Social web documentation strategies – notes from Anne Gentle’s webinar

Early, very early, this morning I attended a webinar run by TCANZ, with Anne Gentle as the guest speaker. The webinar was titled “Social Web Documentation Strategies” and was based on Anne’s STC Summit 2010 presentation. I really enjoyed hearing Anne speak in person! Here are the notes I took from the session. Any mistakes are mine, and all the credit goes to Anne. 🙂

Anne started off discussing the fact that it can be risky to introduce social strategies into your organisation. To help reduce the risks, she suggests these 3 steps:

  1. Listen first. See what’s out there and get the feel of the existing communities.
  2. Find your role. In the presentation, Anne discussed a number of the roles applicable to documentation on the social web.
  3. Align your content strategies with business goals. Everyone brings certain expectations to websites, and they bring different levels of expectation to different types of content.


Anne points out that technical writers are very good at this. We are technically skilled and we know a lot about our products. She suggested some tools:

  • Google Alerts. You can do really precise searches. For example, you can search only blogs, and pick up content about only your product. You could view your entire customer database as a community, and get insight into the things they are talking about. Anne works on a project called OpenStack, with Rackspace. She finds that bloggers are a very good community to start a conversation with.
  • Technorati offers a blog-only search. This is neat because it includes a filter based on authority, taking into account how often the content is linked to, how many influential people link to it, and so on.
  • Delicious and tagging. If you know who in your community may be tagging, this is a good way of finding out who is talking about what.

This is all part of the listening phase. Don’t jump in and start talking too soon. Don’t automate your tweets or posts. Don’t automatically follow people. Do identify yourself and the company you work for. At Rackspace, where Anne works, the social media policy is “be helpful when you are online”. Anne also recommends that we should be conversational: let it flow and be natural.

Anne talked about checking the “social weather”. She compared it to checking out the atmosphere in a restaurant. Is it quiet and romantic, or crowded and noisy? In the same way, online communities have different atmospheres and conventions.

Another useful technique is “sentiment ratings”. You can do them in Twitter Search (advanced search) . More heavy-weight tools are Radian6 and others. This technique gives you an idea of whether customers are happy with a tool, or more likely to hate it. Radian6 was recently acquired by SalesForce. The tools are becoming more advanced. See what clues there are on the social web to get a good picture of what our customers feel about our product.

Social technographics is the art of finding out how likely people are to take part in social web activities. Are they like to write a blog, tag something in Delicious, post tweets, and so on? The tools analyse the demographics and help you decide whether people in your target audience are likely to actively create content or take part in your activity, or are more likely just to read. This helps you to choose the social activities you want to initiate.

At this point I lost my Internet connection and was offline for ten minutes or so. When I got back online, Anne had moved on to talking about roles.

Finding your role

Anne is now talking about roles, I may have missed a few due to being offline. This is where I came back in:

  • Reporter/observer role. This is someone who has good listening skills, and spends time finding out who is writing the really good stuff.
  • Enabler role. A good tool is DISQUS, that provides a widget at the bottom of each page where people can comment. You can see threaded conversations, moderate the comments, even migrate comments from one page to another. The role of enabler is one that Anne fulfills. She gave an example of seeing a comment about a particular tool on the documentation, and how she was able to connect the customer with the developer of the tool.
  • Sharing role. Provide tools on your site that people can use to share your pages via Twitter, Facebook, and so on. For example, a tool called TweetMeme adds a retweet button to a page.
  • Syndicating your content, so that people can subscribe to it. You can offer people notifications about updates to content, and you can embed content from RSS feeds onto your own pages. Anne showed us an example of a side panel she has added to a page, showing a feed from a particular blogger who was writing content relevant to her documentation.
  • Collaborator/instigator role, telling people what content needs writing. This works really well in an agile development environment, where you are actively asking people to write the content. You need a content platform where everyone can edit the documentation. In the open source development environment, collaboration is actually a technical requirement. If this makes sense in your business, you would go to the “final frontier” and provide this type of community documentation. You need to align this with your business goals.

Aligning your content strategy with business goals

Anne gave a list of business goals that align themselves really well with a social documentation strategy.

  • The need to track a campaign or the effectiveness of your content.
  • Creating customer experience of collaboration and community.
  • Helping people to help each other: peer to peer support.
  • Decreasing the response times on support requests.
  • Generating ideas. People in a community bring lots of ideas. If they are willing to share and contribute these ideas, you can crowd-source ideas.
  • Rewarding contributors by offering them special experiences. Even rewards that are not monetary are valued, such as badges and other types of recognition.

The way we do business is evolving. We want these social customer insights. No matter where you are in the business, whether in marketing or other areas, there are use cases for using social tools and the social web for meeting these goals. Social CRM is gaining traction. The famous use case is Heather Armstrong who runs a blog called One day her dryer broke when her baby was only a few days old. She couldn’t get it fixed. Repair men came and went, but nothing worked. So she started tweeting about it. That’s exactly what the dryer manufacturer does not want. They want her to tweet rather about how positive the relationship was. Anne says that the onus is on the business to meet the customers where they are.

Starting your own community

Before jumping, you need to realise that there are communities out there already. For example, forums, Twitter chats, a popular blog. Before building your own community, find out if there is actually one already that you can collaborate with.

For example, the Mozilla Developer Network is becoming a bit of a hub about Google Chrome too. Anne thinks this is really great. They could have started their own community. Instead, they joined an existing one.

Pitfalls. Anne mentioned a number. Here are just a few.

  • Too much content, without enough opportunity to take part and become engaged.
  • High barriers to entry.
  • Should you run a pilot, a sort of trial with a limited audience? One problem is that people may not believe that you are fully committed if you do a pilot. You need to analyse your community. In some cases, a pilot may indeed be helpful.

Next Anne ran through the benefits of measuring the participation and engagement in your community. You need to set up some KPIs. These are a few of the measurement points that Anne mentioned:

  • New versus returning visitors. Do you want a high number of new visitors, or is it more important that people keep coming back?
  • Time on site: You may want people to spend a lot of time, or maybe the fact that they found the answer and left is good.
  • Search results. Did people find what they were looking for?
  • Download rates. Did people find and download the content they needed?
  • Do people add comments, and are your support staff answering them?

After doing all this analysis, then you can make the decision about whether it makes sense for your business, to apply a social media strategy.

Then you launch and learn.

At this point Anne called out to me and said that I’ve been an inspiration to her. Wow, thank you Anne. The same is so true in reverse.

Managing community content

Next Anne gave a number of pointers about managing community content. For example, you must be able to accept content that is not 100% perfect. You need to help people build a relationship with content. They’re not likely to build a relationship with text only. A good tip is to add a profile picture of yourself.

Anne showed the example of Adobe Community Help. It is all searchable, including the comments and user-generated content. Anne was looking for some information, and found the answer in a comment from a technical writer who said she couldn’t put it in the official documentation because it was more in the way of a workaround for the way the product worked. This is a great way of getting help.

Anne ran through a couple more examples: Intuit, Mozilla, Ubuntu and OpenStack. The OpenStack project is where Anne works, and she talked with enthusiasm about the great experience she and the team are having in building the social site.

An interesting analysis showed that there are four motivations for people to contribute:

  • I help someone because they will help me.
  • I want to build my reputation.
  • I feel obligated to help, because it’s a great tool that is helping me.
  • I feel like a I belong, because it’s a fun community.

Summing it up

In closing, Anne went back to the point of aligning content with business goals. Which areas of the business are we aiming to support? For example, marketing and sales, service and support, research and development, and so on.

She said that we need to do this. Yes, it’s scary and confusing. But there is a target and there is a goal: Serving customers with our content.

My conclusion

Thank you so much to Anne Gentle and to TCANZ for hosting this webinar. Anne is a great speaker. Her enthusiasm and professionalism both shine through. For me, it was definitely worthwhile being online at 7am!

Black swans

Black swans in autumn


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 29 June 2011, in open standards, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks Sarah, a concise and and clear summary of Anne’s webinar.

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