How We Approach Content—and What You Can Do to Grab More Attention

Graziella Jackson's picture

CEO and Managing Director


How We Approach Content—and What You Can Do to Grab More Attention

It's highly likely I've already lost you. A widely cited 2015 study that is still circulating the web caused a stir last year by claiming humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, dropping from an average of 12 to eight seconds between 2000 and 2015. Digital technology, of course, is named as a root cause.

Today, attention is the currency of online exchange. For a producer of digital content, it's how your users signal that they like what you have to offer and want to experience more. Attention is the first step in cultivation. It is measured through on-site time and behavior. And while attention is a rare and precious commodity in online engagement, it often is ignored by producers of digital content.

Think for a moment about what really grabs your attention online. For me, I like my content to:

  • Explore issues in social psychology and human behavior,
  • Cover topics related to culture, technology, and process,
  • Balance expert analysis with human interest storytelling,
  • Engage with social justice themes,
  • Teach me something new that is applicable to my life and work, and
  • Have a distinctive style.

This report microsite from the Knight Foundation is a good example of my preferred content* *(I visit this site several times a month). This Aeon article is another good one. With some thought, most everyone could diagnose what kind of preferred content readily grabs and holds their attention.

In addition to preferred content, we also regularly seek trigger content. Trigger content tends to respond to our everyday preoccupations, usually dealing with health, relationships, home and housing, education, employment, and personal finance related subjects or real-world events. Being trigger-driven means that when we seek this type of content, we are responding to a specific stimulus, be it a question, event, or need.

Trigger content performs best when it is designed to help us make decisions and solve problems. WebMD, Investopedia, and Quora are good examples. Shopping, social, and entertainment content, where users spend much of their online time, can be both triggered and preferred content. And regardless the type of content we seek, one thing is certain: We are always on and therefore want high-quality content available to us on demand.

This is why being unintentional with content is deadly. The reality is — the thousands of nibbles of content that cross our paths each day seeking our attention make about 40% of us feel overwhelmed. The internet is a very capable illusionist — it gives us strong confidence that the content we need and want in our everyday lives is always accessible, anytime, anywhere and that its availability makes our lives easier. But our true experience is quite the opposite. The more variety and choice we have, the more paralyzed we feel in being able to make the right decision about what will work best for us.

Look at it this way: The amount of data produced via the internet each day is roughly equivalent to 250,000 Libraries of Congress.

250,000 Libraries of Congress! How do we even begin to sort through it all!?

What's concerning is that producers of much of our online content aren't typically aware of this volume problem or concerned with their content's value or utility to us. Many digital teams still tackle digital content as design- or technology-first exercises:

  • "It would be so cool if we could have a video for that article."
  • "We really need an interactive map."
  • "This campaign would be better if it had its own site and design."
  • "We need a post about my project on the site."

We've all heard these phrases before. And framed this way, you can easily see what's missing:

  • There is no sense of the user or why they would want to interact with this content (purpose).
  • There is no sense of what the content will help the user accomplish or how the content will reward them for sharing their attention (value).
  • There is no sense of what serving the user with this content will accomplish for the organization (outcome).

Without an intended outcome and a user-driven purpose and value definition, content is just bloat. It kind of makes me think of the internet as similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — just an unsightly and potentially damaging collection of debris floating around on the currents of the web. This purposeless and user-less content approach has long been proven to contribute to cycles of waste and rework.

There is no style without substance. I've always liked how Victor Hugo put it: "Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface." Design is not content, it is a mode of delivering content in a way that is attractive, stimulating, and novel. You need to have substance that is called forth through user-centered design in order to have an effective content product.

There is good news — content doesn't have to be this bad. By bringing structure to your content decision-making, you can create a content strategy that is designed to capture your user's attention and channel that attention into meaningful engagement. And there are some basic steps to getting there:

1. Research your users and develop meaningful user personas

The role of user experience-driven content strategy is to understand users' exclusive triggers and motivations and create tailored content products that serve them. A great content strategist understands that the difference between an active, motivating content experience and a passive one and knows how to captivate users so they increase the time they're willing to spend engaging with your mission and brand.

The first step in achieving this is researching your audience — through focus groups, user interviews, web surveys, usability testing, market research, etc. — and defining core demographic and psychographic personas.

  • Demographic personas define "who" the primary users of your content are. They are based on web analytics and user data and used to create use cases for driving traffic, conversion, and adoption among target audiences.
  • Psychographic personas define "why" the primary users of your content are motivated to engage. They are based on demographic data and qualitative research and used to define users' lifestyles, behaviors, and habits. They will help you refine your messaging and positioning strategy and content user experience.

One additional thing to note is that your research should be continuous and ongoing. You should review and refine your personas quarterly. You should have a culture of constantly testing and iterating your approaches. This allows you to pilot new approaches with content, test and refine them, remove the ones that do not perform well, and mature the ones that do so that you can replicate them as part of your go-to content playbook. This requires an ongoing investment in research and insights-driven decision making that is important (and not too difficult to pursue).

2. Map your content to your user needs and organizational conversion goals

Without targeted content, your user has nowhere to anchor and no journey to take. Once you have personas defined for these users, you can begin to draft use cases that represent their specific needs and motivations. A use case is a list of actions or steps that a user will take, using your content, to reach his or her goal. Once use cases are complete, you will have a very clear picture of the types of content assets and structures that will best serve your users needs via your various channels — website, email, social, search marketing, third-party placements, etc. You will be able to create content models and plans based on the primary content types needed for your user experience.

In addition to serving user needs, content also has to serve your business and conversion goals. As you draft use cases, you also want to draft business goals and intended outcomes. Mapping use cases to these outcomes will help you prioritize content that is best aligned to both. This ensures that you are putting resources — staff time, content budget, etc. — to the most efficient use.

3. Create a content performance and governance model

Focusing on content governance and performance is an essential foundation to ensuring any content experience is cohesive, accessible, responsive, widely adopted by users, and supportive of user engagement and conversion across content channels.

A content performance model will help you manage the productivity and efficiency of your content work. The model helps content leaders and teams define:

  • How much content will produced.
  • How much effort will go into the production of that content.
  • What individual contributions will be to those efforts.
  • How to focus efforts on the most high value activities in support of overall goals.
  • What is the process for continual improvement.

Creating this model will help you to increase your ability to deliver on your user needs and business goals over time — so you're always improving your focus and effectiveness. It also will help your content team remain aligned to your ultimate desired outcomes, while immersed in the day-to-day work of content production.

The purpose of a governance model is to define the structures, processes, and policies that you will need to have more effective content decision making among your team and within your organization. This is the tool you use to:

  • Communicate with stakeholders and manage their expectations
  • Maintain consistency in your approaches
  • Handle the distribution of resources toward work, products, and initiatives.

4. Align your content operations and infrastructure to this model

One assumption we often observe organizations make is limiting their content thinking to brand and storytelling strategies — just the brand and marketing aspects of content. These are very important; they are the emotional and intellectual core of how constituents engage with your brand.

However, the operational aspects of content are as important as brand aspects. Organizations that limit content strategy to just thinking about brand communications and storytelling fail to tackle the operational and technological challenges that can be major barriers to success.

It is important to also evaluate and put structure around:

  • How resources are spent on content production
  • How teams are structured to support the work
  • What tools and processes are in place to support the work.

When you align these to the content performance and governance models, you identify ways that you can restructure to increase the value and output of your work while reducing the resources and effort to produce that work. It's simply quality over quantity. And, ultimately, this will help you improve your outcomes.

I've been with Echo for a few years now, and it's been exciting to see how effective the above practices have been with our clients who have adopted them. In many cases, they've:

  • Increased the value of their content and their users' interest in engaging with it.
  • Made their content more clear, efficient, dependable, attractive, motivating, and creative.
  • Created processes to guide the analysis, categorizing, construction, placement, evaluation, and governance of content both on and offline.
  • Lowered the cost of doing work and seen upticks in revenue due to increased user conversions and new commitments from funders and sponsors.
  • Developed agile methodologies and replaced guesswork-based production, redesigns, and rework with insights-based iterative evolution.
  • Put in place structures that allow for growth and prevent depreciation of assets over time.

This is the kind of transformation that a sophisticated content strategy can bring to your organization. If you'd like to explore this more, we'd love to talk with you. We really enjoy leading and coaching our clients through this process and are looking for our next great collaboration.

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