March 2015
By Joe Gollner

Image: © Andres Rodriguez/

Joe Gollner is the Managing Director of Gnostyx Research Inc., an independent consultancy and solution integrator that helps organizations to make the most of open markup standards and intelligent content technologies. He has been active in the content management industry for over 25 years and has led many large-scale enterprise implementations. He is a graduate of Queens University (Bachelors of Arts, Literature and Mathematics) and of the University of Oxford (Masters of Philosophy).




Why content marketing and technical communication need each other

The hype around content marketing has left many of us wondering what changes it will bring to our professional lives. Is it all happening in the parallel universe called marketing? Or are we on the road to technical content marketing?

Content marketing has been getting a lot of attention recently. And it’s not hard to see why. Organizations are coming to the realization that, in a busy and mobile world, the only sure way to connect with prospective customers is to share good content with them. People have become very adept at skipping over advertisements, whether they see them on television, in magazines, on search engines, or on mobile applications. Marketing teams are therefore confronted with a serious challenge. And, with a fantastic new opportunity. This is why content marketing has received so much attention.

We are all publishers

With content marketing, organizations have come to recognize that they are publishers and that they must produce and deliver content that their customers and prospects want to use. And, just as technical communicators have known for some time, these organizations are also seeing that they must prepare content in ways that will allow them to reach audiences through many different channels. Audiences today have many options for consuming content and any one person may use several of the available channels on any given day. Research has even shown that some people use multiple channels at the same time, for example when they interact on social media through a mobile device while watching related content on television. Understanding this, advocates of content marketing are also advocates of multi-channel publishing techniques.

Creating valuable content

An example will probably help. Mercedes-Benz makes cars. If we really want to be precise about it, they invented the car. But Mercedes-Benz is also a publisher. Among the things that the owner of a new Mercedes will receive is a book. I know this because I have a copy in my library. It is a book titled A History of Passion: a small book, nicely bound and professionally finished. It is not an advertisement and it contains no advertisements. It is a book about the history of the automobile and more specifically about the contributions to the evolution of the automobile that have been made by the engineers of Mercedes-Benz since the late nineteenth century. It is an interesting book because it is so genuinely about the pursuit of improvements in vehicle design. And, it is a book that leaves no doubt that the engineers at Mercedes-Benz literally dream about cars at night.

As the owner of a Mercedes, I appreciated receiving this book. I actually read it. I even used it as an example in a blog post and in this article. And, I found that the book changed the way that I viewed my car. It seemed to make me appreciate the details because I could now see the history behind them. This is content marketing.

Mercedes also produces a magazine, a very good magazine indeed. It includes advertisements for their cars, but also advertisements for other products. This means, of course, that other companies are helping to fund the content marketing activities undertaken by Mercedes. The magazine includes a wide range of stories. I remember one in particular that provided a travellers’ guide to Buenos Aires, complete with restaurant reviews and the occasional picture of a Mercedes navigating through busy and festive streets. The promotion of Mercedes’ products was clear, but it was secondary and it was tolerated, perhaps even welcomed, because the content was interesting and valuable. I guess I am confessing that I am an example of how content marketing can work.

Sharing your story

Of these two examples, I think it is the book that is the most interesting and the most instructive. The magazine is something of a special case. People only have so much time and so much space for glossy magazines on their coffee tables or digital tablets. So this is something that only a few elite brands can pull off. The book however is interesting because it showcases an organization sharing a little of what it knows and some details about why it does what it does.

When organizations take up content marketing, what they are really setting out to do is to share their story with their customers and with their prospective customers. This can be their grand story, such as Mercedes sketched out with A History of Passion. But it does not need to stay at that level. Perhaps there are stories associated with particular innovations or with particular teams and individuals. I recall one airline that included a small section in their inflight magazine featuring an interview with a pilot. When flying high above the Atlantic, it can be reassuring to know that the pilot is someone who has dreamed about flying from a very young age.

When Microsoft set out to improve its public image several years ago, they tried something quite bold and new: Central to their strategy was to let their employees speak freely on social media, and even to encourage Microsoft staff at all levels to get involved in the online community. The result has been widely applauded as observers came to see that there were indeed many friendly and motivated people behind this huge company.  

Obviously some caution needs to be taken if you plan to share information about work that is advancing on a key innovation. Management consideration will be given on how much to disclose and when to do so. But when these guidelines are set, it can be very beneficial to engage an audience with the story about why a certain innovation is needed and how this might improve the usefulness of a product. Done well, the storytelling can help people to appreciate the effort taken to realizing new capabilities and help people to understand the value of a given product.

Listening to your customers

So in a nutshell, content marketing helps organizations to connect with the audiences they care about. But there is another reason to really get excited about content marketing. And we can see what this is simply by recognizing that marketing is not a one-way street. It is not only about getting your story out there. It is also about listening to the stories of your customers and your prospects. What is it that they see themselves doing or needing to do? What experiences have they had that may be relevant to how your organization views the marketplace? What can they share with you that will make your organization, and its products, better? It is when content marketing initiates a dialogue with a relevant audience that we see its greatest potential.

And with the latest technological advances, there are many new opportunities to go much further than what we have seen in our examples. It is possible, and increasingly common, for organizations to provide rich media resources to show their customers what they have to offer. This might be an immersive online environment that allows users to drive the latest concept car. Looking at a different industry, housing developers are now expected to provide three-dimensional simulations of planned apartments, complete with the actual views that the windows will afford. Using these new interactive experiences, prospective customers can start their process of familiarization. They may even be able to provide feedback on what they experience if the time has been taken to make the simulation an information collection tool as well as a marketing device.

These types of simulations are interesting because they illustrate the value of sharing some technical details with an audience. It also illustrates some of the challenges. For these simulations to work convincingly they need to be based on, and driven by, the technical design information about the product being demonstrated. When this is done well, the users of the simulation can get a tactile sense for what the product will be like to use. With added enhancements, such as location-specific scenery and conditions, these types of marketing resources can be powerful sales tools. Getting these simulations to work in a way that is both accurate and compelling is a challenge in itself. Obviously, another challenge is to ensure that not too much technical information is made public through the simulation. Yet another challenge lies in finding an economical way to produce these simulations so that they are affordable and – perhaps even more importantly – easy to update as the product evolves.

Getting it right

One negative example illustrates what’s at stake when content marketing goes wrong: A different automobile manufacturer had invested heavily in a wide range of rich media resources to help promote a new line of vehicles. Keeping up with the times, the manufacturer placed a special emphasis on very sophisticated and polished interactive representations of the vehicles. Through these simulations users could explore new features that differentiated the vehicles from others in the marketplace. Problems emerged when the design of the new vehicles underwent late changes and these design changes, and altered features, were not reflected in the online simulations and other collateral. The results were harshly negative with frustrated customers, bad press, and a court order to compensate customers and in some cases even to buy back the vehicles.

This example reveals a very important point about content marketing. It is critically important that the stories that an organization shares line up with reality. If these stories turn out to be false, then the main objective of content marketing – namely to establish a stronger connection with selected audiences – is undermined. To paraphrase Thomas J Watson, the legendary former leader of IBM, trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. It is also almost impossible to rebuild once lost. So we are reminded that all content marketing efforts do need to start from, and connect back to, the details about what an organization does, what it offers, and why it does what it does. If this connection is severed, problems follow invariably.

Technical content marketing

We can now see how content marketing connects to, and interacts with, technical communication.

Firstly, we realize that content marketing differs from traditional marketing in that it needs to be rooted in stories about an organization’s products and people. It is rooted in the details of what an organization offers. And for this reason it will tap into the information that has been prepared by technical communicators.

Secondly, we see that the work of content marketing is actually closer to what technical communicators have historically been doing than what public relations professionals do. Technical communicators are the ones who are closest to the product engineers, who have the detailed knowledge that will attract audience attention. Indeed, having worked with various product teams and often for many years, technical communicators themselves have built up substantial knowledge. The public relations team definitely has input for content marketing materials, but these need to be carefully managed so that content marketing materials do not cross the line and become overtly promotional. Technical communicators, cast in this role, quickly find themselves juggling many different contributions.

Fortunately, technical communicators have lots of experience collecting, managing, and balancing inputs to create useful and informative content. It turns out that this is a vital skill in the creation of effective content marketing materials. There are certainly many things to be learned when shifting from writing service documentation to creating content marketing materials, but learning new things is also something technical communicators are very familiar with.

In looking at how content marketing and technical communication come together, we can also see how this interaction can influence how technical communicators handle their more traditional tasks. Content marketing does help to re-emphasize the importance of focusing on the audience, of tailoring all content assets to support and satisfy that audience, and of approaching the communication task with a view to learning from the audience every bit as much as informing them. So the link between content marketing and technical communication is a two-way street. They need each other. And they both benefit from being closely aligned.

It is for this reason that we might find ourselves talking, more and more, about technical content marketing.