Content dissemination woes

Subject: Content dissemination woes
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 8 Sep 2000 11:26:47 -0400

Ann Onymous, now doing battle with the evil Marketing droids, wonders:

<<How do you all handle other departments reusing or re-purposing the
content that you put together.>>

There are really only two possibilities: negotiate a polite, verbal
agreement with them that they'll institute some form of quality control
(perhaps using you) or get Management to lay down the law about quality
control. The former approach is gentler and more likely to win friends; the
latter approach is more likely to actually work. A combination of the two
usually represents the best compromise.

<<Marketing materials that are inaccurate and actually have miss-truths
included in them.>>

The Legal Dept. may have something to say about this. If your managers
aren't willing to correct the problem, Legal would be really good allies to
enlist.

<<No control over what information marketing/sales re-purposes.>>

Marketing has a crucial role in any company: making sure that customers know
you exist and know how good your products are, thereby ensuring that your
company earns enough income to keep you gainfully employed. They're also
really well plugged into the company's finances, so they know when something
must be released to meet a quarterly sales target--and thereby keep you
gainfully employed. They also should have a good grasp of realities you may
be unaware of (e.g., what your competitors are doing), and what measures to
take to keep you gainfully employed. So despite the aspersions we often love
to cast on their character, they do an important job.

Unfortunately, Marketing droids are usually excellent communicators and
sometimes use this skill to gradually assume too much importance in the
company; the Peter Principle being what it is, this usually occurs right
about the time they completely forget any connection between their wishes
and your reality. The best remedy is to keep them firmly grounded in reality
by figuring out a way for them to painlessly include such inconveniences as
development schedules and documentation schedules in their plans.
(Externally imposed deadlines such as crucial tradeshows or SEC deadlines
for IPO documentation may require you to meet unfortunately tight deadlines,
but other deadlines are often negotiable.) Again, you can sometimes forge a
friendly alliance with the Marketeers so they account for your reality in
their plans ("I can't write 1000 pages in 1 month!!!"), but sometimes it
really requires intelligent managers willing to insist that Marketing takes
your scheduling realities into account.

<<Developers circulating information to marketing or sales. (I say
information because that's basically what the documents are, there is no
formatting or stylistic constraints and the information is left up to
marketing/sales to 'interpret').>>

There's nothing wrong with that type of communication, provided that someone
takes the time to explain the information so that no interpretation is
required. And provided that someone then translates that information into a
form that's useful to its intended audience.

<<Big Fat lies about functionality in our license agreements. Which now
means we have to bust butt to magically develop these things for delivery.>>

Again, Legal may have something to say about this. (Did anyone say the word
"fraud"?) But more importantly, your managers need to sit down and formally
agree that Marketing needs to give them marketing materials for a reality
check. In the absence of such a formal process, you're simply going to have
to live with unrealistic Marketing-driven wishlists and deadlines that have
no resemblance to the realities of producing products.

<<we have included significant amounts of our source code in the
agreements.>>

I'm not sure what you mean here, but presumably Legal will also have
something to say about this.

<<I found about this [becuase] I was contacted to 'get' a list of our latest
features and 'comment' on the benefits so marketing could turn this into a
document for sales. Someone in sales had gotten their hands on an old list
and were actually working from that. Marketing's last document... included
two huge falsehoods on the first page>>

Again, a quality control issue. In the perfect world, everybody keeps in
touch with everybody else to ensure that everyone is talking about the same
thing. In reality, Life intrudes and people get out of synch with each
other. You need to figure out a relatively unobtrusive, quick, effective
means of keeping everyone on the same wavelength. Monthly meetings? Informal
but regularly scheduled drop-in visits to the offices of key managers? A
formal "editing" agreement in which all marketing documents are run past
you? A formal review committee for all documents that leave the building?

<<being new to both the company and the field I am not sure what I need to
do.>>

List all the problems you've encountered and their possible implications for
your business, then sit down with the relevant managers and explain what the
problems are, where they arise, and what can be done to resolve them. This
whole process is sufficiently complex and time-consuming that many larger
companies give up and hire internal communications consultants to set up a
functional process that guarantees everyone will communicate well. Of
course, the usual rule about consultants applies: some talk a good game, but
others actually do good work. Ask for references and follow up on the
references.

<<To be perfectly honest I am embarrassed by some of our marketing
materials>>

Sounds pretty reasonable under the circumstances. Given how important
Marketing is to your company's survival, someone needs to make the decision
that this situation is unacceptable and do something about it. You can be
part of the education process and the development of solutions. In
particular, make sure the solutions pass the Plato test: they should save
more work than they create, they should not prevent people from doing good
work efficiently, and they should accomplish real goals, not just create

procedures to be followed blindly.

<<the information is too long and I don't really think appropriate to
provide externally>>

In theory, the Marketeers should be experts and should be better qualified
than you are to judge such things. In practice, they may be learning the job
as they go, with no formal training whatsoever. (Is this a startup you're
working for?) In either case, you can volunteer to work with them to produce
a better product: educate them about audience analysis, and the typical
reader's unwillingness to read more info than they absolutely have to, and
you're well on your way. But also recognize that you may simply have to give
up and let them run amok; you're presumably paid as a technical writer, not
a Marketeer, so tend your own farm first.

<<I sent out an e-mail outlining (briefly) this process to all department
managers (with my bosses backing of course). So, where do I go from here?>>

Never rely on e-mail for anything important. Meet each person (briefly and
informally) to explain the problem and the proposed solution--and not
incidentally, to find out whether they accept what you're doing and are
willing to work with you to achieve it. Make sure you identify any obstacles
now (e.g., "Fred can't remember his family name, let alone that we have a
procedure to follow") so you can take steps to avoid them later (i.e.,
"remind Fred about the procedure every morning at 9 and at 1:15 when he
returns from lunch").

<<I'm not sure what criteria I can realistically expect marketing to
follow>>

You won't know that until you sit down with them, explain the problem, offer
your help in solving it, and convince them that you're really trying to help
them do their jobs better--and not just imposing additional red tape and
making their lives more difficult. Convince them what the benefits are for
them, educate them about doing the job right, remain sufficiently humble
about your own abilities that you can learn from them, and develop a
friendly, cooperative, mutually respectful working relationship.
And--realistically--expect problems at each step. But life would hardly be
interesting without those problems to solve, would it?

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer




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