It’s a common refrain: “We’re a B2B company. We can’t do the same things those B2C funsters get up to.” Another good one is, “Our product/industry/niche is just too serious and boring for content marketing.”
But it’s also worth pointing out that shedloads of content are published every day for which “boring” might be a polite description (“predictable” and “unnecessary” would be others.) I regularly come across reports, white papers, and articles that would require me to stab myself repeatedly in the leg with a fork simply to stay awake beyond the opening paragraphs.
I’m sure the marketers publishing this content wouldn’t say it’s boring. Perhaps they don’t always realize it is. Perhaps internal feedback convinced them the world really is desperate for an academic thesis on interlocking flanges … or something. Perhaps, as can be the case in B2B, the content was written to satisfy an internal audience – a C-suite eager for the brand to appear smarter than the competition on everything to do with flanges.
Meanwhile, the intended customer audience just wants to solve a problem or learn something new without feeling like they are studying for a Ph.D.
“Aha,” I hear some of you cry. Boring doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Lots of things can be boring while still offering value. People don’t download and read a white paper on flanges to be entertained, right? They download it because staying on top of flange technology is useful in their job. If lots of people are downloading the white paper or whatever it is, perhaps being boring isn’t really an issue.
Let me rebut by getting up onto one of my favorite old soapboxes. Ahem …
The number of downloads doesn’t reveal if the content was effective. The number of downloads merely proves the title was interesting or that the email and landing page were persuasive enough to encourage people to fill out the form or click the download button.
Surely the goal of all these white papers, reports, and e-books isn’t just to capture unqualified leads and never mind if no one reads the content. That’s like a movie studio claiming its new blockbuster is a raging box office success despite audiences walking out of the cinema after the first few scenes. Marketing may have sold tickets and put bums on seats, but the content still needs to hold the audience’s attention until the credits roll.
The white-paper fruit bowl
Shelley, my wife, is always at me to eat more fruit. I’d like to eat healthier too – or at least I know I should. So, if we both agree, you’d think I’d be the peak of nutritional fitness.
Good intentions fill my fruit bowl each week, but good intentions don’t mean my snack preference is a plum or a banana. I just finished off a packet of wine gums, those gumdrop-like candies, someone (read: me) recklessly left near my desk (read: purposely put in the drawer when Shelley wasn’t looking). So, those good intentions aren’t working too well right now.
Eventually, I’ll throw out the uneaten and overripe fruit before stocking up again with more of what I should eat – but probably won’t. Funnily enough, cheesy and sugary snacks never seem to reach their use-by date in our house.
I’m the same with white papers. I regularly download interesting-sounding reports and e-books, filling my iPad with content I “should” read. The information they promise is directly relevant to my work or the research is pertinent to my areas of interest.
But, like my fruit bowl, when I’ve a few free minutes, I’m far more likely to choose something I want to read rather than what I feel I should read. Those worthy and good-for-me reports and white papers stay unread until the information within them gradually passes the best-before date. It’s 2021. That detailed report on digital trends for 2019 is probably not that useful anymore. Delete.
I know I’m not alone. It’s hard to measure precisely what percentage of white papers and e-books are downloaded but never read (if someone has the stat, I’d love to see it). But whenever I bring up the fruit bowl analogy in a workshop or at an event, a quick hands-up poll usually has most of the room admitting to the same backlog of worthy-but-unread downloaded content cluttering their inboxes or hard drives.
So how do you turn “should read” into “want to read” and eventually into “did read”?
Your content doesn’t have to be only relevant or even mildly interesting. It also has to be compelling and irresistible. How will your white paper make the reader stop whatever they’re doing to devote time to it now? Or, failing that, what will ensure the reader can’t resist returning to it later?
The importance of being earnest
No, I’m not arguing that all of your content needs to lighten up. Sometimes, engineering pieces need to be engineering pieces. Sometimes, adopting a conversational tone or pushing creative boundaries isn’t the right approach.
When you’re reading the instructions to install that new piece of software or replace that engine part, you want unambiguous and unembellished clarity presented in as few words as possible – ideally alongside simple diagrams and pictures.
That’s why technical writing is a discipline quite separate from other forms of writing. Technical writing isn’t about providing inspiration or delight. It’s about putting information into action.
In this case, what matters is how long the content takes to get to the point. And that means too much creativity or storytelling can be boring, too, by getting in the way of the reader.
It’s why some people get frustrated by recipe books that spend page after page waffling on about the writer’s entire backstory with this particular dish, how they sourced the ingredients, and that funny incident with the fennel one Christmas, when all the reader wants is a simple set of instructions to make the dish for themselves.
Cut the waffle, slash the company bios, ditch the lengthy introduction from the CEO that basically reiterates yet again why the white paper is worth reading. WE KNOW! We’ve already read the email, landing page, and whatever else. That’s why we downloaded it! Stop selling the content to us and give us what we came for!
To be honest, your readers probably aren’t wading through that self-serving introduction anyway. They’re skipping straight to the first page that looks like it might deliver on the advertised promise.
It’s also worth remembering that some of your target audience may not be quite as deeply enmeshed in the world of industrial flanges. And even if they are, reading your content shouldn’t feel like hard work.
According to research conducted by Christopher Trudeau at the Thomas Cooley Law School, 80% of people prefer clear English in legal documents. So far, so very unsurprising. However, you may be surprised to learn that this preference for simple, plain English increases with the level of education and specialist knowledge.
Even the people most equipped to understand the industry-specific conventions, jargon, acronyms, and excessively formal phrasing of your content don’t really want to if there’s something better on the telly.
Sometimes, you need your content to have a bit more color, a bit more creativity, a bit more fun.
A matter of perspective
If the topic, product, or industry seems boring to you, of course, it might seem impossible to produce interesting, creative, and engaging content. And when you’re working on the business side of a topic, product, or industry, you may be focused on what the product is rather than what it does – viewing it primarily in functional and technical terms – which can be quite different to the customer’s viewpoint.
Products and things aren’t that inherently interesting. It’s people who make them interesting. It’s people who give them meaning. That’s why a central tenet of content marketing is that the product isn’t the story – people are. B2C knows this almost instinctively. B2B sometimes has trouble thinking quite the same way.
Is your content about things or is it about people and what they can do with those things? Instead of writing in the abstract, place your content in the real world. Their world.
Or, if the real world of people working with flanges is still a tad too pedestrian and boring, take your content a step further. Blend some fiction in with your fact to create a hyperreal world your audience will happily spend a little time exploring.
Content too tasty to ignore
It’s not often I get to write lines like this in B2B content: “I’m sure we’ve all had days when your carefully laid plans suddenly change, and you unexpectedly find yourself defusing a nuclear device while hanging upside down out of a brothel window in Marrakesh.”
Doesn’t sound very B2B, does it? It’s from one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on, a collaboration with Sydney agency McCorkell & Associates on an e-book for Oakton (now NTT) to promote its business intelligence tools.
Oakton had asked the agency to come up with a content-led strategy that would stand apart from the myriad data service organizations targeting the same audience of CMOs. Sam Marks at M&A suggested a secret agent theme that drew an extended analogy between James Bond’s Q Branch, equipping agents with the gadgets and intelligence they need in the field, and the data management capability within a large organization.
Supported by a series of sponsored LinkedIn posts and a Pulse article, the campaign easily exceeded its target for landing appointments with high-value leads.
And then there’s U.S. tech company SunGard’s brilliant e-book, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide, which was supported by emails, an infographic, and a social media campaign just in time for Halloween 2013. (I only wish I was involved with this one.)
A theme that tapped into the pop culture of the day (The Walking Dead was still good back then), coupled with a strong creative, led to the e-book smashing the expected download rate three times over. The overall campaign received a 150% higher click-through rate and 200% higher click-to-open rate compared with other campaigns. It won a swag of marketing awards too.
Most importantly, the campaign also smashed Sungard’s target for qualified leads as well. Not bad for a content campaign turned around in three weeks.
Colorful analogies like these can be effective ways of explaining otherwise boring technical concepts. They can also make the content more fun and irresistible to read.
Better still, every little pun, every unexpected twist, every wry joke may help to make the content more memorable. Humor can be a great tool to maintain a reader’s attention. And laughter, or even mild enjoyment, is associated with an increase of pleasure hormones like dopamine, which aids the creation of memories, and a reduction in stress hormones like cortisol, known to impede memory.
Colorful analogies can be effective ways of explaining boring technical concepts. Every little pun, unexpected twist, or wry joke may help to make #content more memorable, says @kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
If all of this seems less professional and more frivolous than it should when targeting enterprise decision-makers, remember that professionalism isn’t defined by a tone of voice – serious, formal, and academic – but by how effectively the job is done. If everyone gives up on your white paper after two dreary and boring paragraphs, how can it be classed as professional?
Why so serious?
So, next time you’re admiring the impressive download results from your latest white paper, ask yourself how many of those people actually read it. How many people acted on the information and advice contained in those pages? How many people made it to the call to action on the final page?
Too many white papers want to appear clever and valuable instead of actually delivering on the promise. But by focusing on the reader’s natural interests and behaviors and not being afraid to be more creative, your next piece of content may have more chance of being plucked from the fruit bowl while it’s still fresh.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute