Writing industrial copy is quite different from writing consumer-oriented copy. The major difference is that technical people want technical information.
By Robert W. Bly, Industrial Copywriting Specialist
When asked if he could write an effective direct mail package on a complex electronic control system, a direct response copywriter replied, "No problem--it doesn't matter what the product is. You're selling to people. And people are pretty much the same."
His message was clear: In marketing, industrial copywriting and consumer copywriting are pretty much the same.
Yes, there are similarities. But there are also differences in selling to technical buyers vs. the general public. And the major difference is: technical people want technical information. The industrial copywriter is selling to engineers, managers, purchasing agents, and other technical people--people whose understanding of and interest in complex product information is inherently far greater than the average consumer's.
Below are ten time-tested tips for writing industrial copy that sells. Apply them to your next ad, mailer, or catalog, and watch the reply cards come pouring in.
1. Be technically accurate. Industrial marketers sell systems to solve specific problems. Copy must accurately describe what the product can and cannot do.
Being accurate means being truthful. Industrial buyers are among the most sophisticated of audiences. Technical know-how is their forte, and they'll be likely to spot any exaggerations, omissions, or “white lies" you make.
Being accurate also means being specific. Writing that a piece of equipment "can handle your toughest injection molding jobs" is vague and meaningless to a technician; but saying that the machine "can handle pressures of up to 12,000 pounds" is honest, concrete, and useful.
One way to achieve specificity in your writing is to prefer concrete terms (right-hand column below) to general terms (left-hand column).
rain and snow
more than 15 tons
And, just as a stain on a sleeve can ruin the whole suit, a single technical inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of the entire promotion. In Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style (McGraw-Hill), the authors point out that "Technical writing that contains technically inaccurate statements reflects inadequate knowledge of the subject." All the persuasive writing skill in the world won't motivate the industrial buyer if he feels that you don't know what you're talking about.
2. Check the numbers. Many of us became writers just to get away from having to deal with numbers; all the math whizzes in our class went on to become computer programmers, accountants, and media buyers. But to write effective industrial copy, you've got to approach members with a new found respect.
Just think of the disaster that would result if a misplaced decimal in a sales letter offered a one year magazine subscription at $169.50 ten times the actual price of $16.95. You can see why this would stop sales cold.
Well, the same goes for industrial copy. Only, in technical promotions, a misplaced decimal or other math mistake is less obvious to the copywriter, since the material is so highly technical. You and I would suspect an error in a mailer that advertised a $169.50 magazine subscription. But how many direct response writers could say, at a glance, whether the pore size in a reverse osmosis filter should be 0.005 or 0.00005 or 0.0005 microns? (How many of us even know what a micron is?) Yet, to the chemical engineer, the pore size of the filter may be as crucial as the price of the magazine subscription. Get it wrong, and you've lost a sale.
All numbers in industrial promotional literature should be checked and double-checked by the writer, by the agency, and by technical people on the client side.
3. Be concise. Engineers and managers are busy people. They don't have the time to read all the papers that cross their desks, so make your message brief and to the point.
Take a look at some industrial direct mail. Letters are seldom more than a page long, and you almost never see a four page letter in industrial selling.
As Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, conciseness "requires not that the writer...avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." (italics mine.) In other words, cram your industrial promotions full of product information and strong sales arguments. But avoid redundancies, run-on sentences, wordy phrases, and other poor stylistic habits that take up space but add little to meaning or clarity. For example, don't write "water droplets condensed from atmospheric vapor and sufficiently massive to fall to earth's surface" when you're talking about rain.
4. Simplify. The key to successful industrial copywriting is to explain complex concepts and products clearly and directly. Avoid overly complicated narratives; write in plain, simple English. In the first draft of catalog copy for a line of pollution control equipment, the product manager wrote:
It is absolutely essential that the interior wall surface of the conduit be maintained in a wet condition, and that means be provided for wetting continually the peripheral interior wall surface during operation of the device, in order to avoid the accumulation of particulate matter about the interior surface area.
Here's how the copywriter simplified this bit of technical gobbledygook to make it more readable:
The interior wall must be continually wetted to avoid solids buildup.
One way to achieve simplicity in your industrial copywriting is to avoid the overuse of technical jargon. Never write that a manufacturer's new dental splint "stabilizes mobile dentition" when its function is to keep loose teeth in place. When you're deciding whether to use a particular technical term, remember Susanne K. Langer's definition of jargon as "language more technical than the ideas it serves to express." Never let your language make things more complex than they already are.
5. Talk to the users to determine their needs. Elaborate marketing research is often unnecessary in industrial selling. By talking with a few knowledgeable engineers, the copywriter can quickly grasp what makes a technical product useful to industrial buyers.
Because the products are highly technical, you can't rely on your own feelings and intuition to select the key selling points. The benefits of buying a kitchen appliance or joining a record club are obvious, but how can a layman say what features of a multistage distillation system are important to the buyer, and which are trivial?
By speaking with technical and marketing people on the client side, you can find out which product features should be high-lighted in the copy and why they appeal to the buyer. Then, apply your usual skill in persuasive writing to turn these features into sales-oriented "reason-why-they-should-buy" copy. The kind of copy that generates leads--goodwill--orders--and money.
Recently, I was given the assignment of writing a package on a water filtration system to be sold to two different markets: the marine industry and the chemical industry. In the course of conversation with a few customers in each field, I discovered that marine buyers were concerned solely with quality and price, while chemical engineers considered "technical competence" The number one selling feature they wanted to know every detailed specification down to the last pump, pipe, fan, and filter. Selling the product to the two markets would require two completely different sales letters...but I'd never have known this if I hadn't asked.
6. Understand how the promotion fits into the buying process. The sale of an industrial product can require many lengthy steps; machinery is seldom marketed by mail order. Sometimes your package can be used to generate the lead. Or it may help qualify prospects. Many industrial marketers use sales letters to distribute catalogs, remind customers of their products, or answer inquiries. Know where your copy fits into the buying process so you can write copy to generate the appropriate response
7. Know how much to tell. Different buyers seek different levels of technical information. If you're writing for top management, keep it short and simple, and pile on the benefits. If you're pitching to technicians, be sure to include plenty of meaty technical information.
Here's a description of a "Dry FGD System" (a large piece of industrial equipment) from a promotion aimed at plant engineers:
The average SO2, emission rate as determined in the outlet duct was 0.410 lb/106 Btu (176 ng/J). All emission rates were determined with F-factors calculated from flue gas analyses obtained with an Orsat analyzer during the course of each test run
This will satisfy the technically curious buyer who wants to know how you determined your product specifications, not just what they are. But managers have little time or interest in the nitty-gritty; they want to know how the product can save them money and help improve their operations. A brochure on this same Dry FGD System aimed at management takes a lighter, more sales-oriented tone:
The Dry FCD System is a cost-effective alternative to conventional wet scrubbers for cleaning flue gas in coal-fired boilers. Fly ash and chemical waste are removed as an easily handled dry powder, not a wet sludge. And with dry systems, industrial and utility boilers can operate cleanly and reliably.
8. Don't forget the features. By all means, stress customer benefits in your copy. But don't forget to include technical features as well. In the industrial marketplace, a pressure rating or the availability of certain materials of construction often mean the difference between a buy or no-buy decision. Although these features may seem boring or meaningless to you, they are important to the technical buyer.
Direct response copywriters often work up a list of product features and the benefits that these features offer the consumer. Then, the benefits are worked into the sales letter.
In industrial copywriting, we do the same thing, except we include the features in the copy. Features and their benefits are often presented in "cause and effect" statements, such as:
Because the system uses L-band frequency and improved MTI (moving target indication). it can detect targets up to 50 times smaller than conventional S-band radars.
No mechanical systems or moving parts are required. Which means that Hydro-Clean consumes less energy and takes less space than conventional pump driven clarifiers.
The geometric shape of the seal ring amplifies the force against the disc. As the pressure grows, so does the valve's sealing performance.'
9. Use graphs, tables, charts, and diagrams to explain and summarize technical information quickly. Put strong “sell copy" in your headlines, subheads, and body copy; relegate duller “catalog information" to tables, side-bars, charts, and inserts. And don't hesitate to use visuals; photographs add believability, and drawings help readers visualize complex products and processes.
10. Include case histories to demonstrate proven performance. Industrial buyers want to know that your product has proven its performance in real-life applications. Case histories -- concise "product success stories" --are a sure-fire way to put the buyer's mind at ease.
In mail order, a simple one line testimonial from "GK in Portland" or "the Jack Reeds in Jersey City" is all that's needed to demonstrate a product's success. But industrial buyers need to know more, and the typical case history tells what the problem was, how the product solved it, and what the results were in terms of money saved and improved plant performance. In an ad for the Hitachi chiller-heater, a unit that cools and heats buildings, Gas Energy, Inc. uses a series of tightly written one paragraph case histories to show readers that the product works. Here's a sample:
Miami Hospital (300,000 sq. ft.). Linking a gas turbine generator with one 450 ton Hitachi Cogeneration unit produces all cooling and heating and saves $360,000 yearly vs. purchased electricity and the previous electric centrifugal system.
The case history approach is one area where industrial and consumer writers agree. After all, every direct response writer knows that the best advertising is a satisfied customer.
Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in industrial, business-to-business, and direct response marketing. He has written copy for more than 100 companies and ad agencies including Brooklyn Union Gas, Ingersoll-Rand, Alfa Laval, Engineered Software, IBM, and AT&T. Mr. Bly is the author of 85 books including The Copywriter’s Handbook (Henry Holt). He may be reached at (973) 263-0562 or firstname.lastname@example.org; his website, which offers a free special report on industrial copywriting, is www.marketing2engineers.com.
Reprinted from Direct Marketing Magazine.