winter / 2014

The magazine of branded content
Capital One Director of Content Strategy Steph Hay on the art and science of “Human-Centered Design”
Dec 9, 2014

Now, more than ever, effective content relies on context—delivering the right message at the right time to the right person. It’s what Stephanie Hay spends her time thinking about. As director of content strategy at Capital One, Hay’s challenge echoes that of any content marketer in the banking or financial category: money often strikes an anxious chord in customers.

The mandate assumed by Hay— named a “2013 Tech Titan” by Washingtonian Magazine, whose previous work includes content strategy for redesigns of Ben & Jerry's, The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Coldwell Banker—is to compartmentalize this anxiety. “I’m here to help design a conversation across time and channels that is tailored to the level of one customer,” she says. “We always keep in mind that on the other side of this interface, the other side of this interaction, is one person, and we start with, ‘what are we going to say to them?’”

“I’m here to help design a conversation across time and channels that is tailored to the level of one customer.”

This “content of the conversation,” as Hay calls it, is informed by what Capital One designates “human-centered design.” “We have several tailored activities to understand who the customer is in that moment, and what their intent is,” says Hay.

Human-centered design informs all of Capital One’s content, from website messaging to overall brand voice—even an email alert program called Second Look, which delivers content to customers in certain circumstances. “If a customer is charged the same amount on the same day by the same merchant, we let them know as quickly as it happens,” says Hay. “It also can send an alert when there is some sort of unexpected or potentially unwanted increase in a customer's monthly utility bills.”

This “right message at the right time” deploys content to drive customers’ actions. “That’s actually part of what makes content strategy really powerful,” she says. “It can inform people about something related to their money, and also can help advise them of what they can do about it—maybe it includes instructions that help guide the customer to the event in question, or maybe we can help them contact the merchant directly. It’s really just context specific. We tested different ways of communicating and we crafted messaging around the details of that information.”

“It’s all about knowing what the [customer] intent is.”

But first, Hay and team had to determine what assumptions they could make about a customer who receives an alert. “Customers are not paying attention to increases and their auto-renewals,” she says, referencing internal research that indicates 2/3rds of banking customers don’t know when there’s been a duplicate charge. “So in the case of Second Look, the assumption, from a content perspective, is we’re reaching people when they are unaware. They don’t know that this is even an issue.”

To craft messaging for the “human-centered design” approach, Capital One deploys multiple teams to gather audience insights. The digital operations team monitors customer feedback generated from emails, while the social media servicing team looks for patterns on various channels.

Alongside these digital teams are traditional real-time resources: the call center, which looks for similarities among different kinds of customers. “Customers have very particular needs,” says Hay. “And their insights are very important for our messaging.”

“A user needs to feel like they’re talking to the same person, who knows where they’re trying to go.”

There is also a “design-thinking” team, which is essentially a group tasked with interviewing people on the street. “They’re trying to uncover needs that people have, and we prototype really quick conversations and then try to have those conversations with our customers to see if we’re in the right ballpark.”

Of customers who receive the Second Look alert, nearly 25% contact the provider to ask about the increase, and 1,000 customers emailed thank-you responses to Capital One. “Just the reality that the message is there delighted the customer,” she says. “It opens up that conversation and they understand that we are looking out for them, that we’re their partner.”

“That conversation, when it’s anticipatory and personalized, makes a huge difference in terms of customer loyalty and retention.”

This customer-first focus, according to Hay, informs all of the content that Capital One produces. “It’s all about knowing what the [customer] intent is,” she says. “And using that to thread a conversation across a particular experience, be it an alert, a landing page, or from page to page of a website. A user needs to feel like they’re talking to the same person, who knows where they’re trying to go. When you feel that conversation, when it’s anticipatory and personalized, in the financial services industry it’s a particularly emotional experience. And it makes a huge difference in terms of customer loyalty and retention, and frankly, in being able, in our case, to actually establish trusting relationships because they’re real, they’re actually real. Because even if there were no interface, no mobile app or website, people still have a relationship with money, and we want our content to be a part of making that relationship a positive one.”

Hay and her team are banking on it.