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?

About This Blog: Copyright Information

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

The Role of the Gatekeeper is Changing: Guest Post by Sarah O’Keefe

The following  guest post is by Sarah O’Keefe, the founder and president of Scriptorium Publishing, specializing in content strategy for technical communication.

Sarah reflects on the benefits and challenges that user-generated content poses for technical communicators. She calls on organizations to develop a content strategy, identifying the specific scenarios where user-generated content is valuable, alongside a different set of scenarios, where professionally-generated content is still highly relevant. She proposes an emerging role for technical communicators, as content curators.

I remain very indebted to Sarah, not only for this guest post, but for all the content strategy resources she generously offers the technical communication community.

Without further ado, here’s Sarah, in her own words…

The Internet is removing the traditional gatekeepers for content.

Until quite recently, content distribution was a challenging process that required expensive equipment (printing press, video production facilities, trucks, warehouses) and in some cases government permission (TV and radio broadcast licenses). Now sites like YouTube and software like WordPress make content distribution trivial.

This change has profound implications for professional content creators of all types. In this post, I want to focus on technical communicators — people who create information to explain complex technical products.

(Technical communication is also called technical writing, but that phrase is falling out of favor because it excludes non-text communication, such as graphics and video.)

For technical communicators, the rise of user-generated content is a decidedly double-edged sword.

Benefits for technical communicators

Technical communicators can communicate directly with their target audience — the end users of the product. If technical documentation is published on the Internet, end users can provide comments or edit information directly. This feedback helps technical communicators improve their content by identifying errors or unclear writing.

There’s never enough time for in-house professionals to create all of the content that’s needed. Contributions from the user community can provide additional support and build on the official core content. The organization’s strategic plan for content should identify areas where users are most valuable (such as unusual ways of using the product) and areas where corporate technical communicators add the most value (such as information that requires high production values, configuration/installation instructions, and conceptual information). The overall content strategy can then ensure that the various content contributors have appropriate frameworks in which to operate.

Challenges for technical communicators

There is a temptation for business executives, especially in cash-poor start-ups, to dismiss their technical communication staff and simply rely on the community to provide documentation. There are a number of problems with this approach, but let’s take some obvious ones:

  • New products, in general, are perceived as riskier than established products. A new product without documentation raises that risk even more. Lack of documentation will make the product an even harder sell.
  • Although vibrant communities may help out with documentation, start-ups don’t usually have communities yet. Somebody needs to provide a starting point for technical content.
  • The open-source community has great difficulty in getting volunteer help for product documentation. You can expect this difficulty to increase for a commercial product.
  • Technical communicators are needed more than ever to plan, organize, refine, and curate content.

I believe, however, that we are entering a new era of accountability. Web analytics software makes it quite easy to measure whether content is being viewed. Technical communicators — and their management — can see how many people are accessing their content, and specifically which content is most or least popular. These metrics will drive decisions about not just technical communication but also product designs, marketing, and more.

More on this topic:

Many thanks to Peg Mulligan for sharing her space!

Sarah O’Keefe, President, founded Scriptorium Publishing in 1996 to provide editing and production services to technical writing departments. From the beginning, Sarah focused on efficiency—-selecting the right publishing tools, creating templates, and training writers on how to use their tools.

Today, the company is known for expertise in cutting-edge tools and technologies. With a dozen employees, Scriptorium specializes in streamlining publishing processes for numerous high-profile clients in telecommunications, defense, technology, and other content-rich industries.

Please contact the author Sarah O’Keefe direcly, at Scriptorium Publishing, for any rights to republishing this post. Peg Mulligan’s blog is protected by copyright, but I give any appropriate rights back to guest bloggers, for posts they may have authored, but which were hosted at this blog.