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Making the Transition From Techcom to Marcom

by Christy Simard

Editor’s Notes
When a technical writer, or techcom specialist, first faces a marketing communications (marcom) project or lateral career move it can be a daunting task for some. Additional, changes in the job market sometimes require that those well versed in techcom might need to don a different career hat if the demand for marcom services begins moving ahead of the need for techcom services. This article looks at the differences and similarities between these two types of communication speciality areas.

At first glance, technical communication (techcom) and technical marketing communication (marcom) appear to be very different genres. Where traditional techcom strives to help people use products, marcom seeks to make people realize they need products. Techcom instructs, while marcom persuades, and this distinction affects everything from the genre’s focus, to its content, and medium.

On the other hand, when executed well, these two genres share important similarities. They both deal with technical, complex subject matter. They both pay close attention to their target audiences, and they both benefit from a concise, accessible writing style.

Given these similarities, it makes sense that many organizations get technical communicators involved in marketing work. But what are you getting into when the marketing department looks to your techcom team for help? And what do you do when a writer on your team expresses an interest in marcom?

In reality, it can be tricky to distinguish the opportunities from the risks. This article examines two challenging situations for techcom managers, pointing to the risks you are likely to face and the opportunities you might realize.

Providing Services To Marketing

  • Managing a lateral move to marketing
  • Enjoying new efficiencies and benefits

For many companies, cross-department collaboration is common. In this environment, marcom opportunities may come to your techcom group as a new stream of assignments. In addition to supporting the creation of user guides, online help, reference material, and tutorials, you might add white papers, proposals, presentations, and press releases to your team’s repertoire.

Through these assignments, you will collect new contacts to manage. On top of facilitating communications with engineers, developers, and customer-support staffs, you will need to be aware of relationships with product marketing managers, marcom managers, sales reps, production managers, and designers. It is also possible that some of these new contacts will be external contractors.

This will exert new pressures on you as a manager because:

  • Resource scheduling becomes more complex, requiring you to juggle more and shorter timelines.
  • There are many more stakeholders to satisfy.
  • Your team members will need more support from you as they move out of their comfort zones.

Your team will also face a host of new pressures. As a result, they’ll need your support as they:

  • Work through new review and approval chains.
  • Manage more projects on shorter timelines.
  • Develop different writing styles.
  • Master new tools.

As you manage this change, you need to revisit the details of your performance management plan. In a techcom department, you may use a number of metrics to gauge performance. When it comes to marcom, if you do not adjust your measures, you will create counter-productive situations.

Consider those senior technical writers who are accustomed to producing each finished help topic in about three hours. When they write a datasheet, they may spend more than 40 hours on two pages of text and a few diagram concepts. The rule at work here is that marcom assignments take more time to write less . You need to coach writers through this adjustment or you risk negative morale and serious self-esteem issues.

At a mechanical level, the focus of techcom and marcom is quite different, which can be a major adjustment for your team. In techcom, we ensure our work is clear, correct, concise, and complete. We take pride in knowing it is so.

In marcom, the focus is different. One marketing executive explained that “it’s always got to be clear and concise–that’s a given. Compelling and convincing are also important in marcom. Other than that, make sure it’s believable and achievable.” In fact, marcom materials that are complete and accurate to the last detail can be dangerous and counter-productive in the hands of a sales rep or on your web site.

Despite the challenges, the potential payback for becoming a marcom service provider can be compelling. The work may provide a new revenue stream for your department, and in some companies, marcom projects have impressive budgets behind them.

Bringing marcom assignments into your group can also strengthen your approach to motivating and retaining talented employees. The creative elements of marcom are great rewards for some writers, and the increased visibility afforded by marcom assignments can inspire higher performance. Marcom can also give established writers new opportunities for development. There is the challenge of deepening their industry-specific knowledge, writing with different purpose, and clarifying messages before crafting text.

When you introduce marcom assignments to your team, you can also manage the risk associated with transferring someone out of your team to do marcom full time. For example, a writer can try his/her hand at researching and writing a white paper before making a bigger career change.

Managing a Lateral Move to Marketing

When Ellen (not her real name) signed on to be a technical communicator at a software development company in Waterloo , Canada , she knew she wanted more exposure to marketing work.

She explained, “I value the discipline that I learned through technical writing, and I developed a lot of important skills there, but the work didn’t speak to my creative nature.”

During the first few months at her new job, Ellen edited a number of proposals for the sales group and put her creative nature to work in front of the marketing group. Her manager described those early days with the group by saying, “Ellen was articulate and forthcoming with her opinions and could really sell people on what she said.” It was not long before Ellen left the technical communications group to join the marketing group. She continues to be thrilled with her job. Today, the sales team reaps the benefits from fresh content, improved process and tools, and communications with a more consistent tone.

Not all transitions are as smooth. Some writers discover they do not have the right skill set for marcom. Others find they just cannot flourish under the new pressures and expectations. As one of Ellen’s managers would say, “there’s often a sense that the grass is greener [in marcom]. But I’ve seen a number of writers go that direction, and it hasn’t always turned out to be a better career path.”

As a manager, you have two important responsibilities when a writer on your team contemplates the “greener pastures” of marcom. Start by looking at the transition from a broader corporate perspective, rather than restricting your view to within your own department. And, provide a reality check about life as a marcom writer.

Taking a Corporate View of the Transition

Step back from your team and look at your organization as a whole. You might dread the day you lose a top performer to the marketing group, but it could be exactly what your company needs.

Would your Marketing Group Benefit from these Characteristics?

  • Deep product knowledge
  • Good relationships with subject matter experts
  • Strong project management skills
  • Keen awareness of audience
  • Practice in document management and text reuse

Most marketing groups would derive great benefit from these traits, and it is no surprise that high-performing technical communicators possess a mix of them. When you consider the needs of your organization, you may decide it is best to let some of this expertise move out of your techcom team and in to the marcom department.

Providing a Reality Check

Another part of your responsibility is to base the decision on a realistic assessment of the opportunity—you need to provide a reality check so that writers know what they are getting into.

For many technical communicators, marcom holds the promise of glamour. The artwork, color, compelling copy, and high-end production make it look exciting. If you ask anyone in marketing, overall, they will tell you it is exciting. But when they describe the entire experience, they will likely tell you it is also stressful, dynamic, and high-pressure.

As part of your reality check, make sure the writer understands how different the work environment will be. Marketing groups often work long hours, late nights, and weekends. While some people enjoy the cohesive team that can result, others find it unbearably stressful.

Another part of the reality check centers on timelines. In techcom, timelines are often measured in months, with milestones measured in weeks. In marcom, it is not unusual to have deadlines within days, even hours! And because marcom usually involves a mix of several short and mid-length projects at any given time, there are many more milestones to juggle. For a techcom writer accustomed to scheduling around longer engineering cycles and fewer projects, the marcom pace can be completely overwhelming.

The quantity and quality of feedback can be another source of culture shock for the techcom-writer-gone-marcom. When it comes to marcom, more people in the company have a keen interest in the message, wording, and design. For the writer, this means more feedback from many different sources, with many different ideas.

Often, the nature of the feedback is more subjective, which can make it more difficult to address. In techcom, we take comfort knowing a task is correct or not, and it is usually straightforward to test. But when feedback includes statements like “I don’t like that shade of green,” or “it sounds too technical, where’s the pizzazz,” there is no easy test.

Despite differences like pace and feedback styles, moving to marcom can still make sense. Technical writers offer many transferable skills to the art of marcom, and moving employees within your organization can be a powerful way to enrich your human resources.

Enjoying New Efficiencies and Benefits

Whether you transfer a writer from your group into marcom, or start providing services to your marketing group, a new and important connection can be established. You and the members of your team will have more frequent contact with the people in marketing. When you use this contact well, you will create new synergies for your organization.

Marcom and techcom groups face many common struggles. It follows that they benefit from common solutions. In particular, marcom and techcom groups will both see gains from:

  • Consistent tone, language, and editorial standards
  • Solid document and content-management approaches
  • Reusing content for different purposes and mediums

Usually, marketing departments collect a wealth of concrete data about customer groups. For technical writers, this information improves audience analysis, and ultimately, can increase customer satisfaction.

Typically, techcom groups have practical expertise around templates, standards, and content reuse. In marketing, this translates into better content in less time, a unified corporate voice, and smarter workflows.

Techcom and marcom groups bring unique perspectives to your company’s products and services. While marketing intelligence should illuminate your product’s position in your industry, technical writers often possess a deep understanding of the technology. Combine these elements and one possible outcome is a powerful positioning statement that not only supports your sales reps, but also has the technical depth to direct engineers.

Conclusions

When you put a user guide and a glossy brochure side-by-side, the idea of getting techcom writers involved in marcom writing can look like a stretch. Differences seem to abound.

  • Techcom writers tend to focus on detail, structure, and accuracy. Marcom writers tend to focus on speed, creativity, and emotion.
  • Techcom focuses on features—how we understand and exploit them. Marcom illuminates a product’s benefits and instills in us a desire for them.
  • Techcom writers flourish under stable priorities and longer-term assignments. Marcom writers must succeed under shifting schedules and short deadlines.

Nonetheless, technical writers can and do excel in the world of marcom. This is in large part due to the transferable skills that strong technical writers possess. These key skills include an accessible writing style, a keen awareness of audience, deep product familiarity, and an analytical approach to project and document management.

Marketing writing can also provide exciting growth opportunities for writers as they develop different writing styles, adapt to new environments, and gain increased visibility within the organization. It also raises their awareness about corporate strategy. And since better marcom leads to easier sales, which translates into more revenue, it gives techcom writers another way to have an impact on the bottom line.

Regardless of the individual attractions to marcom, it will be important for you to look at both the needs of your organization and the career path of the writer in question. From your company’s perspective, the most exciting promise is the synergy that can result from improved cooperation between the marcom and techcom groups.

With a channel open between the two groups, each stands to benefit from the other’s expertise. As a techcom manager, it is part of your responsibility to facilitate this exchange. What strengths have you developed as a techcom manager that you can use to build new bridges within your organization?