The New Communications Cycle Part 1: Know Your Audience … and How They Consume and Create Content

One of the first things I learned in my communications careers—first in marketing communications and again in technical communications– was the mantra – “Know your audience.” Technical writers in all industries understand that to communicate how a product works or a process flows, we must understand how much the audience knows about the subject, what they’re trying to find out, why they need to know it, and what happens if they get it wrong. This lesson holds as true in the Web 2.0, social network world as it did at the beginning of the industrial revolution. But today, knowing your audience is an always-on, two-way creation/consumption relationship.

Indeed, the tried and true communications cycle hasn’t changed, but the tools we—and our audiences—use to move through each stage have evolved along with our audiences.

  1. Aim – Who do you want to talk to and what do you want them to do?
  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?

Know What and Who You’re Aiming at

Tech comm professionals in my generation (and earlier!) used an arsenal of tools to find out who the audience for our documentation was and what we wanted them to do with it:

  • User Surveys
  • Search of marketing literature and development specifications
  • Hands on testing
  • Usability analysis and testing
  • Analysis of technical support or customer support data

Extracting useful information about how consumers use products, and what they want or need to know about them has always been challenging, and even using a combination of these tools provides mixed results. In fact, many TECHWR-L threads lament the lack of response to documentation surveys and agonize over access to SME’s(subject matter experts) or customer support logs.

While many corporate cultures may still set up barriers to tech writer access, web 2.0 tools open up new avenues to discovering who the audience is, what they think they want, and what happens when they interact with the product or service you offer. And as a great plus, in this new 2.0 world, you don’t have to bake brownies for ungrateful SMEs to find out.

You can build surveys with cost-effective tools like Survey Monkey, to identify the basic demographic information about your audiences. While the response may be limited, it’s bound to have a higher return rate than the old fashioned business-reply postcard. This approach requires working with your marketing or customer service folks to build an email list and compile the results.

Web analytics are more than just a black box term that only the web guys know about. Get access to the analytics they’re using to find out what are people searching for, and what are they clicking on. More important, discover what they’re not finding on their searches.

Facebook provides page administrators with a surprising amount of information about the audience members who like your product. Forums and communities provide access to the complaints and kudos about your products (or your competitors’) that should drive decisions about improvements or new products that can address an unmet need. And even if you don’t have input into product development, having access to this kind of knowledge will help form the message and the delivery.

Just because there are new options doesn’t mean traditional tools are not valuable —after all nothing beats being able to test the product from the customer’s point of view to figure out what they need to know. When circumstances prevent you from testing, make contact with your quality assurance folks to discover what they are testing for and why. Remember, the Aim stage allows us to determine what our customers think they want, what they need to know and how best to position our information to address both.

Compose Content that Aims Directly at Your Audience

Writing for your audience couldn’t have changed right? To be honest, as a core concept it has not changed except for two big differences:

  • Your audience wants succinct, non-PRmarketing spin answers – and they want them now.
  • You may not be the only one composing, referring and recommending the best way to use YOUR product

Fifteen years ago, a typical user would toss a question over the cubicle wall to their neighbor to find out how to do something with a product. If they couldn’t get what seemed to be a reasonable answer they’d look through the user manual and do some trial by error. Ten years ago, users started getting used to looking through online help (if the product was software), or calling a toll-free number, and hoping the product was still under warranty. Five years ago, trends moved quickly towards looking it up online: they’d check the company website for a forum or a FAQ page, if they couldn’t find it they’d “Google” it, and if worse came to worse, they’d call a toll-free number. Oh, and what manual?

Today, we seem to have come full circle, at least in the digital sense. Customers will still toss a question out, but they do it on a Facebook wall or in 140 characters on Twitter. The SME’s of today are not just at your company, they’re working in the Baltics, Europe, South America and somewhere near Canton. It’s an online market of ideas with retweets, thumbs up and +1 showing the most valuable answer or approach to a question.

Taking it a bit further, once the customer gets an answer that works, they will then share it via blogs or wiki-based forums. While this answer can and often does apply to software, it could also apply to the best way to set your new microwave alarm clock or turn your gas-powered mower to solar power. Then, once they’ve shared their answers, the open market starts again with others commenting, ranking or referring to this new “How to”. The community of your customers has become your collaborators in providing content.

But our content collaborators don’t exactly leave us without a job or career track. Our core job is to build coherent, succinct and accurate content that helps customers use our products or do their jobs more successfully. We still need the planning, structure and foundational information from which they can glean what they need and to which they can refer others. I started out when Word for Windows Workgroup 3.11 was all the rage, and the only tech writers who got to use Framemaker were in the largest companies. The basic tools are still here. As new needs arise for better ways to create and organize content, vendors and academics continue to build the tools to enable us to author in structured, dynamic and collaborative environments. Which may help to explain why all those surveys keep listing technical writing as a top career choice.

We’re one third the way around the communications curve. My next article will look at transmitting content and tracking feedback. In the meantime, this inquiring mind wants to know: How does your experience track with this topic? What ways have you found to use new tools to handle the day-to-day activities of knowing your audience and crafting your message? Finally, are you still baking brownies to get answers you need? If so can you send some in my direction?

Citations and Other Reading

Integrated Technical Communications: An Introduction | Tech Writer Today Magazine by TechWhirl

12 years ago

[…] Users have higher expectations for products and are willing to share their (dis)pleasure publicly through social media outlets. (see the New Communications Cycle) […]

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