For content-driven sites, answer questions, don’t try to grab attention

Jennifer Hamrick
Wednesday 4 November 2020

Content creators often get stuck thinking too much about what the organisation wants to say rather than what their users want to know.

In Paul Boag’s article How To Iterate Your Way To A Winning Content-Driven Website, he argues that the emphasis needs to switch for ‘content-driven websites’. The primary aim of content-driven websites is to convey information, rather than complete tasks. This is true of the majority of the University of St Andrews’ website: we aim to provide objective information rather than trying to persuade our audience or sell anything.

Screenshot of the accommodation section of the University of St Andrews website. It shows the main call to action is to read more about halls of residence.
On the accommodation web pages, calls to action encourage users to find out more information, rather than getting them to apply.

For content-driven sites, Boag says,

“These sites typically start from the wrong premise. We begin by asking ourselves, ‘What do we want to say?’ rather than ‘What does the user want to know?’ This mentality originates from creating content for other channels. Channels where it is necessary to grab a person’s attention and hold it for as long as possible, but when designing websites the premise is different. People have chosen to visit the site and so have already, to some degree, expressed an interest. The emphasis is then on answering their questions to their satisfaction rather than grabbing their attention.”

I come across this attitude a lot in my work. I’ll hear things like, “While we have the user on this page, let’s add information about blah-de-blah to encourage them to read more about that topic too.” They won’t. People have limited time and energy when reading online. No one comes to a site (especially a University site) for a ‘fun read’. They don’t want to sit down and read our website front to back like a book. They come to our website because they are task-driven and are trying to find a specific piece of information – to get their question answered.

If we continue to think along the lines of ‘What do we want to say?’, we risk frustrating our users who will have to read more content without actually getting the information they came for in the first place. Read more about why to avoid marketese on the web.

As Boag says, there are appropriate channels for grabbing people’s attention or persuading them to do something. These channels may be digital (like social media or blogs) or they could be in person (events, talks, seminars, etc). The University needs to put its creative, persuasive, attention-grabbing energy into these channels and keep the website as a place to quickly and easily find information.

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