Here at easyDITA, we use a sales and marketing automation tool to track our interactions with prospective customers and their interactions with our content, websites, etc. A few weeks ago we received a Free Trial request from a tech writer at a large European company. Shortly after we replied I noticed something interesting. The system tracks email exchanges and relates them to other activity. This is done by means of tracking links attached to pages and emails. This is a very common marketing automation process that helps us understand what aspects of a DITA CCMS a prospect may be interested in.
This visitor clicked a link in our follow-up email that led him to our documentation site. Because he clicked from that email link we could see his activity path on the site (only on our site!) during that session. And he proceeded to methodically (and quickly) look at every page on the docs site. As a marketer this was interesting because it verified a very important new way people are interacting with documentation: They are using it to do primary research before a purchase.
Documentation Has Authority Because It Is Written for Customers, Not To Convince Prospects
If you think about it, this makes total sense. Marketing descriptions of complex products very seldom tell you anything specific about how it works, how hard it is to set-up and learn, its actual capabilities and how they work, etc. (I’m a marketing writer and this really bugs me when I’m researching a product, but that’s another rant…). Documentation does all these things in very granular detail because it’s written and designed to clearly help an actual user use the product (at least it should do this). It contains warnings and legal disclaimers, offers a view into complexity and scalability, and tells the visitor a lot about how the company will provide support services to them. And it does this with an authority that no marketing piece can ever convey. This authority comes from the fact that poor documentation may indicate a poor user experience, leading to negative reviews, customer churn, and many other bad things. Conversely, if the documentation looks good, the customer experience is more likely to be positive.
Documentation is Becoming a Critical Aspect of Pre-purchase Research
Think about a business to business (B2B) purchasing process. A problem is identified and is becoming more urgent. Management tasks a potential user with researching solutions. They visit websites, ask current users, they read reviews, and they look at the documentation, because if they recommend this thing, they will be the ones using it! And then they make their recommendations to management.
Make Your Documentation Accessible to Prospects, as Well as Customers
So, start thinking about documentation as a marketing and sales resource. Don’t hide it behind logins or limit access to actual customers. Feature links to it on your product pages and reference it in your marketing materials. Make sure your sales team is familiar with your documentation and shares relevant links to it when prospects have questions about a particular feature or operation. There is rarely a reason to limit access to this resource, yet many companies don’t expose their documentation until a purchase is made. This is one of the reasons publishing to online media is vitally important (for example, having your documentation on mobile devices means it moves out into the field with your products).
Tone and Style Matter…and So Does Your Docs Team
Work with your tech writers to develop a clear tone and voice, and conversational language style guides that won’t scare away a first time visitor doing their homework. Generally speaking, this change in tone from very technical to more plain language style has become the standard for technical writing. In addition to making your documentation more user-friendly, it offers the added advantage of being much easier to translate into other languages.
Documentation Teams Need to Be Seen in a New Light
In the world of content management, documentation teams have often been relegated to a poor relations role in many companies, resulting in understaffing, limited budgets, and backlogs of inaccurate or out-dated documentation. To me, this is simply crazy. Marketing teams need to embrace documentation, fund quality technical content development, and push it out to where prospective customers can find it.
Finally, give the docs team credit where credit is due- they should be direct contributors to the bottom line, not a cost center.