One of the truisms that floats around the internet marketing landscape is the idea that in order to be successful, you need to choose a “unique topic.” But, it turns out, this isn’t always true. In fact, as often as not, it can actually work against you.
What you really need to do is define who your audience is. And audiences care about more than subjects. They care about problems and values. In fact, those speak more to who somebody is than the subjects they are interested in.
Let’s talk about why you need to define who your audience is, and why you need to do it now.
1. “Niche” is a poor substitute for a defined audience
When you don’t define your audience, you immediately fall back on “niche.” Your blog has to be about something, and you know that it has to relate to your product somehow. Without a well-defined target audience, the obvious conclusion is that you need to pick a subject for your blog, ideally a subject that has something to do with your product.
Unfortunately for most entrepreneurs, this becomes a problem pretty quickly. Here’s why.
A software startup is tempted to write about coding and design. An electrician starts to write about wiring. A freelance writer writes about writing. A landscaper writes about landscaping. Can you see where I’m going with this?
These blogs aren’t useful for their ideal customers. A consumer doesn’t want you to teach them how to write code, wire up their house or landscape their yard. They want you to do that for them. The same goes for your clients as a freelance writer. They don’t want to learn how to write.
And no, I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with how-to guides. They are a staple of content marketing and they can be extremely effective. What I am saying is this: your ideal customer probably doesn’t want to learn how to do what you do.
The reason a lot of bloggers get this wrong is because their mentors exist in a very unique corner of the market: the marketing industry. It does make sense for marketers to teach their ideal customers about marketing. But that simply isn’t the case for most other industries.
When you define a target audience, instead of a blog subject, you write for the people who are actually going to buy from you.
This might all seem very obvious, but if you look at almost any blog outside of marketing, you’ll notice that it clearly isn’t. Most blogs have chosen a subject instead of a target audience. You can do both, of course. But the target audience always comes first.
You are not the main character in the story of your brand. The customer is the main character. So focus on the problems that they would want to solve. Don’t teach them how to be more like you.
2. Competitors are the worst people to reach out to
There’s a leap in logic here, so let me explain.
When you don’t define who your audience is, you define yourself by your subject matter. When you do that, you end up writing content not for your target audience, but for your competitors. You teach other electricians how to be better electricians. You teach other landscapers how to be better landscapers.
And then what do you do? You reach out to those competitors and freely offer them this information in the hopes that they will altruistically promote your blog post on their own site.
That’s right. You’re asking your competitors to help you become a bigger threat to them.
When you see things in this light, it immediately becomes obvious why it’s so hard for you to promote yourself, why email after email gets ignored, why you can’t get guest posts from any real blogs. It’s because you are asking your competitors to make you stronger.
Things are very different when you define your audience.
You start to realize that your target audience isn’t a bunch of landscapers. It’s people who are buying a new home. It’s people who are really into interior design, DIY, and Home and Garden. In fact, it’s people from all walks of life: engineers, managers, marketers, homemakers, and anybody else with disposable income.
You start to realize that if you want to get your business off the ground, you’re not going to do it by teaching people about landscaping. You’re going to do it by deciding that you are the guy who does environmentally friendly landscaping, or landscaping with modern, minimalist themes.
And then you start writing to that audience. Not about landscaping, but about whatever it is they care about.
Once you do that, outreach starts to get very easy very fast. Because you’re not reaching out to your competitors. You’re reaching out to influential people who just might become your customers.
3. You lose your obsession with expertise
This is another issue that comes up when you base your blog on a subject matter, instead of a target audience. It’s not just that you end up creating content for your competitors; it’s that you end up obsessed with the idea of being an expert.
Part of this comes down to incentives. In order to earn links from competitors, or even other experts in the same subject who might not be direct competitors, you have to work very hard to say something that will impress them. You feel the need to be smarter than anybody else who talks about the subject, because if you aren’t, those experts probably aren’t going to link to you or tweet you. So you’re actually incentivized to obsess over your expertise.
Here’s the thing: your customers don’t care about that. At least, not as much as you think they do. Sure, they want to know that you aren’t an amateur. They want to know they can trust you to get the job done. But they don’t want you to lecture them or prove how much insider knowledge you have, because they’re not insiders and don’t want to be.
Instead, you focus on being as helpful as possible for your target audience.
4. Creative ideas get easier
The internet is gluttonous for novelty. What’s new and interesting makes its way through social networks, email forwards, and BuzzFeed. The mundane lays in obscurity, waiting to be found.
Once you’ve defined who your audience is, you’re no longer limited to a single, stale subject matter. You’re free to mix and match ideas from a wide variety of subjects and apply them to the problems that your target audience cares about.
This is a must if you’re going to do or say anything novel on the web. Wholly original ideas either don’t exist or are extremely rare. They are almost always made up of some combination of ideas picked up from elsewhere. And rarely do those two or more ideas come from the same subject of interest. If they did, they would just be more of the same.
When you can help your audience see something in a new way, reframe the problem so that the solution is clearer, you inspire awe. And when you inspire awe, your content gets shared more than anything else on the web.
By defining your audience, you define their problems, and you are free to use knowledge from any subject to help them solve that problem. This leads to much more novel, interesting, and helpful ideas.
5. Your loyal audience is mainstream
The most important thing a blog can do for you is help you build a loyal audience. It’s far more expensive to earn new customers than to keep existing customers, and nothing is worse for business than a revolving door. A loyal audience is also a must if you want to keep getting shared and promoted in front of new people.
When you define your target audience, their loyalty is based on a shared problem, shared values, and a shared way of looking at the world.
When all you define is a subject, your audience ends up being made up of people who obsess about one particular topic.
The obvious downside of this is that your potential audience is a lot smaller if they are defined only by an obsessive interest in a single subject. But there are other downsides too:
- These people can’t and probably won’t try to share your content outside of their small community.
- These people may have nothing in common other than a shared interest in this one subject.
- Even the most obsessive people will often burn themselves out on a subject after a while.
When you define a target audience based on criteria more broad than a single subject, you get a lot of perks:
- They will have a stronger sense of shared identity because a shared problem and shared values will tie them together more than an interest in any particular subject.
- They can share the content with the broader community, because even if other people don’t share an interest in the values, the problem, and the subject, they are likely to have an interest in at least one of the three.
- There is no need to be obsessive in order to be loyal, since the topics are diverse and interesting.
- Your potential audience is larger.
6. You stop competing over a small number of search queries
Let’s talk SEO for a minute.
When you limit yourself to a particular subject, you end up targeting a fairly small number of keywords. There are only so many things people search for within any given topic. Past a certain point, the only way to reach more people in the search engines is to tackle more competitive search terms. You reach the point of diminishing returns pretty early on, and your only option is to start building more and more links.
On the other hand, when you define a target audience, you start to see the virtually unlimited number of things those people are interested in, the problems that they deal with, and the values that guide their behavior.
Once you do that, a whole universe of search queries opens itself up to you. The competition starts to get much easier. You can focus less on building links, and more on publishing content on your own site.
7. You (or your writers) won’t get bored
It’s not just the internet that craves novelty. The human brain is wired to like new things. At the end of the day, even if you can find a small, loyal audience of people who can stay excited about blog posts about one specific subject, you’re going to end up with morale problems on the inside.
Writers spend much more time researching and putting together blog posts than audiences spend reading them. Most writers will get tired of a subject a lot sooner than audiences will, just because they spend so much more time with the subject than their audience.
No matter how interested a writer is in a subject, at some point they will want to look at things from a different perspective. Even if they don’t get bored of the subject, exactly, they will eventually reach a point where they don’t feel like they’re learning anything new. No new ideas are coming to them and everything they write seems redundant.
Writing for a target audience is a very different experience. It’s not just because you’re no longer limited to a specific subject. It’s also because when you have a specific person in mind, you have more motivation to write. It gives your writing meaning.
That kind of morale is important if you want your content to be any good.
In conclusion: define your audience
By now I hope I’ve convinced you how important it is to define who your audience is, not just what subject you’re going to write about. So, how do you go about doing that?
There are a lot of ways to go about doing it, but I think the simplest is the best:
Think of one person you know well who either is or could be a customer, and write for them.
I’m not saying that every blog post you write should be written for that same person. Far from it, actually. What I am saying, though, is that you should have one person in mind every time you write. For me at least, this is what it takes to fully realize that I am not the main character: the customer is.
Feature image from Exit Festival via Flickr
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