Technical communication or marketing? Yes.

“I like writing about technical subjects,” a friend told me. “But I hope I never have to write another 800-page user guide.” He went on to say that his current technical writing job had given him the chance to write customer success stories and profiles of subject-matter experts, and he said he’d enjoyed doing that.

“So,” he asked, “what should I do next? Technical writing or marketing writing?”

Yes, I said.

technical-communicationYes, you can be both a technical writer and a marketing writer. Yes, at the same time.

It’s sad that that comes as a surprise to so many in our field — and that it seems totally foreign to most of the companies that employ us.

The chasm

A quick search of job postings turned up 10 openings for marketing writers, and more than 50 openings for technical writers, for every opening for a technical marketing writer.

Worse yet are the stereotypes.

Ask some technical communicators about marketing, and they’re apt to say:

Marketing is just pizzazz. Marketers are artistic and don’t know anything about technology. Marketers will say anything, true or not, to make a sale.

Ask a marketer about technical communication and they might say:

Technical communicators are nerds, without a creative bone in their bodies. They grind out 800-page user guides that are useful only as doorstops.

Yikes. Can’t we all just get along?

Granted, the viewpoints I encounter don’t usually run to such extremes. Most people realize that marketing is more than banner ads, and that technical communication is more than 800-page user guides. Yet there remains a gap, a chasm really, between marketers and technical communicators.

marketingThat’s wrong. Marketers and technical communicators have a lot to offer each other, and the lines between their domains are blurring.

Whether or not we want to admit it, technical documentation itself has become a marketing platform. Especially in the technology industry, companies are posting their documentation on the Internet where everyone — including prospective customers — can see it. The documentation tells them whether they’ll be able to use the product effectively and whether the company is one they’ll feel comfortable doing business with.

Demand is increasing for technical marketing content, like the profiles and case studies my friend likes to write, along with things like white papers, blog posts, and specification sheets. No less an authority than Scott Abel asserts that the future of technical communication is marketing.

That’s the reality of today’s marketplace. If we ignore it we do harm to both of our professions, to the companies we work for, and to our customers.

My story: Blending the two fields

I’m fortunate to have spent time both in traditional technical communication and in marketing. Technical communication has taught me to know my audience, to communicate effectively with them, and to understand and appreciate technology. Marketing has taught me to contribute value, to understand a customer’s needs, and to tell a good story. Blending the two disciplines has made me better at each one.

Maybe your optimal career is a blend of technical communication and marketing. If the opportunity is there, try different roles until you find the blend that suits you. Spend time with colleagues in both technical communication and marketing. (Ideally, find that rare bird who’s a technical marketing writer and let them inspire you.)

What say you? Do you see the same chasm between technical communication and marketing? If so, do you think the chasm is narrowing? Widening? Does it matter?

Finally, if you’ve staked out a career that blends technical communication and marketing, I’d love to hear your story.

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4 thoughts on “Technical communication or marketing? Yes.

  1. Susan Carpenter

    My world is certainly blending, so I totally get what you’re saying. It’s more true than ever that content drives marketing efforts, and technical writers now write more than those 800-page user guides or — gasp! — bicycle assembly instructions. The scrambling around social media a few years ago was a big part of what started the ball rolling.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. It’s interesting that you mention social media: I’m not sure how big a role it’s played in the trend toward blending process. But it certainly has changed the customers’ expectations of how companies should communicate with them.

      Reply
  2. Colum McAndrew

    Let me tell you the story. There once was a wizard – not a Galdolf or Merlin – but one of the software variety. The audience were users new to the product that they had found online, purchased, and were ready to set up their account. The company who sold the product knew nothing about the user, apart from the fact they’d just bought their product. The wizard involved the user completing various tasks to achieve the aim of getting them up and running.

    The Technical Writer’s task was producing the copy that went in the wizard. Each step required the user to tell us some information, which was used to set up their account. There was lots of really clever technical stuff going on under the hood, but they didn’t need to know about it. All they wanted was a working piece of software.

    I, yes I was that Technical Writer, started each wizard page with brief copy explaining what was going to happen, why the information was needed, the benefits, and finally what they’d need to do. All in as few words as possible. We wanted the users to do stuff, not have to read reems of irrelevant fluff. In short I was selling the idea of how we could provide them with a working piece of software set up to their specific requirements.

    What struck me most about this project was the subtle difference in the way I communicated with the audience compared to traditional process documentation. Part of the brief was selling them what was going to happen in the first few words of each wizard page. Once they’d bought that, I could move on to what they’d need to do. It was marketing with a small ‘M’, merged with the ‘how to’ steps.

    I cut out any fluff – screen real estate was often an issue. I concentrated solely on what they needed to complete the step in front of them. Oh and I ensured the stlye was consistent and friendly throughout. Once they’d done what was required of them, we led them through to the next task. In short, exactly the scenario you’ve covered so eloquantly here.

    I’d never done anything quite like this and on this scale before. How did I cope? Producing “marketing copy” is exactly the same as any other copy. You define your audience, have a style and stick to it. That is what all Marketing (sorry Technical) Writers are good at.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Colum, for sharing your story. That sounds like a nice piece of wizardry on your part. I can tell that, looking back, you’re pleased with what you contributed. Indeed technical writing should always have an element of selling to it — whether it’s burnishing the corporate brand or simply persuading the reader to continue with the next step in the task.

      Reply

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