If I simply say the words, CocaCola, BMW, Rolex, Chanel, or Disney, certain thoughts immediately spring into your mind. Images of a logo or a product, certainly, and maybe a jingle or a slogan, but these words likely also trigger emotions, memories, and even value judgments. In other words, these words are more than just a name or logo that associate a product with a specific company; they encompass an emotional or psychological connection between the person hearing or seeing the word and the company that has communicated it. They are “brands” and are carefully crafted to attract the attention of a targeted group of people. Indeed, companies such as the ones I’ve listed, spend unfathomable amounts of money to build that branding message, to associate feelings and perceptions with the products they offer.
But branding isn’t limited to these large commercial companies with billions of advertising dollars. We all have a brand; the difference is that we often don’t give it the care, attention, and grooming that these commercial products do. We might all want brands like <insert your favorite celebrity here>, but very few are willing to perform the necessary regimens (exercise, diets, practice, and so on) to achieve it. And unfortunately, what we aren’t doing is as much a factor as what we are doing when it comes to the impressions we leave that ultimately define our brand.
Consider the terms “technical writing” or “technical communication.” What images or perceptions come to mind when these terms are mentioned? Far too often, our industry is branded a necessary evil. Users turn to our documentation as a last resort, unhappy perhaps that the product wasn’t simply intuitive. Sometimes, we don’t have the answer, it’s wrong or out-of-date, or it isn’t readily findable, leading to negative experiences that feed the overall brand perception illustrated in the memes below (memes I personally did not create for the purposes of this illustration, but that were readily offered when I entered “documentation memes” into my search engine). More frequently we perform the necessary function, but still the final perception remains negative simply because the documentation was needed in the first place.
Even as I was writing this column, I found further evidence of what the world thinks about our profession. I tuned in to Survivor, Season 37, to find that one of the contestants is a technical writer. In the show, themed this season as a “David vs Goliath” match up, Gabby the technical writer is cast as a “David” – a self-professed nerd, perceived by the world as an underdog who can only dream of reaching the likes of the successful Goliath.
This reputation follows us into our companies. In CIDM’s 2017 member survey, over 25% of respondents indicated that their function was seen as necessary, but without impact on the overall success of the product or company. An additional 8% indicated it was perceived unnecessary, and 3% indicated it was labelled as a potential detractor from success. Although that still left 56% indicating we have an important role, there’s much room for improvement.
With an overall mediocre brand reputation hanging over our heads, technical communication managers often have a significant challenge when trying to secure additional headcount or funding for special projects or tools. How do we justify investment in a brand no one believes in? This question was the theme of our recent Best Practices conference, which brought in a marketing strategist, Kurian Thurakan of StrategyPeak, to recommend steps that we can take to groom our brand, to turn the perception from necessary evil to valued partner.
To me, one of the most profound things that Kurian pointed out sprung from a clip of the old “blind taste challenge” commercials run by Pepsi in the 1970’s to demonstrate their superiority to CocaCola. Although the results seemed to always point to a better tasting product for Pepsi, Coke has always dominated Pepsi in actual sales. Kurian’s explanation was eye-opening (pun intended): “People don’t buy their soft drinks blindfolded.” CocaCola, the real thing, appeals to our emotions. Who doesn’t want to see the world standing hand-in-hand on a hillside, singing in perfect harmony? Who doesn’t want their football hero to toss them a jersey in return for the small investment of a bottle of pop? People make their purchasing decisions with their eyes wide-open, drawing more on emotion than cold facts.
To me, this speaks to the need to go beyond the financial return on investment. The cost savings on translation and maintenance due to a robust reuse strategy may seem like a good way to justify a move to DITA, but it is sterile. Statistics showing that users make purchase decisions based on documentation are just numbers. They don’t make us feel good; they don’t give us “warm fuzzies.” Facts and figures don’t make a good story, and that was the essence of Kurian’s advice—take control of your narrative and tell your compelling story.
So what is our story? I believe we are just beginning to define a meaningful story as our emphasis continues to shift from “product documentation” to “user experience.” Our focus is no longer on describing the product, its features, and maybe even how to use it. It is user-focused, but not only on the user interaction with our content, but on the user experience as a whole. Here’s where we will find our “Mean Joe Greene” stories that show the impact of our work on the end user, turning them from frustrated individuals to loyal customers. Here’s the “touchy-feely” illustrations of the influence we can have for the company.
So you want to make changes, buy tools, hire more people? Find your story and tell it, again and again. You may feel that you are starting in a hole, but a well-crafted message can dig you out and overcome missteps (remember New Coke?). A good storyteller can inspire and motivate people to take action. The right story can turn even the worst naysayers into fans, or even exuberant fanatics: