Why "Write For Your Audience" Has Become Dangerous Advice

As a writer who found his way into content marketing, I always felt the phrase "write for your audience" was a bit overblown. Said another way, this common advice runs something like this:

"It's not about you; it's about them."

Huh? Really? I like content marketing exactly because I get to insert my perspective and create something that has emotional and intellectual meaning...for my audience, for sure, but also for me.

I mean, think about it -- have you ever written anything really, truly awesome that wasn’t at least a little bit for you? Where you didn't have at least one burst of momentum or energy or that weird period of creative spark you can only describe as briefly blacking out? (Some of you know what I mean.)

The "Problem" Is That We're Human

In the truth, the problem is NOT the advice itself. The idea of writing for your audience is 100% accurate in theory. People started saying this over and over to re-train the muscle memory of marketers from interruptive, outbound, me-first approaches to content. But now that we've all mostly bought in (I hope), we need to re-examine the way this phrase is put into practice. Because the way it's being put to work has evolved in the wrong way: Determining what the audience cares about is judged based on clicks and traffic, causing us to focus on the idea of "reach" instead of resonance, on distribution instead of quality creation, and on vanity metrics like views instead of real metrics like subscribers and customers.

Here’s the deal: You should unequivocally start with topics and types of content that will be really useful or entertaining for your audience. But then, as the person responsible for creating the content -- which needs to hold attention better than the other guy's content -- you should ALWAYS return to your own, genuine passions and point of view to make something that's quality, unique, and creates an emotional reaction from your audience.

After all, the act of creating anything, whether art or marketing, must be filtered through your own perception of the world to then be created. I mean the word "must" both figuratively (as in, it's a best practice to use your own POV) and literally (as in, it's biologically impossible to turn any thought into reality without that thought funneling through everything that makes you who are you are).

That statement wouldn't normally be worth writing here (because of course you can't remove your brain from anything you do). BUT there's a bizarre desire to game every system in marketing, which has turned "write for your audience" into "do whatever can minimize your time spent on the paragraphs to rank on search and drive some clicks."  It's a weird twist of the "write for your audience" advice that leaves too many projects hollow because they don't make any effort to be creative or take creative risks. They just execute mechanically based on "what works" and the letter of the law -- Audience X likes Y, so write a list about Y as quickly as you can and hit publish. Who cares if writing a story would be more memorable - that first post ranked on search. Rinse and repeat.

This approach, which plenty of businesses and leaders sadly demand, comes off like this:

The problem is that this approach is EASY to replicate. Every competitor can do the exact same thing -- identify a problem the audience faces, write a bare-bones, facts-only response, package into a list, optimize for search, and hit publish. Then repeat.

And perhaps worse than losing your competitive advantage, you now lack any chance at being memorable. You don't stand out. There's no secret sauce or proprietary approach, so you wind up with a world that looks like this:

Whether you embrace the marketing side or the content side by nature (and there's always a tilt one way or the other in this job), you can probably admit that standing out matters. The way to do so is to focus on the actual content, the creativity, and the quality...all of which are only made possible by the person or people behind it.

In other words, you want to embrace something that looks less like the factories above, and more like this:

Remember -- the one thing that your company has that your content marketing competitors don't is you.

If It Lacks Emotional Involvement, It'll Lack Emotional Response

Removing yourself and your own emotional attachment to your work turns writing a brilliant piece into creating a banner ad: determine a set of best practices and apply that systematically and repeatedly to the work, then increase the volume of output commensurate with business need.

This is how we wind up writing unending paragraphs of doom. We present dry lists or ebooks that drag on, without so much as attempting to tell a story or have some fun with it so that the audience might truly enjoy and REMEMBER IT.  

This hollow, non-unique, non-creative approach requires robots. But robots haven't replaced the writers...and that's a wonderful thing if fully embraced!

Conversions Happen Post-Click

So we need to stop obsessing over "reaching" people or "getting eyeballs," as big brand advertisers love to say.

Instead, we need to focus on what happens when those "eyeballs" actually have to, yanno, consume our content. Those eyeballs are attached to humans, after all -- humans with emotions, thoughts, opinions, and choices to make. So what about the stuff after the click? Whether you measure a lead coming in or an unmeasurable positive feeling from readers, your audience converts upon consuming the content, not clicking on it.

If you're passionate about movies, don't set that aside when you go to write that blog post reviewing various apps for your audience to use. Come up with a little five-star rating system and design DVD covers describing each tool. If you love to cook, fire off a food analogy everyone can understand to frame your next post. If you're a funny writer, go ahead and be funny, tactfully, in your writing. You'll be more invested in your work, and the audience will appreciate it and remember it.

Ask: Am I Writing For Your Audience?

Good! Now find a way to write for yourself too. Start with them, and end with you.

And if you can't, maybe you're not in the right place or the right job. Because why keep creating stuff that’s adequate and not great? What good is that doing for you, your career, or your audience? I promise you, there are tons of employers struggling to find talent for their content marketing out there.

Writing and creating is an extension of yourself. If what makes you yourself and what makes you stand out as a person isn't allowed into your work, then how are you supposed to create something unique that stands out? 

The lesson, as always: Content is about resonating with people, not just reaching them, and conversions happen after the click. Give a lopsided amount of time to the creation of something truly good.

Only then will you achieve the objective that both businesses and employees share -- that unavoidable, altogether non-robotic, human desire to be remembered.

Posted on May 5, 2014 and filed under content marketing, creativity, writing.