August 2013
Interview by Corinna Melville

Image: © Anatolii Babii/ 123rf.com

“If you’re not telling your story, someone else will do it for you”

Ellis Pratt is Director and Help Strategist at Cherryleaf, a technical writing services and training company based near London. He has over fifteen years' experience working in the field of documentation, has a BA in Business Studies, and is an Associate of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Ranked the most influential blogger on technical communication in Europe, Ellis is also the author and editor of two books: How to Write Instructions and Trends in Technical Communication. tcworld spoke to him about what social media means for technical communicators.

Social media is typically part of a company’s marketing strategy. Why should it concern technical writers?

If we look at learning models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Kirkpatrick’s Learning Evaluation Model, we see there’s an ultimate goal to master a subject – to be more than just functionally capable. People want to evaluate and analyze, and work out the best and most efficient way to meet that goal. This mastery leads users to gain more control and autonomy over their lives.

Where technology becomes a greater part of our day-to-day lives and people become more capable in using technology, there will be a greater percentage of our audience wanting to master a product. This type of higher-level learning tends to be conducted through asking questions, debating potential solutions and experimentation.

Paul Ford, a well-known content strategist, argues that the fundamental question of the Web is: “Why wasn’t I consulted?” What he means is people want to share their opinions. As a result, the Internet is becoming much more conversational in nature. Social media is one of the key ways in which people have conversations on the Web. If technical communicators want end users to read their content, rather than any unofficial content that might be out there, writers need to be engaged and involved in their customers’ online conversations.

Who should be in charge of a social media campaign? Will these developments possibly create a new career path to bridge the gap between technical writing and marketing?

I agree with Rahel Bailie, who said in her book Content Strategy:

“In a knowledge economy, content becomes an important corporate asset.

Potential customers see, and judge, your content assets before they ever see your physical assets. They search to compare product specifications or service offerings. They look through your documentation to see how a product works.”

This changes the traditional marketing funnel. It’s a buying process of

  1. Know
  2. Like
  3. Trust
  4. Try
  5. Buy

Chinese readers will recognise this as 关系 (GuanXi), which is a central idea in Chinese society.

The technical content that’s important to the prospect is at the beginning of the customer journey, not the end. According to Google's Zero Moment of Truth website, 88% of consumers research before they buy, consulting an average of 10.4 sources. This means the technical content – the details on how the product will solve a person’s problem – becomes strategically more important for the organization.

So yes, it may mean there is a new career path that combines marketing and technical communication. In our advanced technical writing course we train technical communicators about writing in a more conversational style. In some ways, it’s breaking traditional rules of technical writing, but delegates tend to pick it up very quickly.   

Unfortunately, there may be another scenario – a “land grab” by the marketing or content strategy departments to take control and responsibility for this content, with technical writers reporting to them.

Someone needs to be responsible for the organization’s content strategy, and its social media activities should be a way of implementing this strategy. To retain the trust of its customers, the organization needs to have a single, consistent voice.

Do technical communication service providers need to include social media strategies in their service portfolio?

Where there are significant risk, safety, compliance or regulatory concerns, we’re likely to still use traditional communication channels. Outside of that caveat, and particularly where you have users who want to master a subject, the answer is yes.

To their credit, the software vendors are adding these type of capabilities to their products already. For example, Adobe has its AirHelp technology and MadCap Software has MadCap Pulse. Atlassian’s Confluence application also has social media capabilities built in.

Which social media channels are most useful for technical communication?

It depends on your definition of social media. As the Web is becoming more social, lots of sites could be described as social media channels. YouTube is probably the most useful one, providing walkthroughs, details on how to master a particular topic and overviews. Walkthroughs of computer game levels – videos generated by users – are hugely popular with teenagers today. As they move into the workplace, that generation may look for answers on YouTube before they look anywhere else.

Stack Exchange sites, such as Stack Overflow, are very popular question and answer sites. Stackoverflow.com is hugely popular with developers, so if your content relates to that audience, you should consider how your organization can use such platforms.

Twitter is very useful as a research tool, and the Atlassian Dragon Slayer challenge shows one way it can be used to encourage people to read user documentation.

There are a few Technical Authors experimenting with Pinterest, and this may have its place for graphically-rich content.   

How can technical writers use these channels?

First, I should say, we could add a social element to our own content. Leaving that aside, it’s probably best to follow the advice of Anne Gentle, who in her book Conversation and Community recommended these steps:

  1. Listen and monitor first
  2. Play your part in the community
  3. Share information proactively (but do not flood)
  4. Measure the outcomes.

We may decide to leave it with the support department, or whoever monitors the social media networks, to participate in social communities and share information. In that situation, our role is to support them in having the right information available to send out.

Social media gives technical communicators a chance to converse and engage with end users. We can use Twitter to research the issues people have, and find out what they think of the product. It’s a great learning tool – it can be a quick way to find the answers to questions.

Can you tell us about some business cases of companies or technical writing departments successfully using social media?

If we include blogs in our definition of social media, we can see technical communicators from companies such as Sage CRM and Red Gate Software writing on their company’s blogs. In Red Gate’s case, their blog Simple Talk is a technical journal and community hub, rather than a company blog. These posts discuss issues and developments relating to the user assistance in the products. For example, what Help will be provided in the mobile app version.

Again, Atlassian’s Dragon Slayer challenge is a great example of how social media can be used in the technical communication context.

A number of companies have used social media to repair their brand image, by having a team that responds to customer complaints. In this type of situation, a support department can send out links to Web pages that guide users to the answers in the user documentation. One well-known example of using Twitter to improve a company’s brand image is the “Comcast Cares” account on Twitter.

Other organizations have used social media to inform and educate the public. The British Health Foundation wanted to educate people about administering the cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) technique in situations where they felt uncomfortable with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They created a short educational video and used the Twitter hashtag #hardandfast to drive traffic to that video.

How can I make sure that customers have accurate, up-to-date information and how can I keep track of all the conversations about my product?

There’s a danger that if you’re not telling your company’s story, someone else will do it for you.

There are difficulties managing and tracking the information, and it’s likely that a single-source authoring system will make it easier to reuse the correct, up-to-date information. If the output from your authoring tool has social media capabilities built in, you may find it easier to track some of the conversations.