ethics of marketing writing

Subject: ethics of marketing writing
From: Steven Owens <uso01 -at- MAILHOST -dot- UNIDATA -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 10 Nov 1993 09:03:25 -0600

I said:
>> Anatole, where are you going with this whole thread? You seem to be
>> championing a personal cause to defend or advance the image of marketing
>> writing. Is this from a perceived negative image associated with
>> marketing, or do you have another destination in mind?

Anatole Wison says:
> I wouldn't call it a personal cause, but I keep seeing posts here
> that imply--if they don't say it outright--that writing with an
> eye towards the marketing of your product is somehow immoral, a
> disservice to the reader/user, and that a "Technical Writer" writing
> marketing materials is akin to Beethoven writing a jingle for
> Roto-Rooter.

Well, some people have this attitude; I'd hazard a guess that
they feel this way because there's so much slimy marketing product out
there. I certainly don't feel this way, but I do recognize that the
marketing industry places certain demands on writers, and that the
type of writing they will require will have an overwhelming tendency
to be of a certain style and content (see below).

> If the marketing literature fails to fully inform the customer about
> the product, then that literature is doing a disservice to both the
> customer and the product, especially since the misled customer will
> probably return the purchase.

Bets? For commercial scale software, much of which is aimed
at businesses, this won't happen. Unless the customer has been
outright lied to, and the product doesn't at all do what was promised,
the people responsible for ordering the software now have a vested
interest in NOT returning it, which would be admitting a mistake.
Stupid? Yes. Unfortunately it happens all to often.

> I don't believe I'm embarking on a personal crusade. What I'm trying
> to do is point out a current trend--traditionally "technical" writers
> being asked (or required) to produce marketing materials--and explain

Some of your points I certainly agree with. It's not selling
your soul, technical writers could easily be best-suited for high-tech
marketing, most good technical writers already have the necessary skills
to do marketing writing.

However, I definitely don't agree that marketing principles
apply while writing user manuals. The two kinds of documents have very
different goals. And while I agree that marketing writing that is
specific and informative is what works best for me, for some reason
the marketing field doesn't seem to see it that way.

>> I think I understand how to write persuasively as well as how to write
>> informatively, and I think I understand the difference between them.

> And I'd argue that writing informatively *is* the best way to write
> persuasively. The difference is in the style of writing, not the
> actual content.

I'd argue that "style" and "content" are not nearly detailed
enough to describe the differences between the two. The content most
definitely does change, as well as the writing style. You introduce
different elements at different points, underplay some elements, focus
on other elements, and flat out leave some of them out.

>> Yes, technical writing and marketing have some things in common, but
>> they have a lot that's not in common.
>> Technical writing -> Understand how to use the Product.
>> Marketing writing -> Understand how you can benefit from the Product.

> Hmmm. I'd amend this to say that technical writing's end is not only
> to tell you *how* to use the product, but in some cases (depending on
> the audience) *why* you want to use the product.

Very audience dependent. How many computer users need to know
why you use a word processor? They need to know how to use THIS word
processor, and if you want to make a case for why this one instead of
that one, your best bet is simply to show them what this word
processor can do and how to do it, and let its features and
ease-of-use speak for themselves.

> If I don't know that a certain feature is going to help me get my
> job done better/faster/ more efficiently, I'm not going to waste time
> learning how to use it. So guess what--I want the technical manual to
> show me some *benefits*.

This where the "understand the product" stage, common to both
technical and marketing writing, comes in. Frankly, I'm not going to waste
your time trying to sell you a product you've already bought. I'm going to
use every precious moment to make you happy about buying the product - by
showing you how to get the most out of it. Yes, if I write a manual about
backup software (which I did, recently), I'll include a section explaining
different techniques you can implement with the software (which I did), and
the merits and deficits in each technique. But I'm going to do it in clear,
simple language, with an eye towards informing, rather than selling.

>> To achieve this aim, both technical and marketing writing must first
>> convey a basic understanding of the product. I've noticed that
>> marketing writing has an overwhelming tendency to try to leap straight
>> to the benefits part. In most cases where they DO take the time to go

> Well, if I were marketing a product, I'd lead with a benefit and then go
> on to the explanation. Is that what you mean? I'd never list an
> unexplained benefit--why should anyone believe me?

Oddly enough, a lot of marketing literature does just that.
Don't ask me to explain why. It's hard to know why in hell I should
care that your product has 143 fonts until I know that your product is
a printer, for example.

> And again, I say that's a sign of BAD marketing writing that fails to
> reach its audience. [...] That's why a good tech writer familiar with
> both the product and the intended audience can do a better job.

I have no doubt that a good tech writer can do a better job of
selling a product, but that's not what marketing writing in the
current market is - and I suspect the average tech writer asked to do
marketing writing probably won't get a chance to change that.

>> I have no ethical problem with marketing, but frankly there are different
>> motivations on the writer's part and that influences the type of writing.
>> The technical writer assumes the reader's goal is to be able to use the
>> product, and works from there. The marketing writer is actively trying
>> to shape the reader's goal.

> I agree with your analysis of the technical writer's goal. But the
> goal of the *marketing* writer is not to shape the reader's goal, but
> to convince the reader that the best way for the reader to reach the
> goals he/she already has is to use that product.

The problem is, there are some very general goals that will
always be targeted by marketing - how can I make my business run
stronger/faster/ smarter/cheaper/better? And the marketing writing is
always going to try to shape the reader's goal, to tell him that THIS
is the question that you need to answer, and WE have that answer.
Create a perception of need and provide the product to fill that need.
Very seldom (although it does happen, and its usually very successful)
does marketing simply try to convey something about the product and/or
the company, like "reliable" or "trustworthy" or "inexpensive."

>> Despite any fluff about "You can feel good about what you're doing
>> because your product really is high quality and it's in the reader's
>> best interest to purchase it", it boils down to the marketing writer
>> trying to influence the reader's decision, and the technical writer
>> trying to facilitate the reader's decision.

> If I told you to buy gloves for the winter instead of mittens because
> gloves let you use all of your fingers to tie your shoes, have I
> influenced your decision or facilitated it?

I don't think your example applies. I'd say (with no
statistical data other than my own observation) that the majority of
marketing writing is not "Buy gloves instead of mittens" but "buy OUR
gloves instead of those gloves" or "You need to buy a new pair of OUR
gloves to replace your old pair of gloves".

> There's a clothing store in Pittsburgh called Sym's, whose motto is
> "the informed consumer is our best customer." I can't say it any
> better than that.

Actually, I think it's "At Sim's, an educated consumer is our
best customer." You used to go to the Univ. of Pittsburgh, didn't
you? How is your first name pronounced? Is the e silent?

Steven J. Owens
uso01 -at- unidata -dot- com

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