Raymond Calbay, HTC Corporation

Online social networks buzz with people posting, commenting, and sharing the mundane to the most esoteric. Technical communicators cannot afford to ignore social media channels as a publishing platform anymore. Singleton and Melongon were spot on when they said that in today’s hyper-connected context, “information can no longer only be provided as downloadable, static documents” (2011, page 7). Technical communicators need to keep up with the content explosion in the social web. Blogs, forum posts, infographics, and short content feeds that double as status updates in social networks can very likely be part of their deliverables too.

Unless integrated with social media as a continuing conversation, technical communication will remain underappreciated and underutilized despite the value it brings to products and to its users. Social media publishing presents a great opportunity—it delivers content to people who might need the information but are otherwise not searching actively for it. At the same time, it encourages conversation and builds communities around the product, reinforcing the information facilitation role that technical communicators perform. When done right, it ultimately benefits the company in attracting and retaining more customers. Make sure to include these items in your social media publishing checklist when you start your own pilot initiative.

Social Media Goals

Before joining the bandwagon, be clear about what is in it for your company and your technical communication team. To obtain management buy-in, tie reasons for social media publishing to existing business objectives. One good reason is to minimize support costs by proactively pushing instructional content to users. Another benefit is that it can echo your company’s brand identity, which differentiates it from competition and drives customer loyalty. It’s also a form of content marketing because product features get highlighted. On your side, it all leads to increased consumption of traditional content. For your team of technical communicators, drum up support by explaining how it can benefit documentation processes. Is someone grumbling about overwork and more pressing deadlines? Explain that besides adding another skill to their competencies, delving into social media provides opportunities for learning about product users and use cases.

Repurposed and New Content

Because social media is teeming with content, people face the dilemma of which content to trust. Technical communicators are well equipped to produce content that responds to the challenge. Extra care that information is accurate and correct pays off. But since social media offers space to be playful and creative, technical writing tone and style may need to be adjusted to fit the medium. User guides and online help are ripe for extracting content feeds for social media publishing. Analyze your current set of technical communication deliverables and see what could be repurposed. Existing tips are a great start. If you have a DITA-based content management system, you can easily gather content labeled as tips or as similar note types. Concepts and procedures can also be turned into blog articles or shortened tips for status updates. Porting social content back to other deliverables in your CMS is something you can plan and explore further.

Content Calendar

The trick with social media publishing is constant updates. Decide on how frequently you want to post content: daily, every other day, once a week? Once you have a schedule, plan your content feeds thoroughly so you can anticipate possible questions and responses. Be alert for holidays, industry events, and other seasonal affairs to inject timeliness into your content schedule. In your pilot initiative, experiment with different formats (mixing in questions as conversation starters and posting links of interest), test out keywords and hashtags, and determine the time and day when your target audience responds better. You can also develop themes and integrated campaigns to showcase specific product features. But avoid the hard sell–you want to sound authentic. Otherwise people may think your content is just another sly campaign from the PR machine. With your proposed calendar at hand, social media publishing shouldn’t look as daunting anymore.

Social media accounts

If your company already has a social media management team in place, partner with them. After creating a profile of who can benefit from your content, find out where your audiences are. Remember that social networking sites are essentially a relationship-maintaining platform. They are good for offering value-added content to your target community. Customer may be re-sharing, recommending, and talking about your content and product if they have a stake in it. Is your audience technical? LinkedIn groups and specialized forums could be their usual hangouts. If, on the other hand, your products are more mainstream, then Facebook and Twitter are natural venues. If you are a part of a multinational company with international clientele, research what social media channels are popular in specific regions. For example, in China, people use Youku, Baidu, and Renren. Being everywhere is the best practice in promoting your social media presence. But consider that each social media channel may need different content and may have more audience segments.

Interaction guidelines

Community engagement is the name of the game. But in social networking sites, it can get noisy fast. Unlike static content like printed quickstart guides, you can be bombarded with questions, complaints, and comments as soon as you publish. And feedback is usually not related to your content but to other aspects of your company’s product or service. The wisdom of the crowd trumps the discussion in social media–you’re not the only talker anymore, and you can’t control what people say. If the sentiment is unfavorable to your company, being defensive will fan the flames. Figure out a way to address user comments and seek higher management’s approval of any guidelines you’ve developed. Although not every comment needs a response, staying true to social media as a continuing conversation will bring you more fans and followers. It’s good to acknowledge those who help steer the conversation. But consider how much team bandwidth you’re willing to spend on responding to comments. Some companies outsource this task to support users in other time zones.

Performance tracker

How do you measure success? Increased content consumption is probably the biggest takeaway for technical communication. The number of likes, re-shares, and comments are good indicators of how your community responds to content. According to Powell, Groves, and Dimos, common social media metrics are click-through rates, improved awareness, and purchase intent. They advised that “some of these designed in metrics can include the use of URL shorteners (such as bit.ly) that can provide precise statistics” (2011, page 227). Track individual and collective performance of content feeds across social media channels. There are many resources, including freeware and services such as Facebook Insightsthat can help you gauge how many people your content has reached. Apart from statistics, be sure to collect qualitative data. Don’t fret if you don’t receive many responses when you’re starting out. Social media observers abide by the “90-9-1” rule: 90 percent of audiences passively consumes content, 9 percent occasionally comments, and 1 percent provides regular feedback. Treat social media channels as a listening tool to learn about questions and complaints and to discover suggestions that could be applied not only to your content, but to the product as well.

Improvement plan

Fine-tune your content to ease pain points based on comments and responses. After hearing what people like or dislike about your products, use it as a springboard to make content changes. Social networks provide a rich resource of user-generated tips, troubleshooting suggestions, and use-case scenarios that you may not have considered. But improvements shouldn’t stop at social media content. It can also channel back to traditional content such as help systems and printed manuals. Do you lack content for the questions you’re seeing? Does it seem like people can’t find your content? Implications can range from creating and modifying content and adding meta-information and indexes for searchability to restructuring your information architecture. Decide which feedback you should prioritize and include in upcoming content projects. You can even escalate product-related items to development teams for future updates.

Some corporate departments mistakenly look down on social media initiatives as a less serious effort. Because social media publishing is still an emergent professional practice, continue educating yourself and your colleagues on the possibilities that it can bring to business. You’d be missing out and playing catch up if you don’t engage with your community soon, especially since digital natives will one day dominate your customer base. At the end of the day, it’s about making information available to users and their varying contexts. Consider these words by Levinson and Gibson (2010, page 141): “By providing comprehensive content, insight, and open channels of communication, you can educate clients about your business at their pace and in the medium they want.” And as is always the case with online communication, whatever people pick up in social media channels is talked about, applied, and amplified in the offline world too.

About the Author
Raymond Calbay leads the #htctips social media campaign of HTC’s Taiwan-based User Education team. He holds an MA in Communication from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila. You may contact him at raymond_calbay@htc.com.


Meredith Singleton and Lisa Meloncon
“A Social Media Primer for Technical Communicators”
Intercom, June 2011: 6-9
Society for Technical Communication
ISSN: 01646206

Guy Powell, Steven Groves and Jerry Dimos
ROI of Social Media: How to Improve the Return on Your Social Marketing Investment
2011, New York, NY
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0470827416

Jay Conrad Levinson and Shane Gibson
Guerilla Social Media Marketing
2010, Irvine, CA
Entrepreneur Press
ISBN: 1599183838