David Ogilvy was an advertising genius who distilled his successful concepts and techniques into a bestselling book I’ve just finished reading, called "Confessions of an Advertising Man". I wanted to read his book, because I often find it useful to look at other professions and ask whether their ideas could be applied to the world of technical authoring.
So, can a technical authoring company learn any lessons from someone who ran a successful advertising agency? I think so.
The importance of testing, measuring and research
The biggest thing that struck me was Ogilvy’s belief in testing and research. "The most important word in the vocabulary of advertising is TEST. Test your promise. Test your media. Test your headlines and your illustrations. Test the size of your advertisements. Test your frequency. Test your level of expenditure. Test your commercials. Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.""People who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals."
In his early years, Ogilvy had worked for George Gallup Audience Research Institute, which he called “the luckiest break of my life.” To Ogilvy, what mattered were the results for clients, and he saw testing and research as critical to gaining those rewards.
Both technical communication and advertising find it very hard to measure the results of their work. However, advertisers and technical communicators draw different conclusions from this problem:Advertisers believe that this means they should spend a great deal of time on testing and measuring.Technical communicators believe this means they should spend little time on testing and measuring - it's too hard.
I think technical authors can learn from advertisers by spending more time on testing. For Web-based content, it’s possible to test and measure some aspects at least, such as the number of times a page is viewed. For this reason, perhaps documentation should be published in most cases on Web servers.
Creating an atmosphere in which partnerships with clients can flourish
Ogilvy "resigned his agency" from numerous accounts where he couldn't see he would be able to get results for his clients. Sometimes this was due to a lack of money available to spend on advertising, a duff product, or a lack of clarity from the client. Ogilvy aimed to take on just one new client per year. His goal was to work for giants such as Lever Brothers, Shell and Bristol-Myers.
The importance of using images"Dr. Gallup reports that if you say something which you don't also illustrate, the viewer immediately forgets it."
Images are often left out of online Help files, in order to avoid confusing users with the application screens themselves. Maybe it’s time to reconsider this. Perhaps images could be used in a way that distinguishes them from the application.
Promoting the documents"You can’t save souls in an empty church.”
Documents need to be seen and used, in order for them to work.
There were other statements that, with a few word changes, could easily have been said by a technical author:
1. On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
2. Golden rewards await he who has the brains to create a coherent image, and the stability to stick with it over a long period.
3. The most important decision is how to position your product.
4. A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.
5. We prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles.
6. It has taken more than a hundred scientists two years to find out how to make the product in question; I have been given thirty days... If I do my job well, I shall contribute as much as the hundred scientists to the success of this product.
It was an enjoyable book to read, which caused me to think about the way we work.
Labels: technical authors, technical communication