Content discovery—how to make sure you don't miss something

Content discovery—how to make sure you don't miss something

6 minute read

Content discovery—how to make sure you don't miss something

6 minute read

Content discovery—how to make sure you don't miss something

Chris Harding

Content Designer and Strategist

In 1996 Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, wrote a famous essay (yes, an essay, not a blog post) titled content is king. You've probably heard that phrase before, but it's unlikely you've read the original piece.

To summarise, he writes about the commoditisation of content, likening it to the broadcasting and publishing industries. Claiming that the internet will be the primary focus for making money for people who can produce the best content.

He was right. The web has taken over from print publishing and is steadily changing broadcasting. Companies like YouTube, Netflix and Buzzfeed. But the fact he was right isn't what bothers me about that essay.

No, it's the title that annoys me.

To still say, over 20 years later, that content is king—the top of the pile—is to miss out vital elements of your audience's online experience.

Why people are viewing your content, where they've come from and how they're seeing it is even more important than the content itself.

This is your audience's context.

Your organisation will also have a context. You might want to sell something, provide a service or inform people.

When those two meet up, and the way it's published is right, that's where content is needed.

Content is the vehicle to bring those two contexts together.

Discovering these contexts is vital to content strategy and is one of the fundamental principles of user experience (UX). You can learn more about the definition of UX from the Nielson Norman Group here.

But if content is merely a vehicle (hopefully a very nice vehicle) to get your audience where they want to be, does that mean context is king?

No.

Context is a meritocracy. And content has to work really hard to be the best.

For example, you need to know the words to Twist and Shout for a lip syncing solo on a carnival float in a few day's time (we've all been there). You might want to watch videos of the fab four's performances, download the song or print out some lyrics. The best site would provide all of these options for your particular needs and ideally give you even more tools to improve your performances.

If lip syncing is your thing, you're likely to come back to engage with that site over and over again.

Look around once in a while

How do you tap into your audience's context to find the content you need to create?

That's what content discovery is all about.

There aren't many shortcuts to good content discovery. But how long and thorough you are really depends on the type of content you're planning. Lauren Pope is the absolute best at explaining content cadences, you can see her fabulous models for content planning right here.

As a rule of thumb, the longer your content will be around and relevant, the more discovery you should do for it.

Never think you can do enough by just asking a few people in the office some questions. No one in your organisation is your audience. You're all too invested and have too much insider information.

Like the best method actors, you need to understand your audience's contexts by carrying out some research, asking some questions and trying stuff out.

Let's start with the fundamental questions.

Who are your audience?

You can't be all things to all people. Aim for a target and you're likely to attract plenty of others too.

Hopefully you'll have some kind of audience outline in your organisation somewhere. Personas or demographic analysis can give you a start, but don't rely on these too much. They're often produced for a different reason to yours and can lead you down a narrow path.

If you don't have anything at all it's worth digging a little.

I prefer to keep this fairly light.

  • What kind of age are your audience?
  • Are they from a certain location?
  • What kind of device(s) are they using most?

What do your audience want?

General information about your audience should act as your map. But what will fuel your content is to get an understanding of your audience's motivations and needs.

The best way of doing this is to create user stories.

There are loads of posts about how to do this. I recommend this one from Sarah Richards, who was definitely not skipping user stories classes.

Once you have user stories you should have a good idea of your audience's motivations. But you might want to drill down a bit further into what people will do to satisfy those.

I find the best way of doing this is through job stories (AKA jobs to be done). Alan Klement has a great piece on this.

What's holding your audience back?

Having a good understanding of what your audience want is great.

But there will be things that hold them back. These might be tiny, temporary and not worth noting. Or huge and important to address.

If you're not covering pain points in your content your audience will not be doing what you want them to do.

For example, if you sell cars on a website your customers will probably need to look around before they buy. That's a temporary state, easily fixed.
The huge important thing is whether customers will be comfortable buying a car online. You'll need significant amounts of content to address those fears.

What content already exists and how is that being viewed?

Look through what's already out in the world to understand what works, what can be improved and what needs to be dropped. Lauren also has an excellent post on how to plan a content audit that works for you.

Don't limit this to just your stuff.

Competitors and parallel organisations will also have relevant content. Make sure you understand what's around and cherry pick the best bits.

You won't be able to fully audit multiple competitor's sites. And you shouldn't, it's a bit creepy. But a few screenshots and notes will be useful.

Once you've answered these questions content discovery is over, right?

Wrong.

But you've made a great start, so keep going.

Hit the nail right on the head

You might have already started prototyping or sketching what pages might look like.

That's great.

Keep working towards something you can publish and that you can test.

It's really important to validate what you've discovered with your actual audience. And it'll de-risk your assumptions.

You'll want a mixture of qualitative and quantitative feedback from real people.

This is one of the many times where UX, or service design, people can really shine.

If you have them in your team you've probably already been working together on a lot of the stuff we've covered. Lean on them more here and urge them to set up user testing sessions, focus groups and questionnaires.

Your job, as a content designer, will be to listen out for trigger words or phrases that you can use in your content.

Make notes. You want to hear what people are saying and figure out what words are being used in any discussions and in response to prototypes or sketches they're seeing.

Listen or watch recordings of live sessions to make sure you've not missed anything. Sometimes it's worth transcribing what's said and running that through or using something like Google speech-to-text.

That way you can collate the commonly used words and spot trends.

Keep looking around

The mistake a lot of organisations make is that you don't do any more content discovery once your content is built or launched.

Keep looking at the numbers coming in to make sure the content is doing what you expect it to do.

If it's not doing what it should, you'll need to figure out why.

Could it be:

  • The content is in the wrong place?
    Are your audience finding it?
    Is there enough information on previous pages or sites before seeing your content?
    Is the published location right?

  • Something about the context has changed?
    This can be planned such as seasonal weather changes, search algorithm changes or less marketing spend.
    Or unplanned changes such as political situations, unexpected weather changes or banking crashes.
  • The format isn't right?
    Would your content be better as a video or an audio file?
    Is it too long or too short?
    Maybe a social media post might suit the content better.
  • It hasn't been marketed enough?
    Can you entice people in, maybe through email or social media?
    Does your content have the right search phrases in it?

It's a really good idea to start up content discovery a few months after launch whether you've hit your targets or not. Reassessing your audience and their contexts will let you know if you have to change your content.

Now is the best time

As Rob from GatherContent points out in his write up of lessons learnt from his blog redesign project leaving your content alone and completing a discovery process on everything is a painstaking task.

Evaluating all of your content in one hit will seem like a mountain to climb. Especially if you've started in the wrong place.

If you start off well and look at it once in a while you won't miss anything.

In 1996 Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, wrote a famous essay (yes, an essay, not a blog post) titled content is king. You've probably heard that phrase before, but it's unlikely you've read the original piece.

To summarise, he writes about the commoditisation of content, likening it to the broadcasting and publishing industries. Claiming that the internet will be the primary focus for making money for people who can produce the best content.

He was right. The web has taken over from print publishing and is steadily changing broadcasting. Companies like YouTube, Netflix and Buzzfeed. But the fact he was right isn't what bothers me about that essay.

No, it's the title that annoys me.

To still say, over 20 years later, that content is king—the top of the pile—is to miss out vital elements of your audience's online experience.

Why people are viewing your content, where they've come from and how they're seeing it is even more important than the content itself.

This is your audience's context.

Your organisation will also have a context. You might want to sell something, provide a service or inform people.

When those two meet up, and the way it's published is right, that's where content is needed.

Content is the vehicle to bring those two contexts together.

Discovering these contexts is vital to content strategy and is one of the fundamental principles of user experience (UX). You can learn more about the definition of UX from the Nielson Norman Group here.

But if content is merely a vehicle (hopefully a very nice vehicle) to get your audience where they want to be, does that mean context is king?

No.

Context is a meritocracy. And content has to work really hard to be the best.

For example, you need to know the words to Twist and Shout for a lip syncing solo on a carnival float in a few day's time (we've all been there). You might want to watch videos of the fab four's performances, download the song or print out some lyrics. The best site would provide all of these options for your particular needs and ideally give you even more tools to improve your performances.

If lip syncing is your thing, you're likely to come back to engage with that site over and over again.

Look around once in a while

How do you tap into your audience's context to find the content you need to create?

That's what content discovery is all about.

There aren't many shortcuts to good content discovery. But how long and thorough you are really depends on the type of content you're planning. Lauren Pope is the absolute best at explaining content cadences, you can see her fabulous models for content planning right here.

As a rule of thumb, the longer your content will be around and relevant, the more discovery you should do for it.

Never think you can do enough by just asking a few people in the office some questions. No one in your organisation is your audience. You're all too invested and have too much insider information.

Like the best method actors, you need to understand your audience's contexts by carrying out some research, asking some questions and trying stuff out.

Let's start with the fundamental questions.

Who are your audience?

You can't be all things to all people. Aim for a target and you're likely to attract plenty of others too.

Hopefully you'll have some kind of audience outline in your organisation somewhere. Personas or demographic analysis can give you a start, but don't rely on these too much. They're often produced for a different reason to yours and can lead you down a narrow path.

If you don't have anything at all it's worth digging a little.

I prefer to keep this fairly light.

  • What kind of age are your audience?
  • Are they from a certain location?
  • What kind of device(s) are they using most?

What do your audience want?

General information about your audience should act as your map. But what will fuel your content is to get an understanding of your audience's motivations and needs.

The best way of doing this is to create user stories.

There are loads of posts about how to do this. I recommend this one from Sarah Richards, who was definitely not skipping user stories classes.

Once you have user stories you should have a good idea of your audience's motivations. But you might want to drill down a bit further into what people will do to satisfy those.

I find the best way of doing this is through job stories (AKA jobs to be done). Alan Klement has a great piece on this.

What's holding your audience back?

Having a good understanding of what your audience want is great.

But there will be things that hold them back. These might be tiny, temporary and not worth noting. Or huge and important to address.

If you're not covering pain points in your content your audience will not be doing what you want them to do.

For example, if you sell cars on a website your customers will probably need to look around before they buy. That's a temporary state, easily fixed.
The huge important thing is whether customers will be comfortable buying a car online. You'll need significant amounts of content to address those fears.

What content already exists and how is that being viewed?

Look through what's already out in the world to understand what works, what can be improved and what needs to be dropped. Lauren also has an excellent post on how to plan a content audit that works for you.

Don't limit this to just your stuff.

Competitors and parallel organisations will also have relevant content. Make sure you understand what's around and cherry pick the best bits.

You won't be able to fully audit multiple competitor's sites. And you shouldn't, it's a bit creepy. But a few screenshots and notes will be useful.

Once you've answered these questions content discovery is over, right?

Wrong.

But you've made a great start, so keep going.

Hit the nail right on the head

You might have already started prototyping or sketching what pages might look like.

That's great.

Keep working towards something you can publish and that you can test.

It's really important to validate what you've discovered with your actual audience. And it'll de-risk your assumptions.

You'll want a mixture of qualitative and quantitative feedback from real people.

This is one of the many times where UX, or service design, people can really shine.

If you have them in your team you've probably already been working together on a lot of the stuff we've covered. Lean on them more here and urge them to set up user testing sessions, focus groups and questionnaires.

Your job, as a content designer, will be to listen out for trigger words or phrases that you can use in your content.

Make notes. You want to hear what people are saying and figure out what words are being used in any discussions and in response to prototypes or sketches they're seeing.

Listen or watch recordings of live sessions to make sure you've not missed anything. Sometimes it's worth transcribing what's said and running that through or using something like Google speech-to-text.

That way you can collate the commonly used words and spot trends.

Keep looking around

The mistake a lot of organisations make is that you don't do any more content discovery once your content is built or launched.

Keep looking at the numbers coming in to make sure the content is doing what you expect it to do.

If it's not doing what it should, you'll need to figure out why.

Could it be:

  • The content is in the wrong place?
    Are your audience finding it?
    Is there enough information on previous pages or sites before seeing your content?
    Is the published location right?

  • Something about the context has changed?
    This can be planned such as seasonal weather changes, search algorithm changes or less marketing spend.
    Or unplanned changes such as political situations, unexpected weather changes or banking crashes.
  • The format isn't right?
    Would your content be better as a video or an audio file?
    Is it too long or too short?
    Maybe a social media post might suit the content better.
  • It hasn't been marketed enough?
    Can you entice people in, maybe through email or social media?
    Does your content have the right search phrases in it?

It's a really good idea to start up content discovery a few months after launch whether you've hit your targets or not. Reassessing your audience and their contexts will let you know if you have to change your content.

Now is the best time

As Rob from GatherContent points out in his write up of lessons learnt from his blog redesign project leaving your content alone and completing a discovery process on everything is a painstaking task.

Evaluating all of your content in one hit will seem like a mountain to climb. Especially if you've started in the wrong place.

If you start off well and look at it once in a while you won't miss anything.

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About the author

Chris Harding

Chris Harding's a content designer and strategist whose career spans decades (yes, he’s old). Although he always wanted to be a dancer when he was younger until a broken ankle forced him to pick up a pencil and paper and start writing instead.

He's worked in digital within businesses, agencies, charities and in the public sector—implementing content under the GDS guidelines. The bloke has lived through all sorts of content shenanigans and come out of it smiling. How? Don’t ask him, you won’t get a coherent answer.

He now runs his own content consultancy company AllJoinedUp. And is one of the co-organisers of CoDes—a meet up for content and design people in his hometown, Brighton. You can also find him on Twitter.

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