writes copy 11 Nov 2019

15 years of blogging at Amazon: Lessons in DIY communications from Jeff Barr the voice of AWS

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Jeff Barr, AWS chief evangelist.

Back in 2004, when Jeff Barr started a blog for Amazon Web Services, no one was really sure how it would turn out '” including Barr himself. He still remembers one of Amazon’s corporate communications leaders encouraging him to give it a try as an experiment, pointing out that they could always take it offline if it didn’t work out.

Fifteen years later, the blog is still online, and Barr is still at it.

A lot has changed in tech, and particularly in the cloud, in that decade and a half. Barr’s first substantive post in 2004 was about the “BrowseNodeLookup” API that developers could use to query product categories on Amazon.com. These days, he and a team of bloggers deliver regular updates on AWS technologies that power businesses and online services around the world.

Barr reflected on the past 15 years in a post on the AWS News Blog this morning, and talked separately with GeekWire about some of the lessons he has learned as a do-it-yourself corporate blogger who became the voice of one of the world’s largest and most influential technology platforms.

Continue reading for edited highlights.

Get on the same page early in the process: “One of the things that works really well in our favor is the model at Amazon '” and you’ve probably heard this a thousand times before '” where we have the PR FAQ that define the various services that we launch. And those early documents really help us to be incredibly consistent about what we do. We try to identify the purpose of the service and the functions and the customers early on. I’ve heard in the past that people are either impressed or frustrated when they talk to five different Amazonians about a particular topic, and we all actually have the same answers. It’s because we put in a lot of effort up front to make sure that we have this really good shared understanding of whatever it is that we’re working on or talking about.”

Understand your role in the company … “I never took my role to be like a troublemaker or a muckraker. I’ve seen the people that do corporate blogs often think that their job is to spill the beans and I never ever thought that would be a reasonable thing to do. I see my colleagues are working hard enough to do the right thing, and to have some kind of inside blogger causing trouble just didn’t seem like who I wanted to be.”

… but put the audience first: “I’ll sometimes get feedback from different parts of the team and it’s incredibly helpful, but it might reflect the fact that maybe that person worked on one feature, and I can tell that they really want a little bit of extra highlight on that feature because it was their pride and joy. Or maybe there was a little bit of extra interesting challenges along the way. So it’s about respecting that, but saying, well, my, real customer is the audience,’ and I really want to make sure that I’m being equitable across the entire product and choosing with a lot of care exactly what I cover and in just how much detail. There’s always far more than I could say. So it’s about trying to be frugal with my audience’s time and speaking with extreme care and giving just enough that there’s an introduction and a taste, but always making sure that there’s other places they can go to get more information.”

Picture your readers: “I spend a lot of time talking to readers. Every time when I’m out and about, if I’m at an AWS event, like re:Invent, or if I run into random people on the street sometimes, and they say, ‘Oh, loved your blog post,’ I’ll try to dive in a little bit. ‘What part of it works for you? Is it vocabulary or is a pictures or is it a step-by-step?’ And I just try to get that little bit of customer insight and then I try to remember that person and think of them as my customer the next time I’m writing. I’ll just take a little mental picture and think, ‘OK, I’m writing for that person,’ in my next blog post. And just keeping that customer in my mind’s eye.”

Know when and how to scale:  “I did everything myself for about the first 12 or 13 years. And we are now in the process of making sure that there are multiple bloggers that are contributing. And so one of the things I’m getting to do is to work with them and to start conveying all those things to the next generation. I love to review what they’ve written and give them my feedback. [AWS CEO] Andy Jassy talks about this, he always says that we’re building an organization that has to outlast all of us. I’m going to blog for a long time and then there will probably be another cool thing that catches my eye at some point that would be the next thing I want to put some energy into. So you want to always make sure that you’ve got a really good next generation.”

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