This is a project that is just too good not to share. Of course, client anonymity must be maintained in this situation. Here’s the scoop.

The client asked me to help them improve a large section of online content. I conducted an inventory and discovered:

  1. Most content is written at the 18th grade level; readers need a graduate degree to understand it
  2. Most content is presented as narrative with few subheads, bullets, or visuals
  3. Some pages have 1,500+ words
  4. The content does not present well on a mobile device

Their audience is varied with some being quite educated and others not so much. Some readers must read the content as part of their job. With other readers, the client seeks to build trust and positive reputation. Like this client, don’t you want to get your content read?

Reader capability and our goals

Nearly every corporate leader I’ve ever worked with overestimated the capability of his/her target reader. Leaders like to think their readers are at least as capable as they perceive themselves to be. In my experience – including testing with thousands of users across multiple industries and countries – this is not true. Education and technical expertise don’t necessarily translate to savvy and skill with online technologies.

For example, I’ve found that while physicians are highly educated and professionally capable, their use of online tools and ability to quickly consume online content is not great. Same goes for lawyers. I find engineers to be somewhat more capable. This largely has to do with an individual’s exposure and long-term use of technology. College kids with limited exposure and experience with technology tend not to be skilled users. I’ve seen this first-hand in college classes I’ve taught.

Sometimes people push back on content improvement efforts because they “don’t want to dumb-down the content.” But, what is our goal with online content? Let’s consider the drivers for publishing:

  1. To get people to behave/act in a certain way as a result of reading
  2. To meet a regulatory requirement or cultural expectation, whether content gets read or not
  3. Entertainment

The third is not one that surfaces much in internal communication, so we won’t spend time on it. The second one is something we are compelled to do, so let’s accept it and move on. The interesting one is the first. Whether we are encouraging engagement, productivity, collaboration, or other more specific behaviors, this is where it’s at.

If they don’t consume the content, we won’t get the desired response. Reading but failing to understand expectations, again, the desired response won’t occur. Misinterpreting intentions or expectations; well there you are again.

It was estimated that in 2017 we were exposed to 10,000 brand messages a day. Radicati estimates that by 2021 we’ll collectively be sending 320 billion emails every day. So, volume is an important issue. What can we do to ensure our readers can consume, understand and act upon our content?

Editing and teaching

This particular client project demanded multiple editing passes, as we often do when we tackle content improvement. We are looking for different things on each editing pass. For example:

  • Brevity: reduce volume by eliminating unnecessary words that do not add to value or context
  • Scanability: rewrite/edit so content is easier to scan using bullets, subheads and other scan-worthy techniques
  • Key messaging: ensure key messages are prioritized and easily consumed
  • Visuals: identify places where a visual communicates more effectively than narrative text
  • Duplication and conflict: correct unnecessary duplication and messaging conflicts
  • Missing messages: what needs to be added

In the process, I leave notes for content owner(s) to help them understand why I suggest the changes I do. I prefer to have a live conversation with the content owner, walking through the content together. If they don’t learn for the future, then the exercise isn’t as valuable. They need to improve their own writing/editing to deliver more ROI for the reader. Note that it’s hard to argue with the science of reading. I win the “use-only-one-space-after-a-period” argument every time.

Letting go

I often work with content owners with a lot of personal ownership for their words. This is true even for those not in a word profession. Lawyers, engineers, accountants, nurses, etc., can all have strong feelings about text they’ve created. I recommend talking with your client (internal or external) about their expectations for the content. Once they understand they really just want their content read, they will release ownership.

One thing that encourages letting go is strong, clear and transparent content strategy. Incorporating this into your digital governance ensures you won’t have a proliferation of poor content that doesn’t translate into desired responses. Guidelines are another important part of that governance; the guardrails content owners need to get it right. Governance and training are important parts of digital workplace success.

Get your education on!

Content strategy and improvement is one part of the governance workshop I’ll be teach next month at the IntraTeam Event in Copenhagen. I’ll also teach a session about linking your business strategy to your digital workplace strategy. I hope to see you there.