Author Archives: maryvanbe

Wrap-up and best wishes

At first, I found the final paper quite daunting due simply to all the research involved; however, once I started it, I was amazed at how much I was learning. For example, I didn’t realize how much social media users can circle back and help technical communicators improve their documentation. End users of technical documentation often leave feedback on social media such as a company’s Facebook page, which technical communicators can use to better organize their materials, improve content or add more illustrations or video. At the same time, technical communicators can engage with commenters online to fill in holes in documentation or answer questions, all which improves customer service and retention.

Also, I learned that today’s consumers consult how-to videos and online discussion boards before they read instructional manuals. I, too, prefer to type “how to . . . ?” into a search engine rather than pore through a cumbersome paper manual. In fact, companies are now offering more of the “quick start” type of instructions as an adjunct to the full manual; these types of instructions tend to be much more user-friendly and heavily illustrated with step-by-step instructions.

Lastly, I came to realize how much technical communication roles are changing for the better. Rather than being seen as an “add-on” to an assembly line product, technical communicators are taking a seat at the table as invaluable members of  interdisciplinary teams that are responsible for company growth and vitality. This means that we all need a robust education and can’t be content to conduct business as usual. I think this growth will present great opportunities for all of us.

Of course, emerging media are not without their disadvantages and dangers. We all have to be savvy consumers of information when doing research online. As technical communicators, we need to be quick to correct the errors that are prone to show up in online consumer help sites. And we need to be ever vigilant that our “need for speed,” which has increased exponentially since the advent of the Internet and social media, doesn’t affect the quality, originality, availability or appearance of our documents or audiovisual presentations in negative ways.

Abstract

Emerging media such as social media, email and the Internet have enabled us to gather and synthesize information faster than ever. We can accomplish tasks that used to require time, money and travel in just a click of a button. We can find and interview subject matter experts online at our convenience. And when we’re done, we can distribute our final document to the whole world, if we wish. But have these tools made our technical documents better—or just faster? This paper explores the advantages and disadvantages conferred by emerging media since the advent of the Internet. It gives concrete examples from the daily work life of a newspaper reporter and technical communicator and offers ideas as to how technical communicators can use emerging media to their advantage rather than to their detriment.

Wrap-up

This has been a great class, and I’ve learned so much from every one of you. Thank you for all of your thought-provoking comments, helpful suggestions and general feedback over this semester; it has been invaluable in both my coursework and my career. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and good luck in your education and careers. Who knows, we may meet again!

Surveying the landscape

Stuart Blythe, in “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” discussed using survey research to get the information you need. At my work, we recently sent out a survey to all staff about internal communications, and I found the process very interesting. We are lucky enough to have a survey research center at the research and education institute where I work; however, because there is a cost associated with using the center, we decided to write, send and tabulate the results ourselves using a free online survey tool. This isn’t the ideal method, as it’s not founded in survey science, but we decided that it would be OK for our nonscientific purposes because they would never be published anywhere.Surveys-Jobs

In our first iteration, we focused on current state issues and multiple-choice questions, because we have found in past surveys on other topics that people tend to provide amorphous, non-useful comments when asked open-ended questions. We asked about specific communications vehicles (ie, e-newsletter, TV monitors with messaging, weekly huddles, staff meetings, email announcements, and monthly email updates). We also made sure that all questions were pertinent to our audience of internal staff.

The questions were very specific, such as “How often do you read the e-newsletter Institute Connection?” and then offered responses such as “I read all of every issue,” “I read some of the content,” or “I don’t read it at all.” Because we were all-inclusive, the survey got to be too long, and we were worried people wouldn’t complete it. We also questioned whether, because the institute is merging with another institute, it was best to focus on current state, because we knew everything could change. Plus, would the questions we were asking provide actionable, useful content?

With that in mind, we ended up rewriting the entire survey to ask much broader questions that could be used to inform future decisions as to what kind of communications vehicles we should offer after the two institutes merge. These questions included such questions as “Please rank the top 5 ways you prefer to receive information about the institute?” The choices were “e-newsletter,” “TV monitors with messaging,” etc. We removed all potentially leading questions. We also significantly shortened the survey and added two open-ended questions. The open-ended questions were “What do you think Central Communications is doing right” and “How do you think Central Communications could improve?”

We had a response rate of about 60% (a very good rate for internal surveys) and received 80 open-ended responses (the survey went out to about 155 people). While some of the open-ended responses were not useful because they were vague or clearly intended to be unhelpful, most responses were very helpful in informing our communications plan for 2016 and beyond. I have to admit that I was skeptical about offering open-ended questions, but I’m glad we did, because most people offered constructive feedback. As a result, I’ve changed some of my communication practices and am researching ways to change others.

Another important lesson learned was about the format itself. Because we used a free online survey tool that couldn’t be customized with the branding of the institute, some people thought it was spam and refused to answer it. It reinforced the idea that everything that comes from us has to be branded, even when it is an internal document. To do otherwise is to confuse the audience and lead them to distrust it.

This is the first survey I’ve helped construct to gauge the effects of our work in central communications, and I found it to be a very valuable one.

Creating audience-driven content

I was surprised at how off-base so many of the Tweets were in Melody Bowdon’s study, “Tweeting an Ethos: Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication.” For example, when tweeting cbc756e8b79d10bffdf95bf729e29839to people in an emergency situation such as Hurricane Irene, the three key organizations (the American Red Cross, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CNN), 31% of the tweets were simply promotion of their organization’s programming, like “More stormy weather in store for the U.S.? Watch on cnn.com/cnndc14.” I would say that the last thing a person in an emergency situation needs is an ad.

Bowdon said these ads “enticed readers with potential information but did not offer inherently useful content for readers.” In another tweet, the American Red Cross instructed people in the storm region to “remember to have a nonelectric can opener,” when one would think that if you don’t already have one, you’re probably not going to rush out into the storm to buy one. And these were just a few examples.

Said Bowdon, “According to our analysis, very few of the tweets conveyed audience-centered, immediately relevant, locally focused information that someone preparing for the storm would need or substantive news updates that would help people in other parts of the country to understand in detail what was  happening or specifically how they could help.” This really reflects poorly on these organizations’ ethos that they were taking up people’s valuable time with noise and self-promotion when they could have directed people to local resources that could have helped them. The risks they were running were that people would become frustrated and turn to other organizations for news, perhaps never to return.

Sadly, this is so often the case because we communicators (I’m including myself) often don’t stop to think or try to find out what our audiences really need and want and then we don’t think about the purpose of many of our communications. For example, I’ve been writing my organization’s e-newsletter for the last six years, just cranking out the information that passively trickles in to my inbox without often questioning whether it is really helpful and useful to my audience or whether the articles tie back to my organization’s strategic and annual plans.

It takes a long time to read my newsletter, as it is often 10 or more pages long, and I don’t want to waste people’s time with information that isn’t relevant for useful to them. So thinking in terms of ethos will be helpful for me when I produce future newsletters. For example, what am I saying about my organization’s ethos when I publish my newsletter, and what are the implications of that for leaders, staff and my organization’s standing within a larger organization?

I’m seeing the many different ways, aside from Twitter and aside from communicating in a disaster, that we as technical communicators can try to put a little more distance between ourselves and self-promotion and get a little closer to what readers and viewers really need and want. And we can’t wait for a disaster to start doing this; we should always be asking our readers and viewers what they need in different situations so we can be prepared with audience-driven information.

I’d like to add you to my professional network

In “Using LinkedIn to Get Work,” the authors conclude that LinkedIn is a fantastic resource for getting2015-10-31_16-28-32 a new job or new projects. As a long-time user of LinkedIn to get more work, I completely agree. I visit LinkedIn only about once a week to check who’s viewed my profile, make new connections, answer email and manage a microsite for a local chapter of a national organization (I approve or disapprove applications to join). And I have gotten many projects for my side business, Synapse Writing & Editing this way.

The secret to success is having a complete profile, which is a lot of work and depends on the cooperation of others. After plugging in all of your information, which can be extensive, you need to ask for and receive three recommendations from people with whom you’ve worked who are also on LinkedIn. After you’ve done this and achieved the “All-Star” status, you are ready for business, which includes keeping the information on the site updated, continually adding trusted connections, joining groups related to your work and, depending on your objective, checking out companies where you might want to work and making connections with people within those companies.

Truth be told, in every instance in which I’ve received a new freelance project on LinkedIn, it was from people who were searching for terms such as “medical writer” or “medical editor.” I’ve never approached a company or individual on LinkedIn for freelance work, although I have approached them about full-time job listings in order to establish some kind of connection–although that has never worked for me.

Some of the functionality on LinkedIn requires you to upgrade to the “Premium” level, in which you can see everyone who has viewed your profile, send “InMail,” see how many other people have applied for a job you’ve applied for and gauge where you stand in comparison to the other applicants. However, LinkedIn allows you to do free one-month trials of Premium every so often, which can be a big help when searching for jobs.

One feature I’ve never understood the value of is the endorsements. This features allows anyone in your network to “endorse” you for different skills, in my case writing, editing, journal management, proofreading and Web content LinkedIn-Recommendationsand design. Seems fair enough, but an endorsement isn’t the same as a recommendation, which requires you to describe how you know the person you are recommending and where  you worked together, facts that increase the legitimacy of the recommender.

But endorsers don’t have to describe your relationship with them or where (if) you worked together, and they don’t have to write anything of value to prospective employers. I have gotten tons of endorsements, many from people I don’t know and who have no idea whether I’m actually proficient at the skill for which they’re endorsing me. I’ve never participated in these endorsements for those reasons.

Overall, though, LinkedIn has been a very valuable tool for me. In many ways, it gives you access to people with whom you would have not been able to contact through traditional means, such as via email or phone. While not every connection leads to a job, or indeed, to anything, you never know when someone will remember seeing you when they need someone like you in the future. And, unless you hide your profile, you’re always visible to a network of thousands while not appearing to your employer like you’re looking for a job, because almost every professional is on LinkedIn.

Source of the graphics: LinkedIn.com

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Long Tail

In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson argues that, online, we have more access to and more demand for mx368167477_3d965b3b31_o.png.pagespeed.ic.RxYn8bXJYmBuYRY-5lurore niche, less mainstream “micromarkets” of media such as movies, books and music than we ever did in the physical world. In other words, demand is shifting from the head of the distribution to its tail (image to the right). Businesses can actually make money selling these types of relatively unpopular media. Today, you don’t need a megablockbuster to make money, but you still need to make a big impact to capture enough of the market share.

Film streaming services like Amazon or Netflix offer viewers both mainstream content and “off-the-grid” documentaries and vintage movies in large numbers. I, for one, never watched TV until Netflix came along.

I was bored with the silly, inane offerings on the major TV networks, deciding instead to rent movies from Redbox or other similar service. But once I was turned on to Netflix and I had access to so many great, offbeat moviethCSOW8G9Ds and TV shows, I was hooked. Mini-series like “Top of the Lake” and “The Killing” became my go-tos. I could always find something interesting to watch, even if it was just endless “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” shows. Paired with Amazon, you have a seemingly endless list of options, because what one doesn’t have, the other one does. For example, the other night I was looking for the original 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (image to the right). It was nowhere to be found on Netflix, but there it was on Amazon, and minutes later, I was watching it. That film had a cult following in the 1970s, when it first came out, but I doubt it’s one of their most downloaded movies now; still, like Anderson stated, if just one person watches it every so often, it can be profitable for Amazon to keep it among its ranks. Likewise, I recently watched the film “Helvetica,” about a single font, for a class assignment; no doubt it was a niche documentary, but there it was on Amazon.

The other advantage Netflix has over the main TV networks is that you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, you can do that to a certain extent with DVD, but services like Netflix and Amazon give you instant viewing at any time of day or night. So when I sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed, I can watch my detective shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

The content on Netflix and Amazon is much easier to find than any content on TV. I have cable (the only reason I have it is so the kids can watch their kids shows), and I hate scrolling through the channels looking for something in particular. Most of what’s available is really junk viewing, and you have look and look to find what you might want. On Netflix and Amazon, a search function allows you to type in exactly what you want and, voila!, there it is. I’ve always complained about too many bad choices on cable, but perhaps its just the way the material is uncurated and disorganized.

Distribution graphic source: Ilya Grigorik

Paying too much attention to the wrong things

In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.

I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.

Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.

I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.

In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.

I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.

I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.

In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?

We will always need technical communicators

In Content Management: Beyond Single Sourcing, Hart-Davidson states that technical writing duties will be more broadly deployed in content creation in the future. He then asks what technical communicators will do. I am not sure I am reading his chapter correctly, but this is certainly not the case in my workplace, and I would bemoan the fact if it ever were.

This is because technical communication is a highly skilled field with many subsets, each holding specialized knowledge. For example, I am a medical writer and editor, which is a highly specialized discipline under the umbrella of technical communication.

I completed the pre-med curriculum at my university, I’ve worked in scientific laboratories, I’ve written about science and medicine during my 25-year career. Medical writers and editors are not that common, and I’ve never run across another person with the same credentials as I have. So I have trouble envisioning anyone else at my workplace, which is very large, having the skills and knowledge to do what I do. I would think this would be the same at most organizations, that highly skilled technical writers would continue to occupy a niche.

Technical writers—or any other type of skilled, talented writers—are not commodities. And many people who are not technical writers think they are and could do a writer’s job. That is simply not the case. Highly skilled and trained writers have received training in communication theory, rhetoric and many other disciplines that makes them uniquely qualified to do the job they are trained to do. From my point of view, highly skilled writers and the IT guy down the hall who thinks he can do a technical writer’s job are not interchangeable.

There will always be a role for talented and skilled writers, because it is a discipline in itself. And we will always need technical writers, who are one step removed from the subject matter, which allows them to be more objective than the subject matter experts, who might write quite well but cannot possibly have that perspective.

When Hart-Davidson speaks of content management with distributed authorship, I think of the Web site where I work. A few of us have the permissions needed to upload new materials to or to change the Web site, but no one else but me writes content for or changes the site but me, because I have the skills to do that. Other people have the permissions, but their job is not to write, it is to perform IT maintenance tasks or build more wireframes, etc.

We don’t currently allow the rest of the staff to write or post materials for the site without going through Communications. This is for the very reason that we don’t want non-writers to change the voice, the quality or the format of the Web site. It must be consistent and align with our brand and style. In fact, I often get material from non-writers on the staff who want me to post things on the Web site, intranet, Internet or TV monitors, and it is usually full of grammatical and spelling errors that need to be fixed before they’re posted. Without a skilled gatekeeper, that level of quality would be difficult to maintain.

Technical communicators will always have a place at the table, particularly when they keep up with their skills and credentials so they can offer added value to their organization.

Digital literacy: The ability to use technology for communications and beyond

Digital literacy, as defined by Spilka, does mean something different today than when I started working 25 years ago. At that time, digital literacy meant that you could use a dot-matrix printer and type on a typewriter, correcting errors as you went with Whiteout or one of those white correcting strips.

Today, in my job, digital literacy means being able to use a PC, software, high-speed printer and digital camcorder and being able to use the content management systems for my company’s Internet and intranet. I’m expected to understand Internet and intranet design, including user experience testing and implementation of those findings. I have to be able to read and analyze the analytics on both the Internet and intranet. And I need to have at least an elementary background in social media–and I’m pretty sure more will be expected of me in this area.

It can be difficult to keep up in the latest and greatest innovations and gadgets and in what is new and cool in Web design. Is it OK to make Web site users click more than once or twice to get to the page they’re looking for? Is it better to employ an endlessly scrolling design or one in which everything sits “above the fold”? What about those sites that have an austere minimalist design with maybe just a few words and you have to click on it to get to any sort of “real” information: are they suitable for our company?

Yes, there has been a “seismic shift” in technical communications. The shift from “blue collar work” to knowledge work means that it is a rare person who is still “just” an editor or writer. It is far more likely that we are editors, writers, Web designers and “new media” experts. Rarely am I now referred to as a “grammar” expert. Not that that role is any less important; in fact, it’s more crucial than ever. But my job goes far beyond knowing when to say “compared with” rather than “compared to” and when to use “which” versus “that.” That knowledge is part of the continuum of my job, which on any given day, could mean communicating with staff, senior leaders, media relations or the board of directors.

Teamwork has always been important, but never more so than today. No one works in isolation completing the same tasks over and over again. Every staff member is part of at least several different teams with different accountabilities. I work with technical staff, other communications professionals, leadership and administrative staff on different projects, because we’re all expected to go beyond the narrow tactical tasks of our resumes to work on strategic directions for projects, teams and beyond.

At the same time, if need be, I can do the work of several people to produce something like a brochure, user manual or e-newsletter. Today’s software packages and easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Publisher allow me to do the work of a graphic designer, desktop publisher and printer.

Dicks says that the roles of grammar police and wordsmiths are not over for technical communicators but are diminishing in importance. I would argue that these roles are still extremely important–today more than ever. If social media are eroding young people’s use of grammar, spelling and architecture, we need to be there to make sure our writing and communications are of the highest quality. This, of course, goes beyond just grammar and wordsmithing to things like targeting the correct audience, keeping each piece of writing concise and precise, and avoiding “corporate speak” and jargon.

I, for one, welcome any new technology that is going to make my work easier and faster while still preserving high quality. Doing anything else is risking become an impediment or barrier to the work of an organization–or worse, irrelevant. Technology is going to keep evolving, and as communicators, we need to keep evolving right along with it.

“Making it small”: Creating a valuable space on the Web

In the full text of the debate on Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger, the two argue whether Web 2.0 is more like Disney or Kafka. While I agree that the Web is a chaotic place full of garbage, I find there is value to it for those who can distinguish between the valuable and insightful from the inane and redundant. The Web can be a giant time-suck if don’t know where to go and have created no “walls” to keep out the distractions and the chorus of competing voices. But I think most, if not all, users are able to do so by creating communities.

I think of it this way: when I left the small town of my youth for a large urban university, many people said, unhelpfully, “don’t get lost in the crowd!” But many people said something else: “You will make the university small for yourself.” This last comment was the more prescient. I moved into a dorm (one community), found a job (another community), joined the campus newspaper staff (another community) and had friends in other communities, and so on. I never found it unmanageable; in fact, I “made it small” by joining the groups that were most meaningful to me and that suited my purposes at the university at that time.

I think of the Web the same way: you “make it small” by doing several different things. First, you join the communities that are most meaningful to you. For myself, I value Facebook and LinkedIn. I have my network of “friends” on Facebook with whom I interact every day. This network consists mostly of new friends, old friends, friends from high school, coworkers and friends of friends. I limit views of my profile to friends, and I feel “safe” in this network, even though I know “safety” and “privacy” are illusory on the Web. But I know this, and I am careful what I post and comment on.

It’s the same with LinkedIn, although in a different realm. Some of the people whom I’ve “invited to become part of my network” or accepted their invitations are also Facebook friends, but most are current and former colleagues and people I’ve networked with over the years. There are even a few people in there whom I don’t know, and I don’t even know how we connected in the first place. I use LinkedIn very differently than I do Facebook in that I use it largely to generate business for my freelance work by networking with people who might want to hire me.

I also am the social media chair of the local chapter of the American Medical Writers Association, so I approve or decline membership in our group and occasionally post about an upcoming event or other topic. I’ve never posted anything else, and I’m much more guarded about doing so than on Facebook. Not because I feel unsafe but because the audience is professional, and I feel I’d have to have something uniquely insightful to post before I’d attempt to do so.

So, much of your ability to make the most out of an online community is understanding its audience and reach. Likewise, savvy people know that online-only “friends” or “contacts” on social networking sites control every aspect of how they appear to you (and vice versa). In other words, the man or woman “behind the curtain” may in fact be almost unrecognizable and unfamiliar in person. Thus, I think most adults know to exercise caution when dealing with people whom you have never met in person.

And I think we are, as a whole, becoming more and more savvy about the relationships and communities we participate in online, as well as more and more cautious about what lurks “out there.” In the last decade, we have amassed many a cautionary tale. But, as in “real life,” we can choose whom to be friends with and whom to listen to and communicate with. Our job is to “make the Web small” by effectively managing our exposure to different types of information from different sources and to understand that they are not all equal. If we can do that, the Web is an invaluable resource and a fantastic source of knowledge. In other words, yes, there are plenty of cockroaches, but you might not see them if you keep the light on.

Test blog #2: Social media a viable tool for dissemination of technical information – Van Beusekom

Elise Verzosa and Amy Hea’s article pointed out that social media often has negative connotations for students concerned that using it will undermine their academic lives and careers. These students are fearful that their university, employer or future employer will see their postings, and it will have ramifications for them, because once posts are up, they tend to take on a life of their own (eg, Anthony Weiner’s photo)..

Of course, their concerns are legitimate when it comes to posting photos and blurbs about their late-night escapades or hateful rants. But people who think that not posting photos of themselves or any information on social media will preserve their privacy have got it all wrong. Today, privacy is an illusion. I don’t have to go on Facebook to find out how old you are, where you live, where you work, where you go to school, who your neighbors are or how high your real estate taxes are. It’s all out there–and much more–for anyone to see.

But posting technical communication on social media is no threat, and I can’t understand why anyone would think otherwise. In fact, I see its usefulness every day on LinkedIn, where fellow professionals post how-tos, advice and other information to enhance both other people’s careers and their own. By making themselves an expert, they are positioning themselves to be seen as a trustworthy, authoritative source. Often, I find myself wondering how to do something (eg, how to remove chewing gum from upholstery) or why something is the way it is (why does my cat go outside only to turn around and want to be let back in 20 times a day?). I’m looking for practical advice (eg, how to get promoted) and personal stories from people who’ve been there (eg, how I got promoted). I’m getting married next year, so I’ve Googled things like “good processional music” and “Minneapolis catering” dozens of times lately.

I’ve also posted some promotional how-to articles on e-how for friends’ businesses (eg, a “how to clean and preserve your deck” article for a local deck-washing business). Of course, I often respond to other people’s how-to questions on different forums (eg, how do I display cupcakes at my wedding? “Try an acrylic cupcake tower.) I once posted a photo of my flower towers, a project I found on homedepot.com and did at home; a friend saw the photos and asked me how I made it, so I ended up posting step-by-step instructions. Anyone can do this, which brings me to the next point.

The caveat in using technical communication via social media is that it’s hard to be sure if the poster is a legitimate expert and not just someone out to make $25 for posting an article on e-how (I’m not sure what they pay now, but they used to pay per article). I find that it’s best to always verify the facts some other way, by checking out similar posts on other social media forums or Googling it. Not that I’m against using Wikipedia; I find a lot of useful stuff there, but I verify it elsewhere. I’m also always skeptical about the information found on sponsored sites.

It can be hard to get the information you need online because the Internet is so congested. I find Pinterest to be one of the top offenders when I’m searching for something in particular, because many people post photos or images of things on Pinterest without saying where they found them, so it’s a couple of wasted clicks when I could have possibly found a solid lead elsewhere. Plus, so often, they’re so old and out of date, they’ve outlived their usefulness.

Another way to be relatively sure of the soundness of the information is to use only trusted sites; I find academic institutions and well-known organizations to be pretty trustworthy. And I tend to rely on information from people with credentials versus without. For example, I am 100% confident I can trust a post on mayoclinic.com written by a doctor (although, chances are, someone else wrote it for him). On the other hand, I wouldn’t go on just any discussion board and take the medical advice of someone whose daughter’s husband’s second cousin once had the same symptoms.

All in all, I find that, as long as I take the time to drill down to the level of information I need and the trustworthiness I desire, I’m able to find what I need. And by posting valuable information to help others, I return the favor.

Test blog #1 – What not to do. Van Beusekom

As a favor to my brother, I write a small blog to promote his business’s products: food industry-related items like cuptake towers and cake pop holders. I call it a “small” blog because I don’t follow many of the blogging best practices, mainly because neither one of us is very serious about it, we don’t have a lot of extra time and I don’t do it for pay. I write a blog post every quarter, which I guess is consistent, according to “16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners.” But it certainly isn’t often enough to maintain any followers.

Problem No. 2 is that I’m no expert on the subjects of which I write about: fancy cupcakes and cake pops. Since our audience is people who are experts on fancy cupcakes and cake pops, we should have an expert voice. I did try recruiting top bakers in the field to write blog posts about their businesses, favorite recipes, etc., but although some agreed to do it, no one ever followed through–despite my nagging. So, while I know who are audience members are (Tip No. 2), and I did try to get ideas from the audience (Tip No. 1), it didn’t happen as I envisioned it. That’s how I ended up writing the blog myself, and I don’t think I sound very authentic.

I have to mention that our audience is made up largely of very busy small-business owners (bakeries, cake makers), so I’m not sure how much time they have to peruse a blog when they’re trying to order a cupcake tree for an upcoming event.

And that brings me to Problem No. 1: I don’t really write very much at all. Basically, I asked some baker bloggers if I could repost some content from their own blogs, and one or two agreed as long as I give them credit and link to their site, which I always do. Sometimes I find a cool recipe or project online and link to it. I write a nice, creative, enthusiastic introduction, but I don’t bring a lot of added value to the content. I am not writing for myself (Tip No. 3).

The blog is part of the business’s Web site, which is connected to a Facebook account, but that’s the only marketing we do (vs. Tip No. 4). We’re hoping to use lots of keywords to help us get found online, and I do have to say that our Facebook page is getting more and more likes and views than ever. However, I’m not sure how much the two are related, if at all, because we haven’t looked at the blog analytics for awhile. We also didn’t want to bother monitoring comments, so it’s not interactive at all (so many comments now are from spambots, etc.).

So that’s the status of my small blog and why it’s not thriving but simply existing. I learned a few things from the Top 16 tips, though. For example, I’m going to start issuing a call to action, something I’d never done before except on Facebook (Tip. No. 6). Seems obvious, but I’d never thought of it.

Actually, I think a lot of blogs are like mine: poorly maintained and underperforming due to benign neglect. I can’t tell you the number of blogs I’ve seen in which the writer obviously started with enthusiasm but then just couldn’t maintain the momentum–either due to lack of time or lack of engaging content. One of them I saw was for a deck-maintenance business. The owner started out writing things like “Just did another deck,” but that got pretty repetitious, and apparently, he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He stopped writing after a few weeks. That blog should obviously be taken down.

One other problem I’ve seen with a lot of blogs is that the writer just does not have a unique voice or anything new to say about a topic covered by tons of other blogs. How many blogs about wedding dresses with pictures of elegantly dressed people in front of old barns and decrepit cars does one need?

I also think that many bloggers just aren’t very well informed, nor good writers. Not just anyone can write a good blog; you have to have something to say and the ability to say it in a compelling way. Now, I’m not talking about the guy who wrote a blog to document his wife’s health, as in the article, “Why We Blog.” Like CaringBridge entries, that blog probably saved that guy a lot of time and helped keep people connected with what’s going on. I’m talking about poor writers who could accomplish their goals just as well on Facebook. Blogs have their place, but I don’t think everyone has the skills to write a good one.

My post was about a lot of things not to do–but, in my experience,  the most valuable advice comes from one who’s been there and learned a few things. These things likely won’t save my blog because I just don’t have a strong motivator to do it. But I do know that, going forward, if I’m going to write a blog, I’ll be more ready to step up to the plate.