By Sara Wachter-Boettcher published April 21, 2016

How Kindness Makes Your Content More Successful

Kindness-Content-More-Successful

In the late 1980s, Sam Farber stood in the kitchen making an apple tart with his wife Betsey. As he watched her peel the apples, he realized she was in pain – her arthritis flaring up with each stroke of her hand. So he decided to design a vegetable peeler that would be comfortable for people like Betsey.

That product turned into Oxo – the multimillion-dollar housewares company whose ergonomic, rubber-handled gadgets are loved by home cooks everywhere. Sam may not have realized it at the time, but it turns out that a kitchen gadget designed for people with special needs was actually more comfortable for nearly every user.

The same is true of our content.

Whether we’re writing to educate customers, increase newsletter sign-ups, or help people through a checkout process, we content practitioners spend lots of time imagining ideal users and planning new ways to delight them. But when we instead write specifically for people whose identities and situations aren’t average – for people who’ve just lost a job, who are dealing with a chronic illness, or who need to stay safe from a violent ex – we can actually create experiences that work better for everyone.

Kindness is a good strategy for your content – for your users and for your business.

Kindness is a good strategy for your #content – for your users & for your business says @sara_ann_marie Click To Tweet

Let’s look at why that is and how you can get started.

Edge cases as ‘stress cases’

Betsey’s struggle with the peeler is what many of us working on the web today would call an “edge case” – something that affects a few people at the fringes. After all, Betsey could still use the peeler. Why optimize for the minority? Sam didn’t see it that way. What he saw was that by putting special needs at the center of his product, he could reach more people than ever.

In my new book with Eric Meyer, Design for Real Life, we call situations like these “stress cases” – things that put your design and content up to the test of real life. The shift from thinking in terms of edge cases to thinking in terms of stress cases moves our brains from “this is safe to ignore” to “let’s see how sturdy my content really is” – and can make our content work for a much larger number of users.


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For example, let’s look at Facebook’s Year In Review, a feature where you can create an album of your highlights from the past year, using photos, status updates, and anything else you posted to build your story. When it first launched in December 2014, Facebook wanted to encourage users to create a Year In Review, so it automatically pre-filled an album and inserted it in your timeline, using the most popular photo you posted that year as a cover image, and surrounding it with festive illustrations and peppy copy.

If you clicked to share your Year In Review, Facebook’s pre-filled message for your friends said this:

I had a great year. Thanks for being a part of it!

Everything about the feature was celebratory. And it worked for a celebratory photo – of someone finishing a marathon, say, or blowing out birthday candles.

But not everyone had a great year.

Here’s the image my co-author Eric got when he logged into Facebook. In the center, surrounded by dancing partygoers and balloons, is a photo of his daughter Rebecca – who had died that year of aggressive brain cancer. She was 6.

Facebook-image

This surely wasn’t what Facebook intended. When put under the stress of real life, Facebook’s content just didn’t stand up.

In 2015 – after Eric’s blew up and after he talked with Facebook designers about their work – a new version of Year In Review was released. The difference is telling. Rather than presuming to insert users’ photos into a celebratory design, the 2015 image stood on its own and kept the copy neutral.

2015-Facebook-image

The default sharing text was different, too. Instead of making assumptions about a user’s feelings, it kept things simple:

Here’s my 2015 Year in Review. See yours at facebook.com/yearinreview.

Eric’s story isn’t average – it’s a worst-case scenario. But by designing with this extreme in mind, Facebook was able to strengthen its content for everyone: those experiencing grief, those who had lost a job, those whose home was destroyed by natural disaster, those who had had an accident or ended a relationship.

Most of us aren’t writing copy at Facebook, sure, but whatever kind of content you create, you can apply the lesson of this cautionary tale. Whether you’re drafting a blog post or designing a marketing piece, you do your best work when you’re compassionate toward your users, and when you think through ways that your good intentions could go wrong or your assumptions could backfire.

Do’s and don’ts for more compassionate content

Facebook learned its lesson the hard way. The rest of us don’t have to. If we follow a few do’s and don’ts, we can make our content more inclusive and compassionate:

  1. Do get to know your users – real users.
  2. Don’t get stuck on your ego.
  3. Do treat users with respect.
  4. Don’t force false categories.
  5. Do allow for complexity.
  6. Don’t overstep your bounds.

1. Do get to know your users – real users.

If you want your content to hold up under the stress of real life, the best place to start is by getting to know real users.

Surveys and focus groups might help you identify marketing segments or get feedback on a campaign, but they won’t help you understand your users as people – individuals with real challenges and needs. For that, I recommend open-ended, qualitative interviews.

Conducting qualitative interviews with users will help you write #content that resonates via @sara_ann_marie Click To Tweet

When interviewing users, I don’t ask people just what they think about a product’s features or the tasks they need to complete on a website. Instead, I want to learn about their lives: what their days look like, how they make decisions, and how they see the world. (For advice on getting started, see Kerry-Anne Gilowey’s Customer Interviews for Content Strategists.)

When I interview, one of my favorite prompts is ridiculously simple: “Tell me more about that.” Interviewees often assume you only want a quick answer, and they don’t want to waste your time. They’ll cut themselves off just as they get to the juiciest bits: their motivations, fears, frustrations, and anxieties. If you slow down and open the door for them, you’ll find that you’re much better equipped to write content that resonates.

  1. Don’t get stuck on your ego.

We all know that useful content has to serve our audience – and yet, it’s easy to get into company-speak without realizing it. When we do, we often end up sounding like this promotion I saw on wellsfargo.com:

Wellsfargo-promotion

See how both lines start with “we”? That tells me the writer wasn’t thinking much about the reader. As a result, the copy is vague and unhelpful.

Being vague and unhelpful is bad enough, but being self-absorbed can alienate readers. I learned this when I was the editor-in-chief of A List Apart, a magazine for people in the web industry. When I started, here’s what the content for potential authors looked like:

So you want to write for A List Apart Magazine.

What we’re looking for

We want to change the way our readers work, whether that means introducing a revolutionary CSS technique with dozens of potential applications, challenging the design community to ditch bad practices, or refuting common wisdom about, say, screen readers.

From that condescending “so” to demanding that writers “refute” ideas, everything about this copy asserts the magazine’s dominance – rather than making an author feel prepared. No wonder people told me A List Apart seemed “intimidating.”

The new copy drops all that posturing, and instead speaks straight to that reader who’s most uncertain – the one who’s feeling out of their league:

Write for Us

Yes, you. We’re always looking for new authors. If you’ve got an idea that will challenge our readers and move our industry forward, we want to hear about it. But you don’t need to wait for an idea that will redefine web design. Just aim to bring readers a fresh perspective on a topic that’s keeping you up at night.

“Yes, you.” It’s amazing what those two tiny words can do. After all, the confident authors will submit anyway. But by writing to the ones who felt most insecure, we made it easier for anyone to send their drafts.

If you want to ego-check your drafts, start by highlighting every use of “we” and “our” in one color, and every use of “you” or “your” in another. Now zoom out: what’s the balance look like? Who’s at the start of your sentences? It’ll be clear right away if you’re stuck on yourself.

  1. Do treat users with respect.

User-respect

When did blamey, shamey opt-outs become so common? Let’s be real: Messages like this are passive-aggressive, condescending, and gimmicky – and they’re not funny. Even if you manage to guilt a few people into clicking a button, you’re certainly not going to make them feel good about using your product. How’s that going to help your customer loyalty?

Be better than that jerk you dated back in the day – you know, the one who kept negging you until your self-esteem turned to dust. Read your copy out loud, and imagine someone you care about reading it while having a terrible day. Does it make them feel more capable of facing the world – or worse than ever?

  1. Don’t force false categories.

If you’re writing copy for a sign-up process, you might try to streamline the process by giving users a few predefined categories to get them started, as Pinterest does with its “topics”:

Streamline-process-Pinterest

This approach works when you’re asking people what they’re interested in. But it goes wrong when you force users to define themselves with a few predetermined categories. That’s what happens in the period-tracking app Glow:

Period-Tracking-App-Glow

If you happen to fit one of those three user types, this probably works great. But if you don’t – say if you’re infertile, not sexually active, or gay – you’re stuck. You are not concerned about pregnancy, you are not trying to conceive, and you are not having fertility treatments. The only way to progress is to select a choice that doesn’t represent you.

Compare that with the onboarding experience in the app Clue:

App-Clue

Here, the copy is simple and friendly – just like Glow clearly wanted to be. But by focusing the copy not on who you are but on what the app can help you do, Clue is more inclusive and welcoming, whatever your goals.

  1. Do allow for complexity.

This is a big do: Whenever you need users to express their identities, allow for nuance in their responses. For example, this race/ethnicity menu allows people to select only one item at a time – so, if you identify as more than one race, you can’t select the ones that apply. All you can do is choose the generic “multiracial” category – something that many people of color I know find infuriating – or opt out altogether by selecting “prefer not to say.” Either of those choices makes some people feel unrepresented, as if their identity doesn’t count. That’s alienating.

Allow-for-complexity

“But wait!” I can hear you say. “I’m a marketer – my job isn’t to decide form fields!” The truth is, as a communicator, you know that every word carries weight. You may be precisely the right person to advise on fields and labels.

In my experience, the more we treat form fields – what they request and the way they request it – as part of our jobs, the more compassionate and clear those forms will become (and the more likely our users will be to fill them out).

  1. Don’t overstep your bounds.

Last week, a friend of mine got a happy birthday email from her OB/GYN. She said it was the weirdest part of her day – a creepy intrusion. Does the email bother every woman who receives it? Probably not. But that’s the thing about boundaries: everyone’s are different. This means that personalization is always a risk. It’s up to us as empathetic marketers to be thoughtful when we take that risk.

Just because we can personalize content doesn’t mean we should. Before you personalize a message, ask, “Does this content feel natural within the context of our relationship with this user?” If you’re not sure, the answer is probably “no” for at least some of your users – and you run the risk of seeming creepy.

Let’s get real

Marketers must create content that helps their brands stand out. But when we prioritize pithy jokes or snarky language over our users’ realities, we end up leaving out more people than we may realize.

Some companies known for having a distinctive voice, like MailChimp, have taken a step back. Here’s what MailChimp’s communications director, Kate Kiefer Lee, told me:

Over the years we’ve moved to a much more neutral voice … We focus on clarity over cleverness and personality. We are not in an industry that is associated with crisis, but we don’t know what our readers and customers are going through. And our readers and customers are people. They could be in an emergency and they still have to use the Internet.

.@MailChimp has moved to a neutral voice focusing on clarity over cleverness & personality says @katekiefer Click To Tweet

It’s easy to be kind to people when they’re standing in front of you and you know what they’re going through. It’s harder to bring that same kindness to people you can’t see – to all those faceless users who might, someday, be reading your content. The more we bring real life into our processes and mindsets, the closer we’ll get.

Want to get real with your content marketing strategy skills? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI’s chief strategy officer, Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via pixabay.com

Author: Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (pronounced Wahkter-Bettcher) is a content strategy consultant, author, and editor living in lovely Philadelphia. She is the co-author of Design for Real Life and the author of Content Everywhere. Her company provides strategic consulting, training, and workshops. Learn more at www.sarawb.com and follow her on Twitter at @sara_ann_marie.

Other posts by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

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  • Katy Wright

    Thank you for this blog and for reminding us how easy it can be to stop seeing the people we’re writing for as fellow humans who are just fumbling through life and all it throws at us, when we’re looking at them from the perspective of our computer screens. My special interest is in how we can use the philosophy of yoga to inform the ways in which we work and run businesses. Your blog is a perfect example of how we can exercise the principle of ahimsa (non violence in thought, word and deed). Again, thank you.

    • Sara Wachter-Boettcher

      Hi Katy,

      What a great connection—I love applying the idea of ahimsa here. In the book, Eric and I talk a lot about the concept of compassion, which I think is very similar. And yes, it’s so easy to get disconnected from the idea of readers or customers as “fellow humans fumbling through life”—but that’s all any of us are!

  • Cristina Habersetzer

    In Glow’s defense, this is an app for avoiding pregnancy or trying to conceive, so if you’re infertile, not sexually active or gay and not trying to have a child (note, gay women can want and have babies too), then this app is not for you. Not every product is for every person. Now, I do agree with you, considering all the types of people who DO use your product–even those on the fringe, like gay women going through IVF–is excellent advice. I think Glow does a great job of that.

    • Sara Wachter-Boettcher

      Hi Cristina – have you tried to use the app? I have, and it was extremely unhelpful and assumptive about who I was and what I wanted to do, even though I do fit its profile of “avoiding pregnancy.” (We talk about this more in the book, but it does a lot of things that assume feelings, and that are also weirdly shamey to users). But it looks they’ve just recently split off “Eve by Glow” as a period tracker. However…Eve has some of the same issues. It’s suport focused on sexual activity (lots of banana icons to indicate sexy time, for example), which might be really alienating if all you want to do is track your mood. Overall, my point still stands: ask people what they want to DO, rather than force them into narrowly defined categories of identity, and you’ll overall have a stronger, kinder product.

  • ronellsmith

    SWB,

    You are writing some of the most important content on the web. For that, I—we all—thank you. It’s too easy to forget that our words, images, etc., carry weight, have value beyond simply helping is hawk our wares. The people who would use our products or services lead real lives and have concerns we’d do well to consider.

    I keep saying “Empathy is more than a buzzword,” and it’s true. The more/better we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of others, the better able we are at serving that.

    To my mind, that requires a “this-isn’t-about-me” mindset, one where we put other first even as we hope they come back to us in the future for what we’re offering. The value of such an approach, as you so awesomely outline above, is that if we don’t adopt such a mindset, these same people won’t consider us at all.

    Thanks for being such an amazing beacon of light for the content community.

    • Sara Wachter-Boettcher

      ***Readers: Please note that I do not pay Ronell to say nice things about me.***

      (But I probably should.)

      Thank you, as always, for being so supportive! It means so much.

      • ronellsmith

        Whatever! I’m simply ecstatic that you’re making us all think of things in ways we often don’t. And by dong so, we’re all better for it. Even marketers 🙂

      • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com Lisa Dougherty

        Hilarious. 🙂

  • Laura S

    You make a lot of great points in this post. It becomes tricky balancing powerful/memorable content, with content that is relatable and applicable to any reader. My concern is that we are making our copy less “interesting” when we write it with a broad voice. Sometimes it can be good to overstep the boundaries a bit, although risky. Do you have any examples of creative content, in your opinion, that pushes the limits, makes those assumptions and challenges the user, but does it in a way that works?

  • https://twitter.com/KovalenkoVolo Volodymyr Kovalenko

    Point #3 is absolutely brilliant! I see such passive-aggressive messages quite often (especially, on pop ups). First, I thought that maybe it motivates users to click. But if you think about it, such CTAs are not funny at all. It may be even rude..
    Thanks for this point, Sara

  • http://Martin.Lindeskog.name Martin Lindeskog

    You shouldn’t “get stuck on your ego,” but you should understand your true self, i.e, your ego, otherwise you can’t act kind in a rational way.

  • Paula Okeefe

    Well, you have so many wonderful ideas under kindness, thanks for the tips. You are a creative writer.