In the ordinary course of high-tech organizations, technical content teams get slotted in a wide variety of departments, but usually somewhere lost in engineering. This is because technical content – also know as technical publications or technical documentation or information development or . . . well, you get the picture – plays an unusual and, in my view, unique role. I can hear you already saying, “Wait, isn’t that what product marketing does?” Well, yes, exactly.
As a technical editor, we have to understand the product and the engineering behind the product. But, we also have to understand the customer, their wants and needs and how they are most likely to use the product.
So this makes positioning tech content teams tricky. Most companies put us with engineering, which makes sense; after all, what we are doing is creating a portion of the product, so why not put us with the other folks who are doing the product creation? But some companies believe we’re more of a services organization, and slot us into teams that also contain the support folks and the quality assurance (QA) teams.
But sometimes, in a decision that almost invariably makes content writers scream, we are put in marketing. And while this may be a shock to my creative brethren and sistren, I genuinely believe that, if done well, this is not only better for the content team, but better for the marketing organization and the product and organization as whole. And yes, I’m going to tell you why.
Reason #1: Technical Content Teams Must Understand the Product AND the Customer
In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson notes that the relationship between marketing and engineering is the most fraught in high tech. Engineers, honestly, genuinely believe that if they make the product just right, it will sell itself. So why does it need any marketing at all? (Indeed, many believe that if they do their job right, it doesn’t need any technical documentation, either.)
Marketers, on the other hand, like to point out that if they don’t get the market to buy stuff, the engineers will be out of a job no matter how wonderful their product is. And to a degree, they’re both right.
Because of our job, not only are we the voice of the customer, but we are constantly in contact with engineering, QA, and support. The nerds. The folks who understand the product the best, who know where the bugs are, who know how all the pieces fit together. We’re not engineers by any stretch, but perforce we must have a deep level of understanding of the product. If we don’t, our descriptions will pure and simply, suck. (And you’ve no doubt read plenty of manuals, quick-start information, user’s guides, and whatnot that do suck, many for this very reason.) That’s the “technical” part of our job description
But at the same time, we have to understand what people want with this durn product. Who is going to use it? How are they going to use it? How can we make the installation easier on them? What issues are they going to bump into that will make them reach for the phone to call support? What are the most important use cases that will help them out? And for the answer to a lot of these questions, the marketing folks have the answers, or at least are out there trying to get them.
And here’s where it benefits not just the individual content writers, but also the content team, the marketing organization, the product line, and (expanding outward) the company as a whole.
Reason #2: Technical Writers Can Serve as a Bridge
With the technical content team in marketing, the marketing folks now have quick access to a larger set of product knowledge than they might have before. And the marketers also won’t need to interact with the engineers as much, which suits both groups typically. Writers are used to being go-betweens; it’s a natural role for them. The engineers will consider them an engineering rep to the marketing team, and the marketing team will feel like they have a voice that gets listened to on the engineering team.
Reason #3: Marketing Holds the Customer Insights
For the writers themselves, being in marketing gives them an opportunity to get even more information about the customers, what they’re going to use the product for, in what ways and to what degree. A common problem when you’re writing technical content is that you often have to guess how customers are going to use the product. Marketing teams often have several people whose job it is to find that kind of thing out.
As part of the marketing team, we can even suggest new research to conduct or questions to ask customers during case study interviews. Not only do the writers get access to vital customer insights that marketing holds, but it can also drive potentially new directions that marketing might not have thought of previously.
Reason #4: The Customer Gets a More Consistent Story
Perhaps most importantly is a consistency of positioning, messaging and overall content delivered to the market. One of the critical problems that every company has is that a product gets shipped, and the implication is that it was designed and executed by a committee. The “story” of the product isn’t coherent. The product seems to assume you’re going to use it for reason A, the sales force sold it to you to deal with reason B, the marketing people enticed you with reason C and the technical content assumes you wanted it for reason A, B, C or D. A mess.
Technical writers interact with almost everyone, and joined with marketing, your story can be unified. You can keep the engineering team informed of marketing’s thinking and encourage them to link up. You can make sure that marketing is informed of what engineering is doing and thinking, and help them be aligned. And most important of all, you can make sure your own team’s work – often the first thing the customer sees when she opens the box or downloads the product – is totally aligned with the product story the organization wants to tell.
Technical writers can make sure marketing materials have technical credibility, while including the marketing messaging in product documentation.
Not only does this make the customer more comfortable and give a better impression of your product, but this spreads to the organization as a whole, and to the market in general. You get a reputation for cohesiveness, for thoughtfulness and for being customer focused.
Perhaps you’re thinking, well, why can’t the content be consistent and coherent if technical documentation sits in engineering? Because it doesn’t. Typically because the content team is hidden in some hole in engineering without a voice. My experience is, when in marketing, writers have a stronger voice and become part of an overall content machine that spans release notes to press releases and everything in between!
Reason #5: Marketing is Becoming More Technical
I realize I said above that many marketers are not technical enough, but they are being forced to change. It’s no longer enough for marketers to be creative and great even planners. The best marketers I know are incredibly data driven, technology focused and can hold their own with the engineering team. Putting technical content teams in marketing helps drive this necessary shift more quickly.
But . . . You Need to Have the Right Marketing Leader
I realize I’m making this sound simple. The one caveat is you need to have the right marketing, and for that matter, engineering, leader. The leadership must have a clear vision for the product, the market and the organization. When you get the right marketing leader, the right marketing managers and the right content team together, amazing things can happen. I’ve seen it, so I know it can happen.
In a time when “content is king”, marketers need to leverage and partner with the technical content team.