It’s not me, it’s you
Back in the dot-com boom, I was the CTO of an interactive development company, and we used to say that the great thing about the World Wide Web was that it was so easy that anybody could do it. The bad thing about it was that it was so easy that anybody could do it. The result was that you couldn’t turn around without seeing a picture of somebody’s cat.
Nowadays, in many ways, it’s even easier. Anybody can start up a blog, or a youtube channel, or a Facebook page to become a publisher. And the result is you can’t turn around without seeing an animated GIF of somebody’s cat.
The common thread, of course, is that all this content is about the authors, who use the platform to tell their stories. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but if you’re going to write truly useful content, it’s not about you. It’s about your audience.
Let’s take this very piece of content, for example. I started by telling you something about me, but I spent exactly one sentence on it, and the only reason I mentioned it was to set the context and establish my credentials for what was to come. Then, after giving you a couple of pieces of information, I moved in for the kill.
I told you what it had to do with you.
It’s important to understand that people are not looking to you for your expertise. They are looking to you for what your expertise can do for them.
So what does this mean to you? It means that when you’re planning your how-to content, you need to take a few things into consideration:
- What does your audience need?
- What do they think they need?
- What do they want?
- What do they already know/have?
- What do they need to know/have?
- What benefit will they get?
- What do they need to do to get that benefit?
Keeping these things in mind will bring you through the entire process of producing a piece of content.
Starting out right
The first place that you need to think about your audience and what they need is in choosing your topic in the first place. The temptation is to think that if it’s interesting to you, it will be interesting to them, and in some cases, that’s as far as you need to go — if you’re just producing content for content’s sake.
On the other hand, if you are producing content that has a purpose, then there’s a lot more that you need to do. If you’re strapped for content ideas, then your research should involve going where your audience goes, and seeing what it is that they’re talking about, and more importantly, what they’re asking about.
For example, if you want to create how-to content about pumpkin carving (why you’d decide to do that is a topic for another day), you should be a regular on halloween-themed forums and Facebook groups, and you should be paying attention to what people are saying about how they want to carve their pumpkins. Look at what they share because they think it’s awesome. Look at the hilarious fails they share and think about how they could have done better. (You should also be answering questions, but again, that’s a topic for another time.)
Sometimes, though, you already know what you want to write about, and it’s not so much because you see people asking for the information, but because you see a need and you don’t see it filled anywhere. Even then, however, you should be thinking about why the audience should need a particular skill. What will it do for them?
Focusing on your audience
Once you’ve done your research, there are lots of reasons that you should be focusing on your audience instead of yourself when it comes to the content itself. Some of them have to do with the success of your content, and others have to do with its effectiveness.
On the success front, if your content is going to stand out among the literally millions of new pages that hit the web every single day, you have to have something to offer. A generic step-by-step is table stakes; you need to make your audience feel like they’ve gotten value from what you’ve given them, and the only way to do that is to show them what that value is for them.
As for effectiveness, knowing what to do is only part of the picture; knowing why you should do it is just as important. First off, it makes what you’re explaining a lot easier to understand, because the instructions have meaning. Second, it makes what you’re explaining a lot easier to remember, which helps your audience go from seeing to learning.
In the promotion phase
Once your content is complete, the temptation is to think you’re finished, but that’s just part of your job. You also need to promote your content, and this is the one place where not thinking about your audience isn’t just a mistake; it’s fatal.
When you are trying to get your audience to read or watch or listen to your content, you’re literally asking them to make an investment. Even if you’re giving it away for free, even if you’re not asking for an opt-in, you’re still asking them to invest their time — a quantity that’s more and more precious.
For example, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve spent at least a few minutes reading this article. I’m glad you did, but weren’t there other things you could have been doing? If I hadn’t convinced you that it was in your own best interest to keep reading, you would have been gone long ago.
When planning your promotion, think about your audience. Where do they hang out? What social networks do they frequent? What terms are they likely to be searching for? And most of all, what message is going to convince them that your content will provide them some kind of benefit?
So remember: put your audience first in everything that you do, and they will come back.