The CEO is on the phone to review the copy his marketing team and I have been working on for six weeks. This is the first time we’ve been able to get him on the phone for a meeting that hasn’t been rescheduled four times and ultimately canceled. The pressure is on.
We sent the CEO (let’s call him Stu) copy to review ahead of time, but he seems not to have seen it before. He’s skimming the opening paragraphs. I hear whispering on the other end of the phone and realize he’s moving his lips as he reads.
“OK, I’m not a writer, so I’m certainly not an expert,” he begins, and we brace ourselves.
“What I really want these readers to know, above anything else, is that we’re innovative. I want you to get that word into the headline. Innovative.”
I prickle a little at this but keep my cool. Of course, his marketing team and I have done a lot of analysis to learn what this customer base is really interested in, and innovation is only part of it.
But what I really want Stu to understand is that just because he uses the word “innovation” in his web content doesn’t mean that prospective customers are going to believe he can solve their problems better than the next guy.
Even superheroes need the Justice League
We as B2B marketers fall into a trap with our customer communications. We feel like we have to come across as formal and distinguished in the way we talk about our company and products. We want to sound like experts, and we want people to think we’re the best.
But there are only so many words and phrases in the English language that help us get those points across, and when we set out to write the language to convey our distinction, we inevitably turn to the same toolbox of terms.
I’m as guilty of it as the next copywriter. It’s worse when it’s what the client thinks he wants. (In this case, if Stu is happy, everyone is happy, so the marketing team thinks “innovation” is a small price to pay.)
It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with this word, or its B2B jargon counterparts. As someone who has spent a great deal of time with every thesaurus I can find searching for alternatives, I can vouch for the fact that we use the words so frequently because they’re the most powerful, accurate and appropriate ones out there.
The problem lies more in the fact that as writers and marketers, we expect these words and phrases to carry the weight of our meaning and messaging, to work tirelessly as Men of Steel to save the world and solidly communicate the differentiating value of a company or product. A tall order for little words, as important-sounding as they may be.
The ideal would be if these words never appeared again in B2B marketing copy. But that’s highly unlikely. I would bet you money that sometime in the next two days I myself will use one of them in a client assignment. I’ll try hard not to, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
But what we as marketers can do is to avoid letting the words rest on their own laurels — because they are so overused, customers breeze right past them. They have ceased to have meaning.
So even if we use them, we have to make them work harder. Why is your company innovative? Let’s illustrate it, right upfront — we have technology that no one else has, that gives you the highest productivity or accuracy in the industry and solves your problems incomparably. We solve problems differently than any other company, and here’s exactly how and precisely what it means for you as the customer. Amazing! When you approach it this way, you don’t really even need to use the word “innovative.” You’re already saying it, and in a way that means so much more to customers.
And now: the B2B copywriting Razzie Awards
Here they are — the five oft-used B2B words and phrases that I challenge you and myself to avoid using from this moment forward:
- Innovative. This word is not only overused, most of the time it’s not used properly. There’s a philosophical debate going on in the patent world over whether an invention should be considered innovative if it doesn’t truly change the world or chart a new course for technology. If you have a couple of extra features that make your product a cut above the other products doing basically the same thing on the market, you’re not really innovating.
- State-of-the-art. Also “world-class” and “best-of-breed.” They’re pretty words that attempt to elevate a product into the upper echelon of its category. But by themselves they’re empty words. When everyone in your category claims to have “state-of-the-art” or “best-of-breed,” they stop meaning anything.
- The leading provider of … The problem with this phrase is twofold. First, it isn’t always true. If you’re like most B2B companies, you may lead the category with one or two products, but your competitors have No. 1 slots for other products. But the real problem is that it’s an inward-facing term. A lot of “About Us” pages start with this: we’re the leading provider of XYZ. Good for you! But what does it mean for customers? Lose the term and lead with a customer-focused proposition.
- Combined experience of 200,000 years. I always smirk when I see a company talk about how their executive team has combined experience of 50, 100, or 200 years. What does that even mean? If you put the number of years in the workforce of everyone in your company together, sure, you’ll have a really big number taking you back to prehistoric days. Talk about the fact that your team knows the industry deeply and applies that knowledge to solving customer problems. Readers aren’t impressed by simple arithmetic.
- Solutions that give customers what they really need. OK, this is a tough one. First, as someone who writes for the software industry, I understand that “solutions” isn’t just a jargony word for “product.” Well, it is actually, but there’s a reason behind it. Companies are trying to communicate that they bundle a product (the software) with consultative services, installation, support, etc. They don’t want you to think you’re just buying a box with some discs in it and will be flying solo from now on. I honestly don’t have a problem with “solutions,” expect that somewhere in the copy I’ve starting making a stand for at least one time calling it what it really is. Software. It’s better for SEO (that’s how customers think of it and search for it), and it’s better for clarity. Let’s not hide it. We’re in the software business.As for the second part of the phrase, “what they really need” — well, that’s one of my lazy fall-backs. What it’s trying to say is, “We really listen to you and customize your solution for your needs.” But it’s lazy. Take it a step further. What do customers really need? Thirty percent of their time back? More money? A happier work life? Take the time to find out. Your customers will notice.
So what about Stu? Well, we gave him “innovative.” But the rest of the copy on the page worked hard to make it meaningful. My guess is that customers will notice the substance — the quantifiable proof points, the copy focused on their specific challenges — and glance right over the word “innovative.” And I’m OK with that.