Creating Online Content for Your Customers: Accuracy

The better part of valor might be discretion. (Western society certainly has been debating that since the 17th century.) But I am here to tell you that the better part of quality content is an accuracy check. That’s because inaccuracies in your content can derail your customers’ trust in you, your content, and – by association – your business.

The folks at Content Science note in a recent blog post that “people who perceive content as accurate are five times as likely to report completing their goals as people who do not and are twice as likely to report completing their goals as people who are not sure of the accuracy.”

Remember, one of your goals for your online customers might be to guide them toward purchasing something from you. And if you are a small to medium-sized business, your customers might check out everything from your marketing brochure to your product instructions. So it behooves you to present the most accurate online content possible.

A set of five questions that you can use to check the accuracy of your online content. Questions are the same as the headings in this article.

In my last blog post, I distinguished between clarity and accuracy in online content by defining accuracy as “how close the content comes to a customer’s actual experience.” Your objective is to “help them achieve their goals – be successful – without leading them astray.”

I recommend that you complete the following five checks of accuracy before you publish customer-facing – or even internal-facing – content to an online site. (See also accompanying expanded checklist, which you can download for free.)

Is it Factually Correct?

Above all else, check your facts. Facts in your content include anything from a leader’s name to a product release date. They are those details that – if you got them wrong – could embarrass you and your organization or maybe even mislead your customers or jeopardize your business.

Not long ago, I decided to include a bibliography in an article I wrote for a professional magazine. To my horror, I discovered that in that bibliography, I had misspelled the name of one of my profession’s gurus. Luckily, I caught the error during a final proofread of the article, and the error was corrected before press time.

Proofreading your content, using at least one of the techniques that I have mentioned in a previous blog post, can help you check its factual accuracy. Pay attention to those details, especially mentions of other people. Paraphrasing Satchel Paige here, remember to check even the facts you “know” to be true.

“It’s not what you don’t know that will hurt you. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.”

Satchel Paige

Sometimes reviewing your content for accuracy can or should involve a second person.

Ask your second reader to underline or highlight the parts of your content that cause them to say, “Is that really true?” Then take a critical look at those parts. Is the problem with the facts themselves or the way that you have stated them? Revise accordingly.

Unless your content is highly technical, your second reader doesn’t have to be overly familiar with your topic. They just need to be willing to read your piece with a critic’s eye. However, technical accuracy is the bread and butter of technical communication.

The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing (from MIT) reminds us that “technical accuracy depends on the writer’s conceptual mastery of the subject and its vocabulary, as well as on his or her ability to analyze and shape data with a minimum of distortion (emphasis is mine).”

To ensure technical accuracy, a technical expert should check that your process and product descriptions and technical instructions reflect an “accurate representation of the subject,” as Mayfield says. That means that a technical review, preferably early in your content development cycle, should precede publication.

By the way, that technical expert should also check any accompanying media, even if you have to share that media with them separately from the text. I once had to pause the publication of a technical piece I was editing because the writer had included a photo of the previous version of the product, which had significantly changed.

Is it Current?

My experience with that photo brings me to another point. To maintain content credibility, ensure that the facts, quotations, and media you record in your content are current.

The one constant in life is change. So before you click “publish” on a new or revised piece, check all of the numbers, notations (including links), and names. Here are some checks to consider:

  • We live in the era of mergers and acquisitions. If you mention another business’s name, check that the name hasn’t changed recently due to a change in ownership.

  • We also live in the era of identity consciousness. If you mention a person’s name, check that they haven’t changed it recently.

  • Product hardware evolves – both internally and externally. Ensure that any parts list or references to parts are current. And, as I mentioned, ensure that photos or illustrations of hardware, including individual parts and part configurations, are up to date. The same goes for data or instructions you provide about the hardware’s environment: ensure they are still relevant.
        Corollary:  People’s appearances change over time, too. (Imagine that!) So, as grace allows, keep those head shots up to date.

  • Organizations reorganize their websites. If you provide a link to another online source – whether through an absolute URL or a relative URL – ensure that the path has not changed. Click ‘em and check ‘em!  

  • Statistics always have a context. If you are leveraging statistics in your content, ensure that you explain the circumstances under which they were collected – and provide the quarter or month and year in which they were collected.

Speaking of dates, I recommend that you provide a date on your content – at least in your internal repository. That helps your content maintenance schedule, especially if you can program your repository to flag content that is more than a year out of date.

And here is a pet peeve: If your online content provides advice or a review (I am looking at you, fellow bloggers), provide a date next to your byline. If I am doing research online, I want to know whether your review of the latest project management app is three months or three years old.

Also, if you share my habit (which I recommend, obviously) of positioning your content relative to another’s content, ensure that your buddy’s content hasn’t changed significantly. No sense in drawing parallels or distinctions where none exist anymore.

Is it Fair?

Speaking of references to others’ work, let’s make sure that we’re being as fair as we can. That goes double if we borrow content (including photos) from another.

If you reproduce the work of an outside source inside of your own work – even if only in summary form – then you should:

  • Correctly contextualize the borrowed content
  • Provide proper attribution

Correctly contextualizing another’s content depends on the completeness of your own effort:

  • Provide an introduction that includes relevant details about the original work.
  • As much as possible, preserve the intent and focus of the original.
  • If you are quoting or summarizing another’s work, demonstrate the original’s relevance to the point you are making – that is, show its conceptual position relative to your own.

Your introduction – those relevant details I mention above – should include proper attribution of the original, especially if your reference to it is a quotation or summary. Attribution in content writing refers to crediting the original author or artist whose work you are leveraging. So include the original’s full title and, if possible, the author’s name. (Some corporate content doesn’t list authors’ names.) If the content has a version number or date, give that, too. As a courtesy, and when possible, provide a link to the original.

Ensure you have the right to use the media and are using it under the permitted circumstances; then be sure to credit the source and the artist.

If you are using media from a third party, be sure above all that you have the right to use it. I won’t go into copyright law here, except to urge caution. If you have the right to use the media and are using it under the permitted circumstances, be sure the credit the source and the artist. This advice applies even if you use a free photo or illustration from a service like UnSplash.

Note that you should always include attribution of your borrowed media in alternative text. Alternative text is the verbal description you write – typically into an “alt” field – so that audiences who use online readers or who cannot download large media files can understand the media without hearing or seeing it.

Being respectful of others is what you are going for here. That includes all of your audiences. Don’t talk down to them or ascribe to them characteristics or beliefs that might not be true or inclusive. Don’t assume.

Finally, a word here about using marketing-like claims in your writing:  Be respectful of others’ time and have data available for verification. Please don’t label a piece of content as a “white paper” if its primary purpose is to sell a specific (named) product or service from your organization. That’s a brochure, not a white paper.

A white paper, in contrast, typically outlines a problem and highlights the strengths and features of a particular type of solution – the kind of solution that might be available from multiple organizations. (And yes, that solution can be a category of products or services you offer.) To add strength to a true white paper, be sure to include data and other facts to support your content’s assertions and make your original sources available to your audience, if possible.

Does it Meet Expectations?

Backing up your assertions is one of the best ways to deliver on your audiences’ expectations. But of course, your best bet is to know those expectations in the first place. You can only know if you’ve hit your accuracy target if you know what to aim at.

I have written about understanding your content’s audience in a couple of previous blog posts – about writing for scannability and about creating audience profiles. I will add here a recommendation that you understand your audience’s tolerance for format and length.

Provide the right amount of detail, the right diction, style, and format, and the right visual and linked resources that the audience needs to achieve their goal (not just your goal).

Recently, I tried reading a report on my phone while waiting for a dentist appointment. The report (a PDF) was filled with interesting statistics and examples. But I just couldn’t read it on my phone because it was formatted into two columns. Not what I expected from a “report.” After scrolling across and down and losing my place a couple of times, I gave up.

I feel like I missed out and was disappointed. Don’t do that to your readers. Ensure that your content is available in a format that is friendly to whatever device your audience might view it on.

Meeting your audiences’ expectations means meeting them where they are. As I have said in other posts, meeting an audience’s needs means providing the right amount of detail, the right diction, style, and format, and the right visual and linked resources that the audience needs to achieve their goal (not just your goal).

How does the length of the content figure in all of that? After some reflection, I admit that content creators should consider the length of their online content – because their audiences will. Find your audiences’ tolerance level for the number of words on a page and in specific types of content, and strive to meet it.

When I worked on a high-tech product portal, my team found that our services technicians preferred two types of content: 

  • Short online content with quick, to-the-point solution information and links to related content if they needed it
  • Longer, manual-type content that they could download in PDF form and read at leisure

I suspect that the technicians continued to ask for those PDF manuals partly because they associated those lengthy manuals with needed detail. So we continued to offer both types of content until we found ways to “wean” our service audience off of those long PDFs and offer better access to online content.

If you have a situation like this one, don’t neglect to state the goals of your content project upfront so that your audience understands the boundaries you have set. Just ensure that you have thoroughly researched your audience’s needs and have clearly stated the purpose of each type of content in your plan.

Delivering on a clearly stated purpose – especially when that purpose is contained in a title or heading – is a goal we bloggers must embrace, too.

Have You Tested It?

Delivering accurate, factually correct content requires additional steps when you are writing instructions or creating a new marketing piece.

Instructions should be tested. If you are being paid to produce technical or instructional content, following best practices for usability is a good start. If you have access to representatives of your intended audience, testing usability is even better.  

Whole books have been written about usability testing of content. Suffice to say here that such testing – whether in the field, in a laboratory, or through a survey – must be carefully planned, well implemented, and carefully evaluated.

If you are a blogger and include instructions in your post, consider grabbing some friends and relatives to try them out first. You’d be surprised at how often you discover missed steps or have to revise language for clarity.

Any writer can use A/B testing to test titles and headings, artwork (such as cover art), tone of voice, and other aspects of their work.

Testing marketing content – especially new marketing campaigns – can involve steps similar to usability testing. Many marketing consultants offer their clients formal methods to test variations of proposed campaigns and messages.

Plenty of advice abounds, too, for small business owners interested in digital marketing. The most used method is A/B testing. For this method, you create two versions of your campaign or message, put both in front of a representative audience, and then let them choose which they prefer.

But A/B testing doesn’t have to be limited to marketing content. Any writer can use A/B testing to test titles and headings, artwork (such as cover art), tone of voice, and other aspects of their work.

As a final set of tests, ensure that all included links are active and all embedded media, especially videos, load properly. A pre-publication version of your content or a staging version of your online environment is a perfect place to test these items.

Final Thoughts and a Checklist

Despite all that I have shared in this blog post, checking the accuracy of your online content isn’t difficult. But it does take time and diligence.

To assist you, I have created a helpful, free downloadable checklist based on this post (below). The list is not exhaustive, but it should get you started with your accuracy checks. Note that I often go through a piece of content more than once before I publish it. That enables me to focus on different accuracy checks with each pass.

Here are other posts in the blog series:

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