Writing Content for a Procurement Audience – But Will Anyone Read It?

(This is an updated version of an article we first published back in the mists of time! Still relevant though!)

It is ironic that just a few years after we were all predicting that the Internet, texting and Facebook would mean the end of people writing anything longer than a one paragraph email, more people are writing more material for public consumption than ever before. (Even Twitter had to start allowing longer  messages!)

Whilst the number of professional journalists may have declined, the number of people who write blogs, content for business or personal websites, or even comment on other public websites is far greater than a few years ago. I suspect there are millions of people who now write something that (they hope) will be read by others, on a regular basis, even if they don’t get paid for it. That wasn't so just a few years ago.

And now that every company has a website, and many have blogs, or publish white papers, newsletters or similar, then many more business people are being required to write for a public audience. And one unfortunate consequence of that is how much published material is just not very good.

I want to talk here specifically about the sort of material that is aimed at a professional procurement and supply chain audience. That includes blogs, papers or research reports, newsletters, news items on websites and so on. It is very obvious that more and more firms on the supply side of the industry - software firms, consultancies, even recruitment firms - are trying to get their message across to potential and actual customers through written material of this type.

They do it for a number of valid reasons - to demonstrate “thought leadership”, directly promote their wares, develop a relationship with their customer base, or generate leads. And the sort of firms who are doing it are no longer just the giants of our industry.

So here are a few thoughts that might be useful if you find yourself in the position of writing this type of material. Although I've co-authored a serious business book, and written over 2 million words here since 2010 about procurement and related topics (!), I’m not a trained writer or journalist, so I’m not going to advise on generic style issues. You can take advice from something like the Economist style guide if you're interested in generally improving your business writing.

The suggestions here are more around the positioning of this sort of material, and to address some common flaws. Because I'm seeing some material being published that I honestly believe is having a negative effect for the firms promoting the material - it would be better for them if they did nothing.

This advice mainly applies to readers (and writers) on the supply side - although actually, procurement practitioners could usefully follow the same tips when they're communicating internally, with stakeholders or suppliers. So over the two parts of this short series, we’ll discuss four common mistakes.

Point 1 - Don't be over-ambitious

The classic case is the consulting firm article which is 400 words on "How to buy consulting services".  Fiona Czerniawska and I wrote 90,000 words on that, and felt we still hadn’t covered all of the key issues.

You just can't do it in 400 words, or even 4,000.  You will either skate over the surface at the very highest level, or in reality focus on one or two individual issues or areas. And there's nothing wrong with that focus. It's why we don't write blogs on Spend Matters called "How to do Procurement". It is far better to focus on a manageable subject for the length of the piece you are writing, rather than suggesting you’re going to cover a huge topic in a few words.

So in the case of that example, you could look at some market news, or recent trends you see as a provider in a particular sector. Or focus on an element of the overall process – for example, maybe in the professional services case, a quick analysis of the pros and cons of using fixed-price contracts (although frankly even that might be too large a subject for a 400 word blog!). But don’t try and cover a huge subject in a single short article. It is rarely useful to the reader and does not generally impress anyone.

Point 2 - Be credible

You've got one of a limited number of goals when you write for a professional audience. You might be trying purely to entertain, although that is rare. More often, you are trying to achieve one or more of these objectives (and there is some overlap):

  • educate - about your product or service, an aspect of procurement, a new process
  • inform - provide information, insight or news
  • stimulate - get people thinking, campaign on an issue, promote an idea

Most business writing - certainly in the case of blogs, articles and similar - falls into the first two categories. So if you are trying to educate or inform, it should go without saying that what you're writing about needs to be credible. It helps if you are personally credible, so professors can get away with writing stuff you or I couldn’t, but most importantly, the content must be credible.

This is where some material can without a doubt be worse than no communication at all. I've seen articles that just made me think, "this person doesn't know what they're talking about"! Not surprisingly, that doesn't make me want to go out and buy their products, engage them as consultants, or tell my friends about their articles.

A common problem is that senior people are busy, so the task of writing the blog gets delegated to someone junior who isn't a real expert, because the person who could and should write it is too busy earning fees.  Or the PR firm is tasked with writing it. Now sometimes, that can work fine, but at others, it is just so obvious that the author has based the article on "10 minutes on Google and Wikipedia" type research.

The professional audience will spot this a mile away. I’ve seen articles that honestly would make any experienced person reading them think “well, that’s one firm I won’t be asking for advice”! If you can’t be bothered – or haven’t the time – to do it well, don’t do it at all.

Stay tuned for part 2, when we’ll look at two more commandments for anyone writing about procurement and supply chain matters.

Voices (3)

  1. Paul@Provalido:

    I read your Buying Professional Services book in one evening when I was tasked with “coming across like an expert” in that area in front of a client for the procurement consultancy I was working for at the time, (despite never having bought professional services before). The 90,000 words taught me just about enough to at least sound like I knew something about the topic! When the pressure’s on and you really need to learn something, a simple blog won’t cut it.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Paul, I am delighted that the book helped and amazed you read it in one evening – reading it in a month would be a bit of a stretch i would have thought! but I’d like to think we covered a good 80% of what anyone needs to know on the topic, although of course experience also adds something that books simply can’t.

  2. Paulie Anthony:

    Great article – I look forward to Part II.

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