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Know Your Context

by Christine Anameier on May 31st, 2012

We all know that you can’t create effective content without understanding your audience. But audience isn’t just about who—it’s also about when and why. (There’s also how, but that’s another blog post.) In other words, you need to understand the context for your content.

An example from the technical writing world

Before becoming a content strategist, I spent several years writing end-user support documentation, where your content decisions are determined by one inescapable fact: You’re writing for people who are trying to complete a task—and most likely failing. And they are cranky.

Nobody picks up the manual until they’ve exhausted every other avenue, including trial-and-error and asking their coworker. By that point, they’re usually irked and running out of time. So tech writers learn to adopt a spare, no-nonsense style. If you’re writing user manuals, on-screen instructions, or other types of technical communication …

  • Get right to the point. Skip the “Welcome to the WidgetCo Widgetmeister user manual, 3rd edition” happy talk. Don’t expect users to read anything about how to use the manual.
  • Don’t try to be funny. Nobody is laughing when they’re frustrated.
  • Be task-oriented. Users aren’t reading your content for fun. Understand what they’re trying to do, and help them do it.

How does this apply to other types of content?

Support content may be an especially clear example, but when and why are crucial for other kinds of content too.

Let’s say you’re a plumber and you create a website about your services. Your audience could be almost anyone—we can assume they own or manage property, but other than that, everything’s an unknown. So you write your content in the most clear and simple language you can, knowing that some of your audience may not be native speakers. You steer away from making assumptions about how much they know. All good, so far …

But consider the scenarios in which they use your site:

Plumbing scenarios and content needs

(Click table to enlarge)

These two scenarios are almost like two audiences: They may be the same people, but they differ in the type (and depth) of content needed and their level of patience with extraneous content.

Your plumbing content priorities will be determined by use context. Most likely, you’ll settle on a content strategy that provides (in this order of priority):

  1. Quick, easy-to-use, simple information for customers having plumbing emergencies. These users will probably account for the majority of visits to your site.
  2. Helpful plumbing-related content that educates your customers and boosts your credibility. Who will see it? Maybe past customers who return to learn more after the emergency has passed. Maybe prospective customers who think they may see clues of a plumbing issue, or want to locate trustworthy service providers in case of a future problem.

Identifying use context

Unless your content is pure entertainment, chances are your audience uses it for something. You can set—or adjust—your content priorities by asking yourself and your stakeholders these questions:

Who uses our content? Identify your primary and secondary audiences.

What do they use our content for?

  • Spell out specific scenarios
  • Distinguish goals (big-picture objectives) from tasks (mini-objectives leading toward goals)
  • Determine the relative frequency of these scenarios (for example, on a manufacturer’s website: researching or buying a product, 99%; looking for a job, 1%)

How are they likely to feel about their task or goal?

  • If your audience uses your content to deal with personal issues like health or finances, think about their frame of mind. Anxious? Careful? Fearful? Optimistic?
  • Think about what stage of a lifecycle your content addresses. For example, a veterinarian may want light-hearted content for “Introducing a new pet to your home,” but an entirely different tone for “Facing the loss of your pet.” Same audience, but different context.

Understand your audience—not just who they are, but what they’re doing and how they feel. By knowing the why and when, you can get one big step closer to delivering the right content at the right time.

  • http://twitter.com/dfarb David Farbey

    Thanks for this post, which shows the important contribution that a technical communication approach can make to content strategy. I have just written something very similar, but aimed at _my_ audience – technical writers! ( See http://www.farbey.co.uk/index.php/2012/05/where-are-the-strategic-technical-writers/) 

  • Christine Anameier

    Thanks for the link, David! I liked your article. It’s a good question–where are the strategic tech writers? I found that the more I started thinking strategically, the more I crept over into UX design territory, and now content strategy. We all have more in common than we sometimes realize. To be effective content creators, tech writers need insight into user goals and user experience–which means thinking strategically about the big picture. 

  • http://twitter.com/Colleen4Content Colleen Swain

    Great post. If an entrepreneur trying to sell a service is
    lucky enough to read this, hopefully they’ll realize how important it is to
    establish a content strategy for their Web site that meets the need of
    potential customers. But here’s the catch. What if the “plumber” isn’t a good
    writer? There are professional content writers out there they can team up with
    to help relieve that burden.  I bet there
    are plenty of small business owners who feel overwhelmed
    about writing when all they really want to do is run their business.  

  • http://twitter.com/ellispratt Ellis Pratt

    This seems to be a growing topic of conversation. There’s been some blog reaction to my STC Summit presentation on a similar subject (http://www.sdicorp.com/Resources/Blog/tabid/77/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/158312/When-everything-just-works.aspx and http://ffeathers.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/stc-summit-day-1-what-is-the-role-of-a-technical-communicator-when-everything-just-works/) and similar thoughts by Gretyl Kinsey (http://www.scriptorium.com/2012/05/new-to-tech-comm-expect-the-unexpected/) . As you rightly state, you need to have an appropriate tone for each situation. There’s quite a bit of science about which tone works when and where – hopefully it will be incorporated into the technical communicator’s boy do knowledge.   

  • Anonymous

    This is an excellent post.  It’s a great start to consider the audience, but a better step to consider the midst of the audience in the context when they will most likely read.  Brilliant.

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