This is the second post in a series about the future of technical communication. To read the first post, click here.

Technical communicators take note: Thanks to the evolving role of technical content, the days of being viewed as your organizations’ red-headed stepchildren are numbered. Up until recently, the conventional thinking was that technical communicators played a strictly adjunct role in their organizations — educating users so they wouldn’t have to go online or call the technical support desk for answers. In today’s content era, however, where content is the key to building customer relationships, companies are coming to appreciate techcomm as a tool for driving revenue.

In fact, these days a significant proportion of consumers go through almost the entire buying process before talking to a salesperson, relying on all types of content — including technical content — to help inform their decision. According to Sharon Burton’s 2012 Survey of Consumer Feelings about Product Instructions, for example, 32% of consumers typically look at product instructions before they buy.

This figure is likely higher for riskier purchases or more complex products, where people want to learn more about the product before buying. The results of a recent IBM survey bear this out. Reflecting the impact of technical content on their perceptions, customers reported that the quality of IBM’s content:

  • Drove their initial decision to purchase (88.7%)
  • Influenced their perception of a product or solution (96.2%)
  • Shaped their perception of the company (84.4%)

It’s worth noting that this kind of survey can be an invaluable tool for you to demonstrate how technical communications add value. You can easily set up the same survey yourself — and should do so today.

But the impact of technical content goes even further. When prospective customers go online to research products, their results include every kind of information: marketing content, technical content, and even support articles. Every page represents the company and its brand, regardless of where it originates in the organization. Technical content now has the power to speak on behalf of your company to actual and prospective customers as loudly as any marketing copy. Maybe even loud.

The power of technical content

For many people, technical content has greater credibility than marketing content. This is even more the case when technical writers engage in product conversations with customers, either as peers in online tech communities or through forums such as social media. As a result, customers get heard and have the opportunity to develop connections with the ‘faces’ and ‘ears’ of the organization.

Of course, the credibility of your company’s technical content depends on more than presenting only factual information. Customers also expect it to be consistent in quality, style, and tone of voice with the other content your company produces. Buyers notice inconsistencies. For example, I know an insurance company that bragged about how easy it was to do business with and then had to scramble when customers complained about the verbose, jargon-filled legalese of its documentation.

Inconsistent or confusing technical content can even persuade buyers to reverse their purchase decisions. An Accenture study reports that, of nearly $14 billion in consumer electronics returns and repairs in 2007 in the US, 68 percent of the returns occurred despite “no trouble found.” The study’s recommendations for reducing these returns included

  • Improved documentation
  • Better product education for customers
  • Stronger post-sales support

In fact, post-sale activities account for a growing share of the impact that technical communicators have on customer experience. For example, customer conversations on social media and other channels offer technical communicators the chance to gain valuable insight into what customers want, and relay that perspective back into their organizations. They can also make innovative use of their expanding library of technical collateral. At Symantec, for example, which one of the world’s largest software companies, support calls related to articles that they optimized for findability dropped by one-third.

Technical communicators who want to be seen as relevant in this new content era need to understand that the content they are creating helps to sell their company’s product or service. While your company can no longer afford to undervalue and marginalize techcomm, neither can technical communicators afford to remain isolated from the organization. Instead, they should circulate, ask colleagues throughout the company what matters to them from a marketing and customer perspective, and offer their own ideas for building customer relationships.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how tech communicators can shape the conversations with their manager to reposition themselves for the future.