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Author’s Note: “Context and Content Strategy: Personal Behavioral Context” was the second in a four part series I wrote in early 2011 on the importance of understanding context in the practice of content strategy. Unfortunately, the original posts were lost when my database (that was unfortunately not backed up) was deleted by mistake. I have reposted them here for nostalgia and resource sake (at one point there were more than 70 backlinks to these posts).

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) 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.

Establishing Personal Behavioral Context

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? Is the user tired? Are they desperate? Does 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.

Mapping Behavior

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.

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