Monday, September 21, 2009
When we don't know what our users need, we tend to write fluff and filler. This never works in our favor. Jared Spool
I feel like copying and pasting this again and again and again because it is SO true. It seems to be the one rule that writers, content strategists, marketers, executives, okay, everyone, seems to forget ALL the time. I would even sharpen it further to state:
“When we don’t understand our users’ questions, we tend to write fluff and filler. This never works in our favor.”
So how do we understand our users’ questions? And notice, I did not say “know” our users’ questions. We have to understand them on the most basic level—what does this person really need to know?—so we can provide the answer they are searching for.
I mostly write healthcare content, although I have written energy content as well. When I worked for the federal government, I produced several brochures to answer users’ questions. (You can see those at www.ahamediagroup.com)
How did I know what the users’ questions were? Well, part of my job was to man the phones for several hours every day, answering citizens’ questions about pipelines and land ownership issues, and how to find things on the agency’s website. In short, I had to know something about everything. When I wasn’t sure, I approached a Subject Matter Expert (SME) at the agency to answer my questions, so I could answer the person who called or emailed.
What I learned from this was two-fold:
1. Really figure out what the person wants to know, so you can explain it to the SME.
2. Really understand the answer, so you can explain it to the person who asked.
When I am writing a website, I try and understand users from a few different perspectives. I use some of the following techniques to help me:
1. Asking them. For example, when I was writing a cardiology website, I once asked a cardiologist (who is a referring physician) why he chooses one hospital over the next. He told me that he relies on the prescription pad in the office. If it’s to Center A, he sends his patients there. If it’s a prescription pad for Center B, he sends his patients there. Brilliant. It tells me that on the referring physician page of the website, there should be a contact name and number to get new referral pads. It's a huge insight into the busy life of a doctor. And a phenomenal, simple marketing idea.
2. Usability studies. This is similar to Rule #1: "Ask them", but you can’t always run one. Sometimes, I’ll just grab a friend or two and watch them use a website I might be working on, or ask them questions about the topic. You never know what you might find out.
3. Gleaning from the data available. Look at the log files, the search terms that users type in to find what they are looking for on your site, popular keywords, blogs on that topic, other competitors’ sites. Again, you’re looking for all possible angles on an issue. Recently, while writing about breast cancer, I came across a topic that wasn’t originally part of the orginal proposed content. Because it seemed to be a lively topic of discussion across the Internet, I suggested including it on the website. It seems likely that users may perform global searches on this topic, find it on the site I was writing, and learn more about other services provided by this hospital for breast cancer.
4. Talk to the SMEs. In my case, these are usually the physicians, but also consider the administrators, assistants and support teams and staff. Many times the physicians have a sense of what users want to know about the conditions and treatments content, but it is the staff who can answer your questions about what to expect after surgery, how long it will take to heal, what you’re allowed to do while recovering. These are all questions AND answers users want on the page.
5. Be curious. There is generally no other way to be a good writer, Web or otherwise. Good writers are students of human behavior and they relish the opportunity to ask questions and solve puzzles. A good content writer should be genuinely curious about the users at the other end reading content. Users are thinking about where they want to go and what they want to do with the content once they have it. Only a curious writer can satisfy.
STOP the fluff and filler! Figure out what your users really want to know and figure out how you can REALLY answer them.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Almost every organization has some kind of mission and vision statement. My understanding of a mission statement's purpose is to list several goals and founding ideals for the organization. A vision statement is a shorter, concrete expression of the organization's goals for the future.
However, does every employee of every organization know the vision statement for their organization? In several places where I worked, we would get handouts every year; small photocopied, laminated Mission and Vision statements. Did anyone ever read those?
Tonight I was at a great DCWW event given by Kristen King on Social Media. It was held in a building of a company I had not heard of previously, but as I was walking out I noticed their vision statement stenciled on the wall. There for every employee, and guest, was their “invent the future” statement. Theirs is a lofty vision statement, but it lays out a clear goal for every participant within those four walls to see.
Similarly, in a major healthcare institution where I consult, there is a long, busy hallway that connects two major buildings. And there, on the wall, are the Mission and Vision statements. The vision statement is one sentence and the goal is so clear. It reads “Blank institution will be the preeminent healthcare institution in the world.”
Lofty? Check. On display physically for everyone (employees, patients, guests, potential employees) to see? Check.
On their website? Maybe. I know I couldn’t find it.
And the company who had their vision statement stenciled on their wall? Couldn’t find it on their website either.
It is time for those vision statements to be included in the conversation on websites, to be public, to be a part of the public persona of organizations. Because those lofty goals, those “invent the future” statements; they serve to encapsulate that organization. It's the "stuff" they are working hard to be. And in 5 seconds, when someone is looking at your home page, or your About Us page, isn’t it worth it for them to SEE what you’re all about?