How Do Blogs and Wikis Help Me Collaborate With My Customers?

Blogs & Wikis for Better Collaboration

by Ann Marcus and Sean Murphy

Blogs and wikis are two “new” social software technologies that have been deployed in production use now for more than a decade. It’s time to move from a focus on technology and features to methodologies and business results that can be achieved. Blogs can promote your startup and wikis can foster project team collaboration against a deadline.

Blogs

Blogs, short for weblogs, were first introduced around 1996. The name “weblog” was coined by Jorn Barger (www.robotwisdom.com) and then shortened to “blog” in 1999 by Peter Merholz (www.peterme.com). Both describe a website with articles that have permanent URLs (permalinks), typically presented in reverse chronological order (newest first) along with the ability for visitors to comment, in effect each article or post has a small forum associated with it. Early blog offerings included Xanga (1996), OpenDiary (1998), Pyra and LiveJournal (99). Now there are many technologies, but we find the most popular, inexpensive, and robust are TypePad, WordPress and Blogger (or Blogspot, a Google product). The SKMurphy company blog is based on WordPress version, but we guest blog on many of the common ones.

Starting the Conversation
Blogs makes it very easy for non-programmers to edit web pages in a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text window. A blog allows anyone to create and update a website without having to learn HTML or hire a webmaster. If you can edit email, you can edit web pages. Your blog is available in a consistent place on the web to audience/collaborators via a web browser. Your blog can be read and commented on by anyone with a web browser, although to cut down on comment spam registration is now typically required to be able to comment. Authors and readers can share expertise and experience: blog entries and their comments become an on-going asynchronous conversation, similar to a topic or thread on a discussion forum.

Blog content is organized in reverse-chronological order, with the most recent entries appearing at the top of the listing. Blogging systems allow authors to edit their entries at any time. Links from and to the page, however, remain intact unless they are intentionally removed. Links to other pages remain intact even if content on the site is otherwise updated or the location of the linked pages themselves is moved. The terms “ping” and “trackbacks” refer to information sent and received between linked blog pages.

Dial Tone

Tim O’Reilly has observed that a blog acts a dial tone for a website in that it signals a commitment for interaction and participation on the part of the authors. Current blogging activity indicates the startup is still open and around for business. Sometimes it is questionable when the website has not been updated for six months!

Blogging can extend the reach of your influence. Once you’ve driven your current leads to your blog you can go beyond that initial circle of readers by referring to the blogs of others and becoming mutual nodes in each other’s extended networks. Readers of those blogs will find their way to your site expanding your circle of influence. It can also boost website traffic and build your brand recognition and generate sales leads.

Permanent Links

“Permalinks” are, as the word suggests, permanent links to material in a blog. They are essentially stand-alone URLs that point to a specific blog entry even after the entry has passed from the front page into the blog archives. Permalinks remain intact over time and access to that linked content remains available to search engines and accessible in perpetuity. So the good and bad news is that what you say, when permalinked, will be around for a long time!

Blogs allow for timely communication at regular intervals to create a more personal identity or sense of affinity. Linking to the blogs of like-minded or affiliated individuals from one’s own blog is an excellent way to network and create a rich on-line presence. Blogs can be a useful alternative to sending out email blasts, and increasingly, blogs are replacing the use of more traditional websites for small businesses or consulting firms where interactivity is critical to building community. A blog linking to articles, books, white papers and webinars drives traffic to your website.

Tips for Better Blogging

According to writer and tech industry pundit Seth Godin, a good blog post would be, “An appropriate illustration, a useful topic, easily broadened to be meaningful to a large number of readers, [using] simple language with no unnecessary jargon, not too long, focusing on something that people have previously taken for granted, that initially creates emotional resistance, then causes a light bulb go on and finally, causes the reader to look at the world differently all day long.”
SKMurphy’s Blogging Tips

  1. Plan ahead. Mapping out a calendar of subjects to cover one or two a week ahead will tune your attention to those topics in other media and help you avoid writer’s block and still leaves room for “inspired” work.
  2. Do your homework. Read blogs for several weeks before you actually write one. Check out:
  3. Make it personal. Don’t just rehash other articles, blog posts, news stories. Add your own insights & spin while keeping the content clear, focused and generally professional.
  4. Inspire. Tie your subject matter to something topical such as talks, conferences, seminars, trade shows you’ve attended, adding your own insights from those events.
  5. Focus for effect. Pick a set of topics that are relevant to your business and your (prospective) customers. (For non-business-related topics, create a second personal blog).
  6. Do it often. Shorter, more frequent posts are best (around 200 to 400 words and at least once a week). Try making just three points per issue relevant to your intended audience.
  7. Choose clear titles. Keep titles them short and use words that are familiar and relevant to your readers.
  8. Cite references. Include links for your citations to increase your credibility and make your blog more useful, reliable and better integrated into the “blogosphere.”

Rebecca Blood, a blogging aficionado recommends these 10 Tips For a Better Weblog (http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/ten_tips.html) which lend themselves to use with more personal blogs but can still provide some useful approaches to blogging for your business:

  1. Choose an updating tool that is easy to use. Try out several services. Some are free, some cost a little money, but don’t commit to a tool until you have had a chance to try it out. Pick the one that works best for you.
  2. Determine your purpose. Weblogs are used to filter information, organize businesses, share family news, establish professional reputations, foment social change, and muse about the meaning of life. Knowing what you hope to accomplish with your weblog will allow you to begin in a more focused way.
  3. Know your intended audience. You conduct yourself differently with your friends than you do with professional associates, strangers, customers, or your grandmother. Knowing for whom you are writing will allow you to adopt an appropriate tone.
  4. Be real. Even a professional weblog can be engaging. Avoid “marketing speak”. Speak in a real voice about real things.
  5. Write about what you love. A weblog is the place for strong opinions, whether about politics, music, social issues, gardening, or your profession. The more engaged you are with your subject, the more interesting your writing will be.
  6. Update frequently. Interested readers will return to your site if there is likely to be something new. You needn’t update every day, but try to post several times a week.
  7. Establish your credibility. To the best of your ability, be truthful. Be respectful to your audience and to your fellow bloggers. Understand that on the Internet, your words may live forever, whether they are self-published or archived on another site. In the Weblog Handbook, I propose a set of Weblog Ethics; think about your own standards, and then adhere to them.
  8. Link to your sources. The Web allows a transparency that no other medium can duplicate. When you link to a news story, an essay, a government document, a speech, or another blogger’s entry, you allow your readers access to your primary material, empowering them to make informed judgments.
  9. Link to other weblogs. Your readers may enjoy being introduced to the weblogs you most enjoy reading. The Web is a democratic medium and bloggers amplify each other’s voices when they link to each other. Generously linking to other weblogs enlarges the grassroots network of information sharing and social alliances we are creating together on the Web.
  10. Be patient. Most weblog audiences are small, but with time and regular updates, your audience will grow. You may never have more than a few hundred readers, but the people who return to your site regularly will come because they are interested in what you have to say.
  11. Bonus tip: Have fun! Whether your weblog is a hobby or a professional tool, it will be more rewarding for you if you allow yourself to experiment a little. Even a subject-specific weblog benefits from a bit of whimsy now and again.

Wikis
Wikis were invented by Ward Cunningham in 1995, who wanted to find the “simplest thing that could work” to enable a group to edit a website. Ward must have been riding the little bus around the Honolulu airport, when the idea came to him because the wiki derives its name from the Hawaiian word wiki-wiki meaning fast and is also the name of that little bus that circles Honolulu airport.

Probably the best-known wiki is Wikipedia, which was launched on January 15, 2001, as a complement to Nupedia, an expert-written and now defunct encyclopedia. The project is currently operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization created by Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia. Written collaboratively by thousands, if not millions, of volunteer participants, Wikipedia includes some 7.3 million articles in 252 languages, 1.8 million of which are in the English edition.

As this well-known wiki demonstrates, wikis are software platforms designed specifically for multiple authors—project team members, customers or other project stakeholders, as permitted by the wiki creator—to be able to quickly and collaboratively post and edit materials without the need for specialized Web development skills. Wikis allow collaborators to easily “riff” on ideas and elaborate or refine them. Wikis can be public, like Wikipedia, or private to a community, project, department or organization. Private wikis are typically secured to require password login before the content can be read and updated.

Using Private Wikis for Project Team Collaboration
Wikis are essentially a combination of a content management system and a publishing system that you access via a standard Web browser. They take advantage of all the best features of websites, such as permalinks–a permanent (persistent) location on the Web (a URL or Web address)–and support multiple types of content, but allow content to be edited easily by participants while keeping a rolling archive of each previous version. Additionally, Wiki software provides an easy way to link items on different pages to each other. The author of an entry can simply refer to the title of a page rather than a long URL, for example. Very powerful stuff!

The Email Silo
If your email inbox and folder system has become your filing cabinet, you’re not alone. Email is certainly still useful, but when it comes to team work, wikis provide a superior set of tools for working together on documents and being able to keep track of the latest version of that work.

At one time or another, you’ve probably heard or uttered the question, “Who’s got the most current version of this document we’re working on?” With document versions flying back and forth as email attachments this problem is chronic. If you’ve made critical changes to the wrong version of a document or have had your changes lost or eclipsed by someone else’s, you can attest to the how frustrating it can be to use email for document management.

You’ve probably also run into the old, “I never got that email,” or perhaps you’ve even used it yourself. One person’s plausible deniability can be another’s frustrating waste of time. You be the judge. If you’re hard at work on collaboration-intensive projects, you are certainly aware of the time and resource costs that can result for this potential black hole of communication.

By contrast, wikis allow you to cut the time needed to reach consensus on a document against a deadline by providing a single, easy-to-manage environment. Wikis may just be our best hope for escaping the email hell that we’re all in. And as you know, faster decision-making, means faster action and a quicker ROI…and that can translate directly to the bottom line.

Wiki: What is it Good For?
Consider all of the elements that go into developing, executing, tracking, completing and reporting on projects. While project management tools are great for logging and presenting the highly structured elements of a project–the resources, the milestones, the time-line, the progress, the overages and savings–they were not designed to contain, control and manage the various elements around the project structure: the documents, notes, meeting agendas and, material specifications, and so forth. Wikis, by contrast, are an excellent place for housing these types of materials in a centralized location reachable via Web browser.

Wikis have version control and archiving built right in automatically. All changes are annotate as to who changed them and when. Undoing changes to a wiki page is easy and you can even roll back to the original version at any time. You can set up most wiki software to email you when someone has changed a page, added a comment, or uploaded or changed an attached document. One of the best reasons to rely on a web-based application is that it’s always up to date: you don’t have to worry about installing, updating, customizing, debugging and managing versions of software for each local machine.

Perhaps you’ve been in a position to issue a press release for your organization. Developing and presenting press releases in a wiki environment allow you to find out exactly who was responsible for a particular change to the content and when. In our organization of four consultants, for instance, we use Central Desktop, a multi-wiki model, targeted for the small business market. We typically set up a separate wiki for each of our projects, which may also have customers and partners with access. The set-up is much like a set of small filing cabinets. Sometimes it is useful to reference and link information or documents across multiple wikis. Central Desktop allows you to search across multiple wikis and you can start a new Wiki by cloning an old one.

When Wikis Fail

The primary cause of failure in the use of a wiki is people fall back into using email rather than updating the wiki. In order to keep your team committed to using wikis, use them early and often. That will reinforce new habits and keep them from falling back on old email-based behaviors.

Focus on consensus on content and not formatting in the wiki. Remember, the editing tools are simple…it’s not Visio or Page Maker. We work in the wiki until we reach consensus in the content and then move the content to another tool for formatting if needed.

We use each project wiki to keep meeting agendas, adding notes and action items to the page during the meeting. If multiple people want to add to the minutes, they simply take turns contributing. No more waiting to receive the meeting minutes via email. The cycle time is much faster than the email-based approach, leaving meeting notes and documents in a centralized searchable location, and supports a more efficient way to manage a project.

Summary & Conclusion

As we’ve discussed, blogs and wikis are rapidly changing how and how quickly information can be shared within teams. Easy-to-manage Web 2.0 technologies are revolutionizing communication, innovation and project workflow management. Blogs allow busy business people to reach customers or prospective customers. Private wikis can cut the time needed to reach consensus on a document against a deadline by providing a single, easy-to-manage environment.

About Ann Marcus

Ann Marcus is a technology analyst, writer and consultant. She has worked with large and small technology companies as a translator of concepts between groups and an instigator for identifying and implementing good ideas. Visit Ann’s site at www.marcusconsulting.com or email her at ann@marcusconsulting.com.

About Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy has taken an entrepreneurial approach to life since he could drive. He has served as an adviser to dozens of startups, helping them explore new options and bring their businesses to new levels. His firm, SKMurphy, Inc., focuses on early customers and early revenue for software startups, helping engineers to understand business development.

Glossary of Web 2.0 Terms

  • Blog: Short for weblog, is a website where entries are written in chronological order and displayed in reverse chronological order.
  • Blogosphere: A collective term encompassing all blogs and their interconnections. It is the perception that blogs exist together as a connected community (or as a collection of connected communities) or as a social network.
  • Permalink: A URL that points to a specific blogging entry even after the entry has passed from the front page into the blog archives. Because a permalink remains unchanged indefinitely, its use avoids link rot.
  • RSS: An acronym for Real Simple Syndication, RSS is a technology that produces documents, called “feeds,” “web feeds,” or “channels,” that contain either a summary of content from an associated website or the full text. RSS makes it possible for people to keep up with their favorite websites (including blogs) in an automated manner that’s easier than checking them manually. RSS content can be read using software called a “feed reader” or an “aggregator.”
  • RSS Reader: RSS content can be read using software called a “feed reader” or an “aggregator.”
  • Tags: A short cut to a group of related entries.
  • Weblog: The longer name for a blog.
  • Wiki: A persistent web-based team space tool designed to make it easy for members to contribute, edit, comment, upload materials. Wiki software is available from various open source projects as well as a variety of vendors as either hosted or on premises software.
  • wiki-wiki: “Fast” in Hawaiian. Also, the name for the shuttle bus that runs around the Honolulu airport.

Comments (8)

  • Julia Mason

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    This is back to the basics but I had not thought of using a wiki for team collaboration. You’re right that Wikipedia is not the only use case.

    Reply

  • Mel Fincher

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    It’s a little hard to wrap my head around the idea of moving off of email when working with customers, much less prospects. Thanks for a thought provoking view into your practice.

    Reply

  • SKMurphy, Inc. » Discerning the Future

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    […] Of course I was dead wrong.  Today more than 1/3 of our clients are “out of region.” And while we meet and work face to face with many clients, most of our interactions, even with Silicon Valley clients, are on-line in Skype, wikis, shared edit documents, and other virtual collaboration environments. […]

    Reply

  • Courtney Grafton

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    I have made edits to Wikipedia pages but I had not considered using a wiki for documenting meeting minutes, decisions, and project issues.

    I see that it could act as a “source of truth” on distributed projects and may be easier to organize content, especially by cross-linking it internally to other pages, than Google Docs or DropBox or Box file system models.

    Reply

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