Monday, October 25, 2010

content strategy = speaking prose?

"Good Heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it."
Monsieur Jourdan in Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme by Moliere

These days, the tech comm blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the social media conversation is all about content strategy. All the buzz got me wondering how content strategy fits in with my day to day work as a freelance contract tech writer. Thus far, most clients have hired me to document specific features or modify legacy content to fit in with their documentation conventions and tools. Where does strategizing come in? Furthermore, how do I jump aboard the content strategy bandwagon? What the heck do I know about content strategy?

In talking with a former co-worker recently, I suddenly felt exactly like Monsieur Jourdan in Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme. I've been speaking content strategy for years without knowing it!

As documentation manager for several start ups over my career, I have had to plan the creation and delivery of content for new products. I asked myself these questions for the company as a whole, the product, and the individual documents:
  • Who is the audience and what do they need to know to use this product to do their jobs?
  • How do we create the content and manage it?
  • How do we distribute the content to the audience?
  • What about feedback from the audience? How do we get it? What do we do with it?
Amazingly enough, these same questions, with a little tweaking, apply to web site content strategy.


You still have multiple audiences looking for exactly the information they need. In olden times, I used to divide the audiences for, let's say a platform (hardware, operating system, and applications), at the highest level into: people who buy the equipment, people who install and manage the equipment, people who install and manage the software, and people who use the applications to do their jobs. All those groups had different information needs. Content strategists for the web need to think about the same kinds of things. No matter what the application is, there are still people whose relationship to it requires different information. The software developer who is creating his application based on your API needs to know details of the programming interface. Other folks at his company need information on cost, digital rights, market penetration, and so on. The content strategist must make sure that all of those audiences can find what they need.

Content Creation and Management

You still have content creation and management to worry about. Who is going to create the content? The developers? A team of tech writers? The customers? A third party? You get the idea. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away I pioneered customer generated content, third party documentation, and content curation in the doc set for our platform.

Content Curation
Our product included a UNIX platform and our customers were mostly scientists who programmed in FORTRAN. So for example, rather than writing a UNIX tutorial, I selected the best available published book to ship with our UNIX platform. I did the same thing for the FORTRAN compiler. Why use my valuable resources to document FORTRAN when there were excellent books on FORTRAN?

User-Generated Content
Likewise, I engaged one of our early customers who was interfacing their own data acquisition devices to our platform to provide content about that because other customers were about to do what they had already done. My strategy had to accommodate incorporating their content into the overall doc set.

Third Party Documentation
In addition to buying off the shelf books, we also engaged a contractor to develop documents about various UNIX utilities. They were responsible for the production of finished books or booklets, which they could then sell to other clients in addition to us.

Content Management
The big difference here is that where we could use a standard source control tool like SCCS to manage revisions and versioning and the Bill of Materials to manage what went into the box with the hardware, these days the content is broken into hundreds of small pieces that need to be configured for various types of output. Then we worried about help files and printed books, now we have to worry about web site content, maybe embedded help, mobile content, collaborative content like wikis, and maybe even PDF. The tools are more complicated, but it's still content management.


In addition to the output issues I mentioned above, today's content strategists also have to worry about free vs. paid content, open vs. proprietary content, and sometimes restricting content to paying customers. Click on the support tab of just about any major hardware/software provider and you'll see that some restrict access to the user documentation and some don't. Your content strategy needs to address those considerations up front.


Audience feedback has always been key to great documentation. The wonderful thing about social media is that it makes it a whole lot easier to get that feedback. Where once you had prepaid mailer reader comment forms in the back of paper books, annual or semi-annual user group meetings, Usenet newsgroups, and customer site visits, now you can get instant feedback via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of similar tools. Today's content strategist must integrate all these channels and have a plan for acting on the feedback.


I have been speaking prose for the entire play.

Monday, October 18, 2010

round 2: where the job tweets are

I repeated Thursday's experiment this evening, this time using #techcomm AND job. This got 9 hits. All tweets were dated between today and October 11. No earlier tweets were available.

Only 2 of the tweets were actual job postings. Both of those were for the same job, located in Houston, Texas.

Also of interest, although not job postings, were:

Searching on #techcomm AND #jobs yielded only the 2 postings for the Houston job mentioned above.

The next thing I tried was "technical writer" AND #jobs. That one seems to be the mother lode. 500 hits! That's a bit much to analyze manually, so I tried the search using The Archivist, which not only allows you to export to an Excel spreadsheet but does some interesting visualizations on the data. I made my search archive public so I could link to it here: Archive on "technical writer" #jobs Containing 500 Tweets:

Alas, the visualizations don't include location. The data exported to Excel includes latitude and longitude of the tweet, which isn't necessarily the latitude and longitude of the job, so I'm not sure it's worth my trying to figure out how to get Excel to translate the coordinates to a map location. Instead, I read the text of each tweet and identified the ones that specified a location, entered the location in a spreadsheet, and made the bar chart shown above. The top three locations were California with 13, Maryland with 8, and North Carolina with 6. So, for today, where the tech writer job tweets are is California.

I need to work on automating the location data. This is a work in progress.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

where the tech writer job tweets are

Read this great story at AvidCareerist about a guy who used Twitter to find his wife a job. I immediately open TweetDeck and add a column for search on "technical writer" AND job AND Boston. Unsurprisingly, it gets zero results.

So, I thought I'd see where the tech writer job tweets are. I dropped the AND Boston qualifier and got 21 hits. One of those was not a job posting but simply somebody mentioning that technical writer was her night job. Of the rest, 10 were the same job tweeted by different job boards with different hashtags and no location specified. The following locations had one job each:

  • Chicago

  • Richmond, VA

  • Qatar

  • Dorset, England

  • Yaphank, NY

  • Iowa (unspecified city) -- same job tweeted by two different job boards

  • Atlanta -- same job tweeted by two different job boards

  • Columbus, Indiana

  • San Francisco

The most recent tweet was yesterday and the oldest was Thursday, October 7, basically a week's worth of tech writer job tweets. That's clearly not enough data to conclude anything at all about where the jobs are, but it is still an interesting snapshot.

By the way, "tech writer" and "technical communicator" both yielded zero results and "content strategist" yielded 5.

Have you got a story about how you found your tech writing job using Twitter? Please share with us in the comments section.

Friday, October 1, 2010

context and the death metaphor

It's hard to understand context in a 140 character tweet. It's also hard to understand context in a tweet stream from an event if you're not physically at the event. I'm not sure that even if I had been at Lavacon, I would have understood this tweet:
"Silence = death: If you’re silent about this (social networking), then you’re not going to be in the conversation."
Silence = Death is a little extreme to apply to being left out of the social networking conversation. As someone who lost a loved one to the AIDS epidemic back in the days when the Silence=Death campaign was talking about actual death I was taken aback by this usage.

While I gathered from the Lavacon tweet stream that the speaker used the AIDS metaphor intentionally and that his T-shirt was in fact modeled on the Act Up design, there was nothing in the tweet stream that explained why. How is the rush to social networking like the AIDS epidemic?

What conversation are we talking about here? Are we talking about the conversation inside enterprises about content strategy? Probably the worst thing that will happen to technical communications managers who stay out of the corporate conversation about content strategy and social media is that they'll lose their jobs. That's unfortunate, but it's not death from a horrifying disease.

There has to be a better way to communicate the urgency of getting technical communicators in on the conversation than trivializing an epidemic that is still killing people in Africa. There just has to be.

what's a conversation?

This posting I read on Mashable the day before yesterday has gotten me thinking about what conversation means in the social media space: Most Tweets Produce Zero Replies or Retweets. If somebody tweets and nobody replies or retweets, does that really mean it "fell on deaf ears" as the article claims? Many Twitter users are not looking for replies.

Twitter seems to me more like a broadcast medium with the ability to talk back in real time -- kinda like talk radio but without the screening and filtering. If I listen to On Point and don't call in, that does not mean I didn't hear what Tom Ashbrook and his guests said. Same thing with Twitter. I may want to know what the soup of the day is at Life Alive so I can plan my lunch hour. Therefore, I follow Life Alive on Twitter. If I then go to Life Alive for lunch instead of say, Athenian Corner, because of their tweet that's neither a retweet nor a reply on Twitter but it's surely part of a conversation in the real world.

What's a conversation? Since we're discussing social media here, let's consider the definition in Wikipedia:
"A conversation is communication between multiple people. It is a social skill that is not difficult for most individuals. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from each other. ..."
Leaving aside the grammatical question of between vs. among, does communication happen if one person broadcasts to many, but none of the many respond? Is some degree of reciprocal communication necessary in order to call something a conversation? Maybe. Maybe not. I put information, opinions, and observations out into the Twitter stream and I take in the same types of things from the Twitter stream, but most of what I take in is not necessarily responsive to what I put out except for an occasional reply. There's some exchange taking place. I'm just not sure if that's a conversation.

One of the themes that pops up more and more often in technical communication circles is how we need to be in on the social media conversation. What is this "conversation" we're going to be left out of if we don't get on the social media bandwagon? The secret to great technical writing/documentation has always been and still is knowing who the audience is and how they use the content to do their jobs/tasks/whatever. Interactive media is certainly better for getting at that kind of audience knowledge than old fashioned tear-out reader comment forms at the back of a paper manual. Nobody can argue with that. Is it better than meeting face to face with your users at a user group meeting or a visit to their business? Maybe it is. We can certainly connect with a broader part of the user base using Twitter and Facebook and corporate blogs and wikis than we could face to face. We can't personally meet every user, but we can find out what they're thinking via social media.

So, back to the Mashable post that triggered these thoughts. Why do so few people reply to tweets and/or retweet them? Maybe bursts of 140 characters just aren't enough for the thoughts and reactions readers may have to tweets. Maybe it's hard to keep track of the context. Maybe the tweets just aren't interesting or discussion-provoking.

As I was checking out the Twitter stream from #lavacon today, I was struck by how little context there is for a given tweet from an event even when there's a hash tag and multiple tweets. The lack of context can create confusion. For example, one tweet read
“It doesn’t matter what I think or say. It matters what everyone else thinks and says.”
What's that about? To whom do his thoughts and words not matter? His audience? Himself? Is he saying that there are no experts anymore and all that matters is crowdsourcing? Or is he only saying that he's not an expert? Or something else entirely? Because I'm not at #lavacon and only following it via tweets, I have no idea what the context of that quotation is. Were I present at #lavacon I might have been able to have a conversation about that thought with the speaker or with other attendees, but it makes no sense to do that on Twitter.

Whatever the social media conversation is, it is just beginning and we all need to fumble around trying to get the hang of it for awhile longer.