Better together: technical writers and content marketers
Technical communication and content marketing have a defined goal in common: to deliver high-quality content that helps people solve problems. Yet given this fact, why does a gap – often a yawning chasm – persist between the efforts of technical writers and content marketers within most organizations?
What marketing value does technical content have, and how can it be efficiently leveraged? What do tech comm and content marketing teams stand to gain by working collaboratively? The answer in short is: quite a bit, on both the tech comm as well as the marketing side. But to get there, a shared understanding of business goals, a mutual respect for the talents that both teams bring to the table, and a strong methodology of cooperation and collaboration are needed.
Content marketing and the gap
In recent years, content marketing has become one of the most important tools for businesses to generate awareness and demand for their products and services. This rise is due to a particular reality we all face in our modern world – we’re saturated by messaging. In both our online and offline lives it’s nearly impossible to escape the pervasiveness of marketing messages. In fact, the interruptions are getting stronger, more constant, and more desperate in order to get through. Mobile notifications alone increased by over 30 percent in 2016. Ironically, the more messages we’re bombarded with, the less we’re actually willing to listen.
Content marketing reverses all of this. It assumes that the best way to get through is not to interrupt, but to inform. The idea is to focus on the need that a product or service meets, and to dive deep into understanding the challenges, motivations, and goals of potential customers who have this need. This understanding forms the basis for the creation and publishing of content, which addresses these needs and offers relevant solutions. It’s an SEO-focused tactic: If the content is truly of value, then it will be found by those searching the web for solutions and will help to build the trust that can lead to a purchase. As Rand Fishkin of SEO leader Moz Inc. sums it up: "[The] best way to sell something: don't sell anything. Earn the awareness, respect, and trust of those who might buy."
The common ground between content marketing and technical communication is a strong focus on the needs of the user. Both aim to meet these needs by providing helpful, high-quality information. The big difference is that tech comm is about the "how", while content marketing is about the "why". Technical content addresses the problems of existing users by teaching them how to do things. Content marketing addresses the problems of potential users by teaching them why doing things differently can be beneficial to them. This "how" versus "why" is the essence of the gap, and it must be understood by both tech comm and marketing teams in order to achieve genuine collaboration.
The benefits of teamwork
When the work of technical writers is leveraged to help the efforts of content marketing, the most important result is higher quality content for information consumers. An organization’s existing documentation can be a wellspring of building blocks for marketing teams to use to create SEO-focused articles and posts. And by mining documentation metrics, such as page traffic, time on page, and usefulness ratings, marketing teams can get valuable insight into the needs of solution seekers. With feedback from technical writers, content marketers can achieve better accuracy in the materials they develop. And because skills often overlap between members of both teams, collaboration can achieve greater efficiency by eliminating duplicated efforts.
Technical writers are professional communicators with a role that keeps them sharply focused on user needs. Because of this, they’re perfectly positioned to drive a virtuous cycle of marketing content improvement by giving regular feedback. Tech writers are intimately familiar with the features, benefits, and use cases for products and services, which is the lifeblood of marketing communication. And because they have put themselves in the users’ shoes, tech writers are often able to articulate the desires and behaviors of potential customers to the marketing team in a much clearer way than the product or engineering folks.
My company, K15t Software, builds tools to help organizations take a collaborative approach to documentation, so we’re keenly interested in exploring the benefits that come from using a shared documentation and content platform throughout an organization. This has been incredibly helpful for us in achieving a cooperative working relationship between marketing and tech comm. What we’ve found is that when the two teams work collaboratively within the same system, they can build a single source of valuable documentation that perfectly serves information consumers both before and after purchase.
A two-way street
With insight from content marketers on the "why" – the product or service’s benefit – technical writers can improve their own work too. Bringing a bit of benefit language, with a very light touch, into the documentation can reveal empathy for the reader and build rapport that helps to get readers more engaged with the content. It can also help to build brand loyalty in an indirect way that’s worlds away from typical sales or marketing messages. Apple’s documentation provides numerous examples of this, often explaining at the topic level in very direct terms "why" a function or feature exists before going into "how" to use it.
But perhaps the most important benefit that technical writers can receive from closer collaboration with marketing teams is to help open the organization’s eyes to the power of documentation in helping to achieve its business goals. When tech comm plays a bigger role in the creation of marketing content and helps make that content more effective, it becomes more obvious to other stakeholders that great documents can be a tool for organizational growth. The marketing team can be a strong advocate for the business value of technical documentation.
Go light, go fast: five bridge-building tactics
If you’re itching to get started, you’re in luck. There are many things your organization can do right now to get technical communication and content marketing more closely aligned. These changes don’t have to be arduous, complicated, or painful. You can start now by teaching your old docs new tricks.
1. Publish prominently on your site
Your existing documentation is content marketing, whether your organization realizes it or not. The documents are a huge, search-friendly resource of topic-relevant information that is specifically designed to help people. Search engines love content like this but, to give your business the SEO credit it deserves, the docs should be published on your root domain (www.yourcompany.com/help) or on a subdomain (www.help.yourcompany.com).
Documentation is such a great asset, it should also be easy to find – place a prominent "Get Help" link on the home page or in the navigation of your site. It will not only assist purchasers or trial users in having successful experiences with your company’s solutions, but also inspire confidence in those considering making a purchase.
2. Use keywords, tags, and links strategically
A simple keyword and tag strategy, based on the search queries of solution seekers, should be defined by marketing and implemented throughout the documentation. This helps to set up a unified termbase according to topical relevancy as search engines index the site, and it provides clarity to users as well. The same idea should be applied to the link structure of the documents. Though linking can be a more complex topic, it’s worth addressing, as links are another crucial way that search engines determine which articles are relevant to what topics.
3. Make tech comm part of the brand experience
This may seem obvious but, surprisingly, it is often overlooked. The documentation is as important a brand touchpoint as other assets, and it should be treated that way. An organization’s style guide should be applied to any public-facing documentation, including logos, color palettes, typography standards, and even written tone-of-voice where applicable. When documentation proves truly useful and leaves a reader satisfied, presenting it within a unified brand experience can increase trust and foster loyalty.
4. Give your docs interactivity
Modern consumers expect their online experiences to be interactive. Make sure your documentation doesn’t deny readers the valuable opportunity to communicate with your company. Place a comment section, feedback rating or "Was this page helpful?" widget, and add share buttons to your documentation articles. Many of the tools to implement this functionality are inexpensive or free, and they’re easier than ever to implement.
This will not only help your customers and customers-to-be to have a more fulfilling experience, but it will also provide valuable insights for tech comm and content marketing teams as to what content is most valuable and which things are lacking or could be improved upon. You can even go one step farther by hosting communities via email groups or forums to allow your users to help one another.
5. Leverage documentation as a content foundation
There are many ways your existing technical content can enable and inform the work of the content marketing side of your organization. By performing regular reviews of documentation articles and highlighting those with strong usage statistics, marketers can glean a wealth of material to form the basis of best practice and tutorial content such as blog posts, videos, webinars, and whitepapers. Documentation articles can even be used to inspire success stories. The idea is to take relevant articles that are frequently read, and ask outside partners to tell the story of how they followed these processes through to successful completion.
Bear in mind, though, that every time marketing teams take content inspiration from documentation, they must remember to include the “why” benefit argument. This will make the content more relevant to those who are searching for solutions to their problems, but who are not yet customers.
Go deep: three ways to build bigger, stronger bridges
In my company, we’re on a journey to make the relationship between technical writers and content marketers truly collaborative. This sort of change not only requires tactical modifications but also major changes to the organizational approach and mindset. Some initiatives are not yet complete, while others have already proven to be of great value. Here is how our teams are going deeper and building bigger, stronger bridges between tech comm and content marketing.
1. Realize that documents are a business asset
The unfortunate truth is that some businesses treat documentation of their products or services as an afterthought. The outdated mindset is that once a sale has been made, supporting the experience afterwards will only have diminishing returns. And while tech writers have never followed this line of thinking, content marketers can help add new arguments for the business value of great documentation.
The SEO factor alone is very important, where docs can help potential customers who are searching for solutions to more easily find the company’s offerings. Above all, high-quality documentation increases brand confidence and helps solution seekers achieve success with products they’re able to try out before purchasing. And then there is the more widely accepted value of the post-sale documentation. With the pervasiveness of forums and review sites, customer loyalty and first-hand recommendations are more important than ever to the growth of a product or service. The influence of great documentation cannot be stressed enough here.
Finally, there is the long list of aforementioned advantages to be reaped when documentation is leveraged collaboratively. This must be seen in the light of the fact that nearly all marketing teams today do content marketing. On average, B2B marketers allocated 28 percent of their total marketing budget to content marketing in 2015. In 2016, 47 percent of B2B buyers viewed three to five pieces of content before engaging with sales. If content marketing is important to an organization, and if documentation is important to content marketers, then the business should recognize the role of tech comm in helping achieve its marketing and sales goals. Organizational stakeholders must be on board with this idea in order for the tech comm/marketing partnership to be successful.
2. Share the big picture
Marketing departments understand the high-level business objectives of their organization and derive their marketing goals from these. However, these goals are not always shared with technical writers. Problems arise when the two departments have to work cooperatively, yet do not have a common understanding of where the organization is headed. Marketing and technical communication teams must come together with other stakeholders of the company and come to a shared view of the business objectives, the strategy that will be used to get there, and what tactical roles each team must play to succeed.
Following the alignment of business goals, the next step we took in my company was achieving a shared understanding of the buyer’s journey. This was extremely helpful. We gathered the marketing team, technical writing team, and the CEO together for a "funnel summit" where we looked at the path a buyer takes from awareness of the problem all the way through to being a repeat, evangelist customer. We determined what type of content was most helpful at what stage, analyzed what we already had in place and which gaps remained, and developed a plan to fill them and improve our existing materials. Content marketers and technical communicators both have important roles to play at multiple stages in any buyer’s journey, and the best way to achieve this is an open and effective collaboration.
3. Move forward with mutual support
Once the marketing and tech comm teams have the groundwork in place to understand their roles in supporting one another and advancing the goals of the business, they should keep the relationship close as they move forward. Stakeholders from each department should meet regularly to be sure they’re in alignment regarding relevant decision-making, keep tabs on project collaboration and workflow progress, and find solutions to potential blocks.
These stakeholders should also communicate regularly with leads from other departments such as sales, customer service and support in order to receive feedback about the quality and effectiveness of the documentation and marketing content produced. The tight relationship has been transformational for the teams I work with and, after following this road, neither the marketing nor the technical writing team can imagine it any other way.
A common goal and shared success
When two teams in an organization aim to provide high-quality, problem-solving content to information consumers, it’s only natural that they should join forces and bring their unique talents to support each other. By taking steps to bridge the gap between technical writers and content marketers, through tactical changes, shared understanding, and a collaborative approach, your organization can increase the effectiveness of each team along with delivering a better experience for customers and customers-to-be.