Three Roles for Technical Communicators on the Social Web

In her recent presentation, “Strategies for the Social Web for Documentation,” sponsored by the STC Education Department, Anne Gentle described three possible roles for technical communicators, on the social web.

  • Reporter/Observer
  • Enabler/Sharer
  • Collaborator/Instigator

Reporter/Observer Role

In the Reporter/Observer role, technical communicators use tools like Google Alerts, blog-only searches (via Technorati and Google Blogs), and Delicious to listen to conversations on the social web. They then aggregate information and curate content from users.

Enabler/Sharer Role

In the Enabler role, technical communicators enable comments and conversation through their user assistance deliverables. In the Sharer role, technical communicators share content through linking and syndication.

Enabling commentsJS Kit ECHO embeds the comment form on web pages and stores comments locally.
Enabling conversationsDISQUS – Hosted comments provide threaded conversations and moderation features.
Sharing Role: Linking.
AddThis – Register on the site, embed the code, and configure the sites, on which your users can share content.
TweetMeme– Add a retweet button to any web page.
Sharing Role: Syndicating Content. Offer users notifications of content updates. Embed content from RSS feeds.

Collaborator/Instigator Role

For the Collaborator/Instigator role, Gentle advises applying best practices from Social CRM to identify your organization’s influencers. She also advises thinking of your alignment in the organization. What corporate objectives does the technical documentation support?

  • Marketing & Sales – purchasing decisions
  • Service & Support – notifications, sharing, reciprocity, reputation
  • Invention & Development – users sharing ideas
  • Collaboration – shared goals, shared tasks
  • Customer Experience – convert prospects to customers
  • Learning & Education – study groups

Are You An Instigator or Enabler of Conversation?

In her book Conversation and Community:  The Social Web for Documentation, Gentle explores these themes in greater detail, in the chapter, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web.” In that chapter, Gentle refers to a post from the Web Worker Daily site, in which Anne Zelenka discusses the information age, versus the connectivity age.

Gentle expands on Zelenka’s post, with the following question for technical communicators: “Are you an information worker or a connection worker, and does your corporate culture support you more in one model or another?” (p. 72).

Gentle defines the instigator of conversation versus the enabler of conversation, in these ways:

An instigator provides a starting point for a conversation, perhaps by communicating a controversial decision or a highly debated strategic choice. A writer in an instigator role should know customers’ business needs and be well-connected with those he or she plans to talk to online.

An enabler of conversation understands the underlying concepts of a product or service well enough to help others understand those concepts as well. An enabler gives a community the authority to make decisions or provides patterns that help a community develop and grow. (p. 73)

“Whether you’re an instigator or enabler, you can repeatedly gather knowledge from communities and conversation, then bring it back and incorporate what you’ve learned into the documentation,” Gentle concludes.

What’s Your Business Goal?

In summary, what business objectives does the technical documentation serve in your culture?  Where is your natural alignment in the organization? Are you more of an instigator or enabler of conversation? What role on the social web—reporter/observer, enabler/sharer, or collaborator/instigator—best supports your company’s business goals for the technical documentation?

For me, these questions are among the most important take-aways from Gentle’s STC presentation and book.  The answer to these questions are probably at least as important as the answers to the traditional audience analysis questions, which technical writers are trained to always ask.  And the answers about business objectives for technical documentation are as diverse, as each of our organizations. The cross-disciplinary and often inconsistent objectives for technical documentation (across various corporate cultures) remains the greatest ongoing challenge for positioning the technical communication discipline for the future, on the social web, or otherwise. The diversity of business goals that technical documentation deliverables support is simultaneously technical communicators’ greatest business opportunity.

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6 thoughts on “Three Roles for Technical Communicators on the Social Web

  1. Thanks for this concise and useful summary, Peg. One of Anne’s (many) great contributions is making technical communicators aware of the possibilities that exist. By combining the new tools with the skills we already have, we’re positioned to make a valuable and unique contribution.

    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks for stopping by. I totally agree that we have the skills and enjoyed learning during Anne’s presentation that Josh Bernoff was formerly a technical writer. Anne pointed out that Bernoff mentioned technical writers as having a unique place supporting the groundswell. (I missed that reference to tech writers in Groundswell and will have to track it down.)

      What I liked most about Anne’s presentation were the questions she posed, as far as asking ourselves how our skills and existing deliverables align in our various organizations. Aligning ourselves with the right business objectives (different in most organizations I’ve worked at ) is key to how we approach getting involved, especially on the social web. I don’t hear technical writers often talk about what business objectives their deliverables support, and I think the importance of Gentle’s recommendation can’t be stressed enough.

      Thanks, again, for stopping by Larry. Anne’s questions reinforce very well your recent post, on What Is Our Value Proposition:


  2. Hallo Peg
    Thank you so much for this great post, and thank you to Anne too. It has crystalised some thoughts that have been going round my head, and helps to explain the conflicts of interest we tech writers are having to deal with more and more. Often, the point is that the documentation has to meet more than one business need. And often the various stakeholders don’t know about each other’s needs, thus leading to conflicts. So what your post has made clear to me is that it’s up to us to ask the questions, formulate the answers, let all stakeholders know and then base our documentation design on the collective decisions. Thanks again for a great post!
    Cheers, Sarah

  3. Hi Sarah,

    Your point about the various stakeholders being unaware (or sometimes I might add, being just unappreciative ) of each others’ objectives is so on the mark. It is up to the technical communicator to advocate for all these competing business objectives, which often converge in the technical documentation. We bring the holistic vision and balance, which I believe are the greatest value propositions of our content and discipline.

    Thanks, Sarah, as always, for adding your thoughtful insights.


  4. Thank you so much for this post! Gentle’s book is really a call to arms for tech comms to advocate for all of the new opportunities which online documentation holds for businesses. We tech comms are right in the thick of the budding realm that is social-oriented technical documentation and must continue stepping up to the plate!

    This article by the CEO of MindTouch has some astounding stats about how documentation strategy, if actualized, can mean big things for companies:

    • Hi Liz,

      Thanks for dropping by and pointing out the Forbes article, on the Evolution of the User Manual. Some great points about why doc is much more than just about lowering support costs…These days, it also drives revene.


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