The Evolution Of User Manuals

Aaron Fulkerson,
08.09.10, 12:00 PM EDT

Product and services documentation is now a core business asset that can drive revenues.
Aaron Fulkerson When people in technology hear the word "documentation" it conjures images of the '90s, when software shipped on CDs, in boxes, with thousand-page user manuals that were costly to create and bordered on useless to the end user. The teams authoring those materials have been viewed as a cost center, and their products only minimally satiating customer demand for product documentation.
Ten years ago documentation was a cost center and it was woefully inadequate at customer support, because books don't get written anywhere close to the speed of code. Today it has taken on the role of a core business asset--a mechanism by which you can make vast amounts of money.
Now brick and mortar companies moving to a pure online or hybrid sales model are also realizing that documentation is strategic to their companies--in ways that might surprise you.
Indeed, online product and services documentation has now proved to be an immensely effective way to increase new customer acquisition and to shorten sales cycles. It is now a critical business tool.
The importance of product documentation was punctuated for me in a recent conversation I had with the head of an e-learning department at one of the world's largest software companies. I was shocked to learn documentation for one of their products was still being shipped as a 10 DVD set. A customer would consume this content from the in-product help menu that would insist the customer "insert disc 6."
It's hard not to laugh.
Clearly this is an atrocious user experience, but more importantly, this company is missing out on potential new customers. Companies that care about educating their customers and prospective customers are consistently the winners in their categories.
It's All About the Benjamins What makes quality documentation? To a technical communicator quality is created by unambiguous, up-to-date and accurate content. But to a marketer, documentation informs prospects how their product is differentiated and steers them expeditiously through the sales cycle, successfully converting a prospect into a paying customer.
Documentation, once siloed in the realm of how-to guides, is actually feeding top-of-the-funnel activity. In fact, some companies that I have spoken to are reporting that their documentation is bringing in over 50% of their qualified leads. I can report that my company receives 70% plus of our site traffic from organic sources, and our documentation generates more than half of our overall site traffic. Furthermore, over half of our lead generation is driven by our documentation.
If your business hasn't been paying attention to your documentation, you're ignoring a sales tool and a revenue generator and you need to rethink your priorities.
Let's Get Frugal The classic use case for product and service documentation has always been customer support. Just take a look at the thousands of pages that Dell ( DELL - news - people ) has on its site for consumers and small businesses.
When you see a business with that many pieces of documentation published for customer support, it's not just about support, it's about driving down the costs of support. Think about it this way: According to Forrester, the average call center call can cost a business as little as $5.50 on average, or as much as $50 per call--why do you think they always try to sell you the extended warranty at the end of the call?.
For deeply technical issues, some of the businesses I've spoken to lately report that costs per support call can hit as much as $150 per call. But if the customer used a piece of documentation or a forum to solve their problem, the average cost is usually less than a dollar. In fact, Forrester's research indicates that the average is about 10 cents.
Good documentation drastically improves your customer experience. Recent reports indicate that U.S. businesses lose billions every year to poor customer support.
But It's Not Just About Enterprise There's a bigger shift happening here, and it has very little to do with the traditional association documentation has with the enterprise. What if your startup has an API, or you, like everyone else, are positioning your product as a "platform"?
Your success hinges on your ability to attract and foster productive and valuable relationships with developers. And if Apple 's ( AAPL - news - people ) SDK and AppStore success has proved anything, it's that developers have a huge appetite for development platforms that are clearly defined, documented and easy to build on.
The mobile phone war is being won and lost based upon the developers that choose a given platform. The same goes for anyone with an API. And documentation is at the center of every relationship between a platform and a third-party developer.
This isn't just about the bottom line--it's about business strategy and outmaneuvering competitors in your market. It extends from the enterprise all the way down to the least technical businesses in the country. If you're not paying attention you're going to lose, and lose hard.
Aaron Fulkerson is cofounder and CEO of MindTouch, an open-source collaboration platform. Prior to MindTouch, Fulkerson was a member of MIcrosoft's advanced strategies and policies division and worked on distributed systems research.
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