Do yourself a favor–get to know your consumer!

Your biggest ally in creating clear communications is your consumer. Do yourself a favor. Get to know her. She has a lot of thoughts about you she hasn’t shared—secret joys about what you do for her and more than a few gripes about what you could be doing better. If you’re a healthcare product, the number of thoughts she has about you is higher than it is for most products. Healthcare decisions are high risk, after all (and potentially high reward). She might be making a healthcare decision for her child or spouse, for whom she takes even greater care. When it comes to communication of healthcare information, no amount of clarity is too much.

Yet companies are rarely clear when it comes to healthcare information. Healthcare is awash with jargon, complex terms, and confusing acronyms. Numerous laws and regulations define what healthcare companies can say to consumers and how they say it. However, it is possible to abide by the regulations and make it easier for your consumer to make decisions.

How do you do it?

When you draft your communication, define terms in advance. Make sure your content is simple and straightforward. Use visuals whenever possible. Parse out the information in small chunks. Use headlines and headers that clearly telegraph what follows. Provide a table of contents. But the most important strategy is to start and end with talking to your consumer.

Yes, we know Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell want to abolish qualitative research so that highly-paid creatives can have free reign to develop the next big disruptor product or Cannes Lion-winning ad campaign. But writing clear communications is different from developing new products and advertising. You do not want highly-paid creatives to have free reign when it comes to communicating information. Give them free reign when it comes to developing new products or new ways of persuading consumers to consider your products. But when you want to explain how your product works or help people choose which of your many products they should buy, you should maintain a sharp focus on clarity. And you can count on your consumers to help you do that.

There are lots of ways to get to find out what your consumers think about your products—stay on top of social media, talk to friends who use your products, and read your organization’s consumer helpline logs. But to create communications that smooth the way for consumers when they’re shopping your category, you need to find your consumers and talk to them in person at two specific points: before you design the flow of your communication, and again once a solid draft of the information exists.

It’s a good practice to be talking to your consumers regularly anyway. We have clients who make it a point to talk to 10–30 consumers every quarter—in groups, triads, or one-on-one discussions—to be able to spot changing attitudes and use patterns early and to get reactions to new product and advertising ideas before investing a lot of money. (Sorry, Seth and Malcolm. If someone showed consumers an iPhone a year before it was launched, they would not have taken the $25. Earthshaking is earthshaking.)

Depending on the kind of communication you’re creating, the people you talk to could be consumers of your product, consumers of your competitors’ products, or a mix. Make sure you dig a little deeper than just “consumers.” Look at groups within consumers that are important and likely to have differing points of view. A company we know that makes a calcium-based antacid has two target audiences—men who suffer from heartburn and women who take calcium to protect their bones. In addition to use cases, think about age, gender, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. Determine which groups are the most important to your product, and make sure you talk to more than a few consumers from each.

If you’re a healthcare product, you will have to work with your internal compliance group to ensure you’re following HIPAA requirements when reaching out to consumers. But consumers are allowed to forgo their HIPAA protections if they choose. And you will be shocked what healthcare information consumers do share—sometimes without even being asked—so be prepared.

The type of communication you’re creating has an impact on how you should structure your consumer discussions. If you’re designing a label or a user guide and the product is one people buy on-shelf, head to a local store (with the store manager’s permission) or create a full-size shelf set with all the category products in a conference room at your office or the focus group facility. Ask participants to describe their thought process as they “shop” the category. We know of a maker of a cold medicine who thought the first decision consumers made at shelf was whether they wanted to treat sinus congestion or a cold. Imagine how surprised they were when found out many consumers consider those two conditions to be the same thing. The consumers they talked to were more interested in finding out if they were going to be sleepy or not after they took the product. That information encouraged the company enlarge the “Non-drowsy formula” indicator on the package and revamp the layout of their website.

If you’re thinking of revamping your current website, bring in computers and watch as consumers navigate it. Listen to the assumptions they make about what information will be available and where it will be. Take note of what they like and the things that frustrate them. Then have them navigate a website of one of your competitors as comparison. You’ll hear things that surprise you and that may be painful to hear, but trust us, it’s better to know the worst before you begin the redesign.

Then do your work and bring those consumers back. They can be the same consumers if you’re allowed to re-contact the people in the original groups, or they can be new sets of consumers, just as long as they represent the same types of consumers you talked to at the start.

In the new round of discussions, you’ll be smarter about what you want to ask. And the feedback you get will please you more because it already reflects the feedback of other helpful consumers.

Learn from your consumers. They are an important part of getting your communications right.


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