Journal: News & Comment

Friday, October 05, 2001
# 1:20:00 PM:

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Technical Writing vs. Marketing Communications: the deathmatch

Today, Thao, a former co-worker of mine, asked me:

I have a question for you. What exactly is the difference between a technical writer and a marketing communications writer? Their roles and responsibilities? The types of pieces they produce?

The short answer:

The difference is big: technical writers create documentation to help people use stuff after they've bought it, while marcomm people create promotional material to try to sell stuff to people in the first place.

The long answer:

It's not common for someone to do both, at least not as part of a single job. (I do both, but not usually for the same company at the same time.)

Technical writers usually work with engineers, product managers, testing staff, and maybe end users to develop manuals, Web sites, online help, and other materials that help users understand the products or services being documented, including reference materials, technical specifications, user guides, and so on. Talking to marketing and advertising folk is usually low down on their list of things to do.

They don't just write, but often create graphics and multimedia, do layout, and so on. There's always proofreading and editing too. Tech writers are interested in making the facts of a product or service as clear as possible to the intended audience of end users, and must tailor what they create to the background and expertise of those users.

Marketing communications staff work with product managers, other marketing staff, advertising agencies, artists, PR staff, big corporate customers and partners, and occasionally those who actually put the products and services under consideration together. They develop marketing and promotional materials that help potential customers figure out what the products and services are about (but not the details of how they work) and why they should buy them. That may include brochures, Web sites, e-mail campaigns, press releases, packaging, videos, multimedia presentations, trade show booths, and any number of other things. Talking to engineers or tech writers isn't something they do too often.

Again, they may do more than just write. What they do create doesn't always have to be factual, at least not in the same way as tech writers look at it. Marcomm takes the most advantageous facts and spins them to make the products or services attractive to the intended audience. That's not a bad thing, but it's the reason people don't believe a brochure the same way they believe a user guide, i.e. they may doubt that a car actually goes 175 miles an hour, but they don't doubt that pressing on the gas pedal will make it go faster.

The jobs are interdependent. Without good marcomm people, tech writers don't have jobs because no one knows to buy the stuff the tech writers write about. That leads to companies going broke. Without good tech writers, marcomm people have problems because no one can figure out how the products and services being sold actually work (including, in many cases, the marketing people themselves). That leads to tech support issues, which is a whole other field of work.

Both professions are more widespread than you think. Someone has to write the instructions for your wristwatch, or toaster oven, or bicycle pump, or sunglasses. Anyone who does is a technical writer, even if they don't think of themselves that way. And someone had to put together the promotional information for the latest surface-to-air missile technology being sold to Saudi Arabia. That person is a marcomm writer, even if they work for the military or Lockheed or someone.

That enough?


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