Creating Online Content for Your Customers: Relevance

If you are wise enough to have realized that online content is strategic to the growth of your business, then you’ve probably also realized that one key to successful content is relevancy.

Why? Because a customer who finds one piece of content helpful in their current situation is likely to come back to the same source looking for more.

A 2017 study by the Content Science Review revealed that customers and audiences who perceived a business’s content as relevant were –

  • Nearly three times as likely to report accomplishing their goals as less satisfied readers
  • Nearly eight times as likely to report accomplishing their goals than dissatisfied readers

And as the authors of this study point out, the relevancy of your content is often tied up with how useful a reader finds it. Readers who complained about a lack of relevancy and usefulness in content most often found that the content was too basic, general or vague.

So how do you build relevancy and usefulness into your online content? I share tried and true tips from my experience as a technical and marketing content expert below.

Note that this blog post is the second in a series. The first post in the series described ways to make online content scannable in a digital medium.

Choose the Best Content for the Customer

Content is most relevant when it meets the needs of a specific audience who is trying to tackle a specific problem or find support for a current project.  

I discussed the need to know your audience in my blog post about scannability. So suffice to say here, that knowing your audience goes beyond building a simple user persona (which I argue in a different blog post). It means uncovering what they require from your content as well as the content format that is most palatable for them – be that video, numbered lists, or infographics.

Here are some examples from my experience:

  • Potential customers of your product or service will want to see examples of how others used your product or service to solve a particular problem or achieve a certain goal. Provide them case studies or extended examples.
  • Executives and managers will want to know why they should take a certain path. Be sure to answer that question and supply supporting data.
  • New/novice customers might need terms and concepts defined. They also might need more detailed instructions.
  • Technical customers will want to see how-to instructions. I guarantee it!  Ensure that details about how to install/login, initiate, and use your product or service – as well as how to de-commission it – are readily available. Avoid cordoning off this information from other product/service details. Some buying managers like to review it, too!

I am not necessarily advocating that you align your content with the AIDA model for marketing (aka the sales funnel) here:  Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action (or “Conversion”).

Image from

But it bears consideration if it helps you understand the compendium of folks in your audience and the different types of content they might need. Of course, a good content strategy will help you to devise a plan for developing – and reusing – content for multiple audiences.

Plan for Layers of Content

Whether you are creating content for a funnel or a compendium, you need to have a plan for the full spectrum of content you want to offer and which pieces in that structure are highest priority.

The overarching goal for that plan should be to meet the audiences’ needs with the appropriate depth of content as well as smooth connections across that content. I firmly believe that a good content strategy translated into a workable plan includes layers of content. By layers of content, I mean complementary – and independent – types of content that work together to complete and support a whole.

Different standards give us different content types. DITA (Darwin Information-Typing Architecture) gives us three topic types based on semantic distinctions:  task, concept, and reference. The difference between concept and reference is the difference between a definition and a periodic table.

Other models distinguish among conceptual (why and what), strategic (process and key knowledge), and tactical (steps for implementation) information. (Thanks to Ashley Faus of Atlassian for these definitions.)

However you think of the layers, the point is to think of them as part of a connected structure (for example, as part of a taxonomy or ontology) and to develop a plan to build that structure.

By the way, you are not necessarily limited to offering only one content type in a single blog post or article. But remember that each piece of content should have a single, documentable purpose: to instruct, or explain, or persuade, or so on. The more direct the purpose, the easier it will be to reuse that piece of content in a different “stack” of layers.

Position the Content Appropriately

Everyone wants to be unique – that is, distinctive. We want our businesses to be distinct from other businesses so that we can attract customers and gain revenue.

The same is true for the content we provide. In fact, we face a double-whammy when we strive to offer not only unique content but also content that works to distinguish our businesses in the marketplace.

To help ensure you are offering unique content, do the work to position it against other, similar content – just as you would your business.

The first whammy I can help you with here. The second whammy will require some consultation.

To help ensure you are offering unique content, do the work to position it against other, similar content – just as you would your business. Here are some tips for positioning your content in the wild world of the web:

  • Create a distinctive title (if applicable).  Much has been written about adding the word “how,” or a negative word (“stop”), or a number (“5 ways to”) to your title as a way to draw clicks. Bear in mind that the content has to deliver on the promise in the title. A better approach is do some A/B testing to find a title that appeals to your intended audience.
    (Note:  Also keep in mind your company style guide, which might dictate the style of your content titles.)

  • Write an interest-grabbing opener.  Whether you provide statistics, a logical argument, or a clarifying statement (with a twist, if you like), ensure that your opening sentence or three gives the audience a reason to keep on reading. Again, whichever opener you choose, take care that it clearly demonstrates the relevancy of the upcoming content to your intended audience.

  • Directly state the distinction.  Sometimes being direct is best, particularly on your landing page and in your marketing materials. Go ahead and state the uniqueness of the piece content or, in the case of marketing, of your business approach. Then follow up by showing (not just bragging about) that distinction.

  • Connect to expertise.  For more subtlety in positioning content, quote or refer to experts to demonstrate not only your own knowledge (you did your homework) but also how your business or idea is related to the larger whole. Show the context for the content. Just be careful to provide proper attribution.

  • Provide companion content.  To help ensure that your reader stays with you, provide links to additional content, tools, or other assistance that you can provide to ensure that they have what they need to meet their goal. Build out that content structure that I mentioned above. Be cautious about going overboard with this tip, however. Limit referenced content to the 2-4 additional content pieces that actually assist the reader.

Detail Only What’s Needed

Content strategists and content marketers say that to be effective, you must deliver the right content to the right audience at the right time – and, I would add, in the most accessible format for the audience.

Bottom line, to build relevancy into each piece of content, deliver only what’s needed for the user/reader to achieve their goal.

Believe it or not, this idea has its roots in a seminal movement from the 1980s: minimalism in technical instruction (van der Meij and Carroll). The movement drove technical writers to design instructional content that was straightforward and delivered inside of a system (like a help link) that was closest to the user.

Bottom line, to build relevancy into each piece of content, deliver only what’s needed for the user/reader to achieve their goal. Remember, when you have your reader hat on, you don’t like to wade through a bunch of extra stuff to get to what you really need. Give the same courtesy to your reader.

How do you ensure you are adequately applying this principle? In the old days of technical communication, we referred to “managing the level of detail.” The concept was basically the same: We chose the depth at which we detailed a topic to match what was needed by the audience, purpose, and context.

Here are some tips on how to do that:

  • Stick to one content type or purpose. Ensure that the purpose of each piece of content is clear, clearly stated, and not deviated from. If you are writing a how-to piece and suddenly find yourself listing all of the new Adobe fonts, you have probably deviated from your original purpose.

  • Provide limited context. This tip is the most challenging to implement. If your content piece serves a clear purpose for its intended audiences, the context should be reasonably obvious. In other words, context is internal to the content piece. Don’t work too hard within a single piece of content to provide its connection to the larger world. That’s a sure path to obsolescence. Let the navigation path or list of companion content provide the larger-world connection within a single piece of content.
    Example: Your how-to piece, for example, could explain the 5-9 steps to accomplish a single goal. Yes, that goal could be part of a longer procedure, but that single goal is the sole context for the how-to piece. In fact, you might find that that single goal could, eventually, become part of several longer procedures. The context of those longer procedures, however, lies outside of the how-to piece.

  • Include clarifying content sparingly. Add those examples and simple definitions if those details will help the reader, especially if the material is new to the reader. But avoid overly complex examples or definitions that could potentially confuse rather than help.
    Note: Yes, sometimes an case-study provides a fuller picture to potential customers, but consider giving that case-study its own space and referring to it from other pieces of your content set.

  • Question everything. For every sentence and paragraph you add to your content piece, ask two questions: 
    • Does this serve the reader’s need?
    • Does this serve the content’s purpose?

Be Smart about Findability and SEO

We can’t talk about the relevancy of online content these days without talking about how search engines think of relevancy. That discussion involves keywords and SEO (search engine optimization) and ultimately takes us to the realm of content marketing.

“Good content is not lazy content. SEO hacks don’t make a site great. Give your content and users the respect they deserve.”

John Mueller

Advice and tools are readily available to assist you with SEO. (See, for example, a recent blog post by The Daily Egg.)

But I ask you to put that advice in context. Search engines rank content on a lot of factors.

As Adrian Cojocariu argues in a blog post about content freshness and SER (search engine rankings), what matters most is the quality of your content. A quote from one of Cojocariu’s favorite colleagues (John Mueller) sums it up, “Good content is not lazy content. SEO hacks don’t make a site great. Give your content and users the respect they deserve.”

Respect your users, your customers, and they will find you. Making your content relevant to your users in the ways that I’ve mentioned in this blog post helps to build that respect.

Below are some additional tips from the content marketing world on how to connect your target audiences to your content. (These represent what Cojocariu calls “off-page SEO.”)

  • Connect the content to the customer’s journey. The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) refers to this as “demand generation,” but it basically means serving up the most appropriate content – in the most palatable format – for the customer’s mindset. See the sales funnel discussion above.

  • Connect a new content piece to an existing content piece – both internally and externally. Provide that internal context but also that external positioning I mentioned. And don’t be afraid to ask your external colleagues to provide a click-back to your content piece, if it is relevant.
    • A corollary to this advice is to re-purpose all or part of your content piece in a different medium, such as video, or channel, such as a one-pager or panel presentation at a professional conference.

  • Brag about your content on social media. I’ve often looked at online content simply because someone I know from social media said they were proud of what they produced.

  • Talk about your content. Beyond a simple brag, mention your content, as appropriate, during speaking engagements and during conversations with others – especially customers.

A Word on Approachable Style

Speaking of advice from others, I really appreciate my friends who are plain language advocates. That is, they want to see all communications written in a natural, active voice. So in that same spirit, please consider your content’s language as the final way to build relevancy into your content.

The overarching goal in choosing your words – or the “voice” of your content – is to ensure that it matches the reader’s need and the content’s context and purpose. I will describe more about how to achieve that voice in my next two blog posts about clarity and accuracy in content.

What I’d like you to remember here is that relevancy, clarity, and accuracy of content work together to build your audiences’ trust in your content.

Here are other blog posts in this series:

Other blog posts in this series:

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