The New Communications Cycle Part 2: Content Consumption is a Two-Way Street

Editor’s Note: Missed Part One of our Three Part Series? Find it here.

The impact of social media on how technical communicators do their job extends beyond the frequently discussed “you need to be on Facebook” conversation. The communications cycle relies on determining the what, how, and when of communications in a strategic way… and that much hasn’t changed. In part 1 of this series, we looked at aiming your message based on knowing your audience, and the types of messages that technical communicators are now responsible for. Now we turn to the Transmit and Feedback stages of communications to identify the tools for transmitting content and gathering feedback along with the rationale and methodology to consider.

  1. Aim – Who do you want to talk to and what do you want them to do? comms-cycle-sm
  2. Compose – What is the message (information) you need to deliver to your audience to get them to do what you what them to do?
  3. Transmit – What media should you use to deliver your message and when should you deliver it?
  4. Feedback – What is the audience telling you about the effect of the communication?
  5. Analyze/Change – What can you discover about whether the communications had the effect you aimed for?
  6. Improve –What and how will you change the communications (message, media, timing) to achieve your aim

Plan to Transmit Content-Frequently and in a Range of Media

The ancient (20-25 years ago) documentation world encompassed a transmission stage that relied heavily on stenographic services and a knowledge of print production. Blue lines, pre-press, binding options, delivery dates—all tasks which required different skill sets and usually a range of additional personnel in the process of transmitting information to end users. Today, technical writers often add the transmission roles to their responsibilities, but transmission is digital and instantaneous. Delivery dates, presentation options, and proofing processes are all required, but the tools and the media have changed. We use structured authoring and flexible single sourcing tools to build out smaller, but always coherent and accurate content, then move that content to wikis, content management systems (CMS), document repositories on online help for access and referral. So once it’s in a wiki or CMS or your FAQ page, how do users know to go get it?

Transmission today involves engaging customers in constantly widening conversation, where content may be refined and modified during transmission–our customers have nearly as large a role in transmitting our content as we do, and our tech comm planning needs to accommodate that reality. We can learn a lot about planning and executing technical communications strategies in the digital age from the methodologies used by online marketing.

Ceasar Alcala, Online Marketing Strategist with BMF Marketing , emphasizes the importance of understanding your objectives in order to create and execute on-line communications plans. “The most effective strategy is survey your audience. You have to offer them something to get them to follow you. Good information and content is always best, and surveying the audience determines what resonates with them.”

Alcala uses a wide range of tools to identify information about his clients’ audiences, transmit content to them, and gather feedback from them. “If your client base is teenagers, Facebook is probably a great place to start. On the other hand, Facebook is not a great choice when targeting decision-makers at large companies. LinkedIn would work better for that audience.”

Columbia University’s recent Social Media Weekend conference looked at the issues in newsgathering and publishing using social media. News organizations are adapting to using Facebook, to host live chats and gather news immediately via consumers. While they remain concerned that using Facebook lowers visits to their own sites, Facebook’s new Journalism Program Manager, Vladik Lavrusik noted that the company continues to develop and improve their platform to support journalism, and that referrals to publisher sites continue to rise. “The conversation doesn’t have to just take place on Facebook,” he says. In other words, the referrals that use to happen over the cubicle wall can now happen on Facebook walls.

Facebook and LinkedIn comprise two of the largest web 2.0 tools, but they are certainly not the only answer to the two big questions on transmission: where is the best place to put my content and when should I put it there? Today, deriving that answer means pitting algorithm-based search engines like Google, Bing and others against user-defined Twitter trends and Facebook “Likes” for the best place to find an answer to a technical question.

As tech comm teams flesh out the “documentation” plan for a new or improved product, the type of media drives scheduling as much as the development timeline. This is because many of these media refer users to our “static” content, and the static content plan includes a range of tasks like introducing on the corporate blog, referencing in the website FAQ pages, housing on our company’s wiki or knowledge base, and refreshing and enhancing it in additional ways such as podcasts and video tutorials.

All the new opportunities to transmit content are not equal. We, as the chief technical communicators need to ensure we are using the right medium to optimally meet our objectives. I think blogs are still the best way to educate your audience and raise your profile as a thought leader in your industry. But, video is also extremely powerful. Video doesn’t have to be professionally shot with CGI graphics. A simple PowerPoint presentation with voice over lends tremendous amounts of credibility to a content producer,” Aacala notes. He also points out that in today’s new relatively cheap digital world it is easier than ever to be able to reuse or develop content into different media. “For this interview, we could have recorded it and made a podcast, mixed the audio with some slides and made a video or just posted the transcript for a blog post. That way, users get the information in their desired format.”

Here’s a quick checklist of the major distribution tools available—both new media and old—and what each is best suited to:

Tool Use it to
Telephone Call Record and save calls / interviews and convert to podcast and transcript. Channel to announce product releases, patches, upgrades and other news. (Google Voice or Skype)
Email Provide in-depth content to customers who are highly interested. Channel to provide regular content and push links to videos, tutorials, webinars, podcasts or blogs. Use it to announce beta versions, support product launch, and follow up on customer service/expanded benefits. (Constant Contact, MailMan, etc)
Corporate website – FAQCorporate knowledge baseEmbedded/online help Provide static information about all facets of the product, including troubleshooting issues, setting up/assembling, customizing, functions, features and benefits. (content management systems such as Interwoven, SharePoint, and wikis; Robohelp, Flare, Doc-to-Help, Help & Manual)
Blog Build the company and product brand. Create and continue conversations with engaged users. Provide in-depth discussion on features/benefits, extended uses, customer success stories, alerts about issues found and being addressed. (Word Press, Drupal)
FacebookLinkedIn Stay connected with your audience and provide ongoing support. Survey audiences. Create community dialog, and support your overall brand
Twitter Provide tidbits of information and links back to other content sources, especially corporate website, blog and knowledge base. Start conversations that are easily found by other users who can jump in and add to the conversation. Survey your audience quickly, and monitor competitor presence.
FourSquare Introduce new people to your business when they would otherwise not know you exist, where brick and mortar location is central to business. Provide incentives, test products and gather feedback.
Quora Support brand building by providing expertise. Track specific issues and questions and contribute to a collective knowledge base. Broaden customer base with relevant answers.

When you consider the busy and fragmented lifestyle of the typical user for your product, very quickly you realize that not only choosing the right combination of transmission methods but the right frequency and schedule is critical to executing your tech comm plan. Alcala suggests experimenting with transmission at different times of the day and days of the week to figure out the best mix to reach the broadest segment of your audience.

We’re becoming more like Sherlock Holmes than MacGyver these days. Before when asked a question, we could safely rely on the answer: RTFM because we all knew the answer was in there. But, in this new world of smaller budgets and faster timelines we can still say RTFM, but it means Read Twitter, Facebook and Message Boards. While this does make things more complex, for us “communicators” it is an exciting time.

Getting Feedback on the Cheap

I rarely have a conversation with other technical writers that doesn’t include at least a passing reference to how much feedback on our content would improve it, particularly from people who actually use the products we’re writing about. Previously, there was too little feedback, but not today. Oh no. Not today. The challenge today is not too little feedback or questionable focus group or survey results – it is the flood of thoughts out there.

While the data from tracking social media (and emails and calls) is messier and harder to manage; the enriched information we can derive is certainly better, not only for improving our content, but also improving or even creating new products. Behavioral based research has almost always been out of our reach and budgets, but now, if we are willing to do the extra work to look at trends and do a little frequency analysis we will find the gaps or the great parts of the new widget. But, before we can derive any useful insights from the information, we need to collect it from this vast ocean of data.

Google Alerts is still the best tool available,” says Alcala. “Users can monitor everything concerning their business, reputation, industry and competition. It’s a great tool that’s easily delivered to you. Once it’s set up initially, it just keeps delivering the information until you opt out.” He also recommends the advanced search for Twitter , which can narrow results by users or key words, and can even geo-target responses.

The tools we use to transmit are often the same as the tools to gather feedback. According to Alcala, you get the most from these tools if you understand what they are best at delivering:

  • Google Analytics  to identify and monitor where traffic is coming from
  • Search Optimization– to track key words, and identify gaps in content by uncovering what is not being found.
  • Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon – to discover what your audience is passing along to others
  • “Liking’” on Facebook and retweeting on Twitter to determine what your audience finds useful.

“Staying on top of that information can give you an insight into what they want from you,” Alcala explains. “Keeping up with comments and reviews on sites like Yelp will let you know what you’re doing right and where you need to improve. Customers are not shy about letting you know when you’re failed them.” And Alcala believes that it is imperative to implement reputation monitoring to stay current and be positioned to respond.

Referrals are both a transmission tool and a method for tracking feedback. Now both TechWhirl’s Facebook and Twitter communities and our number of Twitter followers are tiny in comparison to other organizations, but thus far our results reflect what larger studies are finding, search engines still refer the largest percentage of users to content, but social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular are gaining ground. For instance, Outbrain’s 2011 first quarter media consumption report (http://blog.outbrain.com/2011/04/outbrain-content-discovery-report.html) found that

“Currently, search methods (including Google, AOL Search, Bing, Yahoo and Ask) send the largest slice of referral traffic to content. Links from publisher sites make up 31% of referral traffic to content pages (this includes manual partner syndication, linkswaps, Outbrain recommendations of content to content, etc.), portal homepages (AOL.com, Yahoo.com, MSN.com) account for 17% of traffic, and finally, social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Fark.com, reddit, Digg) send 11% of traffic to content pages.”

Outbrain also notes that Facebook’s relative reach, the number of unique visitors to referred sites, is significantly higher than Twitter, where a large portion of the referrals come from retweets (RT). Less original content gets tweeted than gets liked on Facebook.

For companies willing to invest in gathering (and analyzing feedback), tools such as Scout Labs, provide a broader range of analytics that cross a number areas and offer insights that would cost much more if they brought in a consultant.

Remember, you can garner feedback on your more traditional content, such as embedded or online help. Major software and other product vendors typically provide links into the most up-to-date versions of content, and allow users to rank and respond to articles or instructions.

Transmission and feedback epitomize the two-way nature of technical communications today. “Asking your audience what they want from you offers the best returns. Ask, listen, and then give them what they want. It’s old fashioned, but it works”, notes Alcala.

In the third and final part of this series, we’ll take a looking at analyzing the feedback received and the challenges in managing constant modification and reuse of content.

Citations and Other Reading

http://www.squidoo.com/thecommunicationcycle

http://emediavitals.com/content/pros-and-cons-facebook-media

http://blog.outbrain.com/2011/04/outbrain-content-discovery-report.html

Ceasar Alcala is an internet marketing strategist based in Dallas, TX.  His company, BMF Marketing, specializes in Social Media Marketing as well as search engine optimization and online reputation management.  For more information he can be contacted at ceasar@bmfmarketing.net.

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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