Content Strategy: Building Context & Relationships thru Product Documentation

My last post about motivating readers in technical communication made me recall an informal meeting with Valeria Maltoni (otherwise known as Conversation Agent), at the Inbound Marketing Summit last fall, in Boston, MA.

At the time, I had just read Maltoni’s post, Service: Product Experience and Content Strategy.

In her series on content strategy, Maltoni had explained how “every communication a company organizes is an opportunity to build context through content — and relationships as an outcome.”

During our brief but engaging exchange, I told Maltoni how much this excerpt from her post resonated with me, in my role as a technical communicator:

This is the phase where marketing tends to walk away, because somehow embracing customers is customer service’s job. Product manuals, service agreements, contracts — these are all marketing, whether you see it that way or not.

While chatting, I mentioned to Maltoni how my graduate program in Technical and Professional Writing had provided a good introduction to principles from classic rhetoric. I also expressed how surprised I was, when I first started working as a technical writer in industry (now years ago), to find how little alignment there often is in practice, between our respective disciplines.

Maltoni readily understood the connection between product documentation and marketing. So too, does Aaron Fulkerson, CEO of MindTouch, who in
the Forbes article, The Evolution of User Manuals, describes how product and services documentation is now a core business asset.

And you? For the marketers out there, do you view product documentation as a way to build relationships, with potential new customers? For technical communicators, what do you think about Ellis Pratt’s recent Intercom article, calling for more emotion in technical communication, as a way to help nurture loyal customers?

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

Content Strategy: A Roadmap for Technical Communicators (via Scriptorium Publishing)

This weekend, I finally had a chance to listen to the Content Strategy for Technical Communication webinar, previously recorded by Scriptorium Publishing Services.

Sarah O’Keefe, well-regarded thought leader and consultant in the technical communication community, provides a road map for technical communicators to apply the emerging methodology known as content strategy to the requirements and deliverables that are more specific to the technical communication discipline.

Content Strategy for Technical Communication

In her introduction, O’Keefe observes that most current definitions of content strategy focus mainly on web content. Throughout her presentation, O’Keefe applies the overarching principles of content strategy directly to the information products that technical communicators traditionally deliver, including localized content, print, embedded help, context-sensitive help, and code comments.

O’Keefe further notes that content strategy for technical communicators must account for many complex challenges, including multiple outputs, regulated content, coordination with product development/product management, and conditionality/versioning issues for content that is applicable to multiple products and audiences.

O’Keefe defines content strategy for technical communication, in this way:

…a plan for developing, delivering, deploying, and destroying your information.

The rest of O”Keefe’s presentation  provides an over-arching methodology for content strategy, including identifying gaps in the workflow, considering the business drivers (time, quality, and money), and proposing new content requirements for the amended workflow.

Content Strategy Tactics

After discussing the methodology, O’Keefe describes the various tactics (for example, Technical Communication, Community, Localization, Training, and Traceability/FDA Validation) that would need to be part of the overall content strategy.

The 4Ds for Technical Communicators

O’Keefe then goes on to provide a roadmap for the specific activities (the 4 Ds–developing, delivering, deploying, and destroying information), which she recommends would occur as part of content strategy, within the technical communication piece of the overall plan.

To learn more about Content strategy for technical communication, check out the webinar,  or  view these additional webinars from Scriptorium Publishing.

My Reaction: Content Strategy & Product Management

O’Keefe’s slides are an important resource not just for technical communicators, but for all communicators who are trying to sync up content delivery, in the best interest of our customers. I agree with Sarah, when says that content strategy is more than a buzzword and goes above and beyond traditional project management or information architecture. Content strategy is a coordinated plan between the disciplines, which shows where an organization intends to put its content development efforts.

Personally, I would forsee those responsible for each of the tactics Sarah mentioned (including Technical Communication, Community, Localization, Training, and Traceability/FDA Validation) each being held accountable for taking a first pass at the content strategy for that respective tactic. (The organizational units and groups responsible for developing content, who are not mentioned in this list of tactics, would supply this kind of plan as well.)

Ultimately, someone in a centralized position of authority, with executive buy-in, would coordinate the respective plans, eliminate redundancies between the various tactics (or interests), and gain cross-functional buy-in to maintain optimal content delivery. Importantly, these decisions would involve customer analysis and input.

As content and the product have finally become inseparable, I can’t help but think the best centralization of decision-making about content would naturally be within Product Management (as opposed to Marketing, Development/QA, Customer Support, or IT).

A complete content strategy framework requires a holistic understanding of all the disciplines’ respective objectives for content delivery. Typically, this holistic function resides in Product Management and is enforced via Project Management.

Today, I don’t know many members from Product Management or the various content disciplines (including my own) who are specialized enough in the multi-dimensional objectives required of the emerging content strategist, or who have the bandwidth or inclination to take on the content strategist’s complete function. However, technical communicators (and please forgive my bias) are the experienced publishers who are currently working on most cross-functional teams, and are already supporting more than one corporate objective, via their existing content delivery responsibilities.

If technical communicators step up and provide the kind of analysis Sarah proposes (starting with our own content deliverables), we are already positioned to start filling the void in content leadership and to model best practices for content reuse and collaborative writing to the other disciplines. Organizations might also consider moving the technical communication group, to wherever it is in the company that is responsible for this emerging centralized role, and in need of the holistic vision, publishing experience, and coordination skills which technical communicators already bring to the table.

Your take? Where does the coordination of content strategy best belong in the organization? Who has the skills? How can technical communicators incorporate content strategy, in their existing roles? Who should we report to?

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Gilbane Conference Boston: Industry Analyst Discussion

Last week, I attended keynotes from the Gilbane Conference Boston at the Westin Copley Place, visiting with several vendors, on a complimentary technology pass.

Gilbane Boston is focused on the business impact of content management solutions, including sessions on customers & engagement, colleagues & collaboration, content technology, and content publishing. In a lot of ways, attending the Gilbane Boston event felt like coming home for me, with its cross-disciplinary and holistic focus. (There were marketing and IT professionals there, as well as technical communicators.)

If you couldn’t make the full conference, then you couldn’t go wrong with Gilbane’s complimentary technology pass, which provides the spirit of the conference’s themes, through open access to the keynotes and product labs, as well as unlimited networking opportunities in the vendor exhibit. There, I spoke with reps from places like 1io, Crowell Solutions, Inc., “Alterian,” CrownPeak, and nSight Works. The vendor exhibit drew a particularly engaged and busy crowd.

The second keynote included a cross-section of industry analysts, on “What’s Real, What’s Hype, and What’s Coming” in content technology.

Here were the participants:

  • Moderator: Frank Gilbane, President, Outsell’s Gilbane Group
  • Hadley Reynolds, Research Director, Search & Digital Marketplace Technologies, IDC
  • Ned May, VP & Lead Analyst, Outsel
  • Scott Liewehr, Senior Consultant, Web Content Management, Gilbane Group
  • Tony Byrne, Founder, The Real Story Group & CMS Watch
  • Kathleen Reidy, Senior Analyst, 451 Group

According to the analysts, the most important developments in 2010 included SharePoint 2010, innovation in public web search (including mobile search, real-time search, Google Instant, and social intelligence integrated with search results, via Bing and Facebook), the shift to the cloud model, computing embedded in our real-time lives (for example, the smart pen), and web engagement management.

There was also debate between some analysts about whether web engagement management is just another acronym, or if it represents something broader than traditional web content management. Gilbane’s Scott Liewehr describes web engagement management, as enabling cross-channel engagement, and providing a single view of your customer, incorporating online marketing, search, and e-mail campaigns.

The audience asked lots of great follow-up questions. Additional responses included predictions for 2011, including projections about social media in the enterprise.

It was hard to leave, with  so many great speakers still in the que. Next year, I plan to stay for the entire event. (Given this blog’s themes and my Boston locale, it was especially hard to miss the session, How to Build a Content Strategy – Practical Principles for Influential Web Content, by Colleen Jones, Founder, Content Science and Margot Bloomstein, Principal, Appropriate, Inc. For this reason, I was especially glad to see Jeff Cutler’s conference write-up on that session.)

Make sure to check out additional video coverage from the conference at the “Gilbane Video Page” or for highlights of various sessions at the “Gilbane Boston 2010 Conference Coverage at The Gilbane Group’s Press Releases and Announcements Page.”

Thanks to the Gilbane Group for the free technology pass. See you next year, at the full conference.

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