Why ‘You’re Not Your Audience’ Isn’t Always Great Advice

"It's the difference between following a formula and writing with sincerity." – Loryn Thompson

If there were such a thing as the Ten Commandments of Marketing, “You are not your audience” would likely make the top five. And for good reason: Generally, it’s solid advice.

“You are not your audience” reminds us to question assumptions and never stop learning about the people we aim to persuade.

But I have a bone to pick with this advice. It has a darker side, one that separates us from the people we try to serve, and enables our worst marketing selves.

If you’re a big-wig consumer-product CEO who pays others to cook, clean, and go grocery shopping, then stop reading. You are definitely not your audience.

But if you’re a content marketer who wants to provide useful, quality content for a niche — even if you’re not actually part of that niche — read on.

The “good enough” enabler

Marketers often suffer from a condition I call “good enough” blindness.

Maybe it’s for a tough client project that doesn’t lend itself to interesting concepts. Maybe you’re plumb out of inspiration but need to pay the bills. Or maybe you come up with a “great idea” that ends up being, well, a little cheesy.

It’s okay; we’ve all been there.

As content marketers, we have a job to do: sell a product (or service).

And if we’re able to do that with some semblance of quality, we say, “That’s good enough!” and publish the content.

There’s nothing wrong with publishing “good enough” content every now and then. After all, the best thing you can do to become a better writer is to keep writing. They won’t all be gems.

The “blindness” happens when we’ve separated ourselves from our audience so much that we can’t see when our “good enough” content is actually bad content.

In this situation, “you are not your audience” is a problem. It allows you to believe that you and your audience are different — so different — that you can’t understand them.

In that psychological distance, we begin to rationalize: “Well, this is what my target audience likes, and they’re completely different from me. So it’s okay if I would never waste my time reading it. Because it’s what they like.”

A writer who falls into this trap writes content that’s “relatable” but empty; it shares information but somehow misses the mark.

It’s the difference between following a formula and writing with sincerity. The difference between a “persona” and a real person.

Build empathy, not personas

One of the greatest assets of a good writer — and, in fact, a good marketer — is empathy.

To have empathy for your audience doesn’t mean you actually have to be your audience. It means you understand them, what motivates them, and what they care about. It means you can put yourself in their place, and give an authentic reaction.

It has nothing to do with knowing that they are 35-to-50-year-old women who read The Atlantic.

For all the lip-service we give to the importance of understanding our audiences, most of us still hold them at arm’s length.

To most marketers, target audiences are a nebulous “other.” We study them with a safe, anthropological detachment:

“The lone millennial dad treks across the Walmart in search of a better diaper at a great value …”

But that vision of a target audience is a fabrication. It’s simply the best tool we have for describing a subset of people.

Personas will always fall short, because we will never be able to capture the richness and depth of even one person, much less a group of people, in something as succinct as a target-audience description.

The best tool we have for understanding our audiences is empathy itself. And the best tool we have for writing to them is our own well-informed intuition.

You can be your audience

There are two sides to “you’re not your audience.”

The first side, the useful side, is when we remind ourselves to not make assumptions about what our target audience needs.

But often, these are institutionalized assumptions, ones you hold because you’re too close to the product.

If you only think of yourself as “The Content Marketer Who Needs People to Buy This Damn Product,” then “you are not your audience” is always good advice.

But “you are not your audience” is terrible advice when you’re thinking of yourself as a person. Because the person in your audience who you’re writing to, though not the same person as you, is still a person.

They’re smart, with social BS-detector systems honed over hundreds of thousands of years. They know when you’re just trying to sell something. And they can tell when you care.

So do yourself and your audience a favor: Don’t separate yourself from your audience. Become your audience.

The good news is, this isn’t as hard as it sounds. Interact with them, think deeply about them, put yourself in their place. Build empathy.

Don’t ask: “What does my reader need?”

Ask instead: “If I were my reader, what would I need?”

If you can’t answer that question, or if you find yourself spewing product features and company jargon, then you’re not your audience. Not yet.

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