by Cheryl Landes, STC Fellow
Senior Member, Willamette Valley, Puget Sound, and New England Chapters
[Ed. note: This recap of a presentation from InterChange 2014 is still valuable today!]
With the growth of content strategy and social media, technical marketing communications has become a hot niche for technical communicators. If you love telling stories and evangelizing about products and services, technical marketing communications is a great career path. It typically pays more than writing technical documentation because of the demand, and the variety of materials technical marketing communicators create are broader.
During the STC New England InterChange conference last March 30, I talked about the field of technical marketing communications and how to break in. I also described the state of the market and the types of projects to expect—whether you’re a regular employee or freelancer. My presentation was based on my experiences as a technical marketing writer for the past 15 years and my undergraduate studies in public relations at the University of Oregon.
What is technical marketing communications?
Technical marketing communications is spreading the word about technical products or services of a technical nature so that customers will buy them. Technical products include software and hardware, while services can range from environmental remediation to veterinary care.
The goals of technical marketing communications are:
• To sell a technical product or service to the target niche.
• To promote the benefits of a technical product or service.
• To show how a technical product or service is better than the competitors.
• To position a company as an expert in the target market.
What types of materials do technical marketing communicators produce?
Technical marketing communicators create any type of information that promotes and sells a product service. The typical documents we create are:
• Brochures—Four-color, glossy printed sheets or booklets describing a product, its features, and where to get more information. Some brochures also include partial client lists. Companies distribute brochures at trade shows, sales meetings, and other events in the target industry. Brochures are also part of a company’s website as separate pages featuring a single product or service.
• Product data sheets—Delivered in print, PDF, or as a webpage, these sheets provide an overview of a product and its specifications. Sometimes high-level wiring diagrams are included. Printed product data sheets are published in black and white.
• Case studies—These tell a story of how a company helped a customer solve a problem with its products or services. Case studies can be printed, PDFs, webpages, and videos. Some companies, such as Techsmith, publish a webpage and video for each case study. A case study contains four sections: a problem statement, a description of the solution, a summary of the results, and a list of benefits to potential customers. The benefits are usually published in a sidebar.
• White papers—Either black-and-white or two-color documents providing information on a topic related to the company’s industry. The intent is to show that the company is an expert on the subject to enhance its credibility to its target audience. Topics include a company’s position on an industry trend or solution, reports on trends, or results on a research project. White papers are not meant to blatantly promote company’s product or service, although they’re being used in this way more often in high-tech.
• Informational booklets—Unlike brochure booklets, informational booklets are two-color documents with glossy full-color covers that describe how a product can be used in an application. Usually these are printed for tradeshows and sales meetings and sometimes distributed in PDF.
• Press releases—Official statements a company issues to the media giving information on a particular newsworthy topic. Press releases are written like newsletter articles, and the information must be newsworthy so that the media will publish it. Examples of newsworthy content are new product releases or upgrades, quarterly earnings reports, changes in corporate leadership, mergers and acquisitions, and announcements of new business directions.
• Webpages—Includes pages promoting products and services, blog posts, and content optimized for search (also known as search engine optimization, or SEO). SEO content projects assign topics to each page, along with specified keywords to weave into the copy. The goal is to write useful, meaningful content around those keywords to increase the company’s site ranking in search engine results.
• Presentations—Work in this area is varied and can include slides for sales and marketing meetings, courses for sales reps and marketers, content for webinars, and video and podcast scripts.
• Social media—This is a growing field, primarily for internal employees and consultants who work at marketing and public relations firms. Solopreneurs are rarely hired for projects, although I have set up Facebook pages for a few small businesses. After I set up the pages, I trained the business owners on how to create posts and attach pictures, and they would manage the pages from there.
What skills are required to break in?
As with technical communications, excellent written and verbal skills are essential for a successful career in technical marketing communications. Writing must be clear and concise, and any technical jargon must be cut or explained, if needed. Writing must also convince readers to take action. Interviewing skills are critical for gathering information and working with diverse groups throughout a company. You’ll be gathering information from not only marketing executives and product managers, but also engineers and developers.
Knowing how to research information from a variety of sources is also important. Marketing communication projects are on much tighter deadlines than technical documentation, so strong motivation and initiative to gather information makes you successful. Often people are too busy to talk to you, and you have a deadline in a few hours, so finding alternative ways to gather information ensures you can produce on time.
Priorities often change faster in marketing than technical documentation, so flexibility is required. A corporate announcement might mean you need to drop everything and write a press release by the end of the day, when you were focused on finishing a brochure or case study.
Understanding how to identify target audiences and write to their needs is another critical skill. While this is required in technical documentation, the focus is different. In technical documentation, you’re writing instructions at the level of the audience’s understanding, while in marketing communications, you’re writing to potential customers to convince them to take action, whether it’s buying a product or hiring the company for its expertise. You need to anticipate what the audience wants to be able to convince them to take action.
How do I break into the field?
Breaking into technical marketing communications requires a portfolio of a variety of samples from the list above. You need to prove that your skills are transferrable and that you can do the work. If you do not have any experience, here are some ways to get it:
• If you’re a regular, full-time employee, offer to help on marketing-related projects.
• Find non-profit organizations that need help with their marketing projects. Over the years, I have volunteered for several organizations, from writing press releases to editing copy for their websites.
• Barter with small businesses. One of my bartering projects is writing newsletters and creating promotional event flyers for a guide service. In exchange, the guide service gives me free outdoor trips. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.
About Cheryl Landes
Cheryl Landes, STC Fellow and Certified Professional Communicator through the Association for Women in Communications Matrix Foundation, founded Tabby Cat Communications in Seattle in 1995. She has 24 years of experience as a technical communicator and 15 in marketing in several industries: computer software, HVAC/energy savings, marine transportation, manufacturing, retail, and the trade press. She specializes as a findability strategist, helping businesses to organize content so that it flows logically and to make content easier to retrieve online and in print.
Cheryl, who currently lives in Vancouver, WA, has given many presentations and workshops about indexing, technical communication, and marketing services as a solo entrepreneur throughout the United States and Canada. She has written two handbooks on digital indexing in MadCap Flare and Adobe FrameMaker, and more than 100 articles and three books on Northwest travel and history. For more information, visit her website at http://www.tabbycatco.com and follow her @landesc.