Keeping It Simple (But Not Stupid)

By Ann Handley, Marketing Profs

A favorite adage of my college journalism professor was this:

Assume the reader knows nothing. But don’t assume the reader is stupid. 

My college prof invoked that philosophy as a kind of beacon to his often-hapless students (deconstruct the complex to make it easily understood, but don’t dumb it down). But in my years since school, I’ve realized the wisdom of that approach applies to business and marketing, too.

Why? Because business—like life—can be complicated. Products can be complex or otherwise impenetrable. But your job as a marketer and communicator is, in part, to deconstruct the complex to make it easily understood. To lose the corporate Frankenspeak that often passes for the language of business, to instead convey your business’s value in human, accessible terms. And to tell any story – whether a news story or your own business’s story – with your audience in mind.

Here’s a handy checklist of how to keep it simple, but not stupid:

Speak the language of your customers.

Former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt has been quoted as having once said, “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Translated from the German, the phrase means, “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, then you must speak German.” But the essence of what Brandt is expressing, of course, is more universally interpreted as “if I am buying, you need to speak my language.”  (Hat tip to my friend Guy Kawasaki, who recently shared this quote on Google+.)

So you must to communicate with your customers in their language, not yours: You might refer to the online educational program you sell as “professional services development,” but your prospects might be looking for “training” or “virtual seminars.”

How do your customers describe your products? What words do they use? You should, of course, ask them. But if you can’t interview or survey those people you are trying to reach directly, you could also gain insight by listening online: by reading the same publications or blogs they do; by listening in on conversations in social outposts like Facebook and Twitter or LinkedIn; and by using online keyword research tools (like Google AdWords or Keyword Discovery) to see what keywords related to your business people are search for.

The language used on social sites can be surprisingly insightful, telling you a lot about your customers and how you might engage them.

Solve problems.

Consider the world from your prospects’ point of view: How does what you sell improve their lives? Shoulder their burdens? Ease their pain?

Remember this: Your value is not what you do. Your value is what you do for others. In other words, don’t talk about your product’s features. Rather, talk about what they do for your customers.

That seems simple enough – it’s marketing 101, in fact. But for entrepreneurs and owners who live and breathe their businesses, it can be tricky to view the world via that customer-centric perspective. Simon Sinek, author of Start with the Why (Portfolio, 2011), preaches that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. So if you explain not what you do but why you do it, how might that alter your explanation?

Make your customer the hero of your story.

The best marketing has a human element to it. Why? Because your customers are people, which means they will relate better to your story if you relate it to them on their level. Said another way: the more you align yourself with your customers and their problems, the more likely you will be to win their hearts (and their business!)

Remember that the main character in all stories, even those seemingly about technology, is a person. So even if you sell something often inherently boring, like technology or toasters, focus on how your products or services touch people’s lives. What challenge does it solve?

Anticipate your customer’s needs.

Higher-ticket purchases can have a very long sales journey – sometimes as long as 18-24 months. Quite often, in that scenario  your buyer is already 50-85 percent of the way toward a decision when she gets in touch with a sales rep, according to some estimates.

That means you’ll want to anticipate a buyer’s potential questions and answer them ahead of time (through the content you create in the way of blog posts, or FAQs, or ebooks, or white papers, and so on). That means committing to making your marketing content really great—creating content that is honestly empathetic to the needs and wants of customers and is seeded with utility.

Think of it this way: Your marketing content is now on the front lines, playing the role a sales rep might have played in the pre-digital era.

So give these rules a go, because doing so can help you market more effectively, which calls to mind another fundamental rule of journalism, and of marketing, and perhaps of life itself: No one will complain because you made something too easy to understand. Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a training and education company with the largest community of marketers in its category. She is a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley, originally published 2011. Paperback 2012.) The book has been translated into nine languages, including Turkish, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Portuguese.)

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