Content for Tomorrow: Social media and the dilemmas for technical publications teams

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February 2010

Content for Tomorrow: Social media and the dilemmas for technical publications teams

CIDMIconNewsletterAlex Blanton, Microsoft Corporation

Not too long ago, technical publications teams had a clear mission. They produced trusted documentation about their company’s products, with the authority of the company behind them. That put power in the organization’s hands!

That’s not the world we live in today. Over the past 10 years, the barriers of entry to publishing have moved lower and lower. Now, your customers can use blogs, wikis, and a seemingly unending parade of social media services to publish whatever they want about your product or service—and you have no control over it. I’m sure you’ve seen this if you’ve ever visited Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Bing, or Google and looked up your company, your competitors, and your industry. Chances are, people out there are talking about your business, and you have no say in what they say. This shift has put power in the customers’ hands.

In today’s world, technical publications teams must learn how to listen and participate in the conversations that our customers are already having. While we might not always like what they say, we have an unprecedented opportunity to listen in and figure out what information people want so that we can create and curate content experiences that they value.

With opportunities come challenges, especially in how technical publications teams shift their operating models. I can’t tell you what the right new models will be—that’s going to depend on your industry and your company, and we’ll all have to experiment and figure it out together. But I can lay out some of the dilemmas that I see emerging as technical publications teams embrace social media.

Dilemma 1: You Say I Have to Listen. How?

If your job is simply to document the features of your product, you need to know your product inside and out, but you hardly need to listen to your customer. However, if you want your content to solve the most important problems that your customers face when they’re using your technologies, then you have to listen to them—otherwise, you have no idea what those problems might be.

A straightforward way to understand what your customers care about is to ask them. Some companies, such as Logos Bible Software, are asking customers which content they would like to buy and focusing their limited production resources on the most popular items. Logos asks customers to purchase electronic books (at a significant discount) before the e-books are actually produced. When Logos receives enough pre-orders to earn back their production costs, then they go ahead and produce the books. Some people call this approach a minimum viable product strategy (look it up on Wikipedia for more information). The result for Logos appears to be a win-win—the company doesn’t risk creating products that no one wants, and customers who place a pre-order receive a discount.

The clothing company goes a step further in listening to their customers by integrating customers into product design. Threadless provides a platform so that anyone can submit a T-shirt design to the site, a design on which other people can then vote. By tracking which designs are most popular, Threadless “listens” to what customers want and can produce those designs. This approach takes much of the guesswork out of product design.

Technical publications teams should be thinking about applying similar listening approaches to the process of creating technical content. And listening can happen in many ways. For example, the Windows Server team at Microsoft faced the challenge of documenting dozens of potential scenarios. They built a scenario-voting tool so that customers could access the documentation related to a specific scenario, vote whether that documentation met their needs, and provide direct feedback to the team. The back-and-forth with customers allowed the team to optimize the information on an ongoing basis.

If you’re just beginning to think about social media, go to the major social media services and find out what customers are saying about your company and product. You should also find any bloggers talking about your industry or company. Spend some time listening so that you understand the tone and content of the conversation. Then, if you decide that you want to participate in the conversation, you’ll have a much better idea of where and how to jump in.

Dilemma 2: I Want to Do More than Listen. How Do I Talk to My Customers?

First of all, you should be talking with your customers, not to them. Talking to customers is essentially traditional marketing, even if you’re using social media services to do so.

But if you use blogs and microblogs to open up a conversation and exchange of information with your customers, you start to create a deeper relationship than you ever could if you just blasted them with information. Microsoft has hundreds of bloggers, many of whom use their blogs as a place to hold ongoing conversations with our customers so they can tell us what they want from our products and services, and we can give them the information they want. The best bloggers also carry what they learn back to the product teams, becoming an essential bridge between customers and engineers.

You might be anxious about opening up direct conversations with customers because it means that sometimes you’re going to run into people who aren’t happy with your company, and you’ll be discussing those issues in public. That’s true, but if they’re unhappy, your decision is whether you want to ignore that conversation or to better understand their point of view and try to fix the problems. Some firms have found that negative product reviews can help boost sales because being forthright about the problem with your product builds trust with customers. Social media consultant Michael E. Rubin made this point in his recent blog post “Why You Should Not Ignore Negative Conversation,” in which he argues that organizations should invite dialogue with bloggers so that “Grievances can be aired, solutions can be reached, and issues can be resolved.”

Another way of talking with customers is through microblogs, primarily Twitter, which has attracted millions of users since it launched in June 2006. On Twitter, people write whatever they want in 140-character increments, for the world to see. What do they write? Well, they share problems—not just with you but with anyone. They share solutions—which anyone can use. They share news. They share opinions. They share ideas.

One example of a company using Twitter effectively is Ford Motor Company. Scott Monty is the head of social media there, and he uses Twitter to have public conversations with customers about Ford, the auto industry, social media, and other topics as they come up. He’s put a human face on an automobile company at a time when his whole industry needs to be listening and communicating with their customers more than ever.

A Twitter example from Microsoft is the Xbox support team, which uses Twitter as one channel (but not the only one) to talk with customers, find answers, and take care of issues. The Xbox Support Twitter account is not staffed by one person, like Scott Monty’s account, but by a team of employees who include their initials with each tweet. Neither approach is right or wrong. If your team establishes a Twitter presence, you’ll have to figure out an approach that works best for your company.

Dilemma 3: It Seems Like All This is Risky—Both to My Project Schedules and from a Legal Standpoint.

There’s no way around it. Both of these risks pose key dilemmas for managers. How can your teams reap the benefits of social media without the risk of Twittering all their time away and failing to meet key deadlines? Should everyone on the team participate a little in social media, or should the team have one person who focuses in this area? Should the company allow anyone to say whatever they want, or should every social media communication be approved by legal?

At Microsoft, groups are exploring many different team management models related to social media, and we don’t have consensus yet on whether any of them work best. I think we have to accept that at this point we are in an experimentation phase, and technical publications managers should embrace the opportunity to shape new operating models by making process decisions based on the particulars of their companies, industries, and product ship cycles.

Legally, the greatest danger is that managers don’t address social media issues at all and fail to set any expectations with team members about social media. If you don’t set expectations, sooner or later someone’s going to say something or do something that they shouldn’t have. To address this problem, many companies are developing social media policies, and a site called Social Media Governance has put together a database of policies that you can consult if your legal department isn’t already working on this subject.

Dilemma 4: With All This Conversation, How Do We Make Sure that Customers Know that Our Content is the Most Authoritative?

I’m not even sure I agree with the premise here. I think the question should be, “What content do customers think is the most authoritative?” When the company’s content was pretty much the only content available, authoritativeness was a given. But now that it’s possible for anyone to publish, what happens when someone manages to put together an article or a video that’s just as good as what you produce, maybe better? And what happens when other people find it and rate it highly, and share it, and recommend it? Now a random person out there has become authoritative, and he or she might not have any association with your company.

Look at sites like YouTube, Slideshare, Scribd, and StackOverflow. In all these cases, the company itself provides very little original content—the value these sites offer is creating a platform on which people can create content, share content, comment on content, rate content, and recommend content. These sites provide a place for people to socialize via the content they create and consume—and in the process, they’ve become popular destination sites.

Also look at Huffington Post, which publishes original content but also provides value by aggregating content from a wide variety of bloggers and partners. And look at sites that

are integrating customer-created videos as pieces of their content portfolios. By opening up their sites to third-party content, companies are actually replicating the tried-and-true publishing approach of finding the best content—whoever is creating it—and providing distribution channels for this content.

There’s no reason that companies creating technology can’t take exactly the same approach. Instead of viewing enthusiastic content creators as competition, companies should embrace these enthusiasts and create platforms and widgets so that customers can create, discover, and promote fantastic content on your technologies. For example, the Microsoft Office Online team launched a templates site a few years ago, and they quickly learned that customers loved templates and wanted more of them. But they also learned that they’d never be able to produce all the templates that customers might want. So they built the capability for customers to post their own templates for other customers to use. Because the templates can be rated, customers can find the best templates. And Office Online remains a great place to go to find Office-related templates.

What this means is that the role of technical publications teams is moving from being creators of content to being curators of content. Certainly, technical publications teams will continue to create original content where it makes sense, but we also have to view ourselves as managers of content portfolios that include content we create, content our partners create, and content our customers create.

Dilemma 5: This Sounds Like a lot of Work. How Do I Prove that It’s Worthwhile?

Any good technical publications team should be measuring and demonstrating the value that its content brings back to the organization as a whole. Traditionally, many teams have measured their Web content by the number of hits or traffic it receives. Those measures are insufficient because they can’t tell us how much revenue our content generates, which support costs it helps us avoid, how it increases customer satisfaction, or other ways in which it helps our companies achieve business goals.

Measuring actual impact is always a challenge, and measuring the effect of social media is particularly difficult because approaches to measurement are just now emerging. So far, the prevailing view has been, “It feels like this is really important, so let’s do it even though we can’t measure results.” In the past year, the demand for proof has been growing. Again, I don’t have answers for you, but following are some approaches I’ve seen in the past 12 months.

The site SmartBlog on Social Media recently ran a poll of the most important metrics to track in social media, and the results of the poll were:

  • 35 percent Virality. The reach of your brand and how much your message is spread.
  • 32 percent Sentiment. Positive, negative, or indifferent consumer reaction.
  • 20 percent Financials. The effect social media has on your bottom line.
  • 11 percent Volume. Number of comments, blog posts, tweets, and links about your brand.

Clearly respondents felt that social media was effective if it spurred customers to forward information on into their own personal networks. I agree and believe that one of the highest recommendations someone can give your content is to put their own reputation on the line by recommending it to someone else. If you can make it easy for customers to forward your content on to people in their networks, and if you can track those recommendations, you’re going a long way to proving the value of your efforts.

In his book SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, Joel Postman talks about applying traditional measures of online effectiveness to social media, such as site traffic and search engine placement. He says that “Behavior ‘after the search’ is the most important measure of any online campaign.” The challenge he sets for companies is to look for ways to connect social media activities with purchasing and other consumer actions. Postman also identifies influence, brand, engagement, and public relations as places where social media can add value and where companies should identify ways to measure.

In her blog Marketing Today, group marketing manager Marty Collins of Microsoft says, “We measure 3 things every month and deliver to execs; sentiment, volume and reach.” Sentiment is how consumers feel about a product or service. Reach is the number of people that a social media engagement reaches. And volume is the amount of conversation around a brand, which can be benchmarked against competitors. Companies such as Radian 6 and Buzz Logic can help companies measure their results in these areas.

Kate Niederhoffer of the Dachis Group blogs frequently about measurement, and in a November 2009 post called “Three Masquerades of Metrics,” she took issue with some of these approaches to measurement. She argued against “the ease of counts” in favor of the value of patterns—discovering who is saying what to whom. She pointed out that you need to understand the style and language people use when discussing your technologies, not just that your company, product, or service is mentioned. And she argued that point-in-time measurements are not as valuable as understanding trends over time, so that you can measure momentum and identify cycles.

Clearly, there is no consensus yet on measurement. As social media consultant Paul Chaney recently said, “Measuring social media is still a work in progress….We’re still trying to determine how social media affects the ROI

[return on investment]. We know it has an effect; we just don’t yet fully know what metrics to wrap around it.”

Share What You Think

Those are some of the biggest dilemmas that I see as technical publications teams experiment and innovate in social media. If you agree, disagree, or have other thoughts, I’d love to hear about them in a discussion on the Center for Information-Development Management group on LinkedIn. CIDMIconNewsletter

 Blanton_Alex_bwAlex Blanton

Microsoft Corporation

Alex works as a senior content project manager in the Engineering Excellence group at Microsoft, providing training and performance support for content publishing employees, with a particular focus on best practices in social media, Web content, and vendor engagement. He has also worked as a content publishing manager, program manager, product planner, and editor.


SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate

2009, Berkeley, CA

New Riders Press

ISBN: 0321580087