People ask me fairly often when and how content should be included in the product design process, or in a marketing campaign.
I have to admit, these questions confused me for a long time.
I finally realized that my own perspective gave me blinders to the way the rest of the world thinks about content. Once I understood that, it changed the way I talk about content and its role in the brand experience.
You see, most of us think about content as an expense: How much (money, time, resources) will it cost me to get some words/images/videos here on the website or app?
If that’s the way you think about content, I invite you to envision something different.
Imagine that your customers feel your products or services seamlessly align with their needs. You fit perfectly in their lives. They feel empowered, and they even believe they are part of your organization.
Does that sound a little crazy?
Yet it’s possible.
Here’s the trick: If you think about content as an expense, you’re treating it as a commodity. You insert words here, add images there, post a video on the other to explain your message to your customer. If that’s the way you go about it, it doesn’t matter so much what content you choose. You are pushing information at your audience.
But what about this idea? Consider the possibility that:
Content is the vehicle that delivers your brand promise.
It’s easier to envision this if you’re in the service business, or if your product is purely digital — an app or a website. You literally are in the information business, and content is definitely information. But it’s also voice and tone and structure.
Even if your product is physical, I will still argue that content plays a central role. If you’ve bought an Apple product in the past few years, think about how the experience is fundamentally different than buying anything remotely technical 20 years ago. Most products used to ship with both a lengthy, detailed manual, and a “quick start” guide. (Many still do.) For many products, you needed that information, even if you’d owned a similar product in the past.
Even Apple’s product mix shows intense thought about what customers want and need: They offer far fewer options of almost everything they create than does any potential competitor. Their websites are geared toward two things: Making you feel smart and futuristic for wanting their products, and walking you through simple feature comparisons to decide which version to buy.
When you do buy a product, the entire experience has been designed — content included — to make it simple for you to use. So you don’t get a big manual with any Apple product anymore. You get a very minimalistic quick start type guide, but you also get an experience that walks you into your first use of the product very quickly. The training is baked into the experience.
Then There Is the Other Way
I received a nice camera for my birthday one year when I was a teenager. I learned to use it pretty quickly, and for years, I took beautiful pictures everywhere I went. Yes, I have all sorts of embarrassing pictures of my college friends. They’re all stuffed in boxes at home, waiting for perhaps our 50th reunion to come out of hiding. But I also was able to take stunning portraits of my oldest child when she was young.
And then we all started to switch over to digital cameras. When DLSRs first became a thing, I never seemed to have the extra cash on hand to shell out more than $1000 to get one. And my nearly 20-year-old film SLR still worked beautifully. But I got a digital point-and-shoot with decent zoom and stuck it in my purse. I used that camera a lot for a few years. It wasn’t as good as my SLR, but it was easy to take with me. And then my smartphone camera got to be good enough that I took most pictures with that.
I finally bought a mirrorless camera last year. Once again, I’m back in the land of fancy cameras with interchangeable lenses, but now it’s all digital, and wow, have things changed.
My new camera came with a long, detailed manual and a quick start guide. I flipped through the manual, and when I saw how dense and jargon-filled it was, I set it aside. I walked through the quick start guide (because I couldn’t even figure out how to press the shutter without it), and I’m muddling through. I figured out how to take pictures and video. I have sort of figured out how to turn the flash on and off, but it’s been awhile, so I’m fuzzy on that. I definitely figured out how to transfer the photos onto my computer. And I need a weekend to sit down and read that damn manual to learn how to do anything else.
I went to the manufacturer’s support site to see if they had anything helpful, and I found that there are 7 different manuals for this one product available for download. At this point, it won’t shock you to hear that I can’t really figure out from the manual titles which one I should start with, or which is most likely to get me up to speed on the features I’d like to use most.
What Kind of Role Should Content Play?
Could a better content strategy fix my problem of learning how to use my new camera? Probably. One of the challenges with the camera is that it has multiple menus available, and I am having trouble remembering which feature is accessible via which menu. My most significant challenge is that the shooting modes available for selection on a dial are different than I’m used to, and some are identified with icons that are unique to my camera brand.
I don’t know yet if there’s a labeling problem (which is a common issue across industries), but I definitely know there’s a decoding problem. It’s too hard for me to find the information to remind myself what the different modes are called and what they do.
If your product is complex, the role of content is critical in the customer experience.
A smartphone and a camera are different products, but the similarities are great. And I can’t help but think that Apple approaches the customer experience in a fundamentally different way than my camera manufacturer did. I just can’t imagine that the camera company said, OK, we’re getting ready to design lots of new features and incorporate new technology into our cameras. Let’s also think through the user experience of buying, owning, and using the camera to ensure that it’s as intuitive as possible for our customers. If anyone had said that, they wouldn’t have sent me what they did.
Instead, I think they went out and designed lots of new features and new technology, and it’s undoubtedly wonderful and will take superb photos, if I ever find the time to read and work through the dense user manual to explain it all.
For Products And Services, the Content Role Matters
Whether you’re creating products or services, the way you design and shape your customer’s experience is all about the content. Content isn’t just the words you slap on at the end of the creative process. Content is how your customers experience your product or service. Give content a chair at the table from the first strategy meeting forward, and it will pay off in the end.