By Sarah O’Keefe | Associate Fellow
Technical communication (tech comm) and marketing communications (marcom) both provide information about a company’s products, but the resemblance ends there. In a typical organization, marcom is created by one group of writers with marcom tools; tech comm is created by a different group of writers using different (and incompatible) tools. We don’t just have two separate sets of content—we have different processes, different style guides, different tools, and different people doing the work.
At first glance, the two types of content also have different goals:
- Marcom: Tell a story about a product so that people will buy it (persuade)
- Tech comm: Explain the product so that people can use it (inform)
The reality is more complex. It’s important to align the story and the explanation. For example, if marcom asserts that a product is fun and easy to use but the tech comm content is dreary, the marketing message is contradicted by the technical content. A claim that a particular product is highly configurable can be supported (or not) by a configuration guide that explains the possibilities.
In many cases, both the story and the details are needed to provide a buyer with a full picture. After marcom tells a compelling story about a product, a potential buyer might consult tech comm content to figure out whether a unique requirement is supported. Tech comm content doesn’t always provide context—there are instructions on how to do a task, but why is that task important? Why is this product’s approach to a task better than competitor’s approach? Those are marcom questions.
Some information products fall into a gray area between tech comm and marcom. White papers, for example, are full of technically detailed information but are intended to be persuasive. Data sheets describe features and benefits (marcom), but they also provide product specifications (tech comm). But even for these hybrid documents, collaboration between marcom and tech comm is rare.
A successful organization needs to take the best of both worlds: from marcom, the critical work of positioning the product in the market; from tech comm, the information that makes it possible to use the product. Today, this type of interaction is rare. Instead, we have siloed organizations that don’t talk to each other.
Quite often, this separation leads to a lack of understanding and respect. The marketing people think that tech comm is text-heavy, dense, and badly formatted whereas the tech comm people think that marcom is shiny, beautiful, and content-free. Each group believes that their work is far more important than the work done by their counterparts.
This cold war is silly. We need a more holistic view of content across the organization. For customers and potential customers, the political disagreements between marcom and tech comm are irrelevant. They want product information, and they want it now.
Marketing and technical content should complement each other and both are part of a successful content strategy. Very often, however, organizational structure does not support collaboration between marcom and tech comm. The two departments are in completely different parts of the corporate structure. Most often, marcom reports to the chief marketing officer. For tech comm, the picture is more varied; sometimes, tech comm reports to the CMO, but more often it’s the CIO or CTO. Especially in large organizations, it is often difficult to break down the barriers between these executives and their fiefdoms. This leads to annoying bureaucratic problems, such as the following:
- Which organization will provide funding?
- If there is a business case and cost savings, which organization gets credit for these results?
- How is success measured and what if success looks different in each organization?
It’s hard to work together when the organizational structure is set up to prevent collaboration. In most companies, that’s the reality. One potential solution is to move all content into a single organization (usually marketing) or to establish a chief content officer position with ownership of all corporate content. But most of us are not in a position to make this decision, so instead, we need to start small as we attempt to align marcom and tech comm.
Your organization’s corporate culture determines the best way to approach this problem, but here are a few suggestions:
- Establish good working relationships between tech comm and marcom. Building a mutually respectful relationship is the first step. That means no more jokes about technical writers’ obsession with “insignificant” details or marketing writers’ “optimistic” assertions about product capabilities.
- Launch a small project that both teams benefit from, such as an improvement in website analytics or an assessment of translation practices.
- Assess the content overlap between the groups. Could there be content reuse, or is the strategy to coordinate tone, messages, and timing?
- Figure out whether the two organizations work together on hybrid documents, like white papers and data sheets.
As a starting point, choose a project whose success or failure will not make or break either team. The primary goal is to establish mutually respectful working relationships, and it takes time to break down long-established patterns and stereotypes. It is also wise to choose a relatively easy project with a high chance of success. A project to improve Web analytics, for example, is probably easier than an initiative to align style standards across multiple departments.
- Tech comm and marcom can help each other:
- Tech comm can use the marketing angle to help get tech comm resources.
- Marcom can use tech comm to prove claims of features, benefits, and leading-edge capabilities
- Tech comm content can help improve website search rankings, which helps marketing with product visibility
What tech comm can learn from marcom
One powerful way of unlocking business value in your technical content is to rethink its presentation and its usage. In many cases, technical content has marketing applications, and by providing a more user-centered approach to the content, you can increase the value of the content. For example, a collection of hundreds of data sheets is tedious to wade through, but a product configuration tool could help a buyer quickly narrow down the possibilities to just a few options and then provide a side-by-side comparison of the features. The data sheets contain all the needed information, but it needs to be reworked into something interactive rather than a collection of static PDF files.
What marcom can learn from tech comm
Writing resources are always limited, so streamlining the publishing process lets writers focus on content rather than formatting. A workflow in which information is created once and then published to all of the needed formats automatically saves time and resources. This approach also results in more consistent formatting.
Should tech comm and marcom be under the same management?
In the long term, I believe that the business advantages of a unified content team will lead to a restructuring of the content development roles. I expect that tech comm and marcom, along with other groups that produce customer-facing content (training, product support) will converge into a single content development organization. For the business, this approach offers compelling possibilities:
- Easier to make content consistent
- Implementation of a unified set of content development, deployment, and delivery tools
- Sharing of content across different information products
- Sharing resources to work on different content in different development phases (marcom before release, product support after release)
- Easier to set up a unified process for localization
The low-grade conflict between tech comm and marcom is long-standing and often entertaining, but it does not further business goals. It is time for professionals in both areas to recognize that they have much to learn from each other.
Portions excerpted from Content Strategy 101: Transform Technical Content into a Business Asset by Sarah S. O’Keefe and Alan S. Pringle. The full text of the book is available online at www.contentstrategy101.com.
SARAH O’KEEFE is the founder of Scriptorium Publishing (www.scriptorium.com) and a content strategy consultant. Sarah’s focus is how to use technical content to solve business problems; she is especially interested in how new technologies can streamline publishing workflows to achieve strategic goals. Sarah speaks fluent German, is a voracious reader, and enjoys swimming, kayaking, and other water sports along with knitting and college basketball. She has strong aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.