But with the coming “knowledge tsunami,” the time has come for single-sourcing to be applied to content creation everywhere. Marc Rosenberg reports in his October 17, 2017 article in the Learning Solutions Magazine on an IBM prediction that “by 2020, knowledge will likely be doubling every 11 to 12 hours.” He says: “Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
Single-sourcing is one of the most powerful processes available to prepare you for riding this wave.
“Establishing processes and priorities for curating and managing knowledge within and outside your organization will help you become more efficient and your knowledge products...become more effective and valued.”
The existing definitions of single-source publishing are often dry, nerdy and use complicated words. You can get explanations from Wikipedia, MadCap Flare (one of the providers of technology supporting single-sourcing), or this one by the CEO of another technology provider, Paligo. These definitions will probably make your eyes glaze over if you're not a nerdy technical writer type.
I used this utility to make sure I could explain single-source publishing as simply as possible.
To boil it down to the essence, single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. It takes a bit of work up front to write in a way to use it again, and another bit of work to store the content in a way to make the pieces easy to find later.
But the payoff for the added set up is an exponential increase in efficiency and productivity. You can maintain the content pieces in an agile way to keep up with your product changes, and assemble deliverables ranging from white papers to knowledge base articles to training materials in minutes.
Single source publishing is a way of writing once for many uses. Writing and storing the content takes a little extra work at the beginning, but pays off in increased productivity, with more efficient updates across multiple outputs and audiences.
Though write once for many uses takes some up-front work, the techniques are not complicated.
A good overview starts with a summary of Anders Svensson's 5 principles*:
It is possible to over-complicate the design for reusing content. I once had a client who wanted user guides for multiple modules of multiple products with multiple licensees. As I implemented his requests one-by-one over time, the documents I'd inherited ended up getting so complicated that maintaining what amounted to hundreds of pages of content needed to be a full-time job rather than a once-every-update outsourced project.
However, in the new subscription service landscape, these principles of single-sourcing are vital not only to documentation, but to every aspect of an organization’s content creation, from customer education and success to sales and marketing.
The most successful companies will master these methods of reusing and sharing content across their organizations.
* Rosenberg, M. (2017, October 17). Marc My Words: The Coming Knowledge Tsunami. Retrieved from Learning Solutions Magazine: https://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/2468/marc-my-words-the-coming-knowledge-tsunami
* Svensson, A. (2016, January 13). The 5 Principles of Single Sourcing in Technical Documentation. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/5-principles-single-sourcing-technical-documentation-anders-svensson/
You know you need to create content for your customers to train them on your product. But where do you start?
But instead, you've got limited resources.
While a long-term strategy can connect and reuse content for different purposes, it's best to determine your main goal to help set priorities on where to start and how much you can tackle now.
There are number of common goals that companies have when they want to create self-service content. I polled my colleagues on The Customer Success Forum on LinkedIn and got some some feedback that mirrors what I've found in my consulting work with software companies.
Reduce Support Costs
"Of course they want to reduce support tickets. Support is expensive...you want as much self-service knowledge as possible."
Goal Number one for many companies is reducing support costs. Scott Hopper, an IT Software Technical Support Engineer says, "Of course they want to reduce support tickets. Support is expensive. Unless, you are trying to grow your support team, you want as much self-service knowledge as possible."
If this is the issue you want to start with as you embark on creating your content, make it a specific, measurable goal, like "I want to reduce the number of open support tickets each month by 10%." That way, you can get a clear financial impact that shows the value of your time spent writing and maintaining online help or a knowledgebase.
Brooke Harper, a Sales Development Representative, clarifies the purpose of content like this. She says "As a consumer, I usually look for a quick answer to basic questions or quick actions to simple tasks."
Scott Hopper mentions a couple of other goals you might have as you develop content. "Onboarding customers and converting trial users, puts money in [company's] pockets."
Let's look at these goals separately.
Convert Trial Uses
One of my clients with a microniche software company wanted to improve the conversion rate of his trial users. He had a conversion rate that hovered around 20% of potential users who downloaded the trial version who became paid customers. The product had a fairly steep learning curve, and he gave 14 days of use on a lite version of the product for potential customers to make a decision.
He wanted to give the potential customers enough self-service information in a Quick Start Guide to help those customers make a decision about purchasing the product. For him, we determined that his goal was to have an increase of 5 sales a month, which was worth thousands of dollars a year, for an investment of a couple of weeks of focused effort.
Improving Onboarding Process
Another one of my clients has a very technical product that requires a lot of customization. Their account executives spend several hours with new customers helping with a new implementation. But I helped them create some videos that explained concepts that are important for the customers to understand in order to use the product. This saved about 1/2 an hour of the implementation consultant's time for each new customer. That may not sound like a lot, but when you multiply it by every new customer over the months and years that they may use it, it adds up to literally thousands and thousands of dollars a year. And this is just the start for them. When you want to climb a mountain like this, you still have to take it one step at a time.
"One goal is to facilitate adoption for large accounts, where a CSM could have a hard time delivering high-touch assets for every user. This helps deliver product and support updates to all customers with just a link."
A similar goal is clarified by Sebastian Cabrera, a Customer Success Manager. He says, " One goal is to facilitate adoption for large accounts, where a CSM could have a hard time delivering high-touch assets for every user. This helps deliver product and support updates to all customers with just a link.
This is closely tied to a goal of providing self-serve education for customers. Self-serve education can be anything from basic 1-2 minute YouTube tutorials on how to complete specific tasks, to much more elaborate academy course offerings that go beyond using the tool into industry best-practices, as well as preparation for high-stakes proctored exams (certification).
All of these are good goals, and you can find evidence in the Customer Education discipline of how beneficial each can be to your bottom line. Once you start developing your content, you will find that much of what you develop can be tweaked to serve more than one purpose including in sales and marketing where the financial return is more obvious.
But when you are starting out, focus on one very clear, specific goal. It's great to think long term about how that project can scale along with your company. You need to have that laser focus on what you are trying to accomplish. Otherwise, you may end up with lots of help, but find that your customers don't find it very helpful.
*This post is an excerpt of an upcoming course I am developing on creating customer-focused content. Stay tuned to hear updates on the course development and release date.
This week I have two experiences to share that relate to Saas companies and the importance of customer education.
Recently I wanted to solve a problem of scheduling short meetings with new contacts. I decided that Calendly had a good solution for my needs, but I stuck with the free account, as I only needed one event type - the 15 min meeting.
I geek out over all things efficiency and productivity. One of the main ways that I can be successful as a content development consultant is by focusing on one project and client at a time, also known as time blocking. But I've found it increasingly challenging to communicate my schedule availability with a number of different clients and project timelines.
When I started looking for a solution to the problem of scheduling longer blocks of time, I found my way back to Calendly, but it wasn't an easy or intuitive use case that would solve my particular problem. I asked for and gratefully received another chance to evaluate the upgraded account with my new use requirements so I could figure out whether it would work for me or not.
However, I found it difficult to implement the solution I needed. As an author of self-serve customer education content, I naturally turned to their online help.
Their knowledge base did include a few scant articles aimed at freelancers and solopreneurs. However, the educational content didn't really offer any help or instructions, other than feature-based instructions on how to set up an event type or make it secret. I didn't need help using the tool itself. What I needed was a little more conceptual help, as well as guidelines on setting up my Google calendar to make it work with the Calendly events.
I contacted support again with more information about what I was trying to do, but I got back a rather vague question requesting more details. I read between the lines of the support ticket and decided the support team didn't quite have the answers I wanted. Besides, like many users these days, I wanted a self-serve solution on my time frame, not a hand-holding "let's-figure-it-out-together" solution.
I ended up persevering enough to get my availability and event types set up in such a way that I could time-block for different types of meetings and/or projects and still set aside time for all my administrative tasks. But it took me several tries over the 2-week trial period to get it right, which involved not only how I set up Calendly, but also how I set up my Google calendar and specific appointments. I finally put the finishing touches on my implementation by the end of the trial, without actually having testing it with clients. However, I decided to take the leap and give the upgraded subscription a try without having yet put it to the real test.
From a customer success perspective, they almost lost the sale of my upgraded account, and as it stands, I'm likely to become "churn" the moment another option comes along that might serve my needs better. I'm not likely to forget the hours I spent trying to figure out how long to make my event types or how to block particular things on my Google calendar to make it work. And here I am, telling you I had an experience that was less than stellar.
The point? Now with hindsight, I see that an easily accessible well-designed story-based lesson or two of around 5 minutes could have communicated what I needed to do and saved me lots of time - turning me into an excited advocate for the product instead of using it as a customer education cautionary tale. I should reiterate that there was nothing the support agent could have done (i.e., the reaction) differently to change my experience. This was all about the lack of self-service educational content (i.e., the proactive actions they hadn't yet taken).
I don't believe most users would perserve enough to work through the issues I had. Maybe I don't represent Calendly's main base of premium subscribers, but I can't be the only missed or nearly missed sale amongst however many non-conversions they probably have all the time.
In the scope of their product and customer base, a super small investment either in their team's time (being proactive instead of reactive) or by outsourcing a relatively small project to a person like me. No they aren't going to create Calendly university overnight to provide users and potential users tons of educational content. But I hope they have more educational content in their long-term plans.
To contrast, I have a second recent experience to share.
I use Review My eLearning to share my eLearning projects and collect comments from reviewers on those projects. The account that I have only allows a few courses to be hosted a one time.
Review My eLearning has a fairly intuitive interface, so I had never visited the online help or investigated all of the capabilities in depth. As a result, I didn't know there was a way to upload new versions of a course and retain comments through multiple reviews. Because this didn't come up super often for me, I hadn't taken the time to find out what the right way was. Instead, I was exporting comments, deleting the course to make room on the account for the new version, and uploading the new version. I knew it wasn't the most efficient way of handling it, but it wasn't painful enough for me to figure out the right way.
But Review My eLearning recently updated their software and the update included a new tour. The next time I went into my account after the update, they had a WalkMe style in-app tour that showed me the main features in just a few seconds. I learned about the feature I hadn't previously known was there (or maybe it was a new feature, I don't know): that I could in fact replace a course with a new version, retaining the previous comments. I had reason to use it right away, and the beautiful AHA moment happened. Problem solved. Time saved. Customer Happiness.
I don't know how much of an investment they had to make in that education - it wasn't more than a few sentences. But it showed up in front of the right eyes at the right time.
What do you think I'll do when my subscription comes up? I'm likely to remember how happy I was that they made something easier for me and continue subscribing to their product.
It's worth nothing that the issue I had with Review My eLearning was feature-based and the issue I had with Calendly was not. But as a user, I don't care about the difference. I just want to solve my problems as quickly and easily as possible.
Whether you have a B2C or B2B software business, you can no longer ignore the importance of the right customer educational content in helping your customers be successful with your product. Customer education affects the company's balance sheet, whether you know how to recognize the effect or not. I related in my last post some of the reasons you can justify the expense of customer education as related in the Skilljar/SuccessHacker webinar on How to Create a Successful Customer Training Strategy: reduced support costs, faster time to value for the customer, improved product adoption and overall better customer experience.
My experiences highlight the fact that these issues don't simply justify the cost of developing customer education; the right customer education is a fundamental imperative to the success of your business. You simply must find the right person (ideally a technical communicator or instructional designer or someone with experience at both) and allow them to prioritize creating content to help your customers succeed by solving their problems as quickly and easily as possible.
I'm thrilled to share another guest post from Adam Avramescu, who is head of the Customer Education program at Optimizely, the world's leading experimentation platform. The Optimizely Customer Education program is called Optiverse, where customers learn about more than how to use the Optimizely product features, and includes a knowledge base, academy, academy live, community, and certification. I met Adam at the Learning DevCamp 2016, happy to meet someone in a conference full of training professionals who also focused on training customers vs. employees.
I will be forever grateful to the early leaders at Optimizely who began recruiting for a dedicated Customer Education headcount at around 50 employees. Because they saw the need early, we evolved past the “fix-the-Knowledge Base” stage into a more mature function that serves as a competitive differentiator and scale engine for the broader Customer Success team.
End Content Poverty
Perhaps no surprise for a 3-year-old, 50-person company, our documentation was far from feature complete. The early Customer Education task force did some analysis of the product features and wrote basic documentation to fill in the gaps. This wasn’t necessarily every minor feature or setting, but the major components of the product.
The feature documentation also wasn’t in the greatest detail. Taking a lightweight approach here allowed us to avoid documentation bloat and add content based on questions that actual customers were asking, not every edge case we could imagine.
This approach evolved into our “80/20” principle of documentation: document the common features, issues, and practices that 80% of your customers will find relevant, and leave the 20% edge cases and specifics out.
"The support team members
were solving the
same issues repeatedly..."
Highlight the “Head” Issues
The original documentation had different tone based on which agent wrote the article -- great for personality, bad for consistency. The “FAQ” didn’t have the most frequently asked questions, but just random questions that people had asked (personal pet peeve).
We found the support team members were solving the same issues repeatedly, so we prioritized making the most common support questions and best practices easy to find. We asked our Strategy Consultants and Technical Account Managers what best practices they shared over and over, or what they found themselves teaching customers most often. We turned these issues into FAQs and articles.
At this point, we had an article for each major feature, and special articles for the most common questions, issues, and techniques.
Lights, Camera, Action
Written content is great, but video works better in many cases -- especially for visual workflows that users can replicate. We created short video content for the most common and most valuable in-product workflows. Video content has a higher production cost, but articles with video tended to receive higher ratings, and were easier to understand than stepwise instructions. Some of those videos endured for years after they were first created, especially the ones that were more conceptual vs. describing specific UI components.
A few things that I think made our videos particularly successful in the early going:
A Little Something Special
You can’t do everything well. (We didn’t, and still don’t.) But my strong opinion is that you should find at least one way to differentiate yourself, measure it, and invest in it as a differentiator. For us, there were two: videos and “This Article Will Help You” sections.
“This Article Will Help You” is a concept similar to learning objectives in the instructional design world. Learning objectives entice the learner to commit to a learning experience by telling what they’ll be able to do. For example, “create an Audience in Optimizely using targeting conditions” is a good, practical learning objective, because it describes something that a customer can actually do. “Understand how audiences work” is a bad learning objective because no one needs to understand this for its own sake.
We still use the “This Article Will Help You” section today, and receive good feedback from customers that it helps orient them within articles.
The final thing we did in the early days: define success metrics based on discoverability and value, but that is a story for another day.