Bill Gearhart, Comtech Services, Inc.

We’ve encountered a growing number of companies and information-development organizations that have a presence on social media, believing it’s a critical and beneficial method for engaging customers. But we’ve also heard stories of social media efforts gone awry and the resulting wasted time, money, and personnel resources, or worse, the embarrassment and damage to a company’s reputation. We wanted to find out more about the advantages social media offers to technical communication teams, the characteristics of successful social media implementations, how to avoid the pitfalls, and the effort that it takes to integrate such a program into an existing organization. So late in 2013, the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) conducted a study consisting of a survey, interviews, and a review of social media practices.

Connecting with Customers through Social Media

While fewer than half of the companies responding to the survey have an active social media program, those that do are seeing significant benefits. The companies who do not yet have a social media program are responding to those positive results, with two-thirds of those surveyed either engaging in social media or investigating its use.

Social media is an effective tool for interacting with customers and learning about their information needs. In this capacity, social media addresses the most common complaint that we hear from organizations that develop technical content: that they don’t know their customers and don’t have the ability to interact with them. Social media obliterates the barriers between technical communicators and customers. In fact, the effectiveness of social media programs is often measured by direct customer feedback and involvement in improving technical content.

Consider this invitation to share information posted by IBM. Providing a success story and asking about further problem-solving situations is a powerful way to engage with customers and document both their needs and know-how.

Figure 1: Connecting with Customers

Selected Survey Responses

Participating Companies and Organizations

The participating companies in the study represent a strong cross-section of industries, corporate sizes, and business goals. The top three industries represented are enterprise software, consumer software, and telecommunications. Large multinational corporations made up the majority of survey participants, but there was some representation from smaller companies.

Industries Participating in the Survey

The majority of respondents were from enterprise software, with two-thirds from that space. Consumer software was next, followed by telecommunications. Enterprise hardware and consumer electronics companies made up the rest of the respondents. In general, many of the products represented by the respondents are highly-configurable, and customers often face unique situations that require specific information. In the past, those requests for information were typically handled through phone-based customer support. Phone-based support is costly for the vendors, often not quick enough for customers, and single-threaded, addressing one customer and issue at a time. Based on the level of interest generated indicated by participation in the survey, it is possible that companies are looking to use the immediacy of social media to have more open support-related conversations on a broader scale.

Figure 2: Industries Participating in the Survey

Companies that Have a Social Media Campaign for Technical Content

Two-thirds of respondents either had a social media program or were researching the possibility of establishing one. The use of social media for technical content appears to be in transition from the early adoption phase to the early majority phase. While a small percentage of customers engages in social media for technical content, those customers are influential, and actively recruit their peers to engage. Accordingly, customer participation is on the rise and the use of social media for technical content is becoming expected. Technical communication teams that ignore social media are at risk of being left behind by competitors.

Figure 3: Companies that Have a Social Media Campaign for Technical Content

Reasons for Not Having a Social Media Program

The companies who do not have or are not planning to use social media are still determining how best to engage customers for meaningful dialogue about technical publications. Only a few think that social media is not worth the effort. For marketing departments, the use of social media is well established and in majority use. However, the broad impact of social media on marketing communication seems to have influenced the perception of its usefulness and applicability to technical content. Many respondents feel that social media is reserved for sales and marketing functions by policy or practicality . They are missing an opportunity to interact with customers in a powerful and ongoing manner. Finally, for many technical publications departments, not participating in social media is a matter of resources. It appears that they have not been able to add or shift resources appropriately to make the most of customer contact.

Figure 4: Reasons for Not Having a Social Media Program

Reasons for Having a Social Media Program for Technical Content

Most companies with an active social media program in the study cited several reasons, including broadcasting announcements and links to content as well as soliciting feedback and participating in conversations to solve customer problems directly. In broad terms, the range of responses indicates that information-development teams are using social media both to push content to users and to pull in user feedback and content. Social media is a natural method for conversational interaction with users and customers. Typically, content is pushed through social media announcements with links to documentation sites and wikis where customers can then post comments, suggestions, and additional content.

Figure 5: Reasons for Having a Social Media Program for Technical Content

Social Media Sites Used

The majority of respondents were from North America, and the responses correspond roughly with the overall North American usage statistics for each social media site. Twitter and Facebook were the most widely used. YouTube also proved to be a popular tool, indicating that video is a useful medium for demonstrating highly technical content.

Figure 6: Social Media Sites Used

Free Tools Used to Monitor and Analyze Social Media Sites

There were few responses to this question, which is surprising given the ubiquity of social media in the lives of customers. Some teams with active social media programs are not collecting site metrics at all. Possible reasons for the lack of metrics are resource constraints and a lack of knowledge regarding the types of metrics to gather and the tools available for gathering them. The lack of metrics gathering represents a lost opportunity to make the most of social media.

Figure 7: Free Tools Used to Monitor and Analyze Social Media Sites

Commercial Tools Used to Monitor and Analyze Social Media Sites

Half of the respondents indicated that social media monitoring is outsourced. This possibly indicates uncertainty about the appropriate metric to use to measure ROI.

Figure 8: Commercial Tools Used to Monitor and Analyze Social Media Sites

Translation of Social Media for Technical Content

Many of the respondents come from multinational companies with business around the globe. Further analysis is needed to determine if the lack of translation is due to funding, expertise or global customer interest. It may be a potential lost opportunity.

Figure 9: Translation of Social Media for Technical Content

Reasons Customers Visit Social Media Sites for Technical Content

Getting the most up-to-date content is expected, but the response also affirms the trend towards participation in a user community. While the overall percentage of customers who visit the sites is low, those that do visit are among the most zealous customers who value the content and participation in the community.

Figure 10: Reasons Customers Visit Social Media Sites for Technical Content

Challenges of Incorporating Social Media

The responses suggest that a social media program must generate user interest and maintain that interest to be effective. The time and resource commitment to help generate content and develop a community can be challenging. Often the social media communities take time to establish, so it may take a year or more of concentrated effort to recruit enough customers to make the social communities self-sustaining with customers who will share technical content, hints and tips, and opinions.

Figure 11: Challenges of Incorporating Social Media

Information Developers Monitoring Social Media

Over half of the respondents indicated their writers did not have the time to dedicate to social media. The lack of engagement certainly seems to be a lost opportunity. A planned and focused social media program allows writers to have direct and ongoing contact with customers, something that information-development teams have long expressed as important to understanding customer needs. Information-development managers should explore better defining the social media goals and prioritizing customer contact so that other, less-important tasks are minimized, freeing up the writers to monitor social media and interact with customers.

Figure 12: Information Developers Monitoring Social Media

Subject-Matter Experts Contributions to Social Media Sites

The response is consistent with the earlier question regarding participation rates for information developers. Time (and therefore money) is an important consideration, as is setting proper goals and expectations and prioritizing activities. The integration of social media into the responsibilities of employees is still evolving.

Figure 13: Subject-Matter Experts Contributions to Social Media Sites

Organizational Responsibility for Social Media Sites for Technical Content

Information-development teams are taking a greater responsibility for monitoring social media sites, indicating that teams are beginning to establish useful connections with customers. While several departments monitor social media, follow-up discussion revealed that only a few employees in each group actually interact with users in those media. As social media practices mature, expanding the responsibility to interact with customers to all employees is likely.

Figure 14: Organizational Responsibility for Social Media Sites for Technical Content

Effectiveness Metrics for Social Media

Direct interaction with customers received a high response rate and may contribute to the increased customer satisfaction with the technical content. One of the difficulties cited in maintaining a social media program is community participation and customer contributions, so it is interesting that those are not considered an important measure of effectiveness. However, direct customer interaction was cited by over 40% of respondents, indicating the usefulness of communicating directly to the customer base. Some respondents looked for evidence of increased satisfaction through “likes,” survey responses, and brand promotion through recommendations on social media.

Figure 15: Effectiveness Metrics for Social Media

Learning More About Using Social Media

For more details about the findings of the study and our recommendations if you choose to embark on a project to incorporate social media into your technical content strategy, see the full report on the CIDM Social Media Study on the CIDM website.