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3 UX Principles That Will Make You a Better Content Marketer

| October 28, 2015
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I have a question for you.

What was the worst website or app you’ve used?

What made it so frustrating? Site didn’t work properly? Couldn’t find what you were looking for? Was it ridiculously slow?

Have you ever recommended that site to anyone?

Of course not.

You had a bad experience. And because of that, you’ll probably never go back and you definitely aren’t going to recommend it to your friends and family. That’s why delivering great experiences is so key to acquisition, retention, and growth. 

[clickToTweet tweet=”Delivering great experiences is key to acquisition, retention, and growth.” quote=”Delivering great experiences is key to acquisition, retention, and growth.”]

In Brian Balfour’s essay, How To Become A Customer Acquisition Expert, he explains that it’s important for today’s marketers to develop a wide breadth in a variety of domains, and to develop deep expertise in 1-2 marketing channels.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve gone deep into a content marketing channel like blogging, video, or audio.

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore other disciplines.

It’s still important to develop basic skills like product design and UX principles. Not only will it help you make better content, but it will also help you understand why other people in your company do what they do (and how to work with them more effectively).

customer-acquisition-expert

Even though content marketing isn’t part of the UX department, content is still a huge part of the user experience.

And content marketers who get good at UX also reap the benefit of building a loyal audience of people that trust them and look forward to hearing from them. That means higher engagement, more traffic, more leads, and ultimately more sales for your business.

In this article I’m going to break down three key UX principles you need to know as a content marketer, and how you can apply them today.

UX principle #1: Do your user research

user-research

Conducting user research is all about learning as much as you can about your ideal audience.

It’s about discovering their wants and needs by putting your product in their hands and observing how they interact with it and the problems they encounter.

I asked our Director of Research, Marieke McCloskey why UX practitioners do user research. Why not just start building without going through all that hassle? Here was her response:

Because if you solve the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how well you solve it. And because fixing the product after it’s done is way more expensive than tweaking during design.

[clickToTweet tweet=”If you solve the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how well you solve it.” quote=”If you solve the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how well you solve it.”]

The same goes for your content.

Before you invest your time and money writing articles, creating videos, conducting interviews, designing infographics, or creating any other piece of content, invest in learning about who you’re creating that content for.

Alex Turnbull, the founder of Groove, started looking at their company blog like any other product they build:

If your product doesn’t deliver massive value to your users, then no amount of growth hacking will help you succeed. Our topic had to provide real, actionable advice; not just the soapbox philosophizing that we—like many other business bloggers—had been guilty of in the past.

How to apply user research to your content marketing

I recommend using three different methods to learn more about your users and their needs. Doing all three will give your content the biggest competitive advantage, but even just doing one will help fuel your content creation.

A) Observe user behavior

When the team at global design firm IDEO decides to design a new product, the first thing they do is try to understand the end-user by observing their behavior. They get out of the office and watch people using the products that are currently on the market.

If you want to know what people really want, observe their behavior.

What people say they do and what they actually do is usually quite different. And observing their behavior helps you understand what they do, the challenges they encounter, and the places where they cringe with annoyance. Then you can improve that.

Example: If you’re a company like Ipsy that creates makeup tutorial videos, then you should observe people as they search for tutorials and apply their makeup while following along with the video. You might notice that they get annoyed because all the videos are boring and too long. That could be an opportunity to create short, entertaining makeup videos. 

B) Put yourself in the situation of the end-user

After the IDEO team observes people’s behavior, the next step is to put themselves in the exact situation of the people who will be using what they make.

This will help you understand what the user experience is really like; to develop empathy for your users by feeling what they feel.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Develop empathy for your end-user by putting yourself in their shoes.” quote=”Develop empathy for your end-user by putting yourself in their shoes.”]

You’ll notice a number of different ways you can improve the experience and make it easier for users to accomplish their task and get what they want.

Example: Going back to the Ipsy example, the next step would be to search for makeup tutorial videos yourself, and then follow along with them as you apply your own makeup. Again, the first step is to observe other people do it, and then the second step is to do it yourself.

C) Interview your ideal users

Once you’ve observed the behavior of your end-user and put yourself in their shoes, the final step is to interview them.

There are a few different ways you can do this, depending on the situation and your schedule. The best possible scenario is to shadow them for a day; this will give you unparalleled insights into their world and their lives.

But that’s not always possible.

If you can’t shadow them, you can meet them for lunch (or coffee), talk to them over Skype, on the phone, or on a remote moderated user test. I don’t recommend email because you’ll miss out on so many rich insights you can only get from meeting face-to-face or hearing their voice.

Here are some questions you can ask and topics to dig into (don’t use this list word for word, though. Tailor your questions to fit your unique audience and situation):

  • What do they do in their roles on a day-to-day basis?
  • What are the most common tasks and activities they manage throughout their day?
  • What kind of problems do they encounter?
  • What products do they currently use to get the job done?
  • What kind of content do they normally consume? (Video, audio, text? Short form or long form?)
  • What topics are they interested in learning more about?
  • Why do they usually consume content on that topic? What result(s) are they looking for?

The goal of your conversations shouldn’t be to promote your company or your content. The only reason you’re there is to understand your audience.

During the interview, you want them to do 90% of the talking. So ask open-ended questions, probe deeper based on their answers, listen intently, and be genuinely curious.

UX principle #2: Create user personas

user-persona

Inscribed in stone at the ancient Greek Temple of Delphi are the words “Know thyself.”

And in the 52 weeks of UX, Joshua Porter said, “Know thy users.”

It’s easy to rush into content creation without stopping to define exactly who needs what you’re making. But the best content marketers consistently ask the same questions:

  • What is the problem I’m solving?
  • Who is the audience I’m solving it for?
  • Where is that audience?

So once you’ve gathered all of that qualitative data from your user research, the next step is to consolidate your learnings into a user persona.

According to MeasuringU, user personas are “archetypal users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a larger group of users. They function as stand-ins for real users to guide decisions about design and functionality.”

And you should use them as a content marketer.

Why?

Because they bring your audience to life providing a specific target to help you create content for. It’s much easier to make things your audience finds useful when you know who they are and the problems they have.

How to build a user persona

There are a bunch of great resources about creating customer personas available (like this, this, and this). And I hear marketers talk about personas all the time.

But here’s the thing: even though pretty much every would agree that personas are important, very few teams actually have a documented user persona for the content they create. Probably because it seems like such a large, daunting task.

But in his ‘Summer of Marketing’ course, Noah Kagan shared a quick and dirty way to build a persona. What I liked most about this method is that it’s so simple and easy that people actually do it.

Here’s what Noah taught students to do:

1. Grab the top 10 emails of your favorite customers (or top spenders). If you don’t have customers, make a list of 10 people you believe would be your ideal audience.

2. Search each customer’s email on Facebook. If there’s not enough info on Facebook, look at their domain name, their Linkedin profile, and who they follow / what they share on Twitter.

3. Fill out this spreadsheet from their profile info. You should be able to describe your customer in exactness as:

  • Specific gender
  • Age range (25-30)
  • Which country/state they live in
  • What do they do for a living?
  • Which company do they work at?
  • What are their 3 favorite websites to learn about topics like yours?
  • What problem are you solving for them?

UX principle #3: Provide value and usefulness

create-value

Back in 2004, UX veteran Peter Morville created a diagram to illustrate the many facets of user experience. And it’s still as relevant today as ever.

ux-honeycomb1

Doing user research and creating user personas ultimately serves one purpose: to make things your audience wants to use and that adds value to their lives.

That means having the courage and creativity to ask whether your content is useful. And applying your knowledge, skills, and abilities to create innovative content that’s even more useful.

How to create useful and valuable content

There’s no silver bullet tactic that’s going to work for every company. ‘Useful content’ looks different for everyone, depending on your audience, your product, and your business model.

So rather than trying to generalize this process into a list of boxes to check off, I’m going to share a case study that illustrate the framework for how one world-class content marketer thinks about value creation.

Case Study: How Derek Halpern creates valuable content for the Social Triggers audience

Back in the mid 2000’s, Derek Halpern started a celebrity gossip site and grew it to over a million monthly pageviews. But even though it was working, he wanted to get into a different industry (one that wasn’t about making fun of celebrities).

One day he was talking to a friend and he started to complain about how bad most of the marketing advice was online.

His friend challenged him to do something about it. He’d grown a successful online business, so why didn’t he teach people the right way to do it?

Derek accepted the challenge.

derek-challenge-accepted

But he knew he needed a unique selling proposition for his content. Something to help him stand out and be different than the thousands of other marketing blogs.

Taking a page straight out of the Blue Ocean Strategy (a book about creating uncontested market space), Derek started researching which topics the 10 biggest marketing blogs were focused on.

Some were all about passive income. Others were focused on conversion optimization, social media, email marketing, content marketing, and more. But he noticed that nobody was talking about psychology and how it applied to online marketing.

He had recently read Robert Cialdini’s best-selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and had been fascinated by how proven psychological principles could be used to influence people’s behavior.

influence-book

Books about psychology, persuasion, and the irrationality of human behavior consistently sell millions of copies and hit the New York Times best-seller list, so clearly there was an interest in the topic.

But back in 2011, no one was leveraging content marketing channels to teach people how these topics applied to online marketing.

And that’s how Social Triggers was born.

Derek decided that he would provide value to his audience by reading academic research & scientific studies, pulling out the key learnings, and testing them on his own website. Then he would share what worked in blog posts, YouTube videos, and his podcast.

social-triggers-video

Research papers are notoriously dry and boring to read. So he extracted the most valuable insights and explained them in a fun way that was easy for people to digest.

And the best part was that he would break down exactly how to apply each psychological principle to your own site. So his audience was able to apply what they learned right away and get a “quick win.”

And it worked. Derek grew Social Triggers to 17,000 email subscribers in the first 11 months.

Three years later, it’s more than just a blog: it’s a million-dollar software and education company. But the most interesting part of all is that he has some of the most loyal, die-hard fans I’ve ever seen.

That’s the power of creating something useful for your audience.

What makes your content different from everyone else’s?

Now that we’ve looked at how Derek approaches content marketing, it’s time to figure out how you can create value for your audience in a way that’s unique and stands out from the noise.

In order to stand out, you can’t just copy what everyone else is doing. You have to tell your own story. Here are some thought-provoking questions to help you brainstorm:

  • Think about your life experiences. What story have you lived? Now think about the reality you’re currently living in. What challenges are you going through that your audience also struggles with? That they can relate to?
  • Identify the top 10 blogs (or YouTube channels, podcasts, etc) in your in your niche. What specific topics are they focused on? (e.g. If the niche is online marketing, they focus specifically on social media marketing.)
  • What content formats aren’t being leveraged by those top 10? (e.g No one has started a podcast, no one is creating short video clips, no one is writing long-form blog posts backed by data & research.)

The final word

It’s important that you learn the basics of UX as a content marketer. Because people only stick around and tell their friends about you when they have a great experience. And if they have a poor experience, they’ll never come back or become an evangelist for you.

Now what do you think? What’s the most important UX principle that content marketers need to know? Let us know what you think on Twitter or Linkedin.