Planning for Content Delivery, Consumption and Context

Student outdoors with laptop

Plan for the context in which content is consumed.

In Monday’s post, Georgy talked about transmedia storytelling in higher ed—using multiple content delivery methods to support your institution’s story. This topic opens the door to a discussion on how you plan for content delivery and consumption that are contextually relevant for your audiences. With all the content delivery methods at our disposal, how do we know what content is most effective for the message, content type and target audience?

Content consumption is now an integral part of our daily lives. We consume content via email, web search, RSS feeds—including blogs. We follow tweets on Twitter, updates on Facebook, video on YouTube, product descriptions on Amazon. We use smartphones to read location-sensitive reviews on Yelp and Fandango, recommendations by friends on Foursquare, as well as news alerts and texts. And, of course, there are newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs, billboards and so on.

Content is made relevant by the context in which it is perceived.

All of this content is made relevant by the context in which it is perceived. I don’t read food blogs, but if I’m out with friends and looking for a spot with good guacamole, a local restaurant review is exactly what I need on my smartphone. When I research topics online, I prefer text over interactive content as it’s easier to search and save, but when I’m with friends or browsing with my Sunday morning coffee, interactive content can be more entertaining.

How can higher education institutions take advantage of different content delivery methods to improve content relevance for their audiences?

Evaluating Content Delivery

Content delivery is the way in which we make content available to our audience. Our aim is to publish content using delivery methods that increase relevance by enhancing usability and usefulness. But how do we plan for the context in which content is consumed? How do the content delivery methods themselves affect the context?

One area where the topic of delivery is particularly pertinent is mobile content. The shift from consuming content on desktop computers to anywhere challenges publishers to plan for more diverse content consumption scenarios. It’s not enough to consider what our users want, we must also plan for how, where, and when they want it.

A content strategy helps determine appropriate delivery methods to target audiences with useful, usable and contextually relevant content. To deliver our content effectively we need to answer some tough questions.

How are people consuming our content?

We have to break our traditional publishing mindset and imagine the new ways people find and consume our content.

"In today’s new digital landscape both consumers and businesses are reading (and publishing) for different reasons, in a completely different manner, because of the different mediums," says Ian Alexander of Eat Media. Indeed, we have to break our traditional publishing mindset and imagine the new ways people find and consume our content.

Do people use a desktop or laptop computer? Do they use an iPad or iPhone? Do they use RSS, Google Alerts, Twitter, Facebook? How about Instapaper, Svpply or Readability?

What content of ours are people consuming?

Are people viewing event photos or admissions-process information? Are they following tweets or reading articles in the library database?

To understand what content is useful and valuable, you can evaluate what content is consumed and sought. In addition to analyzing existing content, also analyze non-existing content. What are people searching for on your website but not finding? This insight is incredibly valuable for content planning.

Where and when are people consuming our content?

Are users consuming your content in their house, in Starbucks, in a car? Are they consuming content during the morning, afternoon or weekend?

Video content is increasingly popular, but if your audience is consuming content during the day from the library or their office, they may not be able to watch videos without disrupting people around them. Conversely, if your audience is consuming content with friends during the evening or weekend from their dorm room or apartment, video may be more engaging and shareable.

Why are people consuming our content?

If you don’t establish your users’ intent for consuming content, then you won’t be able to effectively meet their needs.

"Why?" is the cornerstone question for any content strategy. The answers inform what content is needed to be useful and relevant.

Are people looking for directions? Are they trying to register for classes? Are they trying to find faculty members’ email addresses? Are they looking for the dining hall hours? Are they looking for employment benefits information?

If you don’t establish your users’ intent for consuming content, then you won’t be able to effectively meet their needs.

Who are the people consuming your content?

Once you understand the how, what, where, when and why, you can start to answer who?

For content delivery planning, creating personas is a valuable exercise. Understanding your different audiences allows you to imagine real-life examples of how people interact with your content.

To learn about creating user personas, check out:

Making a Plan

You’ve done your research. You know your students prefer printable outlines for process information and dynamic content—photos, videos, Facebook discussions—for student-life information. You know faculty and staff consume content during the workday on their desktop computers and want easy access to the events calendar, holiday schedule and Blackboard. Incorporate these insights into your content plan, keeping your eye on context.

Understanding context is the key to effective content delivery. A good post by Daniel Eizans discusses establishing elements of personal situational context to understand when and where people consume content. This process allows you to plan for contextually relevant content by playing out user scenarios.

Planning for content delivery will be increasingly challenging as new applications and mobile devices expand delivery methods. This may appear daunting, but it provides tremendous opportunities for making existing content more useful and relevant for our audiences. I’m excited by the potential. How about you?

What content delivery methods—new or old—offer promise at your institution?

Photo by Ed Yourdon / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Rick:

    Great stuff here. I think what makes context and delivery such a troublesome thing is that no matter how much research and testing we might do, Web users will consistently shock us with how they use and perceive what they’re given. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve tried to narrow content in the perfect manner for a device or target, only then have a user miss the intent entirely or give me a whole new set of parameters to consider.

    I think the key to delivering our content is to not make too many assumptions about how our users will interact with it based on the medium they use. For me, the key to content strategy lies in the true marriage of a user’s situation (their reason for seeking out our content in the first place) and their behaviors.

    What we really need to avoid is the I need [INSERT DEVICE HERE] Web Site mentality. I don’t believe specific sites are the answer at the end of the day, because every user will use the device differently as well. I believe we’re moving into an era where smart/flexible content templates with the option to always get the rich site experience will be the norm. My hope is that if/when we start moving in that direction we’ll avoid the assumption method of web design/content delivery.

    All too often, I’m seeing publishers assume that having a great mobile experience means only delivering a quick scan, a phone number, hours of operation, etc. Fact of the matter is, especially in emerging countries like Africa, mobile is the primary browser and technology for accessing the Web and those users are still craving rich experiences. I won’t even get into how a 16-year-old consumes data in an entirely different way than a 35-year-old.

    Glad to see you’re looking forward with eyes wide open to all the crazy possibilities. Also, thanks for the nod in the post. Terrific stuff.

    • Daniel:

      Thank you for adding to the post and for the positive feedback!

      Good point about the unpredictable nature of context and delivery. Personas and user research are not absolute (just like analytics data!). We need to have a plan and focus our efforts, but also anticipate change and new user intent. It’s this challenge that motivates me. We must always be testing. I think that’s a good thing.

      Perhaps the greatest risk of personas and imagining user scenarios is filling the information gaps with assumptions. This is dangerous because assumptions can become institutionalized and used as facts. Indeed, "smart/flexible content" is needed to safeguard against this.

      True, conventional wisdom does suggest mobile devices can’t be used for in depth web experiences. Although common, not all mobile web users are looking for quick info. Mobile content has much more to offer. And that will only increase with time.

      You’re welcome for the link. Your post—and the related series on Context in Content Strategy—is great. I look forward to chatting more at Content Strategy Forum 2011.

What do you think?