Finding and following conversations – applicable for technical writers?

Bryan has the following ideas for finding and following conversations, and I think these are quite applicable to our role as technical writer also. The only item I find wanting in his post is – what keywords do you use? My initial ideas are: product name, keywords for the problems and solutions that your product addresses, and company name. Perhaps even the job titles for people who use your product like I’ve blogged about previously.

Finding and following conversations

  1. Search on Google Blog Search
  2. Search on Technorati
  3. Use an RSS reader such as Google Reader
  4. Start subscribing and listening to podcasts through iTunes
  5. Subscribe to Google Alerts
  6. Reading blog comments
  7. Jump onto Twitter and establish a presence in Facebook

I found an excellent case study of technical writers engaging in conversation through Dee Elling, who is the tech pubs manager for a programmer’s IDE. She has a blog post called Help on Help where she gets lots of comments from users – some of whom are in her camp, others who are ready to go to battle for the help content, namely the code examples that had mysteriously disappeared between releases.

Dee answers honestly and really empathizes with their need for those examples, and has a plan in place for replacing them. Her blog post is a great case study for how to have ongoing conversations with your customers.

I’ve been thinking about the writer’s interaction with customers a lot lately, because of blogging and podcasting and wikis other social media pursuits that seem to lead us towards documentation as a conversation with customers. As Tom Johnson found in his Web 2.0 experiment, some users think that the help system has boundaries. How can we break down those boundaries (seems like search is part of the answer)? How could Tom have ensured that his customer sought out conversation rather than answers?

8 Comments

  • May 22, 2008 - 7:11 pm | Permalink

    All good ideas, and I’ll add a combination of #1 and #7 – search people’s Twitter comments ( I use http://summize.com but there are lots of others out there). Works well for many topics ( but you’ll need to add a -teese when searching for Dita…

    I find it interesting because people are more likely to say positive things in Tweets, unlike forums where people tend to ask technical questions or discuss problems. Comments like “Loving Oxygen 9.2 DITA support. almost renders XMetaL obsolete.”

    David – @seemsArtless on Twitter

  • Cat
    May 22, 2008 - 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Interesting listen, thanks.

    Takes me right back to the relinquishing control post. In the end, I still feel like we have to pull along most of the people with whom I most want to dialog.

    At work, we introduced blogumentation with our new release this week. It’s basically an online What’s New, with embedded video and all (www.cocreate2008.com –it’s way cool).

    We put it on a blog engine. It was great for transparency and interaction during development. But by release we had to disable comments and give up most of our visions of having a real conversation with customers via the blog. Largely because I failed to spread the vision convincingly. Or maybe the time just isn’t right yet.

    It all begs another question: How visionary should technical writers be? How far in the future do we really want to look? Are we helping? Or are we just annoying our bosses because we always want to do the next big thing?

    Okay. I’ll shut up. Just remember, I ramble because you get me thinking :)

  • May 24, 2008 - 2:30 pm | Permalink

    @seemsArtless – great Twitter handle! I think you’re right about “hearing” a more positive vibe on Twitter than other forums (fora?) I have heard that PR folks have actual negative/positive scales for measuring the “temp” of a brand on the web, I wonder if they’re seeing that in hard data. Fascinating.

    @Cat – I love hearing what you’re up to – or up against? :) Your cocreate2008.com IS way cool. I’d love to hear more about its goals and what community surrounds it? You might just need the right community convinced? :)

  • Cat Mc
    May 25, 2008 - 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Tell me more about what you mean by convincing the right community.

    The site met a lot of goals. We made learning What’s New like watching TV. As such, we engaged internal audiences and beta customers who in the past had been too busy or detached to participate in development. Comments made feedback quick and specific.

    The whole company rallied around the project. Marketing added the Flash banner, and promoted it in release announcements. Documentation actually became a focal point of the release.

    All very good.

    But I also had a larger vision: a feature description should be interesting and digestable. Then comments would include voices of Support, R&D, VCs, and eventually customers, providing think pieces, corner case details, ideas about how a specific customer might use a feature, etc.

    That’s where I failed. Nobody quite got why I wouldn’t just add more documentation. And I don’t quite get why they couldn’t see it.

    Hm. Writing this has given me some ideas. But I’d like to know how you handle adoption issues like these too.

    BTW, even though I whine about adoption, we’re not terribly stuck. We’re thinking about a wiki for a project. And the new owners, PTC, are all about DITA, as you might guess.

  • May 27, 2008 - 7:35 am | Permalink

    I guess I am thinking of the 90-9-1 rule from Jakob Nielson (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html – Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute) that in any online community, you’re likely to have 90% “lurkers” (readers who read but don’t participate), 9% part-time contributors, and 1% of users account for most of the contributions. You can try to shift those numbers slightly in your favor… see http://www.wikipatterns.com/display/wikipatterns/90-9-1+Theory for examples.

    All that to say, your online community may already have 1% participation and if so, you’re doing well… and really, from what you describe, you’re doing great! Getting those corner cases, nice thought-piece articles, that’ll come with time I bet!

  • catmc
    May 27, 2008 - 9:18 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t familiar with the 90-9-1 theory. Thanks for the link. I think there’s some things in there I can use for the next release!

  • March 8, 2009 - 7:10 am | Permalink

    excellent article for writing aficionados. really useful.

  • March 1, 2010 - 4:16 pm | Permalink

    But how does this mesh with the fact that more and more conversations are becoming condensed into “streams” of information such as twitter, facebook feed, etc? As our conversations become decentralized and liquefied these techniques will change. Pages like http://www.mocospace.com/music will be replaced by multimedia funnels like google buzz.

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