Find the benefits behind the outcomes

Developing effective content is difficult.

It’s easy to think up content we want to create — organizations are never short on things they want to tell people. And, if you never stop to study the effect of the content you produce, creating content can be relatively straightforward.

But we rarely have a method for measuring success when it comes to content.

A lazy formula

Years ago, I was planning a website redesign for a client, and a senior staff member said she thought the website should ask visitors how the organization can help them and then describe how they help people.

At the time, it seemed reasonable. It’s a formula you see everywhere on the web: Ask the visitor what they need and then tell them what you do. Simple.

But most websites rarely get visitors to behave in any way that remotely contributes to business goals. A big contributor to that failure is this formula where the company makes the laziest possible acknowledgment of the visitor and then quickly moves on to talk about what they do.

You’ve met that person at the party, and you built a bonfire for their business card when you got home.

We ask how we can help because we don’t know, and that does nothing to bolster confidence or build trust with our website visitors.

Asking people how you can help them is a good way to signal that you don’t really understand them. They’ve come to your website to solve a problem, and you’ve answered with a question. They’re looking for a guide, and you’ve asked them to help you guide them.

Organizations ask visitors “how they can help” because they haven’t studied their audience. Sure, they have skilled employees who know customers, but they’re not tapping into that knowledge. And translating employee knowledge into public-facing content is a skill — people aren’t born with it.

To skip the question, “how can we help you?”, you have to assert that you know something about your audience. You have to be specific, and that makes leaders incredibly uncomfortable. They don’t want to exclude anyone, so they wind up speaking vaguely to everyone.

By shrinking from our duty to guide visitors, we undermine trust and invite visitors to question the expertise of the people within the company right out of the gate.

We say what we “do” because talking about outcomes is uncomfortable.

After we ask the visitor how we can help them — as if they’re walking up to a fast food counter — we jump right into talking about what we do. We’re eager to talk about features rather than benefits.

It’s a lot easier to say, “We shovel snow”, than it is to talk about how you give senior citizens the confidence to get out and spend time with loved ones during the winter.

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, the most valuable aspect of your work is expressed in social and emotional outcomes. Even if you’re “increasing revenue through research-driven design” — the goal of making more money is never an end in itself.

To communicate real benefits, you have to tell a story.

Stories have structure, they’re emotional, and they assert a point of view. And a story that really connects with the reader is one that can, at least at times, adopt the reader’s point of view.

That means you have to use the customer’s vocabulary to gain their trust. You have to get inside the customer’s head, and you can’t do that without having real conversations with real people. Because so often the things people value most about our work is something else entirely.

Now go look at your website.

Open your home page, visit a key service or sales page, or read a recent newsletter campaign.

Are you talking about what you do or the outcomes of what you do? Where does the content come from? Is it from the point of view of employees or is it written in the voice of your customer?

Now, hit reply and tell me what one thing you would most like to change about what you see. And send me a link to the page. I’ll recommend a few first steps to making the content customer-focused.

Thanks for reading,


PS. I’m no saint. I still catch myself taking shortcuts sometimes because I’m still part human. I get tired, I get distracted … But it’s better to launch something flawed because perfection never arrives.

Which is why I launched a new home page for Super Helpful this week. I’ve developed the content based on conversations with real people. I’ve taken a point of view, I’ve tried to focus on benefits instead of features … And I’ve tested it along the way. Take a look. I’d love to hear what you think.

Kyle Bowen