Technical Communication & Content Marketing: Mind the Gap
After wrestling with it for a year and a half, the challenge still feels fresh to me. I've been exploring how the disciplines of technical communication and content marketing can best support one another since joining K15t Software in late 2015. But almost from the very beginning I've come up against the fact that technical writers and content marketers often have dysfunctional relationships within their organizations.
At best this situation means there is little or no collaboration between the two departments. At worst it can mean outright mistrust and a lack of understanding and respect for one another. I'm thankful to be part of a team that cares deeply about the integration of the two, but the question of why this division exists, and how companies can work to mend it, is one I'm keenly interested in working to solve.
In this four-part blog series, I'll try to help bridge the gap between technical communicators and content marketers by examining the reasons for such a gap, shedding light on some of the benefits to be reaped by bridging it, and documenting some bridge-building techniques, large and small, that have made our techcomm and marketing teams at K15t Software truly work better together.
The core of what tech writers and technical communication teams do is content creation. They're responsible for providing information that enables people – most commonly users of a product or service – to accomplish tasks that require them to follow certain steps or processes. If the communication is successful, it works to minimize difficulty and frustration, and helps users to have a positive experience. While documentation is most often targeted toward post-purchase users, it's also very important during the trial phase of the buyer's journey. It can even play a key role earlier in the process as potential buyers research their choices.
Depending on their specific roles and the roles of their teammates, tech writers are usually tasked with some combination of the following:
- Defining their audience and their audience's needs and goals
- Gathering information necessary to accomplish the subject task
- Determining a communication strategy
- Creating, revising, and releasing the communication itself
All of the above is done with the end goal of delivering high-quality content that helps people solve specific problems.
Content marketing is one of the fastest-growing segments of the larger marketing world. It's an approach that argues that we're over-saturated with traditional marketing messaging – that the most effective way forward is to stop selling, and start helping. Content marketing seeks not to interrupt, but to inform. The research is clear on the importance of this type of content, with numerous studies like this one from Demand Gen Report finding that the majority of today's buyers consume multiple pieces of content before engaging in a sales process.
Content marketing's modus operandi overlaps with technical communication's in many respects:
- Examining the needs of potential buyers
- Understanding these needs as well as the drivers behind them
- Creating content to address these needs in a focused way
- Demonstrating (through content) empathy and expertise around the challenges of the solution seeker
- Building trust by providing high-quality, high-value content
To summarize, content marketing works to deliver high-quality content that helps people solve specific problems. That bit sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it?
A question of how and why
The common ground that content marketing and technical communication teams stand on has two major components. The first is a strong focus on the needs of the solution seeker. The second is the craft of creating high-quality content that meets those needs. So why then, are these two teams often found worlds apart and working in separate silos in their organizations? The thing that divides them, I'd argue, is the difference of 'how' versus 'why'.
While it must always be framed by sound content strategy, technical writing at its core is logical, practical, and most often instructional communication. By addressing the challenges that existing users have in trying to accomplish something using a product or service, and providing clear reference of the processes and techniques to overcome these challenges, technical communication is all about the 'how'.
In contrast, content marketing attempts to address the problems and challenges of potential users. This must also be underpinned by sound strategy, and has to deliver relevant and practical information to be successful, but it has another component that can't be overlooked. It must communicate the benefit that arises when a potential user makes the change that the content advocates. The communication of this benefit is not about 'how' to do something, it's about 'why'.
The essence of the gap between techcomm and marketing are these differing approaches of 'how' and 'why'. But the happy news is that both teams have the potential to be more effective at achieving their goals by understanding, learning from, and working together. To get there, they must share the same understanding of their organization's overall business goals, and also share a clear definition of how each side is expected to support the achievement of those goals. The two teams must also cultivate a mutual respect for the importance of their separate roles and the talents that their members bring to the table. Only once this foundation is in place can a strong methodology of collaboration be built on top of it.
Next up: mining the gap
Being a marketer for an organization whose core business is providing tools for collaborative technical content management has, as you might imagine, piqued my interest in the overlap between technical communication and marketing. And while it's clear that there is much common ground between techcomm and the content-focused side of the marketing world, the gap in 'how' versus 'why' must be understood in order to build a collaborative relationship between the two disciplines.
If this gap is successfully bridged, what does each side stand to gain? How can an organization, and more importantly its customers, both pre- and post-purchase, benefit from a cooperative techcomm and content marketing partnership? In the next post of this four-part series I'll try to answer this question with examples of the real-world benefits we've experienced by taking this approach at K15t Software. As always, comments and feedback are welcome – don't hesitate to reach out!