Don't write for your audience

What we call social media works in a sneaky way. It makes you think everything is about you. Whether it's someone else's Facebook update or a like to your Instagram photo, you believe it's somehow related to you. It's not. Everyone for themselves. When someone comments your blog post, she does it for herself. When someone shares your content, he is doing it for selfish reasons. It's personal.

Don't write for your audience -- Mervi Emilia

Have you heard that very popular advice on how to get online engagement, such as likes, shares and comments? The advice goes something like this: Figure out what your audience wants to read, hear, or see and write, talk, or take photos about that. In short, write for your audience. A good advice, in theory. I've always felt there's something off about it. Firstly, it's really hard to guess what other people want to read. As I've said before, multiple, multiple times, majority of your online audience is silent. You don't know what your audience wants to read, because you never hear anything about them. Many of them, especially now when people are getting more worried about being tracked, don't even show up in your statistics. It's an old truth that 90% of people online are lurkers, who never contribute, such as create content or write comments. You don't know what they want. Pretending you do, you only appear condescending. What do you know about me, really?

Another one of my issues with that advice is that people don't really know what they want. I don't, you don't, the next person to read this post don't. Not until you see something to be wanted. I remember the time when people didn't want cellphones, because first there were none, and then they were kind of silly. Until, of course, everyone wanted one having been seeing them everywhere. I'm simplifying it, so that you get the idea and we don't have to spend the rest of the night with it. Thus, even if you did know your audience (you don't), they don't know what they want until you suggest them to want something.

There are many reasons why people engage with your content. A survey in 2014 concluded that people (who answered the survey) commented mostly to respond to other people's comments (if one person already commented, the more comments will come), to congratulate the author for a great piece, to get more answers about the topic, to voice a differing opinion or correct the author. Some of the many psychological reasons for doing things like liking a Facebook update are affirming something about yourself, to express empathy, and to get something in return. The last point is clear in why many Twitter accounts are a dulling stream of links, which nobody is going to click. You have heard sharing interesting links is a great way to grow your Twitter following and showing your interest, and authority in a subject or another. You are trying to show you have something interesting to offer to your followers. In my subjective experience, sharing links does grow following, and create engagement. Liking, commenting and sharing also gains the attention of that person whose content you are liking, commenting and sharing. You are more likely to get comments on your blog, if you comment on other people's blogs. Or you gain more likes to your photos on Instagram, if you like other's photos too.

I've found a way to create engagement, which is related to that piece of advice I shared earlier. Do you know about my daily selfie project at Instagram? It's been a bit of a social experiment. I'm testing my own limits, considering that I used to hate hate hate being in front of the camera, and I'm sharing pretty personal stuff there. Authentic, you could call it. But it's also a great test of several things. How to gain followers without resorting to follow-unfollow-schemes? What sort of photos get the most likes? What sort of photos, with which kind of text with them gain the most comments? The answer to the last question is quite simple.

Create content which feel like it speaks about the person reading, seeing, listening it. If you can make someone feel that you are talking about (or directly to) her, she will respond. It may be out of defending herself. I know a person, who can't not respond on Facebook or Instagram when someone talks about how online you must be happy. It's somehow very personal to her, and she has a need to defend the idea of keeping up appearances. Knowing a person, and having noticed certain patterns in how, and to what she responds online, it's easy to nudge her to engagement. However, this takes time and effort, to pull out and define those patterns. Great news is, you don't have to know your audience members to get that response, make them engage. All you need to do is go personal.

Tell about something personal, something that happened to you, your innermost thoughts, your struggles in life, the things that annoy you, scare you, delight you, and you will get engagement. You can also build from experiences, problems and blessings of those you know, as long as you know those things well enough to go deeply personal about it. Just ask for permission, or make sure to change the names, places and other details to not offend or hurt the person into whose experiences you are digging. You're not alone with what you are going through. You will find out that whatever experience, problem or blessing you are sharing in a very deeply personal way, there's someone who has went through the same thing. Or remotely same. Or there's someone who feels you were talking about them, in good or bad way. That someone will engage. She will comment, out of happiness and relief that you said out loud what she felt deep inside. She will comment, out of being annoyed by what you said, because it hit too close to home. She will share your blog post, because it says what she thinks. She will share it to say how much she disagrees with it. She will like your Tweet, because it felt right to her. When you think an update or a blog post is about you, that's when you engage.

This is why that piece of advice, about writing for your audience, is slightly off. It has a good intention. It goes to the right direction. The problem with that advice is, it distances you. You will become a bot, another algorithm, which tries to understand humans. You will become someone, who shares only informal information, useful links and other stuff that doesn't relate to you at all. You are writing for a fictional audience. That same audience you don't know. That same audience who doesn't know what they want. They don't exist. Don't write for your audience.

Write about real people, real problems, real life, real experiences. Make it appear personal. Personal is from where the engagement comes.

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