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Are you a marketeer or a technical communicator?

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2012. Are you a marketeer or a technical communicator? Intercom Nov./Dec.:22–23.

We technical communicators like to divide our world into tidy categories, and usually only two of them—online versus print, handcrafted versus single-sourced, visual versus textual, and so on. One of the more interesting dichotomies is the gap between what we do and what the marketing writers (“marketeers”, in the words of an irreverent colleague) do. On the face of it, the dichotomy is simple: marketers persuade the customer, by fair means or foul, to purchase the product, whereas we teach them how to use the purchased product so they won’t return it in disgust shortly after they’ve unwrapped it. But if reality were that simple, this would be a one-paragraph article.

Fortunately for my literary career, reality is more interesting.

One useful way to think of the difference between the two professions is in terms of pitch. If you hear that word and think “propellers”, you’re probably an engineer and should stop reading now and get back to work on that TiVo-killer you’ve been tinkering with. If your first thought was “baseball”, you’re a probably a manager with an MBA, and this article is wasted on you. Go back to reading the Harvard Business Review. If “singing” filled your thoughts, you’re probably a graphic artist, and you should stop doodling and pay attention to what you’re reading. If you thought “spin”, you’re probably a marketer. If you recognized that each of these audiences defines the word differently, you’re unquestionably a technical communicator. But if you’ve ever secretly dreamed of becoming a marketing writer, there’s hope; you already understand the notion of market segmentation, a fundamental of marketing. Since understanding some of the differences in how the two professions see the world is essential to making the leap, here are a few thoughts that will point you in the right direction.

If you’ve ever been asked what you do for a living, or have tried to gain a colleague’s respect for your work, you’ve probably engaged in amateur marketing in the form of the infamous “elevator” speech. The goal is to explain what you do in a way that captures the listener’s interest in a matter of seconds, and communicate the essential message before they grow so bored they start prying at the door to escape. My traditional take on the elevator speech was to describe myself as a “professional idiot”. The professional part meant that, unlike an amateur, I get paid. (Not always well, but enough so I have time to write essays like this one.) The idiot part is clear to anyone who knows me, but for strangers, I put a positive spin on the notion: I can find a way to misunderstand anything, figure out why I had a problem, and then explain the concept so even a real idiot understands. (If you’re single, a word of warning: As pickup lines go, this is about as successful as showing someone your Palm Pilot and waiting for a compliment on your uber-geek status.)

You’ve probably heard the notion that good documentation is good marketing, and it’s true. A colleague who shall remain nameless, for reasons that will soon become obvious, transitioned from technical writing to marketing many years ago. He once told me (off the record) of his first great marketing coup, namely gaining an important client through superior documentation. His company's product was competing with a strong rival product, and the client’s decision hinged on which product had the best documentation. Thinking quickly, my colleague printed the previous version’s documentation, slapped a cover on it with a new version number, and made the sale while the competitor was still writing their documentation. The client never looked beyond the cover, proving the marketing adage that what you say is often less important than how you say it. (If you’re breathless with admiration, you’re a marketer. If you’re gritting your teeth and wondering why the company hadn’t given their staff time to produce the documentation, you’re a technical writer.)

Web 2.0, described as the social networking revolution, provides another illustration of the relationship between marketing and technical communication. Marketers use FaceBook, and the goal is to get people to “Like” your product. It doesn’t matter whether they can use it, just so long as your “like” count is an order of magnitude greater than your nearest competitor’s. Marketers are the guys on LinkedIn or BranchOut who crash the service because the developers didn’t plan for so many connections. But if you’re busy participating in the online community that discusses (and disses) your company’s product, providing expert advice in response to their vexing questions while simultaneously taking notes about the user interface and documentation problems they face, you’re a technical writer—even if you recognize that this is also a great marketing opportunity. If you’re really doing this to avoid documenting your 100th dialog box of the day, you’re a burned out technical writer, and maybe you should be considering a career change to marketing.

Interface disasters are another factor that separates the marketer from the technical writer. You’re a marketer if you can find a way to convince your audience that an interface best described as an “artrocity” is actually an asset. You’re a technical writer if you can teach them how to use it despite its “asset” status. A fruitful middle ground lies in the recognition that marketers are also part of our audience: they need to understand how something works (or how it doesn’t) so they can lead the audience to the good stuff while concealing the bad.

Come to think of it, that’s what many of us spend a significant portion of our time doing. Maybe the gap between what we do and what they do isn’t so great after all.

If, after reading this, you’re still not sure whether you’re cut out to be a marketer or might still be a technical communicator at heart, ask yourself what the word “branding” means to you. If your first thought is a program carefully designed to present a single, consistent, attractive image for your employer, you’ve got a promising future as a marketer. If your first thought is that it’s a painful, permanent, and degrading alternative to a tattoo, designed to show the world which company p0wns you, then you’re still thinking like a technical communicator.

Marketing has a long, proud history, dating back to the Garden of Eden and the snake who first talked Eve into trying out the apple with a money-back guarantee. (If you “Think Different” about this turning point in human history, then thank Apple’s marketing department.) Let’s be honest with ourselves here: if it weren’t for marketing, nobody would be buying the products we document, and we’d have to look for honest work. So while we may not want to embrace the “dark side of the Force” ourselves, we should be grateful it exists. After all, even unsung heroes aren’t much use without some bad guys to spar with.

[A look back: And if you don't have any problem with salting an article this badly with "scare quotes", you're probably a marketer.—GH]

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