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.
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.
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.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.