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Know Your [Future] User: Applying Outside-In Thinking to Your Digital Strategy


By Ariel Bolles

“But what do we know about our users? Who’s coming to the site?” our client asked as we reviewed the next quarter’s proposed website improvements. It’s a common question—who wouldn’t want insights on their users in order to better target them with the content they need?

Certainly it’s important to know who is coming to your site and what they’re doing there. Keeping an eye on site analytics and tracking performance against pre-defined goals helps us see what’s working or not working from a design, content and UX perspective. It gives us a baseline to measure changes against. Knowing the demographics of site visitors—and what drove them to the site—can also help inform adjustments to site content.

But is this enough? Should we base decisions solely on the performance of what’s on a site today and who’s currently visiting it, or are there ways to be better informed on who our target audience is, and what kind of content they’re looking for? There are tangible benefits to changing how we think about our audiences and plan content for them.

Outside-in thinking for digital
Businesses who adopt an outside-in philosophy adapt their products, offerings and messaging to consumer trends and needs. This is an established school of thought that can be applied to business both at the highest level and to specifics like content marketing. Instead of an inside-out “build it and they will come” philosophy, outside-in practitioners use research and data to provide the right value to the audience they want. Google is one company that practices outside-in thinking while always maintaining its strong brand identity and voice: its ever-growing suite of products adapt and change constantly in response to customer insights. Unsuccessful or underutilized products are retired without sentimentality.

Whatever strategic approach your organization subscribes to at its highest level, there are several tactical ways to apply outside-in thinking to one of your most important customer touchpoints: your website. Here are three.

1. Personas
Personas are a critical starting point for any website redesign project and should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis—so even if you’re not in the midst of a redesign right now, they should still be top-of-mind. Your company may need multiple kinds of personas: perhaps a set for users of your product and a separate set for digital users. They can overlap and inform each other.

Personas help us define our ideal target—not necessarily current—site visitor, and hypothesize their needs and motivations to inform more relevant, effective content. It’s like dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. Personas force us to challenge the assumptions we make when designing a site: what actions should be prioritized, what level of detail a user requires at any given point. They give voice to users who might otherwise be overlooked by marketing and digital teams. And, they help direct and organize our next outside-in tactic.

2. SEO Keyword Research
SEO success requires great content, time and patience. But even before all that, it requires knowing who your target users are and what they’re searching for. The nature of SEO itself depends heavily on an outside-in mindset.

SEO keyword research should start high-level, brainstorming topics your company can “own” that matter to your defined personas. Tools like Google Trends and Quid can help identify what topics are worth targeting, and other tools like Moz or SEMrush help ideate, track and narrow down potential keyword and keyword phrases—all leveraging  data on what people are already searching for and writing about.

Quality keyword research will set the stage for quality content creation, especially when aligned to your personas and addressing each stage of a user’s journey. This way you can specifically target more high-level, high-volume keywords for brand awareness and more niche, long-tail keywords for consideration and purchase, for example.

Below is an example keyword research workflow. This could be performed quarterly, but specific cadence will depend on your team and its goals.

3. Information Architecture
A site’s information architecture should predict and reflect the way users want to explore. We recently redesigned the website of a global professional association who had struggled to convey its offerings and benefits via its digital channels. Initially, the site was organized around the association’s internal structure—there was an unwieldy number of items in the primary navigation, each reflecting one distinct silo. Surely this made sense when the site was first built—each content owner gets their own section to play with!—but as the site grew, each section adopted its own visual style, tone and content types.

We conducted an extensive content audit in close partnership with site content authors and stakeholders, which exposed redundancies and inconsistencies across the site. What followed was an almost gleeful process of retiring out-of-date and duplicative pages, resulting in a more modern and useful set of content. But how could we organize this leaner content so users would easily find what they need?

Every step of the way, we kept our personas and user journeys—and all the research we’d done during our site Discovery phase—in mind. We prioritized actions that different types of users might want to take across the site, which then closely informed how we organized the site’s information architecture. This meant that some previously siloed content (like industry news, policy info and research) now lived under united site sections, because to a user, it was connected. Additionally, we used navigation labels that were descriptive to users and action-oriented (e.g., “Attend & Learn”), rather than reflective of the part of the internal organization they represented (e.g., “Events/Programs”, “Education”), to encourage exploration and ease wayfinding.

The work is never done
Outside-in thinking enables us to be more proactive and agile with website content and creation. And while thoughtful research and planning can help avoid the creation of aimless content, personas, SEO keywords and Information Architectures should all be revisited, measured and revised over time to ensure that they’re working for your business and engaging the right users.

User needs are a moving target—businesses must change and adapt over time, and our digital content should, too.

Ariel Bolles | Associate Director of Content Strategy
Since joining VSA in 2015, Ariel has honed her expertise on B2B and enterprise content strategy. She is passionate about useful, usable design systems and empowering clients to create and maintain quality, findable and accessible content. At VSA, she works with global clients such as IBM, ICSC, Sappi and Allstate’s Arity. Ariel graduated from Columbia College Chicago with BA in Cultural Studies. Contact her at