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Content Design

With a little help of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs | Stand: Nov. 2022
reading time: 8 minutes

Content Design is what you need to consider if you intend to write a text that correctly meets all aspects of SEO. The simple structure of a text following “beginning – middle part – end” is not enough to create an impactful text. To meet reader’s interests directly, texts (and content in general) should be designed. In analogy to the topic of Webdesign, Content Design focuses on the feeling, the atmosphere of texts and gives it a manageable form. As a starting point of Content Design qualify the needs of users which should be addressed with the texts.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there are basic needs like eating and drinking, but also the need to communicate with others, receive appreciation or be able to follow individual goals. Successful marketing focuses on those needs, because the one selling something is always selling the solution to fulfill a need. Therefore it is essential in Online Marketing to find a Content Design that responds directly to user’s needs.

In this article you will learn:

  • how to design content purposefully with the help of sales psychology
  • why it pays off to take customer’s deficits into account
  • why it is helpful to refer to insatiable needs
  • why Steve’s family name “Jobs” was his Marketing Credo
  • how this “psycho stuff” is connected to SEO and Google

Content Design fulfilling SEO requirements demands a focus on user’s needs

Nowadays it is not enough to just simply write a text in order to rank it with Google. The search engine is already perfectly able to analyze texts. If text content on a website is mainly circling around a special keyword the page will only be found at the back of the line in SERPs. When Google changed it’s parameters towards a semantic-holistic search, SEOs have been confronted with the fact that they need to focus more on users and their needs. Only then texts can be created which fulfill user’s search intends. But what are user’s needs exactly? We can find answers with a classic in sales psychology: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) is considered to be one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology. One goal of this psychological path is to guarantee humans can fully unfold their personality and find self-fulfillment. The core of this theory emphasizes a positive image of humans in contrast to Sigmund Freud’s theory (humans are driven by urges) and John B. Watson’s Behaviorism (humans are driven by reflexes). According to Maslow our behaviour is directed by motives: the fulfillment of our needs.

Maslow's theory in Humanistic Psychology classifies human needs in five different categories. The image shows a graph of Maslow's pyramid of needs.

Maslow’s pyramid of needs

Maslow identified five different levels of needs. These are usually displayed as a pyramid (Maslow’s pyramid of needs). The figure is often misinterpreted as needs building up on one another, so as if a higher level can only be reached if the former one was completed. But Maslow aimed to make clear that there are needs that require fulfillment before others. Eating, drinking, and sleeping are fundamental needs which without we would die. Therefore they need to be fulfilled first before self-fulfillment can be reached.

The first three (or depending on the view: the first four) levels of the pyramid are classified as deficiency needs. They focus on deficiencies that need to be corrected: hunger, thirst, fear, solitude. The fourth level focuses on individual needs like physical or mental strength, freedom, independence, respect, prestige.

You can argue about wether individual needs can still be classified as deficiency needs or must be sorted with being needs. The approach depends on your point of view as self-fulfillment itself is an individual need. Some of us might consider self-fulfillment as displayed in commercial goods like cars, houses, luxury items, while others feel self-fulfilled with a family, a sports medal, or an invention. Maslow himself estimated that only 1% of human kind has reached the level of self-fulfillment so far. Keeping this in mind, Maslow considered this something to be more transcendental. Later he added transcendence on top of self-fulfilment as support to this theory.

The five levels of needs – and their “Jobs” in Marketing

Steve Jobs was definitely one of the greatest Marketing Geniuses of his time. His extraordinary talent was to design and market technical devices that fulfill as many needs as possible. The success of the iPhone made Apple the most wanted brand of the world, even though the iPhone was not even the first smartphone.

Back then, writing and sending emails was already possible with the Nokia 9000 Communicator. The “pocket-sized office” even enabled users to surf the internet, very slowly of course. The device sporting 500 gramms was released in August 1996 and mainly sold to managers. On the one hand the price of 2.700 D-Marks (around 1.400 €) limited the range of customers. On the other hand the device was useless for the average consumer. The Communicator was meant to be used solely for business.

Steve Jobs realized the potential of smartphones and developed them into a mass-suitable device with equipping them with new “Jobs”. Thanks to the touch screen it was fun to “swipe” the internet (a new word that only came up with the iPhone). The iPod was made redundant immediately. With included Apps users were able to play (i.e. Super Monkey Ball), read out barcodes, take part in Ebay auctions etc.

Doing so, Steve Jobs made his family name the title of his program: To find new jobs a device or software can do for its user, because the history of technical inventions is already stuffed with things nobody really needs or even wants. So the funneled glasses for eye drops or the bald head brush had been total disasters. A product can only succeed on the market if it does a useful job. And considered as being useful is only the thing that helps us fulfilling our needs.

Successful Content Design addresses all five levels of needs

The one who only sells nails and bolts in his online shop will say: “Oh, that is nice, but my customers are happy with just knowing the size of nails and bolts”. Is that so? What about the customer’s safety needs? How strong are those nails you are selling? What material are they made of? Are they safe healthwise? Are these the right nails for my project? Are these ordinary nails or can I expect anything special? In the end your content should provide enough material to tell stories about it.

How Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help with Content Design can be best explained with the example of the iPhone. From the beginning it was conceived to address all five levels of needs. Respectively all marketing activities were able to communicate on all five levels.

First level of Content Design: Biological Needs

According to Maslow physical needs like eating and drinking define the first level of needs. For sales psychology the approach asks for some alterations, otherwise it would only be applicable for food. Therefore it makes more sense to translate basic needs into basic requirements a product needs to fulfill. In the case of the iPhone this basic requirement was the telephone feature. In Content Marketing it is always useful to bring to mind which basic requirement the product should meet. If you fail to communicate this core information, the Marketing will fail. Appearing trivial is why this point is often forgotten. A lot of Marketing Campaigns boost with jokes, creativity and originality to aim for customer’s attention but forget about the product’s functions itself. These are campaign customers love but can not connect with a special product.

Second level of Content Design: Security Needs

Safety aspects always get our attention. This does not only apply for products which immediately threaten our physical existence (cars, tools, etc.). Our need for safety also covers smaller things: “Are silicone and parabens harmful for my hair?” Every product affects different safety needs. Therefore offers like “Test for free” are always a good idea to meet safety issues with customers.

Strong brands are able to send out strong signals ensuring the safety of a product. Before introducing the iPhone, Steve Jobs reminded of other successful products of the Apple brand like the iPod or Mac. The subtext transported: “Apple has been able to release other revolutionary devices in the past.” According to Jobs, the iPhone would be part of this tradition. Eventually Steve Jobs asked for trusting the iPhone with relying on a strong brand building Apple worked on before.


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Third level of Content Design: Love and Relationship Needs

Facebook and other Social Media networks were still in the early stages of their development when the iPhone was released in 2007. From a nowadays perspective it would have been enough to mention that the iPhone enables access to Social Media to make clear the device is able to fulfill social needs. Back then, Jobs was not able to forecast the huge growth of Social Media and therefore emphasized that users would be able to carry all necessary social contact information with the iPhone. Fulfilling a social need means to be part of a social group. Fashion, cars, and other must-haves completely rely on this need. For products being a necessary part of a certain group or lifestyle it is often achieved with a special design.

Fourth level of Content Design: Self-Esteem Needs

This level is narrowly woven with the third level of social needs but it’s dimension reaches much deeper. We are not simply satisfied with belonging to a group but we also want to be admired or at least appreciated. Steve Jobs addressed this need with how he staged his keynotes: like a show with a strong religious touch. Dressing simple but elegant he appeared on an otherwise empty stage to not only deliver a message. The iPhone was put on scene as a revelation. To own it had and still has a power for people to feel special: it is a symbol of status. Admittedly, this does not work for every product. The above mentioned nail will meet more obstacles in trying to reach the same status. But even here it is worth to use storytelling to point to something beyond the simple product. The ones designing content should always ask what kind of recognition and appreciation a certain product or product group transports. You will find something for sure.

Fifth level of Content Design: Self-Actualization

Every human being wants to find complete expression and be perfect in a sort of way. The iPhone has been put in scene as a product offering items to make every customer feel better as a person: a better dialog partner because of an optimized telephone function, a well-educated music expert because of a music library accessible everywhere, a better observer because of a built-in camera.

The one addressing deficiency needs sells more – the one addressing being needs bonds long term

Using the Maslow pyramid of needs in the field of Content Design explains it all. The first three steps make solutions for deficiency needs. Once the need is satisfied, selling the product is only possible when there is a deficit again (hunger, thirst, oily hair). This is typical for short-term products. They sell quickly but need to permanently convince customers to be used again to satisfy their needs.

If a product sells the promise to be the solution for insatiable being needs customers can be kept in line, provided the product is constantly evolved to always meet new insatiable needs. This is what Apple is doing very successfully since 2007. It is the top-selling product of all time.

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