Purpose: This article explores the purposes, character, and efficacy of “about us” information that technical communication contractors, consultants, and companies post on their business Web sites.
Method: The study surveyed an international sample of 240 independent technical communicators who maintain Web sites to market their services, and interviewed a subset of survey respondents.
Results: Overall, participants perceived their Web site's information about both their business and themselves to be somewhat useful in marketing their services, though they were also divided about which of these two types was the more useful. Regardless of whether their business comprised just themselves or a larger corporation with associates, some participants foregrounded their business's identity to build credibility whereas others foregrounded their own and their associates' personal identities to build rapport.
Conclusion: “About us” information about a business and about its people can be usefully conceived as two distinct types of information, each deployed selectively to serve distinct purposes. Among the factors that may influence whether and how a technical communication business would foreground a corporate face or a personal face are not necessarily its corresponding corporate or personal status but instead the business's industry, its location internationally, its size, and the qualifications and gender of its people.
Keywords: “about us” information, ethics, independent contractors and consultants, technical communication companies, self-representation, Web sites
- Most independent contractors, consultants, and companies find “about us” information posted on their business Web site to be at least somewhat useful in marketing their technical communication services.
- Independent practitioners are more than twice as likely to choose a Web address for their business based on their business's name than on their personal name.
- Some solo independent practitioners perceive their solo status to lack credibility and accordingly try to represent themselves as a larger company.
- Other independent practitioners perceive that marketing technical communication services involves building rapport with prospective clients and accordingly post personal information about themselves and their associates.
- Posting personal photos can bring marketing advantages and disadvantages, with gender being a possible factor in whether and what to post.
“About Us” Information
Perhaps the most generic feature of a Web site, along with its home page and contact information, is information about the organization or individual behind the site—”about us” information. An “about us” search on Google results in over two billion hits, and of course many Web sites post such self-representational information under other labels, such as “history,” “profile,” “people,” “who we are,” and so forth (Isaksson & Jørgensen, 2010, p. 128-129). St. Amant (2005) and Nielsen (2008) have reasoned that posting such information can build an organization's credibility. However, upon putting a diverse sample of organizational Web sites to the test, Nielsen found that Web users were not fully satisfied with the sites' “about us” information, a result which suggests that composing such apparently self-evident information is not as straightforward at it might seem.
Whereas Web credibility guidelines typically advise users to examine the ownership, authorship, or sponsorship of Web sites, some empirical studies have reported that users tend to ignore such information (Flanagin & Metzger, 2000; Fogg et al., 2002; Fox & Raine, 2002). However, Warnick (2004, 2007) argued against generalizing from such findings because Web user behavior is field dependent. That is, users' indifference to the identities behind one genre of Web site does not indicate a comparable indifference to the identities behind another genre of Web site. For instance, studies with college-educated job seekers have found them more disposed to pursuing employment with organizations that post more information—or at least certain kinds of information—about themselves and their employees on their Web site (Allen, Mahto, & Otondo, 2007; Walker, Feild, Giles, Armenakis, & Bernerth, 2009; Walker, Feild, Giles, Bernerth, & Short, 2011; Williamson, King, Lepak, & Sarma, 2010), suggesting that Web users are quite interested in the identities of companies and individuals with whom they might form an employment-related relationship.
Though technical communicators have no doubt composed some of the “about us” information posted on the Web sites of their employers and clients, they are rarely featured in such postings themselves. An important exception would be technical communicators who work as independent contractors, consultants, or principals of their own companies. Such independent practitioners represent a significant portion of the profession—about a quarter of STC's membership, for instance (STC, 2004)—and many maintain Web sites to market their services (STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005b). Most technical communication services cannot be marketed through the kinds of quick anonymous transactions that typify e-commerce Web sites, for instance. Rather, building the independent practitioner-client relationship is not unlike building the employee-employer relationship, the kind of relationship sought by the participants in the studies cited above whose employment aspirations were influenced by the “about us” information on the sites of prospective employers.
As for technical communicators' prospective clients, projects for which they would hire independent technical communicators frequently require those technical communicators to work closely with the clients' subject matter experts and other stakeholders, perhaps on site, on projects that may last for months. With such personalized, long-lasting services, prospective clients would reasonably be interested in the identity of the technical communication contractor, consultant, or company with whom they might be sharing a close working relationship.
Among independent practitioners' sources of new business, their Web sites, though useful, rank behind referrals and networking (STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005a, 2005b). Tellingly, both of these top sources rely in part on how independents present themselves, whether directly through networking or indirectly through referrals. Independents' Web sites have been found to usefully complement these top marketing sources, and they do pull in some clients on their own as well (Killoran, 2010a). To the degree that a venue like a Web site can contribute to an independent's marketing success, it may be in part because the Web site supplements, complements, or even substitutes for the personal presentation that makes referrals and networking so successful. For instance, a well-developed Web site could meaningfully complement the often-fleeting communication typical of a referral or a networking exchange by offering prospective clients more information about the independent technical communicator and his or her business.
Though presenting oneself might not be the main purpose of a business Web site—it is not, after all, a personal homepage—presenting oneself and one's business could nevertheless play this helpful role in engaging prospective clients. It is this helpful role that motivates this study's examination of how independent technical communicators represent themselves and their business on their Web sites.
This article first reviews previous research on web-based self-representation, in particular that done for business purposes. Then I detail the methods by which I surveyed 240 independent technical communicators about their business Web sites, and then interviewed many of these survey respondents. The results of these methods reveal the extent to which participants thought their representations of themselves and their business useful in marketing their technical communication services, and also reveal participants' rationale for how they represented themselves or their business, or both. The article concludes by reviewing the different purposes served by foregrounding information about a business or about its people, and also the factors that influence whether an independent technical communicator might foreground one type of such “about us” information over the other.
Research on Web Self-Representation
Online self-representation—and in some cases its opposite, anonymity—has been studied most extensively in online personal and social venues such as personal homepages (Döring, 2002; Papacharissi, 2002), blogs (Qian & Scott, 2007; Trammell & Keshelashvili, 2005), social networking sites (Boyle & Johnson, 2010; Magnuson & Dundes, 2008), dating sites (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs, 2006; Hancock & Toma, 2009), among others. Less commonly, it has been studied in online professional venues, in particular on the Web sites of individuals in highly visible fields, such as academics (Hess, 2002; Miller & Arnold, 2001) and politicians (Gulati, 2004; Stanyer, 2008). Apart from individuals, civic entities also have identities and accordingly their self-representations have been studied on the Web sites of cities (Grodach, 2009; Urban, 2002) and countries (Fürsich & Robins, 2002; Mohammed, 2004).
Companies likewise have identities, and the Web's potential for propagating corporate self-representation was recognized in the early years of the medium's development (Ritzenthaler & Ostroff, 1996; Teague, 1995). Since then, perhaps the main conclusion that can be drawn from research is that corporate self-representation is diverse.
In a study of the “about us” information on the Web sites of well-known corporations, Pollach (2005) found several kinds of topics that each appeared in a majority of her sample: company history; values, vision, mission, ethics codes; biographies of key members; corporate social responsibility; and a few other topics (p. 292). However, no topic appeared in more than 80% of her sample's sites, and most appeared in much lower proportions, suggesting that genre conventions for “about us” sections remained rather fluid. Other studies have similarly found that companies vary in the repertoire of approaches they adopt to represent themselves on their Web sites (Ahern-Connolly & Broadway, 2007; Isaksson & Jørgensen, 2010; Mara, 2008). Research has also examined cases in which organizations, because their Web sites are exposed to diverse and potentially conflicting organizational stakeholders, represent themselves in ways that are disputed or self-contradictory (Coupland & Brown, 2004; Sillince & Brown, 2009).
A comparable diversity can be seen in the online self-representations of business people. In a study of a web-based discussion forum about professional banking issues, Vaast (2007) found that participants varied widely in the degree to which they revealed or withheld details about their professional identities. Vaast interpreted this variety as evidence that participants “‘played' with the way they presented themselves” (p. 344).
Collectively, such research offers little evidence of a self-representational genre or model guiding business organizations and business people in how they represent themselves on the Web. Rather, self-representational possibilities seem to be as diverse as the organizations and business people themselves, or as their rhetorical situations.
Organizational vs. Personal Self-Representations
Amidst such diverse self-representational possibilities, one dividing line implicitly drawn in some of the research literature distinguishes relatively impersonal representations of a business organization with relatively personal representations of the business's people. For instance, Hunt (1996) favorably singled out one company site that featured profiles of its employees with links to their own personal homepages (p. 382-83), a strategy that he characterized as building the company's “communal ethos,” in contrast with the more traditional conceptions of ethos isolated, in this case, in a company.
Pollach (2005) analyzed the somewhat more authoritative but comparable presence of corporate leaders represented through profiles and pictures on about two-thirds of the Web sites in her sample of well-known corporations. She reasoned that companies adopted this “humanizing” tactic with the understanding that “people can relate more easily to other human beings than to a faceless organization” (p. 294). She also observed that, on some sites, corporate leaders featured messages apparently in their own voice rather than the corporate voice, and she similarly reasoned that a message gains more credibility when coming from an identifiable individual than from an organization (p. 294).
In contrast with these personable corporate self-representations, Kimme Hea (2002) analyzed one corporation's Web site self-representation that emphasized such impersonal corporate values as “specialization, mechanization, efficiency, and standardization” (p. 246), but minimized representations of the employees who did the corporation's work and of customers and others who had been affected by that work. She argued that, through a process of “corporatization,” such corporate values had come to infuse Web representations even among non-corporate sites.
Whereas these three studies tended to favor personal representations of an organization's people over impersonal representations of the organization, Coney and Steehouder (2000) recognized the benefits of both personable and impersonal approaches. They reasoned that credibility could arise both from an anonymity that would “underline the neutral, informational character of the Web site” (p. 331), or from an individuality that would “make the author persona more manifest, more personable, more memorable” (p. 332). Among their recommendations to develop a Web site's persona were to post information about the organization and its key people (p. 332).
Though some of these studies position organizations and individuals at opposite ends of a representational spectrum, organizations and individuals perceiving the benefits of appearing like each other can, on the Web, appear to do so. Hybrid or disguised identities of various kinds—representations that cross racial, ethnic, or gender barriers, or that merge computers with humans—have long been a feature of the internet's fertile identity experimentation, perhaps most popularly illustrated in the well-known 1993 New Yorker cartoon of a dog at a computer, saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” (Steiner, 1993).
Writing before the Web developed, discourse analyst Norman Fairclough (1989) observed how organizations would craft their public communications so as to appear to speak one to one with members of the public, such as through personified advertising icons that have come to represent some otherwise-faceless companies and brands. Fairclough dubbed this representational artifice synthetic personalization, a strategy by which an organization “simulates solidarity [through] a veil of equality” with members of the public (p. 195). Synthetic personalization can be seen in the way some organizations represent themselves on their Web sites. For instance, some corporations and cities have personified themselves linguistically and metaphorically in their Web sites' writing (Koller, 2009). And some companies have used personified software agents, typically modeled to look female and attractive, to provide a winsome human-like face for their web-based customer service operations (Gustavsson, 2005; Gustavsson & Czarniawska, 2004; Zdenek, 2007). According to Gustavsson and Czarniawska, these “animated interface agents are assumed to have the ability to provide corporations with an identity…” (p. 654-55).
Adapting Fairclough's synthetic personalization, Killoran (2002) proposed the analogous concept of synthetic institutionalization to refer to the reciprocal strategy of “individuals on the Web adopting the voices of institutions” (p. 24). He reasoned that individuals, unaccustomed to occupying a public position in a world-wide medium, might emulate institutions, which have a long experience representing themselves in public. Killoran observed synthetic institutionalization in the awkwardness by which individuals represented themselves on their personal homepages, in particular in how they branded themselves as faux commercial enterprises and described themselves as bureaucracies would.
Representing Independent Technical Communicators
At first glance, some of this research on the self-representation of large corporations in particular might not seem to apply to independent technical communicators, most of whom work solo or with a handful of associates in very small companies. An STC survey (2004) of its independent members found that more than two-thirds operated as sole proprietorships, indicating no legal distinction between themselves and their business entity and thereby perhaps simplifying how they might represent themselves and their business in their Web marketing communication.
However, the necessity to win clients can be the mother of some invention. For instance, writing in an online advice book authored and published by members of STC's Consulting and Independent Contracting Special Interest Group, Elliott-Mace (n.d.) recommended that independents, in lieu of marketing their services under their own personal name, adopt a business name. In the same book, Glick-Smith (n.d.) offered independents the same advice as part of a general growth strategy of making their business “look bigger than it is.” In line with this strategy, she also advised independents to maintain a business Web site and to use the “royal we” to refer to themselves: “This gives the appearance that there is more than one person involved in the business.”
Such advice hints at how marketing self-representation, even among independent practitioners, can become ethically murky. Sole proprietors, even though they are not larger companies, might perceive advantages in representing themselves as such. Independents who successfully grew their company to be larger than themselves, with partners, associates, or employees, would need to weigh the relative advantages of foregrounding that larger company or its successful principal, or both. And all independents might weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages of sacrificing their privacy to put themselves out to the world.
To better understand how independent technical communicators deal with such situations, this study examines how they represented themselves and their business on their business Web sites, why they did so the way they did, and what outcomes they perceived coming from their representations.
This study of professional self-representation is part of a larger research project examining several facets of the Web sites of independent contractors, consultants, and companies offering technical communication services. Many details of this research project's methods have been published previously (Killoran, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011) and so here I summarize those and elaborate in particular on the methods that pertain distinctly to the issue of self-representation. These methods, in brief, involve a survey of practitioners who maintain business Web sites to market their own or their company's technical communication services, follow-up interviews with a subset of the survey respondents, and an examination of each site for the names of the business and of its key practitioner(s).
Sampling and Recruitment
To gather a sample pool of independent technical communicators' business Web sites, a variety of sources was used, with search engines producing the majority of the pool and links from professionally relevant sites producing a significant minority. (See Killoran, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, for more details of this sampling process). Of note, searches of LinkedIn—now arguably the leading online venue for professional self-representation—did not contribute any links to independent technical communicators' business Web sites at the time this pool was being gathered throughout the winter and spring of 2007, which was before LinkedIn became so widely popular.
This sample pool included over one thousand sites, mainly from the U.S. but also from countries around the world, each at least partly in English. Each site was examined for evidence that it was still being maintained, and sites that showed no evidence of activity in the previous year or so were removed from the pool, leaving a sample of 638 maintained sites. (See Killoran (2009) for details about this winnowing process.) Each site was also examined for its e-mail contact and for the name of the business and of its principal, partners, or other key members. These names were used in part to compile an index of the sample's most basic self-representational information: business and personal names.
Prospective participants behind these 638 were each sent a recruitment e-mail opening with an address line naming the business, when such a name was available, and then the principal or a partner when one of their names was known. These names were featured with the expectation that recruitment e-mails to companies with more than one member would be directed to the named principal or partner, and that personally addressed e-mails would more likely elicit a response. Non-respondents received two follow-up e-mails, occasionally directed to another partner when such an alternative name or e-mail address was available. The recruitment e-mails included an informed consent notice and linked to an online survey questionnaire. A total of 240 respondents—150 based in the US and 90 based in 14 other countries—submitted completed questionnaires. Also received were 6 unusable questionnaires and sets of bounced (undeliverable) e-mails to 17 sites, resulting in an overall response rate of 39.6%. This can be considered a reasonable rate when compared with lower response rates typically achieved in surveys of technical communicators (e.g., Dayton & Hopper, 2010; STC, 2004; STC Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG, 2005a).
Of the survey's nine questions, one multi-part question pertained directly to self-representation. This question asked respondents to rate the marketing contribution of several features of their business Web site, and was introduced as follows:
Listed below are some kinds of information featured on the business sites of many technical communication companies, consultants, and independent contractors. For those kinds of information featured on your site, how much has such information helped you market your technical communication services? (For information not featured on your site, answer “Not applicable”)
The first two features listed pertain to self-representation:
- “Information about your business organization (examples: business name, organizational history)”
- “Information about you and other partners or employees”
Each feature was accompanied by a numerical response scale ranging from 0, defined as “[helped] not at all,” to 3, defined as “[helped] a lot,” with two additional response options denoted “don't know” and “not applicable.”
The survey concluded by asking respondents if they would be willing to participate in a brief follow-up e-mail interview and approximately half went on to submit interview responses. To retain participation and to elicit optimally informative responses, questions were limited to a handful per participant, and so questions about self-representation were asked only when warranted by a participant's survey responses or by evidence from the participant's Web site—which had been downloaded and examined so as to prepare for the interview.
Typically, participants whose sites did not appear fully transparent about whether the business represented just the participant alone or other associates as well—such as through the ambiguous use of “we“—were asked to clarify that matter and, more generally, why they had represented the business in that way. Similarly, participants whose sites seemed markedly personal or impersonal—such as sole proprietorships referring to their principal grammatically in the third person only—were frequently asked about how personal or impersonal they decided to be on their site. In some cases, the presence or absence of a specific self-representational feature would elicit a question about that feature. For instance, a Web site featuring one or more photographs showing the participant or other associates or even family members might elicit a question about the reason for posting the personal photograph(s), especially in cases in which the photograph(s) showed a non-business appearance or setting. Or a Web site that featured the participant with little or no business identity, such as no business name, might elicit a question about why the participant opted to represent their business as an individual rather than as a company.
An initial indication of the relative prominence of organizational and personal self-representational information can be gleaned from the presence of business and personal names among the sample's 240 Web sites and their Web domains. As shown in table 1, roughly similar large majorities of sites mentioned the name of the business (a total of 201, or 84%) and the full name of at least one of its principals (192, or 80%). However, over a fifth of those business names (43) were derived from the name of the principal, in such forms as “[Surname] and Associates” that would inherently highlight the central role of the principal to the business enterprise. All sites mentioned at least one of these two kinds of names, but more than a third of sites (a total of 87) mentioned only one, an indication that these sites might have been foregrounding one type of self-representation over the other. All businesses, of course, must have practitioners, but not all practitioners must have a business name, so the 16% of sites that omitted to mention a business name likely did not have a business name to omit but may have conveyed other “about us” information about the business, such as its history. By contrast, the 20% of sites that omitted to mention their principal's full name must have been concealing their practitioners to some extent, concealing them behind their business's identity.
Type of namea
Location of name
Web site (%)
Web domainb (%)
Both business and personal
aThe two types of names are the business's name and a personal name, which was operationally defined as the full name of at least one of its principals. Three Web sites that featured a business name and a principal's first name only are grouped within the “business only” category.
bThe Web domain includes only that portion of the Web address, or URL, before any directories or file name, such as www.[my business].com. Because this portion is typically short, it is unlikely that domains would accommodate both a business and a personal name and so the “both” category was eliminated. Cases in which businesses named after their principal also had a Web domain rooted at least partly in the name of their principal are grouped within the “personal only” category.
cTen sites used the domain of their Internet service provider or a Web hosting company, and so were not included in this analysis of freely-chosen domain names.
All but ten sites of the sample were addressed with their own Web domains (e.g., www.[my business].com), as distinct from using a subdirectory of the Web domain of their Internet service provider or a Web hosting company, indicating that their owners had some choice over how to address their site. Of these, only 60 (26%) Web domains were rooted at least partly in the name of the principal, whereas 153 (67%) were rooted in the non-personal name of the business; a small number (17, or 7%) featured no apparent resemblance to either the business's or the principal's name. In contrast with the relatively balanced mentions of business and personal names on the Web sites proper, this marked imbalance in the Web domains—which Web site visitors would typically encounter before they arrive at the site by typing in the URL or clicking on a hyperlink—suggests that the business identities of these sites initially tended to take precedence over the personal identities of the technical communicators.
Almost no significant differences were found in the proportions of business or personal names between the Web sites or domains of participants based within the U.S. and those of participants based beyond the U.S. The one exception: a principal's personal name is more likely to appear on the Web sites of participants based in the U.S. (84%) than on the sites of their overseas peers (73%; z = 2.00, p = 0.045). However, the international portion of the sample was dominated by participants based in English-speaking countries that are culturally akin to the U.S., especially Canada, Britain, and Australia, whereas the smaller numbers of participants from the sample's scattering of other countries and continents did not provide a meaningfully coherent or robust sample population on which to base a comparison.
Survey results show that, overall, participants rated the helpfulness of the two types of self-representational information—about their business organization and about themselves and their partners or employees—very similarly. As shown in table 2, most participants reported that each type of information was at least partially helpful in marketing their technical communication services, with typically between 20%-30% of respondents rating either type of information as helping a lot, moderately, or a little. By contrast, fewer than 10% rated either type as helping not at all, and similarly low percentages indicated that either type was “not applicable.” Survey ratings from participants based within the U.S. and participants based beyond the U.S. showed no significant differences.
Extent of marketing helpfulness
Web site information
Organizationala (in %)
Personala (in %)
3 – A lot
2 – Moderately
1 – A little
0 – Not at all
N/A (Not applicable)
a The questionnaire identified organizational Web site information as “Information about [the participant's] business organization (examples: business name, organizational history)” and personal Web site information as “Information about [the participant] and other partners or employees.”
Note: Because of rounding, percentages may not add up to 100.
At first glance, such responses suggest that rather little distinguishes the perceived efficacy of these two types of self-representational information. However, a closer examination of the data shows that a slight majority of respondents (130 of the 240, or 54%) rated the helpfulness of these two differently, suggesting that, in the experiences of individual participants, the efficacy of these two types of information are not as indistinguishable as the overall data would suggest.
Representing Technical Communication Businesses
We can better understand participants' distinct experiences with, and attitudes toward, information posted about their business organization and about themselves and any partners or employees by examining participants' interview responses, in particular responses that suggest why participants foregrounded one type over the other.
Among participants who foregrounded their business's identity over their personal identity, the few specializing in security-sensitive industries did not necessarily have a choice. For instance, one participant, the Director of Sales and Marketing for a large technical documentation company that served the transportation, aviation, military, and other sectors, explained why their site made no reference at all to any members of their company, to the extent that their 300+ word “about us” page frequently referred to the company as “it” rather than “we”:
Never, I repeat never publish or release a name especially on the internet war zone. It opens Pandora's box for scam, spam and the potential harvesting of names for employment poaching. It's a major breach of company security, especially for those involved with government or military work.
This participant further justified his wary view of Web self-representation by depicting the technical communication field as being as depersonalized as his company's Web site:
[Technical communication] is a cold and very, very impersonal industry. The client gives us data, words and pictures. We then turn the source data into pretty easy to read, accurate and compliant documents. We ship the goods, send them the bill and they pay… Ka-ching! There is little or no face to face personal relationships in this business. I'd prefer it not so, but this is the new world order and we've somehow figured out how to extract the human element. It's all about bottom line numbers, nothing more, nothing less. It's not our parents' world any longer, to our detriment!
This view of the field as impersonal, though not expressed so explicitly by other participants, perhaps underlies their more commonly expressed view that the personal is not marketable. In particular, several participants who worked solo perceived their Web site's corporate façade as an antidote to an apparent stigma associated with solo freelancers. For instance, one participant, whose name appeared only in a “contact” line at the bottoms of his various Web page displays, explained why his site gave more emphasis to his business's name:
I had decided to be as impersonal as possible on my web site because I wanted to emphasize that [my business] would be functioning in a service-driven vendor role and not in the role of substitute employee (two distinct roles easily blurred by large firms that often hire large numbers of consultants/contractors).
In several cases like this one, though the individual and the company were in effect one and the same, the means by which they were represented could make them appear quite different. On the sites of several participants who worked solo, that solo status remained ambiguous, often disguised behind the business's name and identity or vague pronouns. For instance, the site of one such participant referred to her company as “we” and “us” though the only person identified was the participant herself, introduced as the founder and “managing director” of her company and referred to throughout by her name rather than “I.” She explained:
I did this when I started out to avoid having the “solo operator” image, primarily because I thought I might have to troll for new business. For the same reason, I selected the Managing Director title rather than President or Owner (it also has a more global connotation). Now, it allows me to keep my options open in case I decide to hire an editor or copywriter.
The site of another such participant similarly referred to his company as “us” and “our” but featured only him, introduced as “senior writer” with an accompanying passport-sized photo. He explained the apparent incongruity:
Think of the website as referring to a “royal we”. I wanted to promote a friendly but professional image. By referring to us I hoped to convey theidea that [my company] can pursue any project, big or small. In addition, I could foresee situations where I would include other freelancers, as required, on individual projects.
The site of yet another such participant similarly referred to her company as “we” and “us” though the only person identified was the participant herself, introduced as the company's owner and referred to throughout by her name rather than “I.” She described the process by which she decided how to present herself and her company:
I struggled with this decision because I prefer to work alone and don't plan to sub-contract any work. At the same time, I wanted to accommodate the option of sub-contracting or working in partnership with a graphic designer or software developer on projects that require advanced skills in those areas. I looked at many writer Web sites and took note of advice on this subject from freelancing colleagues who participate in group e-mail lists that I belong to. I took part in a conference call on designing a Web site for your freelance business that was offered through a special interest group of the Society for Technical Communication, and we discussed this topic in detail. I concluded that most writers present themselves as part of a team even if the team is virtual. I think the concept of a virtual team is acceptable and maybe even comforting to potential clients.
Though, in signaling the “royal we” and “virtual team,” these and some other solo participants may have at least aspired to a potential “authentic we” or “real-life team,” some other solo participants who adopted similar tactics didn't mention such aspirations. Rather, representing a business as a solo operation “doesn't sound professional,” in the words of one participant. By contrast, representing a solo operation as a larger company “would ‘sound more grown-up',” according to another participant, with plural pronouns making it “sound and look like [the company has] huge offices etc.,” according to yet another, “rather like an advertising agency or any other type of communications company,” according to yet another. These explanations suggest that the royal we or virtual team serves a strategic purpose of disguising a solo consultant or contractor behind the mask of a larger corporate identity.
It might be assumed that technical communication companies with more than one practitioner would be immune from such concerns, but some were nevertheless concerned to portray an appropriate corporate identity rather than a collection of individuals' identities. One participant, co-founder of a technical communication staffing company with a few dozen associates, maintained a Web site in which her and her partner's names appeared only in an accompanying feature article scanned from their local newspaper, not at all in their own Web site's text. Even a page profiling the company referred to the unnamed co-founders only by their job titles. She explained her company's relatively anonymous approach as, in part, a reaction to someone's recent criticism that a previous version of their site had been “too folksy”: “We're now in the process of changing it little by little to a more corporate look with general pictures instead of pictures of the actual employees.” At the time of this study, their site included four photos that appeared to be generic stock photos of people in workplace settings or doing workplace activities. The only authentic-looking photos appeared to be two other photos of the outer facades of their two office buildings.
Of note, in their survey responses, eight of the ten participants who are quoted above rated information they posted about their business organization as equally or more helpful in marketing their technical communication services than (the limited) information about themselves; the other two participants did not know.
Representing Individual Technical Communicators
In contrast with this strategy of withdrawing behind one's business identity, many participants maintained sites that represented themselves and their colleagues quite openly, in some cases as the main selling point of the business. One participant who, like the participants described above, had represented herself as a larger company, explained why she revised her site to include news about the family pet on the homepage and a blog that shared her business experience:
I've just updated my web site after a lull – and added some more personal information. I've also made it about “me” rather than “us.” I used to present my business as a larger company. But really, it's just me, and I want clients to know that, so I've put more “personality” into it… I'm building my business as a speaker, and people really like to know a bit more about me for that. So far, I've gotten good response from my site and the more personal approach.
Among the minority of participants who maintained their business or Web domain under their personal name rather than a non-personal business name, some explained this choice by saying that it more accurately represented to clients the solo independent contractor or consultant and his or her personal qualifications, that they were personally well known in their field, or, in the words of one participant who operated without a business name, that “it's easier to cash the checks.”
Some participants, including those who maintained their business or Web domain under a non-personal business name, posted profiles of themselves and their associates because they had exceptional and hence marketable qualifications. For instance, the “about us” page of one partnership featured a half-dozen short paragraphs about the two partners, mentioning among other things their academic degrees, and linking to one partner's 3000-word resume. This partner explained the impact of the academic degrees in particular:
[W]e are impressed with how many prospects mention the journalism and engineering undergraduate degrees as making a difference to them… We have had clients tell us that locating another engineer with writing experience is difficult, though there are many English / technical writing graduates advertising.
Academic qualifications and accomplishments such as research publications seemed particularly important for participants marketing scientific and medical writing services, and on some such sites, the business principals and associates were each the subject of profiles hundreds of words long.
In contrast with the participant quoted in the previous section who depicted the technical communication field as being cold and impersonal, other participants depicted the field—or at least their site's marketing strategy within it—as relying on personal connections, and accordingly foregrounded their personal identity in order to initiate a rapport with prospective clients. A participant whose business site featured a page-long profile of herself—including a photo, a page devoted to her photography interests, and links to her blog, her resume, and her personal site—offered her rationale for highlighting herself:
When employing a freelancer, I feel that a personal connection – the sense that one is employing a real person who will be dedicated to one's interests – is important. So, the personal touches help to establish that connection. I have tried another site where my business was presented as a faceless corporation – with little success. That may partly have been because of the service offered, but I have a feeling that to succeed as a big business, one has to have the reputation and recognition to match. The general response has been positive – “nice to know I am dealing with a real person”, etc. No-one has commented adversely, to date.
Similarly, another participant whose site featured paragraph-long profiles of herself and of more than half a dozen contractors she employed, and who maintained a professional-oriented blog, explained the marketing role of her personal presence:
People hire me because of my reputation. Having said that, my reputation is enhanced and reinforced because people can read my thoughts (on my blog) and feel that they know my philosophy and my strategic approach… When people contact me, they generally open the conversation with, “… I've already had a look at your site, and…” so they are obviously using my site as a method of getting to know me… When shopping around for a consultant, you want to get an idea of their personality, and this allows a person to read what a consultant has written and understand their perspective, and decide whether it would be a good fit to work with them.
Some participants were adamant about foregrounding themselves on their business site, even if doing so might foreclose rather than build relationships with prospective clients who expected a more business-like demeanor. Consider how three such participants justified their conspicuous personal presence while dismissing its potentially negative marketing consequences.
The site of one participant briefly introduced her on the homepage before introducing her technical communication services, and featured a montage of personal photos repeated atop every page, some showing her in business settings but a couple showing sporting scenes. Throughout, the site spoke in the first-person, with about half the sentences featuring the word “I.” She explained her personal prominence:
I figure that *I* am what I'm selling: my experience, my preferences, my contacts, my ability to get your job done the way you want it. There are lots of stick-in-the-mud clients who will be turned off by the personal nature of my web site, and that's fine with me… I'm in the very fortunate position of being spoiled for choice and I'd rather let my web site sift out the clients who are likely not a good fit for me anyway.
Another such participant's site included several light-hearted features: a page-long tongue-in-check personal profile that included a photo of the participant and another of his children, a page featuring many technical writing gaffes, and a page of cartoons he drew himself. He reported that, when meeting prospective clients, these light-hearted features “are often what we talk about before settling down to business.” He also explained the general un-corporate tone of his site:
I don't put on any airs and graces and pretend to be a multinational. It's just me and my ageing Dell computers. I think clients appreciate the honesty – well, the ones that contact me! If a client is more interested in a glossy website and company image then they're not the sort of client I want anyway.
Yet another participant, the sample's most prolific blogger, included a blog link in her business site's navigation bar and, on her main blog page itself, introduced her several blogs with an apologia notifying prospective clients that her blogs are personal, not professional. She defended their presence on her business site:
Most of the time, people hire me based on my personality, and my blog reflects that… If someone is thinking about hiring me and decides not to, based on things I've said in my blog, then I doubt very much that we would have worked well together anyway.
Each of these three suggested that their conspicuous personal presence served the additional purpose of letting them choose their clients, rather than the reverse, by preemptively weeding out clients who would be put off by such self-presentation. In their survey responses, these three and the other four participants whose cases are explored in this section rated such personal information as equally or (usually) more helpful in marketing their technical communication services than information about their business organization.
Representing Technical Communicators Within Companies
Whereas most of the participants quoted above worked solo, some participants who ran companies with partners or associates also had reasons for representing on their site not just their company but also themselves and their people. One participant maintained a high volume business employing more than a half-dozen writers in part by relying extensively on search engine marketing, including advertising using Google Adwords. On the one hand, she valued her site's success in representing her company's relatively large size—and also indirectly echoed the stigma, discussed above, associated with solo independents: “I think we do a good job of online positioning—we don't look like a freelance shop or smaller contractor… I think we do a good job of distinguishing ourselves from the smaller firms… ” On the other hand, her site also included brief profiles of herself and each of her writers. She pointed out how her prospective clients—many of whom would know of her business only through a search page link— “can see from the breadth of [our work] and our team, whose bios are online, that we are ‘for real'.”
As with the solo participants discussed above, some participants running companies with partners or associates also sought to build a personal rapport with their audiences and accordingly foregrounded personal representations to break through the conventional, impersonal corporate representations. This was the rationale behind the corporate blog of one participant, the co-director of a partnership:
[O]ur blog helps us to add a personal touch to our site. Web sites can seem very impersonal and make it difficult for individuals to know who is behind the company. I have had people comment on a particular posting in person or via e-mail. So, it's just a good way to see a human side to the Web.
One of the sample's largest companies posted extensive biographies of each of its two dozen members, typically a page long and usually extending beyond just their professional background and accomplishments into their personal lives, such as their family and personal pursuits. Parts of the company's site also spoke with a casual, even jocular, tone, such as where it presented the company's mission—typically a serious matter—with humor. The company president explained the rationale for his site's distinctive un-corporate voice:
We include the personal parts because our “product” is “us.” I believe that customer satisfaction and customer loyalty in our business are built around developing and maintaining business relationships. One way to start that is to give prospects and customers as good a look at us as we can. I wish we had more of this on the site. We include the humorous parts because we have a sense of humor. Many of our clients also have a sense of humor and like that aspect of our site. I'm guessing that some clients or prospects could be put off by it, but nobody has given us that feedback… We really have two “customers” for the site: clients and recruits. That is, our site is just as important to us to attract new writers as it is to attract new customers. This duality also explains some of the informal, personal, humorous aspects of the site. We want writers who are “like us” in terms of aptitude, ambition, attitude, knowledge and skill. We think that the best way to attract them is to tell as much about ourselves as is fit to print.
The Web site of another of the sample's largest companies included photos identifying more than half a dozen of their management-level employees, each dressed casually in outdoor settings, and used an affectionate-sounding nickname to refer collectively to the company's employees. The homepage also prominently featured links to the company's community and charity initiatives and to a recreational employee event, the latter of which led to a lengthy page detailing the event. The company owner explained her philosophy for these distinctively non-corporate elements of her site:
The informal tone of our website reflects our corporate culture; we believe you can be serious about work while having fun. We want clients, both prospective and current, to know that we are approachable, and we think our website shows that. Personally, I'm turned off by websites and other corporate communications that are ultra-formal; I think the effect is off-putting and unfriendly. In our industry it is particularly important to be approachable. [Our company] has received very little negative feedback about our informal tone, both on the website and more generally, and many clients have even adopted some of our informalities… We've had at least three clients say they feel better about our future together, working with us, etc. because after viewing our website, it appears our core values are closely aligned. We've also had probably a dozen prospective employees contact us because of our website saying we look like a company for whom they want to work because of the corporate culture represented. Probably a half dozen of them turned into employees over time. Giving back and holding fun events… are important aspects of our corporate culture, and so it's logical that information about them would be displayed prominently on our homepage—there have even been instances when long-standing clients have participated in some of our fun or volunteer events.
In their survey responses, all four of the participants quoted in this section who ran companies with partners or employing associates rated information they posted about themselves and their people as equally or more helpful in marketing their technical communication services than information about their company.
Some participants' Web sites featured not just verbal but also visual self-representational information: photographs of themselves, their buildings, partners, employees, and even their families, as well as the rare video. Readily available and easy to post on a Web site, these raise self-representational issues beyond just those that arise from verbal discourse and hence deserve attention in their own right.
Along with sharing the same marketing advantages of personal information delivered in verbal form, personal photographs also bring other marketing advantages, according to the interview responses of some participants:
- They better enable a prospective client to establish reassurance and rapport with a technical communicator they have not yet met by literally putting a face on an otherwise anonymous consultant or contractor;
- They enable a contact to recognize the technical communicator at a first face-to-face meeting;
- They help a contact remember the technical communicator they have met previously.
The Web site of one participant included three personal photos, one of which, oddly, was a shot of her in a kayak taken at such a distance that she was not readily recognizable. She explained that she was applying a marketing lesson—
to… troll for clients that have similar interests as you (hence the kayaking photo)… Interestingly, I've found that prospective clients will make conversation about what they read/saw in pictures on my website. So the personal info turns into [a] kind of conversation starter.
She added that, in her experience, prospective clients usually better remembered information about her than about her business services.
Despite such apparent marketing advantages, posting photos also raised concerns beyond just the obvious loss of privacy that accompanies personal information posted in verbal form. Visual representations can be more potent than verbal representations, creating visceral impressions that can strongly enhance one's marketing efforts but also strongly detract from them. Such impressions were a reason offered by one participant for why his site featured no information at all about himself—not even his given name, let alone a photo—beyond vague references to “we” and “our”:
I was put off by other websites with an ‘about us' section with photos of a couple of twits in suits: to me, these look silly. Unless you're prepared to spend money on good photography (which I'm not), website photos of consultants tend to look like the villains from B-grade movies.
The impact of such visceral impressions might vary depending on whether the subject of the photos is male or female. For instance, two male participants expressed no reservations of their own or negative feedback from others about the casual photo each had posted of himself on his site, photos showing each bearded man in a non-business setting wearing non-business attire. One posted a photo of himself in dark glasses, casually dressed in jeans outside with his dog, accompanied by a brief professional profile with a link to his multi-page resume but also accompanied by links to lists expressing personal interests unrelated to his business. He explained:
I've felt that it is valuable to represent a certain portion of my personality as part of my business identity. With respect to the picture of me and [my dog], it's a picture that I felt represents my character well. As an aside, I'm not to be found in a business suit. I'm allergic to them, so to speak…
The other posted on his “about” page an outdoor photo of himself in a tee-shirt, accompanied by a page-long personal profile and a link to a separate section of his site devoted to his personal writing. He explained:
The informality is pretty carefully constructed to convey a specific message: I'm not uptight. I want people to come away with the idea that I'm very good at what I do, and I'll treat their work very professionally, but that when they call I probably won't be wearing a suit and tie. [The site] has gotten praise from clients who have looked at it.
By contrast, a female participant whose site design, atop every page, featured a close-up photo of an attractive young woman in business attire indicated that what appeared to be a stock photo was indeed not of her: “I don't put my own ugly mug on the home page,” she explained. “I am female, marketing to men.”
However, another female participant, who ran her business with her male partner (both business partner and life partner), featured on her “about” page five close-up photos of herself smiling engagingly, plus lots of writing not only about her professional accomplishments but about her hobbies; her partner's “about” page was similar. She explained,
Most people find it refreshing to see we have personalities and to see what we look like… We actually get compliments from long distance clients about knowing that we look normal, and it helps to be attractive. I'm not above using my exceptional good looks to sell my writing and editing services. Visuals are important…
Unusually, their business site featured not only the his-and-hers “about” pages but a separate page featuring photos of their children with write ups about their interests and hobbies. But this children's page was accessible only through a link from his “about” page, not hers—deliberately so, she explained:
I've only had one person tell me in over 15 years of having a corporate website that they thought having our kids on the site was inappropriate… Since [my partner's site] isn't used as a selling point as often as [my own site], I removed the kids from my [“about”] file and it is only on [his “about” file].
A family photo also appeared directly beneath the kayaking photo of the participant introduced above, showing her holding her young son, and here too gender was a factor in her decision to post such a photo:
Since moving to a rural area, I found that a handful of people out here think that as a married woman I'm just working to get out of the house from time to time. (Yikes! I know – some people still think that!) My usual reply to this kind of comment is that I'm working to support my family – which is why I initially posted that photo with my son.
Of note, in their survey responses, both of these female participants who posted several personal and family photos rated information about themselves (and, for one, her partner) as helping a lot to market their technical communication services. As for the two males posting casual photos, one rated information about himself as helping a little and the other did not know. Though their accounts are anecdotal, they suggest that female independent practitioners might have to be more strategic than their male colleagues in choosing whether and how to represent themselves visually.
Examining one of the most generic parts of a Web site, this study contrasted independent technical communicators' experiences with, and attitudes toward, two types of “about us” information on their business sites: about their business and about themselves and their associates. Most businesses post both at least to some degree, such as, minimally, a business name and the personal name of its principal. Notably, however, about one-fifth of sites in this study withheld even the name of their principal, a conspicuous anonymity. Such personal discretion was also evident in their Web addresses, of which more than twice as many were rooted in non-personal business names than in personal names. Names on Web sites and in Web addresses, if they reliably signal the character of Web sites' “about us” information, would suggest that the business sites of independent technical communicators tend to foreground their business identities over their personal identities.
Yet results of the survey questions revealed that, in general, both types of “about us” information were at least somewhat helpful in marketing independent technical communicators' services, and roughly to the same extent. Despite such an apparent lack of differentiation between the two, a slight majority of participants responded differently to these two similar survey questions, indicating that many independent technical communicators experience these two types of “about us” information as indeed different, though their own experience of the relative efficacy of each type differs from that of some of their peers.
Independent technical communicators' rationale for presenting, or withholding, information about their business or themselves reveals that the two types of “about us” information seem to serve different purposes. Some participants withheld even basic personal information for legitimate security reasons. The absence may not have been perceived as a loss among those who viewed the technical communication field as relatively impersonal anyways, as the absence would not be perceived to sacrifice much if any marketing advantage.
By contrast, other participants foregrounded personal information because they perceived it to be marketable, whether because it highlighted their marketable qualifications and accomplishments or because it built some personal rapport with prospective clients. Implicit in this latter purpose—and explicit in the explanations of some participants—is a view of the technical communication field as built on close working relationships, a direct contrast with the impersonal view of the field evinced by some who withheld their personal information. Some participants seemed to indulge in their personal interests and self-expression seemingly not just because of their business but perhaps even in spite of their business. In their interview responses, they expressed skepticism about working with prospective clients who would otherwise have passed them over because of such personal representations, and thereby tacitly reinforced the view of the field as built close working relationships.
The study also revealed some evidence of synthetic personalization (Fairclough, 1989) and synthetic institutionalization (Killoran, 2002), in which, respectively, larger companies on the one hand and solo independents on the other represented themselves somewhat like each other. In the case of the synthetic personalization, the personalizing efforts of some of the larger technical communication companies would more justly be described as authentic than as “synthetic”—that term better applies to fields that market commodified products or services, whereas even large technical communication companies are relatively small and technical communication services are necessarily distinct to each client and project. But some larger companies nevertheless perceived that winning clients relies not just on representing their size and their corporate identity but also cultivating personal rapport by representing their company's people.
As for synthetic institutionalization, the representational efforts of some solo independents to disguise their solo status behind the façade of a larger company appear to justly warrant the adjective “synthetic.” Indeed, such efforts appear to breach standards of ethical professional practice. According to STC's statement of ethical principles, technical communicators “provide truthful and accurate communications…. We alert our clients and employers when we believe that material is ambiguous…. When we advertise our services, we do so truthfully” (STC 1998). Though some solo independents declared their aspirations to eventually live up to their Web site's pretense of a corporate-sized entity by growing into it, they and some of their solo peers nevertheless tended to perceive a corporate-sized entity to be more credible and hence more marketable than a solo operation and so represented themselves accordingly, regardless of ambiguities, inaccuracies, or untruths.
It is the nature of the technical communication field that its practitioners are liable to find themselves in a variety of ethical quandaries (see Dombrowski (2000, 2007) for reviews of the literature documenting many such cases). In this study and in STC's statement of ethical principles, the onus has been on the individual practitioner. However, Dombrowski (2007) has argued how ethical decisions are shaped not just by individuals but also by elements in the broader social context. In this case, such elements could include conventions of marketing genres and also the apparent attitudes of the audiences of such genres, prospective clients. Before passing judgment, a more thorough exploration of synthetic institutionalization in solo independents' marketing could consider how ambiguity permeates marketing communication genres—technical communicators are not the first to use the “royal we”—and inquire into the actual attitudes of clients toward the independent technical communicators with whom they contract.
Such swopping between corporate and personal representations, together with the mixed results from the survey, interviews, and Web site analyses, indicate that there may be no definitive answer to the question of whether a technical communication business should favor an organizational face or a personal face or a particular combination of both. Though this study did reveal marketing advantages with each type of “about us” information, these advantages would not necessarily be available to any given technical communication business because many advantages appear to be associated with factors that differ from business to business: the security-sensitive nature of the business's industry, the business's size, the business's general marketing strategy beyond the Web site, the kind of practitioner-client rapport and working relationship that the business seeks, a technical communicator's qualifications, their gender, even, alas, their physical attractiveness.
For instance, because technical communication businesses are populated with a variable mix of owners, principals, partners, associates, employees, staff, subcontractors, and even spouses—some only occasional and some doing work far removed from technical communication—this study did not inquire in depth into the demographic background of participants and their business. After all, what is the size of a company with a flux of full-time and occasional associates, and what is the gender of a male-female partnership? However, some evidence points to demographic factors influencing self-representation, such as the size of the business, with single-person operations being perceived by some as too insubstantial to risk personal representation. Another such demographic factor is the gender of the technical communicators, which seemed to influence how some represented themselves visually.
Yet other factors addressed only partly or not at all in this study could influence how technical communication businesses represent themselves online, such as their national culture, and the growth of alternative online venues of professional self-representation such as social networking sites. In the case of a business's national culture, this study did find a greater tendency to display a principal's personal name on Web sites based in the U.S. than on those based elsewhere. However, other potentially more significant cultural influences could not be adequately explored with a sample dominated by participants based mainly in the U.S. and kindred countries. As for social networking sites, at the time this study was conducted, searches of the then-nascent LinkedIn turned up no outbound links to the business sites of independent technical communicators. Since then, it's possible that the convenience and validation that LinkedIn and other social networking sites have provided to online self-representation and self-marketing may be influencing how independent technical communicators represent themselves and their businesses. To accommodate the diversity of technical communication businesses, these kinds of factors, as well as other nuances that make each self-representation unique, deserve to be further explored, especially with qualitative research methodologies which can better accommodate such distinctiveness.
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About the Author
John B. Killoran is an associate professor in the English Department of Long Island University, Brooklyn campus. He researches Web communication and has previously published in Technical Communication as well as in such journals as IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. He is a senior member of STC. Contact: email@example.com.
Manuscript received 1 October 2011; revised 24 July 2012; accepted 31 August 2012.