Tag Archives: audience needs

Helping People Make Tough Choices

People face tough choices in their lives everyday — choices without one clear winner. Perhaps available choices have different advantages, or all choices involve some kind of compromise. Content should illuminate what’s at stake when making these choices. In many situations, content fails to do this.  It hides what’s at stake, doing so in the name of simplicity.

When Simplicity is a Ruse

Many of us, myself included, don’t like fiddling with complicated financial decisions.  We wish there was a page we could go to and tap a button that says “Don’t bother me with this again — just take care of it” and we’d never have to think about it again.  Instead, if we find such a page with such a button, we later find out that we’ve made a decision that is nearly impossible to undo. That same website offers another page with an endless loop of popups asking us: Are we sure we want to cancel, given that there is a $1000 penalty?  It might as well ask us if we want to suffer lots now, or suffer a good bit indefinitely.

Financial news channels like CNBC and Bloomberg advertise smartphone apps seeking to manage your money.  Some apps promise to find you the best credit card, while others promise easy and cheap mortgages.  Tech investors fund countless startups who claim their app offers a new level of simplicity for financial management.  These apps have slick UIs, and appeal to prospective customers who imagine themselves as take-charge and in-control.  With just a couple of taps on the app, you can execute your decision without the annoying fuss that other firms make you go through.  Target users know what they need:  an app that lets them make big decisions wherever they are, even while running a half marathon during their lunch hour.  Other ads show day traders thumbing their apps, making big buys while walking toward their private jet.  Miraculously, the chaotic world of finance becomes a zen-like zone of clarity.  Everything is now simple.

These two-tap solutions suggest they offer everything the user needs to know, even if sometimes that’s not true.  The apps imply financial decisions can be boiled down to a couple of numbers, and content never has to get in the way of taking action. The best deal never involves a teaser rate that will change, or draconian terms and conditions invoked if you change your mind later.  Making a rapid decision never requires one to think about the customer service experience after the fact.   Users are asked to trust that all these issues have already been accounted for, and that the app has only chosen options that are free-of-problems, and are the absolutely best ones available anywhere.

Many businesses repeat the mantra of simplicity in connection with their customer proposition. Instead of being a genuine belief, the mantra is often just empty words.  Simplicity, a rock-solid idea, can be cynically manipulated to trick customers into believing the convenience they experience is in their best interest.

Simplicity became a marketing buzz word at the same time as user experience (UX) became a commodity. They became features to brag about, rather than experiences to faithfully deliver. Simplicity is a good thing, but that statement needs to be qualified. True simplicity is paradoxically difficult to offer.

Easy Now or Easy Later?

When people working in UX or behavioral economics talk-up the ideal of simplicity, they often are actually championing the notion of convenience.  Convenience implies something is easy-to-do, while simplicity implies additionally that something is easy-to-understand When a company boasts of offering an app that lets you make choices on your smartphone, saying what you need is in the palm of your hand, they are appealing to convenience more than to simplicity.  Understanding involves more than taking action in a moment-in-time.  It involves seeing how the future of that action will unfold.

For much of the history of the web, people worried about drowning in information, a phenomenon called TMI (too much information).  Yet a recent Pew survey of American web users revealed that “worries about information overload are not widespread” now.  That sounds like a good thing, and in many ways it is.  People shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by information.  Smartphones have helped people keep up with information, and their small screens have brought discipline to previously long and complicated content.

But part of that progress has occurred at the cost of removing information that is valuable.  The same Pew survey revealed that Americans think that “schools, banks and government agencies expect too much from people”.  These sectors are routinely considered difficult to deal with, due to how much information they expect their clients to provide them.  To understand why banks and government agencies can’t be as simple to deal with as Amazon, we must consider how such institutions differ from a ecommerce retailer.

Compared with financial, educational and government institutions, retailers can automate their processes to a greater extent. Retailers control most choices about supplying, pricing, presenting and delivering goods to customers.  When retailers automate these processes, they remove related complexity from customers.  They handle much complexity on the backend, so that users don’t need to experience complexity on the frond end.  Simplicity is easiest to achieve when offering straightforward transactions, such as booking a concert ticket, because little information is required from the customer, and the customer needs to understand little in return.

An insurance company, on the other hand, needs the customer to make various decisions that involve multiple steps.  Insurance companies can’t presume what the customer wants. Customers need to be actively involved.  It is more difficult to automate customer choices, because the customer needs to understand what choices they are making.

Via Wikipedia
By DiacriticaOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Decisions that have Consequences

Trivial decisions are easy to outsource to other parties, but important ones require active participation.  People are short on time, and often low on energy.  People understandably want choices to be easy.  But they are not well-served when content implies decisions are straightforward, when in reality they involve many considerations.

Many customer decisions are iterative, multi-faceted, or nonlinear.  Customer priorities and circumstances are difficult to reduce to a few common variables.  Imagine being given two or three choices for a hair style when booking a hair cut online, with no further input allowed. While seemingly convenient, such a process won’t ensure a happy outcome. Even though haircuts are generally low-value purchases, they have big emotional consequences for the buyer.

Any transaction that potentially involves “buyer’s remorse” after purchase, where making changes is difficult to do, requires some active involvement from the buyer to indicate what they want.  These decisions include:

  • high-value, feature-rich, or maintenance-demanding products that will be owned a long time such as cars
  • emotionally symbolic purchases such as family vacations
  • personalized, long-term service relationships such as insurance and education.

By their nature, decisions that can involve buyers remorse are tough choices.  We’d never experience regrets if the right choice was obvious before we made it.

Tough choices typically have many inputs, often happening over a period of time.  Certain tasks resist automation, such as deciding on and making medical appointments, or doing taxes.  Many decisions are one-off ones, or are infrequent, so that circumstances will have likely changed since the prior time the decision was considered. People can’t just set preferences that will be triggered each time the decision needs to be made.

Some tough choices involve comparing two or more items that have many dimensions to them.  Other tough choices involve a single decision to do something that involves some risk. Perhaps the perceived cost of the decision is high, or the effort involved to commit to the decision deflates one’s motivation.

Too Much Information, or Too Little?

Publishers resort to generic ideas to determine how much detail to provide customers.  People routinely complain about having to read long documents.  Research shows that people feel overwhelmed when offered too many choices,.  As a famous, widely-cited experiment demonstrated, when people were asked to choose which breakfast jam to buy, offering too many choices resulted in lower sales. Common sense and experimental research both seem to suggest that publishers should limit the amount of information presented to audiences.  Don’t risk making the experience a chore to do — give people what they say they want, which is not having to read much.  The case for information- and choice-rationing sounds  straightforward. Sadly, we can’t afford to hide an important qualification: what’s simple now isn’t necessarily what’s simple later.

Streamlining information and limiting options is a great tactic for simple decisions like buying jam. But it can be a bad tactic for helping people make tough choices.

Too much information is a symptom, not the core problem. The core problem is that making an informed choice is difficult, due to the nature of the decision.  Some businesses eagerly take that chore away from customers, by limiting their choice. They may justify limiting choice by arguing that something that looks complicated does not look trustworthy.  Complicated content obscures what’s best for the customer.  According to this logic, if the proposition looks simple, then it will be trusted.  These businesses consider trust as a  matter of optics, rather than of substance.  People don’t need to be informed, they just need to feel something is simple.

When publishers remove information that’s critical for customers to know, they are offering fake simplicity.  They are restricting vital information, and in so doing, influencing the decisions customers make.  Fake simplicity hides information and choices that have consequences for the audience.  Fake simplicity hides potential problems from users.  Real simplicity addresses potential problems.  Informing users about issues and tradeoffs doesn’t make the content complicated — it makes the content useful.

Let’s look at a familiar example of real simplicity applied to an iterative decision.  The solution reveals information that could be problematic for users.  That solution is the traffic information available on Google Maps.  The user can just look at the map, and see how heavy traffic is.  It couldn’t be simpler from the user perspective.  Behind the curtain, the app draws on complex processes to deliver this information.  Google pools data from all its smartphone locations to produce a composite picture of how quickly traffic is moving.  It is complex from Google’s perspective, but simple from the user perspective.  And it provides the user with vital information they care about in an easy-to-understand manner.  No one complains Google Maps has too much information. Its transparency is what makes it useful when making driving decisions.  Even though in many cases there is one best option when choosing a driving route, the dynamic variability of traffic means that alternatives and adjustments always need to be considered.

Many apps appear to be convenient because they remove things you should be aware of.  Smartphone content in particular frequently hides critical information for the sake of superficial simplicity.  Content may:

  • Hide explanatory information informing decisions
  • Hide choices or options.

Publishers may hide information or options using UI tricks such as saying “more” or “what’s this?” to de-prioritize important information. They may leave out information people would want to know about, because the information is not legally required to be disclosed — at least at that stage. Often, the gotchas are loaded at the final stage of consideration, in the form of an T&C agreement check box.  Sometimes firms offer false choices, believing that having only one attractive option is the best way to get people to make a decision on a complex issue.  Or the user interfaces restrict choices that users might want.  For example, many people are happy to use Instagram to take photos, until they realize that Instagram doesn’t offer the choice of downloading the photo for use outside of the Instagram ecosystem.

Supporting Genuine Choice

User interfaces are easy to simplify.  Human emotions aren’t.  When people aren’t sure what choice to make for a decision that has consequences, they want both to understand, and to trust the information available.  Trust derives from integrity, and telling the truth.

When the choice is tough, content that suggests all options will make you happy, or there is only one best choice, doesn’t inspire trust.  True, customers don’t want too many choices.  Normally, more than four choices at once is too much.  But people want genuine choice, and know how choices differ and they will be affected by each.  They know that all options don’t result in equal levels of long-term happiness.

Choice is an emotional issue.  It involves personal expression.  One of the purest examples where people want to express choices is an online petition. They participate in a petition not to complete a transaction where they get something in return immediately, but to make their views known.  People want choices offered to reflect their real preferences.  “Simplicity has it’s limits. Make the process too simple and you run the risk of encouraging ill-targeted, unfocused petitions” notes David Karpf, a George Washington University professor who has studied petition websites such as MoveOn.org and Change.org.  These sites don’t try to make choice a single action, but break choices into a few simple steps.

“The feeling of choice…promotes wellbeing.  Our wellbeing depends on the ability to exercise choice…” notes Michael Bhaskar in his new book, Curation. People want choice that is meaningful to them personally.  They are skeptical when  sellers present false choices such as having a “best value” package prominently displayed in the center of options that aren’t good deals. They flinch at choices where it is hard to discern the differences among them, or evaluate which is best for a given situation.

Promoting Real Simplicity

If hiding or rationing information doesn’t help customers make tough choices, what does?  There can be too much information — if it isn’t relevant.  Real simplicity highlights the parameters that are most important when making a decision.  It shows what to consider, and provides the means to choose.  Real simplicity doesn’t try to make the choice for the user.  It helps the user know what’s important about the choice to consider.  It knows what issues have had consequences for people in the past, and reveals these to people now making such decisions.

For people who think about simplicity in terms of user interfaces rather than user experiences, simplicity seems like it involves taking stuff away: reducing the number of words, or number of clicks.  Those are sometimes useful tactics, but they tend to confuse task activity with making decisions.  From a user experience perspective, real simplicity isn’t about clicks —  it is about clarity.  As far as possible, people need to feel clear about the decision they are making.  They know what they are getting into, and are confident they’ve made the best choice possible.

Real simplicity doesn’t derive from word choices or screen layouts.  It embodies decisions about the kinds of information to feature, deciding what choice parameters to prioritize because they ultimately matter most.  Moreover, real simplicity offers a framework for understanding and comparing these parameters.  Readers have a context to see how different parameters influence their overall choice.

Some DON’Ts:

  • Don’t limit choices unless that is part of your up-front proposition
  • Don’t condense several decisions into a single package of choices that are hard to discern
  • Don’t offer choices few people will want to make, to make one seem better
  • Don’t bury explanations of important criteria

Some DOs:

  • Provide several meaningful choices that will appeal to different kinds of people
  • Emphasize what is most different about each choice compared with others
  • Break discrete issues into separate decisions, instead of bundling unrelated issues into difficult-to-grasp decisions requiring a leap-of-faith
  • Emphasize trade-offs involved with different choices when they exist
  • Offer ways for people to compare different aspects of a decision across different options, so they can focus on issues of greatest importance to themselves personally

Some of these guidelines trespass on decisions relating to product offers and pricing.  Content can’t be separated from these issues. Product managers should understand that attempts to drive customer behavior toward specific outcomes that are optimal for the business are not necessarily how customers consider their choice.  We see this issue now in the cable TV industry, where cable operators want to force customers to accept bundles that aren’t valued by the customer.  Unless there is alignment between how customers consider and value choices, and how firms offer choices to their customers, the firm’s reputation will suffer, and customer retention be vulnerable to market challengers who offer choices more aligned with customer needs.

Tough Choices are Individual

Tough choices aren’t categorical, divided into good choices and bad choices that apply to everyone.   Tough choices involve right choices and wrong choices as they apply to individuals.  Take the example of vacations: going to Aspen is not a “good” choice.  Aspen will appeal to skiers who can afford it, but won’t to people on a budget or who don’t care for mountains.  The individual’s situation and context shapes what’s ultimately best.  Even mundane decisions, such as purchasing a new home water heater, involve significant individual variation in circumstances and preferences.

Some of the information needed to support tough choices needs to be disclosed prominently on forms and in tables.  Features, specifications, applications, add-ons, exclusions, replacement and servicing costs, renewal pricing, incentives, projected maintenance, refunds and cancellation fees. Everyone can benefit from knowing such details.  People can notice these parameters and assess how they may be affected by them personally.  Yet content can do more than simply add transparency.

Tough choices, at heart, involve human stories.  Why did someone make the choice they did?  Different people will make different choices.  Each person will have their own reason for their choice.  These considerations can be highlighted in stories.

Stories are a powerful form of content, and are well suited to helping people make tough choices.  Stories can show why others made the decisions they did, and how that decision worked out for them:

  • What was their situation at the time of their decision?
  • What did they consider important, and how did they evaluate the choices available?
  • How happy have they been with the choice they made?
  • What do they wish they had done differently?

A great story might be one where a person gets advice from a friend about a decision.  The friend is happy with the choice they made, so the person decides to make the same choice.  Later, the person realizes they aren’t really happy with the decision they followed.  He realizes that his situation is different from his friend in an important respect, and he would have been better off making a different decision.  Some of the most powerful stories happen when people learn from mistakes.

Stories aren’t always simple — especially if we equate simplicity with minimalism.  They can involve many words, and twists and turns.   But stories can make complex situations understandable and memorable.  They can help individuals identify what’s personally important about a situation.

—Michael Andrews

The Dangers of Tone-Deaf Publishing

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.

Preachy Evangelism

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.

Excessively cheery copy can risk sounding patronizing.
Excessively cheery copy can risk sounding patronizing.

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.

Decisions: What is all this stuff, and how is it different from other stuff?
Decisions: What is all this stuff, and how is it different from other stuff?

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.

Speechless: Simple-looking wordless diagrams can provoke anxiety.
Speechless: Simple-looking wordless diagrams can provoke anxiety.

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:

  • Shadowing
  • Stimulus-based discussions
  • Panels
  • 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

Making your content relevant

Talk to people who use content, and you will hear complaints about it being too hard to find what they want, about having to deal with extraneous content, and about corporate content sounding like “marketing speak.”  Such complaints reflect a sense that the content people encounter is not relevant to them.  Too much of the wrong content, too little of the right content.

Making your content relevant involves matching what you offer audiences with what audiences want from you.  That sounds simple, but there are several dimensions involved.  Let’s consider how content can match, or mismatch, audience needs.

We will start with a few assumptions to keep the discussion manageable.  We will assume that your brand serves one or more audience segments, but for now we will focus on your relationship with a single segment.  We will assume that the audience segment, while comprised of individuals having multiple interests, can be treated as homogeneous in having a similar set of needs and expectations relating to the content they seek from you.

There are many ways audiences and brands can overlap, both imperfectly and productively.  This can be illustrated in the following diagram.


overlap of audience interests with content offered
overlap of audience interests with content offered

Looking at overlap

The worst outcome is when brands are largely out of touch with their audience.  Audiences feel estranged when they are interested in many things a brand might be able to talk about, but the brand chooses to talk about other things that have little interest to the audience.  The brand could be a trusted source of information on a topic, but instead talks at the audience and offers little content of actual value.  The situation is common, especially in the area of professional services: a bank, rather than provide genuinely helpful suggestions in the context of their products and services, instead promotes messages from the chairman and newsletters about their community involvement.

Another common situation is when audiences use a core of the content you offer them, but ignore the rest.  Audiences are serviced but not engrossed when they value a brand for narrow utilitarian content only.  People will say: “I just want to get an answer to my question; I don’t want to see all this other stuff.”  They engage with the product support content, but not with the content about the brand, because the brand content hasn’t been created in a way that matches the underlying needs of the audience.  People go to their local government website for a schedule of recycling, but ignore articles about public hearings related to the recycling program.  If the audience is not thinking about other things they might potentially want from your brand, you need to rethink your approach to building audience engagement to make your brand feel more inclusive.

People sometimes want more content from a brand than the brand is prepared to offer.  Audiences feel underserved when they need content from a trusted source, but the brand only wants to provide minimal factual content to support sales.  Ordinary people are not experts on tires, water heaters, or many other aspects of life, and want to understand how their situation or behavior will influence product performance in the long term.  But brands may offer only limited specific information, rather than relationship-building content.

Audiences feel supported when there is lots of content available that is relevant to them.  The brand has done a good job translating what it knows into content that speaks the language of the audience and addresses their needs.  From the audience perspective, most of the content seems relevant; from the brand’s perspective, little of the content created is wasted.  Achieving this happy state involves creating compelling audience centric content, where the brand qualities play a supporting role to the content itself.  By having content responsive to audience needs, the brand can build its audience, and have permission to talk about itself where appropriate.

A final possibility is when audiences become obsessive about your brand, and want your brand to take the lead in the relationship.  For brands it is a wonderful position to be in, to have adoring fans who want you to talk about yourself, rather than talk about the humble needs of the people who are interacting with your content.   For these brands the chief challenge is regularly creating highly original content that will impress your fans.  While this fandom brand situation clearly does exist, it is comparatively rare.  Fan-based brands require long term development, and tend to arise in exceptional situations, where extraordinary brand differentiation and identity has been achieved.  While brands should be cautious about directly pursuing this route, it may be possible to incorporate elements of this approach with certain lead customers provided the primarily audience already feels fully supported.

Reshaping your content

To broaden the overlap between audience interests and brand content, shuffle things around.  Enlarge the range of the relevant content:

  1. identify and understand the full range of audience interests through audience research and analytics
  2. build audience curiosity for content that addresses other topics of potential mutual interest by holding content exploration sessions followed up by content testing
  3. create quality content that address these audience interests

Generally this process involves moving toward the audience, away from self-referential content.  Ideally, relevant content is about “us,” but to get there, one needs to address the “me” in the audience before one can talk about “you” the brand.