The biggest mistake in content management is writing for the organization and not for the reader. It is one of the hardest mistakes to correct, but there are ways to ensure that you don't make it.For millions of years, humans trusted only themselves and the small group or family around them. The 'fight or flight' instinct dictated that you either ran from or killed a stranger. It is the most natural thing in the world to distrust the stranger, and it is a very modern idea to trust them. (The book, The Company of Strangers, is well worth reading if you're interested in this area.)
If it requires a lot of effort from us to trust strangers, it requires even more effort for us to think from the point of view of the stranger. And that is exactly what we are required to do when we sit down to create content. Because the fundamental purpose of content is that someone else will read it and act on it.
Think about it this way. Our readers have five million years of genetic programming that says to trust nobody else but themselves and the small groups they belong to. They have ten thousand years that tells them it can make sense to trust and think about the needs of strangers. We are the strangers in their eyes. If we want them to trust us we have to be at least directly addressing their needs.
Trust is a huge factor on the Web today. The Web is a truly extraordinary place, but it is also filled with every scam artist on earth. A friend told me a story of booking his family into a hotel that had a picture of a beach nearby. The picture had been manipulated. People are increasingly cynical and skeptical when they are on the Web.
One of the best ways to get people to trust you is to directly address their needs. And one of the best ways to do that is to create a fictional character that represents that person. This is a classic technique of writing. John Steinbeck, for example, had an idealized reader that he wrote for, as did many other authors.
In design, the concept of the persona is popular today, and respected design thinkers such as Donald Norman and Jared Spool have voiced their support for this technique. A persona is just a new name for the fictional character. On the Web I like to call this person the reader.
Of course, this approach is nothing new in business. According to USA Today, major American retailer, Best Buy, is revamping "its stores according to the types of customers they serve, a strategy it calls customer centricity." Each of Best Buy's 600-plus stores will focus on one or two of the five following
1) "Jill," a busy suburban mom;
2) "Buzz," a focused, active younger male;
3) "Ray," a family man who likes his technology practical;
4) "BB4B" (short for Best Buy for Business), a small employer; and
5) "Barry," an affluent professional male who's likely to drop
tens of thousands of dollars on a home theater system.
Creating fictional characters allows you to have empathy for your readers, and that is a critical step in having reader-centric content.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.