The New Communications Cycle Part 3: Analyzing and Updating Content with the 3 R’s

Part 1: Know Your Audience… and How They Consume and Create Content

Part 2: Content Consumption is a Two-Way Street

In reality, the communications cycle isn’t new, but the vehicles we use to move along it have changed as rapidly as…a Twitter stream or a Facebook Profile or MySpace Account or Friendster or Blog or the web. In part 1 and part 2 we looked at “Web 2.0” and underlying tools that allow us to identify key audiences and some of the factors for adjusting what content we Aim at them. We can use more traditional tools as well as social media tools to Compose and Transmit content to our key audiences. Gathering Feedback, whether via the latest web technology, or via an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, is crucial to the last two stages on the communications curve: Analyze/Change and Improve.

Introduction: Review, Revise, Recycle

Think of the final two phases of the communications cycle as technical communication’s own version of sustainability. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to reduce waste, we Review, Revise and Recycle content to reduce inefficiency and achieve customer satisfaction with our products or services. Indeed, content reuse has been a big part of the trends in technical communications for a least a decade. And, one of the keys to reusing content most effectively is to first analyze how it’s being consumed and whether it changes behaviors or actions to reach the objectives you have in place.

Review: Use the Facts to Analyze and Recommend Change

I feel rather sheepish in admitting it, but I’m one of those communications professionals who, from time to time, just had to complain about how no one was listening to my suggestions and feedback for improving both the product and support for the product. Without proof—data, solid facts, and real customer opinions—I deserved to be ignored, no matter how useful my ideas might have been. Fortunately for me, and probably for many of you, venturing into related fields such usability and business analysis provided some outstanding ways to define the arguments, and use data to back them up. There are many tools but today we’ll look at Content Analysis and Affinity Grouping.

Like technical communications, news organizations have been challenged by web 2.0 and its implications for how they have traditionally provided content for consumption. Many of these news organizations are adopting Content Analysis as part of their newsgathering and publishing cycle. In 2007, began working with newsrooms across the United States to put content analysis to work and published a guide which states “Content analysis is a simple, effective means of measuring change. In fact, because the fundamental premise of content analysis is so simple – comparing what you publish to your goals and your audience – some editors overlook it in search of more sophisticated solutions.”

Blogging for UXMatters, Colleen Jones points out that even though in-depth content analysis can be time consuming it is worthwhile “…because your efforts provide the following benefits:

  • Content analysis results in a clear, tangible description of your content—which clients and stakeholders can perceive as nebulous—whether expressed in text or visually.
  • Content analysis provides the foundation for comparing existing content with either user needs or competitor content, letting you identify potential gaps and opportunities.
  • Content analysis offers insights that help you make decisions about your content more easily—for example, what to prioritize.
  • Content analysis can reveal themes, relationships, and more.”

Using the goals and objectives your organization has defined for its products and audiences, you can develop a series of questions that define what to analyze in the content you are producing. For example, if the demographics are important measure for your leadership, analyze both the demographics of product usage, and the demographics of the content. If you’re targeting weekend do-it-yourselfers, what channels are you using, and how are you framing and illustrating your message—with men in jeans and t-shirts using the product around the house or businessmen at a checkout line? Who’s responding in your forums to questions posed by other users, and what are their demographics?

According to, “Now that you know what to count, then just do the math. Go through the newspapers or web pages, count the material and compile the numbers. We use Excel because it will not only do the math but produce charts that can be convincing visual aids when presenting the content analysis to your newsroom or leadership group.”

Jones noted in her blog, “If you tell a client or stakeholder their content has issues, they understandably want to know what issues and why they are issues and to see examples of the issues. A content analysis lets you flag and refer to specific examples of content problems—for example, different types of problems or anything else you want to illustrate. Consequently, you can easily snag a screen capture for a presentation or pull up a Web page during a meeting.”

Affinity Grouping is one of the primary tools to perform Content Analysis. You can use affinity grouping to organize and analyze all types of that you’ve gathered to analyze your technical communications content and delivery. This is an approach that works well for organizing what sometimes seems like random comments from brainstorming sessions or open-ended survey questions, internal interviews with support personnel, emails, or community forum threads. For anyone who has done this type of analysis, the results can be startling and very rewarding. It sometimes feels like magic to take what looks like random chaos and organize it into meaning for information.

The key steps to performing Affinity Grouping are:

  • Create a basic table either in Excel or in Word, one column is a count, second column is source, and the rest of the columns are areas you think are key issues right now.
  • Go RTFM (no, not that one, the one we mentioned last week “Read Twitter, Facebook and Message boards” for documented issues (or new uses that haven’t been discussed). Create a new column for each new issue found. For Issues that fall into your original columns, note them along with the source (allows you to go back). Continue this exercise with customer service emails, forum comments, and call center logs.
  • Using your groupings, conduct internal interviews with customer service reps, developers, sales people, and even customer focus groups to investigate these areas. Be sure to start with open-ended questions first to see if a) these groups confirm your grouped issues b) provide new areas that you haven’t previously found.

TechWhirler Top Tip – the interviews serve two purposes – first, they show you’re doing research, and second, you subtly bring up the key issues in a non-confrontational way. This comes in handy when presenting the final report.

  • Once the interviews are complete, Revise the groupings. First, remove any blank columns. Second, look for columns listing only one or two issues, then try to expand another column so you can merge them. During this phase, consider merging any documented issues that sound different but point to the same problem. For instance, under the grouping “website is unreliable,” the issues “site is often down” and “404 pages” can be grouped together.
  • Now, it’s time to look for the largest groupings. Chances are that you’ll find that 80% of your problems are coming from 20% of the documented issues. Since we all want high ROI, focus your recommendations on the 20%, grab some notable quotes and screen shots if available.
  • Present your findings.

Often creating the chart proves to be the biggest challenge in affinity grouping. Card sorting can help you with starting the grouping process. Using color-coded sticky notes and a large conference room wall; you can begin to group by issue, by source or type information (customer quote, web analytics, sales data, article ranking, service calls, etc.). Put one piece of information or “factoid” on each note. Move them around under larger groupings, and more detailed groupings as needed. Move it all to a spreadsheet (retaining the color coding), and start analyzing. Remember, data will set you free – use your charted documentation to help win—or help your stakeholders win—arguments about how and when to modify your content and your product.

As the Usability Body of Knowledge points out, “The original intent of affinity diagramming was to help diagnose complicated problems by organizing qualitative data to reveal themes associated with the problems. Building an affinity diagram is a way to interpret customer data and:

  • Show the range of a problem
  • Uncover similarity among problems from multiple customers
  • Give boundaries to a problem
  • Identify areas for future study”

Thus, you can use the results of your analysis to make immediate improvements, and to more effectively plan for future enhancements or new products.


Revise: Improve Your Content… Constantly

In today’s technology-focused organizations, the communications cycle is both iterative and concurrent—everything moves so quickly that documentation teams must compress the cycles and work on several projects at once. Organizations working with content management systems and single-sourcing tools have a distinct advantage when the time component becomes so constrained. Implementing the approved changes from your analysis phase can be streamlined by the “write once reuse often” approach, and managers should address revisions as part of the overall documentation/content plan, and track revisions themselves as an element for business process analysis and improvement.

Recycle: Aim, Compose & Transmit …. Again

Oftentimes, you must go beyond simply revising and posting updated content. Our Web 2.0 world requires that you reach out to those who have raised the issues online so they know you’ve made the changes –your efforts are every bit as important to your company’s PR and marketing activities as product launches and press conferences. So it pays to work pro-actively with your marketing communications teams whose perspectives are different, but whose goals are ultimately the same.

As you start the next cycle, you will identify both new content and improvements to existing content within the context of what your organization learns about its audiences. In essence, all of the stages of the communications cycle are iterative and concurrent. The audience itself may shift as new uses or techniques are found for the product/service, and your company must re-aim to accommodate the shift. Methods for composing and transmitting content may need to be adjusted as well, since the media have different levels of effectiveness in reaching that audience. The technical communicator’s job is more complex and all-encompassing, but it’s also more exciting with something new around every corner.


Today, Technical communicators must ride the entire communications curve. We serve as the starting points and the monitors for content. Today, planning is more than “create a web page” or “embed the PDF”–it incorporates social media, forums, videos and other ways to announce new and upgraded products. Sometimes, we’re the first line of public relations defense when something goes terribly wrong.

We transmit content and customers consume it at an exponential rate. They then provide feedback but in a more complex way. (Oh to be so lucky to have them email or call us, at least these are relatively private and easily trackable!). Now, it’s even easier for users to “Like”, Share or Tweet a product’s usability or worse, lack of it. Specific topics may morph as they are transmitted and retransmitted. Thus today’s technical writers will spend increasing portions of their workday monitoring transmission, and responding to or correcting inaccuracies.

Creating and consuming content is indeed a two-way street, requiring both a customer service and a fact-checking focus that relies on knowing your audience, and creating messages that aim right where your audience is looking. To continually improve content creation and consumption, technical communicators need to arm themselves with the tools and techniques to rapidly review the content and its impact, revise it to address emerging issues and needs, and recycle it out to those audiences who are hungry to consume it as they purchase and use your products.


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