity. You identify the primary goal or objective and ask the person to come up with some content ideas, distribution, and promotion (depending on the job). Also have them list any questions that they need answered to complete the creative development. This enables you to see behind the person’s approach to content development, etc.
You also need to give writers a chance to refine their work, as Bob Balm shares:
A first draft is rarely spot on, both in content and in tone of voice. Especially if it’s the writers’ first work for you. You may not like a first draft of a text, so if you only give a potential one chance to deliver a good result, you may not get the best piece of work.
Perhaps worse, I think a writer’s ability to process your feedback into the piece of work and, over time, get the hang of your desired tone of voice, is a big plus. And you won’t discover that ability if you just give him/her one shot at spitting out the perfect text. You might end up with someone who was lucky enough to write something that appealed to you that particular time, but ends up not fitting the mold you were looking for in the long run. So in short: Appreciate that content writing is a process, and test your potentials to see if they do so too.
Where to go from here
Are you part of the 19% who consider becoming a better writer to be a priority? Are you a part of the 72% who consider creating more engaging content to be a priority? While fostering stronger writing within your team (regardless whether you have internal or freelance writers) takes time, it’s worth it because you can’t create stories or be the go-to resource in your niche if people don’t want to read your content.
And to all, when you have found that writer you love, hold on tight and treat him or her well.
What other tips do you have to share?
Want to learn more about what B2B, B2C, and nonprofit marketers are doing now and planning for 2016? Download the latest from CMI’s research center.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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