Can a Technical Author be a master of more than one trade?

Technical Authors are normally seen as masters of writing user documentation, but their skills are not often applied to other areas of the business. For example, it’s usually the case our clients for software documentation are different from our procedures writing clients.

However, we’re currently working for a client where we began by editing a white paper, and this has led us on to other projects across departments. Work has included developing customer journey maps, a terminology database, as well as the online Help. The role is morphing into that of a content editor role: checking for consistency, spotting errors in marketing copy, rewriting copy, and so on.

So what is different? What has led to this wider scope? It may be due to us being recommended to them by word of mouth, and they had greater confidence in our abilities. It may be because they are a start up. It could be because many of the staff are not native English speakers.

We suspect it’s because the first project was the white paper. They had something that was very useful to them, for promoting the company. They also included us in their in-house chat system, which meant we could see other areas where they had issues with content. This led to us intervening more than usual, making suggestions in a proactive way. The growth of chat systems, such as Slack and Socialcast, within companies could open up other opportunities for other Technical Authors, as long as they take the initiative.

“Bad information is Marketing’s fault problem. Good information is Tech Comms’ specialty. Let’s do the maths.”

inbound marketing and technical communicationsThe quotation in the title is from Roger Hart’s presentation at last week’s TCUK14 conference. Roger is a product marketing manager who spent a few years as a Technical Author. In his presentation, Collateral damage: do marketing and tech comms have to fight when users get informed?, he explained some of the most powerful marketing content today is high quality user information – especially the content that Technical Authors produce.

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Proving your technical content is the most important content on your website

In yesterday’s post, How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head, we discussed the importance of technical content to today’s marketing funnel. You might be thinking, show me more evidence.

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How technical content on the Web is turning traditional marketing strategy on its head

Kathy Sierra famously summed up most marketing departments’ approach to content in this slide:
kathy sierra - How we treat customers

To paraphrase her, the website and brochure are a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom.

Today, the way people use the Internet means this approach to marketing needs to change

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Write and own your content, or someone will write and own it for you

Don't ignore your customers. flickr image by Ron PloofAdrian Baniak has written an article (3 Ways to Engage with Today’s Empowered Consumer) about how brands can “cut through the clutter” and communicate with their customers and prospect. He states one of the key ways to do this is “Write Your Own Tale, Or Someone Else Will Do It First”.

This mantra was originally made by Lisa Shalett, a partner at Goldman Sachs, and the global head of brand marketing and digital strategy. Continue reading

German Manager discovers the secret to writing product information in English

Sometimes, we are asked by German clients to improve the English text in their product information sheets. Although their staff speak and write excellent English, they recognise their marketing copy can appear a little stilted, “wordy” and unclear. The sentences may be grammatically correct, but no native-English speaker would ever write them in that way.

So, here are a few tips for German native speakers who need to write marketing copy in English:

  1. Take care when translating Möglichkeit(en)/möglich.  Often, this is translated as “possible”, when a native English speaker might say “options”, “available”, “capabilities”, “optional”, “the ability to” or “able to”.
  2. “Information” is always singular. There is no such word as “informations”.
  3. Don’t use “thus” or “hence” in marketing documents. They are fine for scientific papers, but not in marketing documents or Web sites. You could use “this means” instead.
  4. Keep your sentences short, so they are clearer to the reader. Subordinate and relative clauses are used enthusiastically in German, but in English they can make a sentence appear unnaturally long.  In each sentence, it’s best to be clear what is the subject, direct object, indirect object and verb. Think Cluedo – ask yourself, who is “the murderer”? Who is “the victim”? What was “the weapon”?
  5. Watch out for pseudo-anglicisms (Denglisch) and “false friends”. For example, “Labor” in German is not the same thing as “labor” in English.
  6. Using “a” or “an” depends on whether the next word sounds like it begins with a vowel. For example, “an F.E.B.” and “a unique”.
  7. Remember even native English speakers use specialists to write their marketing copy.

Here is Henning Wehn, German comedy ambassador to the United Kingdom, providing some examples:

Any more suggestions?

Does making user manuals freely available increase product sales?

The debate as to whether to make user manuals available to everyone (regardless of them being a customer or not) is one that continues in the software sector. Some companies advocate it as part of a “try before you buy” product marketing strategy; others have concerns as to whether it will adversely affect their sales or their competitive advantage.

Authors in academic and non-academic fields are also releasing their books for people to download freely. According to John Hilton III and David Wiley of Brigham Young University, in their report Free: Why Authors are Giving Books Away on the Internet:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that exposure to both authors and books increases when books are available as free downloads, and that print sales are not negatively affected.

Hilton’s earlier dissertation studied the sales of religious books before and after their ebook release. In his study, he found the books sold 26% more copies in the period they were available online for free. During that same period, sales of comparable books decreased by 38%.

Putting user documentation online can increase the amount of (information-rich) content for the Search Engines to find. It may also reduce the users’ reliance of the technical support lines.

If users have to provide an email address in exchange for downloading the documentation, then this can also provide the organisation with a source of qualified prospect and customer leads.

Is search dying? Your manual within 140 characters?

Internet Psychologist Graham Jones wrote an article last week, in which he stated, search is dying, and is being replaced by sharing information socially.

“So worried is Microsoft about Google that they haven’t realised that Google is not their real competition any more. It is the likes of Twitter and Ecademy…Google already knows this. Much of their labs work and their adaptations of what they already offer are geared to sharing information socially. They realise that search as we know it is dying. Microsoft is so focused on fighting Google, they haven’t realised they are on the wrong battlefield.”

Let’s assume Graham is correct. Where does this leave online user assistance?

Since Online Help was introduced, technical communicators have provided hypertext links, key word search and an index to help users find information.

Today, there is greater emphasis on key word search (finding stuff via Google), and we’ve seen a few authors add tag clouds too.

So how could online user assistance (“Help”) be shared socially? Is it likely that someone will respond to each question by tweeting a link to a particular page in a Help file?

That’s incredibly labour-intensive. For Support teams to answer queries via Twitter might be less time-intensive than responding to emails, but it may be difficult to provide an answer within 140 characters. Most likely, they could provide to links to places where the question is answered.

We’ve talked about the emergence of “landing pages” in Web based Help (so have Michael Hughes and Matthew Ellison),  and that may be a less intensive way to guide people to the information they need. By this I mean, point people towards say 6 landing pages, from which they can be guided quickly to the information they need.

It may also be difficult for users to pose their questions within the limitations of Twitter.

A more likely scenario, I believe, would be to create Twitter avatars. The fictional characters from “Mad Men” post regular tweets about their imaginary lives. If Don Draper and Peggy Olsen can tweet, then why not create a personas for your customers and let them do the same? Billy the Beginner and Patty the Power user, for example? Their posts could guide customers through the key tasks via a series of daily Twitter posts. 

Of course, this is more than about how to best use Twitter. It’s about social networks, the ideas from the Cluetrain Manifesto and Web 2.0 ideas of syndicating content, collaborating with your user base and aggregating content.

Graham Jones concluded by saying “just concentrate on providing and sharing good material”.  Technical Authors can help the organisation provide good material. What we may all have to work out is how we can share this material in more effective ways.