Building the Business Case for Content Optimization Software
“The human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language.” – James Earl Jones
One of the greatest rewards of being human is the ability to share your thoughts with others. When you’re at your most effective in communicating, an idea that profoundly resonates with you will profoundly resonate with your audience.
You may not need profound resonance for technical communications, but you still want your audience to understand what you deliver. Do your words communicate your message clearly? Or do your words cloak your communications in confusion and distraction.
How Do You Make Sure Your Words Work Well?
How do you ensure that your language is good enough to meet your business goals?
Many organizations try to maintain quality and consistency by standardizing their style and terminology. They usually base their style guide on a standard such as The Chicago Manual of Style and then add their own company-specific rules. They also build a database of terminology so that everyone knows the correct brand names, product names, product categories, and technical terms.
But the problem with relying on a style guide is that compliance varies widely, and even the best writers have trouble seeing errors in their own work.
To help with compliance, many organizations deploy editors to check for violations—but that’s increasingly unaffordable. Companies no longer have the budget for professional editors to check every customer-facing sentence that the organization produces. Many companies cannot even afford to have trained writers produce all of their communications, which increasingly come from engineers who are not professional communicators. In fact, they may not be native speakers of the language in which they are writing.
Content Optimization Software Can Help
How can you ease the burden on your copy editors?
Many errors in communication are language errors that range from misspellings and misuse of terminology, to grammatical errors and inappropriate style. You can use professional editors to find these errors, but that’s a waste of precious talent. Your editors add the greatest value when they help to improve the substance of your communications by focusing on correctness and completeness.
To reduce or eliminate the task of finding and correcting language errors, companies like Acrolinx, Across, SDL, and Tedopres offer “content optimization software” that automatically checks for many language problems. Automation of the copy editing process leaves your editors free to focus on correctness and completeness.
To an author, these products behave like spell checkers. They flag potential problems in your text and check for problems such as
- Terminology and branding violations
- Content under-optimized for search engines
- Safety or compliance issues arising from misleading or obsolete terminology
- Style violations such as long and complicated sentences
- Tone of voice problems such as how to address your customers and avoid jargon
- Issues that make translation more difficult and expensive
To check for all of these problems, you would have to remember hundreds of rules and thousands of terms. Even the best authors and editors can’t catch every error, every time. (And even the best of us are guilty of an extra preposition that sneaks in during re-writes or the occasional verbose or ponderous phrase.)
Who Uses Content Optimization Software?
Most organizations that use content optimization software are medium to large companies that operate internationally in competitive markets. They produce a lot of content, and the content is vital to supporting entire lifecycle of selecting and owning a product.
Individual motivations for using the software vary:
- Professional authors: many people who are trained as authors view automated checking of language with some skepticism. But after learning the extent of the checking capabilities of content optimization software, most skeptics realize that they cannot keep all the rules in their heads, much less catch every error in copy that they’ve already spent a lot of time on.
- Editors: editing involves two very different methods of reviewing text: 1) word-by-word reading to look for spelling, grammar, style, and terminology problems and 2) skimming to check for technical accuracy and structural problems. Checking for language problems can eat up as much as 80 percent of an editor’s time, and it’s unsatisfying, low-value work. If authors run automated checks for language problems before content reaches the editor, then editors can become twice as productive and gain greater satisfaction in their work.
- Non-professional authors: content increasingly comes from subject matter experts who are not trained writers—and this content increasingly goes directly to customers with little or no internal reviews first. Software that checks for language problems cannot find every language error, but it can help a lot.
- Teams of writers: many authoring teams create information in multiple components (such as DITA topics) and assemble them into information sets (such as books or help systems). But does the reader of a collection of components immediately sense that it came from many different authors? Writing teams that prefer to “speak with one voice” can gain significant improvements with little additional effort by using language-checking software.
- Localization: to reduce costs, translators already employ a lot of technology. One of the few untapped areas of inefficiency is in authoring the source content, where small improvements in the source language can have large impacts on the cost and quality of translations. But writing for translatability is different than writing for native speakers, and that’s where language-checking software can help. By pointing authors to word choices and sentence structures that increase translation costs, language-checking software can drive down localization costs even further.
- Customers: your customers may not know you’re using language-checking software, but they certainly notice problems in readability and consistency. Cleaning up these problems improves comprehension for native speakers and non-native speakers alike. And for non-native speakers who use Google Translate to translate your content into their own languages, improving the source language helps improve the quality of the translation.
- Support: customers can only consume your content if they can find it (whether on the web or within your knowledgebase)—and you cannot simply assume that your content will be findable. In fact, organizations that have optimized their support content for search have seen increases in readership of 100 percent while reducing support calls by 30 percent. To improve findability, language-checking software can guide your authors to make sure they insert the correct keywords in the correct locations.
Building Your Business Case
Now that you understand the impact of content optimization software, how do you build a business case to convince your management to invest in it?
Your first thought may be to show a positive Return on Investment (ROI), which is indeed a critical part of your business case. But there’s another part that’s even more important: you must show how your proposal supports your company’s strategic goals.
Out of hundreds of business cases that this author has seen, how many positive decisions rested on ROI alone, without regard to strategic fit? None. (And how many rested on strategic fit alone, without regard to ROI? Fewer than 10 percent.)
At the 2012 Best Practices Conference, Ben Jackson and Paul Perotta of Juniper Networks described their successful effort to persuade top management to invest additional resources in technical documentation. In their presentation, they strongly reinforced the importance of beginning by showing how your proposal aligns with the company’s strategy.
Ben and Paul pointed out that if you instead begin your proposal by focusing on how it will increase efficiency, you’ve merely called attention to your department’s role as a cost center (“status quo”). But if you show how you “help the business” (by supporting the company’s key strategies), then you “change the paradigm” and become strategic yourself.
Therefore, your business case should not begin by showing how your proposal reinforces your company strategy. Instead, it should begin by showing how your department delivers strategic value. Technical documentation leaders know better than anyone the importance of technical information:
- Prospects increasingly rely on technical documentation to make their buying decisions. (If you need proof, see the articles at <http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/07/customer-service-fulkerson-technology-documentation.html> and <http://www.executiveboard.com/sales-blog/hey-motivated-buyer-youve-changed/>; the latter article points out that prospects are typically 57 percent of the way through the buying process before their first contact with sales, which means they rely on information such as technical documentation to get them through the early stages.)
- Customer satisfaction partly depends on customers being able to find and understand documentation when they need it. (The guys from Juniper quoted studies from Cisco and Microsoft that showed that their customers value documentation as worth 10 percent to 20 percent of the product cost.)
Your business case should begin with the strategic value of what you do and then show how your specific proposal reinforces the company strategy.
So how does your proposal reinforce the company strategy? The following table offers some ideas for connecting company strategy to language improvement:
|Language Improvement||Related Company Strategy|
|Lower translation costs||Geographical expansion|
|Faster editing and translation||Faster product cycles|
|Lower editing, support and translation costs||Lower costs|
|Higher content quality, more understandable and consistent||Greater customer satisfaction|
|Improved findability and comprehension||Better customer support|
|Less work for SMEs, editors, reviewers and translators||Higher productivity|
Please do not select ALL of the strategies. Instead, make sure you know which initiatives your executives care about and align your messages to those initiatives. (If you have trouble figuring out your key strategies, look at your company’s annual report or a recent “message to shareholders.”)
In addition to showing how your proposal supports your organization’s strategy, you also have to show how the investment will pay for itself.
There are two sides to the financial impact of language-checking software:
- Internal process efficiencies that yield cost savings and productivity improvements
- Language improvements that create more opportunity such as higher revenue
Most organizations find that they can build their ROI on internal efficiencies alone—and that’s good, because proving a direct impact on revenue is difficult.
Internal efficiencies typically come in three areas:
- 5-15 percent reduction in translation costs
- 0-15 percent increase in authoring productivity
- 50-60 percent increase in editing productivity
If you must build your business case on provable numbers, then you can work with one of the content optimization software vendors or a third-party service provider to analyze a representative sample of your content and calculate your likely improvement.
But before you invest in developing proof, you should compare your situation to the typical factors that drive the typical results shown above:
Reductions in translation costs come from four key areas:
- Fewer words: unless your authors are unusually economical in their use of words, you can expect language-checking software to reduce word count by 2 percent to 5 percent. This reduction equates directly to lower translation costs by the same percentage.
- Fewer problems: you can also expect 10 percent fewer issues to resolve, where your translators must go back to your authors for clarification. The budget impact of this improvement depends on your business relationship with your translators: if you pay for problem resolution through a higher cost-per-word, will your translator agree to reduce that cost if fewer problems arise?
- Reduction in redundancy: you can also reduce translation costs by helping authors replace their newly written sentences with existing sentences that have already been translated. (This approach shifts the responsibility of selecting appropriate “fuzzy matches” from translators to authors.) To judge the impact, you can examine existing metrics from your translators.
(However, you must also judge whether your authors have the skills to judge fuzzy matches correctly. Your trained, professional authors won’t have a problem with this task, but other writers may not have the language skills to decide if two sentences are functionally equivalent.)
- Reduction in downstream errors: you spend a lot more money to fix errors that slip through the review process and are caught only after translation. As Figure 1 shows, if language-checking software can catch a few errors a week that would otherwise be caught only after translation, you can reap substantial savings.
Figure 1: Errors caught early in the process (which begins at the top of the triangle) cost much less to fix than those caught late in the process (which is the bottom of the triangle). For example, an error fixed at the “Specification” stage may cost only $1 to fix, but if it’s caught only after distribution to customers, then correcting that error can cost $500—for each target language!
Authors who use language-checking software typically see these impacts:
- Reduction of referrals to your style guide: language-checking software builds your style guide and terminology list into the authoring process. By building these references into the process, you can reduce or eliminate the time your authors spend looking up guidelines and terminology. Built-in guidance also reduces or eliminates the time you spend training new authors on your style guide and terminology.
The more diligently your authors follow your guidelines, the more you’ll save by building those guidelines into their tools. Conversely, if your authors never refer to the style guide, then you’ll see no savings here (but more savings elsewhere).
- Higher efficiency from finding issues immediately: the sooner you catch a problem, the less it costs to fix. When the author sees a problem that would otherwise be caught later, during the review process, it takes less time to fix because the writing is still fresh in the author’s mind.
Although editors may use language-checking software themselves, they primarily benefit when others use the software. The degree of benefit depends on the percentage of time editors spend on copyediting (as opposed to editing for accuracy, completeness, and other aspects of content quality). Editors who spend a greater percentage of their time on copyediting will realize greater productivity improvements from language-checking software.
Seldom do companies improve editing productivity so they can reduce costs. Instead, they use the improvements in productivity to expand capacity and apply editors to higher-value work. Still, improving productivity is just as important as cost reduction because it increases capacity and therefore avoids future costs.
By producing fewer documentation errors, some organizations may see reductions in regulatory and legal penalties.
If you can make your content easier to find and understand, you can logically expect improvements in customer acquisition, customer retention, customer support, and customer satisfaction. For example, you can logically expect to reduce:
- Purchases that don’t happen
- Support calls from confused customers
- Product returns from frustrated customers
- Negative customer reviews
However, executives tend to be rightly skeptical of such claims, so you should position these benefits as “sweeteners” for an already-robust business case. You may want to quantify the impact, but where do you start?
In one test that measured customer satisfaction with knowledgebase articles (using a survey at the bottom of each page that asks, “Did you find this helpful?”), improving the language by using content optimization software resulted in increases in customer satisfaction that averaged over 20 percent.
Perhaps you could reasonably argue that a 20 percent increase in customer satisfaction could yield improvements of 0.5 percent to 1 percent in customer acquisition and retention. You’ll never prove it, but no one can prove that you’re wrong either.
To help you create your ROI story, Acrolinx has created a spreadsheet that you can download. Please see the end of this article for the link.
Presenting Your Business Case
When the time comes to present your business case, you should consider following this outline:
- How content problems hinder achievement of your organization’s strategic objectives
- Impact of content on your customers
- How important is your content to customer success?
- What is the impact on customer
- If possible, tell stories about how content problems led to customer problems.
- How your proposed project will
- Improve your content
- Support your organization’s strategic objectives
- Quantitative business case
- Third-party credibility
- List other organizations already
optimizing their content
- Provide analyst commentary
- List other organizations already
For further help with your presentation, including slides to establish third-party credibility, you can download material that Acrolinx has posted on its web site (see the link under “ROI Spreadsheet” below).
In October 2012, Acrolinx presented a webinar on the same topic as this article. Along with the PowerPoint slides and recording, Acrolinx also provided a spreadsheet that you may find helpful for building your business case. To access this material (registration is required), go to <http://www.acrolinx.com/watch_webinar/items/building-the-business-case-for-content-optimization.html>.
About the Author:
PG Bartlett has spent the last 18 years helping companies automate their content authoring, management and publishing processes. He loves clear, compelling communications and he loves technology; as Acrolinx’s head of product management, he gets to indulge in both.