How to talk to people like they’re human beings, not marketing pawns With Jay Acunzo, founder and fellow human being

How to talk to people

Photo credit: Jenn and Tony Bot via Visualhunt

Most of the interactions we have with businesses, from a marketing and user experience (UX) point of view, happen via words and images. A combo many refer to as “content”.

This is because the overwhelming majority of the accessible web comprises words (written or otherwise) and images (moving or otherwise) – and as early as 2014, we were already spending 8+ hours a day with media and digital devices.

“It would take 2% of the Amazon rainforest to make enough paper to print all the text online. And 8000 petabytes per month of IP traffic was dedicated to video in 2015 (1 million gigabytes = 1 petabyte).”

This 4-part series, based on my in-depth interview with Jay Acunzo, explains how you can use content to design positive human experiences and move people to action.

Part 1 explains how to make sure your content speaks as if it’s addressing thinking, feeling humans (because it is) – not impressionable pawns that we can manipulate at will (because we can’t).

Listen to part 1 of my chat with Jay – or continue reading the article below


Timi: Okay. So I’m gonna start with the audience. Is it for the boardrooms? Is it for algorithms, you know, search engines, and such? Is it for yourself? Is it for a market? Who should you have in mind when you’re creating?

Jay: It has to be audience first. It doesn’t mean you take yourself out of the equation or your team, your product, your company. But if you get to the first principle of what content marketing is actually supposed to be, you can build up your thinking, and your answer is for pretty much anything from that first principle. So if you distill why a company exists, it’s to solve a problem or fulfill a desire in the world. And we just layer on all these processes in red tape and jargon. That kind of clouds that. Startups are really good at identifying that because that’s why they start.

So, if you take it over to the content world, content marketing is just solving the same problem or fulfilling the same desire as your product or service but through media that you create and distribute. And so, inherently, if you take that as your first principle, you can apply it out into, you know, how you frame who this is for. So solving a problem, fulfilling a desire, it’s not necessarily your problem or your desire, it’s the customer’s. And if the customer is not at the center, you don’t have a reason to exist. You know, profit, and promotions, and readership, all these things are byproducts of you doing a good job, solving a problem, or fulfilling a desire for the customer.

Timi: The audience comes first. The customer comes at the center of everything. But, like you said, you don’t need to get rid of everything, sorry everything else. It’s a case of prioritizing then.

Jay: Yeah, I think it’s a false choice of like, “Well, we’re either gonna create this for them or for us.” But, you know, if you start again at what this process is, you have a person or a team that’s creating the content. So you literally cannot remove the context of who those people creating the content are, the moment and time in which they’re creating it. It’s all different. Like, you know, the example I give is if I had the same headline assigned to 50 people, and the same 90% finished draft to the same 50 people, I would get 50 different finished articles from all those people. Because it’s flowing through the experience of who they are and out into the world. And so if you consider that, you can’t remove the individual. So it’s for the audience, but you can’t remove you.

Timi: That’s true.

Jay: The only way you’re gonna keep playing the game, you’re gonna keep doing that content is if you get results through it. So it’s also for the company. So it’s not just for the audience, but I think if you lead with that thought that it is, the rest of the stuff gets a lot easier to achieve.

Timi: Interesting. Have you always held that point of view throughout your career, or is it something you kind of grew into as you got more experience?

Jay: I think I grew into it but with one kind of caveat or, I guess, one explanation behind that, which is, you know, I started in sports media. And I loved creating stories that made me feel but because I knew it would make you feel something too. So I really like the hero’s journey story of an athlete who comes from a hard background or overcomes some kind of personal challenge, you know. The human interest side of sports was really fascinating to me, because I always felt something when I consumed or wrote that stuff. But I think it was a signal to me that, “Oh, you might feel this too.” So, you know, I was always creating for me.

I think really great content, really great anything is something you’re proud of and you feel great about, food, product, whatever you’re building. And if you’re not loving that process, you’re probably gonna put a worse end product out into the world for the other person. It’s why I think it’s really difficult to succeed as a freelancer writer. I have tremendous respect for people who write across industries that they don’t care about and do it well. That’s the key. So I think I started with this idea of what do I like to create and where can I put that. And then I realized, “Oh, wait, the more I like it, the more other people tend to like it, too.”

So you can kind of picture a Venn diagram. It’s like really great creators, I think, have this overlap that they seek between one circle saying, “Stuff I like,” and the other circle saying, “Stuff you like.” And I think what the goal is is you wanna get to that overlap of things I like that you also like. I think that’s a fulfilling career. And so a great creator starts in the circle that is what do I like and then nudges over to the overlap. I think a business often starts, “What do other people like?” And what happens is they don’t try to nudge through the center to insert what they also like. And so what happens is that’s where you get the spammy stuff. It’s like, “I’ll do literally anything as long as they click. I’ll do literally anything as long as they open my emails and buy my product.” And it feels hollow. It feels wrong or even like, I use the word icky a lot. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s because they haven’t tried to nudge over to their own sensibilities, their own taste and intuition at all.

Timi: Is that because you need that human connection. If something is coming from a hollow place, if you’re creating something that doesn’t come from a place of humanity, people may not be able to put their finger on it, they may not be able to tell you exactly why, but it just doesn’t move people, I guess. It just doesn’t connect.

Jay: Right. I mean, distill again, distill it down to the one-to-one. You know, the first principle is one-to-one marketing. What would that be? Someone that you’ve gotten to know over time really, really well and you can turn to…I can turn to you and say, “Hey, Timi. I know you listen to Unthinkable. Well, here’s the thing I think you like about Unthinkable that’s really strong in this other show. You should listen to it.” You’re much more likely to say, “Oh, okay. You have context on me. You understand that I’m thinking about you and what I know about you, and then you’re gonna act.”

So if you zoom out to something more at scale, it’s the same idea. It’s like put in the customer first. I think empathy for the other person. “Hey, this feels spammy. We shouldn’t do it.” Or, “Hey, I really enjoyed this story. Others might, too.” Like, you have to be this exposed empath or this nerve that’s just constantly exposed to the world, because as you take in the world, you can have empathy and spit something back out that will make someone else feel whatever emotion it is necessary for them to take the action you want. So, again, one-to-one, this makes total sense. You put process, bureaucracy, goals, tools, technology, profits on top, and we start to lose sight of that. So if you dig, dig, dig, that’s why this stuff exists.

Timi: Yes. And do you have any particular process that you yourself go through or, I guess, habit that you use to make sure you don’t lose that empathy or that you use to reorientate yourself every time you’re about to create something to make sure you are connected to the audience you’re creating for?

Jay: It’s a really, really good question. But I had to think about it. There are probably 3 things that I try to do. And so the first is, for no reason, like I’m not trying to build a feature of a product, I’m not trying to create one individual piece of content or fill an editorial calendar, but for no reason, I’ll have four to five conversations with listeners a month for my show. Because I know I’m building something for them. I’m taking notes. But I don’t really even go back and read them so much as I just want their realities to stick in my brain. You know, again, the same way that if I talk to a friend 3 of 4 times in a month, I’ll have a much better chance of recommending something or building something that they love. So that’s the first thing, is I’m just having these like informal hour things… what’s-your-life-like, get-to-know-you calls.

And, you know, you can kind of scale those. You can do webinars where you get Q&A action, or, you know, you can have a video series where you encourage Q&A in the comments or, you know, video hangouts, whatever. But I just prefer to do them one-on-one. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is I often try to get outside of the echo chamber. So, you know, if someone asks me what’s my favorite marketing book, I always like to say, “Calvin and Hobbes comics.” Because it’s like, go read something amazing, right? Go read something outside the echo chamber. We do not have a problem finding more marketing content. We might have a problem breaking from that and going and reading Anthony Bourdain or watching his show or, you know, pulling from the love of sports that we have and reading the best book ever written in our favorite sport or something outside the echo chamber. I think it just awakens you to the real human condition that you’re marketing to.

And then the third thing is that I’m always in the hunt for is something that’s kind of an atypical, if you can call it, metric, which is I wanna find small numbers of people reacting in big ways to what I do. And once I find that, I can lean in really, really hard, because I know I have the hard thing done. I’ve created something that people feel it resonated deeply with them in a world where everybody floats around everywhere. Now, the challenge is leaning into that harder and building it out, removing constraints, putting in more places, finding more people, which, while that can be a struggle, has never been easier, and it’s never been harder to do the first part. So to sum it up, it’s like I wanna have individual calls with people I’m serving just to get to know them like people. I wanna go outside of my echo chamber to stay abreast of different topic areas and ways of creating things and just my craft in general. And then I wanna find small packets of people that react in very, very big ways to let me know that I’m on to something.

1. Change the way you think about why content exists

The tricky thing about creating content that works on a human level (not just a functional one) is that it’s not fundamentally about what you say – it’s really about how you think.

An infinitely more mysterious matter.

We tend to think of content as existing to help us achieve our goals (i.e. improve our metrics). Really, content should exist to help people achieve their goals (i.e. improve themselves). It’s a subtle distinction that changes everything – from the way you create, to the way you use content.

Content marketing jargon

George is fed up with the lack of humanity in the way businesses communicate with people

It’s the difference between doing anything for a click… and doing everything for the click-er.

According to my  guest, Jay Acunzo, content suffers when we lose sight of this distinction:

“It has to be audience first… So, solving a problem or fulfilling a desire – it’s not necessarily your problem or your desire. It’s the customer’s. And if the customer is not at the centre, you don’t have a reason to exist.”

In short, don’t think of content as existing to improve task completion rates, meet a deadline or satisfy some arbitrary professional goal. Your goal for content should be helping people feel or do (preferably both) something that’s desirable, according to them.

Do everything for the click-er, not anything for a click.

If you succeed in that, you will get your desired results – be that to improve commercial or user experience performance. 

But to help people achieve their goals, you need to understand them and their motivations.

2. Balance the 2 sides of human motivations 

Marketing Psychology Yin Yang

Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud via flickr

Jay’s statement (above) covers two elements – problem and desire. Brain and heart. Logic and emotion – which compete within and balance all humans.

Many of us skew lazily towards the side we find most convenient and ignore the other. So the content suffers from either hollow logic or hollow emotion.

We rely on one-dimensional cliches like, “B2B buyers are more logical than B2C ones,” or “People buy based on emotion… logic comes only after,” or “In-app copy should be purely instructional.”

Remember that we always do something (involving logical problem solving) because we want something (involving emotional pay-off).

To talk to people like they’re humans, you need to create content that’s working on these 2 levels of the human psyche. That’s why the best chatbots try so hard to seem human, even while performing the most mundane of tasks.

I have a simple process that’ll help you get a sense of the state of your content – fill in these blanks on behalf of your audience:

“I want to [do XXXX], so I can [feel XXXX].”

For example, here’s how I would fill in the blanks on behalf of the marketers reading this article:

“I want to create valuable content, so I can feel proud of the impact of my work.”

If a marketer feels this way… they’re exactly who I’m writing for. If they don’t, they’ve probably already stopped reading. Either way, mission accomplished.

If you can’t fill in both blanks, something’s missing – and I’ll tell you how to fix that.

3. Spend time methodically listening and observing

Writers have long been (rightly) stereotyped as being people-watchers – Marcel Proust allegedly spent his whole life watching people and noting down his observations.

Modern UX buffs might consider this a weird hybrid of field and diary studies. Fairy studies? Nah… that doesn’t quite work.

Anyway, while a novelist’s audience is indeterminate… you can (and should) be more selective about who you spend time listening to.

Jay does 3 main things to get a deeper understanding of people in his audience:

  • 4 to 5 conversations with listeners of his podcast, every month
  • Getting out his echo chamber to see how people outside his industry behave and interact with each other
  • Finding the people who have the strongest reactions to his work (positive or negative), so he can better understand (and exploit) the triggers for those emotions

This approach moves Jay beyond the one-dimensional understanding of people that’s so common in business – i.e. “Audience X uses product A (company product) so it can get result B“. It helps him understand what makes his audience tick, across all walks of life, leading to unique connections that his competitors can’t simply turn into a formula and cheaply duplicate.

Content marketing copy cats

Photo credit: Jon Callow Images via flickr

Thanks to the nature of my employer, I regularly talk to the people I write for… on Twitter, at events, via email and even on the phone. I also regularly run UX tests on this blog, where I publish most of my articles – so I see what draws people into the world of user experience (UX) and what turns them off.

Like Jay, I’m always absorbing from the people I write for. That’s why I wrote the title of this article the way I did, not like this: “3 UX growth hacks to optimise your content lead gen and ROI.”

“Listening” is the key to reflecting people’s humanity back towards them. Because without it, you don’t have enough information to design a clear and desirable enough mental picture, capable of being reflected.

I mean, imagine if you went your whole life just talking at people and never taking a moment off to listen to them. To absorb their ideas and experiences. People would avoid you like the plague (just like they do in business).

In this context, “listening” is just a human way of saying… research.

As marketing professor, Mark Ritson, says, you cannot escape research if you’re to achieve effective marketing and branding – if you skip research, you’re just another clueless marketer screwing around with someone else’s money.

Even the master of persuasive communication, David Ogilvy, began and rooted his career in research, via the Gallup Audience Research Institute.

Want to go beyond noise dissemination and start moving people on a human level? Start listening.

Now for the homework – try it and tell me your results

Apply Jay Acunzo’s 3-step process for staying human and record the effects on your work:

  1. Have a conversation with 4-5 people who have who regularly interact with your content  (e.g. blog, website or anything else), and write down everything you learn.
  2. Get out of your industry’s echo chamber and see how an outsider is tackling a topic or problem that you’re also exploring.
  3. Look for people who have strong reactions (positive and negative) to content you’ve created, and find out why.

Just so you don’t think I’m a hypocrite, here’s a picture of our readers giving strong reactions (positive and negative) to this eCommerce article I wrote in February 2016. That first review… Ouch.

Word of caution though – don’t treat feedback like it’s legally binding. You’re not taking orders from people in your audience – you’re simply trying to understand them. 

Having conversations (of all forms) with our audience increases my empathy, and that shows in the quality of my writing. That’s what our readers and analytics tell me anyway!

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Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

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