Context in Content Strategy: Personal Situational Context

Context in Content Strategy: Personal Situational Context is the third in a series of five blog posts discussing the need to account for context in the practice of content strategy. Did you miss the first two?

So, we’ve established that context is crucial to content strategy and that personal behaviors play into our capability to comprehend material on a Web site. What’s missing from the equation? I’d argue that it’s a user’s reason for seeking out a site (and its content) in the first place — needs that have arisen from a situation.

Establishing elements of Personal Situational Context provide a framework for your content’s very existence. Situations can serve as a guidepost for developing an editorial strategy that is shaped by the personas we’ve developed using Personal Behavioral Context. Similarly, when we believe our users are being faced with new situations that require content, we can use the fusion of Personal Behavioral Context and Personal Situational Context to develop new material or revise what already exists.

What types of situations should we be accounting for? That really depends on what those pesky content and business goals are (we talked about them briefly in the Personal Behavioral Context Post). In the case of Drake Motors Ltd., we’ll examine two (though there are many) potential situations for Kyle Fisher, our fictional buyer we met last post.

Situation A – I want to replace my current SUV with a new vehicle. I’m comparing Drake motors to the competition.

Situation B – I’m beginning the car buying/leasing process and want to explore all of my options.

At face value, one might assume the same content is sufficient to address both situations, but content strategists and information architects know better. When we look at various NEEDS that make up a given situation while content planning, we start to see the subtle differences that apply to each scenario.

In the diagram above, you’ll notice that there are several needs that guide our user’s take on a situation. The individual “TASKS” that spider from the needs are the key points or concepts our content should address. When we have content tasks that address the needs, we’ve provided guidance, and with luck, resolution for the given situation.

Resolved situations result in a happy users. Happy users (in theory) lead to conversion on our site goals, which should lead to real world ROI.

Isn’t it fantastic when everything starts coming together?

Now, lets break down how we start to make it happen.

If we take a second look at the persona developed for the post on Personal Behavioral Context, we can tell that Kyle Fisher is a pretty active guy. He plays a lot of hockey (that’s a lot of equipment), travels with his family often (meaning he needs more than a sedan) and puts about 7,000 to 8,000 more miles on his vehicle annually than the average driver (that’s a lot of gas and money spent).

Based on Kyle’s activities, it’s safe to say he has different requirements for his vehicle than someone who spends the bulk of their non-work life playing chess or building puzzles. Thankfully, Drake Motors has product that fits the bill and (based on our content audit) we have some existing content that will address the needs of his situation. Check out a few of Kyle’s needs and resulting content we can use in our chart for Situation A.

Personal Situational Context for Kyle Fisher

The above are by no means the only things we should be factoring for when it comes to Kyle. That said, analyzing his situational needs give us insight into ways we can organize our content in a unique way.

For example; since we know Kyle is a buyer and not a browser, we should deliver a different type of content and messaging tone based on that information. We should include more sales and incentive messaging along with support information that meet Kyle’s needs (like styling awards, fuel economy, safety and technology features, videos, etc.). Additionally, we can validate this content through third party support material, such as consumer or media reviews. All of this content should be easily accessible via the Model Overview page. Why? Because an individual model is Kyle’s frame of reference for his situation. It follows that this content should be there for him to help support that frame of reference.

The splash page/segmentation strategy for Volkswagen's United Kingdom site.All this talk about optimizing content for a specific situation might beg the question — how do we know Kyle is in market in the first place? One way is to utilize a segmentation strategy. Volkswagen’s UK Site does a great job of this by serving up a one click choice on arrival. Other methods of segmentation can be achieved via navigation, through geo-targeting, browser type, ambient factor or through some sort of survey or web tool.

Now, let’s take high level look at how we’ll serve content up differently for Situation B.

Since Kyle isn’t in market, we won’t focus on selling an individual model and won’t push him towards one right away. Instead, we’ll start trying to figure out what he might be looking for in terms of features and provide him a better overview of everything Drake Motors has to offer based on those interests.

One thing I wish more automotive sites would do is come up with a creative way find out what users “like,” if anything, about their current vehicle and attempt to uncover more about what they want in a new vehicle during browsing process. This knowledge is already top of mind at all times for most buyers who begin browsing or window shopping.

New car buyers tend to covet advanced features that make the vehicle safer, more technologically advance or provide a new aesthetic. So why is it that the majority of automakers slap a vehicle lineup and a host of configurations up on a page and expect it to make people flock showroom? There’s no context for blanket listing of features and reading through packages for a specific vehicle is not how a casual browser is even beginning to shop for a new car. Most, especially female buyers, begin browsing by a specific feature, a price point or vehicle category before they even begin to get down to a specific model and its exclusive content.

I won’t bog down the post by digging into another situational chart, but rest assured that we can begin provide the information Kyle needs for Situation B through direct navigation or a specific site function, such as a “help me choose.” If we’ve utilized a segmentation strategy, we can provide an entirely different web experience or something as simple as an interactive element that allows users to engage with the entire lineup or feature set vs. an individual model.

Ford does a fantastic job of this. The company recognizes that Technology has become such an integral part of their brand story that they separate it from the model overview pages for users visiting their page specifically for SYNC or Ford MyTouch information. I’d argue that more OEMs should start thinking about their early shoppers in this way. By doing so, we add another layer of context that makes what we provide users on a Web site more than “brochureware.”


Now that we’ve framed up Personal Behavioral and Personal Situational Context for Kyle, we can fuse them together to create Situational/Behavioral Context (the basis for content scenario templates). In the next post, I’ll provide an example of one of these templates and what that means, both for what content we have and what still needs to be produced. We’ll also set the stage for a fifth post (I realized I just can’t fit it all into four) that layers in ambient data, which will get a bit scientific thanks to a mashup of Human Computer Interaction theory and cognitive neuroscience. Stay tuned and please comment!

Context in Content Strategy: Personal Behavioral Context

Context in Content Strategy: Personal Behavioral Context Is the second in a series of four blog posts discussing the need to account for context in the practice of content strategy. Did you miss the introduction to the series? If so, you can find that here.

If we’re in agreement that content strategy can’t live without context, one of the very first things we should be looking into when we’re content planning and working with user experience and information architects are the personal behaviors of our prospective users.

How do we begin doing that? First and foremost, we need to start at the beginning of the content strategy process and examine the content we have. Yes, just like every other content strategist, I’m going to insist that you look at it — ALL of it. Catalog it. Put it in a spreadsheet. Know what it is and be able to understand what it means to the usability of the site and the conversion goals that have been established for it.

Speaking of goals; you need them — for every section of your site. A lot of folks will put this onus on the site designer, but as strategists and stewards of smart content, we owe input and critique on EVERY section of a Web site. Navigation, individual pages and the content that fills them all require reason for being. If you don’t have a goal for an individual piece of content or a page on your site, you have your first red flag.

Once you have your audit (I’ve provided a sample Drake Motors Ltd. audit for you here [img]) and your goals (conversion and otherwise), we can establish user personas to develop content against.

Most marketing personas create a fictional person and blend a variety metrics to provide insight into what makes them tick. Typically, they contain the socioeconomic factors the person lives within, what magazines they might read, what type of device they may access our content on and what types of media will be most important to them. These types of personas are absolutely crucial for the development of a Web site like the one that Drake Motors Ltd. would have, but your personas may or may not include all of the information that’s outlined in the example below.

Where do user personas come from? In ad agency land (the setting I practice content strategy in), they come from a blending of social media technographics, market research, consumer insight interviews, subject matter experts, focus groups and a host of other available data points.

And while all of this information is incredibly helpful in defining an editorial strategy and messaging strategy for each persona, it’s really only helping us to create segments. Still, these humble personas are the keys to the kingdom of context, because you my friends know about content strategy! From these initial user personas we can start creating hypotheses to flesh out personal behavioral data.

When we account for personal behavioral context, we must focus on three main areas:

1. Physical Factors – These factors account for the doing behaviors.

Questions we should ask of ourselves include: What are the environmental stimuli? What activities are users doing when they access our content (working out, researching, studying, etc.)? What are their daily habits? Are they disabled or able bodied? What sensory stimuli may be affecting the environment around them? (Some of this can be grabbed from a social technographic study if it’s deep enough)

2. Emotional Factors – These factors relate to behavior made through feeling.

Questions we should ask of ourselves include: Are users stressed when they access our content? Are they feeling confident? Are they tired? Are they desperate? Are they wanting to spend money with our company or does our product or service make them feel afraid, uncomfortable or uneasy? Is it easy or difficult to interact with our business or web site for the average person?

3. Cognitive Factors – These factors relate to learning behaviors.

Questions we should ask ourselves include: What are the users’ cognitive assumptions when accessing our content? What are users’ maximum potentials for learning? Can we make assumptions or do we have metrics that provide us knowledge about their education level?

The first place we will likely want to drift when we start asking ourselves these questions is to a feeling of hopelessness. There’s no way in hell we can account for all of these factors, right? How can we possibly tailor an experience that satisfies all of the needs of all users when such a wide array of attitudes, experiences and environmental factors can influence a user at any given time?

The short answer is that we can’t account for EVERYTHING, but we can start asking the questions in our qualitative interviews with focus groups, discussions with our clients and their subject matter experts (product insight specialists). This allows us to begin to create contextual maps for content based on differing behavior types. From there, we can create specific content templates (examples are coming, I promise!) that can be used within our content management systems to filter content for a variety of conditions (time, geo-location, sex, age, device, situation, access point, etc.). We can also start to utilize personal recommendation engines, user feedback, user generated content and focus our written content to the lowest common reading level.

All of this template structure and contextual mapping can ultimately influence the architecture of a site. This is precisely why it’s so important that (1.) Content Strategy be involved at the earliest possible stage of a build, redesign or site refresh and (2.) that content strategy and IA work as partners throughout the entire process (including testing, implementation and QA).

It seems like a lot to digest, but after we have all this information and have developed what is now a truly useful persona we can start giving our fictional folks situations (Personal-Situational Context or scenarios that require content) that relate to their habits and behaviors to determine the true content need. Once we’ve done that, we compare the need against or qualitative and existing content audits. When we marry personal behaviors, product insights and consumer insights with situations that will apply directly to our products or services, we can get really dangerous with how specifically we can target folks with our content (Situational-Behavioral Content Strategy).

Next Post: We’ll do the above, using the content audit and the general user personas discussed here and marry it with some of our behavioral contextual assumptions. We can then mash this data up against a few personal situations different personas might face during the car buying process to create contextually relevant content scenario templates (which I’ll provide in both image and OmniGraffle form, in case you’re interested in integrating this into your process). When we mash those things up with ambient data and our site goals, we’ll be able to recommend a revised, contextually relevant content strategy. Basically, we’ll outline a few equations for you. Personal behavior A + personal situation B calls for content template X. It’ll be great.

Finally, a few notes that came to me after proofing this post.

First, in the interest of intellectual honesty, a lot of the props about the concept of Personal Behavioral Context in web design must be given to a really fantastic information architect, Mr. Andrew Hinton. He works in usability and codes and writes a stellar site called Inkblurt. The diagrams I’ve utilized to illustrate personal behavioral context were actually built upon some originals he did for a 2009 workshop for the Information Architecture Institute. Whenever I use these diagrams I like to plug him because they have had to be modified so little to make perfect sense for content and context strategy it feels like stealing.

Secondly, I just started reading Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content by the very smart Colleen Jones. While I’m not finished with it yet and I haven’t yet had a personal conversation with Colleen, I can tell that we share a lot of the same thoughts on the importance of really knowing your audience and bringing more context into the content strategy and web design space. Check out the book and Colleen’s stuff if you’re digging what I’m laying down so far.

Context in Content Strategy: Defining Context

So what do we mean exactly when we talk about context in regards to content strategy?

Context has already been the focus of a great deal of research. From philosophy to linguistics and computer science to neuroscience, it seems everyone has a take. That said, I believe it “fair to say that context is most often used as a reference structure that tries to put all worlds and views, including that of the observer and observed, into a consistent framework. (Mike Bergman – 2008)”

And when that framework fits and makes sense to us and, more importantly, our users? Coherence! Understanding! Happy Users!

So if we agree that context will make our content meaningful and coherent for our users, how do we begin to make a contextual framework for content strategy?

We can begin answering that question by first examining the eventual goals of content strategy and the deliverables an experienced content strategist will provide.

The Content Strategy State of The Union

No matter what (or who’s) definition you may subscribe to, it seems widely accepted that content strategy helps provide either traditional “editorial guidance,” pillars for communication or contributes to information management, “findability” and the practice of information architecture.

Taking that into account, it follows that content strategy should provide the buyer with improved SEO, usable, useful content and a plan for maintaining that material over time. What the status quo isn’t promising is that all this will make sense to the user (though any content strategist or agency claiming to practice it worth their salt will start to refine content based on performance).

I agree and wholeheartedly believe the aforementioned are all results that should stem from sound content strategy. That said, so much of what we (and IA/UX pros for that matter) seem to be focused on is making Web sites easier to “get to,” while adhering to an “editorial strategy” that’s tied to user personas that were really developed to construct said site. While all this is fine and good (and incredibly important), they tragically leave out contextual frameworks for the content. It might be great, usable and fantastic for SEO, but if we’re missing the understanding and comprehension element, we’re missing engagement, and that’s not good for the strategist, the client or our user.

Why Content Strategy Can’t Live Without Context

Web sites need both context and content strategy because there is a world of difference between “attention” and “engagement.” Getting people to the site and getting attention is step one of the process. Engagement is what creates meaning for users and is ultimately what leads to metrics that matter: ROI, return visits, brand trust, potential word of mouth, etc.

Why is context crucial to achieving engagement? That’s a simple question to answer.

Humans and search engines don’t consume content in the same way. Search engines consume content via code, Meta data, tags, etc. Conversely, our brains are affected by the temperature in the room to the amount of sleep we got the night before. It also varies based on the device we access the content on (that’s a whole other web series I’ll be getting to here very, very soon). Bottom line, content is something we connect to emotionally, converse about or learn from … but content (and content strategy for that matter) without context is useless. It’s here that I form my belief that content strategy and information architecture are intrinsically linked. content strategy should help put the coherence factor (Context) back into web design.

When I say context, I don’t mean messaging strategy (those too often focus on marketing strategies or what we want users to hear or read). I don’t mean a user persona riddled with demographic data and I certainly don’t mean generalizations. Context for content strategy at minimum should account for:

1. Personal Behaviors
2. Potential User Situations that relate to your business or product
3. Ambient Data (geolocation, time of day, region, content access device, etc.)

All of these factors help to define Personal-Situational Context for our users and through some of what I’ll discuss in the next three posts, I’ll help start to define how we can account for these factors while still being great content strategists. Is it a lot more work? Absolutely. Do we owe it to our clients and users of our Web sites? Definitely. Are there deliverables that prove this point out? I think so, and I’ll discuss it via my fictional company that we’ll be creating a contextually relevant content strategy to.

Framing It All Up

For the sake of this Web series my context strategy examples will all be created for Drake Motors LTD., a fictional automotive manufacturer with a reasonably diverse portfolio of vehicles ranging from cars, to SUVs and crossovers. This particular automaker has recently updated a great deal of its product line and is producing quality, competitive vehicles. Despite this fact, eroded brand loyalty has seen them outsold in showrooms and outdone by its competitors on the web. Drake is looking for a way to get more out of their Web site and wants desperately to better engage its customers through the Web to get butts in dealerships.

With next week’s post, we’ll start talking about some of Drake’s web users and get into the nitty gritty of how we start accounting for those users’ personal behaviors via web content. I’ll also provide you with a high-level content audit and snapshot of what the company is working with. We’ll review what’s already been asked for and provided to help get us started, so that I can dive into the content strategy process.

We’re done with the definitions and the forwards (PROMISE!!). Next week, we’re onto the fun stuff! Have a question or comment or just plain disagree with me? Leave comments.