“Make it for your audience’s audience.”
How to create things that help themselves get shared.
Eventually, if you write enough copy—or if you spend enough time wondering why people don’t read the copy that you’ve written, or notice that some copy you’ve written gets shared while other copy languishes silently, unloved and alone—you’ll come to this conclusion:
Your job is not to write for an audience. Your job is to write for your audience’s audience.
In other words, to speak through the people who read what you write and address those people’s friends.
This may seem like publishing pablum, or consultant woo woo, or an invitation to write clickbaity crap that is widely shared and ultimately regrettable — like that one Barenaked Ladies song, or herpes.
But, happily: no.
Writing for your audience’s audience is like following through on your swing, or like striking through the cue. It’s placing your ultimate intent beyond your immediate goal.
It’s creating a thing that helps itself get shared.
Done correctly, writing for your audience’s audience will get you shares, or retweets, or forwards to a friend, or whatever KPI you’re belaboring beneath the eye-dryingly drab halogen lights of your office. (Get a lamp.)
But most importantly, the benefit of writing for your audience’s audience is that you don’t waste people’s time like an asshole.
“A culture is defined not by a set of strictly identical memes, but by a set of variants that cause slightly different characteristic behaviors.” — David Deutsch
A couple of years ago The New York Times published a quiz (clicky!) called Can You Tell What Makes a Good Tweet?
The quiz, itself, was highly shared.
They were each trying to beat an algorithm developed by three Cornell University computer scientists who claimed the algorithm could outperform the average person in telling which of two similar tweets will be retweeted more.
Now, don’t be distracted by the algorithms, marching like Fantasia brooms, coming to take your job. They’re not the point. (Though they are, in fact, coming to take your job. You can keep the lamp.)
The point of invoking this quiz is to show why certain tweets are better at speaking to their audience’s audience.
Or, to put it another way: to show which tweets are better at contributing causally to their own copying.
Each of the winning tweets above made it easy on the reader to share. They contributed to their own success.
Or, to put it another way:
You know when you email a friend and ask them to email a third person on your behalf?
And the friend you emailed is like sure, write exactly what you want me to send them?
And you write something that makes your friend proud to send an email on your behalf?
Writing for your audience’s audience is like that.
“A population of replicators subject to variation (for instance, by imperfect copying) will be taken over by those variants that are better than their rivals at causing themselves to be replicated.” — David Deutsch
Basically, whatever makes itself easy to copy gets copied
Whatever makes itself easiest to copy gets copied.
This is just as true for the evolution of human bodies (genes) as it is for the evolution of human ideas (memes).
In the realm of human bodies, genes contribute causally to their own copying by conferring benefits to their organisms.
For example, a gene conferring the ability to digest a foodstuff previously considered inedible (say, quinoa or kale), would cause the organism to remain healthy in situations where there is nothing but that foodstuff (say, Brooklyn).
Same goes for tweets.
In the realm of human ideas, tweets that contribute causally to their own copying confer benefits to the retweeter — i.e., they make the retweeter seem funny, or erudite, or more easily able to virtue signal their (misguided) love for Billy Joel, or whatever.
I don’t mean to pick on Billy Joel, it’s just that he sucks.
Scenes from a Franchised Restaurant
Ideas that are easiest to repeat get repeated, but the “easiness” of repeating is contained within the idea itself — not within the mechanisms of sharing.
You make the decision that something is share-worthy before you make the decision to actually share it.
This, by the way, is why it’s obnoxious to encounter an over-abundance of hashtags in a tweet, or a kudzu of share buttons covering an article.
Both helpfully put the label “pull” on a door nobody wants to open in the first place.
Which brings us to tactics
Any discussion about “how, exactly” to write for your audience’s audience devolves into questions about which words to use, or which hashtags, or what time of day to publish, or how many newsletters to send, or whatever.
None of those things are the point.
The point is that people respond to what is most relevant, timely, and interesting to them. All other decisions flow from there.
Relevant means you know what your readers care about. Usually, people care about themselves. They don’t share things for your sake. They’re sharing things for their sake. They’re sharing things to say something about themselves.
Timely means you create a sense of urgency. Usually, people will do what is most urgent or most easy to do in any one moment.
And interesting means the opposite of a fleece vest.
But, for the sake of enumeration, here’s a wildly incomplete and totally random list of tactics to help you on your way.
As they say in the kingdom of Florin, have fun storming the castle.
1. Speak to personal interest
There are more people who are concerned about their taxes going up (personal) than there are people who are concerned about the economy (abstract). Also: the tweet on the right provides the value of fact to the recipient, making itself easy to understand and transmit again.
2. Appeal to a broad demographic
More people are interested in the idea that “extremists are afraid of girls” than they are in Ban Ki-Moon. The former empowers to 51% of the world’s population. The latter does not.
3. Tell a story of change
“Obama wants a response” isn’t a story, it’s a feeling without dramatic action. “The Senate approved” is a story. It tells the reader that something has just changed, which implies that something else will change next.
4. Be enthusiastic
The first tweet tells an emotional story. It’s making a powerful recommendation. That’s easy to understand. And it’s easy for an audience’s audience to understand. The second tweet, though, forces the reader to first figure out who Dave Hakkens is (a pretty cool guy), and then casually mentions Dave’s company. That’s a vague recommendation about an unknown quantity that’s hard for the audience to understand, and even harder to re-transmit.
5. Hell, use quotations
Quotations are perfectly self-contained ideas. They spread easily because the recipient receives value and can share that value in kind.
This post is a part of Story Stories, a totally un-calendared series that’s published every other whenever and which explores the ups, downs, and what the actual fucks of creative storytelling. Each post is based on conversations and consultations with some of the world’s largest brands and publishers with my agency, Dicks & Betties. More from the series:
- “People care about what they already care about.”
The importance of being relevant to your audience’s interests.
- “You don’t get it. You are not the point.”
The surprising reason why your brand sucks at storytelling, and what to do about it.
- “Try helping people be themselves.”
How to create inspiring stories for your brand’s adjacent possible
- “Write for your audience’s audience.”
Creating things that help themselves get shared.
- “There are only two ways to tell your story.”
A Venn Diagram for brands.
- “Renting attention vs. owning attention.”
The focused power of a dedicated audience.
- “Fine, can you make us three white papers?”
Why content isn’t a number-of-articles game.
- “But who’s doing content right?”
Brands who seem to know what they’re doing, and what that does (and doesn’t) mean for you.
- “So, like, how does content help us sell stuff?”
Why it’s difficult and ill-advised (but not impossible) to link content to sales.