A hundred years ago, getting your writing in front of an audience was expensive. Books and newspapers were the best methods to broadcast your ideas, and letters could spread ideas on a one-to-one basis. No matter how you wanted to spread your idea every step of the process cost money. Paper, ink, postage, presses, binding, and editing all went into the publishing workflow. Today it costs practically nothing to get your ideas out into the world.
The fact that publishing and broadcasting are nearly free makes it easy to spread your message, but you still need the skill of inspiring action to make a sale or achieve your other goals. You can distill most of the advice about writing content today to something like “write until you don’t suck.”
That’s terrible advice.
It resonates because we know repetition and practice can help us improve most skills, but telling someone to write until they don’t suck is like giving someone a hockey stick and telling them to practice the trombone. Practice won't fix our bad habits. If you want to become a better communicator you have to improve how you start thinking about what you want to say.
You have to focus on your audience.
This focus is the secret to effective communication, and it’s not easy. When you learn to start asking yourself “What’s in this for the reader?” you start to consider your audience before you create a message. Learning to flip this switch and empathize with your audience before you write will help you focus on meeting the need of your audience.
Put your audience first. Always.
Most bad marketing boils down to one thing: focusing on your outcome instead of how you can help your audience. Companies spend too much time focused on what they want for their product, instead of focusing on what their audience wants and needs. Failing to consider, and speak to, what motivates your audience will doom your writing.
When we write at Wildbit, we do our best to answer these questions:
- Who will be reading this post or email?
- What do we want them to learn?
We used Trello to collect ideas and plan our editorial calendar and recently moved this over to Basecamp. It doesn't matter what tool you use, but you should ask yourself these questions for each post. Answering these questions helps the author focus their writing, and it makes it easy for anyone editing to ensure that the topic didn’t accidentally drift from the author’s original intentions.
This idea applies to more than just blog posts or marketing copy. To drive this home, let’s take a look at two different versions of an introduction email.
If I had a nickel for every bad introduction email that made me roll my eyes, I’d be living la vida mocha with rolls and rolls of coins at Starbucks. A bad introduction email strips away your time and erodes goodwill. Sending emails like this to your customers can make them dislike you and your service.
Here’s an example of the kind of email I’m talking about. It's based on an actual email I saw not long ago, and the company name and other info has been changed because I'm not trying to call any one out. Lots of people send this kind of email.
Subject: Hi from Postmark
Hey John Smith.
I wanted to check in to see how everything is going with your Postmark account. We are rolling out advancements to our API I think you will enjoy. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can assist in any way.
When someone gets a message like this, they have one one question: why did you send me this email? This email looks like a genuine offer for help at first glance, but it's entirely focused on the author’s needs and wants. If I want to know more, I've got to send an email. What if I don't use the Postmark API? There’s no content, nothing that moves their knowledge or relationship with your product forward. It's a perfunctory note that demands my attention with no real payoff.
Be informative and helpful
You’d probably respond better to something like:
Subject: Hi John, it’s Shane from Postmark
I wanted to say hi and share some upcoming changes to Postmark that are planned for the coming months in case you want early access or need to plan ahead to get the most out of these improvements.
- track your transactional email stats with our improved dashboard
- pull message status info into your app with an update to our MessageEvents API
- manage your transactional emails with our new templates. Here’s a sneak peek!
Would you like a demo or early access during our beta release for any of these new features? I’d love to answer any questions you have. You can reply to this email, and I’ll make sure you have everything you need.
Thank you for being a Postmark customer!
What’s the difference between these messages?
The first message doesn't tell the recipient anything. There’s no new information, not a single thread containing anything beneficial. Imagine talking to someone at a conference and saying “We’re rolling out widgets I think you’ll enjoy. Let me know if you have any questions.” You’d feel awkward saying that in real life. You’d probably get a bit of side-eye and an “OK” but you aren’t leaving with a new, or more engaged, customer.
A good way to prevent this awkwardness is to read your message out loud and imagine saying those words to someone in person before you send it. Ask yourself if what you wrote is warm and personal or comes across as awkward and cold? Your goal should be to connect with your recipients, and your message should help them in some way.
The second message focuses on giving the reader new information they can use to get more value out of a product they use. It has a conversational tone, and, by mentioning specific info, it gives them a chance to connect with a problem they’re experiencing. Very few people will get a personal message like this and scratch their head wondering why they got that email.
If you want your writing to connect with your customers, you have to make sure your message gives them something valuable. It’s easy to conflate value with money, but is really a matter of finding how to provide a benefit to your audience. To borrow a bit from another Wildbit blog post, bring your audience value by focusing on how you can make a remarkable impact on their lives.
There’s no reason to send productivity daggers and rob your customers of their time. Send emails that give people valuable information or insight. Help them achieve something they want, whether that's to be more productive or save money. This will improve your messages and make your customers happier.