You don’t have to go to business school to be an effective corporate writer. But if you want to be taken seriously — as someone who helps the power players develop their messages instead of the person who just “types them up” — you have to learn the business. That includes the industry as a whole, your company, and your company’s place in the industry.
What is the industry?
What kind of business is your company in? Service? Entertainment? Health care? Distribution? Manufacturing? Retail? This is a trick question, because the answer could well be “more than one.” Retailers are a prime example. They share characteristics with other retailers, but they also have a stake in the industry their products represent. Clothing retailers have to keep up with what’s hot in fashion. Sporting goods stores have to know what’s trending in the sports world. What’s the newest technology in competitive biking? What brands are the best runners using right now? Successful retailers know both parts of their niche: what they sell and how to make money selling it.
Who are the players?
Is your industry pulverized among many small competitors, like liquor stores or dry cleaners? Or are there a few major players who drive the industry, with a small number of independents following along? Who are your company’s major competitors? How are their sales? Their stock price? Where does your company stand in the pack? If it’s a mid-level player, the focus might be on gaining market share. If it’s the top dog, it might be trying to shape the industry, to lead it in a new direction because competitors will do whatever your company does. Bottom line: Understand your company’s world and its place in that world.
Who are the customers? And why do they buy from your company…or not?
Who buys your company’s products or services? Why? How do they use them? Why do they choose your company over a competitor? Or vice versa? And does your company really know who its customers are — through market research, for example — or does it just think it knows, based on anecdotal evidence?
Who are the employees?
Are they engineers? PhDs? Hourly salespeople? Do they have a mix of skill, education, and experience? Why do they work for your company? Are they there for a career, or is it just a temporary stop? How does that affect the way you write? Does your company write the same for everybody or tailor it to a specific audience?
What is the company’s identity?
Does your company identify itself as a low-cost leader? Or does it want to be seen as offering a premium product? Is it young and hip? Or staid and prestigious? The options are endless. The point is that your company’s target identity needs to be woven into everything you write.
How is your company doing? And how does it measure success?
Your company’s level of success affects (or should) the tone of what you write. Is it at the top of its game and loving it? Or is it in crisis mode? Or mediocre and aiming higher? And how does your company determine its level of success? Some companies focus on profit dollars, some on profit margin, and some on sales. Some focus on stock price or return on investment. They’re all important, but companies often focus more on some than on others. What are your company’s key performance indicators?
This business knowledge won’t come into play for everything you write. But it gives you a foundation on which to build your career. Nothing will make you look more like an amateur than sitting in a meeting with a bunch of executives and asking a question like, “What’s EBIT?” On the other hand, a demonstrated grasp of the business can make you an indispensable part of the communication process rather than just an average writer who’s limited to putting somebody else’s ideas on paper.