Making Content Meaningful to Users

🧑‍🎨 Creator(s)
🗓️ Publish Date
January 31, 2005
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At a trade show, you can almost always tell whether you're talking to an engineer, marketing, or sales person. (Yes, I'm stereotyping and generalizing to make a point). The engineer (that would be me) just starts telling you all the cool things the system does, rattling off the technical details as if you cared, let alone understood. The marketing person's speech is peppered with buzzwords that make the product as compelling as a tax form.

But the skilled and ethical sales person, now they know that a potential user doesn't care about you as much as he cares about what this means for him. The good sales person knows you don't care about technical details or even features. You care about what those features mean to you. The good sales person knows it isn't even about benefits, but about the benefits you care about. (And this applies to teachers/authors as well as people trying to sell something. After all, as teachers we're trying to sell learners on why they should pay attention and flex a few neurons on the material...)

So the simplest solution when you want to get someone excited (or better yet--passionate) about what you do is... ask. Find out what they do, need, and want, and map what you offer into something meaningfully relevant for that person. And if you can't come up with one, then you're either working for the wrong cause (i.e. a product or service that sucks for pretty much everyone), OR what you have is simply not a good fit for this particular person or company, and you tell them that. I'm enormously impressed when a sales person refers me to a competitor, for example.

But what if you don't have that luxury? What if you're not at the trade show or on the sales floor or anywhere where you can have a one-on-one conversation? How can you make what you have seem personally relevant?

A lot's being written (and developed) around the notion of personalization today, and not everyone thinks it's a useful strategy. But there are some fairly simple ways to tailor a message in a way that makes it more relevant, and sometimes with surprisingly good results.

I worked as the programmer on an interactive marketing compaign for a large car company, and the model we wanted to use was The Good Salesperson. In other words, we wanted a system where the user/customer could walk up, answer a bunch of questions, and using a combination of artificial intelligence and a large content database, the system would deliver to the user a highly customized experience that matched what a Good Salesperson would have done... by asking questions and providing tailored answers. (sheesh, that last sentence came dangerously close to marketing-speak)

Just one problem--no budget. We didn't have the time or money to build that. So we did the least we could get away with; something we thought would have almost no effect, but turned out to be astonishingly effective! We saw some research (sorry, I can't dig it up right now... I just moved last week and I'm an organizational disaster), that suggested that even the most subtle shift in framing or positioning the way you offer information about your product can make a very large difference in the user's perception of how this relates to them personally.

So here's what we did:

  • When the user walked up to the system, they had to answer just a single question--What's most important to you in a car?
  • Based on that one answer, we changed only the headline/title of the screens that followed.

For example, if the person said, "I care about safety more than I care about maintenance costs", then on the screen that talks about the engineering of the car, the headline would say something like, "Engineered with your safety in mind..." or something like that. And we might throw in a gratuitous picture of a kid in a car seat. (Yeah, I know that's manipulative, but it wasn't untrue.)

The main point of the system, though, was that 99% of the content was the same for every user. We didn't have custom-tailored screens other than the banner at the top. But it turned out that by orienting the content--the same content everyone saw--to something meaningful for that individual, the information became more relevant.

Of course you don't want to do this dishonestly--as it would be if we said something like, "Your safety is our MOST IMPORTANT GOAL", and then if you chose "Resale value" we said, "Maintaining your resale value is our MOST IMPORTANT GOAL". But by putting a personally-tailored headline over non-custom content, we were able to connect the content to the user's individual desires. Honest, but personalized.And according to the client, it was a huge success! People spent much more time on each screen then in the previously uncustomized version.

As teachers we use this same principle--at the beginning of class, for example, when I ask the students to introduce themselves, I try to learn as much as I can about their background and interest in the subject. Then if that person asks a question, I try to tailor my answer toward what it means to them personally, or better yet -- I try to get them to make the connection based on my answer, by asking them to tell me how that relates to what they're doing.

So how do we do this in a book? Not that well, but we try. First, we make sure that we talk to as many potential readers as we can, to at least find out what the top two or three goals are for the majority of readers. Then we try to weave those in to the content. But we also try to include sections in each chapter where we talk about the same content from multiple perspectives, so that if the first way we frame it isn't the one that motivates you, perhaps one of the other ways will be closer to matching your personal interest and goals.

The real point is this:When it comes to your features and even benefits, one-size-does-not-fit-all. Try to find ways to connect what you do/have to what each individual finds personally meaningful. The good news is that it can take only the tiniest, subtlest shift in how you frame the information to help someone make that connection.

But you'll never know unless you ask.