Why audience-based content doesn’t (usually) work

Segmenting content on your intranet or website based on audiences confuses users. Here’s why.


Some years ago I worked with an educational website. It had links for “teachers” and “students.” It seemed very logical and reasonable until I started testing tasks.

I gave teachers a task to put together a classroom exercise. I expected them to click on “teachers,” but they kept clicking on “students.” Why? Because even though they were teachers, they were using the website from a task point of view. They were putting together a student exercise and clicked on “students.”

With audience-based navigation you’re not sure if the link is for the audience or about the audience.

Audience-based navigation works well when the audiences are totally separate, meaning they have different tasks. So, there might be logic to audience navigation on a council website for “business” and “citizens.” It might also work on a tax website for “individuals” and “business.”

I worked with one government website that had links such as “seniors,” “women,” “disabled” and “minorities.” What if I’m an older woman who is disabled and part of a minority group? I saw an agriculture website that had links “farmers,” “exporters,” and “researchers” as links. What if I’m a farmer who exports and want to do research?

Dell is a company that continues to feel like it has lost its way. There are many excellent aspects to the Dell website, but its core navigation is anti-customer.

When I go to the Dell website I want to buy a laptop. What I’m forced to do first is choose “For Home” or “For Small and Medium Business,” etc. I don’t want to do that. In tests, I have found that 90 percent of people don’t want to do that. It reduces trust. I think: “If I choose Home, will I get a worse price than if I choose Business?”

Why does Dell do this? Because that’s how it’s organized internally. It forces its internal organization structure onto its customers. In an age of the empowered customer, that doesn’t work well.

One of the most irritating things about audience-based websites is that you click down several levels reading bland marketing content only to reach, for example, a generic price list that is for everybody.

For example, when I click on the “schools” section of the Dell website, I get a load of generic content, including the following: “Dell is focused on a complete range of solutions that helps enterprise customers reach TCO and ROI goals.” What has that got to do with schools?

If you’re considering audience-based navigation, ask yourself these questions:

Are my audiences totally distinct and separate from each other?

Are their tasks completely different?

Do I have the budget and resources to build and maintain unique content for my audiences?

Gerry McGovern is the founder and CEO of Customer Carewords and New Thinking email newsletter. Contact Gerry at gerry@gerrymcgovern.com.

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