Preachy and spammy content doesn’t get published by accident. Why is so much content out of tune with what audiences want? Bad ideas about content are a major source of content quality problems — but their role and impact can be difficult to notice.
Certain content practices perpetuate dated ideas, centered on broadcasting messages to audiences, instead of being pulled by what audiences desire. These practices churn out content without designing it to be in harmony with the underlying motivations of the audience. Such an orientation results in tone-deaf content. Misguided ideas about content need to be rooted out, and replaced by content planning that’s backed by substantive audience research.
The Problem of Tone-Deaf Content
Tone-deaf publishing happens when a brand talks at the audience and doesn’t realize the audience is cringing. People stop listening when the speaker doesn’t seem concerned about their reaction. Audiences feel as if they are enduring a bad, screechy karaoke rendition that makes them want to head home early.
We encounter tone-deaf publishing when we feel we are being talked at. It might occur during a service problem with an airline or telecom provider, when they robotically tell us they “regret any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.” People hear a pattern of broadcast messages that seem unconnected to their real needs. Customers feel they are being told to stop complaining, and just spend more money.
With tone-deaf publishing, content focuses on what the brand wants to communicate, rather than what the audience is genuinely interested in. It reflects a broadcast mentality: of talking, and not listening and responding. Creators of content mistakenly believe that content will be liked and noticed if it sounds friendly. But tone-deaf content is really about inappropriate substance, not inappropriate style. Audiences have stopped watching broadcast TV not because the personalities were unfriendly, but because TV broadcasts push generic packaged content aimed at a mass segment, and audiences grew tired of not being heard and having their interests reflected.
Tone-deaf publishing is a common problem for several reasons. Many firms embrace a couple of misguided ideas about content that come from the tech sector: evangelism, and marketing automation. Few firms have effective programs to discover and analyze unmet audience needs.
The tech sector historically has been the source of many bad content practices: jargon-laden content, cryptic messages, and stilted writing that’s sometimes produced by offshore contractors who are not writing in their native language. The tech sector has long prioritized cost-saving efficiency over quality in content. It is notoriously bad at thinking like their customers, and actively listening to them. Companies can come across as arrogant: some tech corporate founders are famous for their arrogance, and disinterest in feedback from others. Yet because the tech sector is financially successful, people often assume they always follow good content practices. While some firms do work hard to counter the cultural influences of a product-centric, engineering orientation, the tech sector unfortunately more often has a negative influence on content. Great content in the tech sector is the exception, not the rule. The sector frequently embraces solutions that promise quick and easy cost benefits, but don’t serve the needs of audiences well, and erode brand value in the long term. Wrong-headed ideas from the tech sector about content can have an undue influence in other sectors, if people mistakenly believe the tech sector has the Goldilocks touch.
Evangelism and marketing automation annoy audiences. But many people believe they are sound tactics. They’re seductive because they seem like tools that will further a brand’s goals. Both these tactics enjoy popularity with less sophisticated practitioners of content marketing. Even some people who describe themselves as content strategists seem to condone the practices. Awareness of audience-centric content methods remains limited, so people unwittingly believe that message broadcasting is fine, without understanding how it is ineffective.
On the surface, the two practices seem to have little in common. One is about message delivery, the other is about technical delivery. But they share a common orientation: pushing messages at audiences, while showing a lack of interest in knowing what audiences genuinely want. And regrettably, because these tactics share a common orientation of pushing and controlling the message, they are often used in combination, making the experience even more tone-deaf.
Content evangelism declares: “This is the truth; this is what you need to believe.” Evangelism in the tech sector was started by an Apple marketing executive, Guy Kawasaki, who studied the techniques of Billy Graham to become Apple’s first evangelist. Kawasaki wrote a book called Selling the Dream, preaching the benefits of evangelism, and showing off his certificate of completion from Billy Graham. Many people best remember the pre-millennium years of Apple as a period when many of its customers were arrogant and annoying. They knew the truth, and were superior. Pity the poor person who got in a discussion with an early Apple disciple. That person was often treated derisively for having concerns about the cost of Apple computers, or hardware compatibility, or the availability of software. Non-believers were on the wrong side of history, even while Apple’s fortunes were tanking. As long as Apple played the evangelism card, it remained a niche player. Instead of simply debating their competitors, they were essentially arguing with their prospective customers. Once they finally dropped the arrogant evangelism and stopped being so preachy, they gained market share to become the biggest tech firm around. They finally fixed their product shortcomings, so that their products could do their own advocacy, and people could make their own decisions by directly experiencing the product in Apple stores.
While selling dreams sounds warm and fuzzy, dealing with reality is a much more credible approach. Evangelism doesn’t accept the customer’s reality: it tries to steamroll it, and get the customer to accept an alternative set of beliefs. The elements of evangelism are pushy and argumentative:
- Relentlessly push your point of view
- Claim superiority
- Counter objections
- Sow fear and doubt
Numerous startups have copied Apple’s use of evangelism by appointing a chief evangelist. They act as carnival barkers, preparing sound bites for journalists and VC funders. But an evangelist is not the person to put in charge of customer-facing communications if you want to cross the chasm of reaching people other than fanatical early adopters. Few customers can be expected to develop a hobby interest helping the brand with its marketing grunt work.
Content evangelism has become an unconscious tactic in much content marketing — including in discussions about content marketing itself. Parties do it often without realizing they are doing it. The problem with evangelism in commerce (as opposed to social causes) is that most people want to choose, not be converted. They aren’t lost souls looking for something to believe in. They just want content that meets their needs as they define them, and gives them satisfaction as individuals. They have their own criteria about what’s important to them, which likely is different from what the brand wants to crow about. When people are treated as disciples, customer service invariably suffers. They cease being a source of feedback — people whose interests must be respected and loyalty earned. They are instead considered as a mouthpiece for the company.
Spammy Marketing Automation
Questionable ideas about broadcasting messages stubbornly refuse to die. They have been updated for the digital age in the form of marketing automation. Automation lets marketers schedule how they push their messages, and uses a heavier hand to steer how people encounter the messages. The central idea of marketing automation is the same as any form of message broadcasting: the brand is in charge, the message is predetermined, and the audience is the variable being manipulated.
Automation sounds like it is smart, but it’s a mistake to jump to that conclusion. Automation can be clever (hard to do) or dumb (very easy to do). Automation is simply the absence of human judgment. If you have a task that doesn’t require human judgment, then automation is the obvious choice. The trouble starts when one assumes human judgment isn’t needed, but it is.
Marketing automation vendors contend that human judgments are central to the process, because humans will review “qualified” leads to try to close a sale. Rarely is the system smart enough to close sales on their own, so person-to-person conversation needs to happen. But before this point is reached, countless other people have endured marketing communications they weren’t interested in.
Let’s consider a case where marketing automation generates emails to a group of people who have given “permission” to be contacted as they have not opted out. The email content contains a link to a landing page related to the campaign. The marketing team wants to know how many people both open the email and click on the link to view the page. They find that two and half percent do this. Let’s be generous and assume that through A/B testing of headline and image variations, tracked by customer segments, the brand can double the clickthrough rate, so that a total of five percent now view the page. Depending on the nature of the campaign, the marketing team might congratulate themselves on their success.
But the other side of the story is that 95% of people who had previously indicated an interest in the brand have chosen to ignore it here. Why is that? The awkward question may be rationalized away by saying these people weren’t ready — the brand will catch them next time. Or they weren’t the right targets.
The troubling possibility with marketing automation is that brands end up alienating the people they seek to build a relationship with. When the vast majority of people a brand contacts ignore the brand, common sense says the brand is engaging in spamming. Nearly every explanation of marketing automation will deny that it is a technique of spamming. But the persistence of denials betrays the core problem with the approach: expecting the audience to match the message. Marketing automation vendors suggest that they are responsive to audience needs, because they segment, measure and track audiences. Such audience matching doesn’t really change what’s offered to audiences. It doesn’t really put the audience in charge. It simply ranks audiences according to how interesting they are to the brand.
A fiction of marketing automation is that it can make people more interested in what a brand has to say. Proponents imagine that automation somehow makes content more relevant to audiences — that machines are the key to personalization, at least as they define it. What marketing automation can’t do is tell us why all this automated content is being ignored. Because automation is labor saving, the brand may see little incentive to understand what’s not working. They just want to scale up what is working. Ultimately, such fishing expeditions have their limits, however. The waters become over-fished.
The Many Symptoms of a Tone-Deaf Brand
Tone-deaf content is not limited to the tech sector. All kinds of brands fail to deliver the satisfaction people expect from them, and their content communications can play a role in these expectation failures. Some tone-deaf content annoys because it’s in your face, and some irritates because it is clueless about us.
Suppose the issue is sprucing up one’s home. Sounds like a pleasant task. But a recent article in the Atlantic probes “Why Ikea Causes So Much Relationship Tension” and notes that “each step of the Ikea process is rife with emotional triggers.” Family therapists note that Ikea is often the catalyst of disputes: “Themed areas triggered related arguments: bedding (sex), kitchen goods (chores), children’s gear (don’t even start).” Flat-packed, chipboard furniture that many people hope to not own for long, can fuel arguments and self-recrimination about issues such as a sense of equity in effort, confidence in one’s abilities and character, or how style choices mark identity.
No one expects Ikea to fix family feuds, but it is worth considering how their content might exacerbate tensions in the household.
Ikea often acts like a tone-deaf publisher. Their content — from their signs, to their forms, to their catalogs — alternates between seeming to shout at customers, and presuming customers have enough patience to figure out what various cryptic communications mean. Their products have names that are frequently difficult to pronounce and remember. The entire shopping experience is about directing customer behavior instead of letting customers direct themselves. People are forced to march throughout the entire store, and conform to a regimented process of selecting and collecting goods. While some people might find the process enjoyable, it is common to find shoppers refer to Ikea as stressful and nerve-wracking.
Ikea’s copywriting is full of empty platitudes:
- “Taking time to just sit back and relax — it’s one of life’s simple pleasures. That’s why we make soft, cozy sofas.”
- “Your living room is where you share the story of who you are. So our living room furniture helps you do that.”
Such copy is gratuitous. A furniture vendor uses predictable and ignorable adjectives such as cozy and relaxing, as if some people are shopping for menacing, uncomfortable furniture. But what’s worse is that it feels fake. People are being told how they are expected to feel (rather than arriving at that feeling on their own). And how Ikea tells people they will feel is oddly discordant with how they feel when shopping at Ikea. The reality of Ikea shopping is sensory overload — anything but relaxing. There are endless choices, and it is often confusing what things are, and what the differences are between them.
Ikea’s biggest problem from a content perspective is their evangelism about do-it-yourself assembly. Ikea relentlessly promotes the idea that everyone benefits from self-assembly, flat-pack furniture. They won’t acknowledge that items can be difficult and frustrating to assemble — or that perhaps their instructions make it so. Rather, they try to convert you to believing it is easy to do. If you don’t agree, you can pay them to install it. You have to pay a surcharge for not believing their point of view.
Ikea’s wordless assembly diagrams would seem to embody the “less is more” ethos of minimalism in technical communication. Minimalism aims to make communication more direct, removing unneeded words, and so doing save on translation costs. But while Ikea avoids the expense of translation costs by using wordless diagrams, it comes at the expense of audience understanding. And that lack of understanding translates into frustration, and a poor regard for the brand.
“Designed for use in any culture or language, Ikea’s deceptively simple assembly manuals give users the (often incorrect) impression that the project can be accomplished without much time or effort. If that mute, genderless cartoon figure can build a rolling kitchen island, it stands to reason, surely we can too. When those expectations are dashed, egos take a hit.” — The Atlantic
Ikea’s content problems are numerous, and sometimes subtle. To some extent their core business model of passing along the work to the consumer tends to disregard a basic insight: that shopping for furniture is often an intrinsically stressful experience, due to the many emotional issues associated. Ikea should use content to make the shopping experience less stressful, starting with what the Atlantic termed the “deceptively simple” assembly instructions. No one likes to be deceived by fake simplicity.
On the positive side, Ikea sometimes offers more audience-centered content, such as when it talks about how shelving systems can adapt to changing needs, or discusses the stress testing of furniture to assure parents the furniture can handle the rough treatment of their children. These kinds of topics address real needs of buyers.
Putting the Audience Back at Center
Content strategy is not about polishing messages. It is not about being more efficient at delivering content — important as that is. Content strategy is fundamentally about meeting audience needs, both obvious and less obvious. All else are details — of little value if audience needs aren’t being met. This observation may seem unremarkable, until one realizes few content strategy processes give the audience a central role in the content creation process. Where is the audience swim lane? What audience input is used in decisions on what content to create?
Deep audience research can uncover both the motivations and needs of audiences to identify issues of greatest importance to people. The advertising world relies on account planners to provide audience insights, while the interactive design world relies on user experience researchers. These people feed into either a creative brief or design brief, which defines the direction of projects.
Brands that don’t routinely uncover one or two significant, non-obvious insights about their audience probably aren’t doing serious audience research. Such insights can become the raw material of themes to address in content: topics to cover, information to include, and ways to frame a discussion.
- What occasions does the issue remind people of?
- What aspects, perhaps indirect ones, do people dread in association with the issue?
- Why do people believe something that’s factually untrue relating to the issue?
- In what ways do people behave differently than they say they do, or believe they do?
Getting reliable answers to such questions is not easy. It requires indirect probing, and synthesizing connections across different people and topics in a lateral manner. Such analysis does not lend itself to automation or simple indicators. Small wonder the tech sector shys away from this kind of analysis.
How to Make Content Audience-Centric
It is not enough to try to imagine how audiences will react to content. It’s far too easy to project one’s own interests onto the audience, or rely on stereotypes, and miss out on understanding the real motivations of audiences, as well as how their offline behaviors and discussions shape their decisions. You might imagine you are seeming empathic with your audience, but your audience feels reminded of their meddling mother-in-law, or a critical high school tennis coach they once had.
Focus on what’s not working in one’s content. Don’t just focus on improving what is working. What’s being ignored, or is causing friction, may represent a much bigger target of opportunity. It is hard for analytics to reveal the story behind what’s not working. The content may be emphasizing benefits that are not important to the audience. Audiences may tune-out because the content is saying things that are obvious to them, or worse, triggers anxieties. It is important to work with people skilled in audience research methods, to answer why people would really care about what’s being said.
Social media teams can discover surface problems and issues, but deeper insights require dedicated research, which could involve social media, but would be separate from daily social media operations. Individuals rarely ruminate about what’s not working for them and why that is, and can’t be expected to volunteer answers to brands. Brands need to actively uncover the motivations that influence reaction to content.
Few writers and content producers have experience with audience research methods. Journalism schools have only recently introduced audience research into their curriculums. Most traditional publishers and broadcasters are focused on attracting and retaining viewers, rather than designing content aimed at behavior change. Insofar as they are concerned about audiences, they have a ratings mindset focused on popularity, rather than a service mindset focused on supporting activities.
Content creators should partner with researchers who have experience working directly with audiences. Such researchers can combine the best of qualitative and quantitive methods, and may have a background in sociology or anthropology. To understand unmet audience needs, content creators might work with people in different roles, who could be:
- User experience researcher
- Design methods facilitator
- Market researcher with a background in interviewing
The range of research techniques that are available and potentially useful is vast. A few possibilities include:
- Stimulus-based discussions
- Role plays
- Design activities
- Video diaries
The most appropriate methods and approaches will depend on the nature of the audience and content. Someone skilled in research can organize quick discovery research that will identify promising areas to probe in more detail.
Content strategists can learn from how interactive designers work with UX researchers to explore issues. Innovative designers no longer assume they know what people desire and base their designs on such assumptions. They engage with users before designing a digital product; they don’t just test their ideas after finishing. That model of continuous user involvement — before, during, and after the creation of a design — needs to be more common in the creation of content as well.
Audience research involves an investment of time and money. Not all content can be based on primary research. The highest priority candidates will be content themes where there is a wide gap between what the brand believes it must communicate, and what audiences seem to want. If a large portion of an audience is ignoring content on a theme important to the brand, or is less than enthusiastic about what’s covered in the content, the brand needs to consider how it can connect better with audiences. Pushing harder won’t change the dynamic. Listening harder will.
— Michael Andrews