Your Audience Called. They Say You're Fired.

“You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

– Zig Ziglar

Sounds like a nice philosophy, right? But is it a business strategy?

Yes. According to some, it’s not even a business strategy anymore. It’s a business requirement.

Here’s how Joe Pulizzi frames this idea for content marketers, specifically “content marketing non-believers”:

“Your customers don’t care about you, your products, your services…they care about themselves, their wants and their needs. Content marketing is about creating interesting information your customers are passionate about so they actually pay attention to you.”

That’s all true, and it points to an excellent ideal. But when the rubber meets the road – when you are creating and scheduling the content you’ll create ­– most marketers are keenly aware of their business objectives, too. Often there is a real push and pull between what your audience wants you to publish, and what you (or your boss, or your boss’s boss) want to publish.

Unfortunately, sometimes the business priorities don’t just come first – they all but drown out the audience’s priorities. That’s a disappointment to your audience (and could feel like a veiled diss from their point of view). There’s a disconnect when we say “our customers are our #1 priority”, but then publish content that’s not much more than an advertisement.

Our audiences don’t need advertisements. They need help. They need inspiration – maybe even a laugh now and then. We need to be entertaining them and educating them in the same breath.

“Need” is the right word here. This airy stuff about entertaining and educating our audiences isn’t just lofty marketing pep talk.

These people don’t have to listen to us. Our audiences aren’t captive.

The challenge isn’t just that our audiences are free to bail at any moment. It’s also that there is no shortage of content available – great content, maybe even fabulous content. In fact, there’s more content available than any of us could possibly consume, even if we narrowed our focus down to the niche-iest niche.

As this graphic shows, more content is being created than your audience can consume. The way to win their attention is to deliver helpful content.

From Mark Schaefer’s landmark blog post about “content shock” – the idea that content marketing will become less effective as more and more content is published.


Even if there are still a few gaps in all that content, our audiences are already maxed out. They’re pummeled with information from every other corner of their lives. You might be selling widgets, and you worry about whether they’re reading your widget white paper or your competitor’s. But they have more to think about than just widgets; they have 20 other aspects of their business to juggle, and each comes with its own panoply of media to be consumed. And they have lives: their Twitter feeds are often a mix of business and personal. Webinar invites are happening when they could be having coffee with a dear friend. In-person events could mean that they’ll miss an internal focus group with the CEO. Or their kids’ soccer practice.

These peoples’ attention is precious. And it cannot be bought. So when we serve our business needs too heavily in our content – to the suppression of our audience’s needs – they start to disconnect.

This disconnect is happening a lot. Engagement rates are falling – and not just on social media. In part, perhaps, because the audience’s needs aren’t being met well enough by the content many firms are publishing. When that happens, they naturally disconnect.

Over time, they opt out.

That’s an audience member’s version of firing us. If enough of them opt-out (or “emotionally unsubscribe” as some email marketers put it), then you’ve got a deeper problem: Lots of content your audience doesn’t care for, and too often company-focused.

“Fool me once”

There’s another hidden risk to content that doesn’t serve your audience. It can actually train them to ignore you.

Here’s how it happens: You have a busy publishing schedule to keep up with. So you keep pushing out content, piece after piece, chasing that little “just-published” spike in traffic and shares. The content looks okay on the surface, but it’s kinda disappointing once consumed.

In an experience similar to “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” your audience will peek at your content a few times, find it lacking, and move on – remembering that you disappointed them. Do this a lot, over time, and you’ll have literally trained them to distrust you. You’ll have taught them to ignore you.

An example of content that celebrates the company and ignores the audience

I got a webinar invite yesterday for a full 30-minute webinar that was an interview with the company’s CEO. A kind of “get to know you” sort of thing.

There was no new product or feature. There was no talk of customers. It was just the CEO talking about his views of the company.

Now don’t get me wrong – I bet this CEO is a fun, interesting guy. Most CEOs are. And I bet this webinar is interesting for employees of the company, and perhaps media and industry analysts. But that’s not a compelling enough reason for this company’s prospects to want to get on this webinar.

This company’s customer and prospect audience is made up of busy people with more pressing things to do. And unfortunately, launching a webinar about getting to know the CEO comes off as self-serving to a customer audience. Picking a topic like that sends a great big billboard of a message to your audience: This company still thinks it’s all about them.

The company may not have intended this. I bet they didn’t. I bet they wanted to do something entertaining and outside the typical white paper and blog post format. That’s a great instinct. But… I think they might have done better if their content team had kept brainstorming, even after the awesome CEO-webinar idea came up. Or maybe it was the right content for a very specific target audience, and that’s where the disconnect happened. The point is, it was a major disconnect, and you can’t afford too many of those.

Too many of us do too many of those disconnects, too often.

It’s all about them

If we want to get and keep the attention of our audiences, it has to be all about them. It’s about their experience with our content – what they want to know, when they want to know it, and how they want to learn it or “consume” it.

Your business needs have to take a back seat. Because if they don’t… your audience is going to increasingly tune you out. And then you’ll get the miserable engagement rates we’ve been hearing about. Then all the money you put into that self-serving content will be wasted. Because people won’t be paying any more attention to it than if it was advertising.

Because it basically is advertising.

This is a bit of an evolution in how we’ve been talking about balancing audience needs with business needs. Many of us have been working on sort of a “compromise model.” We’re trying to publish things that benefit both our audience and ourselves.

That’s not a bad thing – it can work well, and it is working well for many companies.

But what I’m suggesting takes this further. It’s an audience-first approach that’s closer to what Joe Pulizzi was talking about earlier.

This diagram reflects the differences between the compromise and audience-first approach when creating content.

Now what?

We’re still in business here, right? At some point, there’s got to be some business pitched, right?

Right. But the business pitch (if you’d even call it that) needs to take a back seat.

One of the assumptions of realistic, best-in-class content marketing programs is that most of your audience is not ready to buy from you at any given moment. They’re not out shopping for what they need – even when they’re reading or viewing your content.

All the work you do to attract their attention is not to force them into your sales funnel. It’s to build up a rapport with them – to get them to know, like and trust you, so when they do need what you sell, they’ll think of you first. (Hat tip to Rand Fishkin, in one of his Whiteboard Friday videos, for this idea).

This idea is fairly easy to understand, but it seems like it’s darn near excruciating for some businesses. There’s such an urgent need for more leads, more sales, more revenue, that it’s almost impossible to embrace such a slow-sell, soft-sell approach. (Though you can still serve your business interests with “audience-first” content. Just make your call to actions softer, like signing up for your emails, following you on social, or viewing other content.)

Case studies are an example. An effective case study does make the sponsoring company look good, but that’s not its value to the reader. Its real value for the reader comes when it shows a person with a business problem – just like the one the reader grapples with – and how they solved that problem. If the content helps the reader, then the sponsoring company looks helpful, and a link to a related page on the website makes sense for the reader who wants a deeper look into this solution. But without that component of reader self-interest, the case study has no value to the reader, and won’t get read. And then it’s not a good case study, it’s a waste of your expensive resources.

Because of the pressure, a lot of companies push their content marketing toward being more like advertising. And then it doesn’t work.

Their audiences fire them, because people are sensitive to sales pitches. Just one misplaced, out-of-tune sales pitch can color how a prospect hears what you say. It can turn you from a trusted authority into a biased infomercial. And no one volunteers to hear that.

The volunteering part of this is especially important. Unlike advertising audiences, content marketing audiences are not held hostage. They don’t have to follow us, or listen to us, or even know who we are.

Even if they have liked your content in the past, they can unsubscribe or unfollow in a click or two. They can fire us at any time. That’s why their needs should get served first.

They want to like you

If all this sounds daunting, take heart. Despite how busy and distracted our audiences are, they still have two precious attributes: Curiosity, and faith. They will still check something out that looks interesting or helpful. They believe there’s good stuff all over the web (and there is). They’re always on the lookout for good content. They want to find what we want to give them.

Here’s another way to explain this. A long time ago, I was getting ready for a big interview and I was nervous as all… heck. On my way out the door, my roommate told me, “They want to like you.”

Our audiences want to like us. They want to trust us and rely on us as the first point of information. We just need to step up.