My biggest lesson in marketing so far: how to be a pain in the backside

This may come as some surprise to those who have always found me to be a pain in the backside anyway. But having to be one, professionally, was probably the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn. Why? Because if you’re going to do a good job as an independent business and marketing (marcom) writer, you need to ask awkward questions and be a total nuisance.

Do you remember that old legend about the Emperor’s new clothes? In a nutshell this little Emperor would dance around in the nude bragging about the new clothes his flunkies had misinformed him about, and his sycophantic followers would agree with him. Only one day some bright young child, obviously not a paid-up member of the entourage, said, “nonsense; you’re not wearing anything.” What a reality check, huh. But it was true, and truth won the day.

Sadly, the lesson you learn from reading this legendary story is one that often has not been learned by client companies, no matter how well qualified their internal sales and marketing staff were before they became indoctrinated in the corporate culture. Yet often it’s only by facing up to the truth however uncomfortable that is, that you can prepare the ground for a truly effective marketing strategy.

Why lifting up marketing stones makes me severely unpopular

When I started out working as a freelance marcom consultant I already knew (from years of working as an advertising copywriter) that often the brief you receive from clients is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard, because it’s totally subjective.

This is not a criticism, however. If you work for an organization that eats, sleeps and breathes its products or services it’s utterly understandable that you should be inclined to close your mind to issues like “never mind how wonderful we are, what do our customers really want?”

While I was working in ad agencies, asking the awkward questions was down to the account managers who did so – and took the flak for it. However once I was working on my own, I had to become my own devil’s advocate and rub clients’ noses in just this sort of home truth, myself. In fact you need to ask a number of potentially awkward and obnoxious questions that make you as popular as something which has just crawled up out of drain. For example:

  • What do your customers say about you behind your back?
  • What do your competitors say about you to their customers?
  • What makes you believe your products/services are better than those of your competitors?
  • If I were a potential customer, why should I buy from you rather than a competitor?
  • What weak links are there in your product/service offering?
  • If you could improve on just one aspect of your product/service offering, what would it be?

Believe me, no matter how many times you apologize to the client for asking such questions, you can still feel a bristle of resentment. Yet the answers you get to those questions (provided that they’re honest) are what you, as a marcom writer, need in order to create marketing words that will be bang on target.

People hate you because you can see the wood for the trees

This is another manifestation of the marcom-writer-is-a-pain-in-the-backside syndrome. You get the clients thinking along the right lines of “never mind how proud we are of the new IT system, what benefit does it offer our customers?” Then, they start coming up with more. And more. And more, until the whole pile of benefits turns back into one huge, sprawling mess of features again.

A few years ago I drove for 3 hours (that’s a long trip on English motorways) to a 9:00 a.m. meeting of a large chain of estate agents (realtors). I walked into the room to find a group of rather harassed company worthies who had been there for 2 hours, having been told to come up with the benefits to clients of their unusual – and excellent – services for selling homes.

They presented me with a list of about 15 benefits. My heart sank. It was make-yourself-unpopular time again. I told them as gently as possible that if benefits are to be used in a marketing concept you can’t buy them in as a bulk order. What is it, I asked with a gleaming smile, that all these benefits really mean to your clients? Blank stares.

“Could it be that the fact your company takes care of everything so efficiently, means what you’re doing is ‘taking the stress out of selling your home?'”

Smiles through clenched teeth, thank-you noises said in slightly squeaky voices. That’s how we developed the concept and it worked very well for them. But I’d put money on some of them having gone home that night, hand-sewed a pudgy blonde Suze doll, and stuck pins into it.

Can I really blame these clients? Can I deny that it’s intensely annoying for some snotty marcom writer to ask me what nasty gossip my competitors are spreading about me – or to point out something that draws together a concept which I should have seen ages ago?

Despite the unpopularity at times I believe it was important for me to learn how to be a professional pain in the backside. It’s an unfortunate part of my portfolio as a writer who helps people get better results from their business writing.

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“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

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