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Collaborating With Engineers on Content Marketing Part 1

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Engineers aren't writers by nature, so why ask them to create content?

In his 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire, astronaut Michael Collins noted the difficulty he and the Apollo 11 crew had with expressing their feelings on the momentous act of landing on the moon. He wrote: “If they wanted an emotional press conference, for Christ’s sake, they should have put together an Apollo crew of a philosopher, a priest, and a poet—not three test pilots. Of course, they wouldn’t get them back to have a press conference, in all likelihood, because this trio would probably emote all the way back into the atmosphere..."

Engineers, like astronauts, tend to be left-brain dominant personalities. Equipped with minds that are analytical, systematic, and concise, engineers are more than capable of explaining their designs to other engineers in their discipline, and maybe other engineers. But how to explain their designs to management, marketing…their spouses? How to convey the elegance of a design - an automobile for example - the color, the smell of the leather? Many engineers struggle.

Content by Engineers for Engineers

Approaching an engineer in your company to write an article or copy for your website takes a little courage – and it usually does not end well. You are not like them. You can’t do what they do, much less understand it.

Besides, engineers are unlikely to talk about what they have done because after they have done it, it seems ordinary. Like police-work, the action is over and now you have to write the report. So don’t expect a work of art. It will be just the facts, ma’am.

If anything, expect documentation, not a story. Writing, either its creation or its consumption, is just not a prized virtue for the typical engineer. There were the mandatory Composition classes they took as freshmen but by the time the senior project is written every appreciation of literary skill, every spark of creativity and bit of wit - oral or written - has usually been stamped out. It’s sad, but that’s the making of an engineer.

But sadder yet would be the missed opportunity of excluding engineers from your content marketing. Engineers should be involved in the creation of engineering-related content but getting an engineer to play along, for the reasons outlined above, can seem like Mission Impossible.

We know firsthand. After more than 15 years and 15,000 articles, we’ve learned a few things about what to expect from engineers. We’ve had the rare engineer who can write - that improbable intersection of the Venn diagram. But more often than not, creating a good engineering story takes the time and effort to find an engineer with a hint of writing talent, develop their skills, and edit, edit, edit their work until it's just right. And keep in mind the end goal, the reward: to have a steady stream of engineering content written by the experts themselves.

We hope you can use some of what we’ve learned in your organizations.

In a series of blog posts, we will provide you tips and processes to foster collaboration between your engineering and marketing teams and ultimately deliver useful and interesting marketing content geared at an engineering audience.

Why Should Engineers Write Content?

Let’s start with the simple question Why? If I have a dedicated marketing team, why should I involve engineers? Fair enough, but as Jack Nicholson would ask, “Can you handle the truth?”

Quite simply, engineers trust other engineers. Everyone else…not so much. When communicating with engineers, the message will resonate better, have more impact, and establish trust if written by a peer with experience in the field. Sure, marketers have strong research skills, but engineers can spot a non-engineer from a mile away. They will immediately dismiss an article as “marketing fluff” or worse at the first offending statement, or God help you, an incorrectly used unit or inconsistent use of significant digits. If you had to Google that, we have made our point.

How Can Engineers Impact Your Marketing Content?

Here are some specific benefits that come from having engineers involved in the content creation process. Engineers can do the following:

  • Pull other engineers in. This collaboration helps ease the burden on marketing. Engineers have a strong sense of community.
  • Improve your content. Engineers are generally data-driven and will add the technical content that will be credible and authoritative.
  • Keep the content relevant.
  • Help with topic selection. Engineers know what is essential in their daily work.

Do it properly and you will provide engineers the chance to shine within the company, as well as in the outside world – for those so inclined, it helps establish them as thought leaders and builds their personal brands.

Also, you will be fostering collaboration between marketing and engineering which, in many companies, is lacking. Marketers know engineers are necessary but find them boring. Engineers don’t think marketers could find their way home without them, like astronaut Michael Collins at the beginning of our story. There is a natural tension between the two roles, and working together goes a long way towards building empathy and respect.

When implemented with proper guidance, sensitivity, and oversight, the benefits of having your engineering team “pitch-in” are clear. More impactful content drives greater credibility, which increases the odds that your content will be shared with a broader engineering audience.

What to Expect From This Series

Like most good things, the process takes hard work and often comes with its share of frustration and challenges. Let’s examine some of the obstacles that can come along the way. We will break these down more in future segments of the series.

  • Deciding on topics. Where and how to get ideas?
  • Hunting for contributors. Where do you look for contributors? Engineers are probably not breaking down your door to write for a corporate blog. You may have to hunt them down.
  • How to groom talent. Once you find a victim contributor, how do you coax the first article out of them? The next article?
  • Playing the numbers. The more writers you groom, the greater the chance that you develop a core team of steady contributors and therefore a better chance of having a realistic and manageable editorial calendar.
  • Rewarding the contributor. Relax, this may not cost you more than a lunch. An engineer’s reward is recognition: a job done right and the respect of their peers. You might want to please your boss, but does Dilbert?
  • Editing – get used to it, that’s your new job. Every engineer will benefit from editing. It can be light editing all the way to a complete rewrite. You will do it though, because the raw material is invaluable and only an engineer can supply it. You just have to polish it up.
  • Managing egos. Who are you to be correcting an engineer’s work? What constitutes a correction and what’s an edit? Will your engineers appreciate you cleaning up their quotes or call you out for putting words in their mouth? Should you be recording your conversations? How should you handle post-publishing fallout, like if they don’t like how they are portrayed or quoted?
  • Humor and wit are in short supply – but greatly appreciated. It’s a minefield, though. Like your dad’s jokes, engineers’ jokes tend to draw more groans than laughs. They don’t crossover into the general public. We know. You have to know when to cut them out or recognize the ones that other engineers will appreciate.
  • Making the time. This will not be easy. Taking raw material and fashioning a marketing piece from it will take up most of your day.
  • Make a house style guide. Developing a style guide is critical to provide clear direction to others on your team as they work with multiple authors. Here you can address “Single corporate voice?” or “Individual style?" or “first-person perspective?” to spelling and usage conventions. Don’t worry if you don’t have one, but you should be keeping notes to develop one.
  • Understanding intellectual property or proprietary information. What will your lawyers allow to be shared? What is the internal process for approval?
  • Balancing company image/reputation with what makes a story interesting. Will management tolerate a story where a design flaw led to a better product for example? Is your marketing job to make the company look unblemished, or can you occasionally show a human side? How positive do you need to be?
If you have any experiences or thoughts you can share, please leave a comment below and be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already!


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