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How to Create a Knowledge Base: Key Lessons from Optimizely

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Until recently, knowledge base software was just something you "had to have." They were a tool your support team used to find knowledge topics to resolve issues, and in many cases, they were barely usable (sometimes even by the support team).

But in the age of self-service, you miss opportunities when you don't optimize your knowledge base strategy. At Optimizely, we were able to turn ours not just into an effective self-service resource, but even a competitive differentiator for our business.

Here's where we started:

And here's where we are now:

I'll take you through our journey from the start to where we are now in this article.

How to Create a Knowledge Base: A Start-to-Finish Guide

1) Where to Start

Originally, our help content was written ad-hoc by support agents (or, in some cases, engineers, technical account managers, and others in the organization).

But once we started a Customer Education team, our first task was to identify the holes in our documentation and fill them, while also focusing on other engagement methods (like training sessions) for the most frequently-surfaced topics.

We had a simple, relatively unformatted Zendesk Help Center; content wasn't parallel in terms of scope or tone, and there were plenty of features and support questions left undocumented. Optimizely's Customer Success team put together a simple, four-person task force around documentation to:

1) Document the common features, issues, and practices that our customers would find relevant.

We took an 80/20 approach to this -- meaning, we'd document the things that 80% of our customers would find helpful, and leave the "20%" edge cases out. To figure out what was in the 80%, we used the most common support tickets and questions that CSMs received from customers.

2) Standardize scope and tone.

There wasn't always a clear reason why our original articles were written the way they were. Tone and voice varied wildly. Some articles combined multiple related topics and overlapped confusingly with other articles. We decided to create a more comprehensive article for each major feature, and then FAQ-style articles for the most common support questions to make them easily findable.

3) Add videos where necessary.

Videos are more expensive to create, but a 3-minute video showing a workflow helps people learn more quickly than an elaborate document. We narrated them with a friendly, inviting tone. For example, we started the videos with, "I'm going to show you how to … " and ended with, "Happy Testing!"

If you're just creating a knowledge base from scratch, or embarking on your first effort to clean up an ad-hoc knowledge base, I'd recommend you do these three things to start with. But also think about whether there's a little something special you can add.

We didn't do everything well at first (and still don't!), but we decided to invest in a couple of things that would make our knowledge base experience stand out. One of these was adding a "This Article Will Help You" section to each article.

"This Article Will Help You" is a concept that we took from the instructional design world; put simply, it's a list of customer-friendly learning objectives. Learning objectives tell the learner what they'll be able to do by committing to a learning experience. 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.

2) What to Measure

We originally used Google Analytics on our knowledge base, but having data isn't the same as having a goal.

For example, think about time on page -- a common metric, but is it good or bad for an article? Do you want people to stay longer because that means they're engaged, or shorter because that means they got their answer quicker? Not as clear as it seems at first.

We decided that the best way we could know whether we were having an impact on customers was to ask two questions:

  • Discoverability: How many customers are finding this article?
  • Value: Do customers find this article helpful?

We primarily measure discoverability in terms of page views, but we also dig into referral paths to understand why some pages are found frequently, and others not as much. Originally, we thought customers might use the homepage to browse different article categories, but most people don't. Organic search and in-product links are far more predictive of traffic to an article.

We measure value through a one-question survey, asking: Did you find this article helpful?

The number of "Yes" responses out of the total is that article's helpfulness index. This helps us highlight which articles, or categories, are on the average most helpful to customers -- and for articles that aren't, we can dig into the feedback to figure out if the article is confusing or incomplete, or if customers are actually giving us product feedback through this survey.

We also started looking at our upvote-downvote ratio overall as a measure of health. We wanted to see it trending upwards over time.

3) A Knowledge Base Isn't Just Support

Our knowledge base is just one part of what we call, Optiverse, our combined hub for documentation, training, and community. We deliberately put effort into creating an experience that feels coherent and unified as you switch between these areas.

This also means that none of the three areas are limited to a specific topic. Each of them, the knowledge base included, covers a breadth of topics ranging from support to feature documentation to strategic best practices. As such, we highlight valuable strategy topics on our knowledge base homepage.

Optimizely on Optiverse

Optimizely, as a company, is all about experimentation. We enable some of the world's largest and most innovative retail, technology, media, travel, and financial services companies to experiment, learn from the results, and use those results to personalize experiences for their customers.

And as you can imagine, we do quite a bit of that ourselves!

Through testing, we learned that customers prefer to have options for quick browsing and searching, not just a list of categories, so we redesigned our knowledge base homepage with this in mind.

We also learned that customers have the hardest time finding content specifically for their industry vertical without our help, so we've personalized the homepage experience using Optimizely to show some relevant content for the customer's industry.

We also use Optimizely's Recommendations algorithms to surface related content on each article, underneath our floating table of contents.

Free and Open

One thing that's always been important to our documentation program is that it is free and open to everyone -- not just certain customers. By making documentation open, we:

  • Make it easier for customers to find what they're looking for.
  • Boost Optimizely's SEO. Because our knowledge base covers strategic topics (like how long to run a test, or ideation best practices), our knowledge base articles contribute to Optimizely's overall brand presence in organic search.
  • Show the market what we've got. We're proud of our product and knowledge resources, so why hide it? Our Account Executives will often demo our knowledge resources to customers during the sales process, as a way to show the depth and breadth of resources. This shows that we are experts in the optimization and experimentation space, not just in our own product.

We sacrifice a few things by making our documentation open. One is extremely precise user-level tracking. We get page-level analytics from Google Analytics and user-level analytics from Heap Analytics, but we still have many unidentified users. Ultimately, we feel that the SEO and marketing value outweighs the tracking sacrifices.

The Business Impact of a Knowledge Base

After some time measuring and refining our operational goals, we also wanted to understand the impact that we were having on the business.

I think of the job of a customer education program as increasing the customer's desire and removing the friction they experience. So if we were doing those right, we'd expect to see two things:

  • An increase in adoption for customers who use our knowledge programs
  • A reduction in support ticket ratios over time

We saw support ticket reduction happen first. In fact, in the months after we first released our new Optiverse platform, we saw our customer contact rate (# of tickets / # of customers) fall by nearly two-thirds.

That result was most dramatic when we first released the content, of course, but our support ratios have remained relatively low over time because our customers who want to self-serve are able to do it.

Over time, we were able to understand how Optiverse usage correlates to product adoption. In fact, when it comes to Optimizely's key adoption metric -- running experiments in a 30-day period -- customers who use the knowledge base are 10X more likely to achieve that metric than those who don't! Of course, this is correlation, so I'm not implying that the knowledge base causes customers to adopt Optimizely. However, those results do tell me that our successful customers are making much better use of the knowledge base than our unsuccessful customers.

And the business impact doesn't stop there. Because we have strong SEO, and we're able to offer a comprehensive knowledge and documentation experience, we see the knowledge base show up as a competitive differentiator in our deals.

You might think that self-serve knowledge is only valuable to small self-serve or mid-market customers, but that's not the case at all. We get frequent feedback from even our largest enterprise customers that they use Optiverse to answer their own questions, in-time.

Centers of excellence, or centralized experimentation programs, are able to use our Optiverse resources to train new team members as they come on board, and individual team members are able to get what they need with a simple search. One program manager at a large technology company told us that the knowledge base was a lifesaver for her team: "I can just Google any question I have about Optimizely. How do I force a variation? Oh, there it is."

Creating a usable knowledge base and documentation set takes upfront effort and maintenance, but it will have an impact on the volume and quality of tickets that come in, focusing your support team’s efforts on more complex challenges. And furthermore, it will become a competitive differentiator for your business.

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