Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Manual Marketing

When does an instruction manual or a user’s manual serve as a marketing tool? The right answer is…always. A recent project focused my attention on this, and I appreciate the chance to share it with you.

An instruction manual first explains various components of a product or system to its users. (For convenience, let’s just call it a “product,” even if it’s software or lawn fertilizer.) It instructs operators, supervisors, and managers in how to operate or use the product. It helps them remember the various steps needed for successful operation.

You’d think the instruction manual should then be viewed as technical communications rather marketing communications, right? Consider the following: the first goal of an instruction manual is to clearly instruct. I agree.

Wait, though. There’s major brand value to be gained by an effective, useful manual. A very good user’s manual will be recognized by its users – customers - as a useful, even valuable asset of the product. So there’s an element of marketing to it. The how-to manual also “welcomes” users to the working environment of the product and its maker.

Michael Lewis of Australia’s Brandle Technical Communications has contributed an important distinction in the area of user manuals. He wrote, “Technical communication is often taken to be synonymous with technical writing. But this common view misses the fact that writing is a solitary act, while communication is an interactive process.

“Technical communication is not the creation of documentary or textual resources, such as specifications: it is the creation of documentary or textual instruments, such as user manuals.” (I have added the italics here - a user manual is an instrument, not just a resource.)

A descriptive text covers what the product is. An explanatory text details how the product works. But a tutorial text explains how to use the product. Combining this with Lewis’s conjecture, a tutorial is almost completely instrumental. That is, it’s a “how-to” manual.

Most of us are tool-using animals. We instinctively recognize when a how-to manual is good, and when it's bad. (This presumes I read the manual first, of course.) The best how-to manuals involve the reader through an empathic connection between reader and material, tuning the material from ordinary or even clumsy text into interactive instrument.

The reader of a how-to manual is mainly searching for a solution to an immediate and usually personal problem: “How do I use this product to successfully accomplish X task?”

There’s more to it than that. A how-to manual is tutorial, interactively leading the reader by the hand from a problem (I need information to make the product work properly) to the solution (I know what I need to do to use the product successfully).

The text should be written from the point of view of the reader’s need, and therefore from the reader’s point of view. At the same time, it has to focus on the functions and facilities provided by the product. When I’m writing a how-to manual, I want to make certain to deliver content-centered matter in a reader-centered manner.

When I’m successful at this, users will recognize that this is a “good manual.” The good manual becomes another facet of a good brand – and the company behind it. I have sent the right signal and you’ve gained a marketing tool.

Neat, huh? Feel free to comment. Just post a reply.

No comments: