Know Your Context

Christine Anameier

We all know that you can’t create effective content without understanding your audience. But audience isn’t just about who—it’s also about when and why. (There’s also how, but that’s another blog post.) In other words, you need to understand the context for your content.

An example from the technical writing world

Before becoming a content strategist, I spent several years writing end-user support documentation, where your content decisions are determined by one inescapable fact: You’re writing for people who are trying to complete a task—and most likely failing. And they are cranky.

Nobody picks up the manual until they’ve exhausted every other avenue, including trial-and-error and asking their coworker. By that point, they’re usually irked and running out of time. So tech writers learn to adopt a spare, no-nonsense style. If you’re writing user manuals, on-screen instructions, or other types of technical communication ...

  • Get right to the point. Skip the “Welcome to the WidgetCo Widgetmeister user manual, 3rd edition” happy talk. Don’t expect users to read anything about how to use the manual.
  • Don’t try to be funny. Nobody is laughing when they’re frustrated.
  • Be task-oriented. Users aren’t reading your content for fun. Understand what they’re trying to do, and help them do it.

How does this apply to other types of content?

Support content may be an especially clear example, but when and why are crucial for other kinds of content too.

Let’s say you’re a plumber and you create a website about your services. Your audience could be almost anyone—we can assume they own or manage property, but other than that, everything’s an unknown. So you write your content in the most clear and simple language you can, knowing that some of your audience may not be native speakers. You steer away from making assumptions about how much they know. All good, so far …

But consider the scenarios in which they use your site:

(Click table to enlarge)

These two scenarios are almost like two audiences: They may be the same people, but they differ in the type (and depth) of content needed and their level of patience with extraneous content.

Your plumbing content priorities will be determined by use context. Most likely, you’ll settle on a content strategy that provides (in this order of priority):

  1. Quick, easy-to-use, simple information for customers having plumbing emergencies. These users will probably account for the majority of visits to your site.
  2. Helpful plumbing-related content that educates your customers and boosts your credibility. Who will see it? Maybe past customers who return to learn more after the emergency has passed. Maybe prospective customers who think they may see clues of a plumbing issue, or want to locate trustworthy service providers in case of a future problem.

Identifying use of context

Unless your content is pure entertainment, chances are your audience uses it for something. You can set—or adjust—your content priorities by asking yourself and your stakeholders these questions:

Who uses our content? Identify your primary and secondary audiences.

What do they use our content for?

  • Spell out specific scenarios
  • Distinguish goals (big-picture objectives) from tasks (mini-objectives leading toward goals)
  • Determine the relative frequency of these scenarios (for example, on a manufacturer’s website: researching or buying a product, 99%; looking for a job, 1%)

How are they likely to feel about their task or goal?

  • If your audience uses your content to deal with personal issues like health or finances, think about their frame of mind. Anxious? Careful? Fearful? Optimistic?
  • Think about what stage of a lifecycle your content addresses. For example, a veterinarian may want light-hearted content for “Introducing a new pet to your home,” but an entirely different tone for “Facing the loss of your pet.” Same audience, but different context.

Understand your audience—not just who they are, but what they’re doing and how they feel. By knowing the why and when, you can get one big step closer to delivering the right content at the right time.