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Why Circular Thinking Works Better in Content Marketing

Let’s face it. Much of what we do in content marketing is based on assumptions.

Example: “People don’t open business emails on the weekend, so we must always schedule our emails for a weekday.”

If we sent emails on the weekend to our audiences and the data proved they didn’t open them, that’s one thing. But too often, we don’t have the data. We base our decisions on accepted truths – things we’ve heard other marketers claim at conferences, in coffee chats, and in online professional groups.

The danger? False assumptions can lead to negative outcomes.

What’s more dangerous? Using linear thinking to analyze the outcomes.

Megan Gilhooly, vice president of customer experience at Zoomin Software, discussed the danger of assumptions in her ContentTECH Summit keynote presentation, Create Windows to Your World of Content: A Personalized, Unified Digital Experience.

Linear vs. circular thinking

How do content marketers fall into the trap of linear thinking in decision making?

On the left are perspectives. Megan explains that perspectives come from where we grew up and where we currently live. They come from our beliefs, our values, and our biases. They’re how we view the world.

These perspectives feed into our assumptions – applying to life in general and to marketing decisions specifically. “Assumptions are things that we believe to be true, even if we don’t really have the evidence for it. They’re hypotheses that have not yet been tested, but we really believe that they’re true,” Megan says.

Assumptions are things we believe to be true even when we don’t have evidence, says @MeganGilhooly via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

When we perform linear thinking as illustrated above, the problem arises when outcomes are poor because we often just look at the previous step, when we look backward from a negative outcome only to consider the action.

“We look at whether we worked hard enough or did a good enough job with the action. But often when outcomes are not what we want them to be, it has less to do with the action and more to do with the assumption that we made that led to that action,” Megan says.

How do we fix this? By using circular thinking:

In this model, when we’re not satisfied with the outcome, Megan says, it’s important to feed the lessons learned back into the loop in the appropriate category. With insights affecting perspective, assumptions, and/or actions, better outcomes are more likely.

It’s important to use insights to change perspective, assumptions, or actions, says @MeganGilhooly via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

In the weekend-timed email example, we could update our perspective to say people have shifted their email reading habits as they work from home and stay home more frequently because of pandemic restrictions. The new assumption might be that the day of week is not as meaningful in scheduling emails to get more people to open them.

Let’s look at two examples Megan shared in her presentation – both detail how good intentions can lead to poor customer experiences.

Linear vs. circular example: Landing page

Let’s consider this landing page:

Linear thinking

Now, let’s go through each stage:

  • Perspective: Experience shows that the content is difficult to find.
  • Assumption: Channeling everyone to one resource page will allow users to more easily find the content they seek.
  • Action: We create a landing page with several content format options for visitors to choose from to take them to the content they seek.
  • Outcome: Visitors who have a question arrive at the page and must choose an option before they know what content type they need.

This action (e.g., the landing page) was performed with good intention. The outcome? Not so good. Users arrive at the page because they have a question but are presented with this:

If the users want to know how to turn blue monkeys to red, as Megan shared in her humorous analogy, they must ask:

  • Do I want specifications and white papers?
  • Do I want to be trained on this?
  • Do I simply want some knowledge about it?

Forcing the user to make this decision detracts from getting them the answer. As Megan explains, the user sees three tunnels. Once they enter one, they either have to continue to the end or back out to pick another tunnel. Though these tunnels probably converge at some point, the users have no way of knowing that.

Users have no idea what happens when you choose one and are more likely to abandon the page than to choose a tunnel.

Circular thinking

Instead, Megan says, here’s what we want to provide:

Yes, those are windows. We want to provide windows of content. “We want them to be able to look out and see all of the topics available out there. We want them to be able to look across our world of content and to know exactly what it is they need,” Megan says.

From what we just learned, Megan uses circular thinking to update the perspective and assumption that lead to the single landing page example:

  • New perspective: Users don’t want to make choices when the consequence is unknown.
  • New assumption: Users want answers to their questions no matter what the content type. Therefore, we need to create an easy way to view all content about a topic.

The new perspective leads to a new assumption, which then drives two new actions:

  • New action: Provide content journeys by user persona.

Though choosing a role might seem like another decision users are forced to make, it’s not. As Megan explains, users know who they are. They select their role and are one step closer to answering their question.

However, Megan warns, “This might not work if you have really complex personas. If you have very crisp, clear personas, however, this is a really good option for narrowing down that pool without forcing your customer to make a decision.”

  • New action: Provide a map.

Remember the tunnel problem? This map models a subway map – it shows the users where the tunnels connect. According to Megan, “Give them a map, so they know when and where they need to hop between lines. Let them see where they are in the tunnel. They now know where the openings are – to be able to jump to another tunnel or to go down a side path.”

Give users a #content map so they know when and where they need to hop between lines, says @MeganGilhooly via @CMIContent. #ContentTECH Share on X

With the single landing page fixed, let’s look at another example.

Linear vs. circular example: Search by silo

Linear thinking

Here’s the scenario:

  • Perspective: Data says users aren’t finding our content by using a search bar.
  • Assumption: Users don’t understand what section of the site they’re in.
  • Action: Clarify in the bar which content type(s) can be found.
  • Outcome: Customers continue to complain they can’t find answers. They must first know what content type they need then navigate to the right page to get an answer.

Remember Megan’s example of turning blue monkeys to red? Let’s say I learned about a training video on the topic and returned to the website to watch it. I land on a page, enter my query in the search bar and get “No results.”

The issue? I entered the query in the “Search in product documentation” bar.

It’s a poor visitor experience. “Now we are telling them, ‘You need to know what content type you need’ and we are also telling them, ‘You have to be able to navigate to the right page, to find the search bar that has the right answer,’” Megan explains.

Circular thinking

Here’s how Megan adjusts the model using circular thinking:

  • New perspective: People don’t care what type of content answers their question and they don’t want to waste time finding the right section of the site.
  • New assumption: Customers come to the site to find relevant content that might answer their questions or support their needs, and they want to find it quickly.

With that new perspective and assumption, we can:

  • Action: Implement a universal search bar (top circle seen below).
  • Action: Provide content paths for user personas along with a list of useful or frequently visited links. One of these links might answer the user’s question directly.

Are you ready to go circular?

Admit it: You’ve performed content marketing actions based on assumptions. And to make it worse, you used linear thinking, blaming a poor outcome only on the action. You never evaluated whether your assumption was correct.

Turn that line into a circle. Think less about the action and more about the perspective and assumption that led to the action. Feed the model by learning from the outcome and creating a new perspective and new assumption. Once you do, the new action will have a higher chance of success.

Think back to any negative outcome from your content marketing team this year. Can you apply lessons learned from the outcome to update your perspective and assumption? Chances are you can find a bunch of these. Define the new action, implement it, and see what happens.

Don’t like the result? Repeat the process. Best wishes and let us know how it goes.

Join us for keynotes, breakouts, and more to help your content marketing program and expand your professional skills at Content Marketing World Oct. 13 to 16. Sessions are accessible on demand through the end of 2020. Register today!

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute