Guest post by Laurel Nicholes and Niki Vecsei Harrold

Prior to presenting, Content Potluck: Bringing Everyone to the Community Table (during the Virtual Summit on Advanced Practices in Technical Communication) we authored a quick-read blog post in which we defined content potluck and outlined how to find champions in your organization to move a project forward. Today, we follow up on that effort. We provide tips for diversifying content strategy by supporting a content potluck. We also provide some advice on organizing your content production and distribution efforts using a collaborative editorial calendar.

During the Summit, we asked attendees to answer questions designed to capture current practices and to spot opportunities for improvement. Tips designed to help keep both participants and stakeholders informed and engaged are included below.

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Tip #1: Build An Editorial Calendar

There are many software tools available (free and paid) that you can use to build editorial calendars. Look for calendaring tools that allow you to set alerts, send reminders, and share content with others. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Calendar functionalities (Google Calendar, Atlassian wiki calendar, Outlook Shared Calendar)
  2. Spreadsheets (Excel, Google Sheets, Smartsheet)
  3. Intranet (Jive, Atlassian, Sharepoint)

Regardless of the software tools you choose, how you use your calendar makes all the difference. These best practices can be leveraged to help your team recognize instantly what content types are missing, or where content gaps exist:

  • Assign content an owner
  • Set alerts for specific content tasks, including deliverable dates
  • Code content types
    • blogs
    • tweets
    • videos
    • articles
    • interviews (like “Ask Me Anything” question and answer sessions)

Tip #2: Plan Topical Campaigns

Use your editorial calendar to orchestrate the distribution of topic-based content. Make sure to target a mix of channels. This is a good chance to re-use and re-distribute existing content assets. Think beyond product launches—customers want to engage consistently with your brand. Be creative. For example, you could provide content to help customers solve a common problem. Wherever you decide to publish, drive traffic consistently to the same content asset. Doing so will help you grow your audience and attract repeat visitors.

Tip #3: Engage With Your Audience

Asking questions of prospects and customers—and listening to their answers—across multiple feedback channels is an excellent way to identify content ideas. Documenting your findings helps your champions understand the impact of content on those you serve. If everyone on your team commits to the potluck, they will want to share feedback and metrics with their peers and managers.

Advice: Make sure to share community and content performance reports in an easy-to-understand format at regular intervals. Consider having direct feedback sessions between content creators and your audiences. Low-tech feedback loops can include:

  1. One-on-one calls
  2. “Ask Me Anything” question and answer sessions
  3. Polling and surveying through social and community channels

During the Virtual Summit on Advanced Practices in Technical Communication, we asked our audience how they gather feedback on their content today.

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Surveys are the most inexpensive and most-used tools for collecting feedback. Surveys don’t have to be long and involved to provide utility. Single-question surveys can yield significant insight, deliver great response rates, and help customers provide feedback quickly with minimal effort.

Tip #4: Reward Your Champions

Recognizing your champions keeps them engaged and loyal to the potluck. Some of the easiest ways to recognize people for their hard work:

  1. Provide bonuses or manage by objectives rewards
  2. Send thank-you notes to champions (and their bosses)
  3. Share analytics reports (demonstrating the impact of their work)
  4. Ask them to lead conversations in the community (at both live events and virtual events like webinars)
  5. Give them a special virtual badge—or ranking in your community—to make sure their profile stands out and the audience recognizes their expertise

Below we answer the questions submitted by attendees during the live webinar.

Questions From The Audience:

Q1: Do you have any thoughts for companies that are extremely limiting with what goes out to customers? We don’t have access to social media and only publish behind a firewall.

A1: We understand. When we started our project, we had to break down barriers. We too, were publishing behind a firewall, and had to campaign executive leadership in order to get permission to build our Twitter and LinkedIn presence. Your first step is to effect change.

We achieved significant impact—and broke down barriers—by doing some basic market research designed to capture where our prospects and customers were talking about our brand on the internet. Being a technology company, we found that a lot of conversations were happening on Quora, Spiceworks, and Github. Our prospects and customers were exchanging and giving advice without us. Much of the information about our firm that was incorrect or not up-to-date.

We also did some social media research and queried Twitter conversations to capture how many non-marketing conversations are happening with our brand or product name. We found a staggering ratio between neutral, positive and negative conversations. Presenting our findings to executives caused them to realize that we could no longer afford to ignore these outside the firewall discussions.

We also became active contributors to our company website. We got permission to write a weekly blog that contained links to content behind the firewall. Blog topics varied; they could promote an upcoming launch, address customer feedback, or answer a common question. By blogging links to our content, search crawlers could pick up the links and our SEO improved.

Q2: Great presentation! I love the Content Potluck model. Can you share how you were able to get executive sponsorship that led to even representation and participation across the organization?

A2: We started the project by listening to the pain-points our executives were having. Product management wanted to grow their thought leadership position and gather customer’s ideas for new features. Training wanted to market their classes as well as provide free training videos and needed a platform. Customer service wanted a home for their forums and wanted to reduce the cost of support. Engineering wanted more people to read the technical content prior to escalating problems to the support staff.

We did some grassroots work, too. We recruited people interested in creating content for the community, including podcasts, videos, blogs, and as well as volunteers to monitor the forum. These weren’t always managers; frequently they were knowledge workers starting out in their career; folks with a passion for the technology who wanted to grow their professional reputation as a subject matter expert.

We matched volunteers with problems to solve, and created a presentation to explain the content potluck idea. Then we took our show on the road. We tailored the presentation to executive problems, rather than asking them all to one general presentation. We believe that this is what made us successful.

Once we got buy-in for our effort, we had to ensure we could deliver results. To demonstrate our successes, we shared metrics showing membership growth and increased content consumption. Ultimately, that’s what kept executive support growing.

Q3: When you ask so many different types of people to contribute content, how do you maintain the quality? How do you prevent it from feeling like a cacophony of inconsistent voices?

A3: The audience who engages with you in a community space craves multiple voices. Our experience shows that having different voices and styles of writing resonates better and lends authenticity in the customer’s eye over the one (sterile) tone of voice approach of “official documentation.” The variety of voices does not significantly impact quality. And, only subject matter experts get to craft content. Anything that is long format (not just an answer to a question) gets vetted for the first few publications by a central figure such as a content strategist or community manager. Once that contributor shows they understand the guardrails around quality content, they are allowed to post without moderation.

It’s important to note that champions won’t immediately start writing content for your community. Most content potluckis start with one or two contributors. Over time, contributions and contributors will increase. Eventually, your champions will master the base requirements of content creation—authenticity and quality—and will coach other team members with similar expertise.

Q4: “Ask Me Anything” discussions—we call them Office Hours. This is one hour per month where clients can connect with the team and ask anything.

A4: Office Hours or “Ask Me Anything” sessions are a great ways to uncover the content needs of your prospects, customers, and other shareholders. Try them out in different channels and formats. Conference calls, Google Hangouts, web discussions, Facebook Live feeds, Twitter chats, and question and answer sessions focused on the needs of your community not only provide excellent ideas for content potluck projects, but they also demonstrate that you value your audience. Hosting such events—and acting on the knowledge gained—tells your audience that you are looking for ways to improve their satisfaction.

But don’t stop there. Make sure to involve internal teams to these discussions. Doing so attracts new and different voices to the conversation. Always provide a recording or transcript, and hold the subject matter experts accountable publicly for delivering on their promises. It should go wothout saying, but we’ll say it here: Don’t focus only on the good ideas. When you listen, hear what is being said. Always follow up complaints.

If you have additional questions, leave a comment on this blog post (or find us on Twitter under Niki Vecsei and Laurel Nicholes). We would love to hear from you.