Social Media Technical Communication: Developing Audience-Centered Content

In the March 2009 Intercom issue (the magazine for the Society for Technical Communication), Rich Maggiani describes social media as “all about community by engaging people through interactions and conversations around a shared goal” (p. 20). He goes on to propose a new model for technical communication, known as– “social media technical communication” (p. 19, Technical Communication in a Social Media World).

Before describing this new model, Maggiani traces the traditional process for delivering technical documentation and other user assistance deliverables. This traditional process usually consists of interviewing, writing, and designing.

During this process, technical communicators do not usually directly speak to the client. Instead, technical communicators complete deliverables “based on information from the project manager and subject matter experts.”

From there, the project manager usually delivers “content to the client, fields comments from the project administrators, and reports these comments back” to technical communicators. Throughout the documentation’s development, technical communicators remain behind the “corporate veil”  (p. 19).

Through social media, technical communicators are moving from a standard one-to-many communication, to a many-to-many communication, where the content becomes a “collaborative effort, combining the knowledge of all participants” (p. 20). In this model, the technical communicator is no longer hidden behind the corporate veil. Instead, technical communicators are on the frontline, providing “content for collaboration, not just consumption”, as both the content expert and “the moderator for soliciting, interacting, and gathering comments and reactions from engaged users in short, fluid cycles (not disengaged, unknown users)” (p. 19).

Maggiano encourages technical communicators to start using social media tools to moderate these types of customer interactions:

  • Blogs:  Creates an opportunity for all customers (internal and external) to comment on whatever is posted.
  • Forums:  Can maintain a number of different threads on various topics, with the community able to quickly read past comments and post their thoughts.
  • Wikis:  Provides technical communicators a place to to capture, maintain, and manage collective knowledge, while allowing the community to rewrite it.
  • Mini Social Networks:  Captures “the essence of the community members and their backgrounds and expertise.”

As technical communicators, we are uniquely poised to expand our existing skill set, creating the initial content for collaboration (as we always do), and then “managing, collecting, evaluating, and including the most relevant comments and feedback” from our customers, on the variety of social media platforms we are moderating.

This process is really how we already incorporate comments and feedback from our internal content reviewers. With social media, the notable difference is we are using new tools (something technical communicators already know how to leverage quite effectively) and collaborating with our customers first-hand, rather than the customer surrogates and product specialists (product management, marketing, sales, engineering, quality assurance, and customer support) who technical communicators ordinarily rely on for the audience and product information we are already responsible for integrating.

Do you have any examples of successful social media technical communication? What other ways can we collaborate more closely with our intended customers or customer liaisons? What obstacles do you see?

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