Gaining Attention with User-Centered Design


Recently, I presented at the NCMPR (National Council for Marketing & Public Relations) national conference, which was held in St Louis. NCMPR is a professional organization supporting marketing and PR pros at 2-year colleges. My talk was focused on gaining attention by implementing a user-centric design approach, and for this group, that translated to deeply understanding audiences—particularly website users at colleges and universities. What a great crowd! Aside from the thoughtful conversation, it’s always nice to see a couple hundred conference attendees exploring your city.

After the presentation, NCMPR asked me to repackage the presentation as an article for their July member magazine. I can’t seem to find a PDF online but here are the key takeaways:

Eight Truths: Gain Attention With User-Centric Design

While getting noticed can be challenging in today’s over-communicated world, you CAN break through by implementing a user-centric design approach. This isn’t about drop shadows or gradients, it’s about getting to know yourself and understanding the wants and needs of your audience. As an agency that helps clients develop meaningful connections with their audiences, Almanac spends a lot of time thinking about the user experience. Over time, we’ve come to a set of “truths” that is relevant not only to digital communication for colleges and universities as described below, but also applies to marketing efforts for all brands.

  1. Understand Yourself – Your brand is more than your logo. It’s your approach to challenges and opportunities. It’s what you stand for, and it lives in the hearts and minds of your audience. Start by developing brand positioning, key messages and a strong visual identity. You can’t understand your audience if you don’t know yourself.
  2. Understand Your Audience – Your target can’t be everyone, so you’re going to have to prioritize. Make a list of all of your audiences, prioritize the top two to three and then speak directly to them. (Hint: If you’re in academia, number one should be prospective students.) Conduct a survey of prospective students—what do they need from you, what they’re worried about? Hold a series of focus groups to help further identify their needs. Develop a persona for each of the target audiences you’ve outlined. Include a photo, name, age, occupation and any other details about them. Make a list of their questions and concerns. Make these personas as real as possible.
  3. Answer Questions With Content – Now that you know what’s keeping your audience up at night, it’s time to address their concerns.
    • Develop a decision map – Map out each stage of the application process, from newly aware to admitted. Now, refer to your personas and make a list of the questions your user has at each stage and how you plan to answer them. Maybe you’ll use a video, a testimonial or a call from an admissions counselor. For instance, your user may be newly aware of your college and wondering, “Will there be people like me?” Your answer could be to show them a testimonial video from another student.
    • Develop a content plan – Once you know all the content needs, you’ll need a central place to document everything. Your content plan should detail the content you have, the content you need to create and who will be responsible for doing so.
  4.  Fail Early – Before you go down a long, arduous path toward what could be the wrong solution, you’ll want to test your assumptions. Develop sketches, create wireframes, make a prototype and test with users.
  5. Focus – Again, it’s not about what you want to say, it’s about what your users need. For instance, keep copy short and succinct and link to the deep read. Data shows that users want their information delivered in bite-sized chunks – infographics, images with captions, callouts, etc. Build on your key messages. Your website should be marketing-focused, not a data dump.
  6. Make it Sticky – Think about that millennial mindset. Users aren’t going to hang around unless you give them a reason to stay. Use authentic stories – good stories are out there. Talk to faculty, students and people in other departments. Get everyone in the habit of gathering stories on a regular basis. Your audience wants to be involved, so find ways to help them contribute, and they’ll carry your message for you.
  7. Measure – Make sure you set realistic goals so you can measure your progress. A goal of increased admissions or visits to the school is too broad and involves many factors beyond the control of marketing. Make your goal something like: to increase the number of people who fill out the request information form on the website or who watch your video on Twitter. Use tools like Google Analytics or A/B testing to measure results.
  8. Don’t Stop! – This one is the hardest. Just get it out there. Iterate. Refine. You’ll never have the perfect strategy but test your ideas, learn from your mistakes and make corrections. Perfection is the enemy of good.

This isn’t a template but a starting point. While there’s no foolproof way to gain attention, putting your users at the center as the core of your marketing efforts will change your mindset and just might start a new kind of conversation.