In the digital world, experiences are largely derived from content. Audiences are not able size up the credibility of conversational partners in-the-flesh, or touch physical things to test their worthiness. Instead they react to stuff made of pixels. That reaction of people to pixels is the essence of what is often described as the content experience. What follows are some insights into how content experience arises, and a suggested framework for how to plan to make experiences as good as possible for your audiences using four building blocks.
Content creators often have a naive view of content. They believe there are two types of content, good content and bad content, and that good content results in good experiences. The creator then concludes: my content is good, so people will like it.
When considered from the user perspective, content appropriateness seems like a moving target. Content may be good for some people, but not others. Content may be good at certain points in time, but not others. When content isn’t quite right, it can seem mediocre, or even bad.
Understand your audience’s (sometimes complex) motivations
Experience is about emotions that arise from one’s thoughts and feelings. In our heads we think and talk to ourselves (thoughts) while in our bodies we process various emotional, visceral or unconscious reactions (feelings). We can have thoughts and feelings about ourselves (our self concept), and about other people or things, such as brands. Thoughts involve interpretation and evaluation – a process of judging that can be curious or critical. Feelings range in intensity and how they manifest. Feelings and thought play off each other – thoughts drive feelings at times, and other times feelings drive thoughts. Their interplay is most intense when feelings and thoughts are aligned or “fused”: the times when people are most convinced of what they encounter is real.
Psychotherapists warn of the danger when people can’t separate thoughts from feelings that are negative: when unconscious feelings spur critical thoughts about oneself or another, or when habitual negative “self talk” causes one to feel bad. Storytellers like to encourage the fusing of thoughts and feelings in a positive way by getting people so absorbed in an enjoyable story so that they stop evaluating the story (and the storyteller) critically. People tend to have positive experiences when they feel comfortable with the storyline: it is aligned with familiar, positive prior experiences of a person, so that receptivity goes up, and judgement and negative reactions are absent.
The interplay of thoughts and feelings influence perceptions your audience has of themselves, and of your brand. Content can prompt people to evaluate themselves negatively (“I must be dumb for not understanding this”) or positively (“I’m so in the know.”) Content also induces people to evaluate brands negatively or positively. Consider the public reactions, both positive and negative, to a recent Dove soap campaign focused on beauty. That campaign may not represent the kind of content you create, but it does illustrate the range of possible reactions that content can elicit, with people talking both about themselves, and the corporation that is behind the message.
Whether the content provokes thoughts and feelings about the person using the content, or the brand behind it, depends on the person’s self concept (expectations about oneself), and their view of the brand or product (expectations of the brand.)
The following table illustrates some different aspects of content experience. People may focus on how an experience makes them feel or think of themselves. Or they may attribute the experience, good or bad, to what the brand did for them.
|Relating to Self (personalization)||Relating to Brand (attribution)|
|Good Experience||Affirms who am I, or want to be||Has qualities or values I desire, is “on my side,” gets me where I want to be|
|Bad Experience||Makes me feel inadequate, or under-appreciated||Slows me down, wastes my time, insults me, bores me|
Brands generally have limited influence over a person’s self concept, unless they have had – or will have – a sustained relationship that will influence a person’s expectations of themselves over time. A community college may be able to reframe how a person thinks about themselves. A candy company generally can’t. For the most part, brands can appeal to aspects of existing self concepts. A high end chocolate maker might use content to cultivate chocolate appreciation and connoisseurship, and affirm a chocolate aficionado’s belief in their erudition.
It is helpful to know the mindset of your audiences, especially whether they have a superior (arrogant) or inferior (intimidated) attitude toward aspects of your product, so you can adjust your content to work with their expectations. For example, does your audience see themselves as geeks? Does your content appeal to geeks, or does it seem too simple, or too me-too? Unless people are looking for aspirational content (involving a transformation of self identity) people generally want content that reaffirms who they think they are. When content is discordant with how people think of themselves, they often will blame the brand for being wrong.
It is also helpful to know any hot button issues different audience segments may have. When faced with an emotional situation, people often personalize the bad ones more than the good ones. Take the assertion that brands care about their customers. Some brands like Zappos in the United States have been successful in getting people to view their organization as caring about the customer as an individual. But generally customers have a healthy skepticism when it comes to believing brands “care” about them. The idea that brands might genuinely care – really value the customer’s time and psychic needs – must be earned through repeated concrete action. When something goes wrong, the same people who doubt that “care” (in the emotional sense) is a reasonable expectation to have of a brand will be quick to decry that the brand doesn’t “care” about them, as if they secretly believed the brand would prove them wrong. While content is only one aspect of the brand experience, it can play an important role in offering palpable evidence to customers that can create a feeling they are cared for.
Given these variables, content will often need to adapt to different segments of the audience, to account for different priorities, both informational and emotional. To understand the differences in audience segments, it is helpful to create content personas that address the informational needs of different audiences at different stages of time, their psychographic characteristics, media preferences, topical interests, their attitudes toward the brand, social media behavior, time scarcity, and attention habits. To offer full value, content personas should go beyond the functional scenarios and device-centric usage profiles found in user experience personas.
Get ready for the “moments of truth”
Good content experiences are achieved when audiences sense their thoughts and feelings are aligned while using the content. People hear messages when they aren’t distracted by how the message is being delivered to them. They identify with content that seems as if it is part of their life stories. The building blocks for good content experience need to come together during various “moments of truth” a customer will encounter: points in time when the customer will form a strong and lasting impression that will shape their expectations of the brand in the future.
During moments of truth, there is a big potential for content to make people feel bad about themselves, or bad about the brand.
- If the brand doesn’t offer content that’s on-topic, then the customer will feel the brand is not a credible source of information.
- If the brand doesn’t present content in an audience-appropriate way, it can destroy trust, or make some customer segments feel excluded.
- If the brand doesn’t offer a compelling articulation of how its various content relate to your bigger needs, then the brand has forgone the opportunity to establish a basis for an ongoing relationship. Instead, the brand may even foster confusion about the brand, or even skepticism and cynicism if the audience is more focused on poor storytelling than the story itself. When viewing individual items of content, the customer thinks: “yeah right” – it doesn’t add up.
- If the brand lets down a customer at a critical moment, because it failed to plan for how a customer might need content at a certain time, then the brand has lost the chance to build loyalty.
Implement the building blocks of superior content experience
It may seem self-evident that one should create content that makes people like themselves and the brand. But the reality is that only some content does this well. Even if we disregard all the badly produced content that people are often forced to use to get things done in their lives, we are still left with a massive amount of content that is unexciting for most people and offers poor competition for other outlets vying for their attention. Correcting the most clumsy elements that spark bad experiences is not enough to attract audiences to want to use your content.
Delivering superior content experiences depends on a mix of components and methods:
- what you say or show
- how you say or show things
- how you do your communication
What you say, and how you say and do that, can be broken down into four building blocks that address how you develop relationships with audiences, and meet their needs during their moments of truth when the are likely to form a strong impression that will shape their expectations of your brand. These building blocks are illustrated below.
Content elements are the choices about what to talk about. This includes the topics your content addresses, the level of detail offered, the selection of information to based on audience needs and priorities, and making connections to other topics that are related. The content elements you offer are the DNA of your identity to audiences. It reveals whether your focus is the same as the audience’s. Content elements are the major factor determining how curious an audience segment will be in what you say.
Content presentation is about how content is styled, translated into media and distributed. Yes, style matters, a lot. Assuming the audience has interest in what you talk about, you need to determine how to present the content in a way the audience will find engaging and willing to offer their attention. Presentation choices help create the rapport you establish with your audience, influencing how receptive they will be to what you have to say. Content presentation includes editorial style, such as voice and tone. Editorial style influences the mood your content conveys, such as being helpful, happy, respectful or funny. The decisions relating to content presentation also include whether to show content about your topic, rather than simply talk about it, and selecting the appropriate media to convey your content, such as video, info graphics, or social media dialog. The more a brand can communicate on the audience’s terms, the more the audience can identify with the content and see it as part of their life stories.
Content articulation is about how content elements come together to create meaning for audiences. This can be the stories you tell about your brand, or the arguments you make to advocate a certain position or course of action. Your content elements and presentation should support how your content is articulated and reinforce your messaging. Audiences should be able to easily understand the big themes of what you offer, without feeling shouted at. It is easiest to see the articulation with brands that have cartoon mascots (Ronald McDonald or Smokey the Bear) because both brand and audience think in terms of what the mascot persona says as part of its larger story. Other brands use more subtle ways to tie together content into a larger message, such as when content consistently reflects brand values such as environmental stewardship.
Content awareness is about how your content responds to audience needs at different points in time. Content awareness embodies the relationship your brand has with the audience by showing how responsive your content is to changing audience needs, and how well you can anticipate these needs. Your content demonstrates awareness of audience needs by planning for customer journeys, and for detailed scenarios of use for your content. Aware content makes the right content available where it is needed, when it is needed. It does so by considering content needs across different device platforms, and anticipating how content may be needed in the context of secondary activities that are not immediately related to acquiring or consuming the content. To deliver aware content, content resources need to be embedded within the overall design of your organization’s services so it is available exactly when the audience will want to use your content.
Great content experiences require more than an entertaining copywriter, or a clever editorial calendar. It requires empathy for different kinds of people, who have an assortment of needs and motivations. Empathy is not an intention; it is a measurable quality. It is demonstrated by how successful your content is with different audience segments. Truly empathic content is possible only from a deep understanding of the many aspects of audience needs, which should be validated through user research with audiences and content performance assessments. The ability to deliver that content, the capacity to create and position content addressing those needs, requires holistic coordination and planning.
— Michael Andrews