Engaging with Technical Content on the Social Web

By Anne Gentle, author of Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation

Social media, social networking, and social relevance, these are three major categories of efforts on the social web. Social media uses words, pictures, videos, and sharing to communicate information through social interaction, typically most disruptive to publishing and journalism. Social networking is found on sites where people connections are as important or more important than the content itself, though they also enable content sharing. Social relevance is
when a brand or identity creates connections between individuals and a business, brand, or organization. All three of these social web categories (media, networking, relevance) create an experience with the social web. All three involve conversation and community, which led me to title my book about the social web for documentation with these two important keys.

How can we, as technical communicators, work within the social web to create great content experiences? I believe you can plan a social strategy around your content in three basic steps, each increasing in difficulty and investment:

•Gather and analyze data
•Enable sharing
•Collaborate freely

Step one is repeating a “first, listen” mantra – by getting to know the audiences and listening to what they are already saying on the social web, using social networking sites, you can build a better plan for tailoring the experience to their needs. People give away a lot of information on LinkedIn as professionals, how can you get to know your readers better there? You can look for job descriptions and job tasks that match your target audience and also build personas – detailed
descriptions of the people you’re writing for – using social networking sites. You can also enable comments on a documentation site to get feedback and work the comment moderation into your publishing process.

Step two involves taking what you learned by getting to know your readers to find out where they already share content and ensuring they can share their content with each other. You can enable both conversation and community or just conversation. Your analysis phase should tell you where your readers are already experiencing a social network or engaging with social media.

Step three, collaborate freely, is the most deep involvement and investment that you can make to engage your audience with the technical content you produce – either on your own, with a team, or with an entire community team dedicated to writing technical documentation. This level of engagement is where I work now with OpenStack, an open source cloud computing project. My employer, Rackspace, believes in the power of community merging with powerful technical documentation to help everyone use and run open source clouds for computing, storage, or networking.

You may be wondering, where could I begin to get involved with these techniques? I’d recommend you analyze first by learning not only about your audience but also realizing what goals the business would have for your technical content. Are the goals based in offering an easy, painless support experience? Or perhaps you know your business highly values educational content and you align with providing technical training materials. Or, do your goals hinge on the ability to generate leads and give pre-sales the best technical edge they can have with a wide variety of customers? With any of these goals in mind as a top priority, use the three steps above to start down the path of participating on the social web.

About the author:
Anne Gentle is the fanatical technical writer and community documentation coordinator at Rackspace for OpenStack, an open source cloud computing project. Her enthusiasm for community methods prompted her to write Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation.