Breaking down the marketing and techcomm content silos – not as simple as it seems

Over recent years, we have seen many presentation on how marketing and technical communications content shouldn’t sit in separate “silos”, never to be shared between each department. Unfortunately, it’s not simply a case of getting both to agree to share content.

In the book Selling the wheel, Jeff Cox and Howard Stevens tell the story of a fictional technology start-up company inventing and marketing the wheel. Through this parable, they look at the lifecycle of a business, and how selling changes over that lifecycle.

The early stage

In the early years of a organisation’s life, it needs to have a sales person who is able to close one-off deals with as many “early adopters” as possible. At this stage, marketing and selling teams focus on selling the opportunity associated with the product, and selling the power and practicality of the product itself. At this stage, the organisation typically does not focus on customer support or service. Early adopters are often left to solve problems themselves.

The growth stage

In the growth stage, the organisation begins growing and taking on larger clients. These new customers want expert assistance both before, and after, the sale is made. Marketing and selling needs to be technically expert enough to deliver a solution tailored (and possibly customised) to a buyer’s need. This often involves instructing the users on how to use the product. This means providing demonstrations and training, as well as an installation service.

The organisation also needs to offer support. It also needs to test the products fully prior to release.

The mature stage

When the majority of the market is using the technology in the product, the organisation focuses on existing customers. They want customers to buy more, and pick up new business from competitors messing up.

The focus is now on maintaining relationships with customers and prospects. The organisation needs to manage complexity, pay attention to the details, and make sure the customers’ needs are understood within the organisation.

The commodity stage

As the market matures, and the market becomes saturated, the product moves towards becoming a commodity. The goal is to become the market leader with the most efficient supply chain.

The focus is on differentiating the product, where possible. This is typically done by offering superior service and by creating a positive customer experience. There is less need for requirement for customisation, but perhaps more opportunities for offering value-added products and services.

Because of the high competition, there are often mergers and acquisitions between competitors. Their products may need to be incorporated into the product portfolio.

The changing role of technical communications content over the business lifecycle

These different lifecycle stages mean the importance and role of technical and marketing communications content will change over time:

  • 1st stage – The organisation needs content that demonstrates the power and practicality of the product/technology. It needs to be credible, and it needs to be consist with the marketing message.
  • 2nd stage – The organisation needs content that enables installation, customisation and customer training. It also needs content that enables it to fix mistakes.
  • 3rd stage – The organisation needs content that enables it to manage complexity – make things easy for existing customers. The technical content must help in avoiding the company from screwing up.
  • 4th stage – The organisation needs content that enables it to provide great service. This might be enabling customers to solve problems easily themselves, or enabling the Support team to provide great service.

This means it’s not a simple case of co-creating or sharing content between the Marketing and Techcomm departments. Different approaches will be needed, depending on where the organisation currently sits in the lifecycle we’ve described above.

Another Masters degree course for Technical Authors to consider

In August 2016, we blogged about a new online MSc course in Technical Writing Masters degree course from Cork Institute of Technology. There is another academic course for Technical Authors to consider:  a distance-learning Master of Arts degree in Content Strategy from FH JOANNEUM.

“The programme is designed to meet the needs of working persons and is specially suitable for students who are responsible for corporate digital content in their jobs. The share of online courses is very high, and classroom teaching takes place in blocks four times each semester. Projects can be completed in the framework of your job.”

The pros

  • FH JOANNEUM has arranged for some of the world’s leading content strategist to teach some of the course modules.
  • The teaching element is essentially free to EU citizens – so there’s an incentive for UK citizens to apply in the next two years. There’s a compulsory €19.20 per term ÖH (student union) membership fee.

The cons

  • During the first three semesters, there are two attendance weeks and two attendance weekends per semester in Graz, Austria. In the fourth semester, there is one attendance week and two attendance weekends. The second attendance week in the second semester takes place on a voluntary basis as an excursion – provisionally to London.
  • The Content Strategy programme yields 30 ECTS credits per semester, i.e. 750 hours. This corresponds to a second full-time job when you complete the entire programme in your free time. You can reduce this workload in your free time by integrating projects at work into your course projects.

If you have the time available to commit to the course, then this could be worth doing.

If you want to consider non-academic options, Cherryleaf’s WriteLessons – a range of online courses in technical communication is an alternative approach.

How IBM uses audience intent modelling

I spoke at, and attended, the Content Strategy Applied 2017 conference last week. One of the keynote speakers, James Mathewson, provided a fascinating description of how IBM uses audience intent modelling to map its content plans. By doing this IBM is able to align its content with the buying cycles for their target personas.

This planning involves the management of 300 million pages and 100,000 marketing assets, and they use a dizzying array of artificial intelligence and software to improve their search engine rankings. However, their strategy is actually very simple.

There are three forms of audience intent

These are informational (learn about a topic), navigational (find information about a topic), and transactional (find a place to buy the solution or get help).

Audience intent

There are two kinds of audience

These are business people and specialists.

There are two kinds of queries

These are branded and unbranded. Most searches are unbranded questions, and people only move to branded questions when they are ready.

There are five stages in the IBM customer journey

Here are the steps and the type of content IBM  provides:

  1. Discover –  What is big data? web page
  2. Learn –  Video on big data (“Four ways big data and analytics transform marketing”)
  3. Solve – A product information page (“14 top big data analytics platforms”)
  4. Try – The offer (Watson Analytics 30 day free trial)
  5. Buy – A whitepaper (“Understanding Watson Analytics”)

IBM has invested heavily in technology

This is used to maintain consistency in the tagging of content, and in the tone and voice. It’s also used to learn what audience want, and are searching for on the web. A lot of searches are in the form of questions, so they mine those questions to discover what they are asking.

audience type

IBM avoids online marketing tricks

James said “clever messages to push people and trick them” rarely work online, and if they do the reader is unlikely to come back. Instead they focus on what the audience wants, and aim to meet that need.

It was the best presentation at the conference, and it provided lots of ideas for Cherryleaf’s website.

Technical writing builds trust in your organisation

I spoke at, and attended, the Content Strategy Applied 2017 conference last week. One of the keynote speakers, Madi Weland Solomon, explored what the impact of content has on users, and the trends that will inform content strategy in the near future.

She said one of the key challenges for organisations will be dealing with the loss of trust in information. She quoted a survey that stated over 50% of Americans have no trust in mainstream news. Her suggestions to fix this was to become more active at representing the public (and end users). Organisations should use more human-centric data and focus on helping users. Referring back to Dale Carnegie, Madi said being useful, and being seen to be an advocate for users, was vital. She suggested the law of reciprocity would play a part in users returning the favour of being helped by the company.

Help and other forms of user assistance meets this type of need. It is already seen at some of the most trustworthy content on the web, and it is useful. The should not be hidden about behind a firewall, but helping to build and sustain the trust between the organisation and the their users.

She also looked at which type of content is read the most: blog articles that have roughly a seven minute reading time. This fact is more problematic for technical communicators, as the trend is to write short chunks of information. Perhaps there is a need to rethink this style, in some situations.

Towards content lakes

One of the trends in both data and content management is the move away from silos. In data management circles, there is a trend towards the collection and aggregation of customer data into “data lakes”. According to Margaret Rouse, a data lake is:

A storage repository that holds a vast amount of raw data in its native format until it is needed. While a hierarchical data warehouse stores data in files or folders, a data lake uses a flat architecture to store data. Each data element in a lake is assigned a unique identifier and tagged with a set of extended metadata tags. When a business question arises, the data lake can be queried for relevant data, and that smaller set of data can then be analyzed to help answer the question…Like big data, the term data lake is sometimes disparaged as being simply a marketing label for a product that supports Hadoop. Increasingly, however, the term is being accepted as a way to describe any large data pool in which the schema and data requirements are not defined until the data is queried.

(source: what is a data lake?)

“Content lake” isn’t a word that’s used in the content management or technical communication sectors yet, and whilst it seems unlikely end user content will grow at the same rate as other forms of data, there’s a fair chance this phrase could catch on.

A content lake is likely to have similar attributes to a data lake:

  • Content will be stored in a native format that is then changed into other formats.
  • It will use a flat architecture to store data.
  • Content will be stored in some type of structured format. Perhaps XML, JSON or plain text (with AsciiDoc-like attributes assigned to certain sections). However, user documentation does not require the rigorous structure of other forms of content.
  • The content lake can be queried for relevant content, and that a smaller set of information can then be extracted to help answer questions. This might not mean publishing content on-the-fly, but generating PDFs, CHM files and web-based content from a single source.
  • Rather than content being simply archived, it will deliver the right information in very short timeframes.

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A technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs

At the TCUK 2015 conference, Rachel Johnston mentioned the idea of a content maturity model. We thought we’d take this idea and ask:

Could we develop a model that illustrates a hierarchy of needs for users of technical communication (and in particular, User Assistance)?

A model of what?

We suggest calling this model a technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs. This is because we’re considering the different points where a user interacts with technical communication content, the information they need, and value it gives to them.

It takes a similar approach to the content maturity model Rachel suggested (shown in the photo below), with the least mature organisations providing just the legal minimum, and most mature content systems contributing to branding and evangelism.

content maturity model diagram

A user’s hierarchy of needs also enables us to compare this model to similar models from content marketing and product design. For example, the categories in our model’s hierarchy roughly correspond to Peter Morville’s “User Experience honeycomb”, as well as the key elements in product design.

Continue reading “A technical communication user’s hierarchy of needs”