How to write content without cramming your message down readers’ throats, a.k.a. being real

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When you write content for your business, you don't need to push your products on readers to be successful. You just need to be real.

I’m not saying anything new when I say that knowing your audience is important for good writing. It’s a basic writing principle teachers cram down your throat in middle and high school English classes (and we all know how successful that was).

Perhaps, because it’s cliche, businesses don’t always take that advice seriously. And I don’t blame them. They are the ones spending real money on marketing budgets each year and it’s logical for them to need a return on their investment. Writing content that fosters and engages an audience seems backward when the CEO is telling you to include the company’s name in every blog headline – OR ELSE.

If you are that kind of CEO, heads up. Your time has come to an end.

The cost of being overly promotional: You alienate your audience

When you are overly promotional, you transform people into visitors – as if they were aliens from a faraway planet. You don’t want visitors. Visitors are no good. You want people.

When you are overly promotional, you transform people into visitors … You want people.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this mistake and know first-hand how it jeopardizes business objectives. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I found a basement apartment in what seemed a safe – some might even say chic – neighborhood. My landlord didn’t ask me for a security deposit and the place looked pristine. I thought I was getting a deal.

Soon, however, I found the “deal” wasn’t so good after all. The real problem wasn’t with the product – I loved the apartment. It fit me. It had its quirks and so do I. It was with the owner. He artificially created value about what he was selling and built our relationship on that superimposed merit. After the paint began to chip away and pipes began to leak, it was the integrity of my landlord I came to question – not the quality of the space – a critical distinction.

My guess is that the owner, feeling insecure about getting the price he wanted, masked the actual benefits of the space, its story and its character, with superficial and fleeting value: A fresh coat of paint and a disingenuous narrative. In other words, he went for the short-term sale versus the long-term (even though the long-term was more valuable). I moved out at the end of my lease and started a new relationship with a landlord who was upfront about the space and what I could actually expect to get out of my investment.

Marketing managers often feel pressure to do exactly this with the content they create for their companies’ websites – they fixate on the short-term. Their goal is to get people into the door, not necessarily keeping them there or taking care of them after they show up. That’s partly because they are using outdated “vanity” metrics that measure the number of site visits, not the quality of site visits or the time spent actually engaging with the content.

You don’t need to sell the latest bells and whistles if what you offer is a bare-bones service.

When working with businesses to create or refine content marketing campaigns, I’ve seen this same pattern occur: Exaggerating the value for the sake of boosting metrics that don’t actually measure audience engagement.

But branded content doesn’t need to be that way. You don’t need to sell the latest bells and whistles if what you offer is a bare-bones service.

Conversations save companies

In the article, “The key to content marketing (and business): Be less self-centered,” Shane Snow, a New York-based technology writer, posits that businesses should give up their company-centric content efforts in exchange for an audience-centric approach.

“The secret to using free content as a business driver is to be the host of the conversation your audience cares about, not the subject of it,” writes Snow. “Great content transforms advertisers from interruption to destination.”

There’s a lot of noise out there, and we consume more of it than ever before

As a result, we are more sophisticated in how we value that information. We know what it’s like to find information that resonates with us and answers our questions, but we also know the sensation when we come across an article that is overtly slamming its message down our throats. Nope. That’s not for me. Why? It’s robotic. It’s dehumanizing. And what happens? We get suspicious and walk away (and, in some cases, never to return). Ain’t nobody got time for that.

calls to action for content

After moving into a new place, my new landlord would sit outside with me and casually drink wine, listen to jazz music and talk about poetry, the recent happenings in the neighborhood and projects he had planned for the building. It didn’t cost him anything – he was simply getting to know me and being real.

We still keep in touch and I frequently refer business to him.

“Most companies suck at good conversation,” Snow added. “They’re used to blasting out one-way messages about how great they are. Their product. Themselves. Me, me, me. Today’s consumers don’t have to put up with that. Unfollow. Friend request denied. We want to talk about us, not you.”

Real conversation builds authentic trust, not trust-as-a-metric-of-success

The same goes for your business. Generate and host content that matters to your audience – even if it’s unrelated to your company and doesn’t overtly benefit your bottom line – and you’ll foster a relationship naturally. This can’t be forced or manufactured overnight, either.

Generate and host content that matters to your audience – you’ll foster relationships naturally.

It’s more akin to stand-up comedy than real-estate (if I am being honest). If a comedian’s jokes aren’t honest enough to penetrate our own experiences, we stop laughing. We stop paying attention. Once a comedian loses the audience, it’s hard to wrangle them back in.

It’s the same with businesses. Whether you’re a comedian, a landlord or a health care software provider, it’s the same – you can’t afford to lose the audience’s belief in you as a conveyor of authentic stories. You need to be honest and you need to be attentive.

How do you keep an audience? Listen. Take notes. Make observations. Take seemingly unrelated topics and put them in close proximity to one another so they are in conversation. In short: Tell great stories.

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Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Pa., Brett holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from Drew University. As an Assistant Editor at Brafton, Brett currently lives in Chicago, Ill. You can find some of his poems online in such places as The Philadelphia Inquirer and Rattapallax.
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