Dawn Stevens, CIDM Director

Social media absolutely intrigues me as an introvert. It offers me a way to connect to all sorts of people and establish a huge web of contacts and resources, without actually having to go through the awkwardness of face-to-face interactions. In the comfort of my solitude, I can carry on a variety of conversations, with plenty of time to think through my responses, avoiding those small pleasantries that can be so difficult to navigate. I can share pictures, stories, and jokes without the potential of facing boredom, disdain, or confusion in the eyes of my audience. I can have hundreds of “friends” and an even larger network of “connections” without needing to interact at all. In fact, people often send me connection requests, so I don’t even have to face the fear of rejection. I can satisfy that secret desire to be an extrovert within the safe and secure confines of my introverted space.

In short, social media lets me be social without actually being social, and in an industry that has traditionally been filled with introverts like myself, it may meet a critical need in today’s marketplace. Experts say we have entered the “social age,” which, in contrast to the “knowledge age” before it, emphasizes relationship, community, and collaboration over gaining, collecting, and even hoarding information. Knowledge is no longer king, which is a bit intimidating to an industry dedicated to transferring that knowledge to our users.

Social networking is certainly critical to me now as a business owner, and it is the area where I have the most trepidation about my ability to succeed in this venture.  I am the person who hid behind poles and doors and anything else I could find at industry conferences for the majority of my career. I am the person who collapses in my hotel room after a long day of teaching a workshop, orders room service, and binge watches reality TV to observe what to do or not do when interacting with others. But I am also the person who stays up way too late reading status updates on Facebook, checking out the latest tweets from the people I follow, and reading articles shared on LinkedIn. My social network keeps me informed and connected, and ultimately introduces me to others as the need arises.

Clearly these social connections have an impact on marketing as my message can effectively spread through first-level connections through a network of tertiary relationships and followers of followers. As a result, virtually every company I work with has a social presence. But that social presence largely remains untapped by the documentation and training teams.  Although it’s easy to point to a lack of time or resources as the reason, based on questions and conversations I’ve had, I’d say it is equally an issue of we don’t know what to do with it.  It’s been hard enough to take our monolithic documents and distill them down into small, standalone topics; how can we possibly convey meaningful nuggets of information in 140 characters?

It seems to me that our problem is that we are looking at social media as another tool to do the job we’ve always done—to transmit information to our users so they can successfully use our product to complete a task. And in that capacity, social media is largely an ineffective tool. Sure, we can tweet when there is a new article of interest or a new release of a document. We can host and facilitate question boards to provide answers to specific questions. We can create our own you-tube channels and post highly effective instructional snippets to help users solve an issue. But, in many ways this is akin to cooking a meal over the heat of your blow dryer. It can be done, but it wasn’t what the blow dryer was really designed to do.

Perhaps because we are largely an introverted crowd who chose our careers because there was no need to interface with others, we seem to be ignoring the “social” part of social media and instead are looking for ways to continue our same old pattern of communicating information to the community. But our social media strategy should not be centered around what knowledge we can impart. That’s knowledge-age thinking, stemming from the idea that knowledge comes from an established expert and authority. Instead, our social-age strategy must be centered around community—we are not here to share our infinite wisdom about our product; we are here to build relationships with our users and facilitate communication between them. In the process, we may indeed answer a question or point someone to the right location in our documentation, but that’s a side effect and not the primary goal.

When we redefine our job from knowledge bestower to community facilitator, social media becomes a much more effective tool for our job. It provides the means we need to get to know our users and let them get to know us—not our product—us. In this social age, we can no longer be anonymous experts conveying wisdom. We need to be using social media to establish our social leadership and authority, recognizing that this authority—this recognition of expertise—is awarded by the community, not by virtue of our position, but by virtue of our contributions. To earn social authority, we must be an active part of the community, and that means shedding our cloak of invisibility and making time to truly engage with our users in an authentic, but purposeful, way. Look for ways to facilitate communication and engage users, rather than spending your effort creating content that no one looks at (because they can get the answer from their community):

  • Use social channels to learn more about your users. Encourage them to respond to a rapid poll or contribute to a discussion thread. When people are engaged, they feel valued, which leads to them contributing more. Start the ball rolling.
  • Dedicate time each day to establish your social presence. Many information development organizations now have Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and LinkedIn accounts, but if there is no activity on these channels, there is no incentive for users to contribute or follow them.
  • Dedicate time each day to monitor related social channels that are not sponsored by your organization. Establish your presence; entice them to your own facilitated channels.
  • Curate content that you find on these other channels. Retweet, point to those sites, establish that your goal is to help users find the best possible information, even if you didn’t create it.

One organization that seems to have a great handle on building community is Salesforce. The community of users and developers they have built for their Trailhead training product (https://trailhead.salesforce.com/) is truly mindboggling: tell me any other documentation or training product that has released collectible developer cards (think baseball cards) for their information development team!

While having your own developer card may or may not be on your bucket list, the goal of having a collectible-worthy social presence should be. It’s time to get off the bench and take to the field. It’s a social game out there. Are you ready to play?