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Turn Documentation into a Marketing Activity

February 7, 2019 - Marketing -
By: Chris Riley

If you are a software company selling to technical audiences, your public documentation is a huge asset. Documentation can easily become your number-one source of inbound traffic. It can also increase conversions and help influencers get on your side to spread the word. Turning documentation into a marketing activity, in addition to supporting customer success, is a huge opportunity.

If you have ever been on the floor of a trade show where you were exhibiting, and you heard “Yeah, I love your product, but your docs suck,” Then you know the impact that poor documentation has on your prospects and customers. In a previous post, we talked about public documentation treated as a support-only activity, written by your engineers. When this is the case, not only are you missing out on an opportunity, you are not aligning documentation to the journey of your users.

Documentation that is written from an inside-out perspective usually lacks developer empathy and an understanding of how they use the technology (versus how you believe they will use it, or how you want them to use it). This does several things. First, it does not show respect for your current users. Second, it could cause a high bounce-to-trial rate from prospective users. And third, for a user who has gotten to the point of install and trial, it could be the one barrier that causes them to make a no-go decision.

Techies want to figure out if a product is worth testing VERY quickly. And if they decide to test, they also want to know if they are wasting their time VERY quickly. Only good public docs can help.

When Docs Do Marketing

The benefits of high-performing public docs are clear and demonstrable.

  1. They are an SEO treasure trove because they are an in-depth technical source — a type of content in high demand for technical audiences. When combined with how-to details and conceptual text, good documentation will rank highly. Some tech companies have found their public docs to be their largest source of inbound organic traffic.
  2. They provide a lot of value. Consumers of this content will stay on a site for long periods of time, which increases their exposure to the brand, and illustrates value.
  3. Your prospects will appreciate you. Techies value when vendors remove barriers to test their products. They also appreciate not being left hanging. Depending on where they are in the developer journey, they want to find the information that is most relevant to them. Appreciation leads to more trials from highly qualified leads, and more trials of highly qualified leads means more conversions.

Barriers to Making Docs a Marketing Activity

The biggest barrier to making your documentation a powerful sales and marketing tool is organizational structure. Traditionally, you think of documentation as a technical writing and customer support activity. This puts it under the authority of the product management team. Some product management teams may want the work to be a joint effort, and know the pains of bad documentation, but they lack the time and resources to get it done.

In our experience, it takes product marketing managers, developer advocacy, or developer relations interest to drive a joint effort to enhance and fully leverage public documentation.

Even if product marketing and product management see the opportunity and agree something needs to be done, who pays for it is always a huge question.

In my opinion, the spend should be related to who benefits, and who has control. In a perfect world, I believe marketing would own public docs, and engineer their own internal docs. But I cannot deny that communication between product management and marketing is critical for public documentation to be a success. I have seen successful implementation where the budget was a 50/50 split — but when only product management owns the budget, old habits surface quickly. The emphasis goes back to support, not engagement.

Good Public Docs Demonstrate Respect

Users consume your documentation long before a trial, and often before they even look at your site. One of the most common flows for a techie: Google the product name + “documentation” to go directly to the documentation pages — or visit the homepage and hunt the navigation until the documentation link is found.

If the docs don’t show up in either scenario, or the docs they find are not written in a friendly and useful way, you likely will never hear from them again.

Making your public documentation a marketing effort is a huge opportunity that tech companies can use for more trial conversions, and happier trial users. Developer relations, advocacy, and product marketing teams can make a large impact quickly by not ignoring their docs.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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