When Content Strategies Collide Pt 5: Is Communication Mired in the Past?

My biggest, and possibly most controversial, post to-date continues with responding to and extending the question – is TechComms mired in the past? Yes. But we’re not alone.  Those of us in MarComms are at the beginning of a new dawn too.  If we’re in the the past, what does the future hold?  I take a little look at some cutting edge thinking…
Typewriter image used under Creative Commons License

Is TechComms mired in the past? Hell Yeah.

In Pt 2 of this series, we talked about Julie Norris’ mildly infamous comment about TechComms being mired in the past, and the voracious sh**storm that hit her after, causing her to erase the whole debacle from her blog (sadly).

The only quote I managed to save from Julie’s blog was:

“In any case, by “mired in the past” I mean a mindset that’s opposed to change, or trying new things. It’s not something new. I’ve seen it with every advance that’s come along in this industry, with every new method I’ve tried to help move along. I’m burned out with trying to explain to people the benefits of whatever is new, up-and-coming, or important to watch at the time.””

Hear, hear, Julie. There are loads of us behind you. Thought-leaders, consultants, leading bloggers and TechComms practitioners have felt the frustration of trying to move their peers in the TC community forward.

I was on a call with Ann Rockley moments after reading the firestorm about Julie’s original post, so I raised the issues with her. We’re both agreed that it’s always been this way since we started in Technical Communications – back when it was called ‘Technical Documentation’.

Ann noted that herself, Scott Abel, Rahel Bailie, and myself are all people who have, in her words, “Let but not left” – bridging the gap between the “world of TC” and the wider content community. TechComms is not to be left behind if you’re really promoting an integrated approach to content and customer experience.


UPDATE (18:19 18/05/2011):

Julie has commented on this post and part 2 to point out an error.  Because I was not able to access her blog directly, I was left with the misinterpretation that she had in fact ‘left’ TechComms for pastures new.  The truth was that was refocusing her blog away from TechComms, but she is today and will continue to be a Technical Communications practitioner.  I have left the rest of the blog as was, because the key point is the reaction that the mere idea caused.  At Julie’s request I have included this point of fact that she has not ‘left’ at all.  Any words not quoted directly from her blog were my interpretation based on Tom Johnson’s post and the contents are not to be attributed to Julie herself.


Scott pointed out a word of wisdom to me: “TechComms professionals should consider how having real-time analytics and unique IDs on every piece of content they create affects their process and measurements.” Seeing how content is used, shared, and consumed can help optimise and prioritise content and tasks. Why was this procedure shared or “favourited” fifty times, and this one twice?

What does that say about the content, or even the product and its design?

For more, see: http://lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com/2011/01/social-media-and-super-role-of.html

If you don’t have public facing documentation, what about socially enabling the intranet or secure customer extranet so that key clients, or your hundreds of support, services and engineering colleagues can give you feedback after the content goes live? Imagine. Well, we have the technology! These are the same SMEs who are always ignoring your requests for feedback and reviews before content release. Post-launch is not too late to fix things in the socially enabled web world.

But, TechComms aren’t the only group of Communications and Content folks mired in the past. We all are. If we’re only on the edge of major change with a clearly visible future, then we are all, ipso facto, living the past.

Is MarComms Mired in the Past? Hell Yeah.

But I’d say less so.

The web is fast and fickle.

Web-oriented, and Marketing-oriented folks are ok with that. They’re ready to adopt whatever’s hot, leave behind what is not, and are generally vision-oriented, not detail oriented. In the Archipelago of Internet Marketing*, they quite enjoy the fluid flux and flow of web work and the instant gratification of metrics and analytics. It’s all a bit more easy-going on Ze Islands! Basically, they are committed to brand and see it as their responsibility to root out all threats to its global domination. If that includes support and technical content, so be it.

*See the first post in the series.

That said, there’s definitively lots of ‘mired in the past’ thinking. Often an Internet Marketing consultant comes in, maybe with their freshly minted Content Strategist passport, and is asked to look at a business problem. This involves the audiences, the workflows and of course the content. What are we giving these people? Too often we’ll consider these issues with a marketing or brand bias, because of our backgrounds.

Content can get neglected, or it’s assumed that needed content can come from the ‘usual’ content sources. Content that comes from deeper in the organisation (for example, technical content) is the harder content to get, and therefore the easiest content to neglect.

If the content the people want is coming from technical communicators, then we have to find a way to deliver that isn’t shoving up a forum and a bunch of hard-to-index, hard-to-share PDFs on the site and calling it a ‘Knowledge and Support Centre’.

I am still hearing a lot of agencies and consultants on the web-focussed side saying “My customer just wants to launch a website. They don’t want me complicating their lives”. Why should they change when the market is not asking for change?  How can you know how much more effective you can be if you don’t have other companies to benchmark yourself against?

Each consultant or software vendor is being engaged by one contact, with his or her own agenda, for his or her own department within the enterprise. Those individuals or teams are not pushing for integration the way they should be.

The true work of Content Strategy – as a field – is not done until that market mentality changes, and organisations are asking for unified, integrated content experiences for their customers.

A Glimpse at the Future

So, what does it look like when marketing and technical mentalities collaborate? Here’s just one example (I’d like to see more in the comments from all of you).

Firefox has overtaken Internet Explorer as the world’s leading Internet Browser. Look at the help content on their Sumo (Support Mozilla) site. It’s something any communicator could love. It’s engaging, aesthetic, re-enforces brand values and is tuned for the audience.


Note the stark contrast with a traditional manual or online help layout and feel.
Take this example of their help text (from the first link “How to set the home page”):

“Setting your home page in Firefox is easy. Can’t decide on just one page? No problem. Firefox lets you set a group of websites as your home page.”

Friendly, chatty, and although it’s direct and to the point, has some “unnecessary” words like “Can’t decide on just one page?” that are there to connect to the user. This combination of community forum, support, and technical documentation into a single platform has enabled technical content to be tracked and measured en masse, but also by the individual author on their specific contributions. This is truly the best of all worlds.

All this content is volunteer generated. Content professionals spend so long talking about how we should speak to users, this is an example of the users showing us exactly how they want to be spoken to.

Part of what motivated this revolution in approach was: “Firefox quickly went from an early-adopters’ browser for the tech savvy (not because Firefox was hard to use, but because early adopters tend to have an affinity with technology) to a mainstream browser used by everyone.” They weren’t appealing to geeks anymore, and had to take on some slick marketing-esque techniques to make things work for the mainstream.

This line from their “Scope” topic discussing Sumo sums up the connection between content of this type, and revenue nicely:

“Firefox is one of the rare and probably the only open source project of this magnitude that has a business model. More Firefox users = More money for Firefox.”

They’ve embraced social technical content, with an aim to improve experience and revenues, and they have the metrics to prove it was a success.

To some extent, this is like gamification – i.e. rewarding positive acts with “points”, levels and social recognition among peers.

Firefox are of course piping their support out through Twitter and Facebook as well.

For more see: http://blog.mozilla.com/sumo/2009/03/30/the-road-to-sumo-in-retrospect/

People today (ask everyone you know who doesn’t know you’re a tech author) want to type a few words into a web page and be gratified ASAP. But, can every product be supported by online social platforms, or Twitter and Facebook specifically? No. Heck, some products still need printed manuals, because that’s the nature of their business context. Every communicator needs to explore how some new interaction models apply to their users and context, and assess if they’re still delivering the best possible communication service.

Do all products even need “technical content”? No. I’ve never read a manual for a piece of clothing, or a hotel package, but some of the websites that sold them to me might need some good guidance information to make the usable. Technical Communications aren’t just the failure of good design. Don’t think of them as a recourse, but as an asset.

In the next and final chapter, we wrap up and I solicit those exceptions that prove the rule*.  

*Don’t you just love that expression?  So delightfully nonsensical…


  1. Julie Norris

    Hi again – I left a comment that also applies to this post on the second one in your series: When Content Strategies Collide Pt 2: Customer Impact. Please review that as well.


  2. B. Noz Urbina

     Hi Julie,  I have not removed the offending content but I have made absolutely clear that a) you never said you left TechComms, and b) anything that you were actually quoted as saying should not be attributed to you and is my or Tom’s (mis)interpretations.   

    The reason I didn’t simply remove things was a) time, as I’d have to think about how to remove things to make them make sense as there are many internal references to these ideas b) the fact you were misinterpreted and lampooned is evidence to the point that there’s vast emotion and reaction around these issues and (perceived) dissenters should be warned.  I have placed the updates inline to make sure that people do not have to read to the comments to be informed of the inaccuracies in the original post.

    I hope this works for you.


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