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For some of us writerly types, content comes easy. In 15 minutes alone with my keyboard, I can produce a 500-word press release, or enough crumbs to rebuild an entire granola bar, with nearly the same amount of effort. It just comes out.

For other types of folks, extracting copy is like pulling bad teeth.

And for engineers, it's like pulling good teeth. Strong, deeply rooted, healthy molars from the stout gums of an ox who isn't the least bit interested in dental care as a lead-generation tactic.

I work with oxen—er, engineers—for a living, cajoling and coercing content enough to fill a very large B2B website with technical articles, webinars, and slideshows galore.

But, at the outset of my career, a viable strategy for building that library of juicy, keyboard-rich, optimized oxen teeth did not make itself obvious.

Lame Tactic 1: Incentives

To solicit copy, we first tried carrots in the form of a $500 bonus to article authors. That resulted in two things: utter disinterest on the part of most of our staff; a jump in submissions from the two guys who were already writing all the articles.

Every B2B has a techie or two who "gets" marketing. We love those guys a lot; we totally, utterly do; but they can't write articles for every expert, industry, and specialty.

Our business—materials testing—requires complicated scientific conversations: voices from many perspectives and specialties, often working in collaboration. Thirty-seven articles on polycarbonate resin—while riveting—were not going to get us where we needed to be.

Lame Tactic 2: Enforcement

Our next tactic was the stick (funny how well this oxen metaphor is playing out). We built article and webinar quotas directly into job descriptions, tucked them snugly into marketing plans, and generally dropped them like content cluster bombs into planning meetings.

We sat the managers down, made a few strategically terroristic threats, had them sign off on many sinister Gantt charts, and voila: We had our "bad cop." Then I closed in on the engineer under the single swinging light bulb, convincing them that (with my help) they could whip out reams of Nobel-worthy prose and blow the socks off all their friends at the next materials testing conference—a psychologically devastating "good cop/stage mother" combo.

And the payoff? We got some really juicy, Web-ready, keyboard-rich... excuses, fully optimized for distraction and deflection. There were mumbles about "falling through the cracks," and we heard a lot of sentences that began with, "My customer..." Oh, the things we could get done if it weren't for that guy!

What Finally Worked

Desperate, we stooped to the lowest common denominator in human behavior, the irresistible urge that runs through all of us.

That's right, we gave them an opportunity to bitch.

Fed up, I just started writing. I wrote whatever the hell I vaguely thought needed writing about in the manner of a professional liberal arts major with just enough knowledge to be dangerous—exactly what I am—and it was like putting fire ants in their lab coats. Within hours, they returned marked-up Word documents with added pages and comments like "Ha!" and "WTF?"

Someone faxed me a paper so covered with blacked-out sections that it looked like someone had taken a lighter to it. My ignorance made them crazy. My inability to convey the ductile properties of molybdenum (or something) was particularly enraging, and I had myself a pile of content before the week was out. Then, the week after that, I did it again.

I now call this the "OK, I'll just write the damn thing then" methodology.

Lesson learned: What's more human than the desire to criticize and improve someone else's work? Apparently, absolutely nothing.

A few fairy wishes I now bestow upon you as you embark on your own content adventure:

  • Develop a thick skin. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are playful kittens compared with a misquoted failure analyst. Try not to take it personally.
  • Stand your ground. Sometimes techies will also think they're wordies. Don't let them try to out-grammar you. But if it turns out that they're a rare New York Times crossword-puzzle-kind of techies—there are a few out there, and they also play instruments—I guarantee that they will put two spaces after every period (so you will have that, at least).
  • The byline is your secret weapon. If they're dragging out the edits, send them an email asking how they want their name spelled on this, the last draft. That ought to do it.

There is another secret benefit to the preemptive strike. Writing the first draft means that the elements you want in the article—the elements that make it readable and perfectly pitched—will make it through the edit process.

This method also gives you the opportunity to build in a hook, craft a great title, include the desired keywords, and even specify the topic based on what you think the market is looking for. It's much easier to frame it at the start than to rework the engineer's finished piece.

* * *

For best results, then, immediately start writing—about things you don't really understand—under someone else's byline. And, if that's not the kind of serious advice you were looking for, I will take this opportunity to encourage you to proactively synergize your brand hygiene by carefully inverting your keyboard and vigorously shaking it on a quarterly basis. Your Taser should remain in your ankle holster at all times.

Continue reading "'Don't Tase Me, Bro!' Or, How I Got an Engineer to Write a Whitepaper" ... Read the full article

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Ari McKee-Sexton is marketing communications manager at Stork Materials Technology, a network of testing laboratories in the US and Europe.