Treat Your Readers As Your Peers

In the content business, talking down to your audience isn’t as easy as it used to be. When the means of production and distribution were out of reach to most, journalists and marketers were in control of the conversation. But in the new-media world, as Jeff Jarvis and others have shown, it’s the audience, not the publisher, who’s in control. Talk to your audience as equals and they may listen. Treat them like children and they won’t.

No one ever argued that patronizing your readers was a good idea. But when you control the conversation, it’s too easy to slip unthinkingly into the habit.  While the new-media revolution may have shifted control away from content producers, the habit persists in some surprising places.

You can see evidence of it even in such new-media leaders as Copyblogger. In her otherwise useful and readable columns, Copyblogger writer Sonia Simone every so often reveals a bit of this old-media habit.

In one of her Content Marketing 101 entries, “The Three Essentials of Breakthrough Content Marketing,” she asks how best to train a puppy. Her answer is to “give him a cookie and a nice pat on the head every time he does what you want.” She recommends a similar strategy for content marketing:

“Your content needs to work the same way. High-quality content trains your readers and listeners to keep opening your stuff. It rewards them for doing what you want them to do. That means that every piece of content you write has to either solve a problem your audience cares about or it has to entertain them. Preferably both. Everything they receive from you should make them feel good. Each piece of content is a cookie that rewards your audience for consuming it.”

In another Copyblogger column published last week, “Does Your Customer Want What You’ve Got to Offer?” she upgrades her audience metaphorically from canines to children: “Too often, we get caught up in how much our prospect should want what we’re feeding them. And then we get surprised when they respond like a toddler faced with a bowl full of broccoli ice cream.”

In both cases, the advice is good. But the analogies are dangerous. If we treat our audience as our peers, they’ll let us remain in the conversation. If not, they’ll go elsewhere.