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Making content meaningful to users


At a trade show, you can almost always tell whether you're talking to an engineer, marketing, or sales person. (Yes, I'm stereotyping and generalizing to make a point). The engineer (that would be me) just starts telling you all the cool things the system does, rattling off the technical details as if you cared, let alone understood. The marketing person's speech is peppered with buzzwords that make the product as compelling as a tax form.

But the skilled and ethical sales person, now they know that a potential user doesn't care about you as much as he cares about what this means for him. The good sales person knows you don't care about technical details or even features. You care about what those features mean to you. The good sales person knows it isn't even about benefits, but about the benefits you care about. (And this applies to teachers/authors as well as people trying to sell something. After all, as teachers we're trying to sell learners on why they should pay attention and flex a few neurons on the material...)

So the simplest solution when you want to get someone excited (or better yet--passionate) about what you do is... ask. Find out what they do, need, and want, and map what you offer into something meaningfully relevant for that person. And if you can't come up with one, then you're either working for the wrong cause (i.e. a product or service that sucks for pretty much everyone), OR what you have is simply not a good fit for this particular person or company, and you tell them that. I'm enormously impressed when a sales person refers me to a competitor, for example.

But what if you don't have that luxury? What if you're not at the trade show or on the sales floor or anywhere where you can have a one-on-one conversation? How can you make what you have seem personally relevant?

A lot's being written (and developed) around the notion of personalization today, and not everyone thinks it's a useful strategy. But there are some fairly simple ways to tailor a message in a way that makes it more relevant, and sometimes with surprisingly good results.

I worked as the programmer on an interactive marketing compaign for a large car company, and the model we wanted to use was The Good Salesperson. In other words, we wanted a system where the user/customer could walk up, answer a bunch of questions, and using a combination of artificial intelligence and a large content database, the system would deliver to the user a highly customized experience that matched what a Good Salesperson would have done... by asking questions and providing tailored answers. (sheesh, that last sentence came dangerously close to marketing-speak)

Just one problem--no budget. We didn't have the time or money to build that. So we did the least we could get away with; something we thought would have almost no effect, but turned out to be astonishingly effective! We saw some research (sorry, I can't dig it up right now... I just moved last week and I'm an organizational disaster), that suggested that even the most subtle shift in framing or positioning the way you offer information about your product can make a very large difference in the user's perception of how this relates to them personally.

So here's what we did:

* When the user walked up to the system, they had to answer just a single question--
What's most important to you in a car?

* Based on that one answer, we changed only the headline/title of the screens that followed.

For example, if the person said, "I care about safety more than I care about maintenance costs", then on the screen that talks about the engineering of the car, the headline would say something like, "Engineered with your safety in mind..." or something like that. And we might throw in a gratuitous picture of a kid in a car seat. (Yeah, I know that's manipulative, but it wasn't untrue.)

The main point of the system, though, was that 99% of the content was the same for every user. We didn't have custom-tailored screens other than the banner at the top. But it turned out that by orienting the content--the same content everyone saw--to something meaningful for that individual, the information became more relevant.

Of course you don't want to do this dishonestly--as it would be if we said something like, "Your safety is our MOST IMPORTANT GOAL", and then if you chose "Resale value" we said, "Maintaining your resale value is our MOST IMPORTANT GOAL". But by putting a personally-tailored headline over non-custom content, we were able to connect the content to the user's individual desires. Honest, but personalized.
And according to the client, it was a huge success! People spent much more time on each screen then in the previously uncustomized version.

As teachers we use this same principle--at the beginning of class, for example, when I ask the students to introduce themselves, I try to learn as much as I can about their background and interest in the subject. Then if that person asks a question, I try to tailor my answer toward what it means to them personally, or better yet -- I try to get them to make the connection based on my answer, by asking them to tell me how that relates to what they're doing.

So how do we do this in a book? Not that well, but we try. First, we make sure that we talk to as many potential readers as we can, to at least find out what the top two or three goals are for the majority of readers. Then we try to weave those in to the content. But we also try to include sections in each chapter where we talk about the same content from multiple perspectives, so that if the first way we frame it isn't the one that motivates you, perhaps one of the other ways will be closer to matching your personal interest and goals.

The real point is this:
When it comes to your features and even benefits, one-size-does-not-fit-all. Try to find ways to connect what you do/have to what each individual finds personally meaningful. The good news is that it can take only the tiniest, subtlest shift in how you frame the information to help someone make that connection.

But you'll never know unless you ask.

Posted by Kathy on January 31, 2005 | Permalink


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Wow ! After 12 years and $31 million in sales ( brick & concrete block ), I * thought* I knew something about sales. But if this is not *the* way to set up your process, I can't imagine what is..

Having used and continuing to use the Ask Campaign as my #1 way of finding out what my online market * really* wants to buy, versus what I think they need to buy, is the difference between working til 75 or working when I want to.

Thanks for the best educational blog post EVER !

I've now read about 4-5 of your posts, as they have been referenced by Paul Short, and am now putting you in my favorites menu.

In awe,


Posted by: Mike Sigers | Jan 31, 2005 5:37:13 PM

I swear I am gonna confiscate the CAPS LOCK KEY from Kathy's keyboard.

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Jan 31, 2005 6:01:20 PM

Oh for frick's sake, Jeff, I'm WORKING on it. Don't forget I'm STILL reeling from the loss of *asterisks*. It's not like there's a 12-step program for this, and let's not call the kettle black here, Mr. More Writerly Than Thou--I see YOU spelled "going to" as "gonna". What about THAT?
[Secretly, Jeff, I'm glad you care enough to keep calling me on it ; )]

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 31, 2005 6:14:17 PM

Great post Kathy. I am a fan from Brazil, its just REALLY hard to find information about this stuff around here.

Posted by: joao | Jan 31, 2005 6:21:45 PM

Overcome by guilt, knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep tonight if I didn't change it (gee, THANKS JEFF), I went back and edited this post to change most of the all-caps words to italics instead.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 31, 2005 6:41:56 PM



And if you don't have a life, you could always make one up by worrying abour something like caps, while people starve and die in other parts of the world.

The font and the message are two different things....one was worth the time...one wasn't.

Posted by: Mike Sigers | Jan 31, 2005 9:27:47 PM

I think what you're describing is having an ongoing conversation (hate that word in this context) with every intereted customer - it's not so much about tailoring individual messages via software devices, but by actually listening and interacting with the customer. This might be just a case of elevating the importance of feedback from customer-facing staff (but that SHOULD be a given), howver it can stratch as far as customers becoming your product development department. There's a lot of us thinking that way already.

Posted by: john dodds | Feb 1, 2005 5:21:52 AM

Forget capitals - how can I learn to type properly and stop filling my posts with errors that make me appear even dumber than I am!!

Posted by: john dodds | Feb 1, 2005 5:26:44 AM

Brilliant stuff. I just got turned onto your blog via Hugh MacLeod at Gaping Void and am totally hooked.

As a cognitive scientist I really enjoy the practical application of valid cognitive principles to business world situations.

Hopefully I'll have more trenchant comments later, I'm just getting caught up at this point.

Posted by: Jared McLain | Feb 1, 2005 10:15:04 AM

Ditto Jared's post, and did you receive my email yesterday?

Posted by: Tom Asacker | Feb 1, 2005 1:21:43 PM

HI Kathy
You have reminded your readers of the basics of professional selling. If you practice these fundamentals you will separate yourself from the pack of "wannabe sales people" - who offer a solution without knowing what the problem really is - or what the prospect really wanted.
In medical terms you would say -prescribing the medicine before diagnosing the patient is malpractice.
Too many wannabe salespeople practice it every day.
wolf, the coach

Posted by: coach | Feb 1, 2005 9:03:11 PM

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