Direct Marketing Article
How to Write a More Effective Technical
By Robert W. Bly
When I was the advertising manager for a process equipment manufacturer, one
of my responsibilities was to serve as liaison between the advertising
agency we hired to write our ads and product brochures and our staff
The engineers, because of their technical expertise in the subject matter,
were responsible for reviewing the agency's work.
As is often the case in our industry, the engineers complained that those
"ad types" at the agency didn't understand the product or the audience --
and that their copy was way off base.
The agency countered that engineers may know technology but don't know
writing, marketing, design, or selling -- and that they wanted to cram the
brochures with too much unnecessary detail that would dilute the sales
Who was right? The fact is, both arguments have some merit.
On the agency side, ad agency folk often have a flair for creative, colorful
communication, which can help a brochure gain attention and be noticed.
On the other hand, clients -- especially the engineers who review the
agency's brochure copy -- often complain, sometimes correctly, that the
agency's brochure copy is superficial.
Laziness is often the cause. The writer did not do sufficient research to
understand both the technology and the needs, concerns, and interests of the
target audience. The copy he writes reflects this lack of understanding.
When you read it, you immediately think, "This person doesn't know what he
is talking about" -- and you are probably right.
Another problem with professional or agency-written product literature is a
tendency toward cleverness for the sake of being clever. "Be creative!" the
client instructs the agency. But the reader often doesn't get the joke, pun,
or reference in the headline, the creativity goes over her head, and she is
turned off rather than engaged.
Engineers who write their own brochure copy are rarely superficial; they
usually have a solid understanding of the products and its technology.
However, engineers tend to assume that the reader knows as much as the
writer, speaks the same jargon, and has the same level of interest in the
technology. And often this is not the case.
Take jargon. People today frequently use the term "open systems
architecture" in sales literature. But do they really know what this means?
Write down your own definition, ask five colleagues to do the same, and
compare. I guarantee they will not be the same. Engineers who write often
don't strive for clarity. So they fall back on buzzwords and cliches that,
unfortunately, don't get across the messages they wish to convey.
6 tips for writing better technical product brochures
Given these conditions, how can you -- as an engineer or manager who either
writes brochure copy, edits copy, approves copy, or provides input for ad
agencies or freelance industrial copywriters -- do your job better so the
finished brochure is the best one possible?
Here are some simple guidelines to follow:
1. Define the topic. Is your brochure about a solution? A system? A product
line? A product? A specific model of that product? A specific industry use
or application of that product? The support services you offer for that
product? The accessories?
Define what the piece is about. The narrower the topic, the more focused,
specific, and effective your brochure can be within the limited space
Tip: Your brochure doesn't have to cover everything. You can always decide
to have other pieces of sales literature that go into more depth on certain
aspects of the product.
For instance, you can talk about satisfied users in case histories. You can
expand on specifications in a spec sheet. Some marketers use application
briefs to focus on a specific application or industry. Others develop
separate sell sheets on each key feature, allowing more in-depth technical
discussion than is possible in a general product brochure.
2. Know your audience. Are you writing to engineers or managers? The former
may be interested in technical and performance specifications. The latter
may want to know about support, service, ease of use, scalability, user
benefits, or return on investment.
If you are writing to engineers, are they well-versed in this particular
technology? Or do you have to bring them up to speed? Just because someone
is a chemical engineer does not mean they know nearly as much about
industrial knives, turbine blades, corrosion-resistant metals, ball valves,
or your particular specialty as you do. Indeed, they probably don't.
When in doubt, it is better to explain so everyone understands than to
assume that everyone already understands. No engineer has ever complained to
me that a brochure I wrote was too clear.
3. Write with your objective in mind. Unlike a Victoria Secrets catalog,
which gives the buyer all the information she needs to place an order, most
technical product brochures support the selling process but are not designed
to complete it on their own.
Is the objective of the brochure to convince the prospect that your
technical design is superior to your competition? Or show that you have more
features at a better price? Or demonstrate that your system will pay back
its cost in less than 6 months?
Establish a communication objective for the brochure and write with that
goal in mind. For instance, if the objective is to get a meeting for you to
sell consulting services to the client, you only need to include enough to
convince them that the meeting is worth their time. Anything more is
4. Include the two things every brochure should contain. These simply are
(a) the things your prospects need and want to know about your product to
make their buying decision and (b) what you think you should say to persuade
them that your product is the best product choice -- and your company is the
The things a prospect wants to know about an industrial product might
include weight, dimensions, power requirements, operating temperature, and
whether it can perform certain functions.
Things you might want to tell them include how the performance compares with
competitive systems in benchmark tests (if you were the winner, of course)
or the fact that it was cited as "Best Product" by an industry publication,
or won an award from a trade association, or is the most popular product in
its category with an installed base of more than 10,000 units.
5. Be selective. While ad agency copy is sometimes too light and tells the
reader too little, engineer copy often makes the opposite error, attempting
to cram every last technical fact and feature into a four or eight page
Keep in mind that your prospect is bombarded by more information than he can
handle on a daily basis. Everyone has too much to read, and not enough time
to read it. According to a study by the School of Information Management &
Systems at UC Berkeley, each year the human race produces about 1.5 exabytes
of unique information in print, film, optical, and magnetic content
worldwide—roughly 250MB of new information for every man, women, and child.
Be selective in your presentation. Copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis has a
formula, E2 = 0. Or as Lewis says, "When you emphasize everything, you
emphasize nothing." If every fact about your product is given equal weight
in the brochure, the key facts that make the most persuasive case for buying
the product will not stand out.
6. Understand the selling environment. There are three basic selling
situations for process equipment, chemicals, and other industrial products.
You must know what situation your product falls into, so you can market it
The first situation is that the prospect is not acutely aware of the problem
he has that your product can solve. Or he is aware of it but does not
consider it a priority. In this situation, to get your prospect's attention,
your brochure must dramatize the problem and its severity, then position
your product as the solution.
Example: Mainframe computer operators did not realize that certain
operations accidentally overrode and erased files stored on magnetic tapes.
A brochure for a utility that prevented this operation from occurring began,
"Did you know that your storage devices may be accidentally wiping out
important files even as you read this sentence?" It alerted them to the
problem in a dramatic way.
Once alerted to a problem they didn't know existed, the readers were eager
to find a solution, which the utility handily provided. Sales were brisk.
The second situation is that the prospect is aware of the problem or need
your product addresses, but is not at all convinced that your type of
product is the best solution.
Example: A chemical manufacturer warned wastewater treatment plants that
their current activated charcoal bed systems were too costly.
The plant managers believed that, but didn't believe that the manufacturer's
alternative filter technology was a viable solution. A paper reprinting lab
test results plus the offer of a free trial overcame the disbelief and got
firms to use the new filter system.
The third situation is when the prospect knows what his problem is, believes
your type of product is the right solution, but needs to be convinced that
your product is the best choice in the category, and better than similar
products offered by your competitors.
One way to demonstrate superiority is with a table comparing your product
with the others on a feature by feature basis. If you have a more complete
feature set than they do, such a table makes you look like the best choice.
Another technique is to give specifications that prove your performance is
superior. If this cannot be quantitatively measured, talk about any unique
functionality, technology, or design feature that might create an impression
of superiority in the prospect's mind.
There are many other copywriting techniques available to produce a superior
technical product brochure in any of these three situations; this is why
I've devoted the past 20 years, my entire professional life, to practicing
and studying copywriting -- just like an engineer practices and studies his
But if you follow the basics in this article and do nothing else, I
guarantee an improvement in your brochures that you, your sales reps, and
your customers will appreciate. You might even some day receive that rare
compliment: "You know, I actually read your brochure. It wasn't boring, and
it told me what I needed to know!"
About the Author:
Bob Bly is an independent copywriter and consultant with more than 25 years
of experience in business-to-business, high-tech, industrial, and direct
marketing. He has written copy for over 100 clients including Network
Solutions, ITT Fluid Technology, Medical Economics, Intuit, Business & Legal
Reports, and Brooklyn Union Gas...and has won numerous industry awards. Bob
is the author of more than 70 books including The Complete Idiot's Guide to
Direct Marketing (Alpha Books) and The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt &
Co.). Visit: www.BobBlyMarketingBooks.com