As a freelance writer, whom should you target when you write? Should you craft each sentence to wow your client, or to connect with that client’s reader? After all, both audiences read your work, and both will ultimately determine where your career goes next.
One year ago, I had to choose. I’d spent years writing for my clients based on their assignments, not my ideas. Sure, I occasionally pitched topic suggestions, hoping to deliver an angle no one had thought to write about before, but my proposals were hit or miss. And looking back, I realize I could’ve even stayed at that hit-or-miss level, since my clients were happy. The only problem? I wanted to grow.
There were a few dream clients I really wanted to land, and the haphazard approach wasn’t going to get their attention. I needed an edge. My work had to exhibit something that stood out among the other six zillion freelance writers out there. In my search for that something, I bought a mess of books. We’re talking books on consumer psychology, books on social media marketing, books on brand storytelling and my favorite, books about postindustrial business history. Today I look back and laugh at the naive move, but I’m thankful I made it. Here’s why:
1. Because self-education can transcend formal training. My own scrappy research is like fertile soil for ideas that no one has ever had before. And I know that that’s what agile brands want—fresh, original ideas.
2. It’s quicker. Culture is changing swiftly, and I’m in a hurry to get ahead.
3. Resources. I’m antagonized by the knowledge that enterprise companies have big budgets to devote to data mining and focus groups. I will never reach a pool of three thousand respondents by phone, email, or shopalongs. Market research is the answer, but I’m just a one-woman shop. To get mine, I self-educate on what other sociologists have learned and apply it to today’s technology and headlines.
“Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room,” wrote Stephen King in his famous book On Writing. “You might hit the target every now and then, but you don’t deserve to.”
Some marketing teams use their knowledge to connect, others don’t. According to King, one of those audiences deserves an engaged audience more than the other. I agree—and I want to be on the team that has earned a reader’s loyal following. In fact, I want my writing to be the secret ingredient that earns that connection on behalf of a brand. To achieve that, I read the market using these five methods:
As a kid, I remember my parents watching the headlines on major news outlets. I’ve since ditched traditional media, and according to Gallup, I’m not the only one. Today I consume real-time rising stories found on Google Trends. The tool is impossibly easy to navigate and if I view the trending keywords through the lens of consumer psychology, I get a peek behind the curtain of why each story swings to the top of the list or gradually disappears.
Seeing trends is an important element of content creation, but drilling down to learn exactly who’s fueling those trends (and how) is a completely different animal. BuzzSumo is my go-to resource for parsing information and illuminating the behavioral motive behind a trend. For example, most Pinterest users are young women, according to Pew Research, so it makes sense that topics geared toward women would be shared more there than on sites like The Art of Manliness.
BuzzSumo’s insights have at times confirmed my hunch about where a story will take flight, and at other times surprised me with obscure perspectives I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
I first joined an online group of local moms to get advice about nearby things to do. But as a self-educating market researcher, I got a lot more than I bargained for. Want to know what new parents care about? Join any new parents support group. Curious what’s on the minds of holistic health enthusiasts? Jump in an online forum. What about common freelance writer problems? You’ll find tons of them in discussion groups. Just yesterday I saw a brilliant idea shared from one stranger to another in a Lyme Disease prevention group: “Use a headlamp to shine extra light on kids’ clothes, hair and body as you check them for ticks after being outside,” she said. “The lamp enhances the contrast of a tiny bug, and kids think headlamps are awesome.” A few dozen parents piped up to praise the idea, indicating their peer had given them something of real value.
As a freelance writer, you already know the importance of a good keyword in search engine ranks. If your content is crafted to resonate but never sees the light of day, what good will it do you or your clients? Peek into the minds of inquisitive search engine users with a tool like AnswerThePublic.com, a visual compilation of actual search terms by volume. Then, decide which question you want to answer with your strategy, and get to work doing just that.
As a consumer myself, I always read reviews. But last year, I began searching for write-ups of brands and their competitors to see what customers and employees had to say. Turns out, a review is someone’s story. As social psychologist Anne E. Beall, PhD, explained in her book, Strategic Market Research, a person’s story says volumes about their emotional connection to that brand. “These stories may sound random at first, but when we start to look at stories across many people, we see common themes,” she wrote. “When we talked with young couples about their furniture purchases, we learned that these couples were not just telling us about the furniture in their homes; they were often telling us stories of their relationships.” If I want my content creation to leave a lasting memory, I have to view product reviews and service write-ups as windows into the private lives of consumers. And when I do that, I’m privileged to see where it hurts.
You can become a respected thought leader by addressing things your dream client hasn’t yet considered. Resist the temptation to regurgitate the same old “insights” being circulated among marketing teams today, and instead, spot original problems to solve. Don’t bemoan your status as a small business—use that quick adaptability to perceive things no comprehensive survey can, and deliver your findings in a long form blog of your own, or better yet, a well crafted proposal.
Brands know their customers, so when you write, you can—and should—reach them both.