My junior year in college, I took a nonfiction-writing course. For one of our first assignments, the professor had each of us write a step-by-step how-to of something that we knew how to do well, but intended for an audience that would be unfamiliar to the task.
“Write instructions as if you were conveying them to someone from an alien planet,” the professor advised.
At the time, I found the assignment asinine: Why are we wasting time writing how-tos and recipes rather than exploring worlds we didn’t know? Where was the craft in that? And so to mock the assignment and express my derision, I chose to write a “recipe” on the simplest thing I could imagine: How to Make Ice Cubes. “Great idea,” the professor said simply, with an irritatingly blank expression.
Of course, what my writing professor knew—and I didn’t—was that it’s a lot harder to write what you know very well than it is to research and explain what you are less intimate with. What’s more, simple concepts you take for granted can suddenly take on enormous complexity: How do you explain the concept of an “ice cube tray” if you can’t use the words “ice cube”? What’s water? Where does it come from?
The point of it was to exercise our ability to view things from the reader’s perspective, and to convey the familiar but complex with simplicity, brevity, and clarity. Which I learned was extremely hard to do.
For the past six months, I’d been writing—with C.C. Chapman—a new version of How to Make Ice Cubes: Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business—as the title suggests, a book about how to create all kinds of online content that inspires your customers to become your fans. It’s a subject I know well, having been developing online content for almost 14 years. And so I have a renewed appreciation for how difficult it is to express what you know so well in a way that uniquely clarifies and succinctly enlightens—and does so in an engaging way.
So what does this have to do with you, or with the marketing of your business?
Everything. Because what marketers do is convey information about their products and services with simplicity, brevity, clarity—in an engaging way. It’s not unlike teaching, either, because marketers frequently develop content and other messages that don't just simply talk about their products, but inform and educate their audience in an effort to convey why those products matter.
Did you ever hear the expression, “Those who can—do. And those who can’t—teach”? The pejorative premise is that those who master something—whether it’s making chicken vindaloo, or ice cubes, or writing books—make a living doing that thing. While those who don't master that something spend their miserable lives bossing others around, and telling them how to do the things they themselves can’t.
Of course, the truth is anything but: The best teachers tend to know their subject better than anyone. Their true genius is that they can take what they know very well and—like a good writer and a skilled marketer—convey it in a way that engages.
(That quote about teaching, by the way, is sometimes attributed to journalist and social critic HL Mencken, and sometimes to the writer George Bernard Shaw. Since Mencken was a one-time fan boy of Shaw's (he published a book on Shaw’s plays in 1905), many peg Shaw as the quote’s author. And by “many” I mean my local public librarians, whom I trust because librarians tend to be correct on issues such as these.)
The thing about good writing and great teaching is that they have an awful lot to do with good marketing. Just as good writing requires you to consider the reader, and good teaching insists that you engage the pupil, good marketing forces you to consider the world from your customer’s point of view: Is your marketing speaking directly to your customer’s pains, or wants, or needs?
What’s more: Does your marketing speak with true empathy? Is your message resonating with your customers because you are inspired to share it? Are you offering them something they truly want to know? Or are you just a bore who is talking about yourself?
“The trick is always to look at your business or brand from the outside in,” Richard Branson wrote on this site recently. “Instead of looking strictly through the prism of the latest quarterly financials, attempt to see yourself as your customers see you.”
Buried in that piece is a gem of a suggestion, as a kind of litmus test about whether your own business regards its customers with empathy: Try calling your own customer service line, Branson suggests, adding, “Just finding the number can be interesting.”
As business owners, we are all entrenched in the day-to-day of running the business, which can make it difficult sometimes to step outside of our own purview and look at things with the fresh perspective of a customer.
Branson’s idea is one way of doing that; here are some other ideas for seeing things from a customer’s point of view.
Express the key thing your product or service does for your customers in a single sentence. This isn’t the value-proposition elevator speech, which is often about what you do, not what you do for your customer.
Try to express the gist of what you want to say in a single sentence. (That’s a trick from journalism school.) This applies well to business marketing, too: What do you want your prospect or customer to know, first and foremost? I bumbled over a way to succinctly express what our book was about until I practiced what I'm preaching here. (I tried to say too much, because I knew the subject—like I knew ice cubes—too well.) Similarly, this Boston restaurant looks at its business from the customer’s perspective, when it could have just advertised, “Patio seating.” The difference is subtle, but powerful.
Ask customer service. The front line is a great source for feedback, so ask them: What are customers contacting us about? What problems do they have? How might you help them resolve their issues?
Better yet, call your customers. Richard Branson
talks about doing this in the early days of Virgin. If Richard Branson had the time, don’t you?
Show how your products live in the world. Show how your business (or its products or services) exists in the real world: how people use your products; how those products add value to people’s lives, ease their troubles, help shoulder their burdens, and meet their needs.
Even if you are a company that sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of people. By the way, when you are writing about people, another good rule of thumb from journalism school is this: Be specific enough to be believable, universal enough to be relevant.
Consider this video that Boston agency Captains of Industry created for a company called Vitality. Its product, the GloCap, is a drug prescription bottle cap that’s connected wirelessly to the Internet and is able to send alerts to remind patients when it’s time to take their medicines. Rather than focus on the functionality of the bottle or the cool technology behind it, the video focuses how the bottle helps one grandfather maintain his independence and how it allows his family to relax a little, knowing that he's taking his meds.
Monitor search keywords. What keywords are people using when they land on your site? Your blog? Monitoring those keywords tells you what your would-be customers are interested in and actively looking for.
Monitor social media keywords, too. Monitoring social conversations and trending keyword topics on Twitter, blogs, and status updates can be a rich source of customer feedback. Doing so gives you a sense of what people are talking about in real time and what matters to your customers now.
Leverage online tools. Various online tools for customer relationship management are available to help companies stay customer-focused. If you lack time to build online support, or don't have much moderating manpower, consider something like Get Satisfaction.
Think of it as a “social support” for a user base that never sleeps: Get Satisfaction provides interconnected widgets and dedicated forums that let customers pose questions and offer help to each other any hour of the day or night. The secret lies in how the information is presented (intuitively) and shared (through Facebook, Twitter mentions, and other media). See the support page for Mint.com for a sense of how this works.
What else would you add? What other ways can you maintain a focus on your customer?
Photo credit: Kyle May
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer ofMarketingProfs and the co-author of the upcoming Content Rules (Wiley, 2010). Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs.