March 2015
By Rahel Anne Bailie

Image: @ alphaspirit/

Rahel Anne Bailie is an integrator of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is also co-producer of Content Strategy Workshops, co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy.


Why we need to embrace social business

The rise of content marketing forces us to re-think the very idea of technical communication. Not only do we need to produce top-quality, accurate user information, but content that has the power to engage consumers at any part of the customer journey.

In many organizations, the pressure to take advantage of “social” is coming, if it hasn’t arrived already. Marketing departments around the world are looking for ways to initiate social collaboration. Sometimes the ideas are sound; other times, it is painfully obvious that the initiative is a misplaced reaction to a conference presentation on the joys of being social, or a vendor meeting for social software. As technical communicators, training in social media and social business is not part of our curriculum. So how can we determine an appropriate social initiative?

This article will discuss social interaction during consumer transactions, the concept of social trust, the creation of a social business model, and the role of a content strategy within the framework of content marketing and social business.

Social interactions: what “social” really means

Many organizations attest to “doing social” but what that means can vary considerably. There are many aspects of being social or “doing social”, as we will explore here.

  • Social media. The most familiar way of being social involves publishing content through a variety of communication channels such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram, SnapChat, or text messaging. Remember, however, that the publishing of information alone is not social. What makes social media “social” is social interaction.
  • Social interaction. This exploits the true strength of social media: its potential for conversation between organizations and their customers. Social interaction uses social media channels to close the communication loop, and as a result, strengthens trust in brands.
  • Social business. As social interaction reaches maturity, it moves to a model of social business. This is where an organization creates an infrastructure that supports social interaction by empowering everyone within the organization to participate. This applies not only to the professionals within communications departments who naturally need to interact with the public. It includes everyone that the public encounters throughout the customer journey: from front line staff such as customer service representatives, to employees deep within the organization such as technical communicators.


Social brains and social trust

The rush to adopt social content strategies isn’t simply a “jump on the bandwagon” move (although it may seem like it at times). It is rather a natural development. Humans are hard-wired to be social. A prominent neuroscientist refers to this as having a “social brain”. In our hyper-connected world, the social aspects of our transactions have become more pronounced. We may not wander down to our local shop and have a leisurely chat with the shopkeeper about the latest products that just arrived. But we do ask our friends on Facebook or Twitter for recommendations. For new products, we read reviews by analysts and other professionals, and for existing products, we read reviews by other consumers.

Figure 1: Looking for social proof

A lot of the theories developed in the area of user experience are derived from the fields of cognitive psychology and, more recently, neuroscience. From these fields, we learned that commercial relationships are based on trust, much like personal relationships. These trust relationships are what affect every transaction a customer has with a brand, and ultimately drive brand loyalty. Every successful transaction between a brand and a customer, from prospective customer to repeat customer, involves an exchange of trust.

Think of a customer handing over a “token of trust” for each successful interaction. Successfully found information on the website? One trust token. Successfully purchased an item? Another trust token. But what happens after an unsuccessful transaction – for example, when the customer encounters incorrect product information or experiences a failed online transaction? The customer takes back a trust token, or perhaps even all the tokens at once, and breaks off the relationship.

Types of trust and influence on relationships

Trust is complicated. There are several types of trust that go into a relationship with a brand:

  • Trust in the environment. This refers to the trust in the technical environment and infrastructure. Customers will decide whether they trust the site based on what they think of the design, the content, the safety of the shopping cart, and the trustworthiness of the people operating the site.
  • Trust in agents. An agent is a person or body authorized to act on behalf of a brand, such as a franchisee. In the case of, say, automobile rental companies, there could be trust in the brand, but not in particular agents.
  • Trust in potential partners. This type of trust extends to people or organizations indirectly involved with the brand. Think of purchases from Amazon or eBay, where customers may trust the site itself to be safe and secure, but may have mistrust of the shop sellers, the warrantors of their products, and other authorities.
  • Affective trust. This type of trust is confidence based on feelings generated by a level of care and concern of a brand. It speaks to the security and perceived strength of the relationship between customers and brands. Consider the effect on consumer loyalty that is created by the charities or sports associations supported by particular brands, or the effect on brands that are known to be particularly responsive (or in some cases, unresponsive) to customer complaints.

Figure 2: Aspects of trust


Asserting that social trust drives business, particularly brand loyalty, may be stating the obvious; yet the principles of social business are not always incorporated in our business processes. Our organizations may say that they want to foster customer engagement, but there is no corollary investment in the infrastructure to make that happen. Social business needs to be implanted into the core of our organization and implemented from top to bottom.

Adopting a social business model

What organizations need to ask themselves is whether they are truly engaged in social business. At this point only few companies practice true social business.

The bulk of organizations are using social media channels without real social interaction. Their Twitter accounts are simply announcement channels, and Facebook is used for one-way marketing. There are forums left unmonitored, and opportunities for customer engagement going untapped.

The very term “social” indicates communication. Communication is not a one-way broadcast. It is a closed-loop circuit, a “call and response” as described by Marshall McLuhan. Communication means not only sending out information, but closing the loop with acknowledgement that the message has been received. Social communication demands not only acknowledgement but also action – a response of some sort. It could mean fixing a problem, locating content, confirming information, or otherwise being a brand ambassador.

This, the act of incorporating social into the business model, is the basis for customer engagement. To truly practice social business, the idea of social engagement has to become part of an organization’s DNA. The responsibility of customer engagement cannot be restricted to a communications or social media department. Ensuring that the information we share is up for social scrutiny has to be borne by everyone in the organization, especially those producing content. This is because published content is how customers interact with brands. They not only ask “can I trust you right now” but also “will I be able to trust you later” and “can I trust you, ever”? So producing and delivering content that works, and rectifying content that doesn’t, is critical to gaining and keeping customer trust.

The content aspects of a social business strategy will vary between organizations, but the basic components can be described as shown in Figure 3, Social Business Strategy. Pre-sales content, shown as marketing communications, is the content aspect of social business that is most recognized. After-sales content, shown here as part of customer support, also plays a significant role in pre-sales conversion and post-sales retention. Social channels refer to everything from social media to product reviews and customer forums. Social media itself is only one of these communication channels. To make these communication channels work together, an organization needs enterprise-level collaboration tools. And for these tools to work well, the organization must value and promote a collaborative culture.

Figure 3: Social Business Strategy


The role of content strategy in social business

At the heart of any content strategy lies the content lifecycle. We know we have to think of content holistically, as an iterative asset that will morph and grow along with the product or service it supports. Our content lifecycle includes…

  • acquiring content – either creating it ourselves or bringing it in from elsewhere;
  • managing content – how we structure, tag, edit, and store content during its production stage;
  • delivery – publication or pushing content into a downstream system for later use;
  • and the sunsetting – archiving, deleting, translating, or revising content.

Yet that is only the beginning. Because content generally exists to support a product, service, or process, the content produced needs to be created in conjunction with the appropriate stage of the product lifecycle. There are six basic stages to a product lifecycle – analysis, introduction and maintenance, configuration, management, evaluation and sunsetting, and versioning – and content for each product phase will have a different effect in the market, and to the various audiences in those markets. So the coordination of these two lifecycles is important.

Figure 4: Connecting multiple lifecycles


No matter what an organization does or sells, content is a significant part of how customers perceive the brand. Delivering appropriate content to the right audience at the right stage in the product lifecycle, and at the right time in the customer lifecycle, using the right version, language, channel, format, and media, is a challenge. Yet, it is imperative that all content producers within the organization think of the impact their content has on customers and potential customers, and the implications within the social business model. We must think of content as the conduit that inspires the trust relationships that nurture customer engagement. This is our next challenge as a profession – to not simply produce good content, but to foster social connections.