Right person, right content, right time

Two-and-a-half models to help you get the right content to the right person at the right time.
A pattern of dotted lines that looks a bit like map topography

Planning content that gives your users what they need can feel complicated. Between different audiences, channels, formats and stakeholders there’s a lot of moving parts. So I wanted to go back to basics in this post and share two-and-a-half simple models to help you get the right content to the right person at the right time. The models are:

  • Push and pull (this is the half model)
  • User decision journey
  • Firework, spark, campfire

They help because they give you a structure for a well-rounded content plan. By well-rounded, I mean one that will help you balance the different kinds of content you’re creating and be more user-centric. Together, they’ll increase the likelihood that you reach the right person with the right content at the right time.

Push and pull

I’ll start with push and pull, which I count as half a model because it’s so simple. The idea — which I first heard from Sarah Richards — is that content moves in two directions:

  • Push content is content that the brand pushes out to the user. They might pay attention, or they might not. They don’t have to make any effort to find it, but you’re interrupting them with it, so it needs to be appealing and worth their attention.
  • Pull content is content that the user pulls to them. They actively seek it out, by searching or going direct. This content has to meet their needs or they’ll look elsewhere.
Push: brand pushes content out to the user, e.g. advertising, paid media
Pull: user pulls content from the brand e.g. searching, subscribing
The image shows a person pushing a box to illustrate push content like ads and paid media, and a person pulling a box to illustrate pull content like searching and subscribing.

You need both these kinds of content, so it makes sense to consider whether you have the right balance of push and pull as you’re doing your planning. Knowing whether you’re pushing or the user is pulling can also help you choose the right channel and format. For example, if you know users want ‘how to’ content, it’s likely this will work better as pull content optimised for search, than it would as push content like paid media.

User decision journey

The second model is the user decision journey. This model is about having a realistic view of the steps your audience go through in their interaction with your brand. It’s also about consigning the ‘funnel’ to history.

‘What’s wrong with the funnel?’, you might be wondering. Well, the funnel treats your users sausage meat rather than human beings. It’s brand-centric rather than user-centric. It doesn’t acknowledge that people don’t take a linear path to purchase. It stops at purchase and ignores the rest of the user journey. In short, it’s not helping you plan better content.

A funnel with three levels: awareness, consideration, conversion

Instead, you should be using something like this model, based on McKinsey’s customer decision journey:

The image shows a cycle diagram, with the following stages: aware, consider, evaluate, buy, bond, advocate. There’s a line from ‘advocate’ back to ‘aware’.

The key difference between this and the funnel are:

  • It does a better job of reflecting that your users are likely to be looking at other brands or products alongside yours and will be ‘pulling’ content to help them make a comparison and decision, as well as seeing whatever you’re ‘pushing’.
  • It introduces the ‘loyalty loop’ — the idea that if you create a great customer experience, they will come back for more, without returning to the start of the cycle next time. They may advocate for your brand too, creating awareness among new customers.

The user decision journey gives you a more nuanced understanding of what users are doing. This means you can plan more useful and targeted content. For example, looking at the experience someone has right after they buy a product might mean you introduce troubleshooting content to tackle common problems. (Credit to my former employers at Brilliant Noise for introducing me to this model.)

Firework, spark, campfire

The final model describes the different cadences of content you can use to reach your audience and need to consider in your planning. The three cadences are:

  1. Firework: one-off content with a big impact in term of attention, but for a short period, e.g. campaigns, launches, ‘tent pole’ moments, hero content. This content can be expensive to produce. It requires a lot of amplification and paid media to make it successful.
  2. Spark: content published on a daily or weekly basis to give a fresh, seasonal, or relevant perspective. It has a short life-span, e.g. seasonal promotions, reactive content, curated content, news. This content is inexpensive to produce. It may need some amplification and paid media behind it.
  3. Campfire: slow burn content that’s always relevant to your audience and has a long life-span (if you keep feeding it, it could last forever). It’s also known as evergreen content, e.g. how tos, product info, advice and education. This content takes time to do well — it requires UX-thinking and careful design. It will repay the investment over time, because it should generate sustained interest for years.
The image shows a chart, one axis is attention, the other is time. ‘Firework’ is high on the attention axis, but occupies a short timespan. ‘Sparks’ are in the middle of the attention axis, and occur regularly throughout across the time axis. Campfire is low on the attention axis, but spreads consistently across the whole time axis.

Many brands focus on just one of these, but you need a mix of all three if you want to meet customer needs. Your users and their needs should lead the ratio, but in my experience, most brands are under investing in campfire content. It’s not the most exciting ‘shiny’ stuff, but hugely important. For example, I used to work at an energy price comparison site. When I joined, some of the top-performing page in terms of conversion were content pages that had been on the site for about a decade. I checked, and they’re still on the site now — they’ve evolved over the years, but they’re essentially the same. The secret to their longevity? They respond to customer needs and are genuinely useful.

Bringing the models together

You can use any of these models on their own, but the real value comes when you use them together. When you combine them, you get a decision-making tool that can help guide your planning.

The images shows how the three models fit together. ‘Aware’ overlaps with ‘push’ and ‘firework’. Consider with push, spark and firework. Evaluate with pull and campfire. Buy, bond and advocate with with push, pull, spark and campfire.

In the example above, if you were setting out to create content to help your customer evaluate your offering against a competitor, you’d know that you’d need to create campfire content that the user could pull — giving you a good sign that content optimised for search would be your best bet.

It can help you work out where your gaps are too. If you plot your content on the map, you can spot misdirected efforts, or where you’re not doing enough at the moment.

You can also add your channels and platforms to the model to help ensure they’re used consistently. For example if your metrics show your emails have a strong sales conversion rate, you’d want to make sure you use them as much as possible for push ‘buy’ content, but also that you’re encouraging people to sign up to your mailing list in the ‘consider’ stages with regular push ‘spark’ content.

In conclusion….

If you want to reach the right person with the right content at the right time:

  • Know when to push content out and when to provide content for users to pull
  • Get a clear picture of your users’ journey from awareness right through to advocacy
  • Find the right balance of firework, spark and campfire content
  • Bring this all together and use it to guide your content planning

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