Which comes first? The content or the product?

When you work for a startup you’ll soon notice that business and product development tasks don’t always occur in a prescribed order. Some gnarly product functionality gets built first because potential clients need to see it. Other easier tasks lie dormant until much later because they should be relatively easy to fix. For newcomers to startups, it can feel disorganized and disorienting to watch a product grow organically as priorities and influences shift.

A content strategist/writer can play an influential role in these shifting priorities. With more established product, the content usually exists to communicate the offering. However, in a startup, the content can play a significant role in defining the product offering.

At least, this has been my experience over the past few months…

I really noticed my content strategy defining our product as I set out to build our new product website and e-commerce process.

Because our company consists of mostly developers building our desktop product, we engaged an external firm to help in website design and development. After we’d agreed on a basic site map, I asked when they would need content. The response I got was: “As soon as possible. The content will help us with the design.”

Now, I’m not going to argue whether content or design should come first when building a website. Do a quick search and you’ll find many others have weighed in on that discussion.

What piques my interest is that writing content for this website project actually ended up significantly influencing our desktop product. Here are just a few of the ways:

  1. Design aesthetic. We’re a Windows shop, so we were already looking at Microsoft’s Windows 8 (formerly known as “Metro”) aesthetic for our desktop product. And, we wanted the website compliment that design. So, for a while there, the website was influenced by our product direction. But, you can’t build a software website without screen captures and video. So, we had to get the product design sorted out. Ultimately, the timeline for the website was a major influencer in seeing the design take shape sooner. 
  2. Product strategy.  The kind of software we’re working on will take a few years to grow to it’s full offering. There’s enough buzz that some people will buy  the product even though it doesn’t do everything yet, just to support us—which is pretty cool! But, this also makes it really important that we’re up-front about what’s coming in the first release and what will wait until later. As I set about gathering this content from the product development team, I believe the conversation that it inspired helped us define the product offering and the schedule for the coming months and years. My quest for content inadvertently influenced our product strategy.
  3. Pricing model. You can’t build an e-commerce process without defining a pricing model. We were already talking pricing when the website project started. As the sales team modelled scenarios for revenue and competitor comparisons to settle on positioning, our pricing model got more and more complicated. It had multiple tiers, annual or monthly payments, various bundles and discounts. It all seemed reasonable when you looked at the spreadsheets and a pretty chart, but soon became difficult to explain once I tried to lay out an easy-to-understand price list for the new website. In writing that page and defining its structure, we’ve been able to come up with a pricing model that should make it customers want to buy.

I’ve always felt that good technical writers play a larger role on a software development team than they are often given credit for. They don’t just write documentation after the programmers and testers are done their job. If they’re deeply embedded in the process, they test and influence user interface design too (among other things).

What’s new for me is to see this extend beyond the technical details to the other side of product management, to the project planning and business strategy. In established product companies, it is probably rare to see content development have such a far reach, but for small, new companies and products, there’s opportunity for a content strategist to make a huge impact.

So, I’ll end this post with a challenge. To content strategist/writers looking to extend their influence and skills, consider startups and smaller companies that need people who think strategically like you do. Be open and vocal to non-content tasks and conversations. To business owners and product managers, give your content strategists/writers influence in unconventional areas; their strategic minds can help grow your business.


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