For years I believed content marketing was primarily about writing.
I spent most of my early career writing about all sorts of B2B software for TechnologyAdvice. Several years and hundreds of articles later, my team and I were attracting over 150,000 visitors per month to the blog.
The formula seemed clear enough: Write better than the competition, promote the content, do some SEO work and watch the traffic numbers go up.
But when I started working at a UX design agency early in 2018, my entire perspective on content changed. I began to think more about the user experience of my readers.
It’s worth considering the definition of user experience, because it’s consistently misunderstood. UX is not only how a website looks; it’s the total experience a person feels when they interact with a website. The intuitiveness of the navigation, the emotional cues and relevance of the copy, how easy it is to complete a goal — these are all factors that form the user experience.
As I began to work more closely with UX designers, I was fascinated by how they viewed content. For them, content wasn’t a marketing medium. It was a critical piece of information that served the most pressing needs of the end users.
The more I learned, the more I started integrating UX design techniques into my process. Here are the major ways my work has changed as a result.
Dig Deep to Understand Your Audience
“You are not the user.” It’s a popular saying in UX design, and its lesson is important. You may think you know your customer or share things in common with them, but you really don’t know that much about them.
Designers know they need an in-depth understanding of their audience, so they spend a great deal of time on research.
During the course of their research, designers build empathy with their audience, which means they can put themselves in the shoes of the people they’re actually designing for. That knowledge then informs the direction of the experience design.
These research techniques are mostly qualitative — user interviews, focus groups, surveys and even observing a day in the life of a typical user. Even with all of today’s analytics, actually talking to customers is still the best way to understand them. Assumptions won’t cut it.
As I watched my colleagues work, I thought, “Why should it be any different with content?” So I started sitting in on sales calls and scheduling one-on-one conversations with customers.
The results were exceptional.
During the course of my research, I uncovered a host of challenges I never knew existed, which was a gold mine for content ideas.
For example, I discovered that our main personas were not well acquainted with UX design in general, but they were specifically confused about the process behind it. Obviously that’s a problem if we’re trying to sell them UX design services.
Building empathy with my audience led me to understand that just because they’re technical people (IT leaders and digital product owners) that doesn’t mean they have a firm grasp of UX design.
So I wrote a 7,000-word e-book about my agency’s design process, and I touched on all of the pain points that I’d discovered during my research.
Sound gratuitous? Well, it’s not if you’re looking to hire a UX agency for an enterprise. You’re going to want to do your research. To date the e-book has helped DePalma generate multiple opportunities to work with enterprise organizations. During our follow-up sales calls, people still mention the e-book and tell us how helpful it was.
Explaining the details of our design process not only gave our audience an understanding of how DePalma works but also helped them more fully understand user experience design in general.
The lesson? Content marketers can (and should) learn a tremendous amount from talking to our customers. Rather than work on assumptions, we can build real empathy with our audience and develop content that truly makes their lives easier.
Focus on the Usability of Your Content
Usability plays a central role in the user experience, so designers spend a lot of time considering and testing the usability of their work.
Usability is defined as the “the extent to which a product [or website] can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction.” For a design to have good usability it has to meet three main measures:
- It should be easy for people to become familiar with.
- It should be straightforward for people to accomplish their goals.
- It should be easy to recall how the design works on subsequent visits.
There’s actually a substantial amount of research on the usability of content.
For example, Nielsen Norman Group found that scannable, concise and objective writing can exponentially increase the usability of content, which can lead to higher conversions, more traffic and better SEO rankings.
At DePalma, I set about increasing the usability of our content in several ways:
Limit Paragraph Length and Always Use Visual Media
Even though people scan content, they can be convinced to commit their time to a longer piece — if that article is easy to digest.
That means you have to limit the length of your paragraphs and include visual media in every article you can. My personal rules are never to write paragraphs longer than three lines and to include some type of image every 300 to 400 words.
Here’s an example from a post I wrote about our Sprint Zero process:
I’m explaining an abstract software development process here, so it’s doubly important to use visuals to help with reading comprehension.
As a result this post has been steadily climbing in SEO rankings because its usability is attracting consistent traffic.
Focus on What the User Wants (Not What You Want)
This point may seem obvious, but in many instances it can seem counterintuitive.
We all want more conversions, right? So we should definitely put a lot more CTAs in our blog posts … right?
Not if you want people to actually enjoy reading your content. Increasing the usability of your content means helping your readers achieve their goals, which is to read what they came to your site to read.
Too many publications focus more on their own goals than what their readers want. If you’ve ever tried to read an article on Forbes, you know what I’m talking about. Here’s an example:
There are two ads on either side of the content. One is a video set to autoplay. These distractions make it more difficult for me to read the article, which is why I came to this website.
If you want people to actually enjoy reading your content (and to keep coming back to your site) keep the CTAs or ads to a minimum.
Sure, you want your content to convert, but there’s a time and place to present your offer.
Plus, there are indications dwell time is becoming more important to SEO rankings, and if you accost people with a flurry of pop-ups they won’t read your articles for very long.
Keep Things Simple
A lot of marketers equate good design with complexity. The thinking goes “if a graphic is particularly detailed or eye-catching, then it must be good because it’s bold.”
In fact the opposite is true in UX design. Industry research has consistently shown that simple, intuitive websites are not only easier to use but are considered more aesthetically pleasing.
As a content marketer, your sphere of influence correlates most directly with the content that’s on the page, so keep things simple. Give your audience the information they need, but don’t overwhelm them.
Here’s how we’ve done it on our site:
Sure, we’re talking about complex topics like designing the user experience for an AI enterprise assistant, but the copy and design deliver what the audience needs to know and nothing more.
Most importantly, we’ve organized the layout of the site to be highly usable.
By asking our customers what they considered when they were looking for a UX agency, we were able to uncover the information they were looking for on our home page and order the assets appropriately.
The truth is that content isn’t only about words anymore. Increasingly people expect digital content to deliver a high-caliber user experience.
As content marketers, it’s our job to think about how to meet the expectations of our audiences. In practical terms, that often means gaining a better understanding of their user experience.
If you’re new to the idea of UX, you can take small steps to understand your audience. Talk to customers and readers. Model the experience they have when they visit your website. And think about how your words are making it from your keyboard to their screens.
Sign up for the newsletter to get all the latest updates from Managing Editor.