NOTE: This is a re-publishing of a Social Media and Technical Communcations piece that Adobe requested I put together for a special supplement to the UK’s Communicator Magazine (http://www.istc.org.uk/). It was originally released in print only in mid-2010. I was pleased to be selected to introduce the issues in the supplement.
On a recent discussion in the ISTC Yahoo! Group, a Technical Communicator compared Social Media’s significance to his profession as being as useful as a pogo stick or skateboard. In other words, he stated Social Media has no significance to Technical Communications at all.
There is a delicious irony here, in that this particular Technical Communicator posted this theory in an online web forum (a prime example of Social Media) which was created by and for his profession’s community. As evidenced here, it is clear that Social Media can play an extremely important role for technical communicators, enabling them to collaborate on how they guide and direct the strategy of their organisation’s content.
It is a widely-held belief that Social Media is the biggest thing to hit communication since the advent of the internet. Globally, communications are still experiencing the tectonic shifts, but these are only the warnings of the earthquake that is to come. The impact, now and in future, means that users are integrating social media and the ‘old-fashioned’ internet so fast and so deeply that they are starting to blur. Social Media is not just the hot new thing being utilised by the Marketing department to reach audiences; it is bringing back to the fore the forgotten art of conducting business with a two-way conversation between shop and customer. If an organisation isn’t engaging with and guiding this conversation, it will be overwhelmed by it, and most likely, in a negative way.
Let’s tie that into what I’m going to call the ‘super-role’ of the Technical Communicator: to assist the user in getting the best use out of the product or service their company provides. This extends throughout the product lifecycle from pre-sales evaluation content, to repeat business when the client (hopefully) re-invests in a relationship with your organisation because of the great experience they had last time.
Datasheets, manuals, help, knowledge bases and learning/training materials all affect this experience, and to achieve the ‘super-role’, the Technical Communicator attempts to:
- understand how, where and why different users need content
- become an expert in creating and managing content to meet these needs
- deliver content in the correct context, structure, format and language across all the channels in which the user expects it
Like all megatrends, the Social Media explosion is the sum of various trends that have been building for a while, some since the first pre-internet Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). In 2009, digital marketing intelligence agency Comscore stated that “social networking attracts three quarters of European internet users [15 and over]” – this means that 75% of all people in Europe using the web engage in Social Media. Although teenagers comprise only a small slice of the sample group, as they are tomorrow’s consumers, their impact is still weighted heavily. These results show there has already been a monumental impact on how and why people collectively access online information.
Social Media Facts
- Social Media is not just for socialising. A quick internet search shows that most any organisation you can think of has content (video, blog, articles, etc.) posted on the internet from its employees. It is therefore fair to say that the business perspective and presence is now a key part of what we call “Social Media”.
- Marketing departments no longer own web communications. As more documentation and training material is posted online (both in textual and media/video formats), or gets embedded directly into application interfaces, there is a greater need to include technical information within an overall corporate web strategy. I’m sure you’ll have noticed that more often than not, pressing the F1 key takes us to a live, hosted website instead of to an HTML file or CHM file, so even our definition of ‘electronic’ is changing. A corporate web strategy will invariably create a technological requirement for a global web server, which will force the integration of goals and cooperation between Marketing and IT and various content-generating departments. This is no longer the remit for Fortune 5000 organisations only – small to medium-sized businesses are addressing this issue as well.
- Social Media isn’t necessarily “public”. Many Technical Communicators suffer from inconsistent, out-of-date or poor access to product knowledge within their organisation. Social Media can improve this because by its very nature, the organisation is itself a ‘community’. Therefore, the collaborative aspects of Social Media can all apply across teams, geographies or departments. For example, Technical Communicators can engage in the WIKIs and blogs utilised by their Software and R&D Departments. These can be fantastic content lifecycle tools which can be used as a product knowledge source*. Large organisations may even have Subject Matter Expert blogs (public web or internal) to view. From the public space, Technical Communicators can monitor user blogs and Twitter streams to learn the issues which users are having with their product directly.Of course, they can also be badly implemented, poorly organised and a waste of time
- Many large organisations are integrating Social Media functions directly into their product help. Microsoft has been at it for nearly a decade with their more technical products, bringing programmer blogs and communities into its help and knowledge base applications. Adobe Creative Suite 3 brought link management and user communications into their online help, and in CS4 and the Technical Communications Suite, they’ve implemented an AIR application which enables Social Media posts to be hosted on an information platform, enabling a community of Adobe users to generate their own media which links directly with the help, and thus forms an extended part of it.
- People have integrated the concept of Search into their core brain functionality, using Google before thinking. Consider: users who type URLs into Google instead of into their browser’s address bar; users who employ Google as a spell checker; and users who haven’t consulted a paper map in the past 5 years.
- The all-time classic: people don’t want to read manuals. Thanks to Social Media, users can and are viewing video tutorials contributed by other users as another way to avoid picking up the manual.
- Organisations of all kinds are investing heavily in Social Media as a continuing conversation channel with their prospects and customers via different types of this technology (blogging, WIKIs, microblogging, forums, video, etc). The Society for New Communications Research just published a report discussing the incredible success of the by-product of this phenomenon: revenue-rich online advertising. This reinforces just how seriously the market considers these information platforms.
- 2 of the top 3 (Facebook and YouTube, after Google) and 4 out of the top 10 most used sites on the internet are social media/networking sites. Created as recently as July, 2006, Twitter has shot to 14th on the list and continues to rise. Continuously innovative, Google has recently created the ultimate Social Media extension to search, the “SideWiki”, where even after you’ve searched and found a page – any page, anywhere – Google users can comment on and extend the site being viewed.
 UPDATE: As of writing these numbers have changed. Twitter is now in the top 10, as predicted! Ha! The other two social media sites I was talking about were WIKIpedia and Blogger.com: http://www.alexa.com/topsites  http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/help-and-learn-from-others-as-you.html
 Google has opted to “turn off” SideWiki functions for pornography or otherwise sexually explicit sites, and unfortunately I think, have made it (or have only been able to make it) available only to users of their Google Toolbar for Firefox and Internet Explorer.
If taken individually, these items can seem more or less trivial or arguable, but what we’re seeing is a cumulative phenomenon and it must be interpreted that way. Social Media technologies are a primary connection between the customer and the business.
The Importance of (and to) Content Strategy
So, Social Media is big and it’s here to stay. To a market already struggling to deliver to multiple channels, it presents a whole collection of new channels, and worse yet, they’re moving and changing faster than we’ve ever seen publishing channels move. To tackle multiple channels, you have to work smarter, not harder. This means creating content which is flexible in structure so that it can be utilised in multiple contexts; using a format-neutral content storage method to allow for different viewing formats; and leveraging reuse so that your content can be quickly updated when necessary across all channels. All of these factors underline the importance of taking a very strategic approach to content, not a deliverable- or document-based approach. A successful content strategy is something you develop and maintain holistically, above and apart from specific projects and deadlines, and overarches all content processes being delivered to all channels. It should take the following into account:
- Your content sources: the product, internal and external Subject Matter Experts, end users, yourself and your fellow professional communicators
- Your content consumers: internal and external people who need content to do their jobs
- Your content constraints: localisation/translation, accessibility, usability, industry standards, corporate standards, branding guidelines, etc.
- The product and content lifecycles: all the different touch points between the players listed above across time
Embrace Your Super-Role
It’s a contradiction to think you can fulfil the role of the Technical Communicator, which includes understanding the user information needs and trends, and yet dismiss Social Media as the latest technological pogo stick going. User expectations have changed, the conversations are raging, and you need to participate to know what’s being said and how you’re going to need to speak in the future if you want to be heard.