I thought I would add a few more words to my post
from last week
Many deplore the sorry state of business communications in general and tech writing in particular. It is a fact that excessive use of jargon and clichéd, empty phrases (see my post Avoiding Gobbledy Gook Puke
, which in turn referenced Steve Kayser of the Cincom Expert Access blog
) often make it hard to understand what people are actually talking about or what the products do and how they help people.
There’s a trap I think some of my tech PR colleagues fall into. In an effort to sound savvy and speak in the language of the targeted audience – both not necessarily bad things of course – they rely on recycled, empty (but "safe") prose that may have originated in the marketing department. Or they go to client, competitor and news websites and read articles and press releases that have many of the same empty terms (here are a few: seamless, purpose built, user-friendly, open, next generation, standards-based, etc.)
This would be fine if the marketing department communicated in a meaningful way. Of course, words that work for marketing might not work for PR – sales and marketing have more leeway to use hype, and the copy is often produced or influenced by the advertising and branding folks.
Add to this that both sides – internal marketing staff and the ad agency – may well not have the technical knowledge or familiarity of the markets they are serving to pick the words that build the story that resonates with customers and prospective customers.
Particularly when it comes to tech products and services, unless you have actually worked on the front lines of the industries of interest, and worked with the products and applications, or designed them, it really is hard to figure out what is what.
So, without that firsthand experience, how do you you acquire the knowledge needed to produce copy that grabs attention and clearly communicates the value or your company’s or client’s product or service?
TMI? Bring it On
For starters, as an outsider you may actually have an advantage. See my post Innovator’s Paradox
, which describes the Curse of Knowledge, i.e. the danger of being too close to a topic to think creatively.
There is no such thing as too much info, as long as you keep an open mind and don’t fall into the curse of knowledge, but there certainly is such a thing as too little information.
So, unless you want to do no better than communicate at a very superficial level, and offer watered down advice and copy, there is no alternative but to do the foundational work in getting smart about the space, i.e. learning the specific technologies and related business and user issues.
Talk, Talk, Talk (What is the Buzz in your Space)?
The best kind of research is primary research. This means talking to real live people, and not relying solely on filtered information like articles and analyst reports. Just talking to the clients, visiting client and competitor websites and reading articles can provide a very skewed view of reality.
Of course you need to talk to your clients, and that is probably where you will start – but don’t limit your conversations to the marketing department or the PR manager. Instead, try to get range of views – technical, marketing, sales, executive and customer service. Dig deep and challenge them, just like a good reporter or analyst would.
Next, talk to so-called domain experts. These are people in the industry with firsthand, high level knowledge of a space. They could be friends and family who work in the industry. They could be clients who might be in adjacent spaces. They could be analysts you know who cover the space.
Ask them about the buzz in the space. Are they aware of the type of product or service your client offers? Do they understand the related issues? Have they heard of your client? What is the word on the street about this type of technology and the competitors in the market? Or about the space in general: is it growing, in decline, is there a history of unmet expectations?
You might also want to engage in a media audit of the space, although this takes time, and you need to be careful in how you approach the task. For example, divulging that the questions are on behalf of a specific client might color the answer or make the reporter think you are pitching, not researching (I am not saying deceive, just that sometimes a little intentional vagueness goes a long way). What better way to determine how to present the client to the media than by understanding (again, firsthand) their views on the space?
Now, Go Forth and Read
After completing primary research, the next step in taking the pulse of the space is to see what the media and blogs are buzzing about. I personally feel that, given the rapid pace of change in tech, you are wasting your time by going back years. But certainly search back a year or less, using a range of keywords, as well as client and competitor names, and mining a range of search engines and subscription services assuming you have access.
Read analyst reports, again assuming you have access. Find roundup and analytical articles in which the media has helped with your homework by providing a wrap on the space. A good way to do this is include in your search the names of the top competitors, so that the hits returned will feature articles mentioning them all. Read product reviews to see which features reviewers feel are important and how vendors stack up.
Once you take these steps you will be much smarter about the space, and in a good position to do the following (the next topics in the series):
Assume the Positioning: What Bucket to Fall Into?
Understanding Industry Frames
Building a Better Narrative