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The Most Important Tool in the Quest for Great Content is Empathy

Content and digital strategy and marketing blog

Like many of you, I work in a company where content creation is distributed across many people. Most content creators at my company don’t report to me. In fact, most of them aren’t even in the same group, or even the same department. And most of them aren’t copywriters or content creators by trade. That means I find myself doing a lot of education and advocacy about how to create great content.

As I first began sharing tips and tricks, I was happy to spread my knowledge. I offered up checklists and sent quick pro tips. Every little lesson contributed to incremental improvements.

But something about it felt disjointed.

I could share different concepts, tactics and principles, but I realized I didn’t have a concise way to encapsulate all of the little lessons I had assembled. While I intuitively understood the place all of these lessons stemmed from, I needed a way to express with words the common thread that ran through all of it.

If not, the organization was doomed to a legacy of small, marginal improvements. I Instead, I wanted to give them a concept they could internalize and run with to places I hadn’t even thought of.

The more I thought about those individual ideas behind what makes great content – relevance, length, format, etc. – they all lead to one thing. Empathy.

Empathy could be used to explain every lesson about creating I had shared, and many more I hadn’t. You can’t imagine how excited I was then, several months later, when legendary content maven Ann Handley said the same thing in her book Everybody Writes.

Ann Handley Content Marketing Book Everybody Writes

“Empathy for the customer experience should be at the root of all of your content, because having a sense of the people you are writing for and a deep understanding of their problems is key to honing your skill.” —Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

Now that you know what they key is, let me show you how it underlies some of the best practices of content creation. Once you really get your arms around it, you may be coming up with best practices of your own.

Be concise

Be concise with your content

Man, I can’t believe how much spare time I have to just sit around leisurely read long content. Sound familiar? Of course not. Most of us are pretty busy, whether we want to be or not. That means our time is at a premium.

We can’t afford to waste time. And content that’s longer than it needs to be wastes our time.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a piece of content has to be short. On the contrary, failing to give your audience enough information wastes their time just like burying useful information in too much copy does.

Concise really refers to your economy of words. An empathetic content creator avoids taking more time to convey information than they need to. Because an empathetic creator doesn’t want to waste their audience’s time.

This goes for all video and apps and every type of content as much as it does blog posts and white papers.

Provide value

Since we’re talking about wasting time, let’s talk about content that doesn’t provide value to the reader. The Internet is littered with this kind of content and it’s what gives other content a bad name. Some might even call it content pollution.

Content pollution tends to be fluffy or self-serving.

Ever seen a post with a title like “5 Reasons You Need (Product Sold by the Author)”? The chances of the audience getting value out of this is slim, because it’s not designed to provide value—it’s a sales pitch thinly veiled as content.

Sometimes low-value content isn’t selling, but is just thin on useful information. Ironically enough, content about content marketing often fits this description. How about the post that gives you “3 Easy Tips for Instant Content Marketing Success”? “Step 1: Create great content. Step 2: Promote it through multiple channels. Step 3: Get influencers to share your content. OMG LOOK YOU’RE A BIG CONTENT MARKETING SUCCESS!!!!!”

They don’t tell you what great content actually is or how to create it. They don’t tell you which channels to consider promoting your content in or how to choose the right ones for you. They give you a clue about how to get influencers to share your content.

This is the content equivalent of a motivational poster. It’s all positive feelings and no substance.

Make sure your content provides value, unlike empty motivational posters and memes

 

Empathetic content marketers don’t waste their audience’s time with empty content that leaves them no better after consuming it than they were before.

 

Be interesting

I almost titled this section “Entertain.” But I realized it’s deeper than that. You can create content that engages your audience at an emotional or intellectual level that goes far beyond simple entertainment.

Like a good friend, good content is interesting.

Make sure your content is unique and interesting

It may intrigue. It may make your laugh. It may hold you in suspense. It may bend your mind with paradox or blow your mind with the leading edge of what’s possible. It may pull at your heartstrings or teach you something new. However it does it, at least part of your content should be interesting.

It’s like being a good host. If someone is willing to spend time to come to your house, you have an obligation to try to help them have a good time. If someone is willing to take time consuming your content, you likewise have an obligation to make it worth their time. If you don’t, your guest is not likely to come back—to your house or your content.

Ditch the wall of words

We’ve all seen it. Paragraphs upon paragraphs of dense, sometimes nearly illegible text. If you’re not writing a Victorian novel, don’t do this to your reader.

Because people have less time to consume content today, and because content pollution is rampant, modern readers need to be able to scan your content to see if it’s worth their time.

Try breaking your content up with:

  • subheads
  • bullets
  • pull quotes
  • images
  • graphs
  • charts
  • etc.

Not only will it help your audience assess whether your content is relevant enough to spend their time on, it also makes your content much easier to digest and remember once they do decide to read it.

Perhaps we should even reconsider using the word “read” to describe how people consume content today.

The vast majority of people scan content in a nonlinear fashion and piece the meaning together from the bits they absorb.

Eye tracking map shows people read web content in a non-linear fashion

Image source: https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/eye-tracking.html

If you’re an empathetic content creator, you understand how your audience consumes content and you help tailor your content to those behaviors to make your audience’s lives easier.

Crosslink related content

If your audience is interested in a subject, they probably want to learn more about it than what any one author can encapsulate in a single blog post or web page. Don’t make it hard on your audience. Empathy says make it easy.

If you write an awesome post on which camera you should buy like this one on the WireCutter, people might want to dig deeper. Let’s say I’m sold that a mirrorless camera is for me because I’m tired of lugging around my DSLR. Guess what?

The WireCutter has contextual links that take me right to pages and posts with more detail on that specific subset of cameras. They do this all over the post.

In fact, they also do something I haven’t seen as often within a blog post—anchor links (links that simply jump you to a particular place on the page). Why would they do this? If you hadn’t noticed, the post is crazy informative but also crazy long. So they actually gave their post an extra dose of empathy and gave visitors a way to quickly navigate around all that information.

TIP: Having trouble finding content to crosslink to? It may because you’re creating content by gut or at random. Purposefully focusing a set of content about different aspects of a common subject will give you a lot more chances to crosslink—and give your audience good reasons to stay on your site as they learn more about the subject. Having a good content inventory can also help you find good crosslink opportunities.

Name your own

As I said, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I hope it’s been enough for you to understand the role of empathy in creating great content. Moreover, I hope as you internalize the idea, you begin to think of new ways to use empathy to improve your content. That’s the great thing about an idea like this—it’s a concept you can run with to places I’ve probably never even thought of.

So what’s your big empathy idea? I can’t wait to hear them.

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Hal Werner
Hal Werner
Hal Werner is a content strategist, digital marketer and idea man based in the Dallas, Texas area.

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