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Marketing Writing: Six Questions to Ask Before You Start

Early in my marketing communications (marcom) career, my supervisor gave me a pretty typical writing assignment. "This datasheet needs to be written pronto. Here's some information -- it should give you everything you need." I looked over the material and thought, "How am I supposed to write a datasheet using this? I don't even know what this product is!" Being new at the job, I didn't want to appear "dumb" by asking too many questions.

Instead, I struggled for days to come up with enough copy for a double-sided sales sheet -- and wasn't really surprised when the copy came back from the product manager with a terse note: "We need to talk!"

Since then, I've learned that asking questions -- lots of them! -- makes it much easier to write copy that moves prospects to take action.

Whether you're a corporate writer or a freelancer, it pays to ask the following questions before you start writing:

  1. What's our marketing objective?
  2. One of the questions I ask clients about new projects is really quite simple: "What's your ultimate outcome for this project?" Most people reply, "Leads! We want more leads!"

    When writing sales and marketing collateral, determine what you want people to do once they read your website, white paper, landing page, or print brochure -- and then make sure your copy includes a call-to-action.

    I know this sounds like a "duh" type of thing, but you'd be amazed how many websites and marketing pieces don't tell people what to do next (i.e. call, email, download, subscribe to, etc.).

    Case in point: A prospect called me a few months ago to say, "No one is downloading our white papers." When I went to the website, I quickly realized it was because the "white paper" page didn't include verbage telling prospects what to do (nor did it include descriptive sales blurbs for each paper). Instead, site visitors were faced with an overwhelming list of links -- and were simply clicking back out.

  3. Who is our target audience?
  4. Before you start writing, you need to know to whom you're writing. In addition to job title (i.e. IT managers), you'll want to know the industry and company size. But don't rely on this scanty information!

    Scour the Internet for research reports, case studies, white papers, and articles that will give you insight into your target market, your prospects' challenges, industry trends, and yes, even marketing tips.

    Trade association and trade publication sites, for example, usually have meaty research reports (many of which are available to non-members) and white papers. And, sites like MarketingSherpa and Marketing Profs have hundreds of articles about how to market to various industry verticals.

  5. What makes the company, product, or service different from our competition?
  6. Dell, HP, and Gateway all make a commodity product: desktop computers. (Heck, even their websites look and sound the same.) Apple, however, is different. They don't make computers, they make tools that enable businesses and people to "make amazing stuff" like podcasts, instant video chats, and "one-click websites."

    To learn more about your company and its position in the marketplace, study your corporate website and your competitors' websites. Gather collateral from trade shows and scan trade publications (you can learn quite a bit reading the ads). Attend your company's sales and user meetings. Ask R&D and/or the marketing VP if test results or other research is available.

    The knowledge you pick up will help you better position the product you're writing about.

  7. What are our prospects' pain points?
  8. It's much easier to write copy that tells your prospects and customers how your product or service will benefit them (and overcome their resistance, too!) if you know the problems they routinely face.

    The best way to get this type of information? Make friends with your company's sales people! Better yet, go on sales calls and meet customers in their environments. If you can't get out of the office, you can still ask sales people lots of questions including:

    • What are our customers' work environments like?
    • Is current technology difficult or easier to use?
    • What do people need to do their jobs more simply?

  9. How will the product/service benefit our prospect?
  10. Now that you know your prospects' pain points, you need to determine how your product/service benefits them.

    Your customers and prospects want specific details about your product/service:

    • Will it reduce overhead?
    • Will it eliminate downtime or increase system uptime?
    • Does it save space?
    • Is it mobile -- meaning users can easily move it from one work area to another?
    • Does the unit operate quietly and/or remotely?
    • Is it smaller and faster than what's currently available?
    • Does it provide highly accurate results -- in comparison to what?
    • Is it new? Does nothing else like it exist?
    • Does it allow users to work more productively?
    • Can you quantify these benefits with percentages or numbers?

    Be aware that features often masquerade as benefits. A sentence that reads, "Acme Software features a unique built-in server for remote control operation," is vague. "Unique, built-in server" is a feature and "remote control operation" isn't really a benefit. You can hear your prospect saying, "So what?"

    Changing it to, "You'll spend 33% less at time at the computer with Acme Software's new remote control capability," will have your prospect saying, "Tell me more!" because the sentence gives a quantifiable benefit.

  11. How will we measure results?
  12. This final question brings me back to the point I made in question #1. Most people know what results they want -- "More leads!" But many companies don't measure the results of their campaigns. If you don't measure, how will you know if your campaign is working?

    Dianna Huff is a B2B marketing communications consultant and copywriting expert. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter, The MarCom Writer, at the DH Communications website.


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Dianna Huff is a B2B marketing communications consultant and copywriting expert. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter, The MarCom Writer, at the DH Communications website. To download her latest free e-book, "Five B2B MarCom Strategies to Increase Sales Now," visit MarCom Writer Blog. Click here to read more articles by Dianna Huff.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 6th 2007, 8:52 AM
Comment by: bonnie L.
What an amazing and informative article! As a founder of a start-up non-profit this has been an invaluable tutorial. Thank you.
Saturday March 3rd 2007, 7:27 PM
Comment by: Roberta G.
How can I get in contact with Bonnie Lowell? Her comment of Feb 6, 07 says she founded a start-up non-profit. I have too! It would be cool if Bonnie and I could correspond.

Bonnie, I'm at roberta@napalit.org.

Roberta
Monday July 9th 2007, 12:06 AM
Comment by: Catherine M.
These 6-questions, while seemingly simple, when earnestly pondered, researched and answered assist the writer in creating the right copy, not just filler words. Thank you for your questions.
Wednesday October 3rd 2007, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Chris T.
This article was a tremendous aid in helping me formulate questions for the marketing team that hired me to work on a brochure for their flagship product. Many thanks.

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