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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Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

Touchdown: Inbound Marketing Summit at Gillette Stadium

Oct. 6th and 7th, at Gillette Stadium, I attended the Inbound Marketing Summit, sponsored by New Marketing Labs LLC. It didn’t disappoint. It was a great venue, with great speakers, and I came away with some valuable nuggets, on curating, developing, and managing online content.

Here are some key takeaways, from sessions that were especially relevant to my interests as a content developer.

Is that Content Marketing in Your Pocket or…? by Pawan Deshpande, CEO at HiveFire

According to Pawan Deshpande, CEO of HiveFire, an online content marketing technology company,  inbound marketing starts with content. Fresh content feeds hungry search engines and drives traffic to your site, but the effort to develop that ongoing content can be difficult.

To make content marketing easier, Deshpande advised pulling together various online content, through content curation, which involves selectively identifying, organizing, and sharing content online. In the process, Deshpande explained, you can make publishing content much easier, draw in more customers, and stand out from your competition, as an authority on a topic that interests your prospects.

As an example, Deshpande pointed to Airvana’s FemtoHub.com, an industry resource on femtocell technology (see the Airvana Case Study from HiveFire) For more information, also check out HiveFire’s Content Curation: Taming the Flood in B2B Social Media.

Secrets to Content Marketing Success by Maria Pergolino, Director of Marketing/Demand Generation at Marketo

I especially benefitted from the “Secrets to Content Marketing Success” session, by content marketing expert, Maria Pergolino. In her presentation, Pergolino shared ways to “effectively engage the right prospects, with the right content, at the right time.”

Pergolini described how the various pieces of content map to the buyer decision process (awareness, consideration, decision), with product documentation correlating to the consideration and decision phases. She also provided invaluable advice about how to get more SEO benefit from PDF documents (how some product documentation is delivered), using Flickerbox.

I look forward to checking out Marketo’s Creating Content That Sells: A Guide to Content Marketing for Demand Generation.

Why You Should Be Using a CMS to Manage Your Website and Content, Panel Discussion

This session was a panel discussion, with Ron West, Director of Product Strategy/Professional Services at PaperThin, Brett Zucker, Chief Technology Officer at Bridgeline Digital, Byron White, Chief Idea Officer at ideaLaunch, Vern Imrich, Chief Technical Officer, at Percussion Software, and Joe Henriques, Director, Client Services and Partner Development, at Sitecore.

The open discussion described how various applications are making it possible for Marketing to manage both the content and the application, where that content resides.

Panelists maintained this trend eliminates bottlenecks and empowers marketers to more quickly make site changes, based on analytics that come packaged with the CMS. According to one panelist, this trend is creating opportunities for Marketing Technologists, who know both the marketing and CMS lingos. A different panelist observed the more structured the existing content is, the easier it is to migrate.


These sessions especially complemented my focus on content strategy, development, and management, but they are only a sampling of the many excellent sessions and additional topics available, at Inbound Marketing Summit 2010. ROI was a recurring theme.

I would recommend this conference to anyone interested in a fast-paced tempo, with a broad cross-section of industry and other thought leaders, in a highly distinctive Boston setting.

Other benefits: free parking, high quality food (roasted turkey couldn’t have been any better), and a uniquely open facility layout, which made it easy to listen in on speakers, while simultaneously speaking with vendor reps, or meet with others, in the Demonstration Zone. (I also appreciated that you could see the presentation slides, from any number of overhead monitors.)

For more information, make sure to see New Marketing Labs TV, available on the Pulse Network, which livestreamed many keynotes and interviewed various speakers, through fireside chats.

Postscript: Special thanks, by the way, to the Marketwire rep, for the Nerf football souvenir, which my six-year-old at home, greatly appreciated, his first week of Flag Football.

About This Blog: Copyright Information

Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog