How Dynamic Publishing Can Make Your Customers Love You
by Noz Urbina, Senior Consultant, Trainer and Presales Manager for Mekon Ltd.
Here’s the problem. Marketing and technical communication teams are overloaded.
- Multiple delivery formats (print, web, online help, and now, myriad mobile formats)
- Increasing demand for translation
- Increasing demand for personalization and localization of content
- Shortening product release cycles with more product variants means more duplicate content need to be kept up-to-date
- Completely new channels and content sources to tackle (social media, syndication, user-generated content)
It seems we’re the camels, and the market has no shortage of straw to pile on our backs. The solution can’t be “work harder”, because increases in communication budgets have not been proportionate to increasing demand on us. Because we can’t allocate additional resources to tackle these challenges, we must work smarter.
This means leveraging automation to create all these personalised deliverables with as little manual effort as possible. We just can’t keep up using outdated methods where we convert from format to format. Our users don’t want content on a website, or a microsite, or a portal, or PDF, or a mobile app – they want it on them all.
By dynamically assembling content on request, and automatically publishing it out in the format of the user’s preference, we can focus our precious human resource on the challenges that need humans, like information design, architecture and of course writing. For the grunt work of content assembly, layout, formatting, and publishing, use can leverage cheap, dynamic, automatic processes. This doesn’t just require new software or technology, but a new process and attitudes towards publishing so that it can be dynamically processed while still maintaining quality of output.
Going outside the comfort zone of some readers, I am going to illustrate some simple lessons that can be applied across various verticals and industries by using an ‘extreme case’ of advanced technical communications as an example. For nearly two decades, this field has been pioneering dynamic methodologies to address diverse customers faster and across various formats.
Why Should We Look at TechComm
We usually think of technical communication as ‘the manuals’ (which no one wants to read), but it is so much more. Smart techcomm focuses on facilitating the customer’s experience of the product or service that the published content supports. Techcomm publishers design personas, key messages and establish content strategies and workflows like any other type of publishing. Also like all publishers techcomm leverages social media and dynamic systems to give users what they want, when and where they want it.
What Customers Want
What customers want is the knowledge that is trapped in the heads (and on the hard drives) of product experts like engineers, technical communicators, trainers, and especially, their peers. Websites, reviews, manuals — even ‘content’ itself — are all a means to an end. Your customers want to be able to do something with your products. They may want to buy, evaluate, install, clean, use, repair, or decommission them. To do what they desire, they need you to transfer the knowledge you have locked inside your walled gardens and give it to them — quickly, so they can get back to whatever it was they were trying to do before they needed your help.
The social media explosion of the past decade – which shows no signs of ebbing – has shown us that communities can produce a lot of content. The questions remain: can we get them to produce and distribute usable, useful product knowledge, and if so, how can we leverage that knowledge?
* Or government body, or association.
What Can The Crowd Do For You?
Usability and web specialist Jakob Nielsen has detailed the fact that the vast minority of consumers will never become content producers. However, when dealing with large numbers of users with large numbers of demands, the contributions they make do not need to be substantial, they need only to be enough. And users know it.
“Official” product content — that content created or published by the enterprise — sometimes has a reputation for being incomplete, difficult to navigate or otherwise unhelpful. In all my research and field experience, I’ve found most consumers don’t care who creates the content, as long as it helps them accomplish their goal. As we’ll see below, the nature of the user contributions is also different, making them disproportionately valuable.
The lesson: Make it easier for users to extend and add value to your content. When publishing, your platform needs to allow users to easily contribute content. That content will also need to be structured and wrapped in as much metadata as possible. Your platform will need to help you sort and curate user contributions to find both good contributions and top contributors.
You find these by filtering the content based on metadata (a taxonomy).
Users will build your taxonomy (and therefore links, filters and navigation) for you
A taxonomy is a labeling and categorization system. It defines data about your content (metadata), and lets you filter, search and relate content.
Users will tag their own content if properly encouraged (again, see Nielsen’s advice on making things easy to encourage participation), building up a ‘folksonomy’ (a taxonomy built by ‘the folks’ that use the content).
Often we think we must choose between a taxonomy or folksonomy. The truth is that the two play very well together. Look at Amazon:
As we know, Amazon’s taxonomy of things like ‘Home electronics’ vs. ‘Books’ vs. ‘Home, Garden & Tools’ is an integral and vital way of navigating a vast amount of content. However, they know that their customers are always right, and that no classification and navigation system they provide will ever (on its own) equal what they can do if they leverage the power of the crowd. Amazon lets users add their own tags. And, they allow their users to search and navigate the site using those tags, in combination with the classification system the company provides.
Leveraging user-generated tags is necessary because it helps solve several problems. First, tags created by users provide a wealth of information about our content. In order to build content classification systems of value, we must know what terms our customers use to describe our products, services and content. Second, because those who work for us creating official content are often resistant to adding metadata tags, leveraging the crowd to build folksonomies can help us provide the right content to the right people at the right time and in the right language. Search engines need this additional information to help customers find what they are looking for and dynamic publishing engines require tags to deliver content to those who need it, when and where they need it.
The lesson: Make it possible for your users to build a folksonomy in all your online channels. Curate those terms and glean business-critical information from them. This means enabling user tagging on their own content — and on yours — and having clear guidelines indicating what user-generated terms may ‘graduate’ from the folksonomy into the official taxonomy.
This will enable analytics and reporting, which allow you to monitor what’s happening to and around your content. With this metadata in your arsenal, you will be able to sort by products and subjects, locate top contributing users and top rated content.
Users can know things you can’t
User-generated content is created by users specifically for what users want and/or need. Technical communicators try to do this as well, but users are in the privileged position of having the enterprise’s published content as a starting point. They also have real-world field experience with your products before they start writing, an opportunity many enterprise staff will never have.
For general publishing, often we find that when content ‘goes live’ we discover that it was not properly designed for users’ needs. Similarly, in techcomm, it is only when a user first puts the product and all its supporting content into use that the gaps are found.
In a recent content strategy audit, we looked at product content generated outside of the organization, specifically, at common user search queries coming in through the website, and questions and answers posted to forums. We found that the users were getting lots of facts, but not the task-based and conceptual overview information they were looking for.
By often being derived from engineering specifications and product management documents, technical communication content is often excessively reference-based, giving people more of a ‘dictionary of product data’, rather than true ‘user guides’ or ‘how to manuals’.
The lesson: When dynamic methods are not in place, staff get overloaded just trying to hit deadlines and prepare reviewed, nicely formatted deliverables.
All publishers need to plan to learn from users, and promote their work. Time is money. Any financial adviser will tell you to always put away 10% at the beginning of the month, no matter how little you have left. You’ll find a way to make do with the 90%, and be far better off in the long term. Plan a percentage of time at the beginning of every project to research the community’s needs by watching their output.
You can — and should — have a process in place for finding, capturing, validating, and reworking users’ knowledge until it fits alongside ‘official’ content.
Pulling it all together
By enabling user creation and tagging of content, and building analysis and curation of user content into your process, you will be able to leverage more content than you could ever have the capacity to produce yourself.
XML (oftentimes of the DITA flavor) will be required to make all of this a reality. XML authoring environments make it possible to create semantically-enabled content that can go anywhere, and take its metadata with it. As such, the platform you choose will likely be an XML-based system and require a rethink of information design and editorial processes to enable dynamic publishing of the end deliverables.
By leveraging your folksonomy and taxonomy, you can dynamically create related links from your content to user-generated content and back again. To illustrate, think about how when Reuter’s sells news on “Middle East oil fields” to a 3rd party news site, that 3rd party site can automatically link that content to its other “Middle East” and “Oil” content not sourced from Reuters – simply by matching up the metadata tags. It’s a simple feature of dynamic systems, but highly impactful.
If the users have knowledge and the will to share it, saving us time and making them happier in the process, then it seems only fitting that we help them do so.