Have you ever hopped over to an enticing piece of content and asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Maybe you were hoping to pick up some tips on hiring a new content writer. Maybe you wanted to get current on the latest trends in your industry. Or maybe you just wanted to kill some time watching a stupid cat video or twelve.
Believe it or not, each of those reasons — and any reason we engage with content — boils down to one simple motivation: filling a need.
Yes, believe it or not, even those stupid cat videos serve a higher purpose: alleviating boredom, giving you a break from work, or maybe just making you smile on a gray Monday morning.
As content marketers — the folks who create and publish all this wonderful content — we need to be aware of the needs of our audience, and how our content is meeting those needs. Where do we start? How do we even begin to wrap our arms around the plethora of human needs that our content can and should be addressing?
Well, one place to start is with the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Back in the 1940s, Maslow posited a theory that every action human beings take, from noshing on chicken wings to launching rockets to the moon, is taken in the name of meeting certain needs. And we have tons of ‘em.
Of course, not all needs are created equal, which is where Maslow’s now-famous pyramid comes into play:
Now if the sheer magnitude of this mission freaks you out, relax. We don’t need to run out and start pursuing a psychology degree to be effective content marketers. But we can do what we do more effectively if we’re conscious of our mission to meet the needs of our audience.
So let’s take a closer look at Maslow’s hierarchy, slice by slice.
Level 1: Physiological Needs
We all need to breathe. We all need to eat, hydrate, sleep, and go to the bathroom. If we’re not meeting these basic needs, nothing else much matters, right?
In most modern societies, getting these basic needs met is not a problem, and for that we can be grateful. Most of us have ready access to safe food, clean water, and a place to grab some shut-eye.
Depending on your industry, you may or may not have the opportunity to help your audience meet these basic physiological needs. If you sell drill bits to oil-and-gas exploration companies, you can probably skip over this stage. But if you’re in the medical, health, or wellness area, you can serve your audience by helping them meet these needs in healthier, more effective ways — not just for themselves, but for their families and loved ones as well.
- 5 Superstar Breakfast Foods to Fuel Your Day
- How to Set a Reasonable Bedtime … and Stick to It
- 9 Sneaky Ways to Get Your Kids to Drink More Water
Level 2: Safety and Security Needs
Once our basic physiological needs are met, we move up to the next level: needs around protecting ourselves from harmful or hazardous forces.
Our cave-dwelling ancestors met these needs by covering themselves with animal skins, seeking defensible shelter, and guarding against predators. In modern society, our view of security needs is a bit different: we want to make sure we keep our jobs, have enough money in the bank, guard ourselves and our families against disease, protect our property from theft and destruction, keep ourselves safe when we drive our cars — the list goes on.
If you’re in the insurance field or any industry that addresses security (including cybersecurity), meeting safety needs is a no-brainer. But nearly any industry — B2B or B2C — can tap into its audiences needs to feel safe.
Remember the tagline “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM?” There’s a reason why that tagline is still famous today: it’s a no-bones-about-it appeal to the modern need for security, writ large.
And our 21st-century version of meeting safety needs goes far beyond fear of unemployment, even on the B2B side. We don’t want to lose customers. We don’t want to get in trouble with government or regulatory authorities. We don’t want to lose market share to our competitors. We really, really don’t want to look bad (and in today’s environment, we have less and less direct control over that image).
As content marketers, we need to ask ourselves this question about our audiences: “What are they afraid of … and how can we help them address that fear?” Then look for ways to answer that question through powerful, engaging content.
- Top 5 Reasons People Un-Follow You on Social Media
- What You Need to Know About Retaining Customers
- How to Avoid an IRS Tax Audit
Level 3: Love and Belonging Needs
Okay, here’s where it starts to get fun. Now that we’ve addressed our basic bodily functions and ensured that a saber-tooth tiger (or the 21st-century equivalent) won’t be eating us for lunch, we look outside ourselves and address our needs to be loved and to feel as though we belong.
But loved by whom? Belonging where, and with whom? It’s obvious that we want love from our spouses, friends, and families (although we might prefer some of those family members love us from a distance), but how do we expand on that idea and tie it into our content marketing?
Years ago, my husband and I rode motorcycles together, he on his manly Buell and me on my thumpy little Suzuki Savage. (Yes, my name is Rachel and I’m a former biker chick.) As you learn the basics of riding and get out there on the road, you quickly learn “the wave.” You see a fellow biker coming the other way, you wave. Not because you know each other, but because you’re both members of the unchartered Society of People Who Ride Motorcycles. Just another way we feed our need for love and belonging.
Whom do we want to love us? Our bosses, our coworkers, our customers, the cashier who rings up our groceries, the crossing guard at school … let’s face it, we want everybody to love us. And if you don’t believe me, answer me this: Has a dirty look from a total stranger ever ruined your good mood?
And as for belonging, have you ever accompanied a significant other to a family reunion when you had just started dating? I’m guessing it was more than a little awkward, sitting there listening to all those shared experiences with nothing to contribute. It was awkward because your need for belonging wasn’t being met.
How can we as content marketers meet this need for love and belonging? For one thing, we can enhance our own audience relationships through initiatives like
- Social media shout-outs (“Congratulations to Wes Welding World on their brand-new location!”)
- Tokens of appreciation (sending an email containing exclusive content — “our thank-you for being a loyal newsletter subscriber”)
- An exclusive Facebook Group
We can also help our audience members meet the need for love and belonging in their own worlds, with content topics such as
- 5 Ways to Make Customers Sing Your Praises
- How to Fit in at Any Networking Event
- What the World’s Best-Loved Brands Know About Content Marketing
Level 4: Esteem Needs
By now I hope you see how Maslow’s levels of needs are gradually becoming more complex and sophisticated — which means more opportunities for us content marketers to meet them. In the last level we addressed our needs for love and belonging. Now that we have our “tribes,” we want them to think well of us (esteem of others), and we also want to think well of ourselves (self-esteem).
Even the least ambitious among us crave a certain level of esteem, of appreciation for ourselves and our contributions. While the love-related needs of Level 4 focus more on trust, acceptance, and intimacy, esteem needs focus more on respect. And while belonging-related needs focus on fitting in, esteem needs focus on standing out.
This is also the level where competition can enter the picture — not simply being viewed as “good,” but being viewed as “better than.” Most of us would be reluctant to say we want to be esteemed more highly than our peers … but that doesn’t mean we’d turn down an award for outstanding performance.
As content marketers, we can help our audiences meet their need for esteem by showing them how to set themselves apart, to earn a level of respect reserved for the best of the best.
- How to Ace Your Next Performance Review
- 5 Ways to Make Your Brand Stand Out
- 5 CEOs Share Their Secrets for Rising to the Top
Level 5: Self-actualization Needs
Well, here we are at the top slice of the pyramid. Didn’t take long, did it?
This highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy can be the most difficult to define. In a sense, self-actualization gives us the final target at which the pursuit of all other needs has been aiming. It’s the achievement of our full potential, the becoming of what we were meant to become since the day we drew our first breath. It characterizes not only athletes like Michael Phelps and artists like Picasso, but also of the full-time mother who’s in love with her role and performs it exceptionally, day in and day out.
Another tricky aspect of self-actualization is that it’s not an item on some unseen checklist — it can’t be. It’s in our nature to be constantly striving toward becoming the best of ourselves, and our quest for it won’t end until the day we bid farewell to this fair planet. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist always has a new masterpiece in the works. The CEO is always looking for ways to take her organization to new heights and to leave a personal legacy. Once Bill Gates had amassed more wealth than most of us could even dream of, he turned his attention to helping build a better world through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now his full-time job.
What does this mean for us content marketers? Surely we can’t impart the cosmic secrets to self-actualization in our little blog posts and e-books, can we?
No, but I believe we can make a difference at this level by helping the people in our audience to be who they are, only better.
For example, I recently took up a new hobby: learning to play the guitar. I practice up to an hour a day. Why? It certainly has nothing to do with meeting my physiological needs (Level 1) or my need for personal security (Level 2 … although if attacked by an angry bear I could try to soothe him with a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace”). I have no designs on ever playing beyond the confines of my little room, so I don’t do it for love or belonging (Level 3), and certainly not for esteem (Level 4). So why do I devote so much time and attention to this activity? Because I found a pursuit that makes me happy, and I want to get better at it, simply for my own personal fulfillment.
I am a musician, and because I am a musician, I feel the need to become a better musician. Just like the full-time mom, the CEO, the athlete, the painter feel the need to become better at what they do … because it’s what they are.
Okay, now that’s something we content marketers can work with. We can look at the people in our audiences and identify opportunities to help them become the best versions of themselves.
- 7 Online Courses to Make You a Better Writer
- What Great Guitarists Know About Changing Chords (if you stumble across this one, please send it to me!)
- How to Leave a Legacy in Your Organization
The View from the Top
Congratulations — you’ve reached the peak of Maslow’s pyramid!
If you’re feeling a bit of information overload at this point, I understand. I’ve shared a lot of ideas with you and presented you with a whole new way of viewing our mission as content marketers.
This doesn’t mean you need to change everything about your content marketing or start over from scratch. In fact, the more deeply you dive into Maslow’s hierarchy, you’ll probably find you’ve already published ample content to meet these five levels of needs — I just showed you one way to put labels on it.
Take it slow, play with these ideas, brainstorm with your team, and see what you come up with. And if you have a moment, drop me a line and let me know how it’s going.