TCUK10 – Social Media Models

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As my slides are usually fairly sparse, I’ve written up some notes/transcript of my presentation. Probably best read in conjunction with the slides.

Slides 1 to 4

This presentation is about models. By and large it came about after several conversations at TCUK09 and I found myself trying to explain why you’d want to blog, or use Twitter, or why Wikis can be useful. The thing is, there are so many tools available you can’t cover them all so, in the months after the conference, and in continued discussions by email and on Twitter, I realised there was a different way to discuss social media and how it could fit into the technical communications world.

The kitten picture is simply because I included one last year and it was probably the most commented aspect of my presentation, “ohhh the one with the kitten!”.

Slides 5 & 6

So why am I qualified to talk about social media? Well, because I’m a self-confessed social media addict. I’ve been using it, in various forms, for over 10 years and still sign up to the last, greatest application just to see what it does. I am not an expert. Just a passionate user.

Slides 7 & 8

The company I work for is starting to embrace social media, both at a company level (we now have a company blog, to which I contribute), and a product level. Our newest product, Ciboodle Crowd, gives our customers the ability to have a social media aspect to the customer relationship management offering. This is in recognition that, increasingly, people use forums, and blog s and other such things to talk about products, both in terms of usage and troubleshooting, and general gripes.

Slide 9

Why do we need to bother about social media?

I read a blog post recently that nicely encapsulated my thoughts on the matter. In his post “A new minimalist principle that John M Carroll didn’t think of“, Shannon Greywalker posits that the main reason is

*Increase acquisition speed* – most of us long-experienced technical communicators come from a generation that was trained to be comfortable with absorbing information at a much slower pace, and in a much more passive format, than people even one decade younger than us would tolerate. And the folks in their 20s and younger now? Forget it. The typical “best practices” that most technical writers still adhere to are completely out of touch with the sheer speed at which 20-somethings and younger expect to be able to absorb information.

Which, if we distil the message down to the basics, suggests that there are only two things that matter, the content and the people who use it (and how they want to use that content).

Slide 10

First things first, like any new project, or product, you will need to do figure out what you and your audience wants. The best way to frame this in terms of social media is to try and understand which model of interaction is best. This makes it easier for your audience to understand both what, and why, you are proposing to do something new.

With that in mind, I’m proposing that, broadly speaking, you can break down most types of social media interaction into four models of behaviour.

Slides 11 to 14 – Publish & Respond

This model is the closest to the traditional technical writing format. You create some information and publish it. Add in the ability for your audience to comment on, or discuss, the content and you have a simple, open-ended conversation.

Regardless of the output format you currently produce, be it the written word, graphics, or videos, this model is easily adopted into your current production processes. There is an initial overhead in setting up the location (which can be from minutes to weeks, depending on whether you use a hosted, or self-built solution) and you need to plan in time to respond to, and join in with, any discussions. That will help keep things active and keep your audience coming back for more. You also need to plan to publish regularly to make sure your audience has a reason to visit.

With your audience able to discuss what you publish, you’ll soon be able to hone in on the information they really need, allowing you to tailor your production (and planning) to best suit your audience. The initial overhead of this part of the publish/respond model starts to diminish the more feedback you get as you are better equipped to plan and prioritise the information you produce.

Quick feedback loop – no waiting for the next software cycle to issue updates
Direct access to audience – conversations with the people who use the content
Easy fit to traditional publishing model.- provide a different output and enable some way of commenting

Initial overhead of maintaining output
Being part of the conversations (drops over time as you better focus your content)

WordPress, Blogger, YouTube, Flickr, Forums, mailing lists (either traditional or online Groups such as those by Yahoo or Google), Slideshare.

All the solutions listed above have similar constituent parts. They contain posts or uploads, each of which can be considered an individual topic. Each topic has a title and will know the author, the date it was published and is published to a specific category, allowing a level of taxonomy.

Slides 15 to 18 – Publish & Collaborate

The ability to collaborate on content is a major benefit of this model, and with the right consideration and demarcation of “community produced content”, you can bolster and enhance the information you supply with corrections, amendments and even new topics written by your audience.

Publishing with a view that your content will be open to edits by the userbase opens new opportunities and several challenges.

It shortens the lifespan of content, anything that is wrong or out of date will be corrected by users much faster than you may be able to manage. Specific scenarios may also be documented which you may not normally have done.

Ability to host and deliver user-generated content (real-life usage)
Increases the reach of your content (expands on the verified content technical writers provided)
A level of control (either through moderation or community self-correcting edits)

Non-validated information – Potential for misinterpreting information written by another user
Who owns the information? User generated content needs to be clearly marked, cannot be supported as part of the product. Can it?

Two types of Wiki – traditional, markup driven, open structured like MediaWiki, or more structured, more content centric and aimed at content production like Atlassian Confluence

A Wiki is a publish/edit style format, allowing many people to collaborate on content (see Wikipedia)

Slides 19 to 22 – Collate and Share

One new area which social media has relies heavily on, the collation of content from numerous sources, presenting them as a collection of useful information for your users.

Increasingly, offering a collated set of information alongside formal documentation will be deemed to be a must have, pointers out to other content which may be of use. For many software products this is an easy extension, with a lot of useful information available by simply pointing to underlying platform documentation/topics or useful articles on usage and configuration, for example.

Simple to set up and use
Spreads the reach of the content

Non-validated information – Potential for misinterpreting information written by another user
No control over externally linked content – may change or disappear

There are many social bookmarking services, such as, and increasingly the sharing of collated content is available through RSS readers such as Google Reader. I’ve discussed this area in a little more detail already.

Slides 23 to 26 – Broadcast

The simplest of the models and very much “does exactly what it says on the tin”. You can use social media to broadcast updates and announcements to your users, and provide those snippets of content in ways that they want them.

Simple to set up
Easily distributed by others (“Hey, have you seen this?”)

Challenging to write (need to be as short as possible)
Can be seen as noise by some, so allowing opt-in to these messages is key

Twitter is main application in this area.
Twitter is a special case here, it is a specific tool built with broadcast in mind but which could be used in both Publish/Respond models, as well.

Slides 27 to 29 – Mashup

And now we get to the truth of the matter, there aren’t four models at all. There aren’t 10, or 10,000. This is a key point.

The manual is dead, and the future is flows of related content where the central commonality is the user. Not the product. After all, no-one uses just one product, there are a myriad of other sources of information that people want and need. The 20-somethings of today are growing up with this model, this open system of mashed up content, and will increasingly shun any company who don’t help them access content in the way they want it.

An example would be Tumblr. It’s a mix of blog, collation and broadcast tool. With a simple click I can add content (text, image, or video) to a stream of information that I, and only I, am interested in. I can share that stream if I choose, and other people can repost the content that I’ve added (with attribution to the original source). Whilst I’ve not yet seen a professional application that mimics Tumblr, it does speak to this future view of how people want to access and manipulate content.

There are many many tools available and the landscape is still changing, still evolving. Of all the applications shown in slide 29, around 20% of them didn’t exist last year, and 20% of them won’t exist in a few years time. As people develop how they USE content, so the tools are still being developed.

Slide 30 – The important bit.

There are only two things we are concerned about, content and the users of that content. Social media has given people the tools to take the content, and use it, strip it apart, and re-use it in whatever manner they want. The key thing here is that we need to provide the provision for this kind of re-use, even though we don’t actually know what it may be when we create the content.

The manual is dead, and the future is flows of related content where the central commonality is the user. Not the product. After all, no-one uses just one product, there are a myriad of other sources of information that people want and need. The 20-somethings of today are growing up with this model, this open system of mashed up content, and will increasingly shun any company who don’t help them access content in the way they want it.


How do you get this going? How do I get buy-in from management?
It’s always tricky to get these things going, and I was asked how to get management buy-in for this type of thing. My usual response is “if you don’t do this, and your users are passionate enough (and it only takes a smaller number of them) they’ll start using your information in these ways regardless of what you do. They’ll setup their own forums and communities to discuss, not always in glowing terms, your product. It’s better for you to be involved in those things, and if setup and promoted correctly they could become valuable assets to your company.

But what if these things are already in place and your company still doesn’t see the value? This was the case in hand, the users had already setup an online community of their own but still the management team didn’t see the need to be involved. In that situation, all I can suggest is that you contact whoever has organised it and politely ask if you can join. State that it’s a personal interest in your product, and could you get involved. You’d need to state that you work for the company, obviously, but if done in a ‘quiet’ manner you could at least have a view of what is being said, and with that insight.

In a seperate discussion the next day, I was asked a similar question and suggested that it may be best, when starting out, to start small. Pull out topics of information and ‘promote’ them to a blog. You don’t need to open up all of your content at the outset, test the water with a pilot, get some enthusiasm going within your organisation and if possible your customer base.

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