The Social Writer

Amy Bowman with contributions from Lee Anne Kowalski, VMware, Inc.

As part of the evolving role of technical writers, the technical communicators at VMware are responsible for the end-to-end information experience of our customers, including tweets, video scripts, posts in forums, and blog content. Over the last few years, technical communicators at VMware have consciously increased time spent producing social and multimedia content. For some writers, that meant an increase from zero. Others doubled what they were doing. As a result, in 2012, across our entire organization, 5 percent of writers’ time was spent on social-media-related content.

Why Increase our Social Media Presence?

Primarily, the goal of the technical communications department was to use social media to improve retrievability of our content and to reduce support requests. The more easily customers can find our documentation, the fewer support requests the company receives. Fewer support requests mean money saved and less frustration for the people using our products.

In addition, using social media increases the visibility of our work, which helps demonstrate the continued importance of technical writers to the total customer experience. Even better, when writers are involved in social media and are a voice for the product, they have a presence in their users’ community. The closer they are to users, the more relevant their content becomes.

Where to Begin?

The concept of “social media” is vague. Some writers who prefer to stick to more traditional content tune out when they hear “Twitter.” However, in our experience, being involved in social media does not mean asking writers to sign up for a Twitter account and start broadcasting tidbits about their lives as technical communicators.

We recognized early on that a What’s New in Tech Comm-type blog was not very useful to our products’ users. We also recognized that building a social media following—on Twitter, on Facebook, or as a blogger—would be an uphill battle considering that we would be competing with internal bloggers and social media experts whose only job is to promote VMware online.

Rather than risk producing social media content that no one would ever read, we decided to leverage the audiences who already read our company’s contributions to social media. For example, the Global Support Services team has a blog called Support Insider, which is the second most-read of VMware blogs. The curator of the blog also has a large following on Twitter. Why not ask him to team up with us?

But before we could ask anyone to post our tweets, we needed to actually produce the content. Our social media offerings, to start, were 20 tweets written by the tech comm team and 25 short videos for our newly created YouTube channel. The tweets either promoted and linked directly to topics in our documentation center (which helped boost search rankings) or led customers directly to videos on our YouTube channel.

This inaugural effort led us to discover an unexpected benefit of getting involved in social media: Industry bloggers—customers outside of VMware—grabbed our videos and posted them on their own blogs. Videos are easier and flashier to share than a PDF, which meant our content was suddenly reaching a much wider audience after we entered the social media space.

Finding Time for Nontraditional Content

Tech writing teams are chronically under-resourced. In fast-paced environments where we are always ramping up for the next release, writers—even those who are enthusiastic about social media—find it unrealistic to make time for yet another deliverable. However, producing content for social media actually fits neatly into the documentation creation cycle as shown in Figure 1:

 

  • Monitor: Evaluate customer satisfaction with the product and with our documentation by monitoring user forums and social media channels.
  • Create a plan: Include the social media strategy as part of the documentation plan from the start of the project rather than a “nice to have” deliverable.
  • Produce content: Write scripts, produce videos, and write tweets and blog posts meant to address some of the concerns users are chatting about.
  • Publish content: Distribute tweets, upload videos, and schedule blog posts for publication at the same time the traditional product documentation is released to the public.
  • Cross-promote: Use social media to promote the core documentation set, with the help of internal social media experts who have large followings.
  • Measure results: Evaluate the success of the social media strategy. How many re-tweets did we get? How many views of our videos? Did traffic to the documentation center increase and can the increase be linked to our tweets?

Motivating Content Creators

By taking on social media, companies face the challenge of making writers comfortable in a new environment, where they might feel like the entire Internet is watching. Even people who are open to the idea of experimenting with social media might consider it extra credit—if they had more time, they would participate. But not until their “real work” was done.

For some teams, ensuring that they have time for this work means adding social media-related tasks to the documentation plan. For others, it means setting aside an hour or two a week to comb through user forums, research a video script, or convert a few DITA short descriptions into potential tweets. In the most successful cases, writers receive assurance from leadership that what they are doing is valuable. They also receive support from peers, who can share lessons learned.

What Can You Do Today?

If you have time to add just one social-media-related task to your to-do list in the next few weeks, consider these ideas:

  • Look into the social media channels your company is already participating in. Which users have the most influence on your community?
  • What social media guidelines has your organization already established?
  • Commit an hour to reading customer forums and gauging customer satisfaction. What are people posting about?
  • Sign up for a Twitter account and just observe. What are customers saying about your product? What questions do they have that you could help answer by beefing up your documentation?

One benefit of writing content for social media is the real-time response you get from your audience. You’ll know fairly quickly if your strategy is making an impact. Don’t be afraid to switch gears if one approach falls flat.

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