Do you ever ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this’?
Should I write this post or not? Should I make this video, record this podcast, or share this tweet?
In any communications or marketing role, we barely have time to draw breath. More is always better, so our jobs demand all the energy we have, plus extra. We rarely stop to ask, “Why am I actually doing this?” We rush past the question and straight into production mode.
Because this content has to be up on the website yesterday.
Here’s the downside: the need to produce ends up consuming us. We create more and more content. But at the back of our minds, there’s the niggling question. Who’s reading this? Does our work matter?
I’ll share the solution I’ve found after twenty years of writing.
It’s one simple question: can you imagine someone saying, ”Thank you”?
That’s it. It’s so simple… but if we’re honest, it’s also confronting. I’ll come back to the question itself shortly. First though, let’s look at the old-school reasons for creating content — and how they set us up for a world of hurt.
The 5 usual reasons to create stuff
Most people write content for one of 5 reasons:
1) It’s what we’ve always done
Every month, we send out a newsletter. But our reason for starting that newsletter is buried somewhere in an email chain from 2012, languishing in Dave’s inbox.
Habit explains why our newsletter went out up to now. It’s not a good reason to keep sending it.
2) Everyone else is doing it
We see other companies throwing out social media posts like confetti, and want in on the action.
But are their posts any good? Are those other companies using the right channels? Are we jumping on board a genius idea, or copying someone else’s dodgy one?
3) You’ve got channels to feed
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, email, blogs… we hop around, regurgitating content into each channel like a frazzled magpie dad.
Social media will always demand more than we can give it. Don’t let channels dictate your strategy.
4) You’ve got something to say
We’ve created your key messages, and we’re clutching them to your chest like a door-to-door salesman with a clipboard. We care deeply about our message. The person behind the door just cares about their cup of tea going cold on the bench.
Our passion for your message is a reason to write about it in our journal. It’s not a reason to share it with the whole street.
5) It’s your job
Writing content is in our job description. It’s in our section plan. If we’re not here to write content, then why are we here? (Why is anyone here?)
If our content has no purpose, are we just filling in the blanks?
Don’t spend too much time on that last question, or you’ll end up drinking a lot of red wine and watching black-and-white French movies about despair.
A better reason
Just to be clear, none of the above reasons are crimes against content. I feel them all too sometimes.
They’re just not good enough reasons to bring more content into the world.
Let’s come back to that ‘thank you’ question. How do you put it into practice?
Say you’ve got your content idea. Start by asking, “Will this content give my audience value?
Imagine the content printed out. Then imagine handing it to someone.
Would they thank you for it?
The value doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. I’ve worked on content that changes the course of someone’s life — like guidance on applying for a visa to move to Australia. And I’ve worked on content that raises a light chuckle — like a cheeky metadescription for an industrial cleaning company.
Both count. Weighty content counts and cat memes count.
When to ask the question
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to ask this question. We’d start the whole planning process with our audience and their needs, and generate content ideas from there.
But we all get carried away. We jump ahead to the doing. Sometimes we have colleagues or bosses who hand ideas down to us.
When this happens, we need a tool to test whether the idea we’ve jumped on has value outside our organisation and our own heads.
That’s where the thank you question comes in.
How the thank you question works
Here’s how to home in on the value.
1) Take yourself out of the equation
You are not your audience. Imagine trying to wear your audience’s underpants at the same time as them. It doesn’t work, does it? Wildly uncomfortable at best — physically impossible at worst.
The thing is, left to our own devices, we all slip back into projecting ourselves onto our audience. I do it too. It’s just how we’re wired.
That’s why we need step 2.
2) Think of an actual person with an actual need
Who’s going to read/watch/listen to this? What need do they have that this content may meet?
- Information needs: Zero in on a question that person needs answered, or a task they’re completing. I wrote this post to share information on how you can decide what to write, because I know loads of people in digital and marketing roles grapple with this.
- Emotional needs: How does that person feel now, and how do they want to feel? This post also tries to ease anxiety about needing to plan and deliver all the content.
Pinpointing a specific need is just as important as identifying a specific person. It’s often easy to think of someone to talk to — your target audience. Most communication and marketing strategies will get you that far.
But figuring out their situation and the set of tasks that your content serves? That’s harder.
So how can you do it?
3) Use tools to help you
You have a few options for tools, depending on how you like to work:
- If you’re in a digital or UX team, user-stories are a good place to start.
- If you’re in marketing, personas will help.
The exact tool you use isn’t mission-critical. You just need something to pull you out of your head and back to what the person you’re writing for needs.
What difference will it make?
What would happen if you ran the ‘thank you’ question before you rushed to publish?
For a start, you’d try harder. You’d ask more questions about the value you’re creating with the content you make.
And you wouldn’t try as hard. You wouldn’t work yourself to the bone to be everywhere and say everything, just to feed the machine.
There’s a mountain of unwanted content and it’s growing every second. Pieces roll out of the factory and straight onto a conveyor belt that empties at the top of the heap. The content pieces were never created for anyone, so they never go anywhere. They just disappear beneath the next load.
Then there’s a shop in the city that makes content with value. The place is buzzing with customers talking about the items, and deciding what they’ll take home. The shop doesn’t produce as much as the factory but business is good. This store is a destination: people come here because they find what they need.
When you create content, are you feeding a factory line to nowhere, or making something people need?
Content planning doesn’t have to a gut-churning, brain-bending dilemma. Come back to the thank you question: what value are you creating? Once you’ve got that value, the rest will follow.