Why Technical Writers Should Read Content Rules

Disclosure: I’m both a MarketingProfs Pro Member and a Contributing Writer for MarketingProfs newsletters on search marketing. I’ve met Ann Handley, in context of both these roles. Content Rules reflects the same high standards and I might add–fun–of my previous experiences with Ann, both through MarketingProfs and very occasionally, in person.

This holiday season, I’ve been reading Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, and Webinars, by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman.                                                                                                                                                                   The fourth book in the New Rules of Social Media Book Series with John Wiley & Sons, Content Rules “demystifies the publishing process and shares the secrets of creating remarkable blogs, podcasts, webinars, ebooks, and other web content that will attract would-be customers to you” (p. xv1).

How the Book Is Organized

The format consists of four parts:

  • Part One: Describes the 11 “Content Rules,” which are not meant to be “fixed codes of behavior with dire consequences if they are broken,” but rather guidelines, “to simplify your life and ease the anxiety you might have about creating content” (xxii).
  • Part Two: Includes a How-To Section, with tips on creating blogs, webinars, ebooks, customer success stories, FAQs, video, podcasting, and photographs.
  • Part Three: Offers ten success stories (formerly known as case studies) in addition to “ideas you can steal.”
  • Part Four:  Provides a 12-point content checklist, as a parting gift.

Content Rules = Fundamentals of Literature & Journalism Combined with Fundamentals of Marketing

I like the book a lot, and recommend it highly to any publisher, especially its intended marketing audience, which as the book’s introduction notes, “can learn a lot from the art and style of storytelling (literature) and the fundamentals and science of good reporting (journalism)” (p. xix).

Crisply written, clearly organized, and well-researched with strong supporting examples, this is one of the meatiest books I’ve read on social media.

Who Are You?

My favorite chapter was Chapter 4, “Who Are You,” which offers some of the best writing advice I’ve found to date, on not only how to differentiate your content but more importantly your business itself, through a distinctive voice, which aligns with your brand.

Citing Rohit Bhargava, from Personality Not Included (McGraw-Hill, 2008), the authors highlight that being faceless doesn’t work any longer.

Personality is particularly critical in the age of social media, which ‘requires focusing less on marketing your products and benefits, and more on understanding how to use the personality behind your brand to build a relationship with your customers.’

For this reason, Handley and Chapman advise:

Let your originality–your specialness, your brand personality–come through in your online content. Give your readers or visitors a sense of a person or point of view (p. 39).

A Timely Book for Technical Writers

Though technical writers are not the major intended audience for Content Rules, the book’s principles are broad enough to appeal to any content publisher, who wants to better engage customers. The advice on how to develop your brand personality through a distinctive writing voice dovetails nicely with Ellis Pratt’s recent reflections on Affective User Assistance, in the Nov. issue of Intercom, the Magazine of the Society for Technical Communication.

There, in his article, “The Emotional Factor in User Manuals: How to Use Affective Assistance to Create More Loyal Customers,” Pratt recognizes the power of emotion in customer documentation, especially in moving customers from a negative to positive experience with our products. In our help files, for example, he observes the possible need to move away from our traditional technical writing style–one that is clear, unambiguous, and unemotional–in favor of using a tone of voice that is “dominant or submissive, friendly or unfriendly, depending on the situation” (p. 12).

Other parts of Content Rules that will resonate especially well with technical writers include a great list of business buzz words that should be banned, including user (instead of customer), of which technical writers are most certainly repeat offenders. There’s also a great chapter on reimagining content, with an inclusive focus that notes how critical it is to include the voice and input of everyone in the company, when developing a content strategy (p. 55).  A chapter on how to make-over FAQs is also helpful, for any technical writer who has been involved in writing answers to these questions.

Finally, there’s a nice overview table, showing prospects’ and customers’ information needs and content preferences, according to buyer stage/prospect type.  Traditional product documentation such as user and installation guides, is included in the loyalty stage of the content life-cycle.

I think it’s helpful for technical writers, especially those who pinch hit for marketing and technical support, as well as developing the user assistance embedded in the product itself, to understand how their various content deliverables support different business objectives in this life-cycle.


In summary, this is an important book for all content publishers, marketers and non-marketers alike. Given how many of us are managing our personal brands on the Social Web, in some sense today, we’re really all marketers and can equally benefit from these helpful guidelines.

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