A friend of a friend of mine works at a Bay Area startup. Let’s call him Mike. Mike was fresh out of college when he landed a job as a Growth Marketer. During his first few weeks at the startup he dabbled in content marketing, but Mike wasn’t seeing much traction and his message wasn’t sticking with the company’s audience. He was about to abandon blogging for another option when suddenly, an idea hit him. He scrapped everything he’d written previously and mapped out a new strategy to follow when writing. If his content didn’t address the core message of the business or appeal to the identity of their customers, he wouldn’t use it. In a matter of weeks, people started picking up on the things he was writing and views on the company’s blog skyrocketed.

What did Mike change that made his writing resonate with people so drastically?

Focus on the “Why”

Mike presented himself with the question, “Why do people want our product?” After he answered that question, he asked “Why?” again until he’d done this exercise five times and reached the underlying message he needed to get across. Asking why seems easy. It’s just a simple question, but by asking it you’re able to get to the root of your audience’s problem.  

Let’s suppose you work for a company that sells mismatched socks. You’re put in charge of marketing and you need to triple the amount of content you’re distributing by the end of the year. Where do you start? Answer: you start with why.

  • Why do people want your mismatched socks?
  • Because they’re easier to wear than matching socks.
  • And why are they easier to wear?
  • Because if you lose one, you don’t have to worry about having a pair to match it.
  • Why is losing one sock such an issue?

People lose at least one sock every time they do laundry. So our socks eliminate the need to keep repurchasing matching pairs. You can quickly see how this exercise can go on and on until you get to the main theme you’re trying to convey.

We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.” [Chip Heath, Professor, and author of Made to Stick]

A great idea is not enough, unless you can communicate your idea on a human level.

Communicate on a Human Level

One way to do this is by focusing in on your core theme. For example, Southwest Airlines’ core is “We are the low cost airline.” Every decision they make must meet this simple, yet concrete principle. So if one of the Southwest employees proposes offering extravagant dinners on the flight, does this align to the company’s core message? No, it doesn’t, because nicer dinners don’t make Southwest the low cost airline.

For a marketer who is trying to communicate to a large audience, establishing your core message by understanding why people need your product or service is the key to differentiating your brand and keep your message aligned to your business goals.

Asking “Why?” is just the beginning of this puzzle. If you’re going to succeed at making your content relevant, you also need to understand what genuinely resonates with your readers.

The easiest way to make associations with things that your audience cares about is to tap into something they already understand. For instance, it’s easier to teach a child what an “onomatopoeia” is by showing a funny cartoon than by reading off a dense dictionary definition. If you want to explain your product or service to someone, use simple examples. When startup founders pitch their ideas, they’ll often compare their business to another pre-existing company. They might tell someone they’re “Airbnb for dogs” or “Uber for babysitting” because this ties into a pre-existing idea that someone is already familiar with.

If you keep your message grounded in examples that your audience understands, you’ll have a better chance at explaining the value of your product to them.

Beyond connecting your writing to familiar topics, you need to also consider the values of your prospective customers.

Appeal to Identity

Want to get people to care about what you’re selling? The quickest way to do this is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about. A simple yet effective way to incorporate this into your messaging is by adding self-interest into any headline you write. For example, what do you notice about the headlines below?

  • You Can Laugh at Money Worries If You Follow This Simple Plan
  • How You Can Improve Your Memory in One Evening
  • Are Your Sleeping Habits Turning You Into a Bear?

Okay, that last one might just be clickbait, but these headlines all talk about “you,” the reader, and why you need to read this article.

If you write to the desires, fears, needs, and emotional triggers of your audience you’ll stray away from the realm of sales pitches and contribute to things that actually matter to them.

Be cautious of how you craft emotional appeals for your messaging though. We often assume we can make people care by emphasizing the consequences of not taking an action, but as you’ll learn this isn’t always effective.

Identity is more powerful than consequences

Marketers love to highlight the consequences that can happen if someone fails to buy their product or service. We see headlines everywhere that feed our FOMO, or fear of missing out, on things like money, success, and experiences. However, writing about consequences is more complicated than you might think.

In 1998, Donald Kinder, a political scientist and professor at the University of Michigan published a research paper on the effects of self-interest on political views and his results were shocking. Kinder found that when Americans are faced with a choice to vote in their own personal interest, “The unemployed do not line up behind policies designed to alleviate economic distress. The medically needy are no more likely to favor government health insurance than the fully insured. Parents of children in public schools are not more likely to support government aid to education than other citizens.”

We assume that people who need certain public assistanceor at least understand the consequences of not receiving itvote in their own personal interest, but Kinder repeatedly found that this is not the case. This is crucial for content marketing because it means that there’s something else affecting our perception of identity and how we evaluate consequences.

People don’t always act in ways that favor their own self-interest because their identity is tied to a group.

Almost all of us identify with a group. This association might be a hobby or where we grew up, but regardless it affects how we make decisions. Consider a college student majoring in Environmental Science who is deciding between two products to buy. As someone who is environmentally conscious, they might come to a decision based on which product will have less of an environmental impact. So as a marketer selling this product, you need to understand how this person’s beliefs will influence their purchasing decisions.  

Appealing to your audience involves understanding what motivates them on a personal level. If you want to make an impact with your content marketing, think strategically about the things that matter to your customers.

Want more tools to help you strengthen your content marketing? Try these resources: