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.


Larry Kunz

These are good points, Ellis. IBM, often considered a leader in product documentation, has been putting its information centers on the public Internet for several years.

The big argument against making documentation publicly available used to be that it could show the product in a bad light. For example, a document listing common problems and workarounds might make the product look flimsy and error-riddled. But nowadays, those kinds of problems will be amply documented anyway — in user groups, forums, and blogs.

Bottom line: There’s no longer any reason not to publish the documentation. But as you point out, there might well be benefits to doing so.

Bill Kerschbaum

Thanks, Ellis. I think the question isn’t “Why would we make the documentation available?” but “Why wouldn’t we?” Like Larry, I can’t see any reason not to, these days. Especially considering all of the marketing potential (e.g., Google’s Nexus phone).

David Farbey

I can see a case for keeping some product documentation confidential. If your company has produced a specially customised version for a client which the client has paid for, then the documentation for that customisation should not be made public. But I’d say that was the exception rather than the rule, and I’d argue that making product documentation freely available would not only boost a company’s profile but would also encourage feedback – and that could help improve not only the documentation but also the product itself.

Ben Minson

I think this discussion is more relevant to commercial products. A reason not to put docs out on the Web, one that I work under, is when the product is internal only and not intended for sale or mass distribution. You could put it on an intranet maybe (unless it’s even more restricted than that), but in this case there’s not much of a reason to make it publicly available, and as David pointed out, confidentiality could be a big reason not to.

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