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August 10, 2020

Why technical communication must be part of your marketing strategy (webinar)

Sarah O’Keefe talks about why your technical communication needs to become part of your marketing strategy.

“Technical content is being read before the sale. Buyers are not limiting themselves to what they can find in your marketing content, they’re looking for what matters to them and what they’re trying to do.”

—Sarah O’Keefe

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Sarah O’Keefe:                   Hi everyone, my name’s Sarah O’Keefe, from Scriptorium. I’m here today to talk to you about technical communication, techcomm, and how it needs to become part of your marketing strategy. By way of background, I’m the CEO and Founder of Scriptorium, which is based in North Carolina. We are interested in enterprise content strategy consulting. We design and build content systems and we do lots and lots of work with XML, specifically DITA and with component content management systems. Our services run the gamut from analysis, assessment, uncovering problems, all the way through to implementation, maintenance, training and knowledge transfer.

SO:                   I want to start out by telling you that whether you like it or not your prospects are already using technical content. I’m talking here about the people that have not yet bought the product or the service that you sell, the thing that you are trying to get them to buy, and they are looking at technical content in the course of making the decision whether or not to buy that particular product or service. And that has some really serious implications for how we develop and deliver technical content and of course the marketing that goes along with your product.

SO:                   If we greatly, greatly oversimplify the customer journey it looks something like this. Your prospects come in via some sort of marcom piece of content. They find out about your product and they say, “Ooh, that looks really, really nice.” And then they turn to the technical content and say, “But wait, does it actually solve my problem? Is this a product that I can buy? I’m interested, I’ve read about it, I’m fascinated by it, but does it actually get me to where I need to be?”

SO:                   Your marketing content, your marcom is persuasive, it creates awareness about your product, specifically. Maybe the distinctions between your product and the competitor product, your features and your benefits, and it causes people to become interested in your product and think about, “This is something that I might consider.” But that’s just the first step. Because once somebody gets to the point where they’ve heard about your product, then they need to think about, “Does it actually solve my problem? What can this product do? How big is it? Does it fit in the space that I’m thinking about for this particular product? Do the technical specifications meet my needs and my requirements?” And maybe most importantly, “Can I understand how to use the product?”

SO:                   Some examples of this are that if you’re in the market for a car seat for a baby, then you’re probably going to start with the… after you read all the reviews and do all the crazy stuff, you’re going to land on the question of, “Well, wait, does this car seat actually fit in my cars backseat?” And if it does not it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to buy that particular car seat no matter how great it may look otherwise, right? You’re probably not going to sell your current car in order to buy the car that the car seat would fit into.

SO:                   You become immediately very interested in the technical specifications above and beyond the basic safety information, because if the thing doesn’t fit or it can’t be installed properly, or if you look at the installation instructions and you think this looks much too hard to install properly, then you might turn elsewhere. You might go to a different product because you can understand how to install the other product as opposed to the one that we’re looking at here.

SO:                   If you’re buying a car and you have a habit of hauling things around on a roof rack, you’re going to want to know what is that particular car or SUV’s roof carrying capacity and is it enough for what I’m trying to do? We used to talk about presales versus post-sales content. And the argument was always that marketing content was presales, all the shiny fluffy stuff, all the happy stories, all the this will solve all your problems and it’s going to be so great. And then after the sale you get the installation guide, you get the configuration guide, you get the scary, scary stuff.

SO:                   But the research these days says that something like 80% of buyers investigate online whatever it is they’re considering buying during the buying process. And they are not limiting themselves to your carefully crafted marketing materials. They have technical questions, they want answers to those questions and your content really has to address those questions because if they can’t get them answered they’re going to go elsewhere.

SO:                   Technical content is being read before the sales and the buyers are not limiting themselves to what they can find in your marketing content, they’re looking for what matters to them and what they’re trying to do. And what’s worse is there’s actually no guarantee that what you’re going to get, what you’re going to deliver to them is the content that you want them to see.

SO:                   For example, if you Google something like, “How much weight does this SUV carry on the roof?” You get a result, but notice the first couple of results are not in fact the car manufacturer, they are third parties. You’re going to run into this problem that in addition to the fact that you have to make this information available you’re also competing with all the third party information providers for attention and eyeballs.

SO:                   Now, this one looks pretty straight forward. This is an easy question. I have another example of this that’s actually much more serious. It’s North Carolina, we’re in the middle of the summer here, and in fact we’re in the middle of a pretty impressive thunderstorm right this very minute. But when the thunderstorm blows over you might want to go outside and you might want to grill some food and in that case you might turn to something like a Weber grill. All right.

SO:                   And let’s say you’ve invested in one of these and they can be pricey and you’re moving from one location to another. It’s quite common to have one of these grills that runs on gas, on LP or liquid propane, and then you want to convert it to natural gas because at your new house there’s a natural gas line or maybe vice versa. You had a gas line at the old house that you hooked the grill up to, the municipal utility gas line, but your new house doesn’t have that so you have to switch to the gas tanks, the little propane tanks that you put under the grill.

SO:                   Okay, “Weber tell me,” and this is on their official site, “How do I convert a gas grill to use natural gas?” If you dig around a little bit in the infamous frequently asked questions you will find, “Can I convert my grill?” And actually this little preview does not answer the question but it doesn’t look good. If you click through, you will discover that the answer at is, “No, you cannot do this. You can either buy the propane version or the gas version but it is unsafe, it voids your warranty. You should not do this, this is a bad idea.”

SO:                   Okay. And I think that’s fair and I think that’s probably from a safety point of view the correct answer. But here’s the problem. I’m going to go to YouTube and google Weber gas grill conversion kit, and I’m going to discover that there is a video with 257,000 views. There’s some others but that’s the big one, that explains how to do this and presumably provides the conversion kit. Now you’re competing as a manufacturer of these grills and providing official information, you’re competing with some guy on the internet who apparently makes grill conversion kits and sells them.

SO:                   This is a really, really big challenge from a content point of view. What’s your strategy for dealing with questions like this that you want answered a certain way and the third party people are answering in ways that you do not approve of? The problem we have here is that the barbarians or possibly the buyers are at the gates. And the gate is wide open it’s not really working at all and they just come running through. In the olden days, by which, I mean the paper age, we had some control over what we could give to people. If you give them marketing materials on paper, they ask for technical materials and because you can control the flow of paper, to a certain extent you had control over this.

SO:                   In the digital age, all bets are off. The unofficial content or the technical content is basically a google search away and locking it down is probably not going to work. You have to provide all of this information because if you don’t someone else will, and it’s almost impossible to control what people see or when they see it. It turns into a scenario where basically you have to allow your customers or your prospective customers to make these decisions on their own, to see what they want to see when they want to see it and just provide the information in hopes that what you provide will be good enough and they will be happy and they will buy your thing.

SO:                   I want to give you a couple of examples of how technical content can support marketing instead of giving you the gloom and doom version. And I have a couple of these where you can see some very technical information that is clearly not marketing providing the support for your marketing strategy. My favorite example of this is a simple question about how much does flour weigh? If you google this question, you will discover that King Arthur Flour basically owns the results of this. They get the little Google widget, they’ve got an ingredient weight chart down there and then after that you find some other stuff.

SO:                   But King Arthur has provided this actually very technical chart that tells you how much does all purpose flour weigh by cup or whatever, and how much does rye flour weigh, how much this whole wheat weigh, etc. And they tell you when you’re baking you should probably weigh your ingredients with a digital scale and blah blah here it is in ounces and grams and everything else.

SO:                   Now, King Arthur Flour does not, I don’t think sell digital scales, right? They sell flour. But what they’ve done here is they’ve drawn a connection between the people who care about baking enough to look up how much does flour weigh and the people that are likely to buy King Arthur Flour, because their brand positioning is all about home bakers who are really interested in baking from scratch. And so they have provided the kinds of technical information that they expect somebody like that would be looking up.

SO:                   You’ll notice they also own the results for sourdough starter. So they’ve got some really interesting and detailed resources on how to make sourdough starter, how to manage it, what to do with it. This is a case where their branding is biased, if you are a home baker who enjoys baking has extended over to what technical information should we provide to a home baker? Now, if you think about this for a second, they are not positioning themselves necessarily for a professional baker, like a professional pastry chef. They know all this stuff, they don’t need to look it up on King Arthur Flour. It’s people like me who bake for fun every once in a while who repeatedly can’t remember how much this flour weighs, and by the way, 120 grams for all purpose flour, FYI.

SO:                   That’s what they’ve done there. And it’s kind of an interesting one. Here’s a different approach. This is the technical support site for Sennheiser. Sennheiser makes headsets, headphones, microphones, those kinds of things, and broadly they’re known for being the brand preferred by audio nerdy people, people who are really interested in audio quality. They’re not, I don’t know if they’re a top-of-the line brand but they’re very technical and you can see that when you read this. There’s a lot of pre-technical information here.

SO:                   But also if you look at this, the entire visual of this page is a, we’re giving you technical information and you’re in a technical environment and you’re okay with that, because that’s who their target audience is. And you can contrast that to somebody like Bose who also makes headsets. And here’s an example of their site with some of their information. And to me this is, there’s a lot more white space, it’s much less technical than the Sennheiser content. The look and feel of it is very different, I’m not saying one is better or worse, they’re just completely different. And so the kind of voice and tone and approach that Bose is taking here with their user experience is different from what Sennheiser is doing with their user experience because they have different targets audiences.

SO:                   A different example of this would be something lovely like this. This is a safety data sheet. I’m picking on Pfizer only because they are a very, very large pharmaceutical company. But the reality is that these data sheets from whatever organization they come from will look exactly like this. The formatting will be the same, the fonts will be the same, everything will be the same except for maybe a logo somewhere in that top left hand corner, the revision dates change.

SO:                   These documents are highly regulated. There’s no opportunity here to do any sort of fun marketing, right? You just have to get all of this content in here because if you don’t you get yelled at by the Food and Drug Administration or your country’s equivalent. Here’s a case where technical content is required and regulated and needs to be produced in a certain way, and there’s really no opportunity here to inject any marketing feel into it, unless maybe you count the logo which to me is kind of pushing it.

SO:                   From that extreme, let’s go to the other extreme, Slack. This is from the Slack help center. If you go online to Slack and you start looking up information about how to do certain kinds of things, you’ll find this kind of a page. Again, lots of white space, there’s some really interesting use of color going on here. And look at their text, emoji or spin on common emoticons that you can use to add some pizazz to your Slack messages. Now, first of all I’ll tell you that this will be annoying to translate because it’s so informal and uses some idioms.

SO:                   But also, they have a little Slack icon, oh sorry, a little Slack emoji in there, right? The little guy with the sunglasses. It’s just it’s very informal, it’s very friendly, it’s very loosey-goosey, which you can do when you’re not a pharmaceutical company, and I think is appropriate to how Slack positions themselves in the world and the kinds of customers that they are trying to get. This is technical content, they’re explaining how to use Slack, but they’ve also injected their brand voice, their brand personality into this content. This is a good example of using technical content in a way that furthers your brand messaging.

SO:                   All right. We are really telling you that yes, techcomm and marcom can and should live together. And then I guess that leads to the question of how do we make that happen and how do we do that and what does that look like inside the organization? We did some work on this and we thought a little bit about what holistic content strategy across the organization looks like. And I think it’s important to tell you here that this work draws quite heavily on some work that Rahel Bailie did on a content strategy maturity model.

SO:                   The idea here is, as you get more mature across the organization in thinking about content strategy, you have more and more content integration across the organization. Your lowest level here is that everybody’s siloed. Techcomm is in their own silo, marcom is in their own silo, and we haven’t talked about training and tech support and other kinds of customer facing information, but presumably they also have their own special silos.

SO:                   You have a couple of levels here, siloed, everything’s separate, the groups don’t talk to each other, and then you start to maybe coordinate a little but you’re still fragmented. You can unify the delivery, which is, I don’t know about easier but maybe more realistic than unifying the authoring process. And then eventually at some point you get to, you’ve got your content governance across your content types, you can share content, you can link content. And at the strategic level what we really want is that when product planning is going on in the product design layer, people are thinking about each content type as a contributor to the overall customer experience. We can support a holistic approach, we can cross-connect all these different roles and we really start to blend together what we’re trying to do.

SO:                   If this is something that you’re interested in doing and you’re interested in moving up in the maturity model, then you would look at this and say, “Okay, so let’s say we’re siloed. What is the thing that I need to do to get from a siloed environment over to that second level of tactical?” And the answer here is terminology. Going back to the car seat example, you can call it a car seat, you can call it a safety seat, you can call it an infant carrier, you can call it whatever you want, but you should call it the same thing across the entire organization.

SO:                   We have seen numerous projects where the marketing team and the techcomm team, and even the tech support team used different terms to mean the same thing. What’s worse is we’ve seen cases where a single team like just the techcomm group used multiple terms to refer to the same thing. That’s bad. We want to have terminology, we want to say, “These are the words that we use to describe our products, we use these words in certain ways. And when we translate, this is how we handle this in all of our target languages.” This needs to be done not just for your source content in, let’s say English, but also in all your target languages so that you have consistent terminology that is useful and appropriate and accurate for your particular customers and your particular markets.

SO:                   Once you’ve cleaned up your terminology, then you might start thinking about, “All right, well, how do I get from that tactical level over to the unified level?” And what we’re talking about here is largely consistent UX, user experience for your customer facing content. What this means is that your marketing materials, and your technical material, and your training should all look as though they came from the same company, and that the people in the organization actually do talk to each other every now and then.

SO:                   You want to have a consistent presentation of content. It doesn’t have to be identical but it should be consistent and it should look related. You want to make sure that everybody’s using the same design standards for content delivery. And with variations as appropriate for different types of content your training content is going to look a little different from your marketing content, but they shouldn’t look as though they’re completely unrelated. We have to ensure a consistent UX.

SO:                   Now, because your systems are probably fragmented, the implication of this is that you’re going to have to do a ton of work across a bunch of different systems to get everything into alignment to make it all look related. When you move up to the next level, so now we go from unified to manage. What we’re going to do here is probably start thinking about how to combine authoring and publishing systems and put all of your content creators into some sort of an overall enterprise-wide authoring and publishing environment, or at least put everybody in environments that can exchange content.

SO:                   Because what we see, so, so often is that the technical content people are in one system, the marketing content people are in a different system or multiple systems. I mean, I’m not saying those two groups have two systems, it’s actually far more common for them to have four or five. And then you have the training people and the tech support people and whatever else you might have that’s customer-facing. You really want to think about, “Can we unify this? Can we align them? Can we put them together? And can we cross-connect the content or crosswalk the content as appropriate when we need to?”

SO:                   And finally, we need to think about content strategy for all the content types at the product development layer. When we’re saying, “All right, we’re going to have a new product and we’re going to do some cool stuff with it.” All right, what does the marketing content strategy look like? What does the technical content strategy look like? What does the training content strategy look like? And put all of those things together as you’re planning and developing the product, not a year later when the product rolls out and everybody’s scrambling.

SO:                   These things should be part of the upfront planning and also critically localization. It is so, so much easier to localize products and the content when people are planning for global delivery and localization in the product development process and not on the back end. Again, years and years of experience coming in and finding out that all occurrency is hard coded into the product so it’s impossible to take out dollars and put in euros without a complete rewrite of the user experience or the UX layer, the front end in the product, that kind of thing. Localization languages should be taken into account from the very beginning and somebody should think about what are the potential markets here that we’re dealing with.

SO:                   All right. That all sounds great, but realistically, what are the obstacles here that we’re facing? And of course there are so, so, so many of them. Here’s a list. I don’t know that these are necessarily comprehensive, but culture is always going to be the number one obstacle. And by culture I mean, the difference in culture between your techcomm team and your marketing team. They may or may not get along, they may or may not talk to each other, they may have different interests and it’s just really challenging.

SO:                   Culture is one that will eat all the rest of these, but I did want to take a look at some of the ones that are perhaps a little easier to tackle and particularly silos and reporting structure. A silo is something that can’t talk to other systems, right? And content silos very often are content management systems where the content goes in but we can’t get it out, or we can’t get it out in any form that we can process to do stuff with it in other systems.

SO:                   Now, the problem with silos is that your customers don’t care, right? Your customers think silos are stupid, they’re not interested in them. And when you tell them things like, “Oh, well, when you do a search over there, you’re not going to get the results you need because you need to go to this other part of the website because of the way our company is organized,” you just make them angry. Customers feel they should go to your website and get the content they’re looking for and they’re really not that interested in who produced it or whether you think it’s pre-sales or post-sales or anything else, they just want their content. So we have to fix this.

SO:                   And the way we end up fixing this is that if you have silos, so the example here is a web CMS and the component CMS. Then what you’re going to have to do is you’re going to have to think pretty carefully about, all right, the web CMS on the left is going to produce what we would call the .com content, the core marketing content on your website. The CCMS on the right is going to produce the docs pages, the technical content pages, your document resources, sometimes these are called literature libraries, they have all sorts of names but basically the technical content on your site.

SO:                   If you have these two systems and they don’t talk to each other, then what you’re going to have to do is get the taxonomy, the style and the design into alignment in both systems so that you can then publish and then pray that your search will cover both sites or both sub-sites. That’s an awful, awful lot of work, and if you can do it a better alternative is to integrate these two, which there are some options out there for.

SO:                   We are seeing some progress with this. We’re seeing a lot of people saying, “Well, yeah, I mean, of course we need to integrate and if we don’t do it we’re going to be in trouble.” I wanted to talk a little bit about the other major obstacle, I mean, aside from all the other, other obstacles but reporting structure. A typical organization is going to have a reporting structure that looks something like this. And what you’ll notice of course is that you’ve got four different groups that all produce customer facing content and each of those four groups reports to a different C-level person.

SO:                   So marketing to the chief marketing officer, the CMO, techcomm maybe goes to the CTO, training goes to the COO or somewhere else. But this is a pretty typical issue because what you now run into is that if you want to collaborate across these groups, you have to go all the way to the CEO. And nobody wants to do that because the CEO’s busy and we don’t want to talk to her. This is a problem and there’s not really any good solutions to this.

SO:                   A few years back there was a lot of discussion about the potential for something like a chief content officer. And maybe five, eight years ago, something like that there was this big… this looks like eight or nine years ago. There’s this big push on, “We should do this, we should have chief content officers, we should make this happen.” And there are a few organizations that have them but largely where I see them is in places where the content is the product.

SO:                   We’re talking about Netflix, where the product that people consume and pay for is in fact content. I’m not seeing a lot of chief content officers in organizations that produce non-content products and have supporting content for that non-content product. In other words, software organizations, hardware organizations, finance, all these things that are not publishing any content seem to have not gone down this road. But the idea here would be you install a chief content officer and they own all of these divisions and then you can get much more and better coordination because you have somebody at the C-level who’s responsible for all of this. I think this is interesting and I think it makes sense, I just don’t see it happening right now so I’ll be curious to see what happens in the future.

SO:                   All right, if you think about this and if you’re not having heard all of this too bummed out by the whole thing, here’s your to-do list from easiest or lowest level up to the hardest thing. You basically want to think about terminology and get it consistent. Think about your UX and get it consistent, think about your authoring and publishing systems and see what you can do to unify or at least limit the number of systems you have and maximize the interconnections that you can have for those systems.

SO:                   And then finally, you want to make sure that content strategy is considered a part of the product development or the product strategy. That as part of thinking about and designing new products you also think about designing the content that is going to go with that product and all the pieces and parts that it goes with. If this peaks your interest, then I would encourage you to contact us and reach out and we will be happy to answer questions about this and provide some support. There are some articles on our website that deal with issues like this that provide more information, and if you would like to reach out I would be delighted to hear from you. Thank you all and have a great day.