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Part 1: Introduction to influence on the web

Series: A hypothesis about influence on the web and the workplace

by Tom Johnson on Jan 23, 2022
categories: technical-writing

This is a multi-post series exploring a hypothesis about influence on the web and in the workplace. The main question I'm exploring is whether the same techniques for visibility and influence on the web can have a similar effect within the workplace, which has different dynamics, cultures, tools, and expectations.


Recently, I mentioned a topic I’m developing for an upcoming presentation: How to increase awareness of tech comm inside corporate walls, with this description:

How to increase awareness of tech comm inside corporate walls

I’ve been a blogger writing about tech comm for 15+ years, and in that time have increased awareness and education of tech comm to thousands of tech writers globally. However, creating the same awareness about tech comm inside corporate walls has been a different challenge that has frequently eluded me. Like many tech writers, I’ve often felt somewhat invisible to the engineering and product teams, business executives, and other stakeholders around me. It’s easy to feel left out of the loop, to interact with people who have little idea about tech writer processes for authoring and publishing, who don’t understand what we do, where we publish, or who we even are.

Recently, I’ve begun to discover some blogging-like strategies that actually work within the corporate context. Not by creating an internal blog and spamming everyone in the company, nor by trolling corporate interest groups with linkbait. Instead, there are some simple strategies for boosting awareness of tech comm within the corporate context. The strategies require some writing effort and can put you out of your comfort zone, but the formula essentially follows the same strategy for awareness on the web, which is to create relevant content and share it with those around you on a regular basis. Following this formula, others in your company will be aware of doc resources, what you’re publishing, upcoming features, how your group works, your doc challenges, strategies, and more. If you follow these strategies, your group and documentation will be much more visible to those around you.

In this series, “A hypothesis about influence on the web and the workplace,” I want to lay out my hypothesis a bit more and explain the approach. Many of my ideas are in flight, so don’t expect everything to be tried and tested over a long period. This is something I’m experimenting with, and there are clear challenges in applying the same practices on the web to the workplace. I invite you to share insights with me, either in the comments or through my contact form.

Influencers on the web

On the web, many people who have neither qualified expertise nor a prominent office/position can nonetheless exert a lot of visibility and influence. These people are often referred to as “influencers” or “micro-influencers” (to describe smaller, more niche audiences). Ki and Kim explain:

SMIs [social media influencers] are people who have established credibility with large social media audiences because of their knowledge and expertize on particular topics, and thereby exert a significant influence on their followers’ and peer consumers’ decisions. SMIs also can be defined as independent third‐party endorsers who have developed sizeable social networks by sharing details about their personal lives, experiences, and opinions publicly through texts, pictures, videos, hashtags, location check‐ins, etc. (“The mechanism by which social media influencers persuade consumers: The role of consumers’ desire to mimic.”)

Content from influencers can be in the form of written blogs, image posts, videos, or other types of content. The basic idea is that the influencer is generally uncredentialed and perhaps untrained – their rise to influence is solely through the content they create and share online. The web decentralizes authority and levels the playing field for those who previously might not have had a voice.

One term describing this web phenomenon is the “megaphone effect,” which allows ordinary people to amplify their voice and reach. McQuarrie et al explain:

The megaphone effect … occurs when ordinary consumers, defined as individuals lacking professional experience and not holding an institutional or family position, post to the web about consumption and acquire a mass audience for these posts. … Consumer bloggers achieve an audience that historically was only available to institutionally located professionals (McCracken 1986)… (“The megaphone effect: Taste and audience in fashion blogging.”)

One way influencers achieve this audience, McQuarrie et al say, is by “publicly consuming” and sharing their raw experiences to “garner a large audience of strangers.” The main idea of the megaphone effect is that the megaphone is available to anyone who wants to take it, rather than being reserved for a privileged or vetted role. Influencers acquire the megaphone through their consumption and relaying of experiences. These true-to-life experiences often resonate/connect because they’re from a reader’s peer instead of from someone outside of the reader’s life experiences.

How influencers engage their audiences

Visibility and influence on the web aren’t that difficult to achieve. The basic formula is to choose a topic, produce a lot of content about it, and share it with the right community. Keep this up for years, and if you do, and if the audience connects with your content, you can become visible and perhaps influential in the space you’ve chosen.

Merely choosing a focus and posting constantly about it establishes your expertise – not courses, certifications, and degrees. By focusing on a specific subject, you help build a sense of knowledge, awareness, and expertise toward that subject – the expertise you build becomes closely associated with you as a person.

A prominent early blogger, Robert Scoble, once explained that those who are unemployed can greatly increase their professional appeal by choosing a niche and posting regularly about it. He writes:

Post something that teaches me something about what you want to do every day. If you want to drive a cab, you better go out and take pictures of cabs. Think about cabs. Put suggestions for cabbies up. Interview cabbies. You better have a blog that is nothing but cabs. Cabs. Cabs. Cabs all the time. (“If you are laid off, here’s how to socially network”)

Following this method, individuals can create their own professional identities and destinies on the web. If you want to be perceived as a cabbie expert, you post frequently about cabs. If you want to be an expert on [X], focus your content creation efforts on [X]. Because I’ve written extensively about API documentation, I’ve established a certain brand and expertise online about “Tom Johnson and API documentation.” It’s not hard for people to make that connection.

The phenomenon of the web is that someone can build his or her expertise by merely writing and posting content about a chosen subject. Many people are much more experienced in writing and developing API documentation than me, but I’ve created a connection and perception online that makes me more influential with the topic than those who do not have that same online presence (at least I think).

Those who possess the tools for creating content (for example, writers who can generate interesting content) can shape identities and perceptions on the web more than non-content creators. If you have creative juices to continually publish insightful content online (which many writers do), you can exert a lot of influence and visibility.

Content generation versus influence

There are some nuances to sort out with the simple formula I described, such as why some content creators are more influential than others. I imagine that a blog about cabs all the time could get pretty boring if it consists only of random cab pics. Not everyone who churns out content amasses an audience. The content has to be interesting, engaging, and worth reading.

Ki and Kim say you have to possess good taste and judgment, and the consumers must feel a desire to mimic the influencer (whether the mimicry is “unconscious or conscious”). Creating engaging content is the tough part, and I’ll explore this in more depth later.

But in brief, engaging content follows the same pattern as it’s always followed: story. If you can tell a story, you can engage readers. And to tell a story, you focus on conflict, and the attempts (whether your own or from others) to overcome that conflict.

Many times the conflict for a story comes from your personal experiences and struggles, which give context and meaning to otherwise dry facts and events. The need to create a sense of story is why personal experiences dominate blog posts – it’s hard to construct a [nonfiction] story framework otherwise.

But stories don’t have to be personal. Stories can also be the way you (or others) wrestle with conflicting ideas, and the various attempts to overcome them. Just like this post – I’m trying to investigate how to translate the dynamics of influence on the web into the workplace. But this isn’t going to be a personal documentary. A good writer, like a journalist, can zero in on non-personal challenges and weave in a larger context (such as the quotes I’ve so far integrated). When I studied literary nonfiction in college, I learned that the most engaging nonfiction content combines personal experience with larger, non-personal ideas in balanced ways.

Endless wells of creativity

In addition to creating engaging, story-driven content, influencers must have relentless energy to create new content. I realized how much I’d written in my API course when I generated it to PDF and saw that it was 900+ pages long. To thrive online, you have to be endlessly creative. Blogs need at least one or more posts per week to keep the audience’s attention. The web requires an insatiable amount of content to keep the wheel turning.

With the proliferation of smartphones, people are reading and consuming content more than ever. The next time you’re waiting somewhere (on a train, in a line, at a cafe), lift your head up to see what everyone else is doing while waiting – chances are, they’re staring at their phones, consuming content. Influencers have to produce content in a continual way to keep the audience’s attention. Capturing the audience’s attention becomes more difficult as content sources expand online.

Enjoyment of the content creation activity itself

Because of the need to constantly create content, often with little tangible reward, influencers must be driven by more than calculated motives for influence. What drives someone to write a new blog post, week after week, year after year, without experiencing creative burnout? To be sustainable in the long run, influencers must find enjoyment in the content creation activity itself, without any external rewards.

For me, I write because I value writing as a tool for thinking. As long as I’m mentally awake, I’ll continue to write to organize and refine my thoughts on subjects. The value of writing is one reason I became a professional technical writer. Any influence from that writing is happenstance, a byproduct of writing and publishing. I can’t imagine someone sustaining a long-term campaign, undertaken for years at great personal expense with little financial incentive, with the goal to influence an audience toward a specific end.

I started my blog in 2006. I didn’t start with the goal of influencing anyone, nor did I have an agenda. I just liked writing and interacting in the online community, reflecting on my experiences as a technical writer, pursuing lines of thought, questioning best practices, exploring new tools, sorting out my thoughts (like I’m doing right now), etc. In short, using writing as a tool for thinking. Any influence that results isn’t intentional.

Blogging is not like a chapter in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which tries to explain what tactics to use to win over your audience for any argument. Sustained activity online is like floating in a river — you’re much less aware of the direction you’re heading. You end up in a new area based on the pull of the tides and how you like to swim. A certain subject grabs your interest, you write about it, and share it.

The engagement online

What happens when you share content online, though, is kind of magical. People read and connect with you, and sometimes you hit on themes that resonate with others, and their feedback also resonates with you. Something positive comes out of the exchange, usually. Maybe it’s an insight that helps someone, or maybe that insight comes to you personally through your act of writing. A good post is one that changes the way you (both writer and reader) see the world.

It’s not all warm fuzzies, though. Many times, people might call you out on misguided ideas or information gaps you’re not seeing. Critical feedback is valuable, as it helps with course correction. I benefit from the wisdom of thousands of technical writers, many more knowledgeable and experienced than me. They help me avoid career pitfalls and mistakes.

Mostly, though, I often receive encouragement and notes from people saying that certain themes resonated true for them or that my resources were helpful to them. I love that. For example, read through the comments on my Coffee dashboard. It’s kind of emotionally overwhelming sometimes.

My goal

It’s that sense of connection, information sharing, two-way insights, and other positivity that I want to bring into the workplace. There’s no reason why that experience should be limited to the web only. But how can it be done? Can you bring the same phenomenon of social media influence from the web into the workplace? Does the workplace operate with such a different dynamic that the web’s patterns would not apply to some degree? That’s what I hope to find out in this series.

Spoiler alert: I won’t reach a final conclusion at the end of this series (at least not immediately). This is still an ongoing experiment that will take many months to evaluate. But over the next week, I’ll add a new post each day that unravels the story a bit more and brings into focus what might work.


Ki, Chung‐Wha ‘Chloe, and Youn‐Kyung Kim. “The mechanism by which social media influencers persuade consumers: The role of consumers’ desire to mimic.” Psychology & Marketing 36.10 (2019): 905-922

McQuarrie, Edward F., Jessica Miller, and Barbara J. Phillips. “The megaphone effect: Taste and audience in fashion blogging.” Journal of Consumer Research 40.1 (2013): 136-158.

Scoble, Robert. “If you are laid off, here’s how to socially network.” 12 Jan 2009.

Next post

Continue to the next post in this series: Initial attempts and failures with workplace content.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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