5 reasons why product documentation is the marketing department’s secret weapon
by Danny Naylor
‘No one reads it anyway’ is a phrase heard a lot when people talk about various forms of technical and product documentation. Although mostly used in jest, this phrase has always bothered me. Partly, because I work for a company that specialises in creating and translating this type of documentation. But there is another, more straightforward reason.
It’s just not true.
As a marketer, I know that plenty of people read technical and product documentation before making a purchase. A study from Market research firm Focus Vision showed that B2B buyers read, on average, 13 pieces of content before making a purchasing decision. Now, I know what you are thinking. ‘Content’ is a fairly broad term. However, this study also shows that the most useful type of content for influencing a purchase decision was classified as ‘Product specifications and functionality’ – sound familiar?
Marketing experts tend to agree with this. Simon Kingsnorth, author of the excellent ‘Digital Marketing Strategy‘ explains how useful ‘Functional Content’ (i.e Content that informs customers about your products and services) is when trying to sell your products. He explains, ‘This content is often overlooked as it’s not ‘sexy’ content that gets presented at digital marketing award ceremonies. It is, however, the most crucial to get right as good functional content helps you convert browsers into customers.’ What Simon is describing here sounds suspiciously like the technical and product documentation that no one reads.
Closer to home, my colleague Rachel Potts collaborated on an article with Roger Hart for the ISTC’s Communicator Journal, titled ‘Helping Organisations Grow‘. Here, Rachel and Roger describe the benefits that good technical and product documentation has for businesses, such as how it is often the first port of call in a customer’s research of a product or service, and how it heavily influences a customer’s purchasing decisions.
So, if potential customers are reading your product and technical documentation while researching a potential purchase, how and why can you use this documentation to convert them? Well, we’ve put together our top 5 reasons how and why below:
It’s been well documented that traditional methods of advertising aren’t as effective as they used to be. A combination of over-saturation and over-exposure to many forms of advertising has led to consumers becoming increasingly cynical of marketing messages, leading to a fall in advertising’s effectiveness.
However, unlike advertisements, technical and product information is a trusted source. As consumers become more informed about their purchases, they rely on resources such as technical and product information to help inform them. Because this documentation is written with the purpose to provide information about a product or service, without any dubious sales messages or marketing spin, consumers can weigh up your product based solely on its capabilities – a feature that people appreciate when weighing up their purchases. In fact, an SDL survey found that 72% of millennials admitted that product information affects their impression of a product, with 71% saying they would recommend brands that provide ‘High quality’ technical documentation.
So, your technical and product documentation is a trusted source of information that your potential customers will seek out. These potential customers will then make purchasing decisions and recommendations based on the quality and content of this documentation.
If you have a complex product, your users will need to use your documentation. If it is complicated, badly thought-out, or confusing, your users will think your product is also complicated, badly thought-out, or confusing. When you consider that users will likely turn to your product documentation when they have a problem (a time in which they may be thinking negatively about your product or service) you can begin to see how badly made documentation can sabotage your reputation.
However, with a bit of effort and planning, you can turn this dynamic around. Good documentation will help users find the information they need, when they need it, making your product feel much simpler to use and easier to understand. Great documentation anticipates your customers’ questions and helps them find applications and uses for your product that your customers didn’t even know they needed.
Well-thought-out, easy-to-use, clear, and informative documentation not only helps generate positive sentiments towards your products and services, but will help your users find further uses for them.
Your technical documentation is a part of your marketing, whether you like it or not. We already established that your customers will be reading this documentation, along with other sources, so it’s important to ensure that you have a unified message, look and feel.
Now, technical documentation has a different role to fulfill than a piece of advertising, and for this reason, shouldn’t feel like a marketing or sales piece – people don’t expect your technical and product documentation to be full of glossy images of your product with beautiful people using it. However, they do expect it to feel like part of your overall brand, and part of a unified narrative about your product.
For example, say your product is a trendy watch, being advertised by an Olympic swimmer as his favoured timepiece to use whilst training, with images of him winning his races with your watch on his wrist plastered all over your marketing materials. Now imagine a potential customer looking at the technical documentation and seeing the phrase ‘Not waterproof, do not submerge in water’. Your customer would then, quite rightly, be disappointed by the disconnect between your marketing messages and your documentation. In fact, research from salesforce found 75% of customers stated they expect consistency across a brands’ channels, with 73% likely to switch if they don’t get it.
Ensuring that your Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service teams are on the same page as your documentation is vital. This helps you provide a unified customer experience and set realistic expectations of your product or service.
Search engine optimisation is a term that anyone who has ever dealt with a Marketing team should be familiar with, but for the uninitiated, SEO deals with optimising your online content to rank higher in search results that relate to your product or services. For example, if you go to Google and type in the phrase ‘Technical writing service’, the first organic result you should get will be for a company called 3di Information Solutions (and please let me know if that’s not the case!).
So how does technical documentation help your SEO rankings? Well, some of the technical reasons are: product and technical documentation are naturally keyword dense, they can be filled with links to authoritative sources without it seeming forced, and by their nature, they will rank highly for many customer search queries.
Putting your technical and product documentation online not only makes it easier to find for customers that will already be looking for it, but because of the way it is written and designed, it can help greatly improve your SEO rankings in a way that won’t seem forced or spammy.
Ask any marketer what superpower would most help them in their job, and I’m willing to bet most would reply the ability to read minds. We marketers, as well as product managers and developers, are always trying to find out what customers think, either through customer surveys, studying website analytics, or obsessing over customer reviews. It is very difficult to research and hard to quantify without spending lots of time and money on it, and many companies will happily spend millions panning for this marketing gold dust.
However, one way to gain an insight into what your customers are thinking about your products is to apply some web analytics to your online documentation. This can range from simply seeing which pages users access, to keeping track of customer search terms in your online portal, to creating heatmaps and studying dwell times. We’ve helped many of our customers with this, such as Vodafone and their One Net portal.
This allows you to see interesting bits of information about what your customers are trying to achieve with your product or service, and perhaps open up some selling points you hadn’t considered before, or prod you to beef up the messaging about certain aspects of your product. There is also the small matter of finding out what problems your users are having with your product. This can then inform your strategy going forward – by spending more time improving the content on your most visited pages, or by changing the UI or design of your product to explain certain concepts more clearly.
So hopefully these five points have helped convince you that not only do your customers actually read your documentation but that they actually want to do so. Now that you know some of the benefits of creating good-quality product and technical documentation, there is just the small issue of creating it. If you would like to read more, some of my more qualified colleagues have created some great guides such as how you can create a user manual in just two weeks, or how you can get your documentation online, or how you can create and update documentation for a quickly evolving product.
Or, if you would like to talk to us about how we can help you create some fantastic documentation that your customers will love, why not contact us here and arrange a quick chat to discuss your requirements – just don’t tell us that you don’t think anyone will read it.
Working as a Marketing Manager, Danny thrives on thinking of novel ways to reach customers, as well as creating and running campaigns over digital channels. Away from the office, Danny relaxes by obsessing over films and music, annoying his neighbours with his guitar collection and shouting at the England rugby team.