Why Content Writing Requires Empathy

What are the most important skills a content writer needs? Some of the obvious answers that may first come to mind are:

content writing requires empathy

Image via recitethis.com

  • Knack for language
  • Ability to research
  • Understanding of how to format content for the web
  • Ability to write easy-to-read content
  • Ability to create a content calendar and stick with deadlines

The two answers that came up the most often when I asked content strategists what skills the best content writers possessed were creativity and curiosity.

All of that matters. Good content writing requires a pretty significant skillset. But nothing on that list would be enough to create compelling content that people want to read without the skill that’s arguably most important of all: empathy. You probably won’t see it show up on a resume or the list of qualifications in a job ad, but without empathy, nothing a content writer produces will resonate with the target audience.

The Case for Empathy in Content Marketing

Marketers talk a lot about how important empathy is, but often in other terms. How many times have you heard your marketing colleagues use the phrase “know your audience.” It’s an easy thing to say, but empathy can actually be really challenging. It’s not something that’s taught in school. Most businesses don’t exactly cover it in their training. Trying to truly understand what someone else is thinking and feeling is difficult.

Our default mode is to view our own perception of the world as the most obvious, natural way to see things. It’s just how we’re wired. Getting outside of our own heads in order to figure out the differences in how others see things takes effort and practice.

No one’s arguing against empathy in marketing, but not many organizations are putting it front and center. Probably in large part because it is so much harder than it looks. It’s easy enough to think you know your audience, but much harder to actually go the extra mile to really understand them.

How Can Someone Get Better At Empathy?

Image via Natalie CollinsThat poses the question: what can we actually do about it? First and foremost, read.

If there’s one main way to flex our brain’s empathy muscle, it’s to get inside the heads of other people through books, short stories, and articles. Fiction and non-fiction are both good for this. Through reading, you can take a ride through the mindset and perceptions of the writer or character and learn about the experiences of others.

Devoting more time to reading is great advice for anyone who cares about becoming empathetic (or becoming a better writer in any format). But there’s a whole set of other steps you can take to become more empathetic to your particular audience.

Find them online. Then just hang out and listen.

Look for forums, social media groups, and blog comment sections where your audience hangs out. There are so many spaces online today where people share their thoughts and feelings, if you can figure out where those spaces are for your audience then you’ll have an easy glimpse into the kinds of questions and concerns they have.

Talk to your salespeople and customer service reps.

There are people within your company working directly with your customers and prospects every day. Your salespeople and customer service representatives hear first hand what your target audience is thinking about, the issues they’re facing, the questions they commonly have and the kinds of problems they regularly deal with. All of that information can help you understand your audience better and craft your content calendar based on the topics they actually care about.

Look to your data.

Marketers have more data today than they ever have in the history of the profession. You likely already have at your fingertips loads of information on what your prospects are searching for, the terms they use, and the types of content they’re most commonly seeking out. Data can seem dry and impersonal, but with the proper analysis, it can provide content writers with important insights into the minds of your prospects.

Revisit and refine your personas semi-regularly.

Personas shouldn’t be a project you tackle once and then leave alone. You’re constantly learning more about your audience – what issues they care about, what types of content they respond to, what topics they’re discussing online – your new insights should make their way into the personas you have. Commit to revisiting your personas at least once or twice a year to improve upon them based on new information.

 

Empathy is a crucial skill to have as a content writer, but more importantly, it helps people to become better human beings. When you make an effort to understand what other people go through and how they feel, becoming better at communicating and treating people with greater compassion are natural side effects. The same skill that will make your content more relatable and successful will pay off in your life far beyond the effects it has on your work.

7 Essentials for Quality Content Writing

A little while back, I asked a number of content strategists to share their tips on what makes a great content writer. They shared a lot of great insights, but they tended to fall more on the ideological side of things, citing curiosity and creativity as top attributes of the writers they worked with.

For anyone interested in succeeding as a content writer, those are hugely important traits to have, but there are also some specific steps and skills related to the technical process of content writing that those of us who have been at it a while learn over time.

For those of you who could use more specific, in-the-weeds tips on improving your content writing skills, these are the top suggestions I offer.

1.    Read (a lot).

This is a good tip for anyone who wants to be better at any type of writing. Don’t necessarily stick with

Image via kaboompics.com

Image via kaboompics.com

reading the type of writing you’re doing – just be a prolific reader all around. Fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles, blog posts – it’s more important that you read anything you can find that’s by good writers who use language well than it is that you read things that are in the format you’ll be writing in.

Spending time with the work of great writers is how you learn what kinds of words and sentence structures work well together, and what kind of language and writing styles feel awkward, haughty, or needlessly obtuse. Gaining a clearer picture of what you like to read will help you shape your own voice as a writer and replicate what works so well when other writers do it.

2.    Do the research.

You can’t write about something you don’t know about. Well, you can, but it will be needlessly difficult and come out sounding like BS (cause that’s what it will be). The first step to every writing project (unless it’s on a subject you already know inside and out) has to be spending time on research.

I spend more time on research than I do on writing. Unless I don’t do enough research, then the writing is like extracting teeth – slow and painful. And the results won’t end up any better for the extra trouble that goes into it.

3.    Actively work to empathize with your target audience.

Empathy requires work. It seems simple to say that different people see the world differently, but in practice it feels unnatural to us. The golden rule we’re taught as kids is flawed because how I want to be treated isn’t always how other people do. My interests aren’t always the same as my audience’s. My values aren’t necessarily the same as theirs. Etc. Etc.

That means understanding your audience –getting inside their head to figure out what they’re thinking and the kind of topics and writing they respond to – is an extra step that quality content writers have to make and a skillset in and of itself.

One of the greatest gifts I can come across in my research as a freelance content writer is a blog post with members of my target audience offering up their opinions in the comments, or a LinkedIn group where the people I’m writing for are active participants in the discussions. Or even better, a conversation with someone that’s in my target audience. The more you understand about your target audience – their wants, needs, concerns, values, interests – the easier it will be attain the level of empathy needed to write effectively for them.

Quick side note: this is something else that reading helps with. Learning about other people’s lives through nonfiction or getting inside the heads of characters different from you in fiction is a practice in empathy. The more reading you do, the more you stretch the empathy muscle you need to flex when it’s time to get inside the head of your target audience. (I’m not alone in thinking this – no less than POTUS himself agrees!)

4.    Pay attention to formatting.

You have to understand how people read and how their reading habits change on different devices and in different contexts. You’ll find a lot of variety in the particular preferences different people have when it comes to content consumption (some people vastly prefer short-form content, others are much more likely to take the time for quality long form; some are more likely to click on a video, others will opt for text every time).

This makes things complicated, but there are certain online reading preferences that are widespread enough to count on:

  • Headlines must be enticing. If no one ever clicks, they’ll never read anything you write. There are too many tips and opinions on what makes a good headline to get into here – but rest assured it’s important and worth spending time on.
  • People skim. Either to find the information they need faster or make sure they’ll like your content before committing to read the whole thing. Using headlines, bullet points, and lists helps make it easier for them to consume your content the way they want.
  • Visuals matter. I don’t just mean including images in your content (which is good form), but the layout of your content and how easy it is to read is important. You don’t want your writing to look cluttered on the page, leave plenty of whitespace so your words are easier to take in.

Start paying attention to the formatting on the blogs and other online publications you like best. If they’re popular sites, you can bet they’ve paid careful attention to what people respond to and are putting thought into how best to format every post according to reader preferences.

5.    Write at your best time of day.

When I try to write at 4 pm it’s soooooo tedious and slow and the work ends up needing more clean up in the proofreading phase. That’s because by late in the afternoon, I’ve usually used up a lot of my brain energy for the day. Writing requires a lot of focus and energy. Even if conventional wisdom says we have eight hours of work in us every day, few people could pull off eight productive hours of writing five days a week – it just takes too much out of you.

You want to figure out how to structure your day so that the work that requires the most energy falls into the hours of the day when you’re usually the most productive. It won’t always work out perfectly (I do still find myself having to do writing at 4pm some days), but at least having an idea of what those best writing hours are so you can plan as best you can will pay off.

6.    Track how you work.

This relates to #5, you want to understand your process and habits inside and out. Paying attention to how you do things is the first step to figuring out what works best and how to structure your work productively. Here are a couple of examples of how this has paid off for me:

  • Outlining – I used to poo-poo all the advice that insisted that outlining was crucial to writing. It time-trackingwas something I rarely did for the first year I worked as a professional content writer and my work was fine without it. But I realized over time that it made the work easier and better. By starting to create outlines for every piece I write in advance, my productivity and the organization of my content pieces has definitely improved.
  • Understanding where my time goes – I mentioned earlier that a lot of the time I spend on a piece goes to the research part of the process, and if I every try to spend less time researching, I spend more time writing. Tracking my time helps me make sure I don’t overload my days and that I do my work in the most efficient way possible (e.g. don’t try to jump to the writing before adequate research has been performed).
  • Carbs – This one’s personal, but I’ve noticed that whenever I have carbs for breakfast or lunch, I spend a chunk of the day drowsy and unproductive. How much I get done and how good it is has a direct relation to what I eat. So carbs are now for dinner and weekends only.

7.    Proofread (at least twice)!

It’s last on the list, but oh so important. You have no idea how many embarrassing errors or just awkwardly written sentences I’ve caught when proofreading. You never want to send that on to a client or publish it for the world to see. Ideally, someone else should also be reviewing your work before it gets published, but even so, read it at least twice before passing it along. Make one of those readings out loud – you get a better feel for how well your sentences work when you hear how they sound.

I can tell when I read something that hasn’t been proofread (or adequately proofread). You probably can too. It will make you look bad if you let a lot of sloppy errors or bad writing through. This is one of the most important tips I can provide to make sure you avoid that.

 

 

These are my experiences and I expect that most other professional content writers would agree with this list (with maybe a few things to add). Most people have the capacity to become better writers. Reading a lot and getting feedback on your writing will inevitably lead to growth in your skill. If being a better writer isn’t really a goal you have (not everyone needs to write well in their work), you can always hire someone to help.

Navigating the Tricky World of Hired Guest Posting

hired guest postingWhen you’re a freelance copywriter, one way to keep up with the content trends of the day is to simply pay attention to the leads that come through your inbox. Last year the vast majority of my leads were looking for blog posts for their own website. Now, those leads still show up but they’ve been joined by two main new types of work: long-form content pieces and guest posts.

The former’s straightforward enough and makes sense, both readers and the ever powerful Google have made it clear that they value long-form content. The latter’s where things can get a little tricky.

Guest posts are a powerful method for promoting your brand and expertise. I’ve done a few myself on sites like the Content Marketing Institute Blog and Firepole Marketing to help raise exposure for Austin Copywriter. Both of those posts took time to write, but also, notably, took time to pitch and edit to the blog editors’ liking. You know what else took time? The pitches and guest posts I’ve written that didn’t get published for whatever reason.

I put in the time for my own business because I know the results can be meaningful, but being asked to do it for hire presents some complications.

How Not to Hire a Freelance Writer for Guest Posts

I’m sorry to say some businesses and agencies are going about this all wrong. They’re either skirting ethical boundaries in what they’re asking for, or grossly underestimating what’s involved in getting a high-quality guest post published on a popular blog.

  • Don’t act like it’s one job.

When you’re hiring someone to pitch guest blogs and write a post you’re asking them to do two different kinds of work: writing and PR. While some PR specialists are good at writing, and some writers are experienced in PR, these are two distinct skill sets. Many writers (myself included) will decline the PR part of the work, but you may get lucky and find someone prepared to take on both jobs.

Whatever pricing structure you set up needs to acknowledge the two different types of work at play here and the (often extensive) amount of time that goes into building relationships and sending pitches. You’ll probably need to consider an hourly rate for the PR work, along with a project rate for published pieces.

  • Don’t offer an insulting rate.

In doing research for this post, I came across a job ad looking for “experienced, well-connected bloggers” offering $30-$60 per published guest post. Sorry to break it to you, but you won’t find experienced bloggers willing to write high-quality posts for that amount. And the kind of rushed, low-quality work that might be worth $30 a pop isn’t going to get you featured on the big-shot blogs you want to target. This isn’t anywhere close to a reasonable rate for a guest post worthy of a popular blog. Don’t just think double – think 10 times this amount if you actually want to end up with a post worth using.

I know that’s not what you want to hear, but really high-quality posts – the kind these blogs will publish – take lots of research, lots of time, and lots of work. That’s going to cost you.

  • Keep your expectations reasonable.

Often a very good idea or post won’t get accepted for reasons no writer or PR person can guess – maybe the blog already has a post scheduled on a similar topic, or they just decided yesterday they’re moving in a new direction for their topic focus. Even if the freelance blogger you hire puts in the legwork, they can get rejected. Understand that there will likely be more misses than hits.

  • Don’t ask the writer to leverage their own contacts.

Carol Tice recently went so far as to call this kind of writing opportunity a scam. Freelance writers work hard to develop our contacts and earn the trust of our clients. Expecting us to ask those hard-earned contacts for a favor to promote another business just doesn’t make sense in most cases. If a writer sees an opportunity that’s beneficial for both parties – the client and the blog or publication they have a relationship with, then they might feel comfortable reaching out. But don’t demand it or be upset if they turn down that request.

On the other hand, one of the main jobs of a PR professional is developing contacts they can leverage on behalf of their clients. Consider hiring a PR consultant to do what they’re good at, and a writer to do the writing.

  • Don’t ask for posts that are overly promotional about your business.

I once pitched a piece on a relevant subject for my client to a publication, got accepted, wrote it up and passed it over to the client for review before submitting it. The client went through and added several specific mentions of the company’s product. You probably see where this is going – when I submitted the piece, the editor said “This is great! Except for all those brand mentions. I took those out and now it’s ready to run.”

Very few blogs or publications are going to accept a guest post that’s blatantly promotional. Your piece can’t be all about you. It has to be about something valuable to the blog’s audience. If you don’t get that, you’ll waste a lot of time working on posts and pitches that get no responses.

  • Don’t demand links within the post itself.

Many big blogs see a submission with a lot of links back to the company’s site and immediately label it spam. Every once in a while, there’s a topic that lends itself to internal links that are natural and useful to the reader, but most of the time they look spammy and will get your guest post rejected outright (or they’ll just be removed like the brand mentions in my previous example).

Guest posts will pretty much always earn you at least one link to your website in the byline, along with some links to social media profiles. Treat this as your goal, since it’s an actually obtainable one.

How to Get Hired Guest Posting Right

That’s a long list of don’ts, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to rule out the idea entirely. You can hire someone to write guest posts for you in a way that’s legitimate.

  • Do the pitching and relationship building yourself.

Or hire a PR person for that, as already suggested. Doing all the preliminary work of researching a blog, trying to understand its audience, generating relevant topic ideas, and sending pitches – that’s not writing. When you hire a professional writer to do writing, you get good results. When you hire us for something else that isn’t our specialty, the results will be more mixed.

Note: It especially makes sense to do your own pitching if you want a guest post to go up under your name rather than the name of the freelance blogger you hire.

  • Do be upfront about disclosing your company’s connection to the post.

You don’t get to casually slip in links to your website and hope no one notices. And you certainly don’t get to expect freelance writers to do that for you and risk their reputation in the process. That’s how you lose trust in the online marketing world and alienate the people who could be the best allies for your brand.

  • Hiring a writer to ghost write guest posts is fine, but will probably cost more.

Some writers aren’t crazy about ghost writing. I’ve read some eloquent criticisms of the practice, but I also know a lot of professional copywriters that are happy to do it for the right price. The thing you have to keep in mind though, is that if a freelance writer is going to do the hard work of writing a post worthy of a popular blog for the sake of someone else’s business and reputation, the price has to be right.

I know I keep coming back to price, but with good reason. It’s important for you to understand that if you want to take the road of hiring someone to write guest posts, you have to set enough budget aside for it. Guest posting is a competitive arena, especially on the blogs most worth landing a post on. You can’t go halfway on this. If you want to get the benefits of guest posting, you have to do it right.

Why It’s Time to Re-Consider How You Think About Competition

Austin is a city full of freelancers in general, and freelance copywriters in particular. In this town, meeting other people who do what I do is common. From a competitive perspective, that makes it sound like a terrible place to be a freelance copywriter. In my experience, the exact opposite is true.

Instead of viewing each other as the enemy, we help each other out. I’m part of a freelance referral network that has brought me thousands of dollars in business, much of it sent directly my way by other local freelance copywriters – my so-called “competition.” And I know some of them have profited from jobs I’ve passed on because I was too busy or they weren’t a good fit.

Befriending my competition may just be the best thing I’ve ever done for my business.

How Do You View Your Competitors?

Whenever I encounter clients who insist that nothing they publish can include links or references to their content marketing competitioncompetitors, I usually shrug and oblige, but I always think what a missed opportunity. These are the businesses that share your target audience, and that are probably producing content that would be of great use to them. Is trying to pretend they don’t exist actually going to bring you more business?

If you view your competitors as a threat to the degree that you worry any mention of them could hurt your company, take a minute to analyze why. Is this really a strategic decision, or one borne of fear?

Why Content Marketing Doesn’t Have Room for “Competitors”

The big goal is to provide value to your audience, right? Content marketing is a long-term strategy designed in large part to gain customer trust. You know what makes me really trust a company, if they’re not afraid to admit a direct competitor has done something good.

Whether that’s an impressive piece of content they’re willing to share, or acknowledging that a feature in the competitor’s product makes them the better choice for some customers. Man, I hear that and think: this company is confident in their product and positioning.

Still Skeptical?

All my arguing for this so far has been based on my personal opinions and anecdotes, so I could see someone being unconvinced. But I’m not alone in this thinking. KISSmetrics, one of the top blogs out there in the marketing space, gives tips for growing your social media following that include following your competitors, commenting on their posts, offering to guest post on their websites, and promoting their stuff. But that’s just social media; I argue that there could be a clear value to publishing content that directly mentions your competitors or links to them.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the first person anyone looking for products or services in your industry comes to when they have a question about what to buy. How different would your business be?

Marcus Sheridan pretty much pulled that off with his pool business by publishing content about his competitors – not negative content, just informational stuff. He paid attention to the kind of questions his clients had and he answered them honestly on his website, even when it meant saying something positive about one of his competitors.

If you’re interested in using content marketing to become a thought leader, or even just a trusted brand, then the fear of mentioning your competition has got to go. You don’t have to go out of your way to promote and interact with them (obviously), just be willing to do so when it fits in naturally with your overall strategy. If the product or services you offer are really and truly great, then what do you have to fear?

Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,