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You are here: Articles --> 2011 --> Taking Advantage of Social Media. Part II: The Media Aren't the Message
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Taking advantage of social media. Part II: the media aren't the message

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Taking advantage of social media. Part II: The media aren't the message. <>

In Part I of this article, I described the main forms of social media currently being used. I referenced Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" in the title to make an important point, namely that the types of communication each medium supports strongly determines the nature of the message you're sending. For example, social media in which only one or very few communicators can contribute (e.g., static Web pages) send the message that you are limiting dialogue, whereas those that encourage two-way dialogue (e.g., blogs) or multi-way dialogue (e.g., e-mail discussion forums) or outright collaboration (e.g., wikis) send the message that you want your audience to become part of the process of creating meaningful information. In the present installment, I've inverted the McLuhan quote in the title to emphasize that despite the importance of the medium, what you say and how you say it remain important.

Writing is often called a "dialogue" between authors and readers, since no matter how carefully and clearly we write, readers interpret what we've written based on subjective factors, including their preconceptions and biases. As a result, they often hear a very different message than the one we hoped to convey. In practice, though, traditional written information more closely resembles a monologue; apart from sending fan letters, the audience can't discuss anything with us. Social media are important because they change the dialogue from metaphorical to real, which is something that traditional documentation can't do well or at all.

Whatever a social medium's idiosyncrasies, what distinguishes it from traditional communication methods is that it restores the human touch by permitting or even insisting on dialogue. At a minimum, this makes the reading more diverse and interesting, as in blogs that painlessly mingle technical content (upcoming webinars, solutions to technical problems) with insights into the blogger's life. At the other extreme, social media represent a revolutionary way for readers to work with us to create meaning. To borrow a phrase that is fast-becoming cliché, that changes everything.

The ways you can begin to use social media include, but are not limited to, the following suggestions:

Help people to find you

To fully benefit from social media, provide links to all your social networking tools alongside the conventional mailing address, e-mail, and telephone information on your Web site, and repeat these details wherever possible: on business cards, brochures, and in each social medium you use so that audiences for one medium can learn of the other media and decide whether to participate. Provide as many ways as possible for your audience to hear your message and tell you what they think. In particular, keep an eye out for new social media tools that people are starting to use to communicate, and find an easy way to let them add your resources to their favorite tools. For example, the AddThis service lets you create buttons so people can automatically add you to their Twitter feed or to Facebook. Most social media sites provide tools specific to their site that serve specific functions, and you can take advantage of those tools to help people link to any of your published information. For example, the British Medical Journal includes 10 such tools at the bottom of each article: CiteULike, Complore, Connotea, Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Technorati, and Twitter.

For people who don't yet know you exist, create a presence in appropriate social media (e.g., "profiles" in Facebook, LinkedIn) and create a blog or wiki, then create keywords related to what interests you and what you do and register these resources with search tools such as Google so they'll turn up in Web searches.

Humanize your organization

Often, it's helpful to emphasize the human side of what you do. For example, a blogger who doesn't always toe the corporate line and who occasionally reports your company's blunders sends the message that you tolerate dissent and will acknowledge your mistakes. A loosely moderated discussion forum with a moderator who only steps in when necessary says that you appreciate dialogue and discussion, but won't tolerate disruptions of the conversation. Reporting in your blog that everyone took the day off to run in a marathon to raise funds for cancer research says that you care about more than your company's bottom line.

For my freelance work, I maintain a list of key dates and significant holidays in my calendar software so I won't forget to contact colleagues and clients before national, religious, or cultural holidays. For example, I send greetings to Chinese colleagues on the Chinese new year, Indian colleagues on their national independence day and festivals such as Divali, and Muslim colleagues on Ramadan. When disasters such as earthquakes and monsoons make the news, I inquire whether they and their friends and family are okay.

If you plan to communicate about both business and personal topics, it's sometimes appropriate to establish separate communication channels to keep the two separate. It's always appropriate to clarify when you're speaking for yourself versus on behalf of your employer.

Document your history

Few commercial Web sites tell us about more than a company's products, and most communicate the message that their emphasis is on sales. Yet most nonprofit organizations provide details of who they are, what they stand for, and where they came from (e.g., Oxfam). Why not add similar content to your "About" Web page, or even create a Wikipedia entry? (Because Wikipedia frowns on self-promotion, and will remove obvious attempts to misuse their encyclopedia for advertising, encourage others to contribute and accept their edits so that this becomes a broadly useful resource.) If you're a truly social organization, record important meetings and share them with employees, shareholders, clients, and anyone else who might be interested.

Provide content

Naysayers notwithstanding, content is still king—though the definition of content now includes the "experience" of interacting with you or your Web site. In the modern context, content goes beyond traditional categories such as white papers and knowledgebases to include some form of social media. Examples include lectures and interviews (podcasts), training and "who we are" videos (vlogs), chat rooms, blogs, discussion forums, or a Twitter service. Invite experts or "personalities" as guest lecturers or even as paid staffers. Share information because it's fun and rewarding to share, not just to promote your services. MadCap's Sharon Burton does a great job of promoting her company through Webinars that establish her (and by implication, MadCap) as an authoritative source of information, not just a shill for MadCap.

Offer ways for your audience to request information, and also ways for them to provide it. For example, STC's Technical Editing SIG provides an "essential reading" space where members can contribute books and other resources they consider to be particularly useful; they do this using the Shelfari tool. If you work for a company whose product has spawned an entire industry of third-party documentation (e.g., Microsoft), why not list the best of those resources alongside your own online documentation?

Build communities and networks

If you can't find an existing group that meets your specific needs, create one and start recruiting members. Groups can be as broad as support for Windows computers or as narrow as support for OpenOffice Writer. Develop what Meryl Evans calls a "virtual mastermind group" that comprises experts capable of solving any problem. The Word MVPs provide an excellent example of how this works, with specialization in Microsoft Word. You can then expand this resource by networking with more than just clients. In my early FaceBook and LinkedIn days, I linked to members who could introduce me to members of their networks who might be interested in what I had to say, and I accepted many such links in return to offer the same favor.

It's surprising how few people take advantage of this approach. For example, even competitors sometimes cooperate, as in the example of antivirus software vendors agreeing to work together. If competitors can do this, why not work with non-competitors to create a resource? For example, word processor developers would find a happy match with printer manufacturers, developers of specialized spellchecker dictionaries, and macro developers.

Provide tools that let visitors to your site share what they've found with their network. For example, link to all your social media from your Web site so visitors can quickly find ways to encourage their friends and colleagues to interact with you. Earlier in this article, I mentioned how the British Medical Journal does this.

Create alternative versions

Social media rely on the Web, and the Web is increasingly international. Even if you can only afford to produce English content, others may find ways to provide content for you in other languages. For example, the OpenOffice group localizes their products through a worldwide network of volunteers. If you can't afford to localize, perhaps you can support others we are willing to do it for you, such as a local software user group in a distant country, or by hosting user-created discussion groups and knowledgebases for other linguistic groups on your Web site. It's not the ideal solution, but with a little supervision, it's probably better than no localization at all. If you do provide information in other languages, advertise this and seek volunteers to help—but don't forget that legal considerations may require you to find someone who can do quality assurance on the translations.

Social media also provide options to improve communication with people who have various handicaps. For example, add closed-captioning or subtitles to videos for deaf colleagues and customers. For blind or visually impaired colleagues and customers, try "described video" or develop podcasts optimized for audio, and find ways to test your various communication channels for accessibility. Even if you can't implement a full accessibility initiative, you could at least find volunteers capable of (for example) ensuring that your Web site is compatible with typical screen-reader software. Could you enlist volunteers to read your Web pages (via Skype) to blind visitors?


"Advertising" means more than selling something: the word's etymology is to make someone aware of something. Social advertising includes things such as promoting your events and announcing dates when you or your colleagues will attend someone else's event (i.e., so colleagues and customers can arrange to meet with them). Most organization already advertise discounts and deals, but why not add contests and other rewards for people who make your social media a valuable resource? Microsoft, for example, designates some of the most helpful or knowledgeable of the experts on their software as "Microsoft MVPs" (most valuable players).

Why not join communities relevant to your endeavors, and make yourself available as a resource? Sharing your expertise without overtly promoting yourself or your services gets you noticed, possibly by potential customers but always by people it's worthwhile talking to. For example, my e-mail signature links to my Web site, my blog, and my onscreen editing book. Readers who like what I have to say can explore those links with me explicitly calling attention to them.

Research your audience

Social media provide abundant information on the problems faced by your audience, and the language they use to discuss those problems. Monitoring discussion forums without trying to direct the conversation provides important insights, but you can also pin down the details through informal questions or even using survey tools such as those integrated with some blogs or external tools such as SurveyMonkey or Doodle. STC's Technical Editing SIG uses polls and surveys to gather feedback from their members. While you're waiting for a community to develop, use tools such as Google to learn what others are saying about your product or service or area of interest, and create a community these people can join—then invite them to join.

Look for other experts, companies, competitors, and potential partners in your area of interest, and follow what they're saying. If you learn something new, talk about it. You can also use this approach for market research and to identify trends; for example, Mashable provides tools for mining various social media sites to identify patterns or hot topics.

If, like me, you travel a lot, use the search tools provided by social media sites such as LinkedIn to find colleagues and clients near where you'll be traveling. Time permitting, try to meet with them in person. The Internet is fun, but not nearly as much fun as meeting people in the real world.

Mix and match

Social media can be mixed and combined in surprising ways, and you shouldn't be scared to experiment. Each medium has advantages you'll discover as you gain experience, and drawbacks that other media can compensate for. The tools I discussed in the previous article are evolving to facilitate "mashups" that merge and crosslink and mutate each technology and combine it with others. Even if you focus on only one medium, advertise that solution in all the other media. For example, if you answer a question in Facebook, add it to your blog, recap what you said in Twitter and LinkedIn, and distribute a link to the blog entry so that anyone who isn't following you in the original medium can learn what you said in another medium that they are following. Meryl Evans (see Additional Reading) will inspire you to consider the possibilities.

Different people prefer different media, and this approach ensures that everyone has a chance to hear your message, no matter what information channels they prefer. If you're truly serious about using social media, develop a formal plan on how you will provide updates on all your areas of activity in each of your social media. Include a strategy for progressively expanding your audience. Provide options such as Twitter feeds and RSS feeds that let people monitor what you're saying automatically, without having to visit your site to search for updates.

Socially yours

Lost in this list of possibilities is a larger point, namely that these are only specific instances of the most important social tools of all: the Internet itself, and your own skill at communicating clearly, credibly, and in an interesting way. Each medium tends to have a somewhat different communication style, so you should practice using each medium until you learn the new style. Practice makes perfect, and you'll improve your other writing by (for example) learning how to condense complex thoughts into the 140 characters permitted by Twitter.

Internet usage patterns are intensely generational, so you'll need to research the tools of choice for each generation in your audience. In addition, the Internet changes rapidly, so you'll need to find ways to learn about new tools and to continuously expand your use of social media as old tools evolve. This is a bit of work, but on the plus side, it can be a great deal of fun. So get out of your cubicle and start being social!

Additional reading

Evans, M. 2009. 32 ways to use Facebook for business. 21 July 2009.
Evans, M. 2009. 34 ways to use YouTube for business. 29 July 2009.
Evans, M. 2009. 33 ways to use LinkedIn for business. 31 July 2009.
Evans, M. 2009. 62 ways to use Twitter for business. 3 August 2009.
Maggiani, R. [various dates] Position papers on social networking.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved