“Life is a bunch of decisions,” my mother has said more than once. After many years of making decisions large and small, good and bad, I realize how right she is. Think about how many small decisions you make each day, from what to eat for breakfast to what to wear to what to post on Twitter to the myriads of decisions you make at work. Add to that major life decisions from who to date to where to send your kids to school to how to complete your taxes to whether to get your MBA to whether to start your own business to how to best save for retirement.
If you’re tired of deciding, you aren’t the only one. Most of us are, as this article from The New York Times explains well. What does this have to do with your content? A lot.
More and more, people turn to digital content for help with decisions. One of the best ways to help your users or customers decide is to articulate a valid and sound argument (or a set of valid and sound arguments). At its very simplest, an argument is
Your argument is valid when your logic is correct, or avoids fallacies. Your argument is sound when all of your evidence is true. For a hilarious deconstruction of unsound arguments about Muslims and the U.S. government, look no further than this clip from Stephen Colbert. To geek out on arguments, I recommend this course.
Let’s look more closely at why arguments fill gaps left by two common content approaches—providing information and asserting messages.
Information is a bunch of evidence. It’s not assembled into meaningful conclusions that are relevant to your users or customers. Back to our chocolate theme, if you listed a bunch of facts about chocolate, I’d still face much mental work to decide whether that means chocolate is healthy or whether I should eat it. You have listed facts and given me no “so what.” Like many people, I’m smart enough to figure it out eventually, but I don’t have much time or mental energy leftover to do so.
This lack of “so what” is a problem for everything from digital marketing to digital products. Take tracking your personal health data, for example. Tom Chang notes in his recent TechCrunch article about self-tracking applications that people don’t want to study the numbers.
MOST PEOPLE WOULD RATHER BE TOLD WHAT THE BIG TAKEAWAYS ARE, WHAT THEY REALLY NEED TO WORRY ABOUT AND WHAT EXACTLY TO DO NEXT.
THIS KIND OF “SO WHAT?” IS ULTIMATELY MORE VALUABLE IN THE EYES OF THE CONSUMER. (ANECDOTALLY, I’VE SEEN ENTERPRISES PAY 10 TIMES MORE FOR BUSINESS INSIGHT REPORTS AND CONSULTATIONS THAN FOR SELF-SERVICE ANALYTICS TOOLS)
Decision-weary people are willing to pay for help with decisions. Information by itself doesn’t help people make decisions. Neither does a key message alone.
A key message, often in the form of an ad, slogan, or tagline, has the opposite problem of information. It emphasizes the “so what” (or the claim) with little evidence and warrant. A message also can make connotations without having to justify them. For example, in the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper suggests to a tobacco company that instead of claiming their cigarettes are healthy and fabricating evidence, they should adopt the tagline, “It’s toasted!” Saying cigarettes are toasted implies they’re like other healthy toasted things such as cereal or bread. A message with no grounding in valid, sound arguments can be quite misleading and even dangerous.
There are times and places where communicating only a key message is appropriate. A billboard has limited space, and a television advertisement has only a few seconds. A catchy message, such as milk does a body good, can be a helpful reminder. But, the age of blasting a message repeatedly without backing it up is over. (Update: Seth Godin just noted a true slogan is better than a catchy one here.) On tablets, for example, extended ads with rich content such as video and slidewhows perform better than shallow banner ads. Sooner or later, users or customers will expect you to elaborate on your message. I’d bet on sooner.
In short, if you need an advantage in your digital product, marketing, or communication, consider whether you need a well-formed argument (or two or three). Valid, sound arguments bring together a claim (or message) and evidence to help your users decide. When you reliably help decision-weary people make good decisions quickly, you will stand out from the heap of information and baseless messages.
What does the need for arguments mean for content, design, and architecture? I’ll answer that question in my next essay.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in August 2012.
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