22 years of content
This week, I was minding my own business when, all of a sudden, I started getting “congratulations” messages from LinkedIn. At first, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I checked. Gee, Content Rules is turning 22 in just a few days! How on earth did that happen?

It actually doesn’t seem like just the other day that I started the company. It seems like a different world ago. In 1994:

  • There was no internet for us common folk. I was lucky enough to have a contract at Netscape in 1995, when they went public. That was an exciting time. I think we knew the world was about to change. (Unfortunately, I was not a Netscape employee and had no stock…)
  • We had battles between Ethernet and Token Ring. Who was going to win that war?
  • Wireless networks were unavailable. The 802.11b standard was an early 1990s phenomenon and major adoption followed.
  • Cellphones were ridiculously expensive, large, clunky, and certainly not ubiquitous.

It’s amazing that we were even able to conduct business back in the 1990s. I often wonder how we did it. Lots of phone calls and fax messages. And, we actually met in person! Face-to-face! I know, a scary thought…

The Role of Content

When I started the company, content played a supporting roll in the life cycle of a product. It’s not that content was an afterthought (though that definitely happened from time to time). But, content was not the main player on the stage.

Nowadays, content is often the ONLY thing we get before making a purchasing decision. We buy things, sight unseen, based on the content about it. For example, I recently stood on line for four hours to put down a deposit on a Tesla Model 3. I haven’t seen the car. I haven’t driven the car. I haven’t played with the gadgets in the car. But, the content that I’ve read, combined with recommendations from friends who have other Tesla models, and the reputation of the company had me handing over my credit card for a major purchase gleefully.

Many people I know (including me) buy almost everything online. Electronics, clothing, food, cleaning products, nuts and bolts, you name it. We click our way through descriptions and reviews, and ultimately decide if we will select the “buy now” button. Purchases made solely based on the content we read, see, and hear. Content has definitely become more important and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future.

Creating Content

Best practices for creating quality content have not changed over time:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use correct grammar.
  • Leave out words that don’t add value.
  • Avoid jargon, cliches and colloquialisms.
  • Organize content so it makes sense.
  • Make important things easy to find and easy to follow.

However, the words we use in writing have morphed quite a bit. “Back in the day,” when I started the company, writing was much more formal. It was not uncommon to use the third person (“the user does this or that”). We tried to use long, multi-syllabic words so that we could show how smart our company was.

The things we were writing about were very similar to what we write about today. We wrote conceptual information and tasks. We created reference material and procedures. But the words we used to communicate were very different.

Twenty years ago, our readers were customers. Speaking with them in a formal voice was respectful and customary. Over the years, our relationship with our readers has shifted. Now, we write for a reader who is our pal. We speak in a very informal voice, using an informal tone. Even the most technologically advanced companies are using their content to establish close friendships with their customers.

For example, I have a new wearable bracelet that tells me how many hours I slept last night, how many steps I’ve taken today, and so on. It comes with a “coach” that gives me pep talks throughout my day. Today it told me:

“You’re close to reaching today’s move goal. If you want to go for it, 1,999 more steps will take you there.”

(Okay, I don’t think being 2,000 steps away from my goal is anywhere near “close,” but you get the point.)

Twenty years ago, we would have never considered writing this way. We would have never used the phrase, “if you want to go for it.” We would have said something like:

“Walk 1,999 more steps to reach your goal.”

and left it at that. No contractions, no possessives, no colloquialisms. No high-fives or smiley faces. Just the facts.

My opinion of the changes that we’ve made in how we address customers is two-sided. On the one hand, I think it is easier to connect with people in a friendly way. I think our customers appreciate the informality and they even enjoy some of the jokes, sarcasm, and fun that we now include. On the other hand, colloquial content is difficult for people who have English as a second language to read. It is also difficult to translate. And, some cultures do not share the same appreciation for being best friends with your company.

I think we need to find a balance between creating content that is approachable and creating content that goes a bit too far in terms of its chumminess. There is a middle ground. The middle ground is short, balanced sentences that avoid blatant colloquialisms and remain respectful at all times.

Customer Service

I’ve noticed a shift in how we connect with customers. Before we had myriad ways of communicating electronically, we used to meet in person. Often. We’d sit, face-to-face and chat. Nowadays, a great deal of the work we do is handled exclusively via email, chat, and text. I have customers whom I’ve never even spoken with live. Sure, the speed at which we get things done has improved exponentially. But, sometimes I miss shaking hands and breaking bread with people.

One thing that has not changed over the years is customer expectations. Customers still expect:

When I started Content Rules in 1994, those were my three goals. In 2016, 22 years later, those are still the three key goals of the company.

Over the years, I’ve added critical two qualities to the goals.

The first is trustworthiness. The most important part of the customer relationship is the trust that you build. You can do everything right, but if you cannot be trusted, you will fail. Quickly. Also, it can take years to build trust and minutes to destroy it. Always be trustworthy and never – ever – slip.

The second is dependability. Dependability goes hand-in-hand with trustworthiness. Do what you say you are going to do, when you say your are going to do it. No exceptions. No excuses. If some unforeseen circumstance erupts, fess up to it, explain it, apologize, and reset the expectation. Second to trust, the most important thing to a customer is setting and maintaining expectations.

The Next Twenty Years

I think we will continue to see changes and advances over the coming decades.

Here are some of my predictions:

First, I think we will have tools that we cannot imagine now. I think typing will go the way of talking to friends on the phone. It will be something we do periodically, but not our main form of communication. Instead, I think we will see more use of voice-to-text content creation, programs that read our text-based content aloud, and so on.

Companies will make more and more use of video. Video editing tools will become even easier to use. Audio will play a larger role, too.

The chasm between technical documentation and marketing documentation will continue to tighten. The tools for creating structured content will make vast improvements in ease of use, WYSIWYG, and interoperability. We will be able to create a single piece of content and use it for anything we want: marketing collateral, websites, documentation, knowledgebase, training. The file formats and current tools that have us paralyzed will leap ahead to make this interaction possible.

The one thing that will never change is the importance of the relationship between vendor and customer. Trust will remain paramount to doing business, regardless of what form the communication takes.

Thank You

I’d like to take a moment to thank the employees, contractors, and customers who have put their trust in me for so many years. The first contractor I ever hired (I’m looking at you, David Lehmann) is still creating fabulous art for our customers. And one of my first customers (I’m looking at you, Cisco) is still with me, decades later. My employees have been dedicated to the company for many years, as well.

I thank you for your trust and look forward to working with you for many years to come.


I’d like to dedicate this post to Collin Batey, one of the industry’s best technical illustrators and a dear friend. RIP, Collin. You will be missed by many.

Val Swisher
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