Classic: Building Bridges Between Marketing and Technical Publications Teams

Editor’s Note: The following piece by Brett Peruzzi is part of our collection of “classics”– technical communication articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  And it clearly tells us that the “Spy vs. Spy” relationship between marketing and technical publications has gone on for at least a decade. Let us know what you think.  Do Brett’s arguments make sense today?

One common myth in the corporate world is that technical publications and marketing departments are fundamentally at odds with each other. Some technical writers believe marketing publications are too adjective-laden and prone to hyperbole, while some marketing writers think technical publications are too dry and factual.

Who’s right? It’s all a matter of perspective. Technical writers and marketing writers typically have different audiences and purposes for their publications. But once you get beyond the superficial differences, both writing groups have more in common than is immediately apparent.

Well, maybe, you say. But what’s in it for me?

What does Marketing have to offer technical writers?

The opportunity to learn new skills.

You’ve written more user manuals than you care to remember. Help files too. But have you ever written a product sheet or brochure? How about a white paper, or ad copy?

These are common marketing publications, and adding a few of them to your portfolio will show your breadth as a writer, and increase your marketability. And if you haven’t stretched your skills as a writer in a while, learning a new form of writing is a good challenge.

Increased visibility and perceived value to the company.

Sure, doing some marketing writing can help you to get another job, but what if you’re happy at your present technical publications job? It will help there as well. You’ll increase your visibility, and you’ll be perceived as being more valuable to the company.

It will also boost your reputation as a person with diverse skills that can work well on cross-functional teams. And it may help you at review or promotion time as well. Your boss can use examples like this to demonstrate where you showed initiative to learn new things and add value to the company.

Access to higher production budgets and other resources.

In many instances you’ll find that Marketing has a bigger production budget than Technical Publications. If you work on a marketing publication, you’ll likely get to put some of those production dollars to work making your publication look great. And, it may open the door to getting some of that budget for improving the production of technical publications, if you can make a good case for the increased marketing value it will offer.

In addition to production budgets, working with Marketing might gain you access and potentially expertise in other related software packages that your department might not have, like PhotoShop, Quark Express, or DreamWeaver. And, sometimes marketing will have genuine graphic and web design staff that you can use for your marketing project, and potentially some of your technical publications projects as well.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Is Marketing really going to let me work on some of their projects, never mind give me access to their production budget and designers? What’s in it for them?

What does Technical Publications have to offer Marketing?

Strong knowledge of the technical aspects of the company’s products.

As a technical writer, you have not only a command of written language, but likely a strong, in-depth technical knowledge of your company’s products as well. This is potentially very useful for Marketing, which often does not get a chance or have the interest in learning all of the technical details. But if a marketing publication needs to include a lot of technical detail, you could be a valuable resource.

Also, even if you don’t directly work on a specific marketing project, you still potentially have something to offer–lots of technical publications that can be used as source materials. And, if Marketing sees you as a good information source, they’ll probably be more inclined to let you get involved directly when an appropriate project for you comes up.

Knowledge of online publications formats.

Many technical writers today have extensive knowledge of online formats, like Adobe Acrobat, that are becoming increasingly a part of the marketing world. You may have the expertise that your marketing department needs when it comes to creating PDFs of some of their marketing publications.

This goes for web sites as well, whether it’s creating web pages from scratch, or converting existing publications to HTML. Also, in some cases it’s not so much a matter of Marketing not having the knowledge as much as it is the time and resources, which is explained further below.

Another source of writing and editing expertise.

Particularly in companies with limited marketing budgets and staff, you could become a welcome source of writing and editing expertise.  You can copy edit and proofread marketing publications, as well as do some writing and substantive technical editing, especially if it’s for products you’ve documented.

And if you perform duties that normally would be contracted out or necessitate hiring another permanent employee, you’re saving your company a lot of money.

What kind of marketing projects can technical writers be involved in?

As explained previously, there are a variety of marketing projects that technical writers can be involved in. Here’s a summary:

  • Performing proofreading, copy and technical editing of marketing publications
  • Writing marketing materials like product sheets, brochures, catalogs,  white papers, and ad copy
  • Writing, editing, and creating web sites
  • Creating other hybrid publications or online information products that are a combination of technical and marketing information, such as product guides, demos, and newsletters

So, you think you have the skills, you have the desire, and you want to give this marketing stuff a try at your company.  Where do you start?

How do you get started?

Get to know people

Learn who the players are in the Marketing department, and what they do. Are there specific writers and designers, or are they more generalists who do a little of everything? Are they understaffed (which could mean opportunities for you)? Do they use contractors?     As you get to know people and they get to know you and your abilities, opportunities may present themselves with very little effort on your part.

Focus on commonalities and mutual benefits

Writers tend to have a lot in common. Instead of focusing on what department you work in, try to see what you have in common. It could be that despite the fact that you write different types of publications, your counterpart in Marketing shares your passion for grammar and page layout.

And try to see the big picture. You all work for the same company, with the same overall goals. There are many ways, as you’ve learned in this article, that all parties can benefit from your collaborative efforts.

Volunteer your time and advice on projects

OK, don’t be shy now. If no one asks you to get involved in a marketing project, volunteer! Start on something small. Show your skills. But don’t come on too strong. Remember ultimately that it’s their project. Being too aggressive or controlling will only make people defensive or leery of your involvement.

As you gain their trust and confidence, your role in marketing projects may be able to grow. You’ll also gain trust faster if you are dependable. Don’t take marketing projects as something fun to work on when you feel like it, but the first thing you drop when you get busy or lose interest. Follow through on your commitments, but be careful not to overcommit yourself either.

After all, you are primarily a technical writer. At least for the time being. But if you ever want to make a career change to marketing writing, you’ll have the knowledge and experience to be able to make an informed decision.

Brett Peruzzi is one of TechWhirl's classics contributors.

Read more articles from Brett Peruzzi