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Lifelines to the STC

Jun 20, 2009 • screencasting

Last week I wrote a post about avoiding extinction as a technical communicator. The basic idea was that you have to keep up with the learning styles, preferences, and behaviors of your users to survive. That often means avoiding the long manual and incorporating more interactive, collaborative, or audiovisual means of instruction.

Almost the exact same argument could be made about the STC and its financial trouble. In case you haven't heard, the STC's finances are facing crisis proportions. Unless membership stabilizes, it could go out of business in a couple of years.

Sarah O'Keefe wrote an insightful post about the need for the STC to increase its velocity, community, and openness. Keith Anderson also wrote about the STC issue, pointing out that the problem started long ago, not just with the recession. Both posts got me thinking about the issue tonight.

I agree with Sarah and Keith's analyses. I don't necessarily have a solution to the financial problems of the STC. They do seem to be a bit behind the times. For example, two years ago I was excited to learn the website was going to be redesigned. If I remember correctly, it was announced at a conference. But the only difference I can see now is the big blue buttons and the redesigned logo.

News & Notes is still delivered in an email, without the ability to comment. In fact, when the president asks for suggestions to the financial crisis, I would have loved to see an open, blog-like format for discussion. The Twitter hashtag #stcorg was at least a good idea, though.

Intercom, one of the most valued benefits of membership, is still not online in an interactive way. You can't comment below articles. To see the articles, first you have to log in. After logging in, you see a screen that gives you options to either "manage" or "pay," and you realize the navigation bar is completely different. After retracing your steps back to the main site and navigating to Intercom, the site template looks different again (which is fine), but when you click Search Articles, you get a blank screen. Fortunately, there is a little search box in the upper-right corner, if you can find it. It's just a kludgey type of experience.

The live web seminars would be a good service if they were free. I have to admit, I dislike webinars. Registration is cumbersome, the scheduled hour is never convenient, I loathe staring at a Powerpoint on a screen for an hour, the audio is poor, and they cost too much.

I have more than 120 podcasts available for free on my site, touching on practically every topic of interest to technical communicators. The STC seems to have never caught on to the idea of podcasting. Instead, they view the web seminars as a revenue tool rather than a learning tool. If the true purpose were to help educate technical communicators, they would dedicate a podcasting resource to create engaging, regular podcasts similar to the podcasts available from the New York Times (such as Tech Talk, one of my favorites).

I don't mean to sound like a complainer. I like belonging to an organization, a professional society. In fact, when I made the switch from copywriting to technical writing and discovered the STC for the first time—my local Suncoast chapter—I loved the group. I learned so much from the interactions with my colleagues. It was a solid support network that helped push me further into the industry and see the best direction to go. Without the organization of the STC, I'm fairly certain that close-knit group that gathered regularly would have never existed.

But if the STC were to dissolve, although it would be a tremendous blow to the communities across the globe, the hundreds of tech comm. bloggers would still create engaging content to read. Academics and other authors would still publish books and articles. Vendors would still continue to develop and innovate products. Listservs would continue to flourish. Conferences (though smaller) would still be held. The profession would continue to thrive.

I've rambled a bit here. To be a bit more practical, here are a few recommendations to help solve the problems of the STC:

  1. Move to more of a virtual office model, with an office in a less expensive area. Rely on more member volunteers to get the work done.
  2. Convert Intercom to a blog-like format rather than a print magazine. Same with the Tech Comm Journal.
  3. Make the Intercom the centerpiece of the STC site, with a more robust search engine and easy navigation.
  4. Hire a professional podcaster (not me) to create several podcasts a week, made available on the site for free.
  5. Convert News & Notes into an interactive feature of the STC site.
  6. Redesign the STC site using a more interactive, web 2.0 platform. For example, provide more of a social network experience (kind of like the Content Wrangler's Ning, but better) that appears when you log in to the STC site.
  7. Keep recording the annual conference sessions, but make them available online for free to all STC members. To reduce costs, forget the screen recording and instead buy high-end digital recorders and train the conference staff on how to use them.
  8. Create sophisticated Yahoo pipes or other mashup filters that aggregate online content written by tech comm. bloggers and other authors around the world.
  9. Help members stay updated by holding regular tool training sessions using a service such as Adobe Connect.
  10. Create an site modeled after, where chapters can share recordings of their presenters. Provide training on how to record chapter presentations (either audio or video or both).
  11. Allow members to join all SIG listservs for free as part of their membership rather than restricting it to just one.
  12. Provide a more comprehensive job database, with people actively incorporating jobs from a variety of sites. Allow recruiters to post jobs for free.
  13. Provide more guided learning tracks for the different paths people can take in the profession.
  14. Rather than ignoring it, leverage Geoff Sauer's most visited tech comm resource in the world.
  15. Provide resume evaluation services for job seekers.

Overall, I think most of these services should either be free to members or highly reduced (for example, the $79 webinar fee should be more like $5). The idea that information on the web should be available for free is a constant theme that's hard to fight against. Closing off and restricting access to information, with the assumption that doing so increases member value, seems to run contrary to directions the web is heading.

For example, the New York Times previously tried charging for access to the op-ed columns. Eventually they let go of that model and opened them up for free. The SXSW conference records their sessions and distributes them online for free. Rather than hurt attendance, it seems to increase it. Free is the information economy of the web. Overall, more people would join the STC if they saw the value that it provides. But even when you join the STC, the value you feel isn't apparent.

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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.