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Make Your Audience 20% Better (Or Else!)

Your organization exists to serve people. Whatever you happen to do — teach college freshmen, build water wells in the Sudan, advocate for your profession nationally — the result is service.

Don’t believe me? Try not serving your customers (students, constituents, donors, whoever) for about two weeks. Just stop. See how quickly things go kablooey.

The more effectively you serve people, the more your particular organization will be able to do, become, and achieve. Your impact on the lives of your customers, fellow employees, and the world will be more profound and lasting. Sounds pretty damn delightful, eh?

But why do the people you serve come to you in the first place?

Marketing. The answer is marketing.
Or, if you loathe the word “marketing” because it feels smarmy, substitute instead words like “communications” or “user experience” or “storytelling.”

Marketing, done well, crafts a message in which people see themselves.

Human beings are tribal people. Studies suggest that humans can handle a social group of up to 150 people before things start going sideways. And really, for the sake of peace and harmony, it should be even smaller: Humans can maintain around 12 people in their “intimate social circle.”

In other words, our perception of the world is rather limited. We know very little. And while we know our very little very well, it’s still just a drop in the bucket.

Which makes the professional marketer’s job a real dilemma. You can either:

a) Put out bland, inoffensive, fact-heavy messages that run 0% risk of offending (or enchanting) anyone in the world, or 

b) Put out messages that are so detailed, specific, and concrete that most people think, “They definitely aren’t talking to me” before forgetting you altogether

But of course there’s a third option:

c) Craft messages that are slightly, but unmistakably, aspirational — messages in which your ideal customers can see a 20% better version of themselves

Tweaking Aspiration

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Let’s call it this because this is what it is. We who communicate for a living have our feet in both Science and Art. And the “art” part is how we massage the messages we put into the world to make them feel both familiar and intoxicatingly ambitious.

And that’s why it’s an art, because it requires balance, a keen eye, and two big open ears.

Balance

Your job, as a brand builder, is to craft a message in which many people can see themselves — i.e., messages that aren’t so foreign to their view of the world that they feel alienated.

At the same time, the message cannot offer the status quo. No, you’re going to make their lives somehow, measurably a little bit better.

That’s why the marketer must balance. Too aspirational, and a message will make users feel disconnected and perhaps a little ashamed. Not aspirational enough and you won’t inspire anyone to care. (And for your customers/students/donors/whoever to act, they simply must care.)

A Keen Eye

Here’s a short video about a quote from Ira Glass. He’s talking about the gap between your taste and your skills:

Until you’ve put in some work, you won’t be able to manifest your taste as effectively as you’d like. You won’t know the precise mix of aspirational and reality until you’ve trial-and-errored your way through the world of professional communication. 

You have to earn your chops, so to speak. (And really, do you ever stop earning them?) 

But also, a “keen eye” refers to the practice of design. For many organizations, design is a luxury — something they invest in once every 3-5 years when they update their website. These organizations are missing countless opportunities to more deeply connect with their audiences. 

Design isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s the cost of entry. ” Rachel Clemens, Chief Marketing Officer, Mighty Citizen

Indeed, Rachel. If your organization wants its prospective users to see themselves — albeit a slightly more amazing version of themselves — in you, then you have to go out of your way (with design) to show them. Better website. Better photography. Better illustration. Better visual stories. 

Two Big Open Ears

OK, they don’t have to be big, but your ears had better be wide open if you’re going to catch the whisper of inspiration. Marketers are often way too chatty, don’t ya think?

Instead, we need to be listening. What are our customers actually saying and doing. Use our Google Analytics for the quantifiable stuff and our conversational skills for the anecdotal. Let’s understand when we maybe went too far in the promises we made, or when we didn’t go far enough to spur anyone into action. 

Case in point: When we, Mighty Citizen, rebranded ourselves recently, our initial design concept for ourselves was WAY out there. And we fell in love with it. But when our dearest clients and partners saw a preview of our work and said, “That’s not you! That’s not authentic!” we had to swallow a bitter pill. We had tweaked our aspiration too far (and in the wrong direction).

They were right. We were wrong. Thank goodness we were listening (or else you’d be reading this article on a very different website). 

There’s no formula for how to properly tweak aspiration.

Not yet. Give the AI time.

So, here’s how to start.

There may not be a formula, but there are essential ingredients to crafting a message — e.g.., email, website hero message, webinar title, custom photograph in your annual report, etc. — that says to its viewers, “You can be a little more wonderful than you already are if you’ll join us.”

Ingredient #1: People

If someone is going to see themselves in your message, they have to see humans (or a “sense” of a human, i.e., a first-person POV images or piece of copy). 

Also, by the way, humans love looking at other humans’ faces. So give them faces. And remember, there’s a lot you can do with faces in your marketing. 

Ingredient #2: Confidence in Them

Your marketing is attempting to get people to act. If people feel that acting is too much trouble, or not worth the payoff, or simply too confusing, they won’t act. So you should make sure to say, clearly and plainly and unwaveringly, that “yes, yes, yes, you too can have all of this wonderfulness, if only you’ll work with us!”

Ingredient #3: A Fundamental Improvement

Our audiences are, by and large, too savvy to fall for the cheap advertising tactics that worked 30 years ago. Offering flashy features and “limited-time” promotions can help strengthen your case, but they won’t help people see themselves. (It’s why toy commercials don’t just show the toys sitting still on a shelf. They’re being played with. By actual kids.) 

Your job, as a brand builder, is to craft a message in which many people can see themselves—i.e., messages that aren’t so foreign to their view of the world that they feel alienated. But the message cannot offer the status quo. No, you’re going to make their lives somehow, measurably a little bit better.

Your ideal prospect has been burned too many times, and he’s heard too many stories of other people getting burned. Instead, he just wants someone (or something or some organization) to help him make a fundamental shift. He wants to go from strong to stronger. She wants to go from smart to smarter. We all want to go from relatively happy to happy. And so on. 

Ingredient #4: It Works

Listen, I’ve been pontificating pretty hard so far in this article. But I know as well as you: Nothing beats cold, hard data. That’s the tune we sing all the time around here. “Data kills opinions.” 

So let’s say that you and your marketing team sat down, you hashed out a new marketing campaign for the fall, and then you worked extra hard to make that plan executed to perfection. Everything goes as imagined. All deadlines are met, everyone’s thrilled. 

But you didn’t use data to inform your decisions.

And then you look at the results of your campaign and all you see is:

In that case, well, back to the drawing board. Remember, “art” is just one part of the marketing mix. The “science” half is always going to have its say. 

Summing it All Up

So in the end, we’re left with a few takeaways:

  • Marketing is hard, y’all
  • Great marketing presents messages that allow prospects to see themselves
  • Even greater marketing presents messages that allow prospects to see a 20%-better versions of themselves
  • Tweaking aspiration — hitting the right balance of “yes, you can” and “here you are” — requires some trial and error
  • Data reigns in the end
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