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Why marketing should make the user manuals!


Why do so many companies treat potential users so much better than existing users? Think about it. The brochure is a thing of beauty, while the user manual is a thing of boredom. The brochure gets the big budget while the manual gets the big index. What if we stopped making the docs we give away for free SO much nicer than the ones the user paid for? What if instead of seducing potential users to buy, we seduced existing users to learn?

Let's take the whole damn ad/marketing budget and move it over to product manuals and support. Let's put our money where our users are. If we're in it for the short term, then sure--it makes sense to do everything to get a new user, while doing as little as possible once we've got them. But if we're really in it for the long haul--for customer retention and loyal users--then shouldn't we be using all that graphic design and pro writing talent for the people we care about the most? Our users?

Most of you know our philosophy here on Creating Passionate Users:

Truly passionate users will evangelize to others.
The better users get at something, the better (higher res) the user experience.
The better the user experience, the more likely they are to keep trying to get better.
Nobody is passionate about something they completely suck at.
Helping your users learn and (ultimately) kick ass is the best way to up the odds they'll become passionate.

Creating fabulous learning materials might be a far better use of the budget than creating fabulous ads and brochures. If traditional advertising and marketing is becoming less and less effective, why not move all that talent (designers, artists, copywriters, other "creatives") from before the sale to after the sale? We keep wondering why users won't RTFM, but just look at our FMs! Nice brochures are printed on that coated silky paper that begs to be touched, while the manual is printed on scratchy office-grade paper. Even just that one change--making the user manual as touchable as the marketing material would be a good start.

And if your company insists on having fancy, slick, colorful brochures... why not take the new fancy, slick, colorful product manuals and use THEM as your promotional material? As a potential customer, I'll find your attention to user learning a lot more convincing than your attention to new sales. Rather than using your brochure to show how much YOU kick ass, I'd much rather see no-marketing-spin hard evidence of how you're going to help ME kick ass.

If the best way to help create passionate users is by helping users learn and get better, then we should put our power to entice, motivate, and inspire someone to buy more, and use it to entice, motivate, and inspire someone to learn more. In the end, those passionate users will evangelize our product or service far more credibly and honestly than we can.

So, are you as sexy after the sale as you are before? Do you know anyone who is? (I know a few, including Electric Rain)

And stay tuned for Part Two of this post--probably tomorrow--where we'll look at how to get them to RTFM even without the big budget. And hey, I missed you guys. I was out sick for a while and then travelling for a few days. Thanks for keeping me in your feeds. ; )

Posted by Kathy on August 29, 2006 | Permalink


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Very true !

As a quite technically oriented guy I read manuals even today and I prefer shops where I can see them before the buy. (Conrad Electronic in germany offers this on their website). I do this because I want facts and the technical fineprint and I want to see the possibilities and limitations of the product.
But even for ton-technocal people the information would be useful - if it were enjoyable, as you say.

Posted by: Norbert Klamann | Aug 29, 2006 11:41:21 PM

Hi Kathy,
Hope you're feeling better!

That's an excellent question - and one that makes a lot of sense.
I'm not going to pretend that I've come up with a good reason for not using the same skills to create your user manuals - I haven't managed to come up with anything to say that it's anything other than a good idea.

But, I think I can take a guess as to why it doesn't currently happen:
It's hard.
There are very few people who can do it.

In my experience the number of people who can pull together the necessary skills as a graphic designer, technical writer and technical product expert are diminishingly small.
Heck, it's hard enough to find someone who meets just one of those skills at a time, let alone all 3.

Which is unfortunate - because if more people couple learning material of that quality with the philosophy that your product is a "means" and not an "end", we'd all end up using (and producing) much better products as a result.

Posted by: omni | Aug 30, 2006 12:21:29 AM

Ummmm... why is this the first time I'm hearing this kind of philosophy?

Excellent excellent excellent advice.

Posted by: Glen C. | Aug 30, 2006 12:22:06 AM

My impression is that most marketing materials are not reader friendly and informative. It is very hard to get facts from markteting materials that help finding a reasonable decision.

Posted by: Christoph B. | Aug 30, 2006 1:58:51 AM

The discrepancy between the brochure and the manual is a sure sign that we care more for the sale than for the customer. Bad. Which is an apt description for the quality of after sales service almost universally. There are some exceptions, of course, but as a rule...

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Aug 30, 2006 2:11:34 AM

Please don't let the marketing people anywhere near the manuals. Yes, the manuals should have a bit more effort lavished on them in terms of layout and design but if you let the marketing people anywhere near them you'll lose the technical information they are trying to convey.

Posted by: Phillip Fayers | Aug 30, 2006 2:19:55 AM

In my (limited) experience, manuals don't need to be "glossy" as much as they need to be written in simple, coherent language with simple, uncluttered illustrations.

And be cautious: manuals can become too glossy for their own good. (Think of the kind of "newbie instructions" that contain page after page of insanely grinning fashion models, holding their new products as if they were radiating ecstasy-beams.)

Alternately, some devices (such as the camera on your illustration) can come with a "walkthrough" function that instructs the user while he uses the device for the first time:

"Hi, I'm your talking CoffeeMaker. Press the blinking button on my base to start the introduction for new users..."

Posted by: A.R.Yngve | Aug 30, 2006 2:44:26 AM

...or, more realistically, the marketing and tech writing staff (and web staff and product designers) should work closely together on both sides of the sale to ensure a seamless, pleasant, enticing customer experience from start to... well, we hope the relationship never ends! It helps to have someone in charge of Customer Experience whose job is very explicitly to ensure that the necessary cooperation takes place to create that, and that the results are consistently good wherever company touches customer.

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Aug 30, 2006 2:54:20 AM

So marketing shouldn't make the manuals but should spend their money in that area rather than on brochures. Like the idea of doubling up and using the new documentation as part of the pitch instead of brochures too.

Posted by: Dan Creswell | Aug 30, 2006 3:32:28 AM

You are of course singing from my Geek Marketing 101 songsheet so I totally agree, but I am reminded of a potential reason for the complacency you describe. I feel a post coming on.

Posted by: John Dodds | Aug 30, 2006 3:52:04 AM

Too true. Customers who know how to use products are happy customers. I've often found that products that you can easily pickup and use are the ones you use most often.

Having said that, at least having a boring manual is better than no manual at all.

Posted by: Neon | Aug 30, 2006 6:10:46 AM

Kathy, there are a lot of great things in your post. Unfortunately corporations haven't truly figured out that customers don't care if the marketing dept and the pubs dept are under different VP's. In most organizations that I've seen, having pubs on time is just a checkbox in the product launch schedule. They're reviewed for accuracy, but little thought is put into the user's experience or the opportunity for ongoing branding. It's funny how marketing cares so much about persuading a customer to buy, but seems to drop the ball on actually caring for the customer.

Posted by: Nick Rice | Aug 30, 2006 7:19:08 AM

I'd argue this is actually a "meta" issue. Take for instance employers - in general, the only way employees can really move up is by changing jobs. A good friend of mine was telling me that his team has had lots of attrition and they're having a hard time filling openings yet raises are going to be capped - what message is that sending him? If you want to get what you're worth, leave.

While I have heard of a few people getting good sized "market" adjustments, in general once you're in the door you won't be seeing much in the way of corporate love. That said, employees work in similar ways, often presenting a very glossy marketing document with a crufty user manual... And I won't even get into the whole dating/marriage game ;) Great post Kathy, hope you're feeling better!

Posted by: Nate Schutta | Aug 30, 2006 7:19:54 AM

Kathy, you are making an excellent point. Marketing and communications should inform every single experience both within and outside an organization.

It is indeed very hard to get that the energy and funds expended to obtain customers should in fact be multiplied or at least maintained in keeping those customers. It is hard for many reasons. As marketer and communicator I have always made it my priority to learn the business I was in – whether that be technology, risk management, chemical manufacturing or non-profit medical services – as well as the functional pieces within that business (customer service, R&D, sales, etc.) It takes time and tremendous commitment.

The other consideration is that marketing is usually directly attached to sales; in my experience sales is rewarded on volume while marketing is compensated on holding pricing so there is a decent margin. This translates organizationally into tension where customer service is caught in between.

It is hard to implement because it means a blurring of the lines and collaboration rather than holding onto a territory. It involves a commitment to working together and being responsible for each other’s success where most organizations continue to reward individuals for checking the boxes.

It is more the model of the future, for survival and for excellence; what has started happening with open space, social networks and blogs. It requires changing our thinking as well as our behavior and that takes time. Time many would contend, some organizations are running out of.

Posted by: Valeria Maltoni | Aug 30, 2006 7:35:37 AM

On the surface, this looks attractive. But as a technical communicator, I can see soooo many ways this could turn out even worse than the "dry boring, etc. etc." stuff on the right.

Keep the actual goals of the user documentation in mind, and then use ideas from marketing materials to help achieve those goals more effectively.

Posted by: Milan Davidovic | Aug 30, 2006 7:36:02 AM

This is type of mindset is prevalent in one other major area...marriage. How many marriages do you know that fell apart because there wasn't "that spark" that was there when you first met. In the courting period, men do everything they can to get the girl, or in marketing terms, "make the sale." Once the marriage happens, there's nothing to pursue, nothing to work towards, and ultimately the consumer, or wife, loses interest.

You've brought up an excellent point here, it just goes to show how this mindset is not just in marketing, but in the core of the human soul unfortunately.

Posted by: Paul Podraza | Aug 30, 2006 7:41:03 AM

Stone Design - www.stone.design - does a great job in supporting their software and the software's users.

They offer free upgrades for life. Their users become their best advertising and the user base continually expands rather than feeding upon itself. Every user has the latest version - so Stone only has to support one version. It's easier and better for Stone and the users - fantastic!

Potential users trying out the product can easily use the user forums to receive support from happy users and the developer himself.

Of course, I'm a satisfied StoneWorks user. I'm getting more out of the software now than I was when I purchased it over five years ago.

Posted by: daddydoodaa | Aug 30, 2006 7:48:13 AM

I can't speak for other industries but from a camera perspective there is one that was left out as for why their manuals are so bland. In most cases Canon, Sony, and other manufacturers also release a field guide book that is sold seperately. If the manual was as useful as the field guide no one would buy the field guide which equals lost profits.

Posted by: brando | Aug 30, 2006 7:49:58 AM

Sorry, Stone Design's URL is www.stone.com.

Happy, but distracted, StoneWorks user....

Posted by: daddydoodaa | Aug 30, 2006 7:50:01 AM

Wow, you _completely_ missed the boat on this article, Kathy! I think Phillip Fayers comment is bang on - you're confusing the rather minor issue of aesthetics with the more important issue of audience.

Marketing targets a fundamentally different audience than user documentation. They deal with people that need to be persuaded, rather than simply informed, which is what user manuals are about. And persuasion requires fundamentally different material - it needs to be flashy and easy to digest in a very small amount of time. I.e. it needs to be great-eye candy that fits on one or two pages.

User documentation on the other hand is for people you've already convinced, and are willing to devote an extended amount of time learning about how to make the most of the product they've already purchased. Thus, the material needs to be rich in content.

By your logic, the marketing department should take over the customer support role, too, right? After all, Marketing can surely be more convincing as to why you should ignore the problems you're having and just use the 5 best features instead.

No, leave the documentation responsibilities to the people who understand how users need to learn. Sure, spend some time making the front and back cover look nicer, sprinkle a few nice pictures at the beginning of each chapter, and make sure the typography and layout are pleasing. But please don't mess around with any of the content. I've bought the product already, quit trying to sell the damn thing to me and just teach me how to really, really love it for what it does.

Posted by: Robert | Aug 30, 2006 8:03:36 AM

So, are you somehow coordinating with ProNet Advertising on posts? Eerie coincidence ...

Posted by: Morgan Goeller | Aug 30, 2006 8:16:51 AM

Excellent comments!

Deirdre', you have the most practical and potentially useful advice:
"The marketing and tech writing staff... should work closely together on both sides of the sale to ensure a seamless, pleasant, enticing customer experience from start to... well, we hope the relationship never ends!"

I think every company that makes a product ought to have that as a serious goal.

Neon: You're right -- a boring manual IS definitely better than no manual... although I've had some manuals that were nothing but an impenetrable waste of trees.

Nick: I think you've hit a big problem on the head: "having pubs on time is just a checkbox in the product launch schedule." I've been to so many big foofy "marketing launch team" meetings, but rarely (and by 'rarely' I mean 'never') have I been to a lavish a "product manual launch team" meeting.

Nate: Well done ; ) I think we call that, "false advertising" or... bait and switch? It is indeed a meta issue and applies to so many things.

Valeria: we need more marketers with your oreintation and who care about ALL sides of the business.

Milan: You made the REAL point: "use IDEAS from marketing materials to help achieve those goals more effectively."

Paul: See: "bait and switch." I agree!

daddydoodaa: thanks so much for the pointer to Stone... I'm going to spend some time exploring.

Robert: Ah, I completely disagree with you on this -- my point is that persuasion and learning do NOT require fundamentally different material, and that in fact the people we most need to bring into the mix of learning/training/documentation are those with the skills to persuade, entice, compell, etc.

I agree that user docs are indeed for people who are already convinced, but to assume that they're willing to devote an extended time to learning it is the one that hurts us. You did say the material needs to be "rich in content", and I agree... but presentation is a shockingly important part of what makes content rich. If it were just about the facts and information in the manual, then we wouldn't have RTFM as a mantra.

My point is that the manual SHOULD be as compelling to read as the glossy brochure. Does it also need to be technically useful and correct? Absolutely, but those two aren't mutually exclusive. The best of all words would be as Deirdre said -- where we combine the best of both talents.

And I'd also argue that most companies do NOT have documentation made the responsibility of "people who understand how users need to learn." Again, if that were true -- we wouldn't all be complaining so much about our manuals, and we wouldn't be moaning about our users who don't read the manual. They don't read the manual because the manual is usually technically correct but so brain-unfriendly as to be virtually unusable.

A dry, boring manual talks to the mind, not the brain -- but it's the brain that we need to please. We do a great job of this with advertising and brochures--where we appeal to both their emotions and their rational mind, but we just let all that excitement go in the manual, and the reader has a terrible time trying to stay focused and engaged.

I totally agree with you about "quit trying to sell the damn thing". We should not be trying to resell the product, but we SHOULD be trying to sell the user on why they should learn these things that will ultimately help them kick ass : )

I believe your wonderful line," teach me how to really, really love it for what it does" takes some of the same graphic design/writing loving care that we give to other more high profile projects.

Maybe the best solution is to just make the resources of the graphic design/copywriting talent available to the people who make the manuals, and let those in charge of user learning direct those folks to help create the best, most compelling user documentation that makes it both productive and engaging to read the manual.


Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 30, 2006 8:32:02 AM


Same reasons guys treat fiancees better than wives, companies recruits better than employees, cell phone companies switchers better than customers, 18-34 year olds better than over 55: getting is sexier than having.

We're easily bored creatures. We take existing conditions (people, places, things) for granted and glorify the acquisition of new things, not the faithful use of old things.

Basically, as a species, we suffer from ADD. In grad school I had a psychotherapy prof who used to wax eloquent about, "the addiction of the ego to 'more and more'; the call of the new"...truer words were never spoken.

Posted by: Tom Guarriello | Aug 30, 2006 8:40:12 AM

On the back of the instruction sheet for a new Rolodex(tm) monitor stand they had instructions for making a paper crane. The crane seems to be their mascot and is displayed on the box. A very surprising, but welcome, touch.

Posted by: GlennM | Aug 30, 2006 9:00:43 AM

What a great post! Well said. There is such an emphasis by marketers and sales executives to entice and motivate potential new customers, rather than focus on the captive mass and focusing on loyalty and retention. Treat your current customers the same or better, not worse. Turn them in to an effective viral marketing channel by engaging and helping them to become as passionate about your product as you are. You'll get the customers as a result.

Posted by: Rajan Sodhi | Aug 30, 2006 10:10:23 AM

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