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Marketing Yourself and Your Experience to Others in a Web 2.0 World

Jun 2, 2008 • general

I'm excited about a panel that I'm going to be on with Scott Abel, Rahel Bailie, Chris Hester, and Ann Rockley tomorrow afternoon at the STC Conference in Philadelphia.

The panel is titled "Evangelizing, Proselytizing, and Preaching: Strategies for Marketing Yourself and Your Expertise To Others." That's a mouthful. In simpler terms, we'll be talking about how to market yourself in a web 2.0 world.

At first I didn't think I had much to say about this topic. After all, it has the M word in there ("marketing"), and the last thing I consider myself is any kind of marketer (disgusting) doing any kind of marketing (repulsive). But when I changed the terms a bit to "influencer" (while talking to Chris tonight), it made everything come into focus. And I suddenly realized that I'm the perfect person for this panel.

Since only a small selection of my readers can actually attend the panel (and because recording STC sessions is prohibited), I've posted my panel notes below.

1) How can an employee at a company that wants to move to XML structured authoring become the domain expert in the company? What marketing tactics might they use to position themselves as the expert in the field?

First, as I indicated earlier, I dislike the term marketing. I don't think of myself as a “marketer” or as someone who is engaged in marketing. I prefer to think of myself as an influencer.

But how can you transform yourself from the lowly technical writer who sits in a cube all day to a domain expert? Or into key influencer on the project team?

First, you need to get a foot in the door. Let your project team know that, for the user documentation, you need to be kept in the loop of anything related to application functionality or the user interface. Make sure you insert yourself into the right meetings and get on the right email loops -- under the guise of staying updated.

But instead of just absorbing information in these meetings or email threads, speak up and demonstrate your domain expertise by offering suggestions, analysis, and other insights into the problems the team is trying to solve. If you're really a domain expert, it will show.

If you have access to a corporate blog (for example, a SharePoint blog or other space), use that and promote it as much as you can in your company. Share your domain knowledge through this publishing space. The more information you share, the more others will see you as the go-to person for information on this topic.

But even if you don't have aspirations to become a domain expert, you can still transform from tech writer to key project influencer by becoming a user expert. Your largest leverage point is your knowledge of users. The more you know about your users — their complaints, the features they want, the feedback they're giving, their profiles and habits — the more influence you have on product design. User knowledge transforms you into a key influencer on the product team.

Without this knowledge of your users, you're only an absorber of information. But if you're dripping with user knowledge, it can make you one of the most valuable players on the team. Many of the priorities that developers work on for the products I document are priorities based on the user feedback I've given them (much of which I gathered while giving training and interacting with users). The project team often turns to me and asks what the users want or what they're saying about such and such feature. I love that focus.

2) What can an employee of a company do outside of their company firewall to promote themselves as an expert -- and why would this matter to others with whom they work?

Outside of a company, you have access to a TON of web 2.0 tools — blogs, twitter, video, Flickr, Second Life, and more. But before you jump into these tools, you have to think about your purposes and the audience you're trying to win over.

Your web 2.0 endeavors won't do much good if they don't reach your audience. Is your audience other technical writers? Great. Is it companies looking to hire contract technical writers? Fine. If you're trying to market yourself, your content needs to attract that audience.

Once you establish the audience and the content that appeals to them, you need to pump out valuable information in a prolific way. For example, you don't increase your visibility by blogging once a week or even twice a week. If you're planning to really crank up your visibility and promote yourself as an expert, blog as much as you can (e.g., daily) about the topic you want to promote yourself as an expert in.

Blogging prolifically comes naturally if you're 100% engaged in what you're passionate about. If you're trying to promote yourself as an expert in XML, immerse yourself in journal articles, books, other blogs, podcasts, email lists, and any other content on XML. Write about what you're reading. Reflect, analyze, and apply your knowledge.

You'll have plenty to blog about, and the more you blog about the topic, the more you'll teach Google to find you in search results. Those searching for information on that topic will naturally be drawn to you, recognizing you as an expert and potentially hiring you. You will saturate Google.

One key technique to increasing your visibility is to search-engine-optimize your posts. People find you through keyword searches in Google. I didn't really believe this until I started watching my readers via Woopra. 65% of my visitors find me through Google. Those posts I've purposely optimized rise to the top. Stack your keywords at the beginning of your title and at the beginning of the first paragraph. Think like a searcher and the keywords will naturally come to you.

3) What things can a technical communicator do who wants to prepare themselves to leave their employer and become a consultant or self-employed?

If you want to leave your employer and become self-employed, I think you have to do more than simply blog. You have to do something that catches the attention of your audience in a major way. One web design company does this extremely well: Headscape. Paul Boag and his colleague Marcus Lillington have a popular podcast called Boagworld.com that has thousands of listeners. It's a marketing vehicle that promotes their company (Headscape) by branding them as experts and attracting new clients.

Even my little podcast, Tech Writer Voices, has made a sizable impact on the technical writing community for me. It has allowed me to make connections with hundreds of people. Each week about a 700 people download podcasts I've recorded. In May I had 4,000 downloads. That's a lot of reach, and it's a reach that's more personal and powerful than merely writing a blog. Wherever I go at this conference -- each hall, room, or back alley -- I run into someone I know through either my blog, podcast, or Twitter.

Still, despite the effectiveness of my podcast, if I wanted to increase my reach, I could make it a lot more informative. I could make it entertaining, like This American Life. Ira Glass interweaves interviews with an in-depth exploration of a theme.

I could prepare all the content myself and relay it like Jason Van Orden does with the Podcasting Underground. His podcast on podcasting helped him promote himself as the go-to guy for podcasting. He wrote a book, created a course, and provided other peripherals.

Or I could focus the podcast on a topic that there's not too much info about (e.g., DITA, or breaking into technical writing). I could provide insights, tips, and tricks on this topic on a weekly basis, and then promote peripherals through the podcast — a book, course, CDS, and consulting services.

Another approach to increase your reach is to do a roundtable similar to Leo Laporte's This Week in Tech, which presents and discusses the latest tech news. This roundtable format works exceptionally well. About four guys go on Skype and discuss the latest tech news. If you have some disagreement, it makes for a really engaging, entertaining show. If you were to create the same show on a topic you're trying to promote yourself as an expert in, it would brand you as an expert.

Conclusion

Any time you provide a lot of valuable information, you're going to attract an audience. And you can sell that audience something. The cool thing about blogs, podcasts, and other Web 2.0 marketing vehicles is that it isn't conscious marketing. You're unconsciously marketing yourself, building networks, and increasing your potential client reach -- all without really thinking you're doing any of it.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.