Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Paying the Ferryman - The cost of putting your content in someone's hands.

As part of the research for my next book for XML Press book (Which like this blog is also entitled THE CONTENT POOL.) I was having a conversation with a couple of people at a large manufacturing company about the cost of their documentation; at the start of the conversation I was expecting to hear all about the software they used to author, manage and publish their information, or even about the cost of training and retaining skilled technical communicators. But the conversation very quickly turned to one aspect of technical publishing that most of us (and I include myself in that) often completely overlook. - The cost of actually getting the information into our customers hands.

For this company their largest publishing related cost is simply Postage.

When we talk about modern technical communications and publishing systems, processes, and technology, we tend to think about digital creation and delivery. Along with that comes an assumption that most, if not all, our customers are in some way connected to the internet. There is a lot of talk (and again I'm just as guilty as anyone) of web delivery, mobile delivery and the bright digital future we are all marching towards. Yet that is a very Anglo-American centric view of the world.

Recently someone at Facebook developed a visualization of all the various Facebook connections, and the image that appeared (below) turned out to be a startlingly accurate rendering of a map of the World. Except that large areas of that map were dark. It reinforced the message that even if we are producing information digitally, we can't assume that if we are operating on a global scale everyone who needs access to our information has a wired connection.

So back to my earlier conversation. The company I was talking to uses XML and topic based authoring processes, along with content management tools, to efficiently single-source their documentation into many different deliverables.

But their products are literally used all over the world, including in some of the world's most inhospitable and remote locations. Not everyone is wired, so instead they ship sets of DVDs to customers and business partners.

Depending on the product being used the DVD sets can consist of anything from 3 to 12 separate DVD discs. And they ship 15,000 such sets every month. While the cost of shipping a set of DVDs within the US may be relatively cheap, the cost of shipping on set of DVDs to to a user working in the African jungle maybe as high at several thousand dollars. As well as the actual postage there is the cost of import duties, time to fill out customs forms and get approvals, as well as the actual delivery cost. I was told of one DVD set that involves the monthly rent of a boat and boatman to delivery it along a jungle river!

The total annual postage and delivery cost of DVDs for this company is in the Millions of dollars range, and recent increases in postage rates have meant a dis-proportianate rise in that overhead.

So next time you are considering the cost of your documentation - don't just think about the investment needed to actually create the content - think about what it takes to actually get that information into the hands of all your customers, no matter where they are located.

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