Christopher Ward, WebWorks

“Content becomes the most pivotal asset to a company’s continued success.” This was how Suzanne Mescan of Vasont Systems and I started our presentation at last year’s DITA North America conference. We understand that presently there is a shift in the way that consumers view content. Because of this shift, the Technical Communication industry has an opportunity to increase its value in business strategy. I wanted to start this article with the reasons we feel this shift happening, so we can better understand it and as an industry take full advantage of this opportunity.

One reason for the shift is the informed consumer. The way we write content really has not changed that much. Sentence has structure; grammar has rules, all of which are meant to help the writer deliver a message to the reader. What is changing in documentation is how eager an audience is to receive that information. They wanted more from their content.

Eric K. Clemons is the Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wharton School of Business. He wrote a paper titled, “How Information Changes Consumer Behavior and How Consumer Behavior Determines Corporate Strategy”. In this paper he goes over how an informed consumer behaves and how consumers now understand that the more informed they are, the more they benefit when making buying decisions. Content needs to start meeting the needs of the informed consumer, which means sentence structure and grammar can remain the same, but the message needs to change. Who gets control over that change is what we are trying to influence with our presentations. An awareness campaign in the Technical Communications field will prepare us to take control over the message, allowing us to keep control of our departments. If businesses want to compete, they are going to have to meet the needs of the informed consumer. Keep in mind; this is a need that has to be met even before being considered for a purchase. So as content becomes more involved in business strategy, more departments are going to become interested in it as well. That is why it is so important to understand everything that is going on.

The second reason for the shift is technology. Look at the path documentation has taken. Originally, it was in print format. That is all business needed for a very long time. Then with the development of the personal computer, businesses needed content in an electronic form. PDF became wildly popular and that held for a while. Then the Internet started to emerge and a need for HTML emerged with it. Now with mobile technology content has to be smart; understanding the device, the location and the preferences of the audience. According to Pew Research, in 2013 57 percent of all American adults use a cell phone to access information on the Internet. One-third of these cell internet users have their phone as their primary internet device. That is too large of a group for businesses to ignore, and it keeps growing.

Finally, the third reason for the shift in documentation is Big Data. As defined in Wikipedia, Big Data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications. Basically, everything we do is being recorded. How we travel, where we travel, how we shop, how we work, how we play, even likes and dislikes are all being recorded and reported in some digital form. According to the Harvard Business review “Big Data: The Management Revolution”, Walmart collects more than 2.5 petabytes of data every hour, just from customer transactions. That is enough information to fill 20 million filing cabinets. First reaction to this might be of paranoia. Constantly being watched or tracked has a feel of Orwell’s 1984. What is surprising is that as consumers become more comfortable with this phenomenon, they are starting to expect more from their vendors. When they log in to a web site, call someone on the phone, do a search for information, informed consumers have higher expectations because they know their information is already out there and expect it to be used. Companies without a strategy on how to use this data will not be meeting the expectation of their consumer.

Our discussion last year presented a mindset and a strategy on how to take advantage of this shift. It was titled “Show Them the Money! Assessing Your Corporate Value.” In it we discussed how to evolve in to a Knowledge Broker in 5 steps. The Knowledge Broker would first approach documentation with a different mindset, not as a business expense but as a revenue generating tool. They would understand the consumer decision-making process and where their content would fit in that process. They would learn about their company’s business strategy and make sure their procedures aligned with them. They would write business strategic content for a loyal consumer increasing their product value, and finally they would redefine their measures and report them back to the company with a living, changing workflow.

It was well received and we will continue the conversation this year. At the 2014 Content Management Strategies/DITA North America, we will be presenting, “Don’t Settle for Lemonade; Give them Elixir”. It is a continuation of last year’s presentation with a deeper dive on content strategy during this shift. We will define measures and show how to translate them back into the overall business strategy. We will also show how to build your business case and how to deliver those results.

Content is developed to transfer knowledge. For it to be successful, the audience has to reach an understanding of the message. The informed consumer is demanding that understanding; they want it to move them from one point to another, helping them make decisions. With this new demand, successful content can contribute back to the business in a way that no other department can. This is our Nirvana and this is where Suzanne and I would like to guide you.