Errata and the Hidden Value of Attention to Detail

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. – Anonymous.

The proverb above, borrowed from an ancient poem, is a cautionary tale about the importance of attention to detail. A shortage of horseshoe nails led to a hobbled horse, a crippled army and eventually the fall of a kingdom.

Profound stuff, right? For our purposes, this lesson applies to content marketing for print and web.

Years ago, while working as a content developer at a Fortune 500 B2B distributor of scientific products, I “inherited” the unwanted task to resolve the dreaded monthly errata files — errata being a highfalutin word for the errors discovered in our catalogs and on our company’s website — as reported by sources from within and outside the company.

Our 10-member content team curated an online portfolio in excess of 500,000 SKUs. About a quarter of these fully written, with detailed descriptions and ordering tables fit for a catalog. The remaining descriptions were skeletal, consisting of just enough specifications to distinguish Widget A from Widgets B, C and so forth.

This ginormous universe of SKUs expanded daily by the thousands as new products came into the system. Every active SKU appeared on our website and was available for purchase.

As you can imagine, with a portfolio that large, errors were inevitable, and even a minute fraction of errata could – and did – demand hours to research and correct. Compounding the problem was the lack of a centralized intake for errata. Sometimes the same errata would come to us from a customer, from customer service, and from a product manager or supplier.

Most often the errata was something our group could fix — a typo, an incorrect spec, a clarification. Other times the solution rested with an outside party like product administration, but our group was the clearinghouse, beginning with me as the point person.

Nobody liked to do errata. Fixing them took time. Valuable time that could have been more productively spent writing new product descriptions. But every errata was a leak in our otherwise tight content marketing pipeline.

Errata also put our customer relationships at risk. The customer who bought what she thought was a 120V laboratory freezer for domestic use, only to receive a European model because the electrical specs were wrong, would not only be inconvenienced by a delay in getting the right unit, but also forced to haggle over a restocking fee. Unhappy customers have a way of taking their business elsewhere.

Putting my shopper’s hat on, I sympathized with our customers. I hated to buy the wrong item through no fault of my own, then fight a battle with the merchant to set things right.

The essence of content marketing is to describe a product concisely and accurately so that the customer can evaluate, compare, make an educated choice and get to the checkout screen as simply as possible. The customer must be able to trust the integrity of the content; ensuring that integrity is the duty of the content developer.

Most errata were preventable if the content developer had been more careful. For that reason, in my writing I rarely fussed about stylistic minutia such as serial commas or the nuances of whether an em-dash was preferred over a colon. But I became a fanatic about the details that truly mattered to the customer and could influence a purchasing decision. Instead I checked my work with hawk-like concentration to catch the misplaced decimal, mistyped number or omitted modifier. I aimed for unerring accuracy with the intent to avoid an errata such as: But your catalog said it was NONflammable!

In content marketing, we aren’t writing a best-selling novel; we are writing to have best-selling products.

And that’s why “the nail” — attention to detail — matters.

Dan Skantar is Director of Content Services at JP Enterprises.

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