Brand me a surrogate

Surrogate advertising is a fascinating form of marketing. It conveys a specific brand or product but appears to be for an entirely different brand or product. In other words, it’s a form of “guerrilla” or “Trojan horse” communication, because it very carefully hides the intended message within a larger message designed to distract the viewer.

Corporations often engage in surrogate advertising because it’s illegal for them to advertise their product directly.

One example of surrogate advertising is Russian Standard, makers of a popular vodka in that country. They branched out into a completely different industry, banking, to form Russian Standard Bank. The bank was a success because the brand was so well-liked. When they advertise their bank, they’re really advertising their drink.

Here in Canada, President’s Choice supermarkets have branched out into banking, credit cards, cell-phones and even pet insurance. If people like the brand, they will consume it in all its forms.

Technical Writers, The Brand
Here is the perceived “brand” most people have of technical writers:

Technical writers are highly technical, social awkward, introverted, geeky bookworms who write documents all day long.

We must use the principles of surrogate advertising to completely redefine and expand our brand to include everything that we do for our clients. This is especially true if we are contract workers, who are expected to be complete business communication service bureaus.

What’s in a name?
The first challenge is with the name we give ourselves. Most people are familiar with the term technical writer. We must educate people on the more expansive and inclusive term: technical communicator.

After changing our name, we can then completely rebrand it:

Technical communicators are highly observant, objective, practical, and dynamic professionals who create, manage, and enhance all forms of visible communication, both internal and external, including information, documents, and the products themselves.

The bottom line
Although we do not sell products, we increase profits by helping people understand how to use a product or service, thereby lowering calls to technical support.

We also boost profits by giving clear, practical, and objective advice on the design and usability of a product. This not only lowers support costs, but can increase sales by instilling goodwill in customers, and increasing the chances they’ll recommend a product or service to others.

In other words, technical communicators help companies make money.

Our products and services
The types of communication we work with include:

  • any type of guide or document: user guides, installation guides, technical guides, online help, tutorials, training guides, policies and procedures, functional specifications, technical references, legal and medical documents, and so on
  • marketing communications, including Release Notes and press releases
  • websites, wikis, intranets, blogs or any other online document

We also offer the following value-added services for businesses:

  • simplifying and clarifying complex documentation
  • reviewing software, websites, and documents from a usability perspective
  • analyzing a company’s current documentation processes
  • developing corporate style guides
  • content strategy and planning for various media including print, online, and mobile
  • single-sourcing: merging duplicate content into one source
  • rewriting error messages
  • writing practical on-screen instructions
  • creating effective online surveys
  • developing clear names for programming objects, classes, rules, fields, and so on 
  • managing a company’s online social media presence

We may also offer the following services for individuals:

  • creating and editing résumés and cover letters that will ensure you get an interview
  • completely reviewing your online profile, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, to ensure your image is professional and consistent
  • helping you develop an effective blog or personal website

From brand to surrogate brands
Therefore, while our main product brand names might be one of:

  • technical writer
  • technical communicator
  • information developer

 our surrogate brand names include:

  • training developer
  • product evaluator
  • usability expert
  • software tester
  • policies and procedures writer
  • content developer or manager
  • marketing communicator
  • content strategist
  • survey developer
  • information simplifier
  • style guide developer
  • UI and error message text developer
  • programming elements ‘namer’
  • documentation project manager
  • website enhancer
  • career documentation specialist
  • social media manager

As with any good brand, we need an effective tagline or slogan.

I suggest:

Technical Communicators: We make things clear, concise, and complete.

The New Medium is the Message

The 100th anniversary of master communicator Marshall McLuhan’s birth was celebrated July 21, 2011. McLuhan was a leading expert in communication theory, his most famous saying being: “the medium is the message”. But what exactly did he mean by that?

All communication requires an environment to contain it – its medium. McLuhan was saying that the specific form of a medium is actually embedded in the message that is being communicated. In doing so, there is a relationship in which the medium itself affects how the message is perceived. That is, the line between the information and the container of that information is blurred.

An example of this is a TV news story about a terrible crime. The message presented in the news story may not be so much about the crime, but more about our negative attitudes towards crime, attitudes that are influenced by the very fact we are viewing in our home the news about this crime. That is, the medium (TV) is transmitting and influencing our perceptions of crime in general. The subtle message is that crime is everywhere, even in your home, on your TV.

McLuhan was a tremendous visionary and forward-thinker because many of his ideas can be applied to modern media and technology. Information technology has changed a great deal since McLuhan’s time, but his principles remain relevant.

Comparing old and new technical communication technology and  processes can give us insight into the message of the new medium. The following sections list the major differences:

Documentation Formats
The type of documentation delivered.

  • Traditional: paper, PDF, local help files
  • Modern: online (websites, discussion groups, help files, blogs)

Managing Content and Form
How the the information itself (words, graphics, diagrams, and so on) and its form (its physical appearance, including formatting) are managed.

  • Traditional: a writer manages the information and its formatting simultaneously using a WYSIWYG editor
  • Modern: the information is separated from its form using an XML editor; a information developer creates and categorizes the raw data; an information architect designs the visual form the information will take; the same information can be published to different formats (PDF, online help, website, RSS feeds, tablets, smart phones and so on) using different publishing targets

Reviewing and Markup
The process reviewers follow to indicate their changes to a draft.

  • Traditional: reviewers mark up paper copies or send emails
  • Modern: reviewers mark up an electronic copy; the writer directly incorporates these changes into a working copy; multiple reviewers can review same copy simultaneously and see each other comments; a record of all comments and changes are kept, allowing the writer to revert to any previous version

Documentation Access
The degree to which the source document can be updated by the writer and viewed by the end user.

  • Traditional: the document can only be edited on the writer’s system and can only be viewed on the end user’s system
  • Modern: the document can be edited anywhere via a secure online server and can be viewed online anywhere

Information Currency
How current the information is; the frequency with which the document can be updated to ensure the end user is viewing the latest version

  • Traditional: the end user’s version is only as current as the product itself; changes do not appear until the next release
  • Modern: the writer can update information at any time; the end user can view the changes online in real time

End User Feedback
How easily end users can comment on the documentation.

  • Traditional: writers review the document with the end user in person, a time-consuming and expensive process
  • Modern: users can rate and submit comments directly on specific topics via the web; the writer receives an email notification of the comments

The message of this new technical communication medium is that information should be free for both its creators and consumers. A writer should be able to access and update their source files anywhere. End users should be able to view the information anywhere, and know that they are viewing the latest version. They should also be able to give immediate feedback on the quality of the information. These are the obvious messages.

The deeper message is that we can all be creators and consumers of information, and that we demand much greater control, and a greater say, in the content and accessibility of this information. Information is power, and we all desire more power over this power. That is the true message.

Finally, this blog is a part of this new medium, and therefore embraces this message. I can access and update it anywhere (and frequently do.) All changes are published immediately. Using the Subscribe to: Posts link at the bottom, you can view these postings in any RSS reader. And you (the end user) are free to comment on these postings.

The medium and the message have become one.