Daniel Burstein

Ask MarketingSherpa: Making a career shift (to B2B copywriting)

June 6th, 2018
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We frequently receive questions from our email subscribers asking marketing advice. Instead of hiding those answers in a one-to-one email communication, we occasionally publish some of them here on the MarketingSherpa blog so they can help other readers as well. If you have any questions, let us know.

Dear MarketingSherpa: I came across your organization because I was searching for data showing which/what kinds of companies and industries care most about well-written marketing copy, in all forms.

I am taking on a career shift from many years of Software Engineering and Project Management, and I am targeting B2B copywriting, with a niche somewhere in the high-tech sector. I know that is too general, as just about every company today is facing high-tech challenges whether or not they know it, and I need to go much narrower.

Admittedly I am in the early stages of this transition, but I am trying to focus my efforts as much as possible. My thoughts are to eventually produce materials such as white papers, case studies, explainer video scripts, but those require more expertise and track record than blogs, short articles, etc., which is where I feel I could start. At this point I’m very open to any start.  I’m planning to get a website up and start posting some blogs on it, but I’m researching how I want to do that, too.

But back to Marketing Sherpa — As I make a wide scan of potential clients it occurs to me there will be many people who just don’t care and don’t need clean, coherent, well-organized copy. I don’t need to expend my efforts there. At the other end of the spectrum there should be people in industries where the slightest misstatement or grammatical error can sabotage one’s attempts. That’s where I want to work.

I would welcome any suggestions you might have on this point, and since I am still such a green twig in this new field, any other counsel would be great. Do the ideas I have laid out above sound sound?

Thanks in advance!

Rob Tompkins, PMP, CSM, LSSGB
Allen, Texas

Dear Rob: Thanks for your question. If you’re looking to break into B2B copywriting, the number one skill set you must prove is that you can write effective copy. And the clearest way I know to do that is to write effective copy. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Start blogging

You’re on the right track with your idea to start a website and begin blogging on it. You’d be amazed how many aspiring writers I interview who don’t do this.

When I was just starting out, you had to work hard to build your book (portfolio). Try to find an internship or nonprofit or anyone who would let you write for them. Sure, you could do spec work. But that wasn’t nearly as valuable as having real published work for an actual client.

Today, you can publish to the entire world with the push of a button. Yes, in some ways it’s still spec work. But unlike a dot matrix printout hidden in my giant black portfolio, your blog gets exposure to the world. You can share it on social media. You can look at the analytics to see who’s reading it. You can solicit comments. You can attempt to interview people on your blog.

So, by all means, do it. Start that website. Start that blog. Get yourself out there.

Do some copywriting

A blog is technically content writing, not copywriting. And you mentioned you want to make a career shift to become a B2B copywriter.

While they do overlap, I still consider them discrete skillsets. There are many writers that can do both. But some struggle, especially early in their career.

Content marketing should be closer to journalism. It’s about providing value to a customer. Value in a way that highlights the brand’s value, but it ultimately makes the customer’s life better in some small way.

Copywriting is more about helping a customer make a decision. The decision that is best for them around the brand’s product. But other than that, copy tends not to have value in its own right, while content does.

Direct response copywriting is an even more focused subset of copywriting that’s fixated on getting a specific, measurable action right away.

Blogging will be good to show your content marketing skills, but it won’t really help showcase your copywriting skills. So find some projects where you can pitch in and prove your copywriting mettle.

Again, you can create copywriting spec work, but it’s better to have a real client. You have a leg up with your industry experience. So you can reach out to previous contacts and offer to do cheap (or even free) work in exchange for something to show on your website or, even better, a case study with results. You could also volunteer to do copywriting for a nonprofit. Maybe you have colleagues or people in your personal life who need some copywriting for a small business. Or you can use a site like Upwork, Craigslist, etc., to start bidding for jobs cheaply and building up your experience.

Have killer self-promotional copy

That is another form of copywriting, after all. Your website’s headline and description. Introductory email copy. Your Craigslist ad. Whatever it is, I’m surprised how often new writers just mail it in and have very generic copy in these areas. This is another opportunity to prove your chops.

Flexibility is a key copywriting skill

Your industry experience will absolutely be helpful and give you an advantage over other entry-level copywriters IF you can prove your writing ability using some of the above ideas.

And that’s a big if.

Because, from my experience, copywriting ability is much more important than industry experience. A core skill of a copywriter is to be able to learn quickly and teach. It’s almost like an episode of the old TV show “Quantum Leap.” Every week Dr. Samuel Becket was thrown into a new situation. And within just one hour (minus commercial time), he had to figure out why he was there and solve a problem.

I’ve been a copywriter for everything from luxury golf country club real estate to enterprise software used for engineering other enterprise software to precious metals and coins … and I knew little if anything about those industries before starting with those clients.

For a technical writer (yet another kind of writer), yes, industry knowledge is essential. But the core skillset of the quality copywriter is to learn and teach, understand the key decisions a potential customer needs to make and communicate to those potential customers in a compelling way with empathy. The copywriter is rarely the subject matter expert.

That doesn’t mean the subject matter expertise in a targeted industry won’t help. Of course, it will. Greatly. It will give you a leg up. Being an established writer in a specific niche, you’ll break through the noise of all the other copywriters out there and be able to command higher compensation.

My only point is — that expertise is meaningless if you can’t prove that you can write. So go broad before you go narrow. At this point in your career shift, the more writing experience you can get under your belt, the better. That background and flexibility will ultimately pay off when you do hone in on your niche.

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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