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.

Should you develop a comic instead of a user guide?

Page from Biological Psychology – An illustrated Survival GuideListeners to BBC Radio Four this morning heard a report that a new study by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) discovered comics are a better educational resource than traditional textbooks.

In a related article, called How the humble comic book could become the next classroom superhero, SHU’s Paul Aleixo explained:

“We found that the use of comic books actually enables students to better remember information. Our research showed that the students that read a comic book version got more memory questions correct compared to when the same information was presented in text format alone – or in a combination of random images and text.

This shows that the way comic books are structured – to include a special combination of words and pictures in a certain sequence – increases students’ ability to remember information.”

The key word in the section above is “remember”. The purpose of a user guide is not necessarily to get the reader to remember, but to solve their problem. We want them back working as quickly as possible. Indeed, one of the key principles of Minimalism is “Support reading to do, study, and locate”.

Having said that, there are some interesting findings in the study:

“There are good theoretical reasons why comics might be better at imparting information to students. A lot of which has to do with what the influential cognitive psychologist, Allan Paivio, called “dual-coding theory”. This is the idea that we deal better with material which is presented in both a verbal and a visual manner.”

This means good layout and using graphics will help the readers of user guides.

Certainly for learning materials, comics can be very useful. Indeed, we’ve created a number ourselves.

DITA graphic novel - page 4

What has been your experience of using this medium?

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.

New software updates from Adobe

Adobe has officially released the Adobe Technical Communication Suite (2017 release) including the new 2017 releases for Adobe FrameMakerFrameMaker Publishing Server (2017 release) and RoboHelp. It has also released the 2.0 Release of XML Documentation Add-On for Adobe Experience Manager.

There have been a lot of improvements to the usability of the applications, reducing the number clicks required to carry out tasks.

For both FrameMaker and RoboHelp, Adobe has continued its developments in publishing HTML 5 output and personalised Help content. RoboHelp has a new, frameless Responsive HTML5 layouts that offer more intuitive navigation, and the ability to filter content dynamically. There is also a significantly improved search, which now has autocomplete.

It’s good that Adobe has focused on improving the usability this time – for Technical Authors and for the end users. It must be tempting to keep adding more to an application, when the best gains can be from improving what already exists.

March dates: Advanced technical writing and new trends in technical communication training course

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication by attending Cherryleaf’s popular training course. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger, Tekla and Visa International.

The next public classroom course will be held on Wednesday 29th March 2017 at our training centre in central London (WC2R).

For overseas clients, we will hold a class live over the web (on 22nd and 23rd March), if there sufficient interest.

See:

Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training

 

Farewell?

Adrian Warman has started a series of posts on his blog about the future of technical writing. In today’s post, Farewell to the technical writer, he argues the traditional role of a technical writer is no more:

“Marketing and sales specialists, designers, developers, developer advocates, support and operational people – indeed almost anyone associated with the overall creation and delivery of a service or product – are all perfectly capable of creating content that might not be perfect, but is good enough.”

There are many good points in Adrian’s post, and we look forward to the rest in this series. However, there is a counter argument to be made:

  1. Why do organisations still buy Flare or RoboHelp, when they could use Markdown? We would suggest it’s because projects often become more complex over time. You start to need support more than one version of a product (the professional and the standard version, for example); you need to support more than release version; you end up developing bespoke versions for your biggest customer; you need to localise the content for international markets. As the products become more complex, so can the documentation, and it can be a struggle to manage this complexity in an efficient way with Markdown.
  2. While the writing can be straightforward, the publishing process for Markdown content can be complex.
  3. If people have two responsibilities (code and write user content), one of those tasks may be not given the time and attention it needs. It might be better to have one person focusing on a single task.
  4. Only half the time in a documentation project is actually spent on writing. There’s a lot of planning and research that should go on before that into what users need from the content. Programmers may struggle with that aspect (although UX developers less so).
  5. A Technical Author might be cheaper than a programmer or a UX developer. If you can free their time, by delegating the writing activity to a Technical Author, you might enable them to focus on more productive activities.

The traditional role of a Technical Author is certainly changing, and there is likely to be a more collaborative authoring process. However, the Technical Author can still add value.