Alex Blanton , Microsoft Corporation


Making content discoverable through search. Social networking. Changing business models. Continual experimentation. Helping customers communicate with each other. Understanding how the next generation uses content.

These were some of the many themes that ran through the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference that I attended in New York City in February.

My job on the Engineering Excellence team at Microsoft includes supporting our content publishing managers by keeping them informed about industry trends and recent developments. Like most technical documentation professionals, Web publishers, and site managers, Microsoft managers are working hard to embrace Web 2.0 and industry developments. As a former book editor, I chose to attend thisconference because book publishers’ revenues depend on selling their content and guaranteeing that purchasers are satisfied, so that they’ll buy again later. I thought that a conference sponsored by O’Reilly and aimed at these businesses was sure to showcase innovation and new thinking because these companies’ survival depends on adapting to changing market conditions in the content world. I was right, and here’s a summary of a few of the sessions that I attended.

The Sharing Economy

Bookending the conference were a keynote and closing session from Stephen Abram, vice president of innovation at SirsiDynix. In opening the conference, Stephen ran through some of the developments he saw in the publishing industry, including the emergence of the phone as the dominant content technology and our move into what he called the “sharing economy,” where information, recommendations, and answers are not just published by companies out to customers, but shared among customers as well. A key takeaway: In this Web 2.0 world, publishers must not only publish information to customers, but they must provide an experience—site, forum, platform—where customers can talk to each other as well.

My favorite quote from Stephen was, “The half-life of a fact is 8 years,” meaning that in 8 years, half the facts you know today will be wrong. So, more than teaching people what the answers happen to be right now, content publishers need to teach people how to find and share answers so that as their questions change, people can continue to find answers.

Contact Is King

In his session, Douglas Rushkoff, author of Whose Story Is This, Anyway?: When Readers Become Writers, asserted that “Contact Is King.” By this he meant that people use content as a medium through which to interact with others. Douglas’s message was that publishers must develop experiences that promote interactions among people because that is what people really want. That’s why so many people spend so much time online telling other people about the cool products they use. These folks are compulsive sharers not because they get such deep satisfaction from the products (though they probably do like the products quite a bit), but because they get deep satisfaction from sharing their knowledge and experience with other people.

Douglas called this concept “social currency,” and his challenge to publishers was similar to Stephen’s: to create content and content platforms that help people socialize, and to give them “excuses” to communicate with each other. An example from Douglas: When you were a kid, did you only listen to LPs or CDs alone in your room, or did you also use them as a way to socialize with your friends? Did you value the music just for itself, or also because it gave you a way to share experiences with other people? Online content and communities can and should play a similar role.

Creating Passionate Users

Author and blogger Kathy Sierra couldn’t attend the conference, but she did appear via a recorded interview that she did with Tim O’Reilly of conference sponsor O’Reilly Media. She told us that people get most passionate about things they “kick ass at,” and that as publishers our mission should be to construct experiences that allow them to develop and show off these skills. She called these “I rule!” experiences. Imagine your reader using your content to do what they need to do, and then thinking, “I rule!” If your readers do that, then you’ve done your job.

Kathy then invoked the writer Joseph Campbell in describing how her technical writing follows a narrative that she’s created by constructing a “hero’s journey” for the reader to follow.

As I learned on Wikipedia (an essential piece of today’s sharing economy), in Campbell’s introduction to his book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he wrote, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

How could this journey relate to content publishing? Imagine your reader venturing out beyond his or her comfort area to struggle with some task that involves some software, device, or service. Your content can help your reader to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to overcome the obstacle and gain that “decisive victory.” And with those new skills and knowledge, your reader now has the power to help others. To create passionate users, your content should help your reader follow that hero’s journey.

Kathy’s next point was her concept of cogitive seduction—challenging the reader enough to engage him or her in a learning process. You can’t make it too easy or hard for a reader to learn, or else it’s not interesting. So technical communicators must understand our readers and what they want and can do, so that we strike the right balance.

Succeeding in Web 2.0

Book publishers don’t wear suits, but they don’t dress casually either, so I knew that Aaron Swartz’s talk on Wikipedia and the Future of Libraries would have to be interesting when I walked into the lecture hall and saw a young, shaggy-haired guy wearing sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt that read, “My free software runs your company.” And he didn’t disappoint, giving a highly engaging and admittedly subjective history of Wikipedia, and then describing his Open Library project, which is attempting to create a wiki-type resource with a page for every book ever published.

Aaron’s reasons why Wikipedia works so well:

  • Wikipedia has a clear goal (collecting knowledge in one place)
  • This goal is a worthy cause
  • Wikipedia has objective standards
  • Wikipedia is made up of small pieces
  • Each piece is useful
  • Wikipedia is designed so that many people can use it for their own unique interests—someone interested in frogs finds it as useful as someone interested in the Roman Empire.
  • Wikipedia allows you to participate in the learning process by contributing
  • Wikipedia is enjoyable to work on

I felt that Aaron’s presentation showed that Web 2.0 is not just about having the technology to do something cool, but that the right mission, design, and sustainability plan for your content are necessary ingredients to lasting success.

Connecting with Customers

In the final session, Stephen Abram returned for an hour-long panel in which he questioned a group of teens about their lives, interests, goals, media use, device use, and so on. The connecting theme was how technology intersects with teens’ lives today, and when Stephen opened the floor to questions, the teens got more questions than any other presenters I saw.

During the hour it became clear that teens are ruthless in making choices about which technologies and information sources are worth their time. And so the panel reinforced the importance of continually returning to customers to learn how they use technology to do what they want—and what kinds of content they value and will use to get those things done. If you don’t get to know your customers really well, they will drop you as soon as they find a technology or content that better serves their needs. And in the Web 2.0 world, that can happen as fast as it takes someone to post a positive comment about one of your competitors on Facebook.

Overall, the conference was a well-spent two days of learning about innovations, fresh ideas, new technologies, and changing business models. To bring a similar experience to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, our team is sponsoring an idea exchange booth at an upcoming engineering forum. At the booth we’ll share some of the innovative ideas that we’ve learned at this conference and through our other work in industry. In exchange, we’ll ask attendees to share with us—and with each other—at least one innovative content publishing idea that they’ve worked on or seen recently. That’s one way that we plan to begin bringing the sharing economy to how we support engineering teams.

Alex Blanton is a senior content project manager in Microsoft’s Engineering Excellence group, which delivers solutions that improve and revitalize Microsoft engineering teams. He previously worked as a content publishing manager on a marketing team supporting Microsoft Office, as a program manager in the Microsoft Learning group, and as an editor on Encarta Encyclopedia.