Whenever I see a job posting for a technical content specialist, I cringe. Why? Because based on the job description, what the hiring manager wants is really a technical writer, copywriter, or some kind of content manager. Why force job seekers to read the job description? If there’s a more accurate job title, use it. Would hiring managers post a job ad for a doctor when they want an orthopedic surgeon?
Do they think there’s no difference between technical writers, copywriters, and content managers, and that one person could do the work of all three? I’m not a medical doctor, but I suspect asking for one person to do all three would be like asking for a general practitioner to do a hip replacement. I’m sure the new hip would be connected, but I wonder how well the patient will recover.
If you’re a hiring manager who wants quality results from your technical content specialist, let’s look at the differences between technical writers, copywriters, and content managers and see which one you really want. We’ll look at content managers first.
In the context of wanting someone to manage the content on a website or set of websites, you probably want someone to
- create new content
- edit existing published content or edit content to be published
- select which content to publish
- plan what kinds of content are needed
- analyze the effectiveness of published content
- manage people responsible for creating or editing content
Understand that each bullet above could require the skills of one or more professionals. For example, create new content could require the skills of a writer, photographer, videographer, sound recording engineer, etc. Depending on the specific content manager’s responsibilities, a particular blend of skills would be needed to successfully manage the content.
In most cases I’ve seen, postings for a technical content specialist that describe a content manager are usually asking for a generalist who can do a little of all things listed above or someone primarily skilled in search engine optimization.
Technical Writers and Copywriters
Do you fundamentally want someone to
- explain how to do something
- motivate someone to buy something
If the first, you want a technical writer. If the second, you want a copywriter. Remember that in copywriting, buying can mean adopting an idea, or giving over something, such as an email address or money, in return for getting something, such as a free white paper or an expensive piece of machinery.
For most of my life, I’ve been a technical writer specializing in software user guides and policy and procedure guides for business operations. As a freelance business writer, I’ve learned copywriting and provide that service to my clients as well. The difference between technical writing and copywriting is like the difference between poetry and novels–only more so.
The table below highlights some of the major differences between the two kinds of writing. Keep in mind there are specialties within technical writing (for example, application program interface writing) and copywriting (for example, pay-per-click advertising copy).
|Audience||Users and others who need or want to do something.||Those in all levels of sales funnel.|
|Audience Needs||Gain knowledge to complete one or more tasks.||Buy a service or product to solve a problem.|
|Content use environment||Often source of information is only source. Source might be hard to find.||Often filled with competing, readily available sources of information.|
|Purpose||To provide enough information to enable audience to do something.|
Tell reader how to do something.
|To motivate reader to buy a product, service, or idea.
Tell reader why and how to buy something.
|Type of content||User guides, operations manuals, policy and procedure manuals, run books, installation guides, assembly guides, troubleshooting guides, other technical reference material.||Marketing emails, newsletters, blog posts, social media posts, landing pages, brochures. catalogs, advertisements (online, print, radio, TV), annual reports, some kinds of white papers, posters, advertorials, presentation scripts, other marketing material.|
|Style of writing||Text and graphics broken into discrete, easily identified chunks of information. Clear, understandable, easy-to-follow instructions or reference material to complete one or more tasks.||Attention getting, persuasive, emotionally resonate, focus on benefits to buyer. Works at subconscious and conscious levels to motivate reader to buy something.|
|Resources||Use cases, technical documentation (including code, schematics, blueprints, vendor supplied reference material), subject matter experts, personal experience, reader testing.||Buyer personas, technical documentation (including code, schematics, blueprints, vendor supplied reference material), subject matter experts, personal experience, market research, competitor research, personal experience, A/B testing.|
So based on what you envision the technical content specialist doing, which column best describes the kind of writer you need? Sometimes both kinds of writers will produce the same kind of document, a product one-pager for example. The difference is that a technical writer will produce a one-pager that provides reference information about the product, while a copywriter’s one-pager will emphasize benefits to using the product.
Technical writers will use drier prose, photos or illustrations (often with call outs or layered information), structure the one-pager to match a product’s spatial arrangement or chronological order of steps to accomplish some task. Copywriters will write prose that stirs emotions, use evocative photos or illustrations, and structure the one-pager to lead the reader toward buying something and deeper into a sales funnel.
Who Do You Really Want?
If you’re a hiring manager who was thinking of advertising for a technical content specialist, I hope I’ve gotten you to reconsider what title you’ll use for the position. While there are common responsibilities and skills among technical writers, copywriters, and content managers, each has unique skill sets, ways of working, and purposes. Do yourself and job seekers a favor–use the job title that really fits who you want to hire.
Jim Driggers is a freelance technical writer, copywriter, and editor. As Writing Jim, he provides copywriting and business policy and procedure writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses, and they gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers.
For help systematizing your business processes or for copywriting help with your print or online content, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.If you care, share.