I’ve found that many people in the content world operate at a far remove from their audience. That’s kind of funny, if you think about it. Journalism and customer service are probably the traditional fields from which a lot of modern content work stems — and both of those require constant interaction with the audience.
But today, you could work on a website or an app for your whole career and never speak to a customer.
How do you create and manage content for people you don’t know?
If you don’t have an active audience understanding plan, you’re going with your gut. You’re writing or managing for yourself. Which would work fine, if you were your organization’s only customer. And since you’re not, let’s think about how you can learn more about your audience.
Great Artists Steal: Use UX Tools
If you’re not familiar with the field of user experience research and design, that’s your first stop. Here’s a great piece from Wired about why research is important, and what you should hope to get out of it. Hint: You don’t ask your customers what they like. There are a lot of great resources to learn more about UX, but I’d point you to A List Apart and User Interface Engineering, for two organizations that are pulling together lots of the top user experience [and related discipline] thinkers today.
When you do begin talking to customers, you need to learn how to successfully interview them without inserting your own bias into the conversation. That’s when you’ll want to pick up a copy of Steve Portigal’s great new book, Interviewing Users.
Let’s turn to another Steve for another great UX tool — personas. These aren’t unheard of in marketing or product-development fields, but they are less common there in my experience. And they suffer from the same potential downside they do in UX: If you’re making up your personas, you are worse off than before. Personas have to be built on real data. To learn how, get Steve Mulder’s The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web.
Here’s another great tool — I’m always amazed at how many people aren’t using their search analytics. The logs from your site’s own search engine will give you great insight into what your customers and prospects want, and how they think about it. It’s a great way to identify what you have misplaced on your site, and to learn how your language differs from your customers’ language. Lou Rosenfeld’s Search Analytics for Your Site is a solid guide to working with your search logs. He goes through analysis step by step, showing you exactly how to evaluate what your customers are telling you.
I talked about a number of other potential information-gathering techniques at the Content Strategy Workshops this past July. [See my slides from that talk on understanding your audience -- they're more utilitarian than I normally make slides, so I think there may be some value in seeing them without the presentation itself.]
What’s your best tool for understanding your audience?