Illustration by Bronwyn Gruet

Knowledge Base 101: Definition, Benefits, Examples, and Tips

A well written and accessible knowledge base should be the cornerstone of any support team’s self-service strategy: 70% of customers prefer to use a company’s website to get answers on their own.

In this article, we will explain what a knowledge base is and show you how to plan, create, and deliver effective knowledge base content that will truly create better customer experiences.

What is a knowledge base?

A knowledge base is a published collection of documentation that typically includes answers to frequently asked questions, how-to guides, and troubleshooting instructions. Its purpose is to make it easy for people to find solutions to their problems without having to ask for help.

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The term “knowledge base” typically refers to the information stored in the system, but it can also refer to the software used to author and present that information. In this article, we will use “knowledge base” to refer to the content contained within your knowledge base software.

A knowledge base can encompass many forms of content, including:

  • Frequently asked questions
  • Step-by-step process guides
  • Introductory articles
  • Video demonstrations
  • Glossaries and definition lists

Knowledge bases are the end product of collecting and organizing all of that information into a useful form, through a process called “knowledge management.”

Typically, you would apply knowledge management processes to collect information, then use knowledge base software to create, manage, and deliver that information — as a knowledge base — to your readers.

What is a knowledge base used for?

Some types of knowledge bases are intended purely for machines to learn from. Other types — the types we’re referring to in this article — are built for people to use and learn from.

Knowledge bases can be aimed at either external audiences or internal audiences. For example, an appliance company may maintain maintenance instructions in a customer-facing knowledge base and also have an internal knowledge base for their employees to understand company policies.

In some cases, companies maintain knowledge bases that are relevant not just to their own customers but to anyone interested in their particular field. Consider, for example, Blue Nile’s diamond buying guide: an educational knowledge base filled with information useful for anyone in the market for a diamond.

Why is a knowledge base important?

Much of customer service is basic information transfer — the customer has a gap in their knowledge that is preventing them from achieving some goal, and the customer service team steps in to fill that gap. For example:

  • How do I change my password?
  • How much will this cost me to use?
  • Why won’t my file upload?

Questions like these can be addressed through multiple means, such as improving your product or service design, better labeling, and upfront training. But there will always be people who need more help.

A knowledge base is a cost-effective way to reduce the time and effort the customer has to spend in order to get an answer and move on with their current task, which creates a better customer experience in several ways:

  • Many people prefer self-service. Research shows that a majority of people prefer to find their own answer first before they will reach out for help. A knowledge base is where they will look!
  • Knowledge bases support different learning styles. A single knowledge base can present information as text, annotated images, video, audio, or any other media format. It can give customers the best chance of receiving the information they need in a way they can best absorb.
  • A knowledge base operates 24/7. Even if you have customers on the other side of the world from your customer service team, a knowledge base can be there with them. Plus, your knowledge base will never ask for time off to go to Bonnaroo.
  • Knowledge can be delivered contextually. Customers don’t need to start from page one and read through your whole knowledge base. With the right knowledge base software, you can deliver the right piece of information at just the right moment.
  • A knowledge base can generate useful insights. If you select a knowledge base tool with reporting capabilities, those reports will show you what people are looking for and are finding, the terms they use to search, any gaps you have in your knowledge base, and more. You can use that information to improve your knowledge base content — and also your product or service.

Convinced yet? The next step is to get all of that useful information into a format and structure that can be turned into a knowledge base.

How to create a knowledge base

Humans have created many, many tools for information storage and access. You probably won’t choose stone tablets as your knowledge transfer tool of choice, but there are plenty of other options.

Some common points for collecting information into a knowledge base include:

Shared document systems

It may be a local file server with MS Word or PDF documents, a Dropbox shared folder, or Google Drive, but shared document storage is a common solution for making information accessible to many people. This method can sometimes create challenges with duplication, file format, and accessibility to other systems.

Wikis and Intranets

Making information easily editable and findable by many people is the key benefit of a wiki tool. Intranet tools (whether or not they are technical wikis) are often used for capturing internal knowledge and making it accessible to staff.

Dedicated knowledge base tools

Knowledge base software is a specialized tool for creating, maintaining, and delivering information. Help Scout’s Docs is an example of knowledge base software, built to deliver better self-service and to integrate tightly with our customer service software.

How to create knowledge base content

A knowledge base is a long-term project. Building out that set of content is no small task, so is it worth spending the effort? Yes! An effective knowledge base can vastly improve your customer service.

And in good news, your knowledge base will start being useful long before you have completed all (or even most) of the possible content it will contain.

Follow these tips to create effective knowledge base content.

1. Understand what you need to cover

Anyone on your team who regularly talks to customers will be able to share the most commonly asked questions, and that’s a great place to begin. Once you document those items, move on to the next tier of common misunderstandings, challenges, and queries.

Consider using a tag or custom field in your help desk software that allows anyone answering a customer query to flag that query for documenting in your knowledge base so you’ll have a continual flow of genuine customer questions to address.

2. Collect existing information

You probably already have content you can add to your knowledge base. Look for FAQs, release documentation, and internal materials that contain information customers could also use. Your customer service tool likely contains plenty of well-worded, reusable explanations to draw from.

Copy all of that information into one place so you can see what you have, what you still need, and where you might have inconsistencies or duplication.

3. Organize your information

Clearly structuring and arranging all of that information is key to a successful knowledge base. Try to group together information according to how customers are likely to need it (as opposed to matching your internal structure or even your product’s navigation).

4. Create new content

Writing (or recording) knowledge base content takes significant effort, so it’s important to create content people will really find and use. Earlier in this process you have likely identified gaps in your current set of knowledge.

Perhaps your support team find themselves having to write longer answers because the information isn’t already covered in your knowledge base. Those answers can form a perfect base for new content.

When you have prioritized the list of questions you want to cover, you can begin to create new knowledge base content. If you aren’t the subject matter expert yourself, collect the answer from the best-informed team members, and use that to outline your document.

Then you can build on that outline, applying a consistent voice and tone, always keeping in mind the task, question, or mindset that your end reader is likely to have.

Maintain and improve your content

A knowledge base should not be a stone tablet, written once and fixed in place. Especially in the software world, information becomes outdated or incomplete constantly, so you will need to revisit it regularly.

Nominate a person or a team to own the knowledge base (or some portion of it), and be sure they have the time and capacity to work on it.

Over time, your team can extend your knowledge base, updating existing content and adding new content (or new formats for existing content), building an information resource that will save plenty of time for your customers and your team.

Of course, that assumes your customers are finding your knowledge base and are able to apply the information in it. That’s where the next step comes in.

Making your knowledge base accessible

A knowledge base isn’t useful if people can’t first find the right information, understand it, and apply it to their questions. Some simple guidelines can greatly increase the usability of your knowledge base.

  • Design for readability. Help your readers understand your content by applying simple knowledge base design tips like contrast and white space.
  • Use the language your customers use. You might use your own marketing terms to describe features or elements of your service, but customers may never search for those terms. Review support conversations and chat transcripts to understand how customers talk about your offerings, and include those terms.
  • Show content in-app or on your site. Rather than wait for readers to arrive at the front door of your knowledge base, make the information visible right where they need it inside your application or on specific pages. Tools like Beacon can let you easily show the most appropriate content for the customer’s current goal.
  • Connect your knowledge base to your contact points. One reason customers reach out for your help is that they just don’t know your knowledge base is there. Link to your knowledge base prominently from the places people can trigger a support question, and help them help themselves.

Knowledge base software can help greatly in creating and delivering useful information to customers. Picking the right tool for your specific situation will make everything easier.

How to choose the right knowledge base software

Which knowledge base software is best? It depends on the software environment you are in, the capabilities you need (or want), and the resources you have available. Here are some key questions to help you narrow down the options:

  • Do you need just one knowledge base, or do you need several separate ones? How does the tool handle multiple knowledge bases?
  • How many people will be authoring or updating content?
  • Can the knowledge base software display content in-app? Or will customers need to click through to another page?
  • Can the design of the knowledge base pages be customized, and what skills will you need to do it?
  • How does the search function work?
  • What kind of reporting does the knowledge base software include?

When you have a shortlist you are considering, be sure to spend some time using the company’s own knowledge base (and contacting their support team). They should be the best example of their own capabilities!

Get started on your new knowledge base

Planning, designing, creating, and maintaining a knowledge base can feel daunting. However, every article you write might represent hundreds or thousands of future customer questions answered without needing your help.

A great knowledge base can also be an incredible tool for training new staff and an excellent SEO resource that draws in new potential customers. Time spent well on building your knowledge base will pay off for years to come.

Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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