Developing Writers, Part 3 of 3: Learning Curves

In this final installment of Developing Writers, we discuss the three learning curves that challenge most new ecommerce content developers.

To be a productive member of your team, the new writer needs to master three distinct, but overlapping, dimensions:

  • Company editorial style (voice, tone, punctuation, brands)
  • Content management system (CMS)
  • Product knowledge

The functionality of your CMS affects both how you write for style, and how you describe a given product. Your company’s editorial style influences terminology used in describing a product as well.

Every new writer rides these “learning curves” at different speeds based on their past experiences. For example, a former emergency medical tech has an advantage writing about safety products. An experienced editor finds the subtleties in a new “house” style to be second nature. And a writer who has worked with one content management system will have relatively little trouble learning a new one.

With luck, your new hire has a foothold in at least one of these dimensions. As a rookie content developer, I found myself at Square One with all three, and that is the basis for my recommendations.

Editorial Style — Follow precedent

In my view, Style is the easiest dimension to master. Armed with a corporate style guide and the latest print or web catalog, the new writer can learn simply by following published material — mimicking what has been done before. Have a cheat sheet for common stylistic norms (fractions, units of measure, odd spellings, abbreviations, comma usage). Codify your voice and tone. Is it matter-of-fact, friendly, conversational, hip, etc? Most writers can get achieve proficiency with Style within a few weeks.

Content Management System — Repetition reaps rewards

Initially this was the steepest curve for me because a CMS has so many steps and rules to remember. For the first-time user, navigating the CMS maze can be frustrating. Fortunately, modern CMS are very intuitive; they typically contain a classification structure of products by type (taxonomy) and multiple publishing structures for web and catalogs. Differences depend less on software functionality and more on the data model created internally by the company. An experienced CMY user can draw connections between what they learned in one system and apply it to another. The best way for novices to learn is to use the system every day. Once they establish a level of comfort and rhythm, using the CMS becomes as easy as riding a bicycle. Speed and proficiency follows.

Every CMS has its shortcuts, quirks and workarounds. Learning them takes time — maybe less if you have some very helpful and compassionate colleagues.

Product Knowledge — this reminds me of…

Understanding products isn’t the steepest curve, but it is often the longest because it can take years for a writer to gain familiarity with the spectrum of products offered by a B2B or B2C distributor.

Writing about products has two parts: (1) Understanding what the products are and what they do, and (2) learning how to describe them.

Consider the first part. A writer is doubtlessly familiar with B2C product areas like personal care, home goods, furniture, tool and garden, clothing and shoes, electronics. B2B products can be trickier, if only because they are often industry-specific. But so many B2B products are essentially more sophisticated versions of common everyday items.

I teach new writers to look for comparisons between an unfamiliar product and something similar that they understand. For example, household pitchers and measuring cups share properties with laboratory beakers and scoops, such as volume and graduation markings. Anything electrical is rated for volts, hertz and amps. Appliances are essentially the same whether used in a home or in industry.

As for the actual product description, focus on key features and benefits. The manufacturer’s literature generally has everything the writer will need, and more. The challenge is to glean what a customer needs to know, and discard the marketing fluff in accord with your company’s editorial style. To get writers to think about the 3-4 most important selling points of a product, I encourage them to visit a big box store and head to the TV wall in the electronics department. Read the display tags on the different models and sizes. See what information is shown in those few bullets of copy. Then apply the same logic to your product writing.

It takes about one year to develop an ecommerce writer along these three dimensions. Guide them along these paths and you will produce a competent content professional who is able to write about anything with confidence.

Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services for JP Enterprises.

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