What is a Knowledge Base? (and Why You Need One)
Ever thought to yourself, “What is a Knowledge Base?” Are you thinking of creating one for your company? If YES, then read on…
In retrospect, the 90s can easily be called the calm before the storm that is the internet age. For marketers, things were a lot simpler back then. Print, TV, direct mail, radio, and billboards were about all the media they had and how to reach their prospects. Few went beyond their local borders, and data available to them was limited to surveys and customer feedback forms.
While seemingly archaic by modern standards, these methods still worked. So, it was only natural for marketers to assume that their tried and tested skills would apply just as well when the internet came along. Billboards were substituted with banner ads, direct mail was quickly replaced with email, and so on. For a time, it seemed to work. People clicked and bought, just as companies expected.
But a few years in, things began to change. Click-through rates (CTR) fell through the floor as a new phase began to be whispered around marketing circles in hushed tones. Banner blindness, as it came to be known, denoted an acquired immunity to sales and marketing material proliferating on the internet. The message was loud and clear: marketing was getting in the way of people trying to find a solution, not connecting them with what they wanted and needed.
Shoppers and online browsers alike were researching more than ever before. Consider the following:
- 87% of people research a product before they make a purchase.
- 47% of buyers will read three to four pieces of content before engaging with a sales rep.
- 70%–80% completely ignore paid ads and focus only on organic results.
- 70% of customers prefer to use a company’s website to get answers rather than call or email.
- The top two online activities are search and email.
We can go on and on with the statistics here, but the bottom line is that people not only need information – they also demand it. Companies that help their audience and customers get the information they want usually end up winning the sales race, too.
Your knowledge base is no longer just a collection of articles or something that you must put up because everyone else is. Instead, it can be a decisive competitive differentiator which, when done right, can help you win a loyal audience. Unfortunately, putting together a knowledge base that can help you win said audience is often easier said than done.
Every knowledge base has many moving parts, so there are plenty of places where you can go wrong. In the following sections, we will discuss what a knowledge base is, how you can set one up for your website, and what some of the best tools are out there to help you get the job done.
Let’s get started!
What Is a Knowledge Base?
A Knowledge Base is essentially your organization’s library. It’s where you put all information and data relating to what you do, how you go about doing it, and how you can help readers find solutions, all in one place. Like any good library, your knowledge base should not only have relevant and updated information, but it should also be easy to browse.
The term “knowledge base” was established to separate knowledge-based artifacts from the more commonly known database. Knowledge bases use databases to build more abstract and higher concepts. More on this later.
There are two types of knowledge bases that your organization should have:
Machine-Readable Knowledge Base
These are knowledge bases that are recorded in a computer-readable form and are most useful in artificial intelligence systems. Not designed exclusively for human requirements, these knowledge bases contain rules and sets of data that describe concepts.
Human-Readable Knowledge Base
These are written in a human-readable format and are usually instructional in nature. These knowledge bases consist of FAQs, articles, videos, user manuals, white papers, how-to guides, troubleshooting guides, and anything else that can help a person find an answer to a query. Human readable knowledge bases can be segregated into two further categories:
- Customer-facing knowledge base: A repository of knowledge that can help a customer make a decision or find a solution. FAQs, how-to guides, webinars, articles, videos, and product demonstrations all are great ways to provide your customers and prospects with the information they require.
- Internal employee knowledge base: Consists of knowledge pieces that can help employees perform their duties more efficiently. These can include processes, procedures, policies, product information, proprietary research material, guides, employee information, and more.
The best knowledge bases are succinct, record only useful information, and make it easy for users to find what they are looking for in a few steps as possible. To this effect, their structure matters as much as the content within them.
Difference Between a Knowledge Base and a Database
In terms of learning, the words data, information, and knowledge are often used interchangeably. However, each term refers to a particular piece of the puzzle, and the distinction applies to information systems as well, which is why the phrase knowledge base was coined. Data is any piece of information; information refers to data placed in a context, and knowledge is understanding derived from applying our experience to arrive at a decision. For example, a blood pressure reading of 140/90 will be called data. The reading is higher than normal is information. The readings are such because of a poor diet will be called knowledge.
A database is a system that stores data-points in a hierarchical or relational order and will have the following qualities:
Laid out in tabular form with a string of numbers and/or alphabets in fields.
Support for Multiple Users
A database should be able to support more than one user or system at a time.
Atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability are hallmarks of a database that dictate it should be available to all users in the same format and consistency.
Large, Long-lived Data
Databases deployed in corporate environments are required to hold hundreds of thousands to millions of fields of information. These databases also need to persist past the specific uses of a single program and are required to hold data for years or decades.
Databases are still pretty much the domain of computers and provide the raw material through which information and knowledge can be derived. Knowledge bases add a layer of abstraction on top of databases that allows all that raw data to be presented in a way that a human brain or machine can interpret it. This is accomplished by imposing a semantic model to a database which includes classes, sub-classes, relationships, and instances. In doing so, knowledge bases can be shaped dynamically to whatever an organization wishes it to be.
Creating Your Knowledge Base Structure
Creating a working knowledge base that actually contributes value to your organization will require more than a few FAQ pages, articles, and help desk. As most organizations are still split into silos, so are their knowledge bases, which inhibits information from flowing freely from one department to another.
A 2018 survey of 1,000 workers by Nintex titled Definitive Guide to America’s Most Broken Processes found that 49% of people had trouble locating documents, 33% struggled with document versioning, and 39% observed some broken documentation system in their organization.
In other words, you could record the most high-quality information in the world in your knowledge base, and it won’t mean anything if it can’t be found as quickly as possible. Information architecture (IA), which is a subset of user experience (UX), can be a great tool to help establish a foundation for your knowledge base. Document360 has an awesome article on how IA can be applied to a knowledge base and suggests that users start with four factors to organize their information:
- Signposting: Constitutes headlines and subheadings that can tell a user where they are in the knowledge base.
- Taxonomy: The overarching structure of a knowledge base that will serve as its foundation.
- Navigation: Will include your knowledge base’s sitemap and search engine that can help users find what they are looking for.
- Interlinking: Linking between different contents of your knowledge base that can direct users to related information if they so desire.
Here is a great example of a knowledge base done right by Music in Australia, which has an extensive database on music culture Down Under:
Image Credit: Music in Australia
The layout easily segregates all the content into five categories, each with their own sub-categories (taxonomy). The structure has easy-to-understand labels and lists out all the articles within it (signposts). An easy taxonomy also allows for a very fast content discovery within the site (navigation). And finally, the site has good content practices that make further research all the easier (interlinking).
Another great example is Echo Knowledge Base’s own structure:
Image Source: Echo Knowledge Base
The structure of your knowledge base should be based on the information demands your organization faces. You can have two separate knowledge bases: one for your employees and one for customers. While the structure for both will remain the same, both will carry different categories and sub-categories. Your internal knowledge base structure, for example, can look like:
The documentation here is usually more technical in nature and language. You will also have greater freedom and ease in creating content as your employees themselves can contribute to your internal knowledge base. Consider creating a style guide to help everyone in the organization understand the format your knowledge base should follow.
On the other hand, your customer-facing knowledge base will most likely consist of categories such as:
- Getting started
- Instructions manuals
- Troubleshooting guides
Content posted here is best written in a jargon-free language that is easy to digest. It is also crucial that all content be up-to-date and as succinct as possible. Consider asking your customers questions via surveys, emails, and directly on which issues they find most bothersome.
Choosing Your Knowledge Base Topics
Each site will need its own content structure and type based on its audience and its demands. The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) can be used to create an experience that your customers and employees alike will appreciate. An MVP is typically applied in engineering processes and strives to accomplish two goals:
- Deliver the highest return relative to the risk.
- Maximize the amount of learning with the lowest possible investment.
Used in knowledge base creation, the concept of MVP should attempt to address your customer’s biggest problems and concerns with the least investment from their side. The content itself should consist of solutions that provide the best solutions with as few drawbacks/side effects as possible.
Ask yourself the following questions to understand what will go into ascertaining your MVP:
- Which keywords are most used by your customers when on your website?
- What are the most common customer service complaints?
- What content is most searched by your employees and customers?
- What are the most common comments and questions left by customers on social media?
Essentially, any piece of information that can help you understand what your audience and employees are looking for will help here. While the steps above take a passive approach to idea discovery, you can go for more active measures as well. You can, for instance, send out survey forms to both your customers and employees with feedback requests.
Your research should also highlight the importance of certain questions relative to others. This information can help you create a structure that provides the most useful information fastest.
Ideally, your customer-facing knowledge base should follow your internal one. This is because the rich information required to create compelling, easy-to-read and effective content for your customers will come from the extensive documentation of your company’s processes, knowledge, and experience.
Start by making extensive documentation of your policies, processes, and procedures. Feel free to ask each department to carry out their own surveys to document all their procedures and processes in depth. If certain workflows and procedures overlap between departments, note the relationship down. This will be helpful in cross-linking between documents when you publish them online. Some of the documentation that can be added to your inventory are:
A list that details all the aspects of a project or product. A spec-sheet can help a user understand the functionality, usefulness, and configuration of a product, and will follow a strict taxonomical standard.
It contains a complete walk-through of a product to help users understand all the ways in which said product is intended to be used.
Standard Operating Procedures
These documents help employees carry out their duties according to a set of established principles. An SOP is typically expected to be followed verbatim without deviation.
These are the product of venture studies that compare competing options against a set of requirements. Such reports are used to arrive at a specific course of action.
There are many other types of technical documentation that you can create based on your requirements. It is recommended that you be as thorough as possible, as missing a data type can easily result in a butterfly effect of confusion and disorder later. Once you have a good handle on all the goings-on within your company, it’s time to turn it into awesome customer-facing self-service content.
First things first: you need to know what questions your audience is asking. While considered the holy grail in marketing and sales, finding out what your customers want isn’t all that difficult as far as building a knowledge base goes.
Consider looking for trends that hint at what your customers are trying to find. More often than not, your customers will try to address usability bottlenecks, breakages, and/or poor product design. While asking your customers is always an alternative, you can discover many potential issues yourself. Run tests on your product internally or put it through public beta testing to uncover any hidden issues. Here are a few ways to find useful stuff to write:
By far the most direct method. You can either get feedback via surveys or find it hiding in your marketing and/or sales team’s documentation.
Your team that handles customer grievances directly is most well-positioned to help you understand what problems your clientele is facing. Ask your customer support team to create a list of questions they are asked most frequently.
Which content is most of your customers gravitating toward? Are there any specific keywords they are using to get to your site? Which sections get the most clicks?
Competitor’s Knowledge Bases
Checking out the knowledge bases of similar companies in your industry can help you figure out which questions are asked most often. Not only can doing so help you uncover ideas for your own knowledge base, but it might inspire you to create a better product too.
If you post product-specific information and marketing material on your social media profiles, then there’s a good chance your customers are leaving comments on what they feel and think. Oftentimes, people are more candid on social media than while filling out a survey or answering to a customer rep, which makes their social media feedback all the more important.
Now that you have a good handle on what your knowledge base will look like, let’s get you the tools to create an awesome platform that starts adding value right from the get-go!
Choosing a Technological Foundation for Your Knowledge Base
Now that you have a good idea of what your knowledge base will look like, it’s time to get it all in one place. Knowledge management as a philosophy and science has really taken off, and we have plenty of tools today that can help you collate, create, and present your organization’s experience and solutions faster than ever before.
Let’s get started with a few of our favorites out there!
Image credit: Freshdesk
Features: Allows for easy branding of content, email to KBase, advanced analytics, and good feedback mechanisms for writers.
Price: Free for basic features, $19/month/agent billed for more in-depth support and features
Free trial: Yes
The recipient of many awards, Freshdesk is just about the most well-thought-out ticketing and knowledge management solution you could ask for. Its lucrative pricing and rich feature list make it a very attractive product for SMBs. However, even more, demanding users can go for Estate and Forest options that offer more functionalities such as multiple SLAs, IP whitelisting, and HIPAA compliance.
While Freshdesk’s ticketing service is usually the one in the limelight, their knowledge base management solutions are right up there with the best in the business. Called Self Service Freshdesk, KBase has some pretty awesome features that make it an attractive alternative. These include:
- Multi-channel support: Customers can access your KBase anywhere and through any medium, be it website, mobile, chat, or social media.
- Automated solution suggestions: Relevant solutions automatically presented to people looking for answers, freeing your staff from performing more repetitive tasks.
- Multiple-language support: Content can be translated into various languages, all from one interface.
- Easy content scaling: All updates to product-specific content can be carried out from one place.
- Branded content: Companies can give their content the same look and feel their websites and other branded material offers.
- Email to KBase: You don’t have to log in and type out an article in Freshdesk. Articles can be sent straight from your email address to your knowledge base.
Freshdesk has a very well-designed self-service portal that can not only help you put together an awesome knowledge base, but one that ensures your customers find the answers they are looking for ASAP.
Image credit: Zoho
Features: Multi-device support, AI-assisted search engine, easy integration with Google Analytics, domain mapping, personalized interaction.
Price: Free for basic features, $18/month/agent billed for more in-depth support and features
Free trial: Yes
Zoho is already a well-reputed brand in the CRM space with a host of innovative features that are hard to beat, and their self-service knowledge base is no exception. Zoho Help Center is widely reviewed as one of the most intuitive and easy-to-use KBase software currently available.
The setup allows customers to easily move from research to ticketing to live chat in a couple of clicks. The stuff that you are most likely to search for is all there right in front, and you won’t need to wade through a plethora of sub-menus to find them.
Zoho has enabled a quick in-app integration in its help center that enables brands to inject their entire KBase right into their apps. Furthermore, the community center built right into the help center allows you to not only assist your customers but also build a thriving community where other members can share their experiences and insights to help others. Zoho Help Center offers the following features:
- Multi-brand support: Create and manage knowledge bases for all your brands and corporate concerns from one central location.
- Knowledge Base reviewers: In order to thoroughly vet each article written, Zoho offers a reviewer feature where a person can be assigned to review each piece of content.
- Advanced portal customization: Unlike other offerings that only allow you to play with drag and drop elements to get your branded feel, Zoho allows you to edit HTML and CSS of your KBase to get the right look spot on.
- Auto-suggest: Can pull up relevant articles and show them to someone about to submit a ticket using keywords they are typing in. This feature can help people resolve their issues faster, negating the need to submit tickets.
Zoho is always adding new features to its lineup and their knowledge base, so do check them out!
Image credit: KnowAll
Features: Easily integrates into WordPress, intuitive analytics, tons of shortcodes, built-in widgets for displaying custom lists of articles, translation ready.
Price: $149 for KnowAll Essential, $199 for KnowAll Plus, $299 for KnowAll Pro
Free trial: No
While KnowAll lacks the branding and customization features of other big-ticket (pun intended) services, it more than makes up for it via competitive pricing, minimalist design, and bare-bones useful features.
- Seamless integration with WordPress: The KBase adds as a regular theme to your WordPress site, and once integrated will show a knowledge base section in your dashboard.
- Easy to customize search field: KnowAll’s design is centered around its search engine, which is evident from the large search field on the top of the KBase. You can reposition the search field to be wherever you like, and a custom widget allows you to add it to other pages as well.
- Easy cross-linking and navigation options: Keeping in with WordPress’s popular interlinking best practices, KnowAll offers easy cross-linking and navigation options via tags and sub-categories. You can also add a sidebar to all your knowledge base articles so that users can find related resources.
- Streamlined analytics: What’s interesting here is the minimalist approach taken. Instead of bombarding you with a ton of metrics that may or may not be of any significance, KnowAll keeps it simple and shows you the most relevant information. The tool keeps track of all the search terms that were used in its search engine.
- Bonus analytics feature: A rather cool feature is that the analytics will also tell you what information users were unable to find. You can then create resources on the suggested topics and build a more targeted knowledge base.
While the plugin isn’t exactly cheap, one must remember that it is offered at a one-time price rather than on a per user per month model that most other knowledge management services use.
Image credit: Document360
Features: Easy, intuitive versioning, difference viewer, category level user access, callout important pieces of information, advanced branding and customization via CSS editing.
Price: $49 per month per project for Startup package, $99 for the Business package, $249 for Enterprise package
Free trial: 14 Days
The majority of knowledge base creation tools out there are by companies that are usually into full CRM which also offers self-service portals as an add-on. More often than not, the knowledge base part of their offering is either lacking in key areas or qualifies as lip-service only. Document360, on the other hand, has its full focus on providing a complete end-to-end knowledge creation and management service, and the difference shows.
Document360 is designed from the ground up to be as user-friendly as possible. Instead of buying one account for each employee, you are given a team account that can be used by as many people as deemed necessary. Essentially, you are allowed to work on one knowledge base per purchase.
The software is designed around an AI-powered search engine that ranks right up there with the best in the business. The software has a markdown editor with plenty of styling tools that can help you brand your content the way you want it.
By far the most attractive feature of Document360 is the ease with which it can help you create categories and sub-categories. Not to say that the other tools are lacking in this area, rather Document360 goes about it in a very KISS way. A context menu on each category and article can help you add sub-categories, rename your article, delete, hide, or add icons, etc.
Features: Document processes, procedures, and policies, steps can be added to each as checklists, and can include videos and/or pictures, enables training on the job. You can then add these documents as articles in any knowledge base you create in SweetProcess.
Price: Starting at $99/month for up to 20 users and an additional $5/month per-active-user fee for additional users beyond the initial 20 who actively use our software. See details on how our billing works here.
Free trial: 14 days
SweetProcess offers Knowledge Base management functionalities right out of the box. It provides the ability to create private knowledge bases that you can use to help your staff and public knowledge bases that your customers, vendors and those external to your company can use solve all their issues, it does provide a very crucial service on top of your value funnel—documenting your policies, processes, and procedures. Sure, you can write up all three in your chosen KBase; however, capturing the nuance of each will require a different approach.
An organization’s procedures and processes are often poorly documented, if at all. This is primarily because ways of working in a highly dynamic environment are always changing. Documenting them on the fly requires a tool that allows you to capture all the information and make it available to users in as few steps as possible.
SweetProcess is designed from the ground up to help you pull together all your policies, procedures, and processes under one roof and train your staff on them. Furthermore, people can add comments to a particular policy, procedure, or process or edit them if need be.
SweetProcess’s greatest advantage is its document-as-you-go processing model with which you can start recording new processes even as you are experimenting with newer methods. This way you needn’t waste time brainstorming new processes, implementing them, going back to the drawing board, and then repeating the whole process all over again. Each step can be performed far faster and even concurrently.
Suffice to say, having a good handle on your organization’s MO is going to be crucial to crafting an internal knowledge base. And with a tool like SweetProcess in your kitty, you will be well equipped to not only get those processes recorded but also get them implemented effortlessly as well.
Regardless of whatever method and tool you decide to go with, it is vital to remember that your knowledge base is always a work in progress. All too often organizations paste a few basic articles and FAQs into a help section and call it a day. Remember, your prospects need as much insight from you as possible to make up their mind. Constantly adding to and refining your knowledge center will help you help your customers find the best solutions to their problems.
Creating a knowledge base is an involved and long process. Suffice it to say, there are many moving parts you will need to keep in check when framing and executing your knowledge management strategy.
Check out checklist for creating the perfect knowledge base for your organization. It covers all the bases and will give you the perfect tool to ensure your organization’s knowledge is retained and distributed as and when required.