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Who Am I Writing for, and, Incidentally, Who Am I?

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You can't hold a conversation with a faceless cloud of people, a generalized audience such as "beginners" or "experts." You won't get your point across. You will lose them one by one. Jonathan and Lisa Price help you get to know the audience of one.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Get to Know the Audience of One

The very concept of an audience is stained with the word's original meaning—a large group of people listening to a speaker. The traditional audience was a mass. Before the Web, we tended to think of our audience as a rather vaguely defined crowd or, perhaps, as a collection of several groups, each of which had a different interest in our subject matter. A single speech, book, or document would address all these groups, we hoped.

On the Web, though, the mass audience is crumbling. In its place, small groups are emerging, forming around common interests, aims, jobs, politics, hobbies, or obsessions. And within these groups, we see individuals arising, demanding that we deliver information specifically tailored to their personal taste. We are moving from a writing situation in which one author addressed a single vast audience to a process in which many individuals exchange information with each other, aided by some people who do more writing than others.

Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.
—John Steinbeck

The mass audience was always just a convenient fantasy, allowing us to ignore the complexity of groups with competing aims, and within those groups, individuals, each with a unique perspective. We had no way of knowing each person we were writing to back then, and we had little useful information about the groups they might be segmented into by marketers intent on persuading them to buy. We were forced to guess what people needed, and we often imagined that the audience was a lot like us and our teammates. As a result, we often failed to connect with people in a meaningful way.

You can't hold a conversation with a faceless cloud of people, a generalized audience such as "beginners" or "experts." You won't get your point across. You will lose them one by one.

The more you know about your visitors, the better you can write for them

When you actually know a lot about the people you are writing for, you can tailor your site to their needs. For example, you can:

  • Come up with more of the topics they want.

  • Organize those topics the way these people think.

  • Use words that they use.

  • Adopt a tone they find congenial.

  • Tailor your words to the relationship you have developed with them.

    I know I am solid and sound,
    To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
    All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
    —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

In these ways, you allow your visitors to influence the way you write. In a real conversation, you are always aware of the way the other person is reacting—where they nod, when they lunge forward hoping to interrupt, and so on. You adapt your words and tone to indicate how you regard the other person, what you want, where you are going. But when you do not have the full bandwidth of direct human contact, you have to guess what the other people think of you, how you are going to relate to them, what they want to hear, and what you want to say to them.

The more sensitive you are to online conversation and its nuances, the more you can eliminate the odd quirks, biases, and focal points in your prose, so it begins to seem transparent to the readers, that is, you do not rub them the wrong way with your own personal agenda. In part, you are erasing your own originality, but you're doing this for a reason: to make contact, to make sense, to convince, to reach out to this other person. How sociable!

Do you really know your audience? We write for ourselves, for our boss, for our team. Oh, and incidentally, we may draw on the little we know about our audience, too, but that doesn't take us very far. So we soon forget it.

In hundreds of meetings, we have heard clients, bosses, and peers announce that the target audience is, well, beginners, oh, and some experts, too. Enough said. On to the next agenda item.

In situations like that, writers tend to write for each other or the team, rather than the actual consumers of the information. Result: consumers find the prose impenetrable, and gripe about the frightening amount of jargon, the unfriendly tone, and the confusing way the material is organized.

Info consumers are not you. To psyche out what topics really matter to your many different audiences and to develop a tone that works for individual members of that crowd, you need to learn more about them as members of particular niche groups, and, more important, as unique individuals.

Information consumers are pushy

Armed with information, access, and power, today's customers can dictate new practices and policies faster than your firm is likely to be able to implement them.
—Patricia Seybold, Ronni Marshak, and Jeffrey Lewis, The Customer Revolution

On the Web, most consumers of information demand content fast. They may be surfing to amuse themselves, to learn something, to buy, or to participate in some community; but no matter what their aim, they have seen that some sites care who they are, allowing them access to all the information the organization has, while also personalizing the topics, tone, format, and transactions. These uppity consumers are impatient, self-absorbed, and a bit confused, but if you give them the content and service they want, they will return over and over, becoming loyal fans and customers. Here are a few of the things these consumers demand of your text:

"Don't waste my time."
No more lengthy explanations. Clear away those introductions, transitions, summaries. Get to the point.

"Remember me."
Like Hamlet's father, I want to be remembered when I arrive at your site. But recognition goes beyond greeting me by name. I want to see topics I care about, like on my personal version of the Wall Street Journal, Interactive Edition. I want to have my pages look and sound like the design I chose for My Page. I want your text to sound as if you share my concerns, goals, and obsessions.

"Let me answer my own question."
Embed answers right in the forms I have to fill out. If I have to go to the Help or FAQ, organize it the way I think. Provide all the answers, not just the part that marketing folks feel comfortable with. Give me a way to run a diagnostic on my own problem, so I can troubleshoot it myself. Admit all problems, and send me to a discussion board where other consumers have come up with solutions.

"Exceed my expectations."
The road to delight leads past satisfactory performance. When you give me more than I expect, I'm pleased. If you go beyond the standard a few more times, I am yours.

"Talk to me in real time."
If I've just put a product in the shopping cart, don't act like you don't know. Drop the pitch for that product. Add stuff about add-ons. Just as I expect used links to change color, I expect your system to know where I have been and what pages I have looked at, adjusting the text to reflect that.

"Let me customize the content."
I like some content, and I want to see that first. Let me choose what shows up at the top of my own page. Let me opt in for e-mail about topics, products, services, and controversies I am interested in right now, and when I change my mind, let me unsubscribe from e-mail hell.

"I want to feel special."
I've been to your site so often I feel like I know you. I've read much of your material and I have debated with you, either in my head, or in e-mail. I expect you to recognize that I am a repeat reader.

A good designer and a good writer have to share certain characteristics, among the most important being empathy.
—Donald Norman, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles

Purpose seizes us, binds us rather than being deliberately crafted by us.
—Robert Weber, The Created Self

With all these impulses, each consumer envisions a different text. At the least, each small group of consumers demands that you pay attention to them, reflecting their interests in your organization, attitude, and style.

Figure out who you are really talking to

When you ask your boss or client who actually consumes your text, you often get a lot of waving of hands without much detail. Maybe you hear a few numbers that research developed six months ago, some shorthand guidelines issued by a committee reviewing the latest design, and some slogans from the latest marketing campaign. But you rarely hear much about individuals, and because your job is to develop and carry on a conversation with these people, your prose can easily take on the all-purpose smarmy charm of an airline clerk announcing another delay. The more you know individuals in your audience, the better you can write for them.

To find out about real individuals, you may be able to examine a consumer's profile, which may be a dossier that the site should build as the consumer navigates, ponders, buys, sends e-mail, phones in, faxes a question, visits a kiosk, clicks in from a handheld. Ideally, your organization should have a single collection point for all information about each consumer.

Develop a deep understanding of how your customers do their jobs.
—Patricia Seybold and Ronni Marshak,

Unfortunately, many organizations have no idea who consumes their text. Manufacturers of packaged goods, for instance, haven't a clue who most of their customers are because they tend to act as if the big buyers at the department stores and grocery chains are their "real customers." The only real consumers they are aware of are the ones who complained or sued. Companies that sell big-ticket items gather a lot of financial information about each customer, but sometimes that gets spread across several departments, so there is no one file you can open, to review the facts about a particular individual.

If your site has any profiles for consumers, absorb them. But if those profiles are skimpy, or so mired in transactional information that you cannot envision the person behind the sales, you may need to do your own research to find out who is really consuming your text.

First, volunteer:

  • Answer the phone in technical and customer support.

  • Respond to e-mails sent to technical and customer support.

  • Schmooze with consumers at trade shows, conventions, user group meetings.

Then watch:

  • Watch through the one-way mirror as the facilitators lead demographically representative consumers through questions created by the marketing group. (See if you can add a few questions of your own).

  • Hover around the usability lab. Watch how people get in trouble using your site. (Caution: this experience can be embarrassing if your text happens to be on-screen).

Next, read:

  • Competitive analysis to see what the competition is creating for whom, and why.

  • Marketing and sales numbers to see what the trends are.

  • Marketing materials and plans to see how the organization is positioning itself, and for whom.

  • Product documentation to see what tasks the writers imagine people are doing, what concepts need explaining, and what context people are assumed to be using the product in.

  • Annual reports—the biggest marketing documents of all—to see how upper management is trying to position the company in front of shareholders and analysts.

  • Every news story about your organization to figure out who the reporter thinks your audience is.

Then schmooze: Talk with anyone who has met, corresponded with, sold to, mollified, or hung up on a consumer, including:

  • Sales reps and sales engineers

  • Marketing people

  • Researchers

  • Trainers

  • Technical writers

  • Phone support and field-support personnel

  • Consultants

  • People in your partner organizations

  • Anyone who hires or manages the actual consumers

    In between setting out and coming back, they continually shifted their goals, their preferences, and even their rules without hesitation. Shopping was in many ways a process of discovering or creating underlying preferences rather than acting in accordance with them.
    —John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information

Finally, when you have a good mental picture of whoever is visiting the site, go out and meet the consumers to see what they are really like. Pick a dozen consumers who matter—ones whose good will and loyalty guarantee the site's survival. Not partners. Not influential stakeholders, like investors, ad guys, designers, engineers. Real consumers of your text. Try to get to talk to them at length, in person, so you can watch their reactions. But as Hackos and Redish (1998) suggest, you must ask a lot of questions.

Ask about work:

  • What's your official job title?

  • What kind of content do you really use on the job?

  • What tasks do you have to accomplish using that content?

  • Where did you learn to do your job? (School, training, on the job training, stand-up classes, Web courses, gossip, whatever).

  • Where does work come from, when it arrives on your desk, and where does it go after you get through with it? (Workflow)

  • What is an average day like? A crunch day?

  • How much leeway do you have to decide what you do when?

  • Where do you turn for general news relating to your work, organization, or industry?

  • What kind of Internet connection do you have at work?

Probe motivation and free will:

  • What are your main goals at work? How do particular tasks relate to those goals?

  • Is it your idea to come to our site, or are you required to do so?

  • Do you feel you have the power to affect the culture of your workplace?

  • Are you regularly involved in decisions that revolve around our kind of content?

  • What do you most like to do when exploring our site?

  • Do you feel eager to learn new information that relates to your tasks, your job, your organization, or your industry?

  • What are the consequences if you do not find the information you need on our site?

Focus on tasks at work:

  • What are the main tasks you do on the job?

  • What are the little tasks within the big ones? (Hierarchy.)

  • In what sequence do you usually do all these tasks?

  • Which ones do you do by yourself? With other people?

  • How long have you done each of these tasks?

  • How did you learn to do each task?

  • How have the tasks changed over the years?

  • Which tasks currently involve using our site?

  • What tools do you use to perform those tasks?

  • How comfortable are you with those tools?

  • Which of your tools do you like most, dislike, and why?

  • What problems come up when you are working on a task?

  • How do you generally solve the problems?

  • How do you describe the process of analyzing and solving one of these problems?

  • How well does our content match what you need to complete the task?

  • What is missing?

  • What other sites do you use in performing your tasks?

    Is there agreement throughout the organization about who your end customers are and what matters to them?
    — Patricia Seybold, Ronni Marshak, and Jeffrey Lewis, The Customer Revolution

Ask about home, if appropriate:

  • What are your aims in life?

  • What do you do for fun?

  • How much time do you spend on the Internet at home? TV? Radio?

  • What kind of hobbies do you have?

  • What kind of neighborhood do you live in?

  • What kind of Internet connection do you have at home?

  • How close are you with your family? Friends?

  • What languages do you speak at home? Read? How familiar are you with languages other than the one you consider your primary language?

  • What is your highest level of education, and how do you think that affects what you do now?

Ask about mental models:

  • How would you describe the content we provide?

  • How should it be organized?

  • What terms do you use for the key concepts?

  • Which pieces of content are the most important for you?

  • What other content do you need, for your job?

  • Is that something we can help you with?

  • What topics are associated with other topics?

  • Do you learn better from a diagram or from text?

  • If you want to learn, do you turn to another person, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books?

Explore personal differences:

  • How do you prefer to learn new material? (For instance, trial and error, asking others, formal training, reading ahead of time, self-paced interactive training, online courses).

  • What special needs do you have?

  • Are you color blind?

  • Do you have difficulty reading small type, or making small movements with your hands?

  • How do you feel when you have to change the way you do your job?

  • When do you prefer working together with a team, or by yourself?

  • How do you describe your gender? Your age?

    Segments are the passive targets of marketing initiatives. They don't try things out, ask questions, negotiate price and terms, make adjustments, substitute spending for one item by sacrificing another, or complain and seek refunds.
    —Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Enterprise One to One

Explore group identities and affiliations:

  • How would you describe your organization's culture to an outsider?

  • What are the aspects you like most or least?

  • What groups do you belong to, formally or informally?

  • What volunteer organizations do you occasionally work for?

  • What ethnic and racial cultures do you identify with, and how do you describe those? How would you describe my own ethnic and racial background?

  • Do you have a preference for a certain way of organizing information, or carrying out tasks, based on the way you were raised in another country?

  • How would you describe your socio-economic status? Mine?

  • Do you belong to any trade association, professional group, or union?

Obviously, you can't impose on someone for a whole day asking a thousand questions like these. But some responses are more important for you than others. Concentrate on those issues.

Pay people for their time; give them cups, t-shirts, products, attention, and, yes, money. For you, their answers are gold.

Online, people resent having to fill out a lengthy registration form just to visit a site or look at a particular page. If you are going to invite people to give you information to create an electronic profile, add to it incrementally.

  1. At first ask only for the bare minimum needed for a transaction. Make sure that the visitor can see a single substantial benefit from giving the information and then make sure that you deliver. They are investing their time. You must give them an immediate return on that investment. Feedback delayed fails to ingrain any habit.

  2. Log each visit by IP address, browser, date, and time, in the profile.

  3. Record any downloads along with the e-mail address needed for that.

  4. Keep asking for feedback, and each time they offer some, ask a few more questions.

    Do you have a customer-focused culture?
    — Patricia Seybold, Ronni Marshak, and Jeffrey Lewis, The Customer Revolution

Encourage people to look at their profiles on your site. Let them see their entire transaction history, and all the information they have provided you over all their visits. Let them modify their profiles. You'll be surprised how many more fields they fill in once they get started. As soon as a consumer enters updates, display those right away—not the next day. Convince your consumers you are listening:

  • Never ask for the information the consumer has already given you.

  • Supply names, addresses, preferences, without being asked.

You can see that you need a lot of time to explore all these questions with an individual. But once you have met with a dozen consumers, and read a hundred profiles, you'll begin to have a very deep sense of the different kinds of people you may be writing for. How do you articulate this "sense" in practical terms?

See: Beyer and Holtzblatt (1997), Hackos (1995), Hackos and Redish (1998), Jonassen and Hagen (1999), Peppers and Rogers (1993, 1997), Price and Korman (1993), Schriver (1997), Seybold and Marshak (1998), Seybold, Marshak, and Lewis (2001).

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