2022 Wrapped.

A quick overview that might help my parents understand what I do for a living

2022 was busier than I thought it turns out. And I wouldn’t even know this if I hadn’t pulled the stats – or, let’s be honest, roughly estimated the numbers by going through the folders on my computer.

If you’re keen to know what I’ve been up to all year – or would just like to know what I actually do all day – take a look at this highly data-driven summary of Say What?’s 2022.

Grammar, shmammar.

The podcast where I tell the grammar police to do one.

Are you even a copywriter if you don’t faff about all morning only to have to work late to deliver what you promised? If you don’t find typos all over your piece the minute after you hit send? And if your clients don’t regularly point to some bit of your copy being ‘ungrammatical’?

David McGuire – who runs the lovely clutter of copywriters that is Radix Communications – has asked the very smart brand poet Rishi Dastidar to discuss the importance of grammar in B2B copy. And then I say some stuff too because I’m co-hosting.

Listen here if you like that sort of thing. (I won’t because I hate the sound of my own voice. Also, I’ve been told I sound Northern. Don’t tell my Bavarian relatives).

Huge thanks to David for inviting me. I had a blast. Pint on me next time you’re in London. Or Bavaria.

A blast from the past

Some 1980s native advertising from Germany

I’m in Germany staying at my parents’ and have just been reminded of a type of native advertising we used to get in paperbacks, like this one.

From this sort of era.

You’d read about kayaking for a bit, and then all of a sudden, you’d come across some bonkers illustration that looks completely different from the others in the book.

The illustration would somehow relate to the topic of the book. In this case, paddling.

And on the next page, the copy would, with some considerable mental gymnastics and loads of metaphors involved (“keep your head above water”, “stay the course”, etc), bring the topic round to municipal bonds and where to buy them.

What I’m taking from this: Native advertising has always been clunky, even when it tried hard. (and didn’t take itself too seriously)

I don’t like the idea of being served an ad in a book I paid money for. And I doubt the ad made the book cheaper for readers to buy.

But 1) The targeting strategy seems solid: people interested in kayaking for pleasure, or even toying with the idea of buying a boat, probably have some disposable income, if only a moderate amount. It makes sense to suggest they invest some of it.

And 2) I love how hard the copy is working here. See the paragraph above (despite the clunk).

Even better (though not related to the ad): the positioning for this series of sport-related books: “Mehr Spaß am Sport mit Programmen von Profis und Kniffs von Könnern”.

Punch and alliteration go a long way.

I couldn’t find any information about the success of these ads, but they did run for a good 20 years, apparently. And I don’t know how they would have attributed ROI back then. But I’d love to find out how people felt about them. If you’ve got any insights, let me know. But it might take me a while to respond. I’m going kayaking.

4 types of B2B agency

I’ve worked agency-side most of my career. As a full-timer, and over the past couple of years, as a freelancer, too. I’ve seen loads of agencies from the inside. Every one is different, of course. But if you look a bit more closely, a pattern emerges. Here are some types of B2B agencies I’ve come across.

“Figure out who you are, then do it on purpose”.

Allegedly, Dolly Parton said that. I think it’s a terrific summary of what a brand is. And whether you’re a freelancer, work in an agency, run one, or appoint them once in a while – it makes sense to understand who you are, where you are in your career or project, how you see your job, and where you want to get to. And while I clearly have an opinion on the type of agency I prefer, there’s no right or wrong here. Maybe this totally non-objective and definitely not double-peer-reviewed typology helps you understand what works for you. Or you might think it’s bollocks. (In which case I’d appreciate a strongly worded letter from you).

1. The ones who think B2B means you get away with bland creative.

…And who often do.

B2B’s reputation as boring is pretty dated by now, but some of the big international B2B shops do fall into this category. And they serve some big, moneyed clients. These agencies are often really good at process, and tend to be quite profitable businesses. But let’s be honest. Their creative often sucks, or is non-existent. They have the resources – but they don’t have the appetite (anymore?). Their Creative Directors won’t “re-invent” for you there, and their Heads of Copy won’t push back when your reviewers overdo it on the buzzwords.

I’m not saying these agencies do terrible work. They definitely deliver the goods if you want all the B2B staples: websites and ebooks and blogs and videos – the large ones can even deliver your enterprise-scale ABM programmes. But it’s not going to stand out. They’ll put the standard messages out there, the ones that your competitors use, too. Packaged up in a formal, professional, industry-standard sort of way.

Self-conception: Unapologetically B2B. As in serving-the-industry-but-not-challenging-its-methods.

Creative output: Usually solid, but run-of-the-mill. I’m generalising of course.

Choose them as an agency if: you want to look professional, and like other players in your industry; or need continuous campaign support (But I wouldn’t go there for a re-brand.)

Choose them as an employer if: you want to do steady, grown-up work, not rock the boat.

2. The ones who’d rather be B2C.

Really conflicted on these. They’ve understood a fundamental truth – that a lot of B2B marketing has traditionally been boring and bloodless and needs injecting with a bit of oomph – but they’re the victims of a fallacy: that they’ll get away with not really engaging with the particular B2B niche and its context; that B2B just needs some brand-level fun; that barely scratching the surface of their client’s proposition is the remedy to product-sheet-level boringness; or that (visual) branding is all that matters.

Unfortunately, that often goes along with a lack of understanding of the space their client is in, and the belief that a campaign involving something cute (think animated cuddly animals) will do the trick. Can also sometimes fall in love with an off-piste creative idea that ends up not answering your brief. They mean well but don’t follow through (you know what I mean). Not my favourites.

Self-conception: Secretly a bit ashamed that they’re “only B2B where none of the cool stuff ever happens”. (And that sort of self-loathing would be an issue for me if I were a client.)

Creative output: Often design- (not strategy- or copy-) led. Fun, a bit goofy, or brand purpos-y, with a definite consumer feel to it.

Choose them as an agency if: you’ve got really solid messaging (don’t let them touch that) but would like to inject some life into a campaign or an event.

Choose them as an employer if: you like varied, shooting-from-the-hip type work. (Don’t go there if you want to learn B2B planning from scratch)

3. The ones who’d rather not be an agency

Bit of an overlap with #1 here. Why is it that every other B2B agency is trying to re-frame itself as something else these days? Usually a consultancy. (Hello dark-blue 100-slide strategy deck, my old friend). First of all: haven’t good agencies always consulted their clients on good brand strategy, positioning, copy, design…? So if you haven’t in the past, did you do it wrong? Secondly: are you so in love with your abstract frameworks that you’d rather not have them sullied with brainstorming sessions or – god forbid – tested in creative execution? Are you ashamed of your creative? Do you think it’s just fluff?

This sounds a tad belligerent, but I think it’s important to talk about. Clients go to agencies to get access to a team of experts. Ideally, they choose you because they like your approach, your ideas, your style, your opinion on how things should be done… When you let core agency offers – insight, copy, design, etc – become outsourcable commodities, you de facto abandon ship. You allow direction to be separated from execution. You wash your hands off it. And, as far as I can tell, the Accentur-ization of the agency landscape rarely produces good work. Just like Accenture’s move into marketing is creating some awful shite. (If you haven’t seen it, Ryan Wallman has written a beautiful post about it).

[I’ve also seen some who don’t go down the consultancy route, but veer into tech or martech territory – that seems fair enough – it feels like an evolution of the agency model that might produce a category of its own.]

Self-conception: Definitely B2B. Less definitely an agency.

Creative output: mostly strategy decks – creative is often an afterthought.

Choose them as an agency if: I don’t know…maybe if you have in-house creatives? Tbh I find it hard to think of a reason.

Choose them as an employer if: you need a stepping stone before you join McKinsey.

4. The ones who are squarely B2B and proud of it

Finally. And you were wondering if I’d ever stop ranting. These are rare, but of course, they’re my favourite people. Simply because here you tend to find less self-hatred that keeps them from focusing on good work. And if you’re lucky, a genuine understanding of the B2B buying/selling dynamic. Which ideally pairs up with a real desire to understand your industry, your buyers, their obstacles and motivations.

There’s a downside to this, of course: they want to be taken seriously. They’re opinionated. So if you’re a client, they’re going to push back on your amends; they’re going to want to experiment; they might be a bit difficult, and may not be the most organised. And if you work for them, they’ll be demanding, too.

Self-conception: B2B2theBone.

Creative output: strategy-led, but with good understanding of design. Most importantly though, an opinion on everything.

Choose them as an agency if: you want to be challenged on your point of view; want to stand out as a brand; are happy to shake up the status quo. (Don’t go there for execution-only projects. They’ll take long, charge a lot and hate the work).

Choose them as an employer if: you want to work somewhere ballsy and smart (and accept that it’s likely to be disorganised and require long hours).

What do you think? What did I miss?

Does this make sense at all? What agencies have you come across? I’d love to hear your take. And if you feel I got it all completely wrong, I can’t wait to see that strongly worded letter.

My SMB lightbulb moment

Why every marketer’s first job is to get rid of “not for me”

I’ve just finished a B2B positioning and content strategy project with a great client. Their SaaS product is pretty cool: it helps small and medium-sized manufacturers digitally track their production and collect data on everything they do. While I was working on it, I realised a very basic thing. So basic, in fact, that it looks incredibly dumb when I write it down. But it ended up being one of the key insights for our messaging.

It’s this:

If your product is for SMBs, you should say so loud and clear.

I told you it was basic. But: this dumb fact is really important. And the reason, I think, is that most small and medium businesses (SMBs) suffer from some kind of impostor syndrome. Or a business-world version of it. I’ll try to explain:

  1. Most SMBs think they’re too small to buy any of the tech that’s on the market. Because it’s not made for them, and likely too expensive.
  2. They think they’re not sophisticated enough to use it. Both in terms of digital maturity (especially in manufacturing, where a *lot* of stuff is still done by hand, on paper) and team resources (they don’t have IT departments, or IT procurement expertise. Someone in the business will make IT their job – in addition to the day job).
  3. They think they’re, well, special. A lot of SMBs have grown organically, figured things out themselves, learned along the way, made it work. They haven’t arrived at best practice. They’ve found a practice that works best for them. That creates a half-apologetic, half-proud sentiment: “we don’t now how we did it, but it seems to be working. We do things differently here and our processes are unique.” That means they’ll be wary of SaaS-y tech that’s not highly customised to them. “It can’t possibly work for us, can it?”
  4. They’re worried about the disruption it’ll cause. The thought of implementing new tech and teaching workers to use it causes them ulcers. Because if you break the process, it could take ages to put it back together. And that might well jeopardise their business.

All of these cause SMBs to believe that if they did buy a piece of tech, they’d probably be mis-sold an expensive solution, considered a minor customer by the vendor, be neglected by their customer service, and have to figure it all out themselves.

SMBs didn’t just make this up

I hate to say it, but they may not be wrong. According to the World Economic Forum, tech vendors are less willing to invest in development for smaller firms. It seems that for tech companies that are going after the enterprise market – which *disclaimer* I work with most of the time – SMB can be a bit of a dirty word. For them, visions are where it’s at.

Enterprise marketing loves a vision. Of consolidated, usable, analytics-ready data maybe, or of 360-degree customer insights; of processes so frictionless they’re positively slippery; or of raving brand advocates, and of employees with life/work balances so in equilibrium they’re dancing on their desks.

But underneath those visions are some big assumptions: for instance, that your prospects have IT departments who can dedicate resources to integration; that your budget can accommodate months and months of professional services engagements; that the project will be championed by a senior leader who’ll drive the change and communicate it successfully up to the C-suite and down into the business. In short: that there will be the people, processes and budgets to get rid of any obstacles you might encounter.

Needless to say, for a target audience that isn’t used to any tech ever being made with them in mind, the first thing vision-led marketing will do is drive them away. Because for SMBs, all of the above screams “It’s not for me. I don’t have any of those things.”

Lazy marketing can hurt your brand

I believe that the visionary style of marketing has become so pervasive, it’s the default mode for most B2B tech. I’m guilty of it, too. After all, it’s a lot sexier to talk about the great things you’ll be able to do eventually, than about the long, hard slog it’ll take to get there. It’s probably easier, too.

But, if we as marketers are really honest about it, by deploying the vision strategy, we’re systematically excluding SMBs, who aren’t shiny, slick and corporate. They’re often a little grubby, cobbled-together, and managing to stay in business successfully despite it all.

And they’ve come to believe that nothing out there is made with them in mind.

So, obviously, if you’ve decided that your best prospects are in the enterprise space, by all means, you should exclude SMBs from your business and marketing model. But if you’re trying to sell to SMBs (and the market potential is huge!), going all in on a vision, while ignoring their specific challenges from your marketing comms is simply not good enough.

You’ve got everything to gain

So what does that mean in practice? For me, as I was building out a messaging hierarchy for my client, it was this:

Unless we understand that there’s this barrier to tech adoption for SMBs, we can communicate all we want about the benefits of our solution to their business. How it will make them more productive, more efficient, more data-savvy, more competitive. But they won’t really listen until we can get rid of this huge doubt that’s still lingering in their minds. That this isn’t really for them.

So before we say anything else, we need to show that this product is made with SMBs in mind. That no business is too small for good tech. That they may have low digital maturity, and that that’s ok. That we don’t expect them to know all this stuff. That we can show them what their roadmap could look like, and that we’ll be there for them along the way. And that they’ll be able to afford it.

And if we manage to do that, we’ve got a real chance at a true differentiator, and the opportunity to open up a massive market of solid, no-bull-shit, and fiercely loyal customers. It may sound a little dumb, and very basic, but I’m convinced: when it comes to marketing tech to SMBs, “this is for you, as you are” beats a lofty futuristic vision every time.

My ideal client

7 signs we’re the perfect match

I believe in the power of a sharp positioning. That means knowing who you want to work with/sell to, under what circumstances, and why. That may sound arrogant, but it really isn’t – because if you’re considering hiring me, you need to know this, too.

A good positioning goes both ways. If you’re an ideal client for me, then I can provide bulls-eye expertise and you’ll get maximum value out of hiring me. If you’re too far removed from that sweet spot, I can try my best and might still disappoint you.

That’s not to say that we can’t work together unless we’re a perfect fit. But if you’re in the business of selling things, then you know that there’s a wide spectrum of customer-vendor relationships. Some sales are easy — and feel exciting for both parties — while others drag on, and doubt keeps lingering. The buyer is constantly worried they’re not getting their money’s worth, and the vendor is losing the will to live.

Nobody wants that. I’m looking for businesses who are excited to work with me, and you should look for the same in any vendor. I get excited about companies who are eager to move the needle with their Marketing story. I know I’ll do my best work when I’ve spotted a content/messaging situation that I can find a solution for. And it gets even better when I sense my clients trust me because they like my approach. It’s a bit like dating actually – if we’re both really keen, I just know it’ll be great.

So, at the risk of being swiped out of your consideration set within the 3 minutes it’ll take you to read this, here’s what my ideal client looks like:

1. A B2B tech or services company

Your company sells complex products or services to other businesses. I’ve been planning and writing for B2B tech for most of my career and I have a ton of experience in that weird, niche-y, unapologetically geeky, and often awfully corporate space. I work with small and big tech companies, startups, and agencies, so I get to observe market challenges and trends, and how businesses are responding to them. I get to see different creative approaches and develop ideas for cutting through the noise. And, when I work with agencies, I catch glimpses of new and shiny digital marketing tools and how smart digital marketers are using them for B2B. All of that is the strategic capital I’ll bring to the table when we tackle your specific challenge.

TL;DR: if you need help selling handbags on Insta, I’m probably not right for you. Might buy one, tho.

2. A startup or scale-up

I work with a few B2B agencies here in London and help them with content strategy for demand gen, lead gen and ABM. But to be honest: my favourite client is a direct one, i.e. a tech company that needs help with positioning, messaging, and content.

I’m ideal for startups and scale-ups because I’m really good at this – but cheaper. They get the niche expertise they’d usually only get from a specialist B2B agency – but I can offer it for less because I don’t have the overheads of those guys.

Full reveal: that also means I can’t offer a full-service marketing program that includes design, development etc. But you may not be looking for that (yet).

That is to say: We’re a great fit if you need a B2B tech marketing pro, but don’t have an agency budget. Or: if you have design covered, but need help with the positioning, messaging and content side of things.

3. A degree of marketing maturity

I sometimes work with startups that haven’t yet hired anyone to help with Marketing – like a digital marketer, a marketing manager, etc. That doesn’t technically stand in the way of my work. I can still develop a positioning, messaging and content strategy for you. But as a business you’ll get less out of it because you don’t have the resources to get those messages in front of the right eyeballs, to manage campaigns and measure them, and to own your marketing data.

So if you’re not ready to professionalise Marketing to some degree, that’s a bit of a red flag for me. Of course, I can help you create content, write your website, etc. But B2B tech is all about your niche, and these days, you need someone who knows how to reach that niche digitally. I really don’t believe businesses should outsource that data and knowledge anymore – they’re huge assets that are worth owning. Digital marketing is a completely different skillset from mine, and there’s no way any magic will happen if we have spot-on messaging but can’t marry it with the kind of targeting a good performance or digital marketer can engineer.

In short: Hire someone smart to manage your marketing performance for you and I’ll come running.

4. You’ve identified a positioning, messaging or clarity problem

The best situation for me is one where my client knows they need help with messaging. Maybe because your funnel is leaking. The fish aren’t biting. You’re diluting your sales stats with bad leads. I’m running out of water-based metaphors…

I’m right for you if your website is unclear, or your prospects don’t understand what you do (or why they should care), or how your offer is different from vendor X. That’s kind of my bat signal.

If your message is hunky-dory, and your content is already hand-delivering salivating, money-clutching SQLs into your Marketing Automation system, you don’t need me. You need an IPO consultant or something.

5. You appreciate the power of content

I believe that great content will help you sell. And it works when you’re proud of what you know, and willing to share that knowledge and all those opinions that got you to where you are.

If you believe in offering up your expertise to customers you respect, then we’ll do great work together. Because we both know they’re smart people who’ll see through thinly veiled, value-free pseudo-content in no time at all and will penalise you for it. But they will reward you if you help them solve a problem.

If you’re willing to invest the time and resources into letting me find your content sweet spot, your angle and your message, I can help you go to market with something unique.

Content is a long(ish) game, but it’s worth it. If you think you can hack your way to success without being useful, entertaining or honest, then we’re not on the same page. You’ll end up disappointed because I can’t give you the quick fixes you expect from me.

6. You’re willing to invest budget into content creation

This follows from the above. If your content is going to be worth anything, it’ll cost ya something. Good B2B tech writers aren’t easy to find. It really helps if you can add visual zing to your smart words, too, so you’ll need some switched-on designers as well.

I know how daunting this may sound, but it’s money well spent. And ultimately, whether you consider my strategy a success or not will depend on your ability to translate it into assets and tactics. I can build a great plan – but it will fail if we can’t execute on it. I’d just rather be upfront about that.

If you only have a budget for strategy, but no resources for execution, you’ll probably think investing in my work was bloody useless. If you’re worried about exploding costs, let’s talk upfront.

7. You’re up for trying new things

If you’ve worked in B2B tech marketing, you know how boring it can be. Unfortunately, for many businesses, the default MO still is to talk about important-but-inherently-unsexy things like efficiency, productivity, compliance and the like in bureaucratic language that makes absolutely no-one feel anything at all.

If you understand the power of non-generic language, and the energy that empathy, good copy and smart thinking can transport, then we’ll get on. And if in addition to that, you’re up for experimenting with channels and formats, and ready to try out what works and what doesn’t, then I think I may have found a keeper.

That is to say the B2B rulebook isn’t entirely stupid, but a few of its top rules are. If you’re undogmatic about them, we’ll love working together.

Is there… is there anyone still here?


Then you’re either up for challenging me on some of the above (please do!), or this must be fate ❤️. In either case, I think you should get in touch this minute.

“Happy high status” in content

3 basic attitudes that make copy great

This is a follow-up from my previous post, Notes on Tone, in which I argued that tone of voice is the opposite of a verbal flourish – but comes from your attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions about your audience: your stance, if you like. (Head here if you haven’t read it). That post was all about explaining this idea. In this one, I try to define what a good stance looks like, i.e. one that results in content with an authoritative, trustworthy ‘tude.

I’m currently reading “How to own the room” by Viv Groskop, a book designed to help women become more confident speakers. It analyses famous women’s speeches – Michelle Obama’s, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s, JK Rowling’s etc — and pulls out certain characteristics of their speaking style that make them exceptional. It’s a pretty good read (probably works for most blokes, too) and it’s got a few excellent bits. One of them is the idea of “happy high status”:

Groskop identifies “happy high status” as an essential element of Michelle Obama’s public speaking performances. It’s basically the idea that if you’re a famous, well-respected person — like George Clooney at a cocktail party — you can do things that other people might find embarrassing, or de-grading, and that might fluster them. In her example, a party guest mistakes black-tie’d George Clooney for a waiter, and asks him for a drink. And instead of getting angry, or annoyed, or yelling “don’t you know who I am!”, good ole tuxedoed George grabs a drink from the real waiter and hands it to the guest, with a smile. That’s happy high status — an unshakeable confidence in who you are and where you’re at. And Groskop’s point is that when you have it, no inappropriate, ‘lowly’ request or misstep will take it away from you. Not even touching the Queen on the back, which apparently Michelle did at one point.

Her other, and maybe even more important point is that Michelle Obama wasn’t born with happy high status. That she had to build up to it, and that it took her a while. And that this means everyone else can learn it, too. (Phew.)

Happy high status in writing

Groskop goes on to argue that “happy high status” isn’t actually conferred by society. It’s an inner attitude that anyone can achieve, regardless of social hierarchy. And when it’s genuine, it’ll make your public speech resonate like nothing else — because it transmits that you’re at ease, happy where you’re at, and not trying to hide anything. But – and this is key – it’s impossible to fake happy high status.

It seems to me that she’s describing the exact same thing that I called a ‘stance’ in my previous post. Well, she talks about public speaking, not content or copywriting. But they all come down to rhetoric. And her analysis holds some terrific stance advice for copywriters – and the brands we write for:

Get to a point where you’re comfortable in your role as a writer.
For a public speaker, it means projecting that you belong up there on stage (Groskop looks at Michelle Obama’s speaking performances over a period of ten years – and claims that in her early ones, she visibly disliked the publicity).

For a copywriter, especially when you’re writing about a niche subject you’ve only just discovered (data privacy engineering or the intricacies of airplane sanding and re-painting, for instance), this can be hard. You might be writing for an audience of specialists, and trying to tell them something new about their world. That can be bloody terrifying. But it’s all the more important that you project confidence in your writing, and signal that you’ve got something interesting to say. (Because if you don’t believe it, your readers definitely won’t.)

It might take a few days of research to get there, or a couple of interviews with experts. But eventually you’ll get to the point where you’ve found the hook, the entry point int your story, and you know you’ve got something good to say. You’re invested, and you care. You’ve earned the right to write about this.

Be generous
In a public speaking engagement, this might mean revealing some of your personal experience, not just talking about a theoretical concept. Groskop refers to a speech of Obama’s in which she opened up about her relationship with her daughters, and how that earned her the trust and attention of her audience.

As a copywriter, it means focusing on the value of your copy to your audience. You’re demanding your reader’s attention, after all. And attention doesn’t come for free. Be generous with what you know. It’s what drives people to your content, and it’s the only thing that will sustain their interest.

Respect your audience
This follows directly from the above. For a public speaker, it’s about engaging with their audience – by the way they speak, and how they interact, keep eye contact, etc. For a copywriter I think it simply means that you need do the groundwork of checking that you’re actually hitting the ‘interesting’ mark with your audience – i.e. do your homework, make sure you understand where they’re at, and what they’re likely to know.

I also believe that you should be careful not to talk down to your imagined reader, but engage in an honest dialogue. Think of them as that whip-smart friend of yours who you think so highly of. You wouldn’t insult their intelligence, would you? You wouldn’t waste their time waffling on and on? So don’t so it to your target audience either. For example, if you’re writing a piece of sales collateral, don’t pretend it’s something different. Acknowledge that you’re selling, but offer something valuable in return. Show them that respect. It’s the secret trick that stops your copy smelling of marketing.

Happy high status is your best default tone of voice

And that’s pretty much it. And while it sounds straightforward, “happy high status” in content is quite hard to achieve – because it’s not about crowd manipulation or cheap tricks. It means being comfortable enough to admit that you can’t help with certain things, and suck at others. It’s about accepting that people might disagree with you – and still being happy to put yourself out there.

But the thing of beauty is this: with a bit of work, every writer can get there. If you’re genuinely respectful, generous and honest while you’re writing, good copy will happen. You will be providing value, and engage your audience – no matter what your tone of voice guidelines say. (And even if you have no tov guidelines at all.) Your writing may not be perfect, or super polished. But you will have done something 90% of all copy out there doesn’t achieve.

And with content pouring left and right out of the well-budgeted brand megaphones, we can’t afford to miss out on this differentiation. It’s liberating, and the best strategy to drive the old marketing moths out of the content closet.

You can find Vivian Groskop’s book here. If you’re going to buy it, please support an independent bookseller.

"You lucky bugger" on a post-it

Notes on tone

Why tone of voice is a stance, not a sprinkle

In this post, I’ll argue that it’s not useful to think of tone of voice as an ornament. Think of it as an attitude instead.

This post has been stewing for a while. Last summer I had some feedback (from an absolutely lovely client) that I found baffling. It led me to sit down and put into words what I believe to be true about tone of voice. I didn’t write it in one go though, which meant that my initial huff dissipated somewhat and my jumbled pile of blog notes ended up sitting in a draft doc for a while because life happened. And one day, as I was browsing through my former employer Velocity’s marketing blog, I saw that Doug Kessler had, of course, already written a piece that said something quite similar to what I was going to say. And had done it beautifully. Damn him.

That made me question whether the idea had ever been mine in the first place, or if maybe I’d already read Doug’s piece but had forgotten about it, and was thinking myself original when I really wasn’t. I didn’t like that thought and ditched the post.

Well, I had lunch with Doug last week and told him about it. He graciously encouraged me to write it anyway. So I did and here you go. (You can find his piece here, but I’d rather you read mine first).

Marketers are latching on to tone of voice – and that’s not always a good thing

Last year, I started working with a new client, who, during our first couple of meetings, kept emphasising how important tone of voice was for them. That they wanted to sound unstuffy and non-academic, and were happy to push the boundaries. That’s great, I thought. Let me at it.

The first couple of pieces I wrote had really low word counts, and not much room to develop any conversational copy while also including all the information that needed to be there. So it was only when I wrote a chunky ebook for them that I realised what they understood “tone of voice” to be.

Let me explain why I think they got it all wrong.

Your readers are tacitly allowing you to sell to them – under the condition that you also provide solid value.

So imagine your standard middle-of-the-funnel type ebook that includes buying advice for its readers – “here’s what you should be looking for when evaluating this kind of software”-type stuff. If you’re a B2B tech copywriter – and even more so if you’re a buyer and regular reader of such content – then you know that this buying advice isn’t entirely impartial. At some point, it will definitely play up a capability that sets the business publishing the ebook apart from its competitors, and emphasise how indispensable it is.

Now I think that’s fair enough. As a reader, you’re aware that it’s a branded ebook given to you by a business with a selling agenda – and you’ll forgive them for trying to sell to you if you still get good stuff out of it. That is if honest, useful advice and deep domain knowledge go along with the selling. It’s the tacit agreement that makes content marketing work. (Bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this).

Now add a sprinkle of tone of voice.

So with this ebook, I had a bigger canvas to develop tone of voice than I’d had with the previous pieces. I aimed for high energy, peer-to-peer, and no-nonsense, and – probably to ingratiate myself with my client – included quite a few phrases that I have now come to think of as “tone of voice cheats” (like calling the reader “you lucky bugger”, referring to software as their “cool new toy” and such. The kind of thing you get loads of from B2C brands like Innocent or Oatly). I hang my head in shame.

Because, as unintended consequences go, these things came to bite me on the bum. As you may have guessed, my client simply loved-loved-loved the cheaty bits – in fact, the main feedback on my copy was to dial those up to eleven – but they cared a lot less for the high-energy, peer-to-peer, and no-nonsense attitude.

They ended up asking me (twice!) to sprinkle in more cute-but-ultimately-hollow expressions. And they also had another amend: they wanted me to remove one particular bit of copy that I felt encapsulated everything we were trying to do with tone of voice in this ebook. It was the phrase in square brackets (x being my client’s category):

Invest in a platform specifically made for x. [We sell such a thing, so of course we would say this – but hear us out.]” 

Their reason for wanting it gone was that “it sounded too salesy”. I found that truly baffling. It’s the opposite of salesy. It’s a wink. It’s acknowledging that there’s a sales agenda, and promising that we’re not going to abuse the privilege of having their attention.

And now that’s exactly where I was going with the above: it’s this stance that I was trying to express with the phrase my client cut. The acknowledgment that both writer and reader are grownups and that we’re not going to bullshit each other. It’s the total opposite of a cheap verbal flourish, and I believe it’s the true essence of tone of voice.

Tone of voice is a stance

Tone of voice is an attitude that expresses how you feel about your audience. It’s made up of the zillion assumptions you make about them: about the world they live in; what they know and what they don’t; why you’re creating content for them; how you think they feel about your business; how much you think they might resist your message; and so on. That makes it incredibly complex. (Which is why it’s also hard to create tone of voice guidelines that are more than crude approximations.)

  • For instance, if you respect your readers’ expertise, you’ll write in a way that takes them seriously, without lecturing them.
  • If you think they’re pressed for time, you’ll keep it short.
  • If you think they might not understand that obscure accounting term you’ve devoted a chapter to, you’ll explain it in a non-jargony way.
  • And if you assume some of them might already have an [x] solution and are highly unlikely to buy yours, you might actually tell them that they’re not your key audience and offer them a kitten meme instead.

Real tone of voice is always there, whether you’re aware of your attitudes or not. It’s not something you sprinkle in after completing draft one. And that means that it can do you a disservice, too, because stance is nearly impossible to fake. Like an old water stain under cheap paint, a not-so-gracious attitude towards your audience (for instance, an overt sales agenda that’s trying to disguise itself) will always come through in your content. For example:

  • If you think your readers are dumb, you might resort to sweeping generalisations in your copy.
  • If you’re trying too hard to be liked, your copy might become cutesy or gymmicky (like mine did).
  • If you’re doing content for content’s sake, your readers will feel your lack of direction.
  • If you’re worried you’ll give away a secret, they’ll feel that you’re holding back on value. (Don’t worry about that by the way. In 99.99% of cases tech marketers aren’t talking about anything their competitors don’t already know).

And the thing is: these are the attitudes that make content deeply unsexy, threadbare, and weak. No amount of sprinkle will change that. Because they mean that you haven’t invested in a stance that’s worth your readers’ while.

So if you want to create impactful copy, make sure you do the hard work: check your knowledge about your audience, where you believe they’re at with their thinking, and how you feel about sharing your expertise. Sprinkles are cheap. Stance is gonna cost you. But it’ll pay, too.

Why you can’t just ‘manage’ content

There’s a job title schizophrenia in marketing. But we can fix the titles later. Let’s fix the thinking first.

I first published this post on LinkedIn some time ago (mostly because I didn’t have a website then)but I feel it’s worth repeating here. It talks a lot about how I feel businesses should start thinking about content – which includes never doing content just for content’s sake.

We’ve reached peak content. The point in time where pretty much every company’s verdict is: content seems to work, so we gotta do content, too.

As a consequence, there are tons of ‘content manager’ jobs going round right now. Across the board, businesses are creating these full time roles – hiring people to keep the content machine humming, and manage the creation of blog posts, videos, ebooks, whitepapers, tweets, the lot.

Businesses are asking for an impossible skillset

The problem is: the vast majority of businesses don’t really understand the skills and processes that go into content creation. And that’s why they’re asking for the impossible when hiring for that role. Let me explain:

Go to any job portal, grab a handful of “content manager” job descriptions and you’ll find them as delusional as most client briefs (You know the kind, where the goals are brand awareness, lead gen, uplift in sales, product launch, PR-ability, and a reduced waistline. There’s no budget, the deadline is tomorrow and the target audience is everyone. Oh, and make it go viral, will ya?). You might as well be headhunting a Siberian leprechaun.

Here are just some of the skills you’re supposed to bring:

  • Be a terrific writer and editor (with several years of experience writing for the xyz industry)
  • Know how to create all types of content (video scripts, “thought leadership”, blogs, short’n’snappy, social, long form, interactive, etc)
  • Have knowledge of desktop publishing
  • Be an amazing project manager, scrum master and organisational talent
  • Be able to run the overall content strategy and nail all the messaging
  • Be able to run social media for your business
  • Commission and review content
  • Understand programmatic
  • Be highly creative – but not precious
  • Have a deep understanding of marketing automation
  • Be a digital wizard who’s up to date with martech
  • Run the global roll-out of content campaigns
  • Have a passion for tech
  • Have experience managing budgets and timelines
  • Know how to track and measure a campaign
  • Be a great stakeholder manager
  • Be able to lead and mentor a team of juniors and get senior-level content out of them

Why is that a problem? Because, in more than a decade of agency-side copywriting and strategy, I’ve never met a terrific writer who was also a great project manager. I’ve never come across a marketing automation hero who would have been happy to commission, creative-direct, and proofread a video script. And I’ve rarely met a creative who wasn’t also a bit of a diva, and wouldn’t have been happy to throw all budget considerations overboard once they’d developed a big vision for a campaign. 

Unrealistic expectations of the person and their skillset aren’t the only problem, though. It’s not necessarily the workload either (though reading through some of those job descriptions makes you want to run for the nine-to-five hills). 

It’s the lack of focus apparent in them.

Few businesses can agree what content is, and what job it’s supposed to do for them. And seriously, the last thing anybody needs is more random acts of content. You can see it everywhere: everyone’s “doing content”. Few are doing it well. Most are doing it without a strategy. That’s what creates the famous deluge of crap that Doug Kessler has so articulately written about. We’re about to be buried in it.

The problem with ‘manager’

The only way out of the crap conundrum is a proper strategy: thought-through content concepts, creative direction, outstanding ideas, and editorial rigour. I.e. a plan. And one that allows you to create a few, really good pieces that hit the mark, not just a ton of stuff.

But the problem with the ‘manager’ job title (whether that’s for content or marketing, or content marketing or whatever) is that it pre-supposes that such a plan exists. Something your content manager can run with. And that’s rarely the case – so as a result, these managers often have no choice but to react to each and every request for content from within their business – which exacerbates the crap problem.

And that’s where those fuzzy job descriptions create a real issue, because the people you’re hiring to manage the content aren’t necessarily experienced in building such a plan.

Content management and content strategy are two different jobs.

I’ve been in an in-house content manager role myself. I’ve seen how hard it is to maintain creative and strategic integrity while staying on top of the production, briefing, revision and sign-off processes and fending of people’s requests for yet another “two-pager” for that one use case or prospect. There are two roles in that job: one is a creative and strategic one, the other is operational. And those roles require fundamentally different personalities and working styles. 

From conversations I’ve had with recruiters I’ve learned that they find it easier to fill the role with candidates that can manage content, while it’s a lot harder to find people who’ve been on the creative, strategic and execution side. That’s not a value judgement. As I said, you need both. My point is that whoever you hire, they’ll fall on one or the other side of the spectrum. And that means that you’ll either overwhelm the more operational types with a strategy and execution remit they’ve not been trained for, or you’re frustrating your strategic and creative resources with operational duties they’re likely not very good at and/or don’t enjoy.

And this much is clear: Conflating the two distinct roles in one ‘content manager’ title devalues them both.

So what’s a business to do?

I think for businesses hiring for a content role, the only way to solve this problem is to think hard about what it they really need, and prioritise that. And I believe that the recruiters that work with these businesses need to do the consulting bit and help them narrow that job description.

Here’s how I’d suggest businesses and recruiters should handle this:

Prioritise. Think hard and prioritise what you’re looking for. Do you need an ideas person or a manager? Do you need them to do the work, or to oversee it? Don’t make your job description a dumping ground for all the nice-to-haves.

Buy some outside expertise. If you decide you need a manager, get help with strategy. For instance, you could get a freelance strategist (like me) in for a few weeks to build you a solid plan (or, if you have the budget, get an agency that specialises in content). Their outsider’s view can be hugely valuable for defining your most important messages. It’s their creative capital.

Create the conditions for headspace. If instead you decide you need a strategist, help them manage the processes. A good project, marketing or account manager can keep timelines on track, giving your strategist that much-needed headspace.

Acknowledge and reward the mad skills. And finally, if you’re still set on finding that elusive creature that can do it all: be ready to accept that your recruitment process may take a while, and that you’ll have to pay a premium for a very rare combination of skills.

…And do let me know when you find them. I’d love to have a chat. We might even come up with the right job title for them.