Writing teachers know there is a little bit of counter-intuitive magic to how good writing works. It’s kind of like that advice about swimming across a riptide instead of against it.
This magic has to do with how broad or narrow a writer should go in trying to connect with an audience. It turns out that in many cases, clearly appealing to a niche interest will reach more people than designing for the broadest appeal.
That’s because writing that tries to be too broad risks being too generic. The writer fails to find and build on what is unique about themselves, their audience or their take on a subject. Though it is counter-intuitive, when you commit with authenticity to a niche subject or unique voice, you can have a broader appeal than expected.
If you described your niche and asked people about their interest in a niche subject, many people may say, “No thanks. Not for me.” But when they actually encounter it in the wild, and they sense a strong commitment, many of those people will actually respond and get pulled through.
Take a book like Freakonomics, for example. There can’t really be that many people who would describe themselves as interested in economics, yet the book and its spin offs keep selling and selling.
If you go down any list of successes — bestsellers, box office winners — you’ll find individual cases that make you say, “What’s that doing there? Who would care about that?” Yet it found an audience much bigger than the one anyone would have predicted for it.
I believe that’s because there’s so much clutter and superficial noise in every kind of media — including content marketing — that people hunger for anything substantial. The fact that a piece of content may, on the surface, be outside someone’s immediate needs or interests, doesn’t really count for as much as we believe.
Authenticity counts for more, and generic is a dangerous middle ground for marketers hoping for broad appeal to hang around in. The trick to good content marketing that readers find useful is to know how to balance specificity with generic at the right time. Let me walk you through the way a writing teacher approaches this with writing students and see if we can apply the lesson to content marketing.
They may not like it, but they’ll respect it
To illustrate this theory that a niche approach can attract more readers, let me ask you to think about a genre of film, television or book that you don’t care for and “never” watch. And then reflect on the exceptions.
Many people will say something like, “I don’t like reality television,” but then admit, “But I do like Top Bridezilla Investors Island. That one’s kind of interesting.”
We all sometimes respond to things outside our regular interests because we notice that it avoids a formulaic approach.
Personally, I don’t care for teen melodramas and for star-crossed monsters and vampires in love. Except for one. I was drawn to Buffy the Vampire Slayer on what was then the WB network from the first scene I came across. I never became a superfan, because the genre isn’t for me, but its unique voice made an impression. I was an occasional viewer, and I remember asking friends if they had seen it, because it was fun to discuss and recommend something so different.
And it connected powerfully with many others. The show vastly outperformed its niche and became a cultural touchstone even for people like me who weren’t regular viewers.
Similarly, in the content world, the material from Deloitte University Press or Brookings is often on subjects that aren’t clearly relevant to my work. But the unique insights on the topics they cover keep pulling me in.
You can’t connect if you don’t put yourself out there
Committing to what is authentic about your approach and your niche can have a broader appeal than actually aiming for a broader appeal.
To achieve that, you have to find a balance between the generic and the specific. But content campaigns stumble over two common problems related to that balance.
- It could have been written for anybody.
- It could have been written by anybody.
Content that sounds like it is by anybody and for anybody can’t make a real connection with the audience. A lot of companies blow this — and blow a chance to build their brand. The content may have a lot of potential valuable in it, but there is no “self” to it, and the value is never realized.
The point of content marketing is to develop relationships, but customers can’t connect with you, start to be interested in you and grow to love you if they don’t know you.
But it would be a mistake to say the fix is as simple as “being specific.” Generic does have a place in your thinking when creating content, but only up to a point. Let me walk you through it.
It could have been written for anybody . . . and therefore it’s reaching nobody
A common piece of advice in content marketing (in all kinds of writing, actually) is to write with a specific segment or customer profile in mind. In my writing classes, I often ask students to imagine who their readers could be. Less experienced writers tend to say, “My subject could affect anyone, so anyone could read it.”
True, but that’s not really a very thoughtful approach. “Anyone could use this,” is a cop out. Writers of all types need to be deliberate and conscious about the readers they are addressing if they want to have the maximum impact.
And marketers need be just as deliberate and conscious about their target reader, viewer or listener. You may want Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea to love it, but that doesn’t excuse you from thinking about who exactly this is supposed to help.
You need to pick a target and commit to it, and if other readers outside that target group happen to find it and get something out of it, you take that as a bonus.
In fact, you’re more likely to get that bonus if you don’t drift into “generic” territory. A reader looking at a piece of writing targeted at someone else will appreciate it more, because of its authenticity, than something that is too general.
Readers turn out to be pretty good at tailoring themselves to a text that isn’t addressing them. On other hand, we have a hard time connecting with a text that is tailored for nobody in particular.
When we stumble on a conversation not really intended for us, we’re good at lurking at the edges to soak up what we can. We actually get pleasure as readers by filling in gaps on what we missed and sorting out what we don’t understand as long it does help us feel like we understand better. This is why many scenes in books and movies start in media res — in the middle of things — before the subject and characters have been fully introduced. The author is playing on this quirk of reader behavior to generate a sense of intrigue and pull us in.
Because readers enjoy the slight stretch, it’s actually pretty difficult to exclude someone from a written conversation. You can bore them by being inauthentic or superficial, but it’s hard to actually shut them out.
Many writers worry about excluding readers too much and tend to draw the circle too big. Don’t be afraid you will write in a way that closes the door on some readers. It’s more likely they leave on their own and close the door behind them if you are pandering. Write to your audience and trust that other people will keep up. They’ll be attracted to your energy and authenticity.
Suppose you do believe your information or point of view can “benefit everybody.” Then you’re in the lucky position of having one great idea out of which you can get more than one useful article. Segment your audience and repurpose that information by speaking directly to each segment.
You may hope that anyone in the world could find value in your content and that it will get widely shared and get nominated for a Peabody award. But if it could speak to anybody, it will speak to nobody. Develop each piece with a specific segment or buyer persona in mind, and accumulate a genuinely impressed audience over time. Now is not the time to be generic.
It could have been written by anybody, and that’s partly okay
Another way to think about content marketing is to consider who it could come from, and, here, generic is your friend up to a point. There are certain ways in which it should be generic and other ways in which should be totally unique.
When thinking about subjects, you do want to focus on the generic in this sense: the subject will often be something that in theory could be tackled by your competitors or other players in your marketplace. If you are the only person or company that could discuss the subject, it may not be right for your content marketing plan.
Think about it. The only subjects that are unique to you are your process and what differentiates your product or service. And there is a place to talk about those things, but it’s in promotion and advertising, not content marketing.
For example, if you are a law firm trying to grow your M&A business, an announcement about your new partners couldn’t be written by your competitor across town. Announcements about new deals you worked on couldn’t be written by a competitor. The subject is too unique to you and should therefore be part of the promotions arm of your plan rather than the content marketing arm.
Similarly, a software company might need to announce new product upgrades or to create a customer education piece outlining the benefits of their product, but that’s not content marketing. Higher ed marketing projects might need to tout the accomplishments of the school, but that’s not the same as trying to connect with prospective students through helpful content.
Instead, the law firm should think about the problems or questions their prospective clients are dealing with. Maybe their customers could use helpful information on something like preparing a post-merger conflict prevention strategy. In theory, any law firm you are competing with could develop content around that subject.
Or a SaaS company in the edtech space might know their potential buyers are anxious about implementation or buy-in issues. Again, any company in that ecosystem could reasonably tackle that subject.
That’s okay. When it comes to the subject, generic is your friend.
Generic topics succeed all the time with specific approaches to the topic
But you should be the opposite of generic when it comes to the insight, the point-of-view and the voice tackling that subject. The approach to a subject where you start to differentiate your brand in the customer’s mind.
In other words, the subject should be generic, but your take on it should be home brewed.
For example, in a thought leadership strategy, you don’t just want to share high-value information about your industry. You want to show a particular “way of thinking” about the subject. You want to help the customer understand their problem better — to show that you understand it better.
In my writing classes, we talk a lot about perspective, and I ask students to imagine a valley floor surrounded by hills overlooking the valley and a person on each hilltop. John has one perspective, Jane has another and I have yet another.
We are all focused on the same subject — the valley floor we’re looking at. But we would have different points of view on the subject, because we would be in different places looking at it from a different direction.
Your goal with thought leadership marketing is to demonstrate how distinct and valuable your point of view is. Don’t be afraid to cover familiar territory when you have something specific, unique and high value to say about it.
You want the content to say, “Lots of people are talking about this. But this take could only have been written by me.”
Help your customers love your story
Let’s return to the genre fiction example again. When you think about it, a large share of novels, plays, television shows and movies are about romantic relationships. And a cynic could reasonably ask how many different versions of the story of people falling in love could possibly be interesting.
My writing students, for example, submit piles of stories about the drama of their high school and college relationships. Which makes sense. If they’re going to “write what they know,” the range of original dramatic subjects is going to be more limited for young people.
And they’re anxious about that. Who cares about my love story, they think. So they hesitate. Or they tie themselves in knots trying to give the story some phony energy.
But I tell them that it isn’t important at all that all the love stories have been told. It’s perfectly fine to write on a subject that’s been tackled a million times before. It’s even fine to write something with exactly the same plot points as Romeo and Juliet. It’s not the subject and the plot points that people respond to.
People keep reading love stories because they promise something different despite the superficial similarities. It’s the way of looking at the world — the point of view — that informs that familiar territory. You’re looking down on the same old valley everyone has already seen a million times, but you’re doing it from your own rocky outcrop, and that’s what people will respond to.
This weekend at your local multiplex, millions of people are going to see yet another love story on film. And another one next weekend and the weekend after that. Some of those movies will flop. Some will do okay and then be forgotten. One of them may be the next Casablanca.
The story that will stand out and last won’t be the wildest variation on the theme. It will be the movie that feels like it comes from someplace in particular and is addressed to someone in particular.
The same goes for content marketing. You need to know who you are and what you’re about. And you need to know who you are trying to influence. Only when you are balancing the generic and the specific to will your content cut through all the noise to sound like it comes from someone to someone.