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Know Your Context

by Christine Anameier

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.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Auditing Big Sites Doesn’t Have to Be Taxing

by Christine Anameier

Now that U.S. tax day has come and gone, we can focus our attention on big audits.

Oh wait, not that kind of audit. We’re talking about a qualitative content assessment—the process of analyzing the quality and effectiveness of your website content. This kind of audit can help you make a business case for just about any web project. (And it has nothing to do with the IRS.)

At Brain Traffic, people often ask how we audit big websites—really big websites (anything from 20,000 to millions of pages). Truth be told, auditing these colossal sites is no small feat, but it can be done, and fairly quickly at that. Ready to go?

On your mark …

Before you start any audit—but especially a big site audit—you need to take some time to think through a few things:

  • Define your goals. Think about what you want to accomplish when auditing a big site. You can’t get a complete picture of your million-page site, but you can evaluate the quality of your content overall or within specific sections. You can identify areas for improvement. Or prioritize content projects. Or find content successes that you can build on. It all depends on your business goals.
  • Confirm team size. For a big audit, you’ll probably want help (unless you’re looking for a one-way ticket to Insanityville). Identify who’s available to spend some good chunks of time auditing and find out how much time they have. For maximum efficiency, you’ll want to have people do substantial bursts of auditing—not reviewing a page here and there between other tasks. Ideally, aim to have one audit lead who’ll run things and enough auditors to tackle your audit sample in a reasonable amount of time. We usually estimate that an auditor can handle 5-7 pages an hour. So, for example, if you want to review 5,000 pages, you’ll need six people working full time to get the audit done in a month. Don’t have that many resources? Have more time? Adjust the amount of content or team size accordingly.
  • Think strategically about sampling. Since you can’t look at every page of a big site, you’ll need to choose a sample—a small segment of your content to review. Do you want to look at a specific subset of your content in detail? Or grab a representative sample across the site and extrapolate your findings? Either way, it’s generally best to look at a good cross-section of site “levels”—dig deep, don’t just look at the polished, high-profile top layers. (How large should the sample be? It depends.)
  • Choose your criteria. You’ll also need to decide what aspects of content quality you want to measure. Often we’ll do a mix of web best practices and qualities that are specific to an organization’s unique goals. Is the content readable? Usable? Does it express your brand as you’ve defined it? Is the content appropriate for your primary audience? Distill these ideas into a set of four or five concrete audit factors. Don’t go overboard: eight audit factors times 5,000 pages equals an overwhelmed audit team.

Get set …

Once you’ve answered the big “how, what, and why” questions, it’s time to prepare for the audit logistically.

  • Create a “criteria sheet.” With many auditors on the same project, you need to create a clear, consistent set of criteria they can all share. Set up a criteria reference sheet that lists your audit factors, the rating scale, and some concrete things to look for to arrive at ratings. Have your team keep a copy in sight at all times. It keeps people aligned on standards and helps stave off “audit drift,” where people’s interpretation of audit factors starts to blur over time. (No, it’s not just you—that happens to everybody.)
  • Divide up the work. At some point, you’ll need to decide exactly which pages or pieces of content each member of your team will review. You can do that up front by creating a content inventory that details every page to review, and distributing sections of the inventory to the team. Or you may want to just assign high-level sections and then have individual auditors select pages on the fly within those sections. The upfront method can be speedier, but you may get better results when auditors who are immersed in the content decide which pages are most useful to evaluate.
  • Split the spreadsheets. For most audits, you need to create a spreadsheet to record your results (see picture below). For a big audit, it’ll be especially important to keep things organized. When you have several people working in one file, it’s all too easy to overwrite someone’s work, forget who’s doing what, or wind up with multiple document versions that are hard to consolidate. To avoid confusion, break off individual worksheets for your auditors.

Audit spreadsheet example


And, then the fun begins.

  • Kickoff. Sit down with your team. Outline the expectations—the timeline, how many pages each person will handle, who’s doing what, and the goals. Share any useful background information. Hand out the criteria sheet and go over it in detail. Ask them to voice any questions. There will be questions, and you want to iron out the wrinkles as early as possible—not when you’re three weeks in.
  • Workshop with the team. This is critical for getting everyone aligned. Getting half a dozen people to be consistent with each other—and with themselves, over the course of a month or six weeks—takes ongoing effort. Start off with an early workshop or two where you have people bring in their ratings and compare notes. Or put a page up on the projector and let them have at it en masse. Encourage your auditors to work side-by-side for a while and talk about what they’re finding.
  • Pull it all together. Collect the worksheets and combine them into one master spreadsheet so you can crunch the numbers and discover trends. Ask your team for notes or summaries and meet with them to discuss the patterns they saw in the content.
  • Get the word out. To share your results with others in your organization, put together a report or presentation that covers the most important things you discovered. Identify the biggest content problems—and think about ways they can be addressed. (We usually try to prioritize them to some degree based on how severe a problem is and how easy or difficult it is to address it.) Show examples. And don’t forget to note the content’s strengths as well, so that you can build on them in your future content efforts.

Making improvements to a huge body of content can be a daunting process. Even assessing the current state of the content is no small task. But with good planning and a solid process, you can break it down into manageable pieces and get the solid data you need to get the ball rolling.

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Posted in Content Strategy

Improving Your Content’s Signal-to-Noise Ratio

by Christine Anameier

If you grew up in a certain era, you probably remember fiddling with the dial on a car radio, trying to tune in a station. When you found the signal: hooray, music! And in between? Noise. Sometimes, web content can seem a lot like the static you hear between stations.

Is your website broadcasting loud and clear? Even if your content is terrific, presenting it the wrong way can make it seem like static. Let’s look at what you can do to make your signal heard.

Even good content can be noise

When we talk about web content, we talk about messaging and audiences—what your site is trying to say, and who you’re saying it to. If something is clearly off-topic or doesn’t apply to any of your audiences, it’s noise. Most people who work on content will accept that verdict, if grudgingly.

Where things get a little touchier is when something is only marginally relevant. Or relevant to the wrong audience. Or not clearly focused. The information you needed yesterday may be noise today. Perfectly good content will be noise to somebody.

The bottom line: When you’re looking for information, everything that’s not what you need at this very minute is noise.

Noise gets in the way

When there’s too much noise, it’s hard to find the signal. With that car radio, we all had days where we got fed up with the static and popped in a cassette.

Sometimes content is labeled vaguely, and this only compounds the problem. If people can’t tell at a glance whether something is what they’re looking for, you’re probably making them work too hard.  And if you make your audience work too hard, they’re likely to wander off and find a site that gives them more help.

If your site has too much static, they’ll pop in the cassette—and, for that visit at least, you’ve lost them.

Boosting the signal

So, how can you break through the noise and get the most out of your content?

Segmentation. We often recommend segmenting content by audience, if your audiences can self-identify, like “Patients” and “Doctors.” (Or sometimes you may need to organize your content by task, or by where the content falls in the purchase cycle.)

Prioritization. Understand your audiences and their tasks, and decide what your website is trying to do. Then make the site structure— and the page structure—reflect those priorities.

Clear labeling. Specific and accurate link text, page titles, and headings are essential. They’re like the numbers on that radio dial. Without them, your audience is just fiddling around hoping to stumble upon something worthwhile.

Content Strategy Signal to Noise Ratio

In many cases, improving your signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t mean deleting a lot of your content. It means finding a better way of organizing and presenting what you’ve got.

Chances are, you’ve got the information people are looking for. Put a good clear signal out there, and they’ll keep tuning in.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Content

Sorting through the digital debris

by Christine Anameier

As I sit here sniffling and coughing, I’m thinking, how can I get rid of this cold?

Let’s ask Google!

“How to Cure a Cold” is at eHow.com. The author, ranked as an “Authority,” advises me to inhale a lot of steam and avoid dairy products. Her credentials? “I have an English degree and love to write for fun, but I’ve never made a profit yet!” 

“How to Cure a Common Cold Naturally” also appears on eHow.com. This piece advises me to wash my hands a lot: “Studies show by doing this step once you have a cold will shorten the cold’s duration.” Drink water, drink green tea, rest, exercise (?), cut out sugar, add garlic tablets … Huh. The author’s background? Apparently she’s a freelance writer and certified Pilates instructor.

Another “How to Cure the Common Cold,” anonymously written, counsels me to become an infectious-disease expert and secure a massive research grant. There’s a raging flame war in the comments section, but the article got 2 stars out of 5 in their ratings system … so somebody liked it.

 “Cure for Common Colds” is brought to you by essortment.com. They list the symptoms of the common cold and observe that a cold lasts from 2-7 days “depending upon the virility of the strain.” (Oh my.) They admit, “there is no real fast cure for this condition,” recommend a bunch of OTC meds, and end with a butt-covering admonition to “contact your doctor.”

“How to Get Rid of a Cold Without Using Medications” on wikiHow.com says:

    • Don’t take medications.
    • “Keep your resting area clean and sanitary.”
    • Suck on zinc lozenges.
    • Take regular baths… 



    • ezinearticles.com recommends hypnosis
    • associatedcontent.com says “cut all dairy out of your diet”
    • bukisa.com (tagline: “Share your Knowledge, Earn Money”) says to put peroxide on a Q-tip and stick it up my nose
    • answers.yahoo.com provides off-the-cuff remarks from random people with no credentials whatsoever

All is not lost
If I know where to look, there’s reputable, scientifically supported advice out there. Luckily, I’ve heard of the Mayo Clinic (where an actual doctor neatly debunks the anti-dairy angle). I know I can trust WebMD or the Merck Manual. Otherwise, I might be wondering how to tell the reliable information from the opinions of random passersby.

Turn on your BS detector
I’ve started ignoring all search results pointing to eHow.com and its ilk.

A simple guideline: If the whole idea behind the site is “We know all sorts of stuff about everything,” beware. (Except for Wikipedia, which has enough critical mass to make its own rules much the way Amazon does.)

The content farms have learned to game the system, and dubious content is clogging up the works. If you do internet research and don’t know any better, you can wind up relying on content that’s based on somebody’s vague recollections or urban legends. Come on, Google. Find a way to make expert-written content float to the top. Otherwise, using your search engine will be the equivalent of polling the checkout line at the supermarket.

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Posted in Content Strategy, Uncategorized, Web Content, Web Writing