IKEA Content: How to Lose Your Readers in Two Minutes or Less

IKEA Sign

I clearly remember that first day I wandered into an IKEA megastore.

A line from that famous Eagles song came to mind: “Welcome to the Hotel California… You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

The Selfish Path

IKEA, a Swedish-based retail chain that specializes in low-cost household items, designs its stores with only one way in and one way out. The path to freedom mazes shoppers through the entire store, most of which is completely irrelevant to the shopper.

There are no shortcuts, no easy way to find what you like, and no friendly assurances that you’ll actually get what you’re after. By the time you reach the checkout line at the end of a mile-long, zig-zagging path, you have been exposed to far more than you bargained for and are likely frustrated and exhausted.

From Selfish to Safeway

Does the above sound like some white papers, articles or blog posts you have read or even written? Unlike IKEA shoppers, it’s a lot easier for a bored or frustrated reader to head for the exit. And they will if you treat them the way IKEA treats its artificially-confined customers.

Let’s carry the retail analogy a bit further. You can gain some better insights from your favorite grocery store.

Rather than wandering up and down aisles looking for vitamin B6 or Pop-Tarts, most grocery stores place helpful signs around the store to guide you. And even though they may put the milk at the back of the store to expose you to more items along the way, they don’t restrict your path—you can look for the dairy section and travel straight there.

Don’t Create IKEA Content

Similarly, well-written content must clearly guide its readers. Plus, it should remain relevant to the goals of the reader, by sticking to the promises you made to get them to read in the first place.

The key to avoiding the IKEA trap is to expose salient points to the reader in a clean and efficient manner. Don’t make the reader digest more than a few sentences before the section objectives become clearly evident. Make sure that EVERYTHING you discuss is relevant and related to the topic of the paper or post.

You should also use compelling subheads to help people make their way through your content and find what they need, all while enticing them to read more. Try adding sidebars and callouts to summarize key points for the rushed shopper.

Relevancy + Engagement = Happy Readers

Make no mistake, the goal of a persuasive piece of writing is to take the reader down the path you would like for them to travel, and ultimately to the conclusion you wish for them to reach. IKEA takes the wrong approach by making people suffer through the extraneous in order to (hopefully) satisfy their goals. Don’t make this mistake with your content.

Make the path of your content relevant and engaging every step of the way, and your readers will be happy and more likely to buy or take positive action. The simple tips in this article will help you guide your readers all the way through to the last page of your white paper or the end of your article, and leave them satisfied with the experience.

Michael Stelzner is author of the bestselling book, “Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged.” Learn how you can get a free copy of his book by clicking here.

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  1. Hi Mike,

    Great points about engaging the reader and being relevant.

    I think you may want to look closer at IKEA however. For seasoned shoppers it may be hell, but I know a rather large number of colleagues who absolutely love IKEA.

    I think many people go to IKEA with the idea of browsing; and their store layout can help them get the complete experience.

    Now, I’m not saying I like being trapped in a maze, but there is something more to IKEA that a whole lot of people do like.

    Anyhow, for this analogy it works out well. Thanks for the great article,

    – Mason

  2. I for one agree that there are those who love the IKEA experience, but I also absolutely love Mike’s analogy!

  3. Like the analogy and agree with the idea.

    I don’t know for your local Ikea but here in Canada (at least in Quebec) the 2 stores offers a lot of shortcuts and “navigation aid”.

    Maybe i’m just too accustomed to the store layout or the “Ikea experience” to be objective about this… :)

  4. Hi Michael and Mason;

    My wife is a big fan of Ikea, but she loves shopping :)

    I have heard that there are secret exits to get out, but they are by no means readily obvious.

    IF only all readers were willing to be exposed to everything we have to offer.

    Dare I say we would be a much slower moving society.

  5. The last time I checked, IKEA was making billions of dollars a year. Not to mention the fact that the founder is one of the world’s richest men.

    So they must be doing something right. I’ll admit that money is not a barometer of happiness, but in the business world it is the barometer for success.

    I’m tending to disagree with the analogy with IKEA as an example {fyi – I’m no fanboy of them}.

  6. OK Ali, but did you get the point of the article?

    I bet you did, and if so, the analogy worked.

  7. Yeah I got the point. Make it relevant and engaging.

    By the way, the attention span is more like 30 seconds or less nowadays. If a reader sticks on your site for a minute – you done good.

    Still iffy about IKEA though ;-) The next time I visit them I’ll make sure to pay special attention.

  8. Thanks for the interesting article.

    Here in Germany – as in Canada – there are quite a few shortcuts through the IKEA universe. And they are also clearly marked on maps that are scattered throughout the store.

    Maybe IKEA now caters to the “expert” shoppers in some of its home markets. IKEA in Germany is also definitely not the cheapest option anymore.

    But your point is valid nonetheless ;-)

  9. Ikea would be a good comparison in some places. In Canada, Ikea offers maps, shortcuts, organized sections, but like you said, only one entrance for shoppers and one exit for shoppers.
    When I first visited Ikea, I was a kid, and there were playgrounds for the kids, so it was wonderland!

  10. I love this article, and love the analogy but, as others have said, Canadians Ikeas do offer maps, shortcuts, and signs. They still have the forced maze design, but they do offer clearly marked shortcuts for those who want to take them. (Plus, I have to admit that I love Ikea, and never take the shortcuts.)

    But, having said that, I love the Ikea vs. grocery store analogy that you’ve set up here. It really does get the point across very well.

    Great article, Michael.

  11. The analogy was good (even though it’s been many years since I’ve visited an Ikea store.) But grocery stores not so much…yes, they’re helpful, but there’s still only one way in and one way out. The biggest difference is, though, you gotta eat and you don’t gotta shop in Ikea. So I tend to agree with Mike — trapping your customer isn’t very user-friendly, but low prices will trump a friendly experience every time!

  12. I agree that Ikea is a maze. I wanted to find one thing and had to hike for what seemed like miles to escape…and ended leaving without having purchased anything, but still massively exhausted.

  13. I like the advice to make all your subheads relevant. It’s making me think differently to imagine using subheads like grocery store aisle signs.

    It will definitely make me more conscious to use them as “direction markers” rather than witty bold text. :-)

  14. Dave, the best subheads are both direction markers and compelling mini-headlines that keep the reader engaged, afraid that they might miss something really good if they stop reading.

  15. I love Ikea, whether Ikea is a perfect analogy or not is beside the point, it’s a great article and using the name Ikea to make a point is sure to get readers attention. (It definitely captured mine).

  16. Michael,

    Fantastic analogy. Great article. Thank you.

    Mike

  17. Thanks everyone for your feedback.

    Tina, the grocery stores in California have more than one way in and out.

    :)

  18. Great points, I have been trying to do that more often when I write (using title tags) and it has made a difference- long posts don’t look as long or mundane when broken up like that.

  19. There are shortcuts while you’re walking around in the maze, they’re not totally obvious, but if you’re paying attention you can find them fairly easily.

    I rarely find myself going to IKEA for just ONE thing. Every time I go there I (or my wife) find something that’s cheap, looks cool, or could be put to use at home.

    We live about 45 minutes away from the only IKEA around so making the trek out there isn’t a quick trip for one small item.

    Plus, the atmosphere of the place doesn’t make you want to get in and out ASAP like a department store or Bestbuy type store.

  20. Central Market (an upscale grocery owned by HEB) took a page from IKEA’s store design. When they first opened their central Austin flagship, there was exactly one path through the store, and it was A-L-L T-H-E W-A-Y through the store. Produce to meat to dairy to wine to packaged food to bread to the salad bar and olive bar to a mile of cheese and finally to flowers and the cash registers. No cuts allowed, pal.

    After much browbeating, they finally opened up a few shortcuts, most of them unobvious. That little gap between the end of the cheese aisle and the start of the flower shop is the shortcut to pastas, oils, etc. but if you were new to the store you’d never know it was there.

  21. I think a better article would have been highlighting how to do what IKEA does- and doing it better.

    IKEA kicks butt, and it makes me question everything I know to think that IKEA is selfish.

    Otherwise, an awesome site!

    -Brad

  22. Brad, while what IKEA does with the “maze” may work with some when it comes to selling Swedish furniture and home accessories, it DOES NOT work for content. Again, that’s what Mike’s point is–you can’t create “IKEA content” and satisfy readers. It just won’t work.

    This is not an indictment of IKEA, nor does anyone who writes for this site purport to be an expert in retail space design. We do, however, know content and copy. :)

  23. I think your analogy disproved your point, since IKEA is one of the most successful companies in the world. They lead you through sections you didn’t know you wanted with a faith that the content will make it worth while and you will come back. They enhance that with shortcuts and nice meat balls. How good is that meatball sauce?

    A novel is like an IKEA path, I had to read several hundred pages of the Da Vinci Code before it got to the point – that Mary Magdalene was Wonder Woman and Jesus was Batman.

    So creative blog writing that strays from the point could in fact be very popular content if it is good quality writing, it can take the reader into areas they didn’t expect and they can find things they didn’t know they were looking for.

  24. Vincent;

    You are overlooking one very important point.

    When you are in an IKEA store, you are a captive audience.

    When someone visits your blog, reads your newsletter or your white paper, they are NOT captive.

    That means you don’t have the luxury of a guided tour.

    Rather, you must make it easy for readers.

    If not, you risk your words never seeing the reflection of a human’s eyeball.

    Mike

  25. When I visited Ikea the flow of the store reminded me of a cross between a museum and an ice skating rink. Although I wanted to stop and view some of the “museum pieces”, the fast and crowded flow of the one way “ice rink” kept me moving until I was right back out the front door.

    Great article, however, and food for thought about blog readership.

  26. Mike, while I agree with your points on the “Not To Dos” for article writing, I believe that using IKEA as an analogy may not be as appropriate.

    Many people love IKEA. Going into IKEA is an Experience. At the end of the day, even if they don’t get anything from IKEA, they feel that they have benefited, at the very least from the ideas that IKEA provides. That is VALUE.

    So I won’t exactly say IKEA is selfish. You can always head back where you came from (making it a 2 way exit) anytime.

  27. Hi SJ;

    The words “selfish” were added by Brian.

    Perhaps better headers would be:

    “The Long and Winding Way”

    and “The Simple Path”

    Mike

  28. I think selfish is perfect, because the needs of the visitor are not being put first, and with content, that’s the kiss of death. The IKEA lovers will just have to deal with it. :)

  29. My friends love IKEA, and I just don’t get it. I freaking hate that store, and I love this article.

  30. Our “local” IKEA (in Finland) is actually full of shortcuts and signs. I’m also quite certain that I’ve seen a map there somewhere… Of course, if you take the wrong shortcut, you end up missing the section you were trying to reach.

    I think keys to their success were being good enough and cheap, and having a good selection.

    I like the analogy. In my old job I was trying to add shortcuts to the maze of web content.

  31. @Michael – comment #25: I’m not so sure a reader on a blog can’t be captive. Obviously not physically, but because the style of writing is intriguing, funny, or otherwise engaging. The fact that people could leave any time they like, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t give them the guided tour style of page.

    I have browsed around the web looking for something, and finding something completely different, got ‘captured’ by the writing, and ended up subscribing to the feed for such a long winded maze of a blog. Not everybody wants to hop in and out of all websites just to get the one piece of desired information. Sometimes we like to just read and see where the story goes.

    Not to say your article isn’t spot on for those sites that need the attention of hit-and-run information shoppers in order to sell their goods, but not all blogs are like that, and thankfully, not all readers are like that.

    (While reading the article I wanted to respond about how much shopping at IKEA is different from buying groceries, but then I saw everybody else already did that ;-) )

  32. In Belgium Ikea has also some small shortcuts. IKEA is an evil company moehaha. IKEA wants us to buy these Swedisch non-design kitchens.

  33. I personally hate Ikea, fullof people who have no idea what they want and to make it worse can’t find it either. This should be a lesson as well for a blog. Do you want to attract people who don’t know what they want, and cant find it?
    When I shop anywhere. I look for navigation, if it isnt clearly laid out I go ask an employee. I’m a five minute shopper. Not a browser, if i cant find it fast i go ask, why waste time browsing.
    I have better things to be doing with my time than being stuck in a sales funnel.
    So content should get right to the point and deliver fast (imo). I’m still stuck on how long should an article be….
    SO navigation should be clear in the form of categories etc, and search, or help in finding what the reader is looking for.
    Cheers and beers from Canada
    Shane

  34. I respect the advice in this article, but I think using this IKEA analogy, and actually extending it so far into the piece, runs counter to the advice being given. This could be, in essence, a 75-word post if it followed its own advice. By forcing the IKEA analogy, rather than using it as a simple comparison (once), you actually lengthen the article.

    Still, I believe the advice about constructing logical, flowing articles and white papers, with interesting and well-placed asides is very good advice, and I’m glad you wrote about it.

  35. Wow Michael great analogy, the way you relate real life experiences to content, and marketing flow really inspires.

    Thank you,
    dom

  36. Thanks Michael, this analogy sticks with me and even if it isn’t the most perfect one, I do get your point loud and clear. I like that.
    Clara

  37. Ack! The DaVinci Code and “good copy” were referred to as if they are somehow similar! Avoid wooden writing!

    In all seriousness, I’m going to have to agree with Michael and Brian (and others)–IKEA might work well as a retail design, but “IKEA-Content” won’t work (or at least, will rarely work).

    IKEA makes it difficult to leave, because you’re physically “capitve.” A blog, or any other type of written content, doesn’t have the same ability to force you to stay.

    If you’re going to try and write “IKEA-Content,” it had better be damn engaging and/or entertaining, otherwise you’ll lose your reader.

  38. Thanks everyone for your most excellent discussion on this topic.

    If you find some good OR bad examples that fall into the IKEA or non-IKEA style of writing, be sure to post them here.

    Here is an example of the right way: http://www.whitepapersource.com/writing/case-studies.html

    It is an article written by case study expert Casey Hibbard.

  39. I absolutely hate walking through the maze that is Ikea. That being said, the price is right on many products, and I’ve found some great stuff there over the years that has actually held up fairly well.

    Their furniture isn’t exactly quality, but it’s great for first timers, dorms, and kids.

  40. Many of the comments in this thread regarding the IKEA analogy remind me of a thread I once wrote in an AV forum on the topic of big screen televisions.

    I used a simple analogy to communicate the importance of having a professional calibrator fine tune a new TV. I believe I said that calibrating a TV was similar to tuning a piano.

    Following this simple statement, the forum members offered 95 pages of analysis on reasons my analogy wasn’t appropriate, instead of answering a simple question: Did the analogy communicate the idea?

    In both the IKEA and the piano analogies, the idea was indeed communicated, and communicated well.

  41. Louis St-Amour :

    Wow. 50 responses. Note to self: Want clicks? Use a Lovemark (brand name) in your title.

    Sorry, when I think of “Ikea Content”, I think of the wonderful and interesting ways they use symbols and imagery. And how many languages they operate in, requiring the most easily translated copy ever designed – diagrams. While not ideal for any one language, it helps keep costs low. It’s the balance of compromise that intrigues me most – when to browse or lead (through the maze) and when to search or read “just what you came for”. There are times you need both, and when one enhances the other.

    Specifically, for Ikea, I love how I can find just what I want, everytime. 1. Look at the map near the clearly marked “entrance” for the location of the item. (Assuming I haven’t been to this exact location before) 2. Follow signs, arrows and “shortcuts” to the location. 3. Ask nearby staff for the item. (They know where it is, because they restock frequently, or set up the displays.) 4. Follow signs to checkout, and leave.

    It’s the consistency that creates the power. Whichever method you choose (maze or shortcuts), be consistent in your copy, to set readers’ expectations. Offer a combination of both if it fits the content, but clearly lean toward one method or the other. Above all, of course, consider the audience you’re writing for. (I’ve newly rediscovered personas for this.)

  42. My first experience with Ikea was last week, I thought it was clever the way they steered the consumer through the store. They have given a lot of thought to their product line and to the shopping habits of the consumer.

  43. I agree about Ikea. I went there once because someone recomended them for an item of theirs I was admiring. When I got to Ikea I asked where I might find this item. The answer? Well there is some over there, some around there, some over there etc….

    The bottom line was I had to stromp around 300,000 sq feet of store to see 5 items.

    I left.

    They may be making tons of money – but not from me – ever!

  44. Great post except the IKEA analogy is incorrect. While it may be cumbersome to walk through an IKEA, there are “shortcuts” to cut between sections of the store.

  45. Hi Mike,

    Great article! I agree that instead of writing IKEA-type posts, we should prepare a cute and laser-sharp word boutiques (=our articles) with perfect services quality and offering the customer coffee and croissants. :))

    Regards,
    William

  46. IKEA doesn’t target people who want to buy furniture.

    They target people who want great design ideas.

    IKEA is permission-based StumbleUpon.

    It’s just not SEO.

    And it works for them.

  47. @Laura: Yep, I completely agree with you. The StubleUpon comparison would have been much better.
    People who go to IKEA want to enjoy a round trip, get ideas and inspiration. It’s not the blog concept, where you pull a certain type of niche information. It’s comparable with magazines, where many people start browsing from the beginning.

  48. “There are no shortcuts, no easy way to find what you like, and no friendly assurances that you’ll actually get what you’re after. By the time you reach the checkout line at the end of a mile-long, zig-zagging path, you have been exposed to far more than you bargained for and are likely frustrated and exhausted.”

    This certainly describes most sales letters I come across on the internet, but… we obviously don’t shop at the same IKEA.

  49. I hate IKEA. The layout. The congestion. The no hope to find an exit.

  50. I hope people still don’t think this article was about IKEA…

    I think I’m going to drive a bunch of controvery-traffic to my site with an article entitled “The Sony Strategy of Life: How to annoy all your friends, ruin your reputation, and make a million dollars in 3 seconds flat.”

    And after seeing this thead, I’m quite sure most of comments will be about Sony.

  51. It’s like I had to wander through all these comments to get to the few about formatting content. That’s where the Ikea analogy really comes in handy.

  52. One of the best written articles I’ve come across. Sometimes we all just put up content to have it when as you’ve made so perfectly clear it’s the quality of the experience which is important.

  53. I never thought of the building a website with that analogy, but it is a very good one. It is much easier to lose a reader than it is a physical person in the store.

  54. I couldn’t agree with your analogy more about IKEA. I fall in with most of the comments with talking more about IKEA more than writing-

    I went there for the first time with my 2-year old. I took the elevator and went the wrong way on the path. I didn’t get why people were giving me stares. Then I realized my daughter had a diaper rash and a bowel movement in her pants. Desperate to find a bathroom, I rushed through the store. The signs were confusing because I was going the wrong way.

    I ended up changing her in the model display bathroom. She was upset, AND I COULDN’T LEAVE! I was the parent with the screaming kid in the store for a half hour until I figured a way out to the car and get the blessed crackers. Because they keep their costs down by not having a lot of employees to help, I couldn’t find anyone to ask to get me out of that place or show me where the cafe was.

    I love IKEA. Their store almost killed me. Shortcuts, signs, and notices aside: try navigating it with a screaming two – year old and see the glaring mistake of making it difficult to get where you need to go!

  55. Those pesky grocery stores! They’re smart!

  56. I’m not persuaded that a false analogy is an honest approach to telling a story – it’s a bit like bait and switch.

    Michael’s message is good, but saying “the analogy worked” because people got what was intended — regardless of the relevance of the strongly negative analogy — seems to reward the outcome at the expense of sound rhetoric.

  57. Who said it was a false analogy? IKEA stores were originally all designed this way. The fact that they’ve made changes might just show that a lot of people hated it.

  58. Brian, I understand what you’re saying, but an analogy is meant to function at the time it’s written — IKEA stores were certainly difficult to navigate once (and yes, in some markets the shortcuts are still less obvious), but the analogy was chosen as a contemporary example of something bad. IKEA clearly functions well for most people who choose to go there.

    The honest approach to an analogy like this is to not paint the example as a clear negative if it isn’t, but to say “this is a successful retail concept, but not what you should do on a blog”. Even then, given that you can exit a website at any time, the crossover from the analogy seems tenuous to me.

  59. Duncan;

    I have only been in 1 Ikea.

    It happens to be the only one I am aware of in San Diego.

    It is a maze with no way out I am aware of—except by traversing the whole store.

    For me, it is a valid analogy.

    Thanks for your opinion, but this one is based on my experience. Clearly you had a different experience and I respect that Duncan.

    Mike

  60. Louis St-Amour :

    Unfortunately, the San Diego store might be an exception to the normal Ikea experience

    (By the way, that a global corporation like Ikea has a huge unofficial forum with tips about their stores from fans (and likely employees) … wow.

  61. I’ve only been in one IKEA store too… in Houston when IKEA first came to the US, and it was exactly how Mike described.

    I guess we older guys who didn’t turn into raving IKEA fans need to watch our analogies. ;)

    And Duncan, the point of the analogy wasn’t about exiting, it was about putting the needs of the customer (reader) first. I think that was really clear in Mike’s post.

  62. Poor Duncan… if anything is engaging enough who would be looking for a way out anyway. Has anybody tried finding a parking space on a Monday morning at Ikea lately ? (Montreal Ikea).