By Andrea Edwards published April 24, 2012

5 Tips for Finding Your Perfect B2B Content Partner

For the past six or so years, I’ve worked exclusively as a business writing partner with some great companies in the Asia Pacific region. My customers span a variety of sectors, with a focus on IT, digital media, and professional services. It’s a lot of fun, wonderfully challenging, a great professional evolution, and I am very passionate about it — it’s all I want to do.

The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is that a successful writing partnership requires a deep level of intimacy with customers. A professional writer no longer just delivers static brochures or web content. Writers today are ghost writing blogs, conducting executive interviews, creating more personal customer success stories, and more. As such, when I work with my customers, I need:

  • To understand how they speak and think
  • To challenge them on some of their ideas to build strong value arguments
  • To make them work hard with me to find the story, because their idea may form a great starting point, but it might not be compelling enough to get their readers to act
  • To get them to stand back and ask the question: Will my audience be interested in this? Does it address their pain points?
  • And sometimes I need to educate them, because what they think is important might not be that interesting to their customers. It can be sensitive stuff.

Unless both parties understand and appreciate the essential role that great chemistry and mutual respect play, it can be tough to create the perfect partnership between content provider and client.

Content is a human business, and sometimes you just don’t gel with a potential business partner. Very rarely, I have experienced a personality clash — that situation where you meet someone and there’s tension for no apparent reason. It happens, right?

But more often than not, it comes down to a clash of working styles. I want my customers to stand out and be amazing. However, when I work with people who have an intrinsically conservative style (i.e., preferring to use formal language), are very set in their ways, or are not open to new ideas and ways to succeed, I sometimes find it to be a challenge for us to work together successfully. Conversely, if my writing style isn’t conservative enough for a particular industry or person (which is ok, too), our partnership just isn’t going to be a good strategic fit.

Based on this, it occurred to me that some guidance on how to identify the perfect content partner for you and your business could be helpful. With everyone claiming content to be the new “king of marketing,” it has become a priority; but to really win, you need to acknowledge the “queen of marketing” — context, and its related considerations.

Content and context are now firmly elevated to a strategic position in marketing (with some forward-thinking companies creating the role of CCO to reflect this). So here are five tips to help you identify a great writing or content partner that can deliver both content and context:

1) Look for good personal chemistry

It is vital to get on with your writing partners. Much of today’s written output will require you to work very closely — getting inside each other’s minds, and challenging each other, when appropriate. You want to work with writers who can bring out the best in you and your business. Are they going to be a pleasure to work with? Are they capable of capturing your spirit or your company’s essence? Are they curious and intelligent? Are they open and inspired? If you want some insight about these considerations right from the start, consider asking potential content partners to submit to a writing test: Ask them to interview you on any subject you are both familiar with, and see how they proceed, and what they produce (both aspects are important). Sometimes you’ll just know if someone is right or wrong, but if you’re on the fence, or want to be sure, a writing test can be a good tactic.

2) Find out where their passions lie

Look for someone who is a passionate business storyteller, is excited about your company, and can reflect your message and passion in what they produce. It’s one of those things that should be very obvious when you meet someone, but there can be talented content professionals whose passion is understated, so it’s best to rely on examples of your writers’ work, rather than personal impressions, when evaluating passion. Read their testimonials, ask for feedback from members of their network, and make sure their style and natural voice indicates that they would be a good fit for your team. You can also look at their broader body of work — the blogs they write (on any topic), other published articles, cross-published blogs, the way they use social media, etc., to get an idea of what they are passionate about. If they are able to express their passion in these areas, the chances are they have learned some valuable lessons that will benefit your business.

3) Find a strategic marketing thinker

Work with a content partner who understands the overarching marketing and messaging strategies of your company, and understands how important this is to everything you are trying to achieve as a business. The ultimate goal is to have this messaging subtly wrapped into all content developed. For example, I’ve been working with a young, up-coming IT monitoring company, NetGain Systems. One of their key messages is they provide reassurance to customers by tracking IT performance 24×7 – it’s always on, in the background, tracking for problems and sending alerts, which means customers don’t have to worry about IT performance and can get on with more strategic work. Understanding this message, I interviewed one of their customers and shaped the interview to get the CIO to talk about the key message in his own words. He admitted he sleeps better – a powerful endorsement, especially for the IT monitoring industry. So make sure your potential writer knows what your core messages are, and has strong ideas for helping them come through in their writing. Writing professionals who understand the messaging dimension of business are worth their weight in gold and will be able to create even more powerful content for you.

4) Look for a proactive professional

You need someone with great ideas, who is familiar with — and can develop stories around — the emerging issues in your industry. The best sign you’ve found a great writing partner? The very first time you meet, he or she will come up with a bunch of great ideas for stories — and this is before being briefed about your business and goals. A great writer can see story opportunities everywhere, and while they may not be on the money with every idea initially, you know they will be once they’re on your team. A proactive and creative professional will be constantly on the pulse with new ideas, angles, and approaches. They will feed your content channel months in advance, as well as alert you to topical news that must be acted on immediately. In an always-on world, this is essential and means you can be assured that the quality of your content will be taken care of.

5) Watch out for “yes” people

If you want to do something amazing, don’t work with writers who will blindly follow your lead and say yes to every idea. Your writing partner should be free to challenge you every step of the way, and everything they produce should exceed your expectations. Look for writers who listen to what you want, but are capable of surpassing it — those who can deliver the “wow” factor. The key skill your writer must demonstrate is an understanding of both your company’s goals and what is important to the prospects the information is intended for; a “yes” person will only see your company’s goals. How do you find them? Look for writers who have relevant experience and credibility behind them. They may be a little more expensive, but they will be worth every cent. However, don’t overlook talented and eager new writers — both offer great skills in the content mix.

A great content creator is a valuable partner that can reap big rewards for your business. As long as you choose the right one, you’ll get compelling content and experience a natural synergy that is sure to lead to great results.

I hope this helps. If you have any additional ideas for finding the right content partner, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Author: Andrea Edwards

Andrea has worked in communications all over the globe for 20 years, and her focus now is to follow her passion – writing. A gifted communicator, strategist, writer and blogger, Andrea is MD of SAJE, a digital communications agency, and The Writers Shop – a regional collaboration among the best writers in Asia Pacific. Based in Singapore since 2003, follow her on Twitter @sajeideas, like her on Facebook, or connect with her on LinkedIn. You can also follow her blog.

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  • Alex Morask

    Awesome article! As a college student aspiring to be a content writer / strategist, I’d love to see the same kind of article from the perspective of a new writer whose just starting out and trying to find new business. 

  • Andrea Edwards

    Hey Alex, thanks for the lovely feedback. What I’d recommend is to get writing if you’re not already doing it – do you have a blog? Blog about anything close to your heart and when it’s time to get rocking in the corporate world, you’ll have a substantial body of work to show potential employers. One blogging tactic that has really worked for me is to include interviews with leaders in the comms field in Asia – when I do this, not only do I push the blog out, but they promote my work too. When people say how do you get people to agree to be interviewed? I say: I ask them… ego is definitely your ally as most people love their name up in lights. When you start asking people for interviews, be relentless and don’t give up, because the more success you have, the more success you will have. It also helps you to develop more strategic thinking by being exposed to senior level people in your field. And always seek to get your writing published on other digital platforms, other blogs, and in relevant magazines, etc… Essentially, at this point in your life, the best thing to do is write.

    Re strategist, apart from the exposure you’ll get from interviewing people, carefully choose companies to intern with throughout your student days where you can really understand strategic rather than tactical implementation. Working with ad/marketing/PR/digital agencies and having exposure to their senior folk will really give you great insight into strategic thinking, and once again, put you well ahead of your competition when going for jobs. Also make sure you interview as many people as you can during an internship. This sort of work experience will enable you to see everything from the big perspective, but more importantly, the customer’s perspective – something more important today than ever before. Those who can think from the big perspective will win every time. Good luck!

  • Jenny McDonald

    Fascinating article, thanks Andrea.  I’ve worked in PR for 25 years and wholeheartedly agree with the most challenging piece of advice you give here –  ‘watch out for yes people’! Many of us in PR, marketing, the C-suite and in life would much prefer to be comfortable than challenged. That’s why there seem to be so many ‘yes’ people out there! But remaining unchallenged in a very challenging market environment is not such a smart move in the long run. Finding a partner you can trust to challenge and question in a constructive and respectful way that achieves the optimal outcome is not only desirable, it’s a must. 

    • Andrea

      Thanks Jenny, as a deeply experienced PR person, I was not surpried you honed in on the yes people comment (the implementers essentially), but you’re so right, finding a partner you can trust to challenge and question is definitely a MUST and a huge hurdle in AP, where it remains so hierarchical. Cheers

  • samuraiwriter

    My experience so far is that b2b freelance writers are expected to (constructively) challenge the ideas and expectations of the hiring client.

    And on point #4, this raises the issue of whether a business writer should be a specialist or a generalist.
    At the C-level, I suspect that a flexible and quick-learning generalist can do very well. However, once the marketing messages are aimed at (IT) directors and below, a specialist knowledge helps build the credibility of both the writer, and their client’s marketing messages. Tech-oriented people do not respond well to BS… 

    (Disclosure: I’m a member of Andrea’s team, The Writer’s Shop.)

    • Andrea

      You’re right Mark – there are definitely two layers for writing and both are relevant, depending on the goal of the content!

  • Vernonxt

     Andrea: I read your article on the b2b freelance writers, and found it to be something that should have been published twenty years ago at the advent of the Internet. If we all had your ‘cheat sheet’ we might not have made so many expensive mistakes in learning how to get the final product right. I think you help set the tone by helping the reader know how to set their own expectations. Nice job!

    • Andrea

      Thanks so much Vernon. It’s basic stuff, because setting expectations is vital, but knowing what those expectations are in the first place is what so many seem to miss. Appreciate the feedback!

  • Dawson_Rita

    “To understand how they speak and think” – 100% true. Without a clear understanding, nothing can go on well. You have given a very good explanation about the last point – Watch out for “yes” people. The explanation was really very impressive.