The Role of the Gatekeeper is Changing: Guest Post by Sarah O’Keefe

The following  guest post is by Sarah O’Keefe, the founder and president of Scriptorium Publishing, specializing in content strategy for technical communication.

Sarah reflects on the benefits and challenges that user-generated content poses for technical communicators. She calls on organizations to develop a content strategy, identifying the specific scenarios where user-generated content is valuable, alongside a different set of scenarios, where professionally-generated content is still highly relevant. She proposes an emerging role for technical communicators, as content curators.

I remain very indebted to Sarah, not only for this guest post, but for all the content strategy resources she generously offers the technical communication community.

Without further ado, here’s Sarah, in her own words…

The Internet is removing the traditional gatekeepers for content.

Until quite recently, content distribution was a challenging process that required expensive equipment (printing press, video production facilities, trucks, warehouses) and in some cases government permission (TV and radio broadcast licenses). Now sites like YouTube and software like WordPress make content distribution trivial.

This change has profound implications for professional content creators of all types. In this post, I want to focus on technical communicators — people who create information to explain complex technical products.

(Technical communication is also called technical writing, but that phrase is falling out of favor because it excludes non-text communication, such as graphics and video.)

For technical communicators, the rise of user-generated content is a decidedly double-edged sword.

Benefits for technical communicators

Technical communicators can communicate directly with their target audience — the end users of the product. If technical documentation is published on the Internet, end users can provide comments or edit information directly. This feedback helps technical communicators improve their content by identifying errors or unclear writing.

There’s never enough time for in-house professionals to create all of the content that’s needed. Contributions from the user community can provide additional support and build on the official core content. The organization’s strategic plan for content should identify areas where users are most valuable (such as unusual ways of using the product) and areas where corporate technical communicators add the most value (such as information that requires high production values, configuration/installation instructions, and conceptual information). The overall content strategy can then ensure that the various content contributors have appropriate frameworks in which to operate.

Challenges for technical communicators

There is a temptation for business executives, especially in cash-poor start-ups, to dismiss their technical communication staff and simply rely on the community to provide documentation. There are a number of problems with this approach, but let’s take some obvious ones:

  • New products, in general, are perceived as riskier than established products. A new product without documentation raises that risk even more. Lack of documentation will make the product an even harder sell.
  • Although vibrant communities may help out with documentation, start-ups don’t usually have communities yet. Somebody needs to provide a starting point for technical content.
  • The open-source community has great difficulty in getting volunteer help for product documentation. You can expect this difficulty to increase for a commercial product.
  • Technical communicators are needed more than ever to plan, organize, refine, and curate content.

I believe, however, that we are entering a new era of accountability. Web analytics software makes it quite easy to measure whether content is being viewed. Technical communicators — and their management — can see how many people are accessing their content, and specifically which content is most or least popular. These metrics will drive decisions about not just technical communication but also product designs, marketing, and more.

More on this topic:

Many thanks to Peg Mulligan for sharing her space!

Sarah O’Keefe, President, founded Scriptorium Publishing in 1996 to provide editing and production services to technical writing departments. From the beginning, Sarah focused on efficiency—-selecting the right publishing tools, creating templates, and training writers on how to use their tools.

Today, the company is known for expertise in cutting-edge tools and technologies. With a dozen employees, Scriptorium specializes in streamlining publishing processes for numerous high-profile clients in telecommunications, defense, technology, and other content-rich industries.

Please contact the author Sarah O’Keefe direcly, at Scriptorium Publishing, for any rights to republishing this post. Peg Mulligan’s blog is protected by copyright, but I give any appropriate rights back to guest bloggers, for posts they may have authored, but which were hosted at this blog.

4 thoughts on “The Role of the Gatekeeper is Changing: Guest Post by Sarah O’Keefe

  1. I agree Sarah, there are challenges and opportunities integrating community generated content with official techcomm. I envision that paid staff will continue to author pre-release content for new products, while the community will increasingly find a role enhancing the content for deployed releases. It will be exciting to find the optimal set of strategies. In the case of content, more is not always better. But then, I’ve also I’ve seen superb content come from unexpected sources.

    • Hi Tristan,

      I agree that it’s an exciting time for technical communicators, finding the optimal set of strategies between professionally developed content and user-generated content.

      I also enjoyed Sarah’s pointer to your excellent post, “Prepare for the Coming Judgment,” which describes how Symantec places all the doc online and is in the process of measuring each topic’s impact.

      I see this as a wonderful opportunity to use a keyword glossary and target consistent keywords, in coordination with marketing’s efforts.

      If technical communication can start to drive traffic to the web site, then it’s a way to better quantify our impact on the bottom line. It’s also a way to bring the disciplines together, working toward a unified content strategy.

      I encourage readers to check out your post:

      Thanks again for dropping by…


  2. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks so much again, for this insightful post, and for your views on the benefits and challenges that user-generated content poses to technical communicators.

    Like Tristan, I believe there is a real opportunity finding the optimal set of strategies, which serve our customers best, while still positively impacting the bottom line, through a combination of core professional content and user-generated content.

    I noted in the post when you stated some content lends itself better to having a professional writer at the helm, including conceptual content, installation, and configuration information.

    In your book Technical Writing 101, your chapter on “Integrating Web 2.0 and user assistance” does an especially nice job expanding on the advantages and disadvantages of Web 2.0 content, further exploring where professional technical communicators are most valuable.

    Here are additional thoughts on your book,
    Technical Writing 101, co-authored with Alan S. Pringle:

    I encourage readers who are interested in Technical Writing 2.0 to check out your book and content strategy resources.

    Thanks again, for your insights here.

  3. Pingback: The Role of the Gatekeeper | I'd Rather Be Writing

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