A cardinal sin of content marketing: Writing what you want the audience to have read

No matter who your audience1 may be – admins, developers, decision makers, or anyone else – they’re not obligated to read your content. It’s all about “what’s in it for me?” If you need to communicate something to an audience, you have to write what they want to read and not what you want them to have read.

One of the things I see over and over again in writing is an assumption that the reader is going to find and read something from start to finish. It’s someone else’s job to put the content in front of the reader and assumed that once it’s there, the reader will just start with the first sentence and dutifully read through to the end, soaking up the messaging like a sponge.

That is, in a word, wrong.

You can flog a piece of content on social media until it’s been thrown in front of the entire world, tossing out spend to promote it or just repeating it endlessly. The audience is only going to click on something if they find it interesting.

Getting and keeping attention

It’s incredibly hard to get people’s attention in the first place. We’re awash in content and our audience has limited time. Assuming you succeed in getting someone to click, the next challenge is getting them to actually read.

When I find something on the web that seems interesting, I’ll click and see what it’s about. In the first few seconds I’m skimming the page to see “is this worth my time?” or “is this going to answer my questions?”

The majority of the time, I bounce without doing more than skimming the first few bits and subheads. If it’s clear the content doesn’t apply to me or isn’t interesting, I’m out. If it’s a bunch of written by committee, by-the-numbers, “we want people to think this” I’m not only out but I’ll make a mental note to avoid that site in the future.

Thoughts don’t want to be led

One of the phrases that makes me cringe every time is “thought leadership.” Content marketing that’s attempting to be “thought leadership” is almost invariably created to serve a person or company’s “brand” and not to serve the reader.

The folks I think of as experts on topics are usually blogging because they are practitioners who genuinely have info or ideas they want to convey. They (usually) want a conversation, not just a one-way megaphone. When Tim Bray writes, for example, I pay attention.

Readers owe you nothing

Too much content is written as if the reader owes you their attention and time. They don’t. They aggressively don’t. If you want to have a conversation with an audience, then you owe them something to get that conversation started.

[1] In case it’s not obvious, this is primarily about writing content for a tech audience on the web from a marketing perspective. Even if the “marketing” is “tell people about my awesome open source project.”

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