Lori Fisher, IBM Corporation

Do you think social networking is just for your kids, or something the Marketing Department handles for your company? Think again! As Information Development managers, we need to be familiar with various social networking mechanisms currently in use and how they may be influencing our customers’ expectations of the information experience we provide. Further, we need to begin integrating “community” experiences into our information deliverables and leveraging these to improve customer satisfaction with our content. Community technologies can enrich the customer experience with our online product documentation and other related external customer services.

Our customers (across a broad range of markets and technologies) are increasingly exposed to the social networking paradigm as part of their overall “user experience” – at home and school, as a consumer (shopping online, support online), and probably as an employee in their own workplace. Tapping into relevant social networks has become a standard user expectation in the software world, and increasingly in other markets as well, to aid in decision-making, to validate information, and to get additional customized content. Today, customers expect:

  • To tap into other customers’ experiences as part of their own purchase research
  • To have access to a community of users for troubleshooting and user support
  • To be able to interact with a commercial entity by providing comments and suggestions (and to get a response)
  • To be kept up-to-date on news, status, and changes
  • And to have fun doing the above!

It is important that we integrate these expectations into our information design as we build our future information deliverables. Here are three ways to get started:

  • Leverage your marketing department to create a “conversation” with customers through existing company social networking accounts
  • Use a wiki or other type of online discussion forum to collect and exchange user-generated content, such as code examples or best practices
  • Encourage interactive customer comments on your content

Leverage your marketing department to create a “conversation” with customers

One of the easiest ways to get started is to partner with your marketing department or other groups in the company who may already be representing your company online with Facebook or Twitter accounts. After you identify the company owners of such accounts, make an arrangement to feed them postings about your documentation. For example, you might arrange to send them a 1-line announcement once a week about a refresh of your library, or a new tutorial on the Web, or a link to your online reader comment site. They will be happy to have content to post, and you will be helping customers learn more about the features and status of your company’s documentation. You can also post questions—”What did you think of the enhanced Installation Scenario in Version 3? What index entries do you use most often in our online index? What messages have been the least helpful to you when you encounter an error?” and so on.

Another suggestion for an easy way to use existing social networking infrastructures is to investigate external User Group Web sites that may exist for users of your products. Often, such groups will sponsor Web sites that include wikis or discussion forums. To get started, assign someone from your Information Development team to “monitor” a wiki or discussion forum. By doing so, your team will learn what is important to customers, what is frustrating to customers, what they most often ask about, and so on. Later, as you become familiar with the topics and the various contributors to such discussions, your team may be able to point customers to documentation that is relevant to a particular discussion thread, or answer questions about where to find certain kinds of information. (Be sure you understand your company’s policy about representing your company in public forums before you post! More about that later …)

A third avenue for leveraging existing social networking activity is to search for Web content about your products and identify “thought leaders” in your marketplace—
perhaps an influential consultant with an active Web site, or a customer who maintains a popular blog followed by other customers, or a frequent contributor to a developer forum for users of your products. Again, start by monitoring (“lurk and learn”) these sites—your team will learn a lot just by reading and this may in turn help you better design the information your company chooses to provide. The idea is to be informed about the social networking that is already happening about your subject area—whether or not you initially contribute or participate at all.

Beyond “lurk and learn,” here are some easy ways to start integrating the above kinds of networking sites into the design of your documentation to create an information experience that acknowledges the importance of social networking:

  • Link from your documentation download page to a company wiki or blog, or to a User Group discussion page
  • Link to your documentation page from a product-related wiki on your company Web site
  • Point back to your documentation from a User Group discussion
  • Create and post a You Tube video documenting the most common installation steps, or how to navigate and search your PDFs

Use a wiki to collect and exchange user-generated content

Beyond monitoring or contributing to social networking mechanisms owned by others, the next step might be sponsoring your own social networking space, owned by the Information Development team. Most companies now have the technology to host wikis on their company Web sites; consider sponsoring a wiki specifically for user-generated content that would enhance the customer experience with your documentation. For example, we all know that customers love examples and code samples but they are typically hard to develop in-house in any robust, realistic way. And we can never give customers enough samples! So, how do you develop real-life code samples that cover enough scenarios to please all your customers? Consider sponsoring a wiki on your company Web site where customers can contribute their favorite examples. A wiki is a perfect solution for this kind of exchange between customers. And, as social networking has become an adopted practice, customers will be familiar with the idea of contributing content, rating others’ content, commenting on it, and building on the good ideas of others. And, this content will be viewed as an extension of your company’s services and documentation, increasing customer satisfaction! To see a live example of such a wiki, visit IBM’s developerWorks site and view the “Exchanges” (for example, the Information Management Exchanges) athttp://www.ibm.com/developerworks/exchange/dw_index.jspa

A few words of advice for this sort of venture: clear the idea with your legal staff to negotiate what level of review, test, virus-checking, etc the company feels responsible for, and to ensure that the right wording for indemnity and copyright protection is included in the terms and conditions for use of the wiki. Be sure you discuss and declare whether your company has the right to republish any content that is added to the wiki (for example, can you include a great code sample from a customer in your next revision of the document set?). To see the current license agreement in use for the IBM developerWorks exchanges, visithttp://www.ibm.com/developerworks/exchange/help.jsp

Another similar idea might be to collect “best practices” or hints-and-tips for using your product from customers in a wiki. You might have other ideas of specific content areas that would best be “user-generated” for your particular product and documentation set.

Encourage interactive customer comments on your content

A third area for Information Development use of social networking technology is in the area of customer comments. Every author needs to know what the reader is thinking – wikis and discussion forums are a great replacement for the largely ineffective “Reader Comment Forms” of the past. But a “documentation wiki” dedicated solely to discussion of documentation is less likely to be effective than a commenting mechanism integrated into the environment in which the customer will be using the documentation. After all, how many customers do you know who are interested in documentation for documentation sake? Much as we hate to admit it, customers use (and comment on) the documentation only when they need to. Therefore, it is optimal to integrate an interactive commenting mechanism into the actual experience of using the documentation.

For IBM documentation, that means building a commenting facility into our Eclipse-based information center infrastructure on www.ibm.com. IBM has now created a collaborative environment built on Web 2.0 capabilities to support content collaboration with and between external customers as they view and use our content. This feature now supports commenting, viewing of comments by other participants, discussion, rating of content topics, and rating of comments.

Whether you build such functionality into your existing documentation distribution/viewing environment or simply leverage a wiki or discussion forum dedicated to documentation comments, you will need to consider the following implementation aspects:

  • Again, clear the idea with your legal staff to negotiate what level of comment review and censoring the company feels responsible for, and to ensure that the right wording for indemnity and copyright protection is included in the terms and conditions for use of the wiki. Be sure you discuss and declare whether your company has the right to republish any content that is added to the wiki (for example, can you include a usage scenario contributed by a customer in your next revision of the document set?).
  • Your Information Development team must rigorously monitor such a forum. Timely responses will be expected. To be successful, you must dedicate resource to monitoring and responding to comments. Plan this into your Information Plans (Doc Plans) for the future.
  • It is important to clearly differentiate community contributions from content that has a company warranty as part of your company’s service contracts with customers. Further, be sure to discuss your plans with your company’s Support or Service teams. How will you handle calls to Support for content that came from an external customer?

In summary, our customers are increasingly familiar with the social networking paradigm as part of their overall “user experience” with products and services, and beginning to expect social networking features as part of their overall “information experience” as well. As leaders in the Information Development discipline, we need to integrate aspects of “community” interaction into the design of our information deliverables. Community technologies can enrich the customer experience with our online product documentation and improve customer satisfaction with our content. Begin by leveraging existing social networking accounts that exist within your company (Facebook, Twitter) or within your customer community (User Group discussion forums), or by sponsoring your own dedicated social networking forums using existing company infrastructure for wikis or blogs about documentation-related topics. User-generated content can be a powerful way to supplement your standard documentation set. Ideally, we should be nurturing conversations with and among customers in the context of the documentation itself, integrating commenting and ratings into our content delivery design.

So think big but start small—the time to start is now! Your customers will thank you—probably in a blog!

Lori Fisher is Director of User Technology at IBM in San Jose with worldwide responsibility for information development and design across 2 divisions. She teaches courses in the certificate program at University of California Extension. She has chaired the STC Quality SIG, served on the international STC Board of Directors, and is a Fellow of STC in the Silicon Valley Chapter. Her organization at IBM was one of the first in IBM to create a social networking site for customers to share examples.