Listening to Social Media to Improve Technical Content

Social Media Pic

Source: TC World

Technical writers can no longer ignore social media. Valuable (and not so valuable) information about your company, its products and possibly even its instruction manuals is being exchanged here on a daily basis. So how can you extract the clues from the chatter?

In Likeable Social Media, Dave Kerpen underscored the most important rule in engaging any type of audience: “Listen first, and always!” Social media isn’t always an obvious information pool for technical communication purposes. Maybe you’re in a specialized business-to-business market, or your company isn’t too keen on maintaining an active presence in social media. Whatever the case, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use social media to funnel back the questions, problems, and user-generated tips that your customers talk about online.

Social media listening should be part of any technical communication team’s content strategy. However, a recent survey by the Center for Information-Development Management reveals that less than half of respondents do so. Are you still thinking about business objectives that could justify time spent on the effort? Listen to this: the majority of users would rather search online for quick answers than press F1 to find official Help content. Ensuring that your customers’ voice is considered in your authoring process could boost your content’s potential to help resolve pain points, reduce call center costs, and double as a brand asset and touchpoint.

Here are some suggestions on how to establish a social media listening program for your team.

Identify channels for monitoring feedback

Remember that you should be more concerned with conversations around your company’s product and not just focused on the technical content you produce. Any social media listening program should start with your own company resources, such as a Facebook fan page, YouTube channel, or corporate blog. But what if your company hasn’t realized the benefit of such accounts yet? You can check out related social networks, forums, and other resources that directly or indirectly touch on your product, service, or industry. You can also use competitors’ sites to dig deeper to what you could be missing out on. Make an initial list of around 20 social media sites that you find worthwhile to monitor, and then split the responsibility within your team.

Design a mechanism for recording feedback

Research and choose the right online tools for social media monitoring. Free tools such as Google Alerts or HootSuite are good places to start for finding user-generated content. You can then later assess if you need to budget for advanced tools or outsource the function.

To help with initial content analysis, you can create a simple online form that your team can use to log actionable feedback from social media. You don’t need to copy-paste entire threads of conversations – just pick relevant extracts to record and keep the URL to review the original context later. One hard area to track is user-to-user replies in the comments section, but this is where some of the most interesting details thrive.

Provide a means to classify the type of user-generated content that is recorded: question, complaint, tip, use case scenario, or troubleshooting information? Once you move on to examining feedback that can be repurposed in your content, it will be a godsend to be able to filter the collected logs.

Mine and analyze the collected feedback

As social media feedback pours in, plan on when to hold your initial review of the collected logs. You can time it so that you can triage items that are worthwhile to include in your next major content development cycle. When the volume is rather overwhelming, it doesn’t mean that you have to apply all or most of the feedback you got. Decide and prioritize with your team on items that serve most value to customers.

Most of the collected feedback will be related to how the product functions itself. Be sure to pass this critical information along to product groups, and share any action you’re planning to implement on the content side. From a technical communication perspective, it’s one way to advocate for your users and to also contribute proactively to the R&D process.

Turn feedback into useful content

Social media feedback will hopefully surface ideas for content that you haven’t produced yet, and ideas that could be improved. Concept and task topics could very well be inspired by third-party blogs. A forum reply can be considered as an additional tip to an existing tutorial. Or maybe a Facebook comment could make you rethink how you deliver content on the Web. Also, since the collected logs would indicate how your target audience phrases questions and uses key terms, you can learn from their vocabulary and add their “words” in certain topics to increase searchability.

Technical communicators must recognize that their professionally packaged and vetted content faces a huge challenge in the “unofficial” knowledge thriving in online forums, blogs, and social networking sites. As we’re seeing now, users themselves are starting the conversation, figuring out alternate ways for getting tasks done, and troubleshooting issues that they encounter. And, they’re sharing their experience and expertise without expecting anything in return.

Instead of fearing that the profession would go into obsolescence, technical communicators must listen to social media and respond to it by developing user-centered content. Better yet, technical communicators should use these same social media channels to deliver content and to start engaging in online conversations. By doing so, there’s going to be a stronger case for technical communication as an indispensable part of the customer experience.


Technical Writing: What’s in a Name?



Written by Michael Benavidez

One interesting challenge I’ve noticed in searching for employment as a Technical Writer is how many different names companies might use for the same position. While I’ve seen plenty of employers list their need for a Technical Writer, I’ve also run into more than a few postings for Content Managers, Associate Editors, Documentation Specialists, and others that serve the same purpose.

The aspiring Technical Writer therefore has an opportunity to familiarize him or herself with several important keywords in order to cast the widest net when looking for jobs in the field. You don’t want to miss out on a great chance because you didn’t know what to look for!

Here are a few common titles I have noticed employers often substitute for Technical Writer:

  • Content Editor/Manager/Writer
  • Technical Editor
  • Documentation Engineer
  • Communication Specialist
  • Web Writer

Any one of these titles can also be combined with the others, depending on the employer’s preference, which may be as varied as their reasons for using such alternative titles in the first place. Some hiring managers may feel “Technical Writer” is too generic and vague for the scope of the position and that one of these other titles better reflects their needs. In other cases, internal budgeting issues can force a manager to get creative if hiring for technical writers becomes problematic. I recall a time at my job where HR was reluctant to approve hiring more Project Managers due to recent restructuring, where many PMs were eliminated. Suddenly the IT Department began hiring “Implementation Specialists” instead!

Whatever an employer’s reasons, the informed Technical Writer only benefits from an awareness of the many names and classifications their profession may come under. Not only will you be more likely to recognize opportunities, you’ll be more likely to tailor yourself to the needs of your audience by speaking their language.

Can you think of some other names used for tech writers? Please share them in the comments.

Author Interview: Portrait of a Solo Infopreneur

Written by Layne Maheu

LarrySwansonLMP-avatar(med-res)The upcoming chapter meeting, Publishing in the Digital Age, includes author Larry Swanson, whose reference manual, Scared Sitless, was released this month through Elless Media. Though not a member of the panel, Larry is emblematic of the very things authors and publishers should be doing these days to promote their work.

Larry is a personal trainer and massage therapist in downtown Seattle, as well as a self-described solo infopreneur, a hybrid term he believes he made up, which combines solopreneur and infopreneur into one dynamic package. Following is an interview I did with him.

Layne: Larry, tell us about your book.

Larry: Scared Sitless is an evidence-based, science-backed, how-to manual for office workers to prevent and treat Sitting Disease and other hazards of office work. It also includes chapters on ergonomics, posture, and exercise.SS final cover only

Layne: How did you decide on a format for your book?

Larry:  I chose the format based on how I perceived people might want to read it. I went with both an eBook format, which is pretty popular right now. And since it’s a book geared toward office workers, people who are at their computers all day, they’re probably down on alternative media.

A lot of people have asked, “Well, where’s the book book?” (That’s my background, in traditional print.) So I wrote it as a book book. I’ve always pictured this thing you could pick up and read. So it’s in a 170-page paperback format as well.

Layne: Your book is self-published, correct?

Larry: Yes.

Layne: Do your publishing efforts have a name?

Larry: The company name is Elless Media.

Layne: How are you getting the word out about your book?

Larry: My goal with this platform building is I want to be that guy who’s known for knowing all about Sitting Disease for office workers, and I already am. The paperback wasn’t even out when I got a call from a PR consultant in New York who wanted to connect me with an ergonomic furniture manufacturer to do some events with them. I’m also meeting with the founder of Work While Walking, the world’s first treadmill desk store, where I’ll take a peek at their next generation, latest, greatest, coolest treadmill desk. So, I’m the man! 

Layne: Currently your paperback sells as print-on-demand. Did you ever consider a print-run with a storage of books?

Larry: One of the big opportunities with my book is in special sales into the corporate market. And the way that works is you go to a company’s office, for instance, Google, and they say, what a great idea, I would love to help my office workers at work. They buy 10,000 copies of the book, and I give them a huge, deep discount. That’s when I go from print-on-demand to short-run offset printing, which I thought of in advance. I designed the book with a page count divisible by 16, which is the increment used in offset printing. Plus, when I’m doing my speaking engagements, I’m going to want to have ready-made copies to sell.

The beauty of print-on-demand publishing is that you can prototype the work. You eat a bit of the cost because the unit price goes up. Then as soon as you’re confident of the demand, you can print 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 on a conventional offset printer, and your unit price goes down. So, that’s one of the opportunities—special sales.

Layne: Will you be coming out with subsequent editions? Will there be a third and fourth edition of Scared Sitless?

Larry: I don’t know how much things will really change, if Sitting Disease will be cured tomorrow by some miracle drug. So, I’m not sure; I’m holding out for the option. But for now, I think the title is prescient; it’s perfect for what I want the book to be. Again, I’m doing the platform thing.

Maybe this book is just the foundation for the enterprise and subsequent development of separate books. Already I have six or seven other book ideas that I could write about ergonomics, self-assessment, exercise ideas, or posture stuff. Or any one of the chapters of the present book could be a separate book. And there are other self-care aspects to office work that I haven’t even covered yet, things about nutrition, sleep hygiene, self-massage, and vision. You know, eye sight is huge. And all of these issues tie into the original concept, so the book is just a launching point. You know that whole idea of throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. I’m throwing this out there to see what part of it sticks, see if it inspires conversation, see if it gets people interested, and go from there.

You can see Larry’s Scared Sitless promotional video and website, or order his book from Amazon.

Layne Maheu is author of Song of the Crow, published by Unbridled Books in 2006, and moderator of the panel.