3 Copywriting Rules You Must Break When Marketing to Engineers

November 16, 2011 by

If you’ve spent any time around engineers, you’ve probably realized that, as a group, they're different from “normal” human beings.

And those differences make them a tough sell.

Being an engineer myself, and having worked as one in high-tech for over 20 years before becoming a copywriter, I feel I’m quite sensitive to those differences. (Being married to a non-engineer for 13 years may have something to do with that, as well.) And I think I offer a rare perspective on what you need to do to market to this group.

If you want to sell effectively to engineers, you must acknowledge that they are wired differently. You must realize that some time-tested copywriting techniques that still work with consumers and the bulk of B2B buyers, simply don’t apply to engineers.

Specifically, you must break the following three "rules" of advertising.

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

Most advertising and 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 possible. The usual emotional hooks we use on business decision-makers – risk avoidance, bottom-line impact, career advancement – don’t carry any weight with engineers. They don’t want management responsibility. That’s boring. What they want is to solve interesting technical problems.

Engineers figure if they 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 anyone involved in it.

Unfortunately, many engineers see anyone with a people-oriented job as a failure – someone who doesn’t have what it takes to be technically competent. And that goes double for the folks in sales and marketing. Engineers view advertising and sales techniques as manipulative. And they hate to feel manipulated.

In fact, most engineers like to believe they’re not influenced by marketing. They tend to disregard anything that looks, sounds or smells the least little bit like traditional advertising. The "sell to the heart" approach is a dead giveaway that will get your promotion canned immediately.

So, with engineers, you have to appeal to the heart through the head.

How? Make all your marketing materials targeted at engineers professional and 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 outpull 'glitzy' ads and mailings repeatedly."

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 direct 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 work flow.

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 your 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.

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 could just say "RAM"?

Engineers are comfortable in that world. Young engineers starting their first jobs are constantly bombarded by new technical terms and jargon. And it 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 jargon in your marketing materials shows the reader you speak his language. It helps give the reader the impression that you're like him. 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 jargon in your marketing materials targeted at 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 engineer's head. And sell to his heart through his head.
  2. Highlight the features, as well as the benefits
  3. Talk like an engineer: use his jargon to make him feel you're like him.

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.

3 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.

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