If you’ve been in content marketing for very long, you’ve probably encountered a company that tries to get everyone to write content for marketing—regardless of desire or skill level. And while the unicorn promise of magical content gems sprouting up from every corner of the company is intoxicating, what you usually get is a whole lot of people writing about their products. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s not what audiences are looking for.
The drive to write about one’s own products is so strong, you’d almost assume it was written into the human genome somewhere. But assuming you’re not a fan of product focus in the DNA, what’s the explanation for why people have such a strong drive to write content about their products? And why is it so hard to stop them even after you’ve given them direction?
Let’s face it. People love talking about themselves. And talking about your products is the business equivalent of talking about yourself. Business people love writing product-focused content for the same reason the general public likes posting selfies.
Most of us think who we are and what we do is awesome, and want to share that awesomeness with others, assuming everyone else will find us just as awesome as we find ourselves (often forgetting those people are also focused on themselves, and not on us).
And even if we don’t think who we are and what we do is awesome, sometimes we try that much harder to make it seem that way in order to cover up our insecurities about it—and maybe even to convince ourselves.
Have you ever built a piece of furniture or changed a light fixture? Have you ever made a piece of art someone hung on the wall or successfully fixed a minor engine problem in your car? I bet you felt like a boss. You probably had some extra swagger in your step. Maybe even did a little dance.
Now imagine instead that you helped develop a whole new product that hundreds, maybe thousands of consumers or companies have paid good money for—and use on the regular. Multiply your previous feeling by a factor of holy moly. For a lot of people, that’s an amazing feeling. It’s something they take great pride in—to be able to walk into a home or business and point to something and say you made it.
Do people like to take pride in things they made? Yeah they do. Think about how many pictures you see on social media when people you know knit a quilt or finish a painting or build a bookshelf or have a baby. When people are proud of something, they want to share the crap out of it.
And if you’re asking them to write marketing content for you, you’ve just given them a huge stage on which to share all their pent up pride. Expecting them to write about anything but their products is like expecting a new mother not to post pictures of her kid the first chance she gets.
Empathy, a strategic pride release valve of some sort, and reminders about the purpose of the content are good tools to employ here.
I’m sure there are dozens of other titles that could apply here—developers, industrial designers, sales engineers, go-to-market people, product marketing and on and on. But the point is that different minds work in different ways. And one thing I’ve found is that the kind of people who are great at understanding the technical ins and outs of products well enough to make them work and bring them to market don’t always have the kinds of minds to turn that knowledge into anything their companies’ audiences want to hear about.
It’s not even necessarily a shortcoming. After all, if your job is to program servers and you’re great at it, that’s awesome. There’s no good reason a server programmer should have to write content about it. Pair a good copywriter with good interviewing skills with that engineer and you’re a lot more likely to get what you want.
But if you’ve ever been that copywriter, or content strategist, or other marketer and tried to extract non-product info out of product teams, it can feel like squeezing water out of a rock. I’ve asked plenty of technical types to phrase information in terms that didn’t include our products and gotten stares so blank you’d swear I was speaking another language. And in a way I was.
Most modern education models acknowledge multiple types of intelligences. Some people are great at spacial reasoning and movement. Some have high emotional intelligence. Some excel at theoretical models while others are mechanically inclined in a kinesthetic way. The list goes on, but the lessons is clear—sometimes people, especially in a highly technical B2B context, have minds that simply make it hard for them to think outside of the products they work with all day. Which brings me to my next point.
If you’re on a team that develops, installs, brings to market, or supports a specific product or set of products, you probably live that product every day. You wake up thinking about it. You go to sleep thinking about it. You spend 40+ hours a week actively working on it in some capacity.
So when some content marketer shows up and asks you to write a write paper or a CMO comes around demanding you pen a blog post, what’s your first reaction going to be? You guessed it—to write about the thing you spend the majority of your waking life thinking about.
Anything you spend that much time and effort on is going to be your natural go-to if someone is asking you to put your thoughts to paper, because your product is the thing that you’re thinking about. It can take a lot of work to overcome that mindset—and probably some topic help and examples if you’re smart.
The majority of people who have a hard time writing about things other than their products often live in a somewhat insular world. I don’t mean they don’t get out on the weekends. But professionally, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own little corner of your industry’s universe.
If you spend all your time focused on developing your own products with little feedback from the outside world – or perhaps with feedback many times removed from those giving it – it’s easy to lose context of the people you’re making products for.
Even if you’re focusing on bringing a product to market, the exercises you do in preparing your messaging are focused on your product and illustrating its superiority. There’s probably a lot of cheerleading and motivational talk going on around your product leadership, since getting a team pumped up is generally a good way to get better performance out of them. Sales and field marketing are especially susceptible to the kool-aid effect.
The point is that unless you’re actively going out on your own to see what your customers (including potential customers) are thinking, you’re missing an important and balanced part of the picture. While you may think your product merits their full attention and consideration for hours worth of brochures, solution briefs and webinars, the reality may be that they view your whole category as a utility and aren’t willing to spend a quarter of the time you expect investigating the whole category. Whether it’s self-motivated or institutionalized intelligence sharing, keeping a pulse on real-world customers is a big key here.
Some people might be feeling a little defeated at this point. But there’s no need to. I only give you all this insight into why it’s so hard to stop people from writing about their products so you’re armed to change their ways. If you don’t understand the source of a problem, it can be near impossible to solve. So now that we’ve examined the underlying causes of the product-focused content drive, let’s look at some of the things you can do to turn those product-lovers into high functioning marketing aficionados (or at least people that will write you something relevant for your audience).
The first step to getting people to shift their focus off of products is to define the audience and get your deputy writers to understand what’s really important to that audience. If your product people are just grasping at empty air, they’re going to grab onto their products for comfort. But give them a little guiding light in the form of personas that delve into your audience’s wants, needs, drivers, pain points, etc, and you might find them letting go of that product safety blanket.
This probably isn’t a first step, especially as some product and engineering types can be a little sensitive about their products. But after you get them comfortable with personas, a valuable next step can be to expose them to the real world conversations happening about, and around, their products and categories.
Again, some teams may be best having these kinds of things served to them in bite sized pieces from skilled content intelligence people instead of drowning your writers in a sea of real-world talk from your audience. After all, we know the Internet can be a harsh place with no shortage of trolls waiting to pounce.
Either way, that context can really help your writers understand the true motivations and views of your audience and the context in which your product lives. It’s far removed from the internal cheerleading that goes on in conference rooms and launch parties. If your product people can internalize those lessons, the way they write for your audience can be forever changed.
NOTE: This isn’t a bad idea when it comes to product design, either.
One of the quickest ways to piss of product people and ensure you will NOT get their content creation cooperation is to simply dismiss and belittle their products. It may help to think of them as parents and of the products as their kids. Let them know you care. Let them know you know they care. Acknowledge the importance of what they do and how they do it.
But after you’ve got them convinced you’re not just there to bash their pride and joy, gently help them understand that the best way to help their beloved products to succeed is paradoxically to check that pride at the door when creating content for the audience beyond your company’s walls.
If you just try to skip over acknowledgement of product people’s contributions and start dictating your approach to them, they’re likely to get defensive and fall back on what they know. It’s a lot easier to get past their natural resistance to your new approach if they feel like you understand and value them.
Sometimes the best way to get product people to stop writing about product content is to stop having them write at all. I don’t mean that in a rude way. I just mean that the way you get their thoughts from their heads to a web page doesn’t have to be the traditional one-person-stares-at-a-screen-until-they’ve-typed-up-a-complete-piece-of-content model.
I’ve found that while many product-minded people aren’t great when it comes to putting metaphorical pen to paper, a lot of them are great at explaining things to you out loud. Pair a product person up with a true copywriter or journalist type and have an interview. Asking the questions lets you set the agenda and the mindset for the answers, making it easier to guide the conversation away from your products and back toward more general messages your audience wants to hear.
The only catch is that you have a little clean up work to do in the form of compiling and editing those answers into a piece of content. But that workload pales in comparison to receiving a product-heavy piece of content and having to start over from scratch.
I’ve found this approach to be incredibly helpful. Giving a product-minded person a prompt does two things. 1) Much like the interview questions I mentioned, it frames the conversation, so you can lead it away from your products from the get-go. 2) It gives them an idea of what you’re looking for, instead of leaving them grasping in the dark for a topic.
Sometimes it can be as simple as offering up a headline, and potentially contrasting it to a product-focused headline. For example, if you worked for a dump truck manufacturing company, you might tell you writer to do something that’s less “10 Reasons Henderson’s Dump Trucks are the Best” and instead do something more like “10 Must-Have Qualities for a Serious Dump Truck.”
And sometimes you may have to offer up a few more bullets to help get them there.
One of the biggest hurdles to getting people in your company to write non-product content is simply not knowing what it looks like. Give them something to emulate, and they’re a lot more likely to meet your expectations.
Think of it as the copywriting version of paint by numbers. Give someone a blank canvas and they’re often lost or terrified. Give them a paint-by-numbers piece and most will have the confidence they can color inside the lines. Some may even have the comfort to play with colors when you give them enough structure, taking the metaphor a step further.
Regularly maintaining some sort of folio of well written non-product content reference can be handy. It never hurts to store up references ahead of time somewhere like Pinterest so you’ve already got them locked and loaded when duty calls. It also doesn’t hurt to have examples of a few different types of non-product content if you have the time and inclination. Perhaps a few how-to’s, a few listicles, a few newsjacking posts. Use your imagination.
I’ve spent a lot of time so far explaining how to get product people to write non-product-focused MARKETING content. And that’s because content marketing demands content that’s primarily focused on audience interests (which you guessed it—are not your products). But marketing isn’t the entire buyer’s journey for most companies, especially B2B companies with longer buying cycles and more complex decision factors to consider.
Product content does have a place in this cycle and helping product people understand where it comes into play – instead of thinking you’re just trying to eliminate it altogether can really help your cause. Spoiler: It’s more about sales than marketing.
The place for product content is towards the end of the buyer’s journey. This is the time when potential customers are really comparing the nitty gritty specifics of one company’s product against another. This may mean detailed product pages. This may mean brochures and data sheets. This may mean video walk-throughs of your product interface or clearly marked webinars about your product. While some of this content might tread the line of marketing, frankly most of it is far more focused on sales enablement, especially on the B2B and large purchase side of the equation.
This is where your product people can really shine when it comes to content creation, especially if they have something like persona-based data to help them prioritize and organize all of their product knowledge in their product content.
A place for everything and everything in its place, I once heard someone say.
Perhaps it’s an obvious point, but it’s one worth making. While this whole post has been predicated on the assumption that you have to manage product-minded non-professional writers to write marketing content for you, it’s an assumption worth questioning.
You don’t expect to make the NBA finals by calling up any fan from the stands who can dribble to play for you because they’re cheap and they’re already there.
If you’re serious about competing with other companies in your space, it’s probably worth investing in writing talent that can really help you compete, whether that’s a mix of in-house copywriters, freelancers, agency help or some mix thereof.
I realize it’s not always possible, and many of you will face this same challenge, which is why I wrote this piece. But given the chance, it’s smarter to rely on professionals when the stakes are high.