Author Archives: lanaksolberg

Issues of Trust and Control

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve gone from not generally making purchases or otherwise disclosing personal information online to regularly doing so. I’m sure this is the case for many people—online purchasing and using the Internet for social networking has required us to become more comfortable with it, or retreat. In this week’s reading “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” Carina Paine Schofield and Adam Joinson examine the complex relationship between privacy and trust and our resulting willingness to disclose information in an online environment. A lot of what they covered seemed like common sense to me. Perceived privacy contributes to trust; both are necessary for us to be willing to disclose information online.

Schofield and Joinson’s explanation of the different aspects of trust stood out to me as being particularly relevant to my own evaluation of a company’s online presence. I think I regularly (if subconsciously) make judgments about companies based on the following.

  • Ability, or the knowledge or competence of the company and its ability to handle my information appropriately.
  • Integrity, or the belief that the company is honest, reliable, and credible.
  • Benevolence, or the extent to which the company is doing right by me.

It’s almost common sense; I wouldn’t do business with someone face-to-face if I didn’t think they were competent and capable, honest and credible, and were taking my interests into account. Why should it be any different online? Admittedly, the stakes are higher in many ways online. After all, we’re leaving behind information about ourselves that doesn’t go away—ever.

I think that’s why providing users with a sense of control is especially important. Schofield and Joinson explain, “…where possible, users should be provided with control over whether to disclose personal information and the use of that personal information once disclosed” (p. 26). When we can decide whether we “prefer not to disclose” answers to certain questions, or whether we only populate the required fields, we maintain some degree of control. (For me, being able to indicate that I don’t want to receive email offers is one control option I greatly appreciate!)

Maintain some degree of control over information reminded me of the fiasco with Facebook’s privacy policy changes a few years back. Basically, Facebook changed their privacy policy, and users freaked out about it. Facebook addressed the issue a blog post, explaining in a forthcoming and straightforward way that on Facebook, people own and control their own information. This response illustrates that Facebook recognized that control (even if it’s perceived control) goes hand-in-hand with trust and privacy. By addressing users’ concerns in this way, I think Facebook did the best it could to mitigate the damage done to its users’ trust in it.

The Complexities of Audience in a Digital Age

It became apparent when I started my current job as a technical communicator that pinning down audience is no simple task. Working for a national student loan servicing company, the team of writers I work on creates deliverables for various audiences such as schools, lenders, borrowers, the U.S. Department of Education, and internal employees. Distinguishing between these audiences is relatively straightforward, but distinguishing sub-audiences within them—actually knowing whom I’m writing for and what they need to know—is something I have struggled with from day one.

Prior to taking this course, and even prior to this week’s readings, I hadn’t fully recognized that a great deal of the complexity I experience in my job today is because of society’s evolution into the digital age. Furthermore, the challenges I encounter at my company are not unique to my company or its industry at all; they are largely universal challenges that technical communicators are encountering throughout the world. Ann Blakeslee’s chapter (“Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication illustrated many parallels to the challenges I encounter every day.

The Internet allows for the dissemination of information on a scale that has never been seen before. Our writing is often available to anyone who is online and looking for it. While this broad audience is an overwhelming thought, it doesn’t necessitate that we write for everyone at once. Blakeslee explains,

“While technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers” (p. 204).

Basically, we can use information we know about the product and where/how it is used to make judgments about the audience. This is something many of do without even thinking about it. For example, I can assume that users of one of my company’s online applications are employees in a school’s financial aid office. Along with that, they are extremely likely to have a moderate level of knowledge about student loan disbursements. This makes it much easier than writing assuming a global audience with next to no knowledge about student loan disbursements—not to mention it makes for more useful documentation.

But learning about the audience beyond this, is where I think the biggest challenges lie. For me, this has largely been knowing precisely (or even generally!) what the audience needs to know and even better, a ranking of the tasks they must perform in the tool. The best way to get this information (obviously) is straight from the audience through interaction and/or feedback, which is not an easy (or even possible) task for many of us. Blakeslee’s case studies sounded so familiar I could have been one of them! Unfortunately, in my position I am not able to get direct feedback from the audience on the content my team writes. The main reasons for this are:

  • The privacy of the customer. Any time there is financial information involved, privacy becomes a concern.
  • My time and the customer’s time, or lack thereof. My company’s customers are widespread making travel not feasible. Also, many schools, for example, are under-staffed and under-funded; asking for their time would quickly become an inconvenience for them.
  • Existing roles and processes are hard to change. Moving beyond the customer service and sales staff having all outwardly facing contact with customers is difficult and requires the buy-in of management (which is not super likely given the first two bullet points).

Virtually all of these were mentioned by the participants in Blakeslee’s case studies. In my case, we have made efforts to obtain information about audiences from sales and customer service staff. Often, they are able to tell us what confuses users and when/how they use a tool. While it’s not as good as interacting one-on-one with members of the audience, it’s better than nothing!

With communication technologies evolving at incredibly fast pace, it is certain our interaction with the audiences we write for will continue to evolve and improve. I am incredibly interested to see how this aspect of technical communication changes in the coming years.

Behind the Times?

I usually think of myself as pretty on top of it when it comes to social networking and being technologically savvy. As part of that, I recognize that it’s important to maintain an online presence that is attractive to current and potential employers. I’ve maintained an account on LinkedIn for years now, and update it semi-regularly with my professional experiences and development. Rich Maggiani and Ed Marshall’s article, “Using LinkedIn to Get Work,” made me feel like I am doing a lot of things right. Then I read chapter 8 of Eric Qualman’s  Socialnomics…let’s just say it made me feel a bit behind the times.

I’ve never considered creating a video resume—it’s just not something that ever occurred to me. In my current position, I’ve reviewed resumes of applicants for open technical writing positions and have looked at personal websites and LinkedIn profiles, but never a video resume. I have to wonder if it would add as much value as Qualman claims. He states,

“Recruiters can quickly screen through potential hires in minutes versus all the guesswork associated with traditional paper resumes” (p. 226).

I can’t imagine that a video resume removes as much of the guesswork from the hiring process as this implies. Hiring managers still have to read between the lines and figure out what candidates are really about. After all, a video resume (like a paper resume) is created with the intention of shining the best light on the applicant. It’s essentially a commercial designed to make the applicant look good. (Maybe it’s the technical communicator in me, but I think I’d rather read a professional document about a person than watch a commercial for them.)

Job searching and recruiting varies greatly by industry. I’m just not sure video resumes in particular are the best fit for technical communication. Perhaps Qualman is assuming the advertising industry, which would probably work a lot better for this type of format. Other tools such as professional profiles and personal websites seem to be a much better fit for technical communicators. The ability to display and link to work samples is also invaluable, but probably more beneficial to some people than others. Many communicators who work in a corporate environment write proprietary information for their company and can’t share work samples at all, let alone make them publicly available on the Internet. Again, this may be a better fit for advertising or even freelance writers.

Despite seeming focused more on job searching and recruiting in a marketing or advertising field, much of what Qualman highlights can be applied to technical communication. I’m curious, though, would you find video resumes much more helpful than traditional paper resumes when it comes to hiring a technical communicator?

The Nuances of Information Design

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting my career as a technical communicator, it’s that content (information) is useless when the audience can’t find it. Moreover, it’s not much better than useless when the audience doesn’t know how to use or navigate it. I think Michael Salvo and Paula Rosinski’s chapter (Information Design) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some incredibly valid points about the potential for technical communicators’ contribution to information design.

Technical communicators, myself included, often have a hand in information design from micro-level sentences and paragraphs, to deliverable design and visual appearance, on up to the macro-level organization of information libraries. From my experience, an interesting byproduct of this is that, among technical communicators, skills and experience can vary so greatly. Additionally, the role of technical communicators varies significantly from organization to organization.

At my company I work in the marketing and communications department (which is definitely not always the case for technical communicators). My department consists of marketing writers and technical writers that produce client communications and supporting documentation among other deliverables. Interestingly, there is also an e-commerce department (not part of marketing) that produces the company’s website and its online tools/applications. The writers in my department regularly work with the e-commerce department. Together we aim to create the most impactful products for the audience, but I’m not going to lie, it can be a struggle at times.

By title, e-commerce doesn’t have any “writers” and marketing and communications doesn’t have any “designers,” but we both must contribute those skills—the skills of technical communicators—to perform our jobs successfully. The tricky part is knowing who is responsible for what, who has what expertise, and whose feedback or suggestions add the most value to the information and its usability. What’s clear is that there will always be information design overlap between these two groups. It’s also clear that we can provide the largest benefit to the audience of our deliverables when we successfully leverage the strongest skills of both groups.

From my perspective, a lot of the awkwardness of this arrangement stems from the fact that e-commerce and marketing and communications are two separate departments (and divisions of the company)—basically, office politics. I know there isn’t a quick or easy solution for all groups within a company to work cohesively together, but how can companies encourage an all-encompassing approach to information design? I’m not sure I have an answer.

Maybe Qualman Has a Point…

Chapters five and seven of Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics further examine the use of social media in marketing, and how social media is truly changing how companies market their products and services. My post from week four, “It’s All About Attitude,” touched on the idea that because of social media, companies lose some degree of control over what online communities say about them; but by actively embracing social media, they can at least interject a positive voice into these online communities. A similar theme stood out to me in this week’s readings. That is, sizable companies are the subject of social media regardless of whether they want to be. Qualman explains,

“Companies that think they control whether they ‘do’ social media or not are terribly mistaken. If you’re a large brand, you can rest assured that there are conversations, pages, and applications constantly being developed around your brand by the community at large. The community is ‘doing’ social media even if you choose not to” (p. 183).

I work for a student loan servicing company (which shall remain nameless) that has shied away from using social media marketing. Qualman’s statement made me wonder what I would find if explored my employer on the Internet. A simple Google search pulls in a link to my employer’s website, a Wikipedia page, and many, many more—10 pages of search results total. After doing some poking around, I read a lot of really negative things about my employer (both as an employer and a provider of student loan services). The negative reviews and comments far outweigh anything positive. I have to say, I was surprised because I’ve always thought of my employer as a generally good company that tries to do right by its employees and customers.

As far as I know, the company has avoided social media to this point because of the nature of their products and services, which seem difficult to tout on social media sites. Are student loans really all that exciting or fun? Not really. Basically, it’s just another bill you have to pay. Additionally, servicing student loans is a complicated business that the consumer doesn’t always readily understand. Many of those who most actively use social media (younger, college-aged people) know next to nothing about repaying their loans.

I can see why it would be daunting to start social media marketing under these circumstances. In fact, I used to agree with the company’s reasoning behind avoiding social media; however, I think I’m now changing my mind. Qualman’s point that “too many companies believe their problems are unique when it comes to the Web” made me feel like this reason might not be a good one anymore (p. 154). After all, there are many financial institutions that do a beautiful job with social media marketing. I understand that it would take a concerted effort as well as dedicated resources for the company to create a social media presence, but couldn’t it only improve upon the dismal Google search results I encountered? After performing my little Google search experiment, I’m a believer in Qualman’s adage that “it’s better to live a social media life making mistakes than living a social media life doing nothing” (p. 187). In the circumstances of my employer, I truly think doing even a minimal amount of social media marketing could help.

Letting the Masses Promote the Brand: Is it Worth the Risk?

It was hard for me to choose what to write about from this week’s readings because they touched on a lot of interesting and valuable topics! In the end, I’ve chosen this week’s readings from Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics. Qualman chose a great example to highlight in chapter four, as he explores the successful use of social media in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Not only did Obama’s campaign actively use social media, but it embraced it, allowing social media to take the campaign further than it would have otherwise been able to go.

During the 2008 election season, it was apparent to me that Obama’s campaign readily took advantage of social media. What I did not consciously realize, though, was the extent to which the campaign built a grassroots following, and allowed that community to do some of the heavy lifting for it. Qualman uses the example of the parody on the well-known Budweiser “Whassup” commercials.

Essentially, the campaign allowed someone on the outside to “take ownership of the brand and promote it” (p. 68). The parody was a wild success and received millions of views. What I find striking about this is how beautifully it worked for the campaign, but also how risky this type of thing is. It could quickly go awry if the party doing the promoting does so in a distasteful or offensive way. To successfully leverage an online community in this way, communicators must be able to stay on top of what’s happening with their brand, and react swiftly and decisively when needed to avert crisis. Clearly, the Obama campaign of 2008 was able to do this, and it paid off—the risk was well worth it.

I have to believe, though, that the risk is not worth it for some brands, and that’s why some are hesitant to fully embrace social media to this extent. Maybe I’m thinking about this in a limited way, but it seems that allowing an online community to take some brand ownership may only work well for certain types of brands and in certain industries. The Obama campaign proved that it works for promoting a person or beliefs, but how well would this work for a product? (I’m having a hard time thinking of a parallel example for a product.) In the end, I think companies and organizations need to weigh their options: maintain near complete control of their message and brand, or relinquish some of that control and hope it pays off.

Technology and Technical Communication

I always find it fascinating to read about the history of the technical communication profession. It is undeniable that technology—particularly the advent of personal computers and the Internet—has completely transformed the landscape for technical communicators. Saul Carliner’s chapter (Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication does a great job describing the impact of technological changes on the role of the technical communicator.

“Technology has always played a central role in technical communication. At first, it served primarily as the subject about which technical communicators wrote. As various publishing technologies emerged, the technology also became the tool that facilitated the work” (p. 45).

Advancements in technology have certainly made life much easier for technical communicators today than in past decades. Frankly, I can’t imagine the amount of rework that communicators had to put into early documents created using a typewriter, retyping content for each correction or addition. Additionally, the challenges that came along with printing and formatting in the 1970s and 1980s were considerable. Today we, as technical communicators, have fancy software that comparably makes it a breeze for us to perform our jobs, and to create an appealing and usable product that meets the needs of our audience.

While I came away from this chapter with a new appreciation for all the technological advancements we benefit from, I also now recognize that the role of the technical communicator has become a lot more complex as well. Not only do we have more than ever to document (i.e., our potential subject matter has increased significantly), but there is an infinitely larger audience to reach.

In my current position, audience is something we constantly try to evaluate. In writing about my company’s products, it is sometimes difficult to know what level of knowledge and skill an audience has right off the bat. Some users are probably well versed in using computers and technology, others may not be. What do we assume the user already knows? This is even further complicated by language and cultural barriers. Even when a company only produces content for an audience within the United States it can be difficult to determine an appropriate reading level and vocabulary.

I have to admit, I’m thankful to be a technical communicator today, with all the technology we have available to help us do our jobs. But I certainly acknowledge that this same technology does add to the complexity that exists within the field.

It’s All About Attitude

Chapters two and three of Eric Qualman’s Socialnomics do a great job of explaining how companies can leverage social media to build and enhance their image and reputation. The key, it seems, is to focus on the positive. Some companies take a very reactive approach, viewing critical feedback on various social media outlets as something to be controlled or contained. Responding in this way (essentially by stifling the opinions of consumers) really doesn’t do much for the company or the consumer. Companies that are truly successful use criticism in a more productive way, as Qualman explains,

“Effective companies and people relish online feedback. They use the information to make themselves more competitive by improving their products and services in the eyes of the consumer . . . Good companies view it as an opportunity to prove to the customer that they are willing to go the extra mile for them” (p. 40).

Personally, I hadn’t thought about it this way before. It’s really in a business’s best interest to respond to online criticism proactively. Then, they can not only acknowledge the consumer’s complaint, but also create an opportunity for themselves. If they are able to rectify the situation, they demonstrate—in a very public way—their willingness to help and that they care about their customers’ satisfaction.

Today, the companies that embrace the social capabilities of an online environment are in the best position to thrive. While doing this week’s readings, I found a good example. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, uses Twitter to as a way for employees to communicate directly with customers about their products. This is exactly the type of positive, proactive interaction Qualman is talking about. Not only can employees assist customers, if needed, but they can also interact with them on a personal level—in front of a presumably large audience in the public sphere.

Companies who are struggling to develop a social media strategy would do well to examine their approach. Using lemons (criticism and complaints) to make lemonade (a lasting, positive impression to customers and their social networks) is an invaluable tool. The company doesn’t necessarily control what the online community is saying, rather it uses it to positively influence the way consumers feel.

My (Somewhat Limited) Blogging Experience

Last semester, I took Rhetorical Theory (English 720) with Dr. Pignetti. In that course we used a blog for our reflection and discussion, which was my first academic experience with using a blog. Initially I was intimidated by the idea of airing my thoughts in such a public venue (particularly after reading the blog literacy articles), but it really wasn’t so scary after all. One thing I appreciate about using a blog rather than the D2L discussion board is the ease with which we can tie in relevant ideas, content, examples, etc. Including images and videos, for example, can help drive home the point you’re trying to make as you write and make for a much more interesting read. Basically, academic blogging allows for a more interactive, interesting, and dynamic experience.

My experience with blogging in my personal life has been more passive. I don’t write my own personal blog, or anything, but I do quite frequently read others’ blogs. I enjoy reading the blogs of my friends, family, and acquaintances as a way to keep up on their lives. I also appreciate blogs about cooking and do-it-yourself home projects. Annie’s Eats is one of my favorites in the realm of food, and I also just discovered Anne’s Food.

The blog literacy articles do a good job of highlighting the interactivity and sense of community blogging can build in an academic setting. I am looking forward to another academic blogging experience!