Moving Towards the "Dark Side": From Technical Writing to Content Marketing
In 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 non-profit organization, 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.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.