B2B communications: It doesn’t have to sound the same
Brand writing for business-to-business (B2B) marketing suffers from a reputation for being boring. But within the standard B2B brand voice, there’s still plenty that you can do to make your brand communications
stand out from the crowd. From the length of your sentences to the kinds of verbs you choose to articulate your value, we supply some practical tips to spice up your writing without losing sight of your brand’s mission. In the end, adhering to the old axiom that it’s better to show rather than tell will help your voice remain resonant and relevant to your audience.
There’s no shame in having a B2B brand voice that’s similar to that of your competitors. But that’s no excuse for boring writing.
Defining a brand voice is a valuable part of creating your brand strategy. It’s the point in brand development where the alchemy of personality, talent and experience can differentiate a brand from its competitors and resonate with audiences in novel ways.
Or, at least, that’s the case for consumer-facing brands. When you’re in B2B—business to business—communications and marketing, the reality can be … less glamorous.
For one, you’re creating a voice to speak to an audience that’s spending their business’s money, not their own. That means your audience is subject to levels of accountability in their professional capacity that would never come into play when they’re impulse-buying a new pair of sneakers for personal enjoyment.
Plus, most B2B products or services require a certain level of subject-area expertise on the purchaser’s end. Typically, technical specifications, proof points, and features and benefits all matter more in B2B than in B2C (and are usually more complex, to boot); unfortunately, none of these lends itself automatically to especially exciting copywriting.
As a result, a lot of B2B brand voices sound, well, pretty much the same. Whether it’s sales software, consulting services or promotional T-shirts, chances are, that voice is going to be “confident, informative and approachable but professional.”
I contend that this standard “B2B voice” isn’t actually a roadblock to effective marketing. Value, effectiveness and responsiveness are qualities that most buyers are looking for in a vendor, and B2B voice checks all those boxes.
What matters more, rather, is how B2B voice is implemented. And there are a few simple fixes you can make today that will help your own B2B marketing, advertising and corporate communications stand out, stay memorable and, hopefully, spur sales.
1. Switch up the sentence length
Short sentences make an impact. Longer ones, while a bit more complex in their construction, can convey reams of information with just the right amount of nuance you need to shift an audience’s understanding of your product.
Ideally, you want a mix of both kinds of sentences to keep a reader engaged. Too often, B2B writing defaults to the latter, with word counts reaching 30 and beyond, stuffed to the brim with clauses and conjunctions. There’s a good reason for this: longer sentences are easier to write (and edit) than shorter sentences. But they’re a lot harder on your readers, especially when stacked one after another.
One rule of thumb I use when editing is to count the coordinating conjunctions in longer sentences—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (but with a special emphasis on “and” and “or”). If you have more than two in a sentence, you’re likely trying to communicate more information than the sentence can bear. Even if it’s not a true run-on sentence, your reader won’t retain nearly as much of what you’re trying to tell them. Slice it up into shorter sentences, or at the very least, introduce an em dash (—), colon or semicolon to give your readers’ brains a chance to pause.
2. Free your verbs and your value will follow
In just about any sentence you write, the verb should shine forth as the most important word. A good verb elevates a product feature from simply “making” a task easier to “simplifying,” “streamlining,” “transforming,” “liberating,” “upending,” “enhancing” … you get the idea.
B2B writing imbues verbs with even more importance, because it delivers primarily functional appeals to audiences, as opposed to the emotional appeals found in B2C writing. Verbs contain all kinds of emotion in them as well, but do so while also conveying how a service works and how it changes the reader’s status quo. In other words, they’re the shortcut to showing customers your value rather than telling them.
A secret of the trade: a lot of the time, your best verbs masquerade as nouns. Security software doesn’t need to simply “offer protection”; it “protects.” A high-end printer doesn’t “support publishing efforts”; it “publishes,” “prints” and “reproduces.” Scan your writing for nouns ending in -ion or -ing, and see if you can turn them into a verb. You’ll tighten up your sentences—saving your reader time via less clutter and clearer meaning—while expressing a more honest account of how your product works.
3. Get up close and personal
Part and parcel to owning the value of your product is to personalize it. This trick is quite simple, but it’s among the most effective ones in your arsenal: add “we,” “our,” “you” and “your” to your lexicon. Deploying the first- and second-person pronouns adds warmth to your communications and typically leads to more elegant writing.
“Clients rave about how IT Systems Inc. gives them the best possible service in every interaction. Future clients will experience it too.”
“Our clients rave about how we give them the best possible service in every interaction. And when you partner with us, you’ll experience it too.”
“We” lends a human touch—and personal ownership—to your brand voice that can’t really be replicated, especially for B2B businesses on the more prosaic or technical side. It reminds your audience that they’ll be working with real, accountable people, not some faceless entity. “You” helps your audience see themselves (and an understanding of their needs) in your messaging, instead of imagining the interaction via an anonymous third party.
4. Own what you’re selling
You’ve spent months if not years building your business and your brand. Given how much time, sweat and money you’ve invested, why would you want to downplay the value that you bring to your customers?
And yet, B2B voice is littered with hedges, modifiers and qualifiers that limit your impact:
“Our service helps to save time.”
“Our product can reduce your monthly overhead.”
“Our team is one of the most capable in the biz, and can help you solve nearly anything.”
These “cans” and “helps” stand in the way of what you’re trying to convince your reader: that your product or service has a measurable impact on their business’s operations. Not only that, they also suggest your reader will still have to do part of the work themselves. Strike this self-consciousness from your writing and you’ll deliver a leaner, more decisive value proposition to your audience.
Of course, there are industries, such as law, finance and pharmaceuticals, whose compliance regulations forbid certain kinds of absolute claims, as well as any that cannot be backed up by vigorous data. In many of these instances, hedging a verb brings your sentence into compliance. Just be judicious in how many you use, lest you let hypothetical results overshadow the ones you can actually prove.
In the end, there’s no magic formula for B2B writing that works across every industry—the best writing is the writing that moves your product. It may take some time to refine your own writing to the point that it consistently and clearly articulates your brand’s value. But by taking the first steps toward a more thoughtful, engaging B2B brand voice, you’re telling your audience that you know them, you understand their needs and you value their time—while at the same time giving your brand the attention to detail it deserves.