3 Copywriting Rules You Must Break When Marketing to Engineers

January 7, 2021 by
3 Copywriting Rules You Must Break When Marketing to Engineers

If you’ve spent any time around engineers, you’ve probably realized they're different from normal human beings.

If you've marketed to them, you know their differences make them a tough sell.

Being an engineer myself and having worked daily with other engineers for over 20 years, I’m sensitive to those differences. I think I offer a rare perspective on what you need to do to market to this group.

That's why I feel comfortable in saying, as a copywriter, that if you want to market effectively to engineers, you must acknowledge that they are wired differently. You must realize that some time-tested copywriting techniques simply don’t apply.

Specifically, you must break the following three "rules" of copywriting and advertising when marketing to engineers.

Rule-to-Break #1: Sell to the heart, not to the head.

Most copywriting books teach that successful copy appeals primarily to emotions. Facts and logic are used only to help the prospect justify his or her emotional decision.

But this approach fails with engineers, for several reasons.

First, engineers are trained to deal in facts. They’re taught to test assumptions. They tend to doubt claims that are not backed up by verifiable proof. So the typical consumer approach – big, emotion-stirring claims with little supporting evidence – simply won’t work with this group.

Second, engineering buying decisions are considered purchases, not impulse buys. Facts are carefully weighed. Comparisons made. Ultimately, the product or service that appears to best meet the requirements is the one that’s purchased.

Third, you must keep in mind that the engineer’s biggest emotional need is to make the most logical technical decision and avoid risk. The usual emotional hooks we use on business decision makers—contribution to the company's bottom line, career advancement, etc.—don’t carry much weight with engineers.

Engineers figure if they make sound technical decisions—create great products, deliver on time and under budget—all that other stuff will take care of itself.

Finally, and I’m sorry to say this, engineers tend to look down their noses at advertising and those involved with it. The "sell to the heart" approach is a dead giveaway that will get your promotion canned immediately.

For engineers, you have to appeal to the heart through the head.

How? Make sure all your marketing materials targeted at engineers are highly informational, not gimmicky or promotional. Don't use typical advertising hype. Avoid slick graphics, especially the usual stock photos of smiling suits. Present the facts in a clear, conversational manner.

Engineers want solid information. And they want to be treated as professionals. "In many tests of ads and direct mailings [to engineers]," says famed copywriter Bob Bly, another former engineer, "I have seen straightforward, low-key, professional approaches equal or out pull 'glitzy' ads and mailings repeatedly." i

Above all, talk "peer-to-peer." Speak their language. Engineers tend to distrust information coming from anyone other than another engineer or scientist. But if you walk like an engineer, and quack like one, most engineers will assume you're one of them.

Rule-to-Break #2: Emphasize the benefits, not the features.

In most advertising and marketing, it pays to play up the benefits, and downplay the features. Consumers and most business buyers don't really want to know about your product or service. What these groups want to know is what your product or service can do for them. Dwelling on features just gets in the way of that message.

But marketing to engineers requires exactly the opposite approach.

Engineers need to know the features and specifications of your product in order to make an informed buying decision or recommendation. They need to be sure your product will meet their specifications, work with their existing equipment, and not disrupt their current workflow.

What's more, engineers are already well aware of the benefits of most of what they purchase. This is especially true for system integrators, OEM's and others who buy your product with the aim of incorporating it into their own. These groups are far more interested in specifications than benefits.

For example, say you're selling random access memory. An engineer buying RAM doesn't need to be sold on the benefits of RAM. He needs to know if your RAM is compatible with his system and will give him the performance he needs.

That's why data sheets tend to top lists of most-consumed and most-influential content among engineering and tech-buying audiences. ii

Now, if you have a truly ground-breaking product – one that provides benefits not previously seen in its category – then, by all means, trumpet those benefits. Differentiate your product from the competition. Just be sure to fully explain the features of your product that provide those benefits. Engineers will want to know the "how" and will be leery if you don't give that to them right up front.

Rule-to-Break #3: Avoid the use of jargon.

Business writing experts tell us to avoid using jargon, because you run the risk of confusing—and losing—your audience.

But with engineers, the opposite is true. You actually facilitate communication by using jargon.

Engineers live in a world filled with complex technical terms. Jargon streamlines communication by replacing long, cumbersome phrases with short words and acronyms.

Think of our previous example. Would you want to say "random access memory" repeatedly in a conversation, when you can just say RAM?

Engineers are comfortable in that world. Young engineers starting their first jobs are constantly bombarded by new technical terms and jargon. That continues throughout their careers as new technologies emerge and engineering language evolves. When they encounter a new term they don't know, they simply ask a colleague or Google it. It becomes second nature.

Engineers love jargon. In fact, everyone does, in every field. Why else would we use terms like "inbound marketing" or "inside sales" that are potentially confusing to outsiders?

Using the jargon of your target readers in your marketing materials shows them you speak their language. It helps give those readers the impression that you're like them. And if you want a response to your message, you always want to give that impression.

This is especially important with engineers because, as I mentioned earlier, they tend to distrust advice from outside their peer group. Avoiding jargon, or using it inappropriately, is a tell-tale sign you really don't "speak engineer" and are therefore not to be trusted.

So don't be afraid to use engineering jargon in your marketing materials targeting engineers. As a rule of thumb, you only need to define and repeat technical terms that are either (1) coined by your company (i.e., specific to your product or service), or (2) spawned by an emerging technology or methodology that's not yet in the mainstream. Otherwise, if you can look it up in Wikipedia, you're pretty safe using it.

Conclusion

Engineers are a little bit different from the rest of the human race.

And you have to take that into account when marketing to them. Some of the tried-and-true copywriting techniques that work on most business buyers simply don't work on engineers. In effect, they're overridden by another time-honored technique that takes precedence: Be like your prospect.

Take-away Points

Remember these three "alternative" copywriting rules when writing to engineers:

  1. Sell to the head (and to the heart through the head).
  2. Highlight the features, as well as the benefits.
  3. Talk like an engineer: use their jargon to make them feel like you're one of them.

Next Steps

For more insights on marketing to engineers, download my latest white paper, 9 Essential Truths You Must Keep in Mind When Marketing to Engineers. You can request your free copy by clicking here.

Need some outside help writing content or developing lead-gen campaigns that target engineers? Call me at (+39) 011 569 4951. Or send me an email at info@copyengineer.com.


References

i Bly, Robert W. Six Things I Know for Sure About Marketing to Engineers, bly.com, 1998.

ii 2019 Smart Marketing for Engineers, Trew Marketing and IEEE GlobalSpec, November 2018.

7 Comments

  1. Paul Chiswick

    Absolutely 100% with you on this John, after spending 10 years as an engineer, followed by 20 as a software/services salesman and now as a fulltime writer. Good to know someone has come out and stated we're not homogeneous as buyers! By the way, there is an element of honesty in most engineers that's lacking in many business people. As a saleman I had often to bite my tongue - mind you, I never sold what I didn't believe in. Perhaps that's why I never became a millionaire!

  2. john

    Thanks Paul.

    You're right about that "honesty element". In fact, the famous Values and Life Styles (VALS) study by Stanford Research Institute found that engineers tend to fall into the "Socially Conscious" category - they always want to do the right thing.

    I don't know if that's because they know that cutting corners or a jury-rigged solution will eventually get them into trouble, or if that mentality leads them to engineering (chicken or egg?). But most of the engineers I've known do tend to take a very dim view of trying to pull a fast one on customers.

  3. Christine Hoeflich

    Thanks for this article. It explains why the engineer mindset is ingrained in me and why it's easier for me to write copy for engineers and scientists. I've learned to write copy for consumers, but it was an effort and an adjustment.

  4. Nancy Ashley

    I've called on design engineers for at least 15 years. I appreciate your perspective. I strive to learn constantly and have found that the questions are usually pretty basic as one design to another. My degrees are in music performance, and many of my customers are also musicians. That helps. Mainly, I take a lot of notes and don't try to show off what I think I know.... keep the focus on what they say instead of what I say. I love the business because it's complex and interesting as opposed to other kinds of sales. I'm from a family of farmers, and engineers are pretty much the same. If it contributes to the work, then they're usually interested at least. If not, then, I figure there will be an opportunity in the future. Thanks for your essay!

  5. Ajira

    I'm not an expert in this filed. But I can say I learned something from this article.
    Thanks,
    For sharing this article.

  6. Pierre Duroy

    Thanks, this is a great article. I completely agree with you that "using the jargon of your target readers in your marketing materials shows them you speak their language".
    Thanks for the professional advices.

  7. David Fix

    As someone who markets in the engineering space, while I agree that you should break these rules you should still keep them in mind with your copy. I think completely ignoring these rules is rather foolish.

    For the first remember brands have a reputation and invoke feelings of trust, reliability. The old adage of no one has ever been fired for buying IBM comes to mind. The heart in engineering is there and engineers are very passionate about brands. Your overall messaging should invoke an emotional response over the long run.

    For the second rule, new features do need the benefits explained but routine features do not. I would explain the benefits that make your product different from competitors and any features that are new to the market. Engineers wish to be educated and are always learning. There are new engineers every year and may not know the benefits of certain features of certain products or why they would need such features.

    The last rule of jargon is a very complicated line of how much jargon. Using some jargon shows you are comfortable with the topic, however, you don't want your message lost to part of your audience. I would tend to aim to create copy for someone who has had about two to five years of general engineering experience. For example in my last job was in the mobile industry, I would use terms like 5G, GERAN, LAN without any problems however now if I were to use ECC, DFIT, or PIXIT, I have lost part of my audience.

    So to any new marketer reading take this advice about breaking rules like you would take advice breaking writing rules. When you break a marketing rule make sure you know and understand why are you are doing it.

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