Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your golden hair!

Rapunzel is a well-known Grimm’s fairy tale that features a beautiful young woman named Rapunzel, who happens to have ridiculously long, blond hair. Rapunzel lives locked in a tower in the middle of the woods. The tower has a single room with a single window, and it has neither a door nor stairs.

Where am I going with all of this, you ask?  Well, I’ve noticed over the years that there is a trend in content development that is what I call the ivory tower syndrome. I know, I’m kind of mixing metaphors here, but bear with me. According to wordsmith.org, an ivory tower is “A place or state of privileged seclusion, disconnected from practical matters and harsh realities of life.”

The ivory tower syndrome in content development is the tendency of organizations to create content without first figuring out the needs of the person who is going to be consuming the information.

It happens all the time. And it has happened for as many years as I’ve been in the content creation world (no, you are not allowed to ask how many years). Time and time again, we create content from within our hallowed corporate towers, without first figuring out who the audience is and the purpose of the information we are creating for them.

If we don’t clearly define the characteristics of the content consumer first, there is simply no way we can be sure that the content we spend countless hours working on is going to be useful. It amazes me when I actually have to argue this point with customers. For some reason, companies tend to think they automagically know their users and what those users need to do their jobs. This happens with content created for internal consumption and content intended for people outside the company. The result is an awful lot of expensive content that either misses the point, is written at a level the user cannot understand, or contains all kinds of insignificant factoids that are what I call “cocktail party fodder.”

So, before you start, be sure that you are very clear on these things:

Who is your content consumer?

  • How much background knowledge do they have on your topic?
  • Exactly what do you expect them to know before consuming your content?
  • Where did they get that background information?
  • What is your consumer’s reading level? It is lower than you think (trust me). 

From your content consumer’s point of view, what is the purpose of your content?

  • Accomplish a task
  • Make a buying decision
  • Make some other type of decision
  • Develop a context for accomplishing a task or making a decision

How will your content be consumed?

  • Via the internet
  • Via a cellular network
  • Using a computer
  • Using a smartphone
  • Using a tablet
  • Using a feature phone
  • Reading from paper in the middle of the desert

How will you gauge the success of your content?

  • Sell more widgets
  • Field fewer support questions
  • Save more lives

Once you have this information, you can then begin planning your content. If you are missing any of these answers, you run a great risk of:

  • Creating the wrong content
  • Inadvertently leaving out critical information
  • Providing meaningless information
  • Wasting your consumer’s time
  • Creating inaccessible content
  • Providing incomprehensible information

All of these things, and more, happen when we create content within an ivory tower.

Sadly, most companies won’t provide the funds or the time to do proper audience discovery before writing projects begin. It’s almost as if they are drinking their own Kool-Aid, thinking that they “already know” what their customers need, without ever asking them. How often have we seen products fail because companies went ahead and shipped something  that no one wanted? Well, content projects fail even more frequently.

So, what’s a content creator to do? Well, even if you cannot get funding and time to create a full suite of personas, there are still things you can do to get a closer idea of what your content consumer needs.

Talk to people at your company. I know, people at your company are living in the same tower as you, but they still have interesting information that you can gather. For example, ask the product manager questions about what the customer will do with the product. Ask the marketing manager about who they are marketing to, what assumptions they are making (hopefully, they will have an answer). Ask the engineering manager basic questions about the kind of information the user of the product is expected to understand before using the product. Ask the same question to the support organizations. By the way, this works equally well for services.

Go out online and look at your competition. Who else has a similar product or service? What type of information do they provide? Can you get any information about their intended content consumer? 

Check user groups and other community boards. Find out if customers are actually getting the content they need in the forms they need it from your company and from your competitors. You can also ask your support organization if there are complaints or compliments about similar content.

Most of all, do not be afraid to ask the question, “Why?” So often, I have asked “why” and the response has been, “Gee, I don’t know.” If you get a gee-I-don’t-know response, this is a loud danger signal that you might be embarking on a content creation fantasy trip.


Val Swisher
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