Examples of content providers blogging for customers

Sarah O’Keefe wrote up a nice summary of the WritersUA Pundits Panel, and Bogo Vatovec (of Bovacon)  made a statement something like this:

Introverted technical writers will not be writing help any more and will be replaced with experts moderating support forums. … Technical writers can no longer afford to hide in their cubes, they must go out and become experts and talk to the users.

I left a comment on her post that I see a similar future for our profession, although I do not have a value placed on introversion versus extroversion – likely introverts make perfectly good community managers and forum moderators since they can do that from their desks for the most part.

But, it does take some bravery to put your real personality online. I’ve found that a few of us are doing that – going from technical writer to blogger writing directly to customers.

While many of us blog to an audience of other professional writers, there are technical writers out there who are blogging to their end-user audience. Here are two examples:

  • Another example is Dee Elling’s blog for CodeGear users. This entry offers a great example of a real conversation with customers. I applaud her bravery (and emailed her to tell her) in facing these sometimes abrasive responses with a sense of customer service and helpful attitude. She doesn’t always have a good message to bring (they are working furiously to give their customers more code examples which we all know is time-consuming and difficult). But she brings a message directly to customers anyway.

Is anyone else talking directly to their customer base with their blog? Consultants in technical writing and content management are definitely talking to current and potential clients – Palimpsest is Scriptorium’s blog, The Rockley Blog, The Content Wrangler, and DMN Communications to name a few. But what about conversations with end users? I’d love to see more examples.


  • March 26, 2008 - 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Bogo’s position seems too extreme to me. My experience is that customers don’t write help hardly at all. Forums are great, sure, for specific technical questions. But every software application needs a comprehensive help file. Can you imagine if AuthorIt or some other software company released a product and said hey, here it is, write the help yourselves?

    Yahoo somewhat did this with Yahoo Pipes, and the result was that hardly anyone knew how to use it. I certainly struggle still. Now I think they have help, but releasing a product without help soured me towards them.

    My experience with wikis is that only 1% of customers write anything, and it’s usually a light edit. Can you convince me that wikis and customer-driven help will ever be a reality?

  • March 26, 2008 - 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Frankly I think it’s naive to think that anymore than the usual low percentage of contributors will be interested in writing anything. It’s the same in any online community, regardless of the mechanism.

    However that doesn’t mean the user-generated content won’t be a reality (already is in some places) but it will need to be backed up by professional technical writers.

    As for the blurring of technical writers/support… well I’ve covered that already

  • March 26, 2008 - 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree, it takes a certain amount of bravery (or a lack of other easier jobs to apply for? ;-)) to put your personality (including a photo!) online. Those dreams you may have had of walking naked through your office? This puts a whole new spin on that nightmare, trust me.

    I’ve been answering forum posts from the customers for the company I work for since we took the product open source late last year. When the project is open source, it really takes a team of people to answer the questions, but technical writers who’ve worked with and documented the product can comfortably contribute answers to customers about basic usability issues, use cases, how-tos, and more. It’s painful and sometimes a little frightening, but with a good team of folks, it works pretty well.

    Here’s the cool part though … and no one ever tells you this. I’ve heard it said that the customer will (not may-will) put the product to use in ways that you have never thought of, and it’s true! What’s cool about that is that when they do, and they ask questions about it, you have a brand new way of looking at your product, a whole new use case to develop and demonstrate (i.e., ‘document’).

    I don’t disagree in principal with what Tom writes … software products do need supporting materials, but I do believe that the traditional help system will have to change to something very different when:

    1. the product you are documenting is open source, and
    2. the users are developers.

    I’m lucky (well, ‘lucky’ may not be the right word :-)) to be working on a project that is an Eclipse plug-in and with that plug-in, I have built a whole different level of support in executable examples. No, it’s not ‘traditional’ help, although we build that too, but it is not quite surprising that the examples appear to be the first thing developers look to. They LOVE these things because they can see how to build the service, then they can execute it, and see the results. It’s kind of like when you were learning some JavaScript and you could see the script, a description of what it did and how it was constructed, then you got to see the result. That made it much clearer.

    To answer the question about how this will change our practice as writers … honestly, I think the profession of technical writing is on the verge of really big change. To build these examples, I’ve had to understand an open source database (Derby), and design and build SQL statements to load that database, and XML to build the help plug-in … luckily, I’ve had great developers who’ve helped me get it set up and were patient as I’ve asked questions, but once they turned over what they had, it’s been my baby to troubleshoot and support. So, when a customer posts a question on the forum about why this or that example isn’t returning the result they expect, it’s me answering it. I also grab all the easy ones I know the answer to – see some of those at http://www.xaware.org (although I’m not plugging it, really!).

    Hope this helps … let me know.


  • ffeathers
    March 26, 2008 - 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Hallo Anne,

    You’ve raised an interesting and very topical question.

    I do find that customers come to my personal blog site and ask questions directly about the Atlassian products. Some people put their comments on a relevant blog post. Others put a question on the “About Me” page.

    Other bloggers in the company are finding the same thing.

    So why do people choose to post questions on a personal blog site, rather than a support site or the company blog?

    One reason, I think, is that people like to know who they are talking to. It’s even easier for them if the blogger has a profile picture.

    Another reason might be: We all need somewhere to post a “silly question”. It turns out that none of the questions raised are silly – but some people still have a bit of a worry that they might be asking the obvious.

    Yet another reason: Personal blog sites are closely monitored, and response is very quick 🙂


  • Kirsty
    March 26, 2008 - 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Firstly, we’re not currently letting users access and update any wiki or blog with content on it, so I’m not specifically answering the question. Secondly, I can see an issue in some of our market spaces if we did this, because many of our customers do not let their staff have internet access from work (browser access). Or internet access is by dialup (think Siberia, some of the -stans, and Mongolia, but also outback Australia), which makes contributions to blogs and wikis harder, not impossible, but harder.

  • March 26, 2008 - 10:20 pm | Permalink

    This post has a good discussion going. In some ways I’m jealous of those who get to document open source products, and who can put a blog out there on google with as much info as possible about a product. I can’t even talk about some of the projects I’m working on.

    Speaking of forums, do any of you recommend good forum software that runs on IIS servers? I think users are much more comfortable asking questions in a forum setting rather than writing help content on a wiki. But as Virginia said, “the customer will (not may-will) put the product to use in ways that you have never thought of, and it’s true.” I completely agree with this. Just hearing their questions will help us write much more complete documentation. If we can foster a safe place for them to raise these questions, so much the better.

  • March 27, 2008 - 6:58 am | Permalink

    I’m home today with a barfy baby so I’m not going to be able to converse much myself today! But I wanted to say, great discussion, all!

    Tom, I think a forum is a great way to keep in touch with users – doesn’t have to be a wiki to get a conversation started. But sure, certain products don’t lend themselves as well to a conversation – nor do certain corporate cultures. Still, I love your willingness to experiment.

    Gordon, I love your post about those blurring lines.

    Virgina, thanks so much for offering your perspective and great attitude! I especially agree with the sentiment that our career path is dictated by what employers are paying for (to paraphrase). 🙂

    Kirsty, you are pointing out exactly what we’re good at – figuring out the right context for communication and the right match for certain products isn’t an online solution necessarily.

    Sarah, I love that your users find your blog and start asking questions. I have experienced that with ASI and I loved it!

    Anyway, the crayons are losing interest for my son, so I’ll wrap this up. Thanks for the great comments.

  • Dee Elling
    March 27, 2008 - 10:55 am | Permalink

    Great conversation! I also believe that the role of writers will change. We’ll help seed and shape content on wikis. We’ll manage and monitor that content (even Wikipedia has editors). We’ll decide what content gets reused in other deliverables. We’ll have direct relationships with customers. It’s kind of mind-boggling to consider how different this is and will be!

  • March 31, 2008 - 10:46 am | Permalink

    The problem is that documentation time is budgeted for before release, not after. Wikis are one way to bridge the gap between private-before-the-release documentation and public-after-the-release documentation. Good luck getting your boss to pay for your time though.

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