To Move Your Customers, Be Yourself

In 2009, my sister gave me a vegan cookbook for Christmas. I’d gone vegetarian at the start of the year, and the book was by Alicia Silverstone (a childhood icon of ours, thanks to Clueless). Perfect fit. Whether she realized there was a difference between vegetarianism and veganism I still don’t know, but after I read that book, I went fully vegan. Side-by-side images of the cover of The Kind Diet and the dedication note, which reads: "To Brenna, Merry Christmas 2009! We hope you will be able to whip up some of these recipes in your Galway Kitchen! Love, Matt + Danielle"

The life-changing magic of targeted content

I’ve heard similar stories from folks who watched the documentary Forks Over Knives or read The Jungle.

So what is it about certain pieces of media – of content – that inspire people to take dramatic, life-changing action?

It’s a question everyone involved with content marketing should care about.

It’s a question I’ve become particularly interested in over the last few months, as generative AI tech explodes on the scene, offering an effortless way to “write.”

Because in a world where ChatGPT exists, does anyone still need me?

In this blog post, I do my best to find answers.

Voice: How Writing Evokes an Emotional Response

You’ve probably heard about the research that says we don’t make decisions based on logic. We make them based on emotion, then backfill logic so everything lines up.

Maybe the best illustration of this is when my two-year-old asks for ice cream. He’s learned that if he looks up at his grandmother and says, “Nana, can I please have some ice cream?” (which comes out as “ice tweam”) he’s virtually guaranteed a yes.

Why? Because he’s tugging every heart string she has.

How does she likely justify giving him ice cream? Some combination of life’s short + what harm can it do + the poor kid has a vegan mother, and so on. Logic.

Now for the tricky part.

Most of us have a decent understanding of how to use our voices to convince people when we’re actually speaking. (Again, Malcolm has figured this out at age two.) What's hard is adapting that speaking voice to the medium of writing.

Adaptation is hard. Think of all the great books that are adapted into terrible movies, or all the great movies that lose their soul when they’re remade.

Heck, think of all the times something hilarious happened and you tried to recount it for a friend and the spark was gone.

Adapting a person’s speaking voice to writing involves skill, but it’s more an art than a science. And that’s important in our current moment: generative AIs do not have this skill and they are not artisans.

In fact, AIs like ChatGPT produce notoriously flat prose.

Yes, they’re good at gathering and spitting out information. But information is not what inspires action. Emotion is. And the main emotion ChatGPT’s (unedited) prose elicits in readers is boredom.

Toddler on the sofa wearing a striped shirt with an ice cream cone in his hands and ice cream on his face

He asked nicely.

The takeaway: It’s easier than ever to create written content that informs. To elicit a meaningful emotional response in your audience, you’ve got to create content that captures your voice.

(Here are a few tips on doing that while also conveying your expertise.)

Audience: The More Specific, the Better

If you’re still reading, chances are you’re enjoying my voice.

And if you do enjoy my voice, you may just be part of my target audience.

Here’s why: even if you don’t particularly care how AI will affect content marketing (or writing) and even if you’re not in the market for content marketing services, you connect with something about what I’m saying or how I’m saying it.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s great!

But surely not a savvy business move? (Suggests the reader with the walrus mustache and monocle.)

AI-generated charcoal-like image of a skeptical-looking white man with a walrus mustache wearing a three-piece suit

The peanut gallery

Au contraire, my imagined British challenger.

While a lot of official Best Practices about content marketing involve optimizing for measurable performance (traffic, leads, engagement, conversions), B2B content marketing is rarely a numbers game.

I mean, think about it: it’s not even possible for you to buy our services without talking to one of us.

And that’s true for many B2B firms because what they (and we) sell is complex. It’s usually customized and often requires approval from multiple stakeholders. It requires vetting on both sides: just as some potential clients decide we’re not the right partner, we often advise startups that we’re not the best fit for their goals.

So yes, Sir Grumpus, I do think it’s valuable to connect with people who may never buy from Propllr. The grubbiest reason why is that they might one day recommend us to a potential client. Plus, when more people understand the nature of the work I do (and I think this blog post helps in that understanding), I benefit.

But also? It’s just nice to connect with people.

(Take that, capitalism!)

But I’m being verbose. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Sounds counterintuitive, right? But think about how much fun it is to eavesdrop. A good story is irresistible, even if it’s not meant for you – maybe especially if it’s not meant for you.

ChatGPT, in its current iteration, is a terrible storyteller. Even when coaxed, it struggles with voice and style. It’s designed to synthesize and flatten, and it does. It’s like the hardtack of writing: yes, it will keep you alive. No, nobody would choose to consume their calories (or information) that way.

The takeaway: Accept that your target audience is small and focus on connecting with them in every piece you write. Even if you’re not actively selling, you can entertain them. The classic marketing wisdom is that we buy from people we know, like, and trust. And everybody likes a good storyteller.

Timing: Be Present, Be Patient

I mentioned that a cookbook I got in 2009 made me go vegan. What I didn’t say was that my full-on veganism didn’t start until 2012. But I still consider that cookbook to be the thing that shifted my thinking and convinced me to make the change.

B2B content marketing often works on a similar timeline, especially if you sell higher-ticket products and services or ones that involve lots of decision makers.

But that’s actually good news. It means you don’t have to obsess about Google rankings week after week. Get the message right in the right voice, and get it in front of the right audience, and you’ll connect. Do it over and over, and you’ll make an impression (the way leaves do in wet cement).

And when it’s time for your ideal clients to purchase what you sell, they’ll remember you.

When an ideal client who’s never heard of you asks for recommendations on LinkedIn, one of your audience members will jump to share your name. Because just as we all love a good story, we all love being the one who knows the best storyteller.

Putting your thoughts out in the world (on a blog) makes those connections possible.

The takeaway: You often don’t know where prospects are in the buying cycle (remember: more than 80 percent of B2B “selling” happens before prospects connect with a salesperson), so focus on nailing your voice and message in your content and making sure it’s visible to your target audience.

So. Does Anyone Need Me (and Other Writers) Anymore?

Short answer: yes. For now.

Longer answer: In third grade, I loved the book Sideways Stories from Wayside School, and I particularly loved the story of the teacher who creates an ice cream flavor for every student. No student can taste their own flavor because it tastes like what they taste in their mouth when they aren’t tasting anything.

But they all like or dislike each other’s flavors in line with whether they like or dislike the person.

I think that’s a useful way to think about voice and writing right now. My role is to create the ice cream (written content) that captures thought leaders’ voices – i.e., writing that captures the experience of hearing a brilliant person talk about their area of expertise.

And folks? ChatGPT can’t do that.

Because AI writing is a composite. It’s a blanding of everything out there. It has no opinion and it has no original thoughts. It is the epitome of the age of average.

People aren’t moved by averages. We’re moved by creativity. Like when I made up the word “blanding” a few lines ago.

We’re moved by memories. Like when Tyler Wolfe mispronounced “epitome” in ninth grade English as “eppy-tome” and everyone laughed and he got mad and we felt bad but later he got a 1600 on his SATs and we didn't feel bad anymore because his dad was an SAT tutor and that seemed unfair.

That’s the kind of weird detail that's going to stick with you in three years when your old boss posts on LinkedIn that they’re ready to spin up a content program. Or maybe that Vonnegut quote. Or something about ice cream.

Anyway, that’s what I’m counting on.