Blogging: A New Role for Technical Communicators

The online transition to web 2.0, with its proliferation of blogs, wikis, podcasts, tweets, and other user-generated content, has posed a question for the state of help content. Should help material concern itself with web 2.0? Do users want to interact and contribute to help content in the same way they contribute and interact with web content? What is the technical writer’s role in relation to new media?

Although it may be early to tell, surely some keeping up with web trends is in order. As such, technical writers have somewhat of a new role to play (or at least to reconcile) in the realm of web 2.0. Of the various new media technologies writers could enter, perhaps none fits so well as the blog, since it consists mainly of writing.

A blog is merely journal-like content that readers can comment on and subscribe to through RSS. Whether marketed as a “blog” or not, the format of the blog is fairly pervasive. At least six types of blogs can be found online:

  • Personal blogs often detail thoughts and stories from regular people about their lives. Example: Whataboutmomblog.com.
  • Professional blogs are the same as personal blogs but focus
    on a professional niche. Example: Gryphon-mountain.net.
  • Internal blogs provide a focal point for teams to discuss and share ideas without worrying about public scrutiny or exposure. Example: SharePoint blogs.
  • Group blogs provide a platform for a group of individuals to share their thoughts. Usually contributors take turns posting. Example: Sciptorium.com/palimpsest.
  • Corporate blogs present a single voice to a company, often commenting on news, issues, and products related to the company. Corporate blogs can also be group blogs. Example: Author-it.com/blog
  • Product blogs provide information about releases, enhancements, development, and other news related to a specific product or set of products. Example: VisualLounge.techsmith.com

The purpose of each blog may be different, but the overall goal is roughly the same: to connect and interact with readers on a more personal level.

Who should blog?

Many times companies designate their marketing departments as the gatekeepers of the blog and relegate technical writers to the realm of procedural, how-to information only. This practice, however, devalues the knowledge and writing abilities of technical communicators.

In the first place, many technical communicators have strong writing backgrounds and often aspire to write novels and pursue other literary endeavors. They usually turn to technical writing as a means of financial sustenance only. For these individuals, the blog format can provide a paradise for their creative side. It can be a format that provides a needed break from procedural writing and gives them the variety they need for a more creatively fulfilling career.

Secondly, technical writers are free from the marketing/business speak that permeates marketing writers. Intimately familiar with the company’s products, technical writers can provide tips, tricks, and other informative insights that many marketing writers aren’t aware of, and they can write it in an honest language void of hype. More informative content written in a refreshingly honest voice better aligns with the purposes for which most people use the Internet: to research, to learn.

Breaking into blogging

Despite the good fit technical communicators have for blogging, it’s still often a struggle to get into the blogging scene. The blog is often a low-value medium for a company. Technical writers may not receive any billable time allocated to write for the blog. Surely spending an entire day on a blog post rather than help material will raise concerns with your manager.

Given a list of priorities, the blog may always be near the bottom of the list. New blogs may need to prove their worth before receiving the proper valuation from corporate CEOs. And technical writers will also have to prove their writing abilities before being taken seriously as contributors or managers of a company blog.

Rewards of blogging

Whatever obstacles you must climb over to get into the blogging scene, the rewards may surprise you. Blogs provide a channel of communication with your users that often didn’t exist before. Blogs give users an opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions, to connect with project teams and other company leaders. This increased communication can lead to better products, more customer loyalty, and increased communication among your own project team members.

Technical writers involved in blogging may find themselves as the comfortable go-to persons for the products they write about — mainly because the result of good blogging is trust. Good writing engenders reader confidence. Readers who feel comfortable with your voice and style will seek you out. They will see your name in the byline and see you as a potential contact. Your voice has become friendly to them, someone they feel they know.

The feedback users provide to you can empower you with valuable knowledge for your project team. If you tap in to a lot of user feedback, project managers will recognize you as a key player in design considerations and prototype reviews.

High-powered visibility

In addition to engendering trust, blogs make your product or company highly visible. If you crank out search-engine-optimized posts on a regular basis, the several hundred posts you accrue in a year can lead to significant returns with Internet search engines. Some companies may pay thousands of dollars for high ranking placement in search engine results, without realizing that blog posts with the right keywords will do more to land them these results than anything else.

Search engine optimization is not a technique for Internet search engines only. In private organizations so large that one department doesn’t know what the other departments do, search engine optimization of Intranet content can be equally beneficial. The posts that live only behind the firewall are still subject to the hundreds of keyword searches company employees make every day.

Starting from ground zero

If you’re like most technical communicators, you may find yourself at a place without any blog at all. Getting a blog started can be an almost impossible task, depending on the size, scope, and audience for your blog. Infrastructure limitations often carve strict requirements about the technologies you can use.

If your infrastructure team supports only Oracle and SQL databases, you can forget about WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, all of which use PHP and MySQL. Other platforms, such SharePoint 2007 or Roller Blogger, may work for your needs, but the easy blog platforms of the web will remain a distant dream.

Not only will you face technology challenges starting a blog, but also challenges of content, because no company CEO will feel comfortable with controversial, transparently written content that doesn’t cast the company in the perfect light. Nor will CEOs welcome with open arms a comments section that angry, upset readers use as space for their complaints.

Especially if you’re in the opening negotiations with senior leaders to implement a blog, you may find yourself stuck between two equally unappealing alternatives: on the one hand, the senior leaders may shoot down and tightly restrict blog content that is too transparent and open. On the other hand, readers who sense nothing more than a marketing brochure online will not come back to your site with any sustained and anticipated interest.

Nevertheless, if you can somehow peel back the corporate curtain and tell an appealing, safe story about products and processes, writing in first person, with an honest voice, employing the language of the web and sharing insights and observations on a personal level, your writing will eventually break through the cracks, like a plant finding its way through the sidewalk to the sun.

Making blog content findable

As soon as you get your blog going, and you accrue not just 20 or 30 posts but hundreds of posts, you will face one of the main frustrations with blogging: making your content findable. Those 700 posts you’ve already written will seem buried and non-existent except for the last ten on the home page. For many readers, the last ten posts on your home page are the entirety of your blog.

In order to not lose your old posts, you have to make them findable — both through search engines and related posts. Making your content findable through search engines largely stems from good search engine optimization (SEO) of your content. This usually involves inserting keywords in your title and first few paragraphs. SEO techniques may be at odds with your narrative technique and literary style, so this is a constant tradeoff you have to consider. Some WordPress plugins allow you to manipulate your title tags, making a special title that only search engines see, but not readers.

Categories, date-based archives, tag clouds, and other groupings are largely ignored (except maybe a top ten list). But if you can provide a list of related posts beneath your new posts (related by keyword matches), these related posts will provide a tunnel for readers to find your old content. Lorelle Van Fossen at http://lorelle.wordpress.com is the consummate example of one who includes related posts at the end of each new post. Each new post on her site links to about a dozen back posts, amazingly all somewhat related (this is one benefit of keeping a narrow focus to your blog).

Taking into account the reader’s context

As with help topics, you have to remember that a good number of readers (more than half) find you out of the blue, with no idea who you are, what you’ve written previously, what prompted your article, or whether you have any credentials to write about your topic.

Because of this disoriented context, you must make it clear what the site’s focus is. Include an About page, a site tagline or purpose statement, information about yourself, and a contact button. Never make assumptions in your posts that assume readers understand opinions or perspectives you’ve expressed in earlier posts.

Most importantly, because readers may not have more than a few minutes to explore your site, you must make it easy for them to subscribe. Their initial foray on your actual site may be short-lived, but they will return time and again to their inbox, feedreader, and Twitter. By providing at least three types of subscription options – RSS feed, e-mail delivery, and Twitter (and iTunes if applicable), you can increase the likelihood of keeping your readers hooked to your content.

As you gain more subscribers, your site will gather more visits, your posts will receive more comments, and the whole endeavor will feel more significant and worthwhile. It will no longer be a blog that no one reads. You’ll be a writer with influence.

Conclusion

Despite whatever SEO techniques or political battles or headaches you must overcome to find time to blog, keep in mind — above all else — that blogging is writing. And if you’re like most technical writers I know, writing is a release. It’s a creative endeavor you find enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to be personal. Focus on stories. Let your literary hair down and inject a little style into your prose. If a post gets killed because it reveals too much, or doesn’t quite maintain the corporate voice, you know you’re on the right track.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

15 thoughts on “Blogging: A New Role for Technical Communicators

  1. Tom

    I realize this post may seem a little different. It’s a draft of a proceeding/abstract that I’m submitting to accompany my upcoming STC Summit presentation on the same topic.

  2. Gordon

    I think the essence of blogging, that’s a direct personal communication, is possibly where some technical writers fall down. You are write I (as a manager) would take issue with someone taking an entire day to write a blog post.

    However I’d be happy for them to take a few hours each week to post several blog posts as *I* see them as ‘looser’ in tone and with less onus on detail. It’s about being part of the conversation about your work/product/company.

    However I do agree that, alongside a good Product Manager, technical writers are probably the best people to get involved in your company/product bog.

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  4. Alistair Christie

    The usefulness, and often just the plain old readability, of corporate and product blogs depends on the attitude of your company towards this kind of thing. Often these are seen as marketing outlets and the result is something that’s about as interesting as a marketing flier.

    The only thing that makes such blogs worth reading is where there’s enough of a hands-off attitude to allow the blog writer to impart some useful tidbits of information now and again, and to include some personal stuff that makes the blog interesting to read.

    In my opinion there is a direct correlation between the length of time spent on corporate blog posts and their worth. The ones that are crafted, polished and reviewed before being posted are rarely worth reading. If allowed the freedom to dash off a quick blog post every day, you might end up with a blog people would enjoy reading. However, I suspect that there’s a tier of middle management in most companies who are scared witless by the idea of losing their perceived firm grip on what gets said about the company or its products.

  5. Collin Turner

    Take it a step further.

    Blogging is great. But it’s very static. Spread out a bit.

    Twitter – yes, it’s a buzz, but it’s effective if done correctly (look at Dell, Comcast, Carnival, etc.)

    FriendFeed – A great way to funnel all of the relevant corporate info into one place and present it internally.

    RSS Feeds – Well, probably don’t need to say much about these since every company should already be using them.

    FaceBook – I personally do *not* like FaceBook and will not use it (too many issues with their TOS and content) but hey, that’s what legal departments are for. Needless to say, a great way for a company to face themselves.

    If design is a big deal for your company, look to Sites like PicoCool, etc.

    Many of us are attached (in one way or another) to Marketing. If you want to increase your value in these Troubled Economic Times (drink) work with them.

    -Collin

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  7. justelise

    Blogs have been around for the better part of a decade. I am saddened that some Technical Communicators are just discovering their usefulness now.

  8. Craig

    In this economic climate, I wouldn’t even ask. As you said, “Technical writers may not receive any billable time allocated to write for the blog.” At my company, every task is assigned a job number. Every task is billable, or it is not done. Period.

  9. Tom

    Thanks everyone for the comments on this article. All good points. I agree that over-polished and edited posts lack the light playful tone and spirit of blogs. Too much editing can turn the blog into more of an online magazine. I hadn’t thought of that before, so thanks Gordon and Alistair.

    Justelise, what you say about technical communicators just discovering the usefulness of blogs after a decade is harsh but true. It seems that many writers in the tech comm community lag 5 yrs behind the web community. But the challenges I describe in this article deal mainly with companies that make it difficult for technical writers to get into this medium.

    Craig, good point about the billable question in a recession. Blogs can be something that generates high value for a company, but this is a case to make, not something that comes automatically.

    Collin, I too dislike Facebook. I’ve set up my Twitter feed to syndicate to it, and I occasionally receive comments from within Facebook that way, but it’s not my favorite platform.

  10. Eddie Gear

    Hi Tom,

    This is very true. Today, more and more technical communicators are taking up blogging as a new means to develop and showcase their writing skills.

    Cheers,
    Eddie Gear

  11. mike

    Tom, perhaps you could at some point address the issue of where documentation ends and blogs begin. Some topics around that issue might include:

    * What you might be able to blog that you would not document (perhaps your “tips and tricks” suggestion can fall into this category). For example, we might blog about the internals of a function that we would never officially document, or the reasons for certain design decisions.

    * Whether it is legitimate to link from (online) documentation to blog entries. Some groups I know of are freely linking to blog posts instead of folding the content of the blog post into the “official” docs. Are the blog posts then part of (or endorsed as) official documentation?

    * How “official” a blog post might be if it’s written by a) a third party, b) a tech writer on a doc team, c) an executive or other decision-maker at a company. We’ve noted some confusion among readers about this, in particular where blog posts and docs are not in agreement, or when a blog post reveals information that the docs do not.

    I think there’s a theoretical distinction (most blogs have disclaimers about how they represent an individual’s thoughts), but so much information is now available on blogs (sometimes only on blogs) that it’s easy to understand why readers might not be expected to make fine distinctions about the source of information.

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