Commoditization is one of the largest threats facing technical communicators today. Time-to-market pressure — and corporate cost reduction mandates — make outsourcing technical communication work to lower-cost, offshore shops an attractive option.

Commoditization is natural. Services become commoditized when buyers see no qualitative difference between those who produce them. Once something becomes a commodity, companies tend to buy from the least expensive provider.

While commoditization can be good for business, it’s seldom good for the survival of professions adverse to change. Commoditization is what happens to you when you don’t pay attention to the world around you. It’s what happens to you when you cling to the past, instead of preparing for the future.

Many technical communication jobs have been commoditized, a trend that is expected to continue. That’s bad news for technical communicators who believe that their value — the sole reason businesses need them — is their linguistic prowess. In today’s world, exceptional word-smithing skills are insufficient protection from commoditization.

How Technical Writers Avoid Commoditization

One of the best ways to defend against commoditization is to differentiate yourself from the competition. Differentiation is the process of distinguishing yourself from others. Differentiation means making yourself — and the value of the products and services you provide — more attractive than those of your competitors.

Differentiation isn’t what you do; it’s how you do it.

To stave off competition from cheaper providers, technical communicators must stop focusing their efforts on performing low-value busy work. Instead, they must concentrate on creating content intentionally designed to have a positive impact on sales.

Technical Writers Can Learn a Lot From Content Marketers

According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketers are responsible for “creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistently crafted content; content designed to attract — and acquire — members of a clearly defined audience.” The objective of their work is to “drive profitable customer action” with the content they produce. In the end, they receive rewards for delivering prospective customers (leads) to the sales team.

Technical writers, on the other hand, prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, and other supporting content. The objective of their work is to communicate complex and technical information in a clear, easy-to-understand manner. They receive rewards for delivering product content on time.

Unlike content marketers, technical writers are producers of a necessary byproduct of product and service design: documentation — an expensive commodity. Technical writing is a cost center.

Content marketers, however, are seen as sales enablers; connecting content to prospects to build brand awareness, develop interest, and attract new customers. Content marketing is a revenue generation center.

Content marketers focus on the business impact of the content they produce, especially its connection to sales. Creating content that enables sales is a critical differentiator for content marketers. It protects them from disruption. No one gets laid off for successfully helping a company sell its products and services.

Connecting the creation of high-quality technical content to the sales process is key to avoiding commoditization. When technical communicators are intimately involved in creating relevant, valuable, high-performance content, commoditization is unlikely.

Focus Work on High-Value Tasks

Connecting technical content to sales involves changing the way technical communicators work. By focusing on high-value tasks — and finding ways to automate low-value chores — technical communication professionals can optimize their workload and focus on providing value to the organizations they serve.

“Many writers and editors have become babysitters of content. They’ve become content policemen of sorts. That’s not a valuable use of their time or our money,” says Kathleen Pierce of Illumina, a global leader in genomics — an industry at the intersection of biology and technology.

“Making writers and editors responsible for enforcing grammar, linguistic, style, and branding rules is an ineffective use of limited resources,” Pierce says. “What we need are writers and editors to think strategically about our content. If they’re busy babysitting content quality, they can’t focus on adding value to customer experience.”

To help ensure writers focus on high-value tasks, Illumina adopted the Acrolinx platform. Acrolinx helps writers (and editors) communicate consistently, avoid errors, and maintain the tone of voice desired by the company.

The platform works in the background as writers craft content. It provides writers with tips and suggestions designed to ensure the content is easy to read, complies with branding, style, and voice guidelines, and adheres to grammatical, punctuation, and other rules. Writers are held accountable for creating relevant and valuable content, while the busywork of compliance is delegated to the tool, allowing writers to focus on creating exceedingly useful content experiences.

Connect Technical Content to Sales

To avoid commoditization, technical writers must find ways to connect technical content to sales. They must set goals for content performance and determine whether or not the content assets they produce deliver measurable business results. Connecting technical content to sales involves technical communicators understanding all aspects of the customer journey, not just their traditional post-sales turf.

To differentiate themselves from the competition today, technical communicators must be hyperproductive. They must be good stewards of their time, work efficiently, effectively, and rely on assistance from software. They must also understand how customers become aware of a product, how and where they prefer to learn about it, and what content they find most valuable throughout the customer journey. Technical writers also need to understand what causes prospects to become customers, what factors influence customer loyalty, and how to turn happy customers into volunteer evangelists for the brand.

Companies that value their content as a business asset set measurable business goals for content performance. Content marketers understand what many technical communicators don’t: The value of their effort isn’t the quality of the content itself, it’s the performance of quality content that matters.

When content fails to perform, content marketers adjust their approach and try again.

Technical communicators create content to help customers find the answers they need, when and where they need them, in the language and format they prefer, on the device of their choosing. However, it’s also the job of the technical communicator to learn lessons about content from others. Content marketers, training developers, and customer support personnel all have valuable lessons to share.

Interested in what content marketers can learn from technical writers about content? Check out my previous post to find out.