Tag Archives: audience motivations

Aligning Business Goals With User Goals in Content

How does one develop content that aligns business goals with user goals?  Getting both these goals in balance is not  simple.  Joe Pulizzi recently wrote that content marketing may be heading toward a “trough of disillusionment” following a period of “inflated expectations.”

Expectations of content are often inflated. Content professionals frequently expect the wrong things from content. But paradoxically, much value that content can offer is widely overlooked.

The challenge is to have realistic expectations of what content can accomplish, while knowing one is tapping the full potential value from content. To do this, we need to reimagine how we think about the relationship between the business goals for content, and the user goals that content fulfills.

Why Content Expectations Are Often Unrealistic

Inflated expectations about what content will achieve are common.  As more organizations define performance metrics for what their content is expected to achieve, the rampancy of unrealistic expectations is becoming more obvious.

Three kinds of erroneous thinking can result in inflated expectations:

  1. Considering Content as a Magic Black Box
  2. Engaging in Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections
  3. Making Attribution Errors

Black Box Content

Many people have a fuzzy concept of precisely how content is expected to produce a business outcome.  Instead, they rely on the idea that content has some sort of X-factor that can produce desirable outcomes.  Consider two popular perspectives that contain kernels of truth, but can be dicey when treated as dogma.  The first is what might be called extreme customer centricity: Produce great content that audiences love, and the business benefits will follow.  The second considers content as a driver of business growth: Great content is a magnet for reaching customers who want what you have to sell.  Both perspectives skim over the mechanics of how customer use of content gets translated into profitable outcomes. That it happens is taken on faith.  Yet companies are discovering that launching content initiatives in the hope something will stick to the wall can be an expensive undertaking.

Black box models result in free-floating goals that seem independent of any specific activity needing to happen.  One can set a business goal one hopes to achieve as result of delivering great content, but that goal won’t be realistic unless it is grounded in a plausible model to realize the outcome.  The reality is that specific business outcomes depend on more than producing great content that audiences love.  Without a causal model defining how one expects the content to influence audiences and their behaviors, one has no way to test how realistic one’s goals are.

Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections

Here, the brand is clearer on what precisely it wants to happen, but it overestimates its ability to influence the outcome. The strategy may seem sensible. The brand plans to offer content audiences would be interested in.  And the outcome they expect doesn’t seem overly ambitious. But outcomes depend on more than linking together a sensible-sounding business goal, with a sensible-sounding user need addressed by the content.  Various external factors introduce friction into the process.

Consider the user’s deliberation process. First you need to get their attention.  They may have a goal, but aren’t seeking advice.  Or they may be checking out advice from your competitor.  If you get their attention, you need to build credibility with them.  They may follow your content, but start to wonder what other brands have to say about the topic.  Or they may get bored.  Once they feel they’ve heard enough on the topic, they are ready to make a decision.  Not only are they considering your content, and possibly the content of your competitors, they are weighing other considerations.  Many decisions ultimately have little to do with the content.  People make decisions based on price, or perceived convenience, or a host of other factors that can wipe out any advantages offered by your content.

The process of user deliberation can involve many turns
The process of user deliberation can involve many turns

The path from content to conversion is long and twisting.  Brands often want to believe if they are liked, then people will take actions they want them to.  They sometimes believe that they can change the behavior of their prospective customer if only those customers view great content promising something better than they have now.  Often such assumptions reflect wishful thinking. Conversion is tough. It’s tempting and easy to ignore all the external factors that can get in the way of people deciding on your solution. But brands have to accept they can’t control everything.

Attribution Errors

Attribution assesses how user events or interactions contribute to desired outcomes. Attribution models can be reliable when measuring tightly controlled and monitored sequences of actions. But attribution gets much trickier the more variables that are involved, especially when they are spread over a long period of time. The bolder the vision for what content might achieve, the less reliably one can say that any particular factor will make it successful or not.

Segmentation Confusion

The first type of attribution problem can arise when the business goals of the content, and the user goals of content, are based on different definitions of customer segments.

There are numerous ways to segment people. Content strategists are inclined to segment audiences according to their goals, which can be expressed as tasks to accomplish or topics of interest to peruse. Businesses don’t segment customers based on their content preferences.  They segment them by their propensity to buy products or services.  The business defines the segment they want to reach, based on the perceived financial value of that segment.

Depending on who is doing the defining, sometimes segmentation reflects business goals, and sometimes segmentation reflects user goals.  These two kinds of segments don’t automatically overlap.  One erroneous assumption is to believe that  a group who shares a common personal goal are equally likely to buy something.  Conversely, just because a group of people all want to buy a certain type of product or service, that doesn’t mean they share the same purchase motivations or care about the exact same features or benefits.

Segmentation problems occur when content professionals assume that buyer segments and audience interest segments are the same, but in fact they diverge in some way.  They fail to consider the genuine motivations of a group: both the financial means of a group, and the group’s willingness (based on their personal needs and preferences) to consider and potentially buy a product. They make erroneous assumptions about how content will influence customer behavior, or what kinds of customers will be attracted to certain content.

Confusing Content Outcomes and Content Purposes

Another kind of confusion happens when brands aren’t clear on how different kinds of content have different purposes.  They expect content to deliver outcomes that aren’t realistic from a particular kind of content. They assign the wrong kind of goal to content that’s not designed for that purpose.

At a high level, we need to distinguish two broad kinds of content: transactional content and deliberative content. Each has different purposes. Transactional content is all about getting you to do something. Deliberative content is about helping you think through an issue without forcing you to make a decision. (I’m using the phrase deliberative content to express the customer’s perspective of needing to deliberate before making a decision.)  In practice, these represent two ends of a spectrum, where it is possible to blend elements of each.  But one can’t expect a single piece of content to address both goals equally: trying to do that merely shows that a brand is confused about what it is trying to accomplish.

Deliberative and transactional content involve different purposes
Deliberative and transactional content involve different purposes

Transactional and deliberative content work in tandem, but have distinct roles.  Deliberative content helps audiences consider their needs. When they are ready, they can transition to transactional content.  If they feel overwhelmed by the choice they face when viewing transactional content, they can pivot back to deliberative content.

Content professionals often confuse these kinds of content, and expect the wrong things from them.  For example, a company may produce wonderfully interesting content about a topic that people view. But they are disappointed with the performance of this content, because they assumed it would result in more sales of a product they make.  They commit a common attribution error of expecting deliberative content to support conversion goals.  Such deliberative content can play a role in supporting sales indirectly, but will not by itself be responsible for lifting sales.  Another common scenario is when companies produce a series of transactional content, and expect audiences to stay engaged. A company may produce a hard charging newsletter that is constantly pitching its products, but is disappointed by the drop out of subscribers.  They are expecting transactional content to deliver engagement goals.  Audiences never build a long term perspective of the brand and how it might help them meet their bigger goals, because the brand is constantly testing them to take an action they aren’t ready to take.

Reimagining Content’s Value in Marketing

Inflated expectations about content performance are often the result of failing to draw critical distinctions about the purposes of content and the goals of users at different times.

A couple of years ago I argued that one of the major benefits of content marketing is developing insights into the needs of segments by looking at analytics of their content usage.  More recently, I explained how the chief value of content is that it can influence profitability. I want to dig deeper into these themes to suggest how to translate content insights into actions that benefit businesses.

Content As Attractor

The key to attracting audience interest is to talk about issues and topics that are important and motivating in their lives.  These themes may intersect with your product or service, but are not about your product or service.  For example, a brand that makes an organic pest control product may want to talk about controlling pests with its product.  Audiences are interested in nice gardens and how to create them. The pests are a nuisance they’d rather not have to think about too much.  They’d rather read about how to create a flourishing garden, not about controlling pests — until they need to deal with the issue.

Nothing revolutionary here: this is basic content marketing.  Expand the discussion to center on the issues that matter most to customers. What many organizations fail to do is develop good insights from this effort.  They don’t calibrate how their content marketing reflects the intended positioning of their products, or measure how much interest different themes are generating from different segments.  Marketers get caught up trying to answer “Is it working?” instead of asking “What’s happening?” with the interactions between audiences and themes.

How content themes can connect audiences to what a brand offers
How content themes can connect audiences to what a brand offers

Uncovering insights comes from focusing on the interactions between different themes and different groups of people.  Here we return to the gremlin of segmentation. Content professionals often rely on personas that are overloaded with assumptions about user interests.  These personas assume certain people will be interested in certain topics, instead of allowing segments to indicate for themselves what they are really interested in.  Rather than try to define all-encompassing personas that are overloaded with assumptions, marketers should unbundle segments so they can separate the situational characteristics of a segment, from the interests of that segment.  Situational characteristics express some material motivating factors such as personal values, life stage or income.  But segment definitions shouldn’t express goals, or assume intent to purchase a specific product. These are dimensions that are best learned from the segment’s interactions with the content.

Leveraging Feedback from Content Interactions

When interacting with content, audiences provide signals that express what interests them most.  They indicate what themes they are attracted to, and also indicate the strength of this attraction. By considering segments independently of their interests, we can see that segments can be attracted to multiple themes. A segment might mostly be interested in one theme, but also care a bit about another.  More than one segment might relate to a theme, while another theme appeals only to a certain segment. All this feedback provides valuable data to support marketing.

The first benefit of harnessing insights from deliberative content usage is to fine-tune related transactional content.  By tracking audience interests according to segment, marketers can adjust how they present information about their products to appeal to specific segments.  Indications of interest in certain themes will suggest what features and benefits of a product to emphasize to certain segments.  Thus insights from content marketing (deliberative content) can improve the effectiveness of marketing content (transactional content).

Feedback from user interactions with deliberative content provides ideas on how to adjust transactional content and even the product offer.
Feedback from user interactions with deliberative content provides ideas on how to adjust transactional content and even the product offer.

The second benefit is less obvious, but potentially even more powerful.  Insights from segments’ interests in deliberative content can influence the product offer.  Consider a product that is associated with two themes: doing something faster, and doing something more cheaply.  The business audience viewing the content is under pressure to increase how quickly they move inventory, and control inventory costs.  Audience interest indicates that the theme of doing things faster resonates more than doing things cheaply.  A product manager might take that insight and switch the product strategy.  She might decide to add features to the product that enhance the product’s performance speed even though it might add slightly to the cost. Or the product manager might look for ways to enhance other aspects of the product that are related to speed, such as how quickly the product can be repaired.

How Content Interactions Support Big Picture Marketing

Small picture marketing evaluates content in terms of number of conversions. Big picture marketing looks at how content shapes customer perceptions, and anticipates what customers want and need.

The growing interest in customer experience over the past decade has been unleashed by a core insight: that experience is now the most important factor effecting customer decision making, ahead of traditional factors such as price. Competition has flattened the obvious differences between products and services, so the intangible dimensions associated with one’s own personal experience have a big impact on whether individuals choose brands, leave brands, and stay with brands.

Content is vital to shaping the customer experience.  Every customer interaction with a brand touchpoint involves content in some way.  And every interaction provides valuable feedback to a brand that can help it understand customer decision making.  Brands can analyze this data to develop greater insights into who specifically is expressing certain needs, what they need, and when they need it.

Colleen Jones refers to the feedback from customer interactions with content as “content intelligence,” a phrase that nicely captures the principle that the data organizations collect should make them smarter about what they should be doing.  Content feedback can inform development of both deliberative content and transactional content to improve the customer experience.  Let’s consider how content intelligence can support various types of marketing functions.

Branding: Branded content is especially important in the consumer sector, in such industries as fast moving consumer goods, fashion, and food and beverages. Much branded content is intended to position a product or service in terms of emotional needs rather than instrumental ones, and implicitly speaks to the routines and aspirations of an individual.  Content intelligence provides insights into how different segments relate to lifestyle themes.

Demand generation: This phrase screams jargon, but it tries to capture how marketing automation is changing purchase scenarios. Content supporting demand generation contributes to two goals: suggesting what customers might need based on concrete knowledge of them, and being ready for the customer when the customer is ready to act.  Transactional content needs to address “What’s urgent about now?”  Such content combines the ability to anticipate and respond quickly.  Content intelligence helps companies understand customer preferences and the timing of needs in greater detail.

Customer journey optimization: The presence or absence of friction in service delivery is the difference between retention or churn.  Both deliberative and transactional content play an important role in the marketing strategies of service oriented businesses such as finance, travel, and healthcare.  Content intelligence supports two important service delivery functions.  First, it can enhance service automation — making it easier for customers to do things.  Content intelligence can be used to provide more targeted content explaining how and why to use automated services, and it can inform development of enhanced customized information for customers who use these services.  Second, content intelligence can be used to fine-tune the setting of service expectations, by tailoring messages about what services customers get and don’t get, and when services are available or will be delivered.  When customers are clear on what to expect, they enjoy a more positive experience.

Product enhancement: Earlier I mentioned that content insights can inform the composition of the product offer.  Insights from content intelligence can applied to many areas of product management, such as extending product categories to address  additional needs, or identifying new buyer segments.

Realizing the Opportunities Available from Content Insights

The answer to getting better performance from content is not simply to measure the performance of the content.  Measurement is important, but not sufficient.  What one measures is vital.  Measure the wrong thing, and you reach the wrong conclusion.  Measurement needs to be aligned with the purpose of the content. Measurement needs to go beyond surface activity to look at how different dimensions interact in combination.  Critically, the measurement of content interactions needs to examine the interplay between segments, the themes they are attracted to, and how they use content across their journeys.

With a robust framework for tracking content interactions, companies can develop better insights into what the performance of different content represents in terms of business opportunities and potential revenue.  Most companies measure content to learn how to change the content they are measuring.  They can achieve even more if they measure content to learn how to change other related content, or even change the products discussed in the content.

— Michael Andrews

Adaptive headlines: the right genre for the right context

In a world of too much information, headlines signal if content is worth considering.  Headlines determine if content is viewed, shared, and discussed.  Writers and marketing experts offer much advice on crafting headlines.  However, one shouldn’t apply one approach to all headlines.  As the content landscape changes and evolves, different channels, and different audience experiences, require different kinds of headlines.  To realize greatest impact, headlines must anticipate the intent of their audiences.

Headlines can be optimized for six kinds of goals:

  • to aid the scanning of content
  • to facilitate discovery of enjoyable content
  • to get the audience to want something
  • to provide a summary of content
  • to indicate the nature of advice available
  • to aid in the finding and retrieval of content

The importance of context

Whether we call them headlines, page titles or message headers, their purposes are the same:

  • to attract audience attention
  • to describe the content, and set expectations
  • to motivate the audience to view

The context and goals of the audience shape their attention, expectations, and motivation.  The audience may pursue a “lean forward” experience, using a desktop to research intensively a topic, or a “lean back” experience on a tablet, casually browsing content.  Different genres of headlines have arisen to suit different content genres and channels.  As content is delivered through a wider array of channels (mobile, social media, personalized magazine aggregation apps), the rules of what headlines will work best become more complex.

Different audience behaviors imply specific aspects of headlines to prioritize.  While it is possible to combine several of these aspects together, it is difficult to address all of them with one style of headline.  To know which characteristics to prioritize, brands must be able to anticipate the context and goals of their audience.

Screenshot of headlines from Mail Online
genre bending headlines from the Mail Online (screenshot)

Audience goal: scanning content for relevance

Audiences scan content when they aren’t sure what is relevant or interesting to them.  Scanning is different from leisurely browsing, in that it is more goal oriented.  Audiences often check content sources they’ve found useful in the past, and scan lists of article titles or message titles.  As more content is delivered through feeds, this behavior is becoming more important.  Many tweets are article titles with links to the full article, for example.  Audiences need to both comprehend these, and keep up with the volume of titles they receive.  Eye tracking indicates that people only look at the first two or three words (10 or 12 characters) before moving on to the next item, unless these words seem to match their interests.  They make a snap judgment.

Headlines for scanning prioritizes the significance of the first couple of words.  In some social media contexts, audiences look for a relevant hashtags, especially if the viewing app highlights this in a different color.

Audience goal: enjoyment and discovery

In their personal lives, audiences seek and use content largely for enjoyment rather than necessity.  They often aren’t seeking anything particular: they hope to discover content that promises to be interesting and worth their effort to read.  Headlines play an important role in promoting discovery of recreational content.

Of the many kinds of recreational content, two types are noteworthy.  The first is the traditional feature, often a heartfelt story.  The headline needs to draw readers in. It will often preview something exciting contained in the story.  Headlines may use strong verbs, or use a label that captures a key moment of the story.

Conversational content is the second significant type of recreational content.  Content is optimized to promote sharing and discussion, so headlines play an important role.  Such content is typically distributed through social media.  The best known example of this kind of content is Upworthy, which has spawned many imitators.  Upworthy uses Facebook to distribute its content.  It frames the content with headlines employing a technique they call a “curiosity gap.”  Headlines are a teaser for the content: they violate the journalistic convention that headlines should never tempt without informing.  Upworthy decides the headline should not “give it away,” but should set an expectation that you don’t realize what you’ve been missing: what you think you currently know is incomplete or even wrong, or something extraordinary happened to someone seemingly ordinary.  Upworthy rigorously tests alternative headlines to determine which one generates the most interest as demonstrated by clicks and shares.

Headlines for recreational content prioritize attention over informational completeness.  Sometimes they are even vague, when such an approach enhances the perceived desirability of the content.

Brand goal: get the audience to want something

Persuasive content needs to work harder than any other content type to get attention.  It uses a call-to-action headline to get you to notice and learn more.  In the pre-digital era, it was a slogan used in print ads and direct marketing.  Today, email subject lines, or message notifications in mobile apps, urge you to do something.  Audiences think to themselves: I didn’t ask for this, so why should I look at it?

The discipline of copywriting developed to figure out how to get our attention.   Copywriting can be divided into creative-based, and practice-based.   Practice-based copywriting may rely on common wisdom developed from tried and true experience. Or it may use real-time feedback from A/B testing and analytics to iterate headline copy.  When using the common wisdom approach, copywriters commonly recommend “proven” stock formulas for headlines, such as “You can [benefit of product] Even if [objection]”, and suggest using certain trigger words in headlines, such as “free” or “now.”

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a call-to-action headline depends on how successful it is at getting attention, and encouraging action.  One person’s genius simplicity is another’s cliché.  It can be dangerous to presume what will work.  It’s more prudent to experiment, and test your success.

Audience goal: get a summary of content

The classic headline summarizes the content.  That’s different from summarizing the theme of the content.  A good headline summary gives the audience enough information to know the most important information, without having to read the content.

Summary headlines, though used less frequently these days, still have a role.  Bloomberg news is renowned for their headlines.  Around 300,000 people across the globe use Bloomberg terminals to access financial news.  They read headlines on these terminals, and on many occasions don’t have time to read a full article.  They need to act on news instantly.   Bloomberg prioritizes certain details in their headlines: the names of people in the story (if big, market moving names), what’s the key surprise, and any key facts and figures in the article.

Audience goal: help and advice

Brands provide product support information.  Various specialized publishers offer “how to” content addressing health and household concerns. The field of technical communications is dedicated to this area.  Help and advice content is an important category of user generated content.  People post questions on forums, and post video tutorials and reviews on YouTube.

Headlines for task-focused content are utilitarian, even boring.   Typically they read: “how to [action] [subject].”  Because people are motivated to find useful content, the goal of the headline is to show them where the most appropriate content is.  The most effective headlines contain a precise description of the product or topic.  Headlines generally contain a key action verb, such as install, replace, or fix.  The headline is more challenging to write when the user doesn’t know what they need to do.  In such cases, a symptom may be used in the headline, such as “what to do if your [product] [symptom].”  Frequently, users cite the symptom when posting a question on a forum.   Other times headlines aim to be instructional, conveying “what you need to know about your [product]”.

Audience goal: find and retrieve content

Search remains the most common way people discover content, even though its dominance is being challenged by social media and subscription services that rely on feeds.  Headlines matter vitally to search.  Headlines need to match the expectations of the searcher, and also reflect the “about-ness” of an article.

Writers have criticized the practice of SEO-optimized headlines as writing for Google, where creativity is quashed to serve the humorless needs of the search engine.  According to a quip: “Google doesn’t laugh.”  A BBC editor explains how headlines simultaneously must serve the needs of Google, and the needs of humans: “The text still needs to compel a search engine user enough to click on the story, but if it never appears in a search result then it is wasted effort.”

SEO is largely about using the same exact terms as the audience uses, so-called keywords.  Keywords in SEO are the specific search terms used by the searcher.  The audience uses search terms to describe what they seek.  The search terms are often a product name or category, and may include an attribute, such as durable, big, or easy.

How search engineers think about keywords is different from how linguists do.  Linguists, who invented the concept of keywords, look for words and combinations of words that are used more frequently than would be expected.  The keyword may be comparatively rare, but its use in a specific context is prominent compared with its use in general contexts.  SEO keywords in contrast tend to look at the most common words used for search in a general context, not a specific one.   Google uses many other signals besides keywords, so it checks if the keywords of the search match the keywords of the title and article, together with a couple hundred other factors such as page rank, to determine the ordering of search results.

Named entities are often good words to search in headlines because they yield precise retrieval of results.  The BBC recommends using proper nouns in headlines, because people tend to search on items they know well (even though that limits the audience size who know the item by that specific name).

Keyword literalism is supposedly going away.  Much has been made of Google’s shift to semantic search, and its knowledge graph.  Google now discourages doing research to find popular keywords, and promises to be able to locate content based on the intent of the searcher, not just what they literally specify.  In many respects this is a positive development: it would free the headline writer from using only the most popular keywords in headlines.  The search could contain a proper noun such as a location, but the title shown in the search results doesn’t have to contain that term.  The topic matching works fine when the searcher is looking for named entities, and the content is primarily about named entities.  However, when the search or the content is about something more general or difficult to describe, the situation is more complicated.  The knowledge graph only maps a handful of (admittedly) common entities such as products, events, and people, but doesn’t cover harder-to-model attributes such as “what is the most romantic activity to do while on your honeymoon?”

I predict keywords will remain an important aspect of headlines for the foreseeable future.  Google and other search engines  (including internal site search) will need to rely on them to infer of the intent of content, and users will rely on headlines because they will remain the most succinct description of what the content is about.

Moving forward: adaptive headlines

Headlines can have many different roles, and must work effectively in different channels.  There is more to headlines than making them SEO-optimized.  In fact, in some contexts, an SEO-optimized headline may attract less audience attention.  Generally, SEO-optimized headlines are neither curiosity invoking, persuasive, nor have informational value on their own.

Screen size is also an important consideration.  Common SEO advice suggests restricting headlines to 65 characters, because Google truncates longer headlines.  That’s a line of text in most browsers, but on mobile screens, a line is far shorter, and headlines need to be as well.  When looking at headlines for wearable devices, headlines may need to summarize content, not just indicate what an article is about, because there is no space for details.

These differences suggest that headlines for content need to adapt to the different channels and platforms in which they will appear.  The concept of adaptive content, championed by content strategist Karen McGrane, considers how content needs to adapt to different devices and channels.  Content creators will need to create variations for the headline to address the different contexts in which it will be seen.  Content management tools will need to support headline variations in their feature set.

A single headline shouldn’t try to do everything. Channel-specific headlines optimized for different audience goals will make headline compromises a thing of the past.

— Michael Andrews