From technical writer to content strategist at STC Summit 2013

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.

Alan Porter‘s presentation is called From Technical Writer to Content Strategist. Here’s what Alan promises for this session:

Content strategy is a hot topic right now. The rise in corporate awareness of the value of content represents a great opportunity for technical writers to leverage their skills and experience. This session will help you position yourself to take advantage of that opportunity.

I’m looking forward to a talk by Alan, someone I admire for his diversity and depth of knowledge in the writing and communication fields.

Kicking off the session

After a couple of laughs about food, beer, and cut-and-paste (you had to be there!) Alan summarised the message of his session like this:

I’m going to talk about why I think technical communicators are best fitted to become content strategists.

Alan asked various members of the audience what their company does. After hearing a few specific answers (develop software, medical devices, etc) someone got the right answer: Every company is in business to make money. The other answers describe how we do it.

There’s no good developing something, without telling people about it. That’s marketing. Then you have to get people to buy it. That’s sales. Collect money. That’s finance.

And the fifth thing every company does is: Create content.

Different views of content

The thing about content is, it’s not seen as a strategic asset, because everyone creates is. We have to change this view. Depending on your role, you have a different view of content. Alan showed us some pictures of different ways of seeing a pig.

  • Marketing puts the lipstick on the pig.
  • The tech comm department shows a diagram of the pig and describes its various parts.
  • The customer sees pigs wallowing in the mud.

What customers care about

They care about their problems, not ours.

We’re the people causing the disruptions.

As content strategists, we need to see the customer’s view of the content. And we, as technical communicators, are really good at that.

Definition of content strategy

One problem is that there are so many definitions of content strategy at the moment.

To Alan, it’s about:

Achieving business goals for us and our customers, by maximising the impact of content.

Analysing enterprise content

Companies don’t know:

  • What content they have that is relevant to the customer.
  • Where the content gaps are. The content is developed in silos, so things slip through the cracks.
  • What resources are available elsewhere, either inside or outside the company, that you can use instead of developing new content.
  • How to put processes in place for the more advanced aspects of content, such as retiring content, managing content.
  • How to deliver content in the way the customer needs.

Where a content strategy fits

Alan showed us a four-part pyramid. From the top down:

  • Editorial vision
  • Content strategy
  • New capabilities
  • Foundational capabilities – these are the skills and knowledge that technical writers have. Things like metadata, for example.

Providing value to the customer

Content needs to be engaging, relevant and actionable. It must help the customer do something, so they can solve an immediate business need. Alan is currently analysing exactly what “engaging” means. In part, it must be something the customer wants to read, and can find easily.

Where’s the opportunity for a technical communicator?

A survey asked companies whether they have a unified content strategy that covers both marketing and multi-channel publishing. 80% of the responders said no.

That’s a big opportunity for us. But we need to change our terminology. Instead of talking about metadata and publishing processes, we must talk about business case and strategy. We need to use the vocabulary that the business uses. That’s the role of a content strategist.

Alan took us through a chart showing a typical framework for a content strategy process. The chart is in his slide deck on on SlideShare.

How to go about it

Be aware that content resides across the organisation. We need to break down silos, build bridges, talk to people, and get them to talk to each other. End the cold war between departments, such as tech comm, marketing, training, and so on.

Perform audits of your content. Find out what you have, across the organisation. This can be painful. You need people who understand content, and can ask questions about the business purpose of the content.

Offer advice, build a vision, and share that vision across the organisation.

Figure out a way your content adds revenue. Don’t say you can save money, because that will make it more difficult to get more budget the following year.

Thank you Alan

My key take away from this talk is that we must learn to talk the language the business people are talking, and use it to emphasize our skills, knowledge and impact. Thank you Alan for an encouraging glimpse into the life of a technical communicator become content strategist.


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 8 May 2013, in STC, technical writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “A survey asked companies whether they have a unified content strategy that covers both marketing and multi-channel publishing.”

    That’s easy to say, a lot harder to do.

    • Hallo Ellis
      Agreed. Do you think it’s hard to have the unified content strategy because the two areas are necessarily different, or because of organisational problems/history that can/should be changed?

      • Marketing’s priority is to have content that works at that moment in time. I’m not sure they see a lot of their content as long lasting, and they may be right.

        I think multi-channel, and mobile, is the key. If Marketing really does need to move to having content published to different channels, they’ll need to take the same journey as Techcomms and “Step away from the InDesign”.

        At the moment, a lot of content doesn’t need to be multi-channel. For example, Alan’s PowerPoint slides are a silo.

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