On Content Creation Strategies

James Joyce, who cared not a whit about the "audience"

This morning, I got into a bit of an interesting discussion on Twitter with Maura Neill, Daniel Rothamel, Matthew Shadbolt, Josh Ferris and others. It was about content creation strategies.

At almost every agent-oriented real estate conference you might have attended in the past few years, and are likely to attend in the next couple, various people offer various advice to real estate agents on how to create “great content” for their blogs, websites, Facebook Pages, and so on.

The most frequently cited advice is something along these lines: “Know your audience and what they want; you can’t lose if you do”.

I emphatically disagree with this, and consider it to be very, very bad advice. It turns out that when it comes to content, knowing your audience and what they want is almost entirely counterproductive for all but the few (I’ll explain below). My advice: “Create content that you find compelling and forget everything else.”

Let’s get into why.

The Audience Doesn’t Know Jack

The “know your audience” concept seems so logical, so straightforward, so obvious. It gets repeated by everybody from bloggers to major studio executives. I mean, jeez, if you know that people want to see XYZ, and you give them XYZ, how could that fail?

The problem is that most people have no idea what they want, especially when it comes to works of creativity.

I went to a high-end restaurant the other day and asked the waiter what he’d recommend. He points to some dish that involved pureed beets; I don’t like beets. I would never, ever have ordered this dish. But, that time, on his recommendation, I try it. Amazing. Delicious. I had absolutely no idea that I would have wanted pureed beets. Turns out, I did.

Similarly, I think back to moments when I remember hearing a song. I don’t mean the normal sequence of “Hey, I’ve heard that somewhere before” turning into repetitive radio play until it seeps into my subconscious (see, e.g., anything by Bruno Mars). I mean those moments when you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard this amazing thing.

First is when I heard Public Enemy for the first time, in 1989, at a small record store off Route 24 in Long Island, NY. The song was, yes, “Fight the Power”. At the time, I was heavily into New Wave music and thought rap wasn’t even music. It was a couple of guys just shouting over simplistic beats. That got totally blown away when I heard this:

Do you think that Public Enemy or its record company ever thought this sort of angry, militant Black Panther inspired music would find such a wide audience? That suburban white kids would be driving around in their family station wagon pumping Fight the Power and yellin’, “Elvis was a hero to most, but he didn’t mean shit to me”?

The second is a couple of years later. I’m driving late at night, after having dropped a friend off at her house. The late-night DJ comes on and says something like, “Hey, here’s something brand new that’s been garnering a ton of underground interest”. And plays this:

I had to pull over. Remember that this is 1991 or 1992. What was popular on the radio charts then? Madonna’s Vogue was absolutely sweeping the country. Even on the rock charts, here are the top ten songs for the year:

  1. Hard To Handle, The Black Crowes
  2. What It Takes, Aerosmith
  3. Jealous Again, The Black Crowes
  4. The Other Side, Aerosmith
  5. Suicide Blonde, INXS
  6. Bad Love, Eric Clapton
  7. If You Needed Somebody, Bad Company
  8. Coming Of Age, Damn Yankees
  9. Moneytalks, AC/DC
  10. Cradle Of Love, Billy Idol

If you were concerned about what the audience wants, you would never sign a band like Nirvana. Never. I mean, Damn Yankees had a #1 hit! Cradle of Love was top ten in the rock charts! And in fact, Nirvana had a tough time finding a major record label deal: “Following repeated recommendations by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Nirvana signed to DGC Records in 1990.” Why repeated? So often? Why ignored until then?

And it is absolutely clear that the explosive success of Smells Like Teen Spirit was unexpected. DCG, the record company, expected to sell 250,000 copies, figuring they’d get the same audience that Sonic Youth got. Audience-oriented thinking, right?

Instead, that song and that band more or less ushered in a new age of rock in the early 90’s.

This pattern repeats itself over and over and over again in every single creative arena. Books that follow no formula, appear to have no recognizable target audience, suddenly become classics. Imagine being Cormac McCarthy and pitching your idea to publishers: “Yeah, I don’t plan on using punctuation much, and all of them grammar rules can go out the window.”

Movies? Blair Witch Project. ‘Nuff said.

TV shows? Anyone who says that they knew that South Park would have been as successful as it has been is lying to you.

Art? Can it really be debated that artists like Picasso and Monet were widely derided for decades, until suddenly, the public taste shifted? That if they had made art for an audience, aware of the audience’s preferences, we’d never have heard of either of them?

People have no idea what they want, what they like, until they see it, hear it, and read it.

The Importance of Passion (And Self-Fulfillment)

Because the audience has no idea about its own likes and dislikes — until it is actually confronted with some work of creativity — the creator becomes neurotic. Every single writer, singer, musician, artist, actor, movie director, etc. etc. has a deep seated fear: “What if they hate it?”

The only way to get through that fear is to do things for yourself. Write what you find interesting. Make music that you like. And hope for the best.

That’s where passion comes through. Even the most untrained, most uncouth, most unoriginal audience member can sense when a work is infused with the creator’s passion. They may not like it, but they sense it and respect it. At the very least, you’d get, “Huh, that’s interesting” out of them.

But the reverse is also true. Audiences can sense a lack of passion, a lack of commitment, a calculated product created and packaged to pull on certain levers. Most romantic comedies follow certain formulas; the audience senses it when the seemingly-incompatible-boy-meets-girl scenes start popping up. They might chuckle, find it enjoyable for a brief, fleeting moment, but they know they’re being manipulated by the creator who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the story, the characters, the dialogue, the situation. They know they’re being fed pre-packaged goods.

This is why the only content strategy that makes sense is to seek self-fulfillment. If you write for anyone except yourself, you will subconsciously adopt that person’s viewpoint and second-guess yourself. If you make videos for anyone except yourself, you’ll find yourself thinking about what they would like, rather than what makes you happy.

In fact, quite a few long-running TV series eventually decay and die because the original passion, the original creators who were telling a story that they themselves would have wanted to hear, are replaced over time by faithful journeymen who are told who the audience is, what their preferences are, what jokes worked in the past, what jokes are likely to work in the future, and just go on churning out stuff they think the audience wants to see.

Keep in mind that this is not to say that you should completely ignore other people. That isn’t art. That isn’t creation. That’s mere self-gratification. But the real process of creation, in my opinion, is one where the creator makes something, looks at it, says, “It is good”, then offers it to the world to see if they see what he sees in it.

Audience Driven Content

This is not to say purely audience-driven content can never succeed. It can, as long as you define success a certain way.

For example, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and any number of forgettable, over-produced, overhyped stuff at which we look back in regret years later. There is no denying those bands made it big. Or obvious, audience-driven, formulaic works that still wow and amaze. (See, e.g., Avatar.)

But those things require immense amount of resources and unique talent. In some cases, the passion of the creator does come through, even in audience-driven content. Avatar is a good example. It’s a crap movie with a crap story with cardboard cutouts for characters. But oh my… the computer graphics are insane. Even if the writer, the director, the actors all zombiewalked through their parts… the graphic artists and the computer geeks were absolutely passionate and driven.

In other cases, the production is just so well executed that the audience just goes with it, even knowing that they’re digging on the formulaic tried-and-true. You’ve Got Mail comes to mind for me; it’s literally tried and true, since it’s a remake of a 1940’s hit. But it’s just so well done, and the actors are so perfect for their respective roles. I know it’s fluff, but I can’t help but like it. I feel the same way about Law & Order — you know from the initial DUN-DAH to the very end what you’re going to get. But it’s just so well crafted, so well done, that you just ignore it and zone out.

So here’s what I realized: if you’re going to create audience-driven content, seeking to find out what your target audience wants, then delivering that to them… you had better execute it perfectly with the highest standard of technique.

The Advice, Then

With all of the above, then, here’s my advice to any would-be content creator.

  • First, to thine own self be true.
  • Second, within the limits of thy skills and thy craft, tell the stories that interests thee passionately enough that thou wouldst take the time to bother.
  • Third, if thou wouldst focus on thine audience instead, make certain that thy funds are plentiful for thou shalt need to spend mucho time and lucre to achieve perfect execution, for such run-of-the-mill standard things are a dime to the dozen at thy local market faire.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, critiques, and comments.

-rsh

  • http://twitter.com/PamelaSeley Pamela Seley

    Very insightful post. Agents will have to ask themselves which direction they want to go. I always like free, so I’ll probably be spending my time writing content true to my ownself. :)

  • teardowns.com

    When selling (marketing) a product / service / business, passion
    should be in the product /service / business – whether you’re its creator or spokesperson
    (sales force).   The marketing content on
    the other hand, isn’t as straight forward. 
    A company may have a wide audience and delivering a message to that
    diverse audience often requires a more staid and less personal tact.

    This comment is a perfect example.  In our business, customers range from the ultra-wealthy,
    well-educated to the less fortunate.  We
    are concerned about our brand image and opt for a more formal writing style by
    design.

    I think there is room for some gray – a little N’Sync mixed
    with some Blair Witch – nothing too consistent and always make room for
    surprises.

  • http://www.twitter.com/joshferris Josh Ferris

    Rob – First, per your usual, beautifully written and stated. After reviewing my comment it seems I managed to rival your blog posts in length but since we’re not on Twitter… :) 

    You addressed most of my counterpoints towards the middle and end of your article so let me touch on three points from your post:

    • The Audience Doesn’t Know Jack• Industry Pioneers
    • Passion and Authenticity 

    The Audience Doesn’t Know Jack

    Looking at blogging and social media from a real estate lead generation and business perspective, I disagree that the audience doesn’t know what they want. I think we know what works today. 

    The audience of prospective buyers and sellers are looking for an agent who is trustworthy, knows the market they work in, follows up as promised and will work their ass off to make the buying or selling process as easy as possible for them (negotiation etc.) That’s the value agents provide and that’s what buyers and sellers are paying for.

    So with that in mind, and assuming the agent is trustworthy, follows up as promised and works their ass off (something you don’t really know until you meet/work with them or read reviews from third party services like Trulia/Zillow) then an agent’s online focus should be to convey their local area expertise to prospective buyers and sellers reading their blog/Facebook/Twitter feeds.

    Since this whole conversation grew from “what does great content really mean?” I’ll share what I believe it to be. Feel free to add/correct:

    To build a great blog, you should talk about what buyers (and sellers) like. Buyers like:

    • Interpreted Market Statistics – This is probably the hardest type of content to provide for agents who aren’t analytical but buyers want to know how the market is, backed by accurate data, and what it means for their potential purchase. I prefaced market statistics with “interpreted” because it’s easier to just copy and paste what you receive. An agent’s value isn’t in providing the statistics, it’s in interpreting it for their clients.

    • *Real* Neighborhood Information – A lot of neighborhood information. If I’m exploring an area for the first time I’ll go to a couple comfort zones (chain restaurants, stores like Target.) Along the way, I might see a neighborhood that I’m curious about and write down the neighborhood name (I did this as an agent with a community named “Meadow Glen at Monroe”) to Google when I get home. 

    If an agent spent the time to build a page on their website (or better yet, a full blown website dedicated to that neighborhood) and I go home and Google the neighborhood name, I’m going to find that agent’s website and by association, they’ll become an authority on that neighborhood in my mind.

    As a prospective buyer, there’s a good chance that agent will have the opportunity to earn my business just by providing the information I’m interested in. So for agents, writing about specific subdivisions is a huge win because it’s one of the fastest ways to attract prospective buyers and their competition is most likely too lazy/busy to write about it so the niche is there for the taking.

    Taking it a step further, you’d be making a safe bet that sellers are also Googling their neighborhood and contacting the agents who seem to know it best based on their online presence.

    • Recommendations From a “Local” – For someone who is just looking for the best hair salon or restaurant on the go, nothing an agent/agency could do will supersede a great resource like Yelp. However, if you’re writing about your favorite restaurants, stores, commuter routes and things to do in the area, this will help reinforce your local expertise AND give you the opportunity to talk about something you like.

    The above three points are by no means the only things you can write about but I’d argue that the audience an agent is trying to attract (prospective buyers and sellers) is most interested in those three things.

    For Facebook, I’d say follow the in the steps of the venerable Sue Adler which is to use it as a connection tool. Friend all of your past and current clients and use it to connect new neighbors with existing residents who also happen to be past clients. Share what you’re working on including photos of upcoming listings. Share things about the area that you like most. Sue’s “Sue Adler Dot Combo” sandwich at the Millburn Deli was brilliant. 

    I see Twitter a little differently. I’d recommend using hashtags to engage with people talking about what’s happening locally but I think the best return on your time with Twitter is getting to know other agents. I didn’t (and still don’t have) an agenda while using Twitter but I was fortunate enough to get a referral for a $499,900 listing in my market from Jolenta Averill in Madison, WI (@jolenta:twitter ).  

    Regarding what the audience of prospective buyers and sellers do NOT care about:

    • Cheerleading your accomplishments
    • Potentially skewed testimonials (written testimonials hand selected by the agent)

    Industry Pioneers

    In any industry you have the trailblazers like Sue Adler (@sueadler:twitter ), Kristy Owen (creator of “365 Things to Do in Austin, TX”) and Marc Davison (@1000wattmarc:twitter )  who are pioneers. It’s their innovation and creative thinking that changes industries. That said, the vast majority of agents (and people in general) are not early adopters or trailblazers. They want to know what works and then apply it to their business.

    Expecting extreme innovation from every person trying to build their real estate business online is unrealistic. Some are more creative than others. It’s just the way things are. Still, I love innovation and am always impressed by the immense creativity that resides in our industry.

    Passion and Authenticity

    The underlying theme of your post seems to be that agents need to be passionate about what they’re writing otherwise they won’t do it. I agree completely.

    During our Twitter conversation I mentioned a fine line between your passions and tying it back into real estate. In the example, we talked about an agent who loves arts and crafts but is in real estate. If your intent is to build a real estate blog, by all means blog about arts and crafts but tie it into real estate/local lifestyle. 

    For example, you could write about upcoming arts and crafts fairs, interview local creators and talk about your passion for the pieces you discover. The fine line gets crossed if you dedicate your entire blog to arts and crafts without making it relevant to your blog’s subject. 

    A blog about Monroe, NY real estate shouldn’t be full of posts talking about just your arts and crafts or offering them for sale to your readers because then you’re not serving the interest of your desired audience which is to learn more about the Monroe, NY area.

    I’m a firm believer that anyone, small business owners like agents and brokers included, should always be passionate and authentic about what they’re doing and writing about. Just be sure that you connect the dots with your intent for the blog (to receive inquiries from RWA buyers and sellers) otherwise it’s a futile exercise.

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