Moving Towards the “Dark Side”: From Technical Writing to Content Marketing

Moving Towards the Dark Side: From Technical Writing to Content MarketingIn some of the previous tech comm circles I’ve been in, I’ve heard some people refer to marketing as “the dark side.” I think this term is used to suggest that marketers are involved in thinly stretched promises, flashy features material, and other manipulative, fluffy materials for customers. In contrast, technical writers are writing truth, creating content that is helpful, informative, grounded in reality, and beneficial/wholesome to users.

I don’t know how widespread this antagonism is toward marketing. When I think of marketing, I usually think of someone calling me with a recorded message telling me I’ve won something and just need to call them back. I generally group marketers with business types, and think of both as money-obsessed opportunists, more eager to sell me something than to tell me the truth.

My connotation of marketing with “the dark side” makes it all the more difficult to understand the direction I’ve been headed for the past six months. I have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of awareness of our products among our users. We push out new sites, tools, and other technical resources at an astonishing pace, yet our general user base tends to only be aware of about 20% of the products.

Part of this awareness problem may be characteristic of my organization. Since I work for a church, technology is never the end in itself. Technology is a means to an end. The end is the message, not the means. And certainly people can become zealous about the means (technology) without focusing on the message.

Still, even if the message is more important than the technology, it makes little sense to spend so much money developing the means if we also don’t have a plan to make users aware of it. Why create the technology at all, then?

Without a good plan for awareness, many of the other efforts related to technical writing — good user help, a usable interface, accurate requirements, bug-free functionality, and so on, don’t matter a whole lot.

The world of marketing has changed considerably in the last ten years. Marketing is no longer about flashy sales gimmicks and special-time-only deals. Marketing is now about providing content that users find useful. This is what’s known as “content marketing.” Joe Pulizzi explains,

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action…. Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

If marketing is now about creating content that your users value, then marketing may not be such a dark side after all. Shouldn’t good help materials fall into this category? Attractive quick reference guides, helpful video tutorials, short role-based user guides, and visual storytelling guides can all be  collateral for content marketing efforts.

If marketing is really about creating good, informative content that users want, and not about figuring out the right promotional gimmick to spike sales, then maybe marketing might not be so bad after all. It may not be so unlike this post, which attempts to get at a truth and in the process win people over toward a particular idea.


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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Marijana

    Hi Tom

    thanks for this post. As I attended some content strategy sessions at this year’s tcworld conference, the feeling that technical communicators will have more and more to do with marketing got stronger and stronger.

    Scott Abel said one of the key sentences (in my opinion) in one session: “Tech comm is marketing – even if it doesn’t know it’s marketing.”

    In the end both “sides” are a communication interface towards the customer. And if you create good help material that helps the user, it is always good marketing because the users knows that your company is not only selling him something, but also really supporting him.

    Maybe this redefinition of marketing will lead to more appreciation of help content and its producers?

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Marijana. I appreciate your referencing of Scott Abel with this topic. You’re right — he has talked about this a lot and is one of the main proponents who has helped us see the crossover of tech comm and marketing.

  • Mark Baker

    Hi Tom,

    Great post, and timely, I think, as technical communicators struggle to understand how their role is changing.

    That said, technical communication has always been about marketing. Content marketing is giving technical communication a greater role in advertizing, but advertizing is only a small part of what marketing is about.

    Marketing is really concerned with the whole user interaction, and marketing does not end when the customer buys the product. I have always told tech writers working for me that their job is to market the features and the power of the product to the user so that they will keep buying the product and recommend it to their friends.

    That, of course, does not mean using jarring ad-speak in technical docs — because that simply does not work and just annoys people. But it does mean that technical docs play a key role in customer retention and product reputation — key marketing concerns — and they need to be written with this in mind.

    I think the aversion to marketing that so many tech writers display is very destructive to the profession, and a direct cause of the low esteem in which so many tech pubs departments are held in their organizations. I blogged just last week about the need to tech pubs to start thinking of itself as a business function:

    • Tom Johnson

      “Marketing is really concerned with the whole user interaction.” I hadn’t thought of it this way, but it’s interesting to do so. You make a good point. If marketing is just concerned with one sale, the customer loyalty will probably fizzle rather quickly.

      I also like how you point out how destructive it is for tech writers to have an aversion to marketing. The separation of these departments — tech comm and marketing — seems to be a flawed idea. I’m realizing how integrated tech comm is with not only marketing, but other groups as well, including QA, interaction design, and other groups.

      • Mark Baker

        I’m not sure I would go so far as to advocate joining the techcomm and marketing departments. Marketing works on a different schedule from pubs, and that always makes life difficult. I’ve commented before on the slow migration of pubs through the corporate structure, but I remain convinced that its proper home is in development. However, I would advocate (in fact, I have in the past advocated) for 6-month-or-so job swaps between tech pubs and marketing folks. I think both groups benefit from being exposed to the perspective of the other.

        • Tom Johnson

          Well, there’s another thing to consider. If your company doesn’t have a marketing department at all, the tech comm group is a second-best option to fill that awareness role.

  • Larry Kunz

    Hi, Tom. Welcome to the enlightened ranks! Although slimy advertising can give it a bad name, marketing is really about creating and building brand awareness, showing how my product or service is of value, and engaging customers in a dialog. Those are hardly dark arts.

    As previous commenters have said, people are discovering the connection between marketing and technical communication. This awareness isn’t just happening within the two professions, either: it’s dawning on the general public. Especially in highly competitive industries — like technology — a big marketing edge goes to the company whose documentation is easy to find, engaging, and effective.

    • Tom Johnson

      Larry, thanks for commenting. I know you’ve been working in this tech comm / marketing space for a while, so it’s good to hear of your enthusiasm for mixing the two. I think many tech companies completely underestimate the competitive advantage that good instructional materials bring.

  • Marcia Johnston

    Here’s another article that reinforces your blog theme, Tom, and all of the comments so far:

    “5 Reasons Your Product Documentation Is a Marketing Asset”

    • Tom Johnson

      That’s a great article. Thanks for sending it to me. He covers some excellent points.

  • Melanie

    Bravo, Tom!

    I’m still surprised at how little overlap I see between those who call themselves “tech writers” and those who consider their job to be “marketing communications” or even (gasp) “copywriting.”

    There’s a lot of commonality to the two (as Mark brilliantly points out above). Why such a huge divide in job titles and departments?

    What’s more, increasing access to information via the Internet means customers are more savvy, so slimy marketing doesn’t work (as well) anymore. We need good, useful, relevant information for our customers/users. Something tech writers are used to providing.

    Great post!

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Melanie. I’m increasingly convinced about the overlap of tech writing with other departments as well — support, quality assurance, interaction design, and even project management. It all blends together into one.

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