4 Tips for Creating Better Content

How often do you see an announcement about a newly redesigned website that proudly tells you that one of its new characteristics is that is is "user-focused" or "user-friendly"? (Or maybe you've sent one of them!) More often than not, these "new and improved" websites, they are not improved at all. They are just different. And still focused on the organization that created the website.

This doesn't happen intentionally. Most organizations do want to focus on the "user" – whether that person is a member, customer, donor, patron, or whatever you call the group of people your organization serves. With the best of intentions, they start down the path of reworking their website to become more user-focused. But old habits die hard.

Forming new habits is why we've been doing activities with clients and teammates to facilitate the shift to connecting with the person on the other side of the screen. Here are a few ways to get into the mindset of truly putting your audience first.

Wants vs Needs

We often think about wants and needs from a personal or economic perspective. A want is something we desire, whereas a need is a necessity.

When it comes to how you serve your audience, it's a little bit different. What your users want is to accomplish a goal or complete a task. whereas what they need is something they can use to accomplish their goal or task. Here are some examples of the differences.

Wants Needs
Funding for a program Federal grant application
Improve employee capacity Evidence-based best practices
Find out if I have the flu Symptoms of the flu
Where to go to get a flu test

Start by defining what your audience wants. Then you can identify what they need in order to accomplish the goal. The wants are user-focused, the needs are organizationally focused. Too often the people in the organization are starting with what they want to give to people, rather mapping what they offer to what their audience want.

Offer vs Ask

Which brings us to differentiating between an offer and an ask (as much as we hate using verbs as nouns, this works here, stick with us).

As an organization, you likely have something you want to offer to your audience: products, courses, blog posts, publications, gifts for donations, services, and more. These are your offers. But are they what your audience is asking for?

You must differentiate between the two. The ask is the user's goal. It's probably invisible on your site. The offer is your content. For example:

Ask: How much does it cost to get into Disney World?
Offer: The prices for different age groups to the different parks and multi-park pass pricing

Ask:How do I get funding for my research?
Offer: List of grants, tips for grant applications, deadlines for grants

Ask:What would it be like to be in the Navy?
Offer: Podcasts, stories, videos about life in the Navy

By starting with what someone in your target audience is actually asking for, you can present offers in a way that answers their question.

User stories

A good way to frame the difference between wants and needs and offers and asks is by writing user stories. This technique comes from the agile software development world but it works well when you're deciding what content to create and how to organize it on your website.

The format of a user story is like this:

As a [person in a particular role]
I want to [do something]
So that [I can accomplish something]

Here's an example

As an employee of Acme Widgets I want to learn how to request maternity leave So that I can take as much paid time off as possible when I have my baby

Be sure to identify who exactly the person is. Here's a hint: it is never "the user." Never does a user story start with "As a user." (We don't say never very often; when we do, we really mean it.)

We vs You

One way to tell if the content you create is user-centric is to count the number of times "we" and "you" are used. If you use "we" more often than "you," something isn't right. Your audience is thinking about themselves, and they are who you should be thinking about too.

Consider these two statements, which mean the same thing but come across very differently:

We offer a 20% discount to people who sign up for our email newsletter.

You get 20% off when you sign up for our newsletter.

Not only is the first sentence passive, it's about the offer, it's about what the organization does. In the second sentence, it's active and it's about what the reader gets. See the slight difference? It may look small but it will have a big effect on your engagement.

Learn How to Write User-Focused Content

There are a few ways you can get yourself and your team to make this shift.

1. Get the book Content Design by Sarah Richards. This little white book will give you enormous help.

2. Look at some sites that really focus on their audience. Here are some examples:
Every Kid in a Park
City of Boston, MA
Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)

3. Talk to us about internal training for all your content creators. Our Creating Effective Web Content course has already helped many teams change the way they write their web content.