Dollars for Docs: Documentation as a Revenue Generator

By Alan J. Porter | STC Senior Member

Not too long ago, a friend of mine posted the following on his Twitter feed:

OMG! (Company Name) actually charges for their owner’s manuals! That’s absurd.

Absurd? Really? Is that the common expectation—that all the documentation associated with a product should be “free”?

Over the years I have worked at different companies that had diametrically opposed philosophies when it came to supplying documentation.

One philosophy is that when you buy a product, you receive everything you need to run, maintain, and operate it (but not to repair it), so the company includes the cost of producing the documentation in their product pricing. They make their money on spare parts.

The opposing philosophy is built around a different business model. When you buy a product, you buy just the product and then pay extra for the bits and services you need, as you need them, so the company has a lower product price. They charge for their documentation (and their spare parts, too).

Let’s take a look at the two approaches in more detail.

COMPANY A – Documentation Included
This is perhaps the more traditional model. A content development team writes the various manuals, help sets, etc., and publishes a complete suite of documentation. The whole suite of documentation is delivered with the product. The cost of producing the documentation is covered in the product price, and the customer perceives it as being “free.”

But it often doesn’t happen this way. I’ve been amazed at the number of times that I’ve done consulting work for companies that don’t consider the cost of the documentation. Content development is not considered an integral part of the design and production process and is poorly funded (if at all). They don’t calculate it, they don’t consider it a development cost, and they don’t cover it in the price of their products. Often, companies like that consider documentation to be “a necessary evil” (a phrase I have heard more than once) and an uncontrolled overhead. The result is usually poor-quality documentation. As a rule of thumb, if you buy a commodity-priced product and it includes “everything,” then there is a fair chance that the manuals will be next to useless (I know this is a broad statement, and there are always exceptions to it).

COMPANY B – Documentation Sold Separately
In this scenario, the cost of producing and distributing the product documentation is well understood, accounted for, and managed. Most products in this case will ship with a small “free” subset of documentation that covers the basics of getting started and simple operation with the expectation that if customers want to know more, they must be prepared to spend money.

Think of the car enthusiast as one example—most people who want to maintain and repair their own cars will go and buy a book on how to do it. There are companies that write and sell specialist manuals for car dealers and repair shops. However, the vast majority of customers will never access the full documentation suite, so why provide it to everyone? The manufacturer can focus on producing the documentation that 80 percent of its customers want, and the other 20 percent can be covered by a recognizable revenue stream from selling the specialist manuals.

In recent years, I’ve also seen the emergence of a new model:

COMPANY C – Documentation as a Revenue Influencer
As with Company B, the cost of producing and distributing product documentation is generally well known, but in this instance, instead of seeing the documentation as a direct revenue stream, it is viewed as an influencer. Companies in this case will position documentation that is traditionally viewed as a post-sales asset early in the sales cycle as a marketing tool. By pulling documentation from behind firewalls and positioning it on an open website, with the right metadata around it to make it findable, prospective customers can get their questions answered quicker and earlier. This has several benefits, such as reducing the cost of sales by gaining the customer’s confidence in the product, answering their questions early thus reducing the sales cycle/time to purchase, and exposing the customer to a fuller breadth of offerings. This approach also positions the company as being helpful and customer focused.

So which is the right approach? I think they all could be, but it depends on your business model. Whether you charge for documentation or use it as a sales/marketing tool is a product of many factors. But the cost of content development should always be correctly calculated and factored into product development costs. You need to recoup those costs somewhere—it’s just a matter of deciding where in the product life cycle and how.

The bottom line is that no matter which approach you choose, in order to turn your documentation into a revenue stream, you need to first value it as an asset, as much as any widget on the production line. Properly calculated, managed, and produced, structured intelligent documentation content is an asset that has a potentially long life span across multiple uses, and will actually increase in value over time.

But if I had to favor one approach, I’d say go the separate charge route. It gives more flexibility for delivery, it gives the customer choice, it lowers product prices, and it turns the content development team from being an overhead cost into a profit center.

When I switched one of my content development teams from being overhead to being a profit center, it completely changed the way the role of documentation and the people who produced it were perceived.

And, despite what my friend on Twitter may think, the customers liked it, too.

ALAN PORTER (ajp@4jsgroup.com) is an industry leading Content Strategist and Customer Experience Evangelist specializing in helping companies and organizations recognize and leverage their largest hidden asset: their content. He is the author of The Content Pool (XML press) and can be found online at TheContentPool.com or on Twitter at @TheContentPool.

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