You dream of building an online empire.
A popular blog with hordes of loyal readers who hang on your every word.
You want to be as successful as your idols, changing the world and even getting paid to do so.
But you know you haven’t got a chance in hell of seeing that kind of success unless you can truly engage your readers and keep them interested over the long haul.
Of course, the big question is how? Engagement is an elusive creature.
Sure, you get the occasional nice comment, but it’s not like people are raving about your blog, or tripping over themselves to share your content.
You worry that you’re not connecting, that your words don’t resonate deeply with your readers, but you’ll be damned if you can figure out the magic formula.
And the truth is, unless you can find a way to connect powerfully with your readers, your blog is doomed to failure.
But there is a way to captivate and keep your audience’s attention, even if you’re a beginner, and even if you’ve tried before with limited success.
It’s a game changer, one that can take your blog from teetering on the brink of failure to achieving the success you dream of.
The Real Reason Your Blog Is Growing at a Snail’s Pace
You know the feeling. You’re reading a blog post and it grabs you and pulls you in. You relate to what the author says so strongly you feel like she’s reading your mind. So much so that you’re tempted to check your house for wiretaps!
The result – you feel compelled to respond. You leave a glowing comment, share the post with your friends, and bookmark it to read again later.
Then you wonder, how did she do that?
The answer is empathy – the master key to all doors leading to blogging greatness.
Simply stated, the better you understand your audience, the more enthusiastically they’ll respond to everything you do. Without empathy, your blog doesn’t have a chance in hell of succeeding.
But what if you’re not blessed with the natural abilities of Deanna Troi? Don’t worry: you can develop your mind-reading skills.
But only if you ignore some of the most common advice about empathy.
The Problem with Popular Advice About Developing Empathy
Conventional wisdom says that to understand your audience you should create a detailed profile of your ideal reader — their income, education, gender, hobbies, even what pets they own.
Then you’ll be able to write for that one person in a way that makes your entire audience feel like you’re reading their minds. At least that’s the theory.
But if you actually try this exercise, two problems usually surface right away:
- You spend way too much time obsessing about getting these details right.
- You end up concentrating on trivial information that doesn’t matter.
Of course, if you’re writing a personal finance blog aimed at 20-somethings, then yes, details like age will matter. If you are helping women with business, or men with style, then gender will be important.
But don’t create differences where none exist. Don’t fret over whether you’re speaking to a 32 year old with a master’s degree or a 38 year old without a degree if those things aren’t common characteristics of your audience.
Instead, turn your attention to the things that do matter.
Where to Focus Your Attention If You Really Want Readers to Stick Around
Here’s the big idea…
You can only develop empathy with your audience if you have a deep understanding of real readers, not theoretical “ideal” ones.
That means understanding the people who already visit your blog – and the people who may do so in the future but are currently hanging out elsewhere.
But what if you don’t know where your readers spend their time online? Then you must play detective.
Follow the people who share your content on social media and notice what else they’re sharing. And when readers leave comments on your blog, try to find other places where they are commenting. Those other sites will be a treasure trove of useful information about your readers too.
Will these sites have your exact audience? Probably not. But they will likely have a lot in common with yours. And even if you have to rely on educated guesses in the beginning, the more subscribers you attract for your own blog, the more you can base your writing on real evidence instead of crystal-ball gazing.
How to Become a Master of Empathy by Stepping Inside Your Readers’ Heads
The key to showing empathy is convincing your audience you know exactly what they’re going through. Show them that you understand (and even share) their concerns and preoccupations.
The basis for this is not some collection of ideal demographic characteristics, but four simple drivers of human behavior: dreams, desires, fears and frustrations.
If you know your readers’ biggest dreams, deepest desires, most paralyzing fears and most frequent frustrations, then you hold the keys to a passionately engaged audience.
So effective is this model that Jon Morrow – The King of Awesomeness (and Empathy) – insists that all of his blogging students must create lists for their own audience. They take two pieces of paper and write Dreams & Desires at the top of one page and Fears & Frustrations at the top of the other.
And here’s the kicker – the lists aren’t done until there are 100 points on each!
It’s tough, and it takes a while to complete. But it’s one of the most valuable exercises you can undertake as a blogger.
But where do you find the information to fill out your lists?
Where to Find the Clues You Need to Become a Masterful Mind Reader
Populating your lists requires a combination of educated speculation and careful research.
But start simple. Write down some dreams, desires, fears and frustrations based on your current understanding of your audience.
For example, no matter what your niche, your readers are probably afraid of failure. They may worry they’re not reaching their full potential, or fear they’re wasting their time pursuing something that has no future. They probably worry about what others think of them too. These are the high-level fears. Include these in your list, but then drill down.
Think about what failure means specifically to your audience. Bloggers, for example, can feel like failures in many different ways. They can work hard and yet never get comments or shares. They can fail to grow their lists, or sell their first product. They can fall short of the recognition they feel they deserve.
Drew Eric Whitman, in his book Ca$hvertising, identifies eight basic desires that all humans are born with and nine more that we learn.
The following eight basic desires are biologically programmed:
- survival/enjoyment of life/life extension
- enjoyment of food and beverage
- freedom from pain, fear, and danger
- sexual companionship
- comfortable living conditions
- superiority/winning/keep up with the Joneses
- care and protection of loved ones
- social approval
In addition to those, we learn to want:
- to be informed
- to be curious
- to have clean bodies and surroundings
- to express beauty and style
Think how each of these desires manifests in your audience. And how failing to fulfill these desires could be the source of a fear or frustration.
For example, if you blog about sports and fitness, your readers will want to avoid the pain of injury caused by incorrect technique. And if they’re runners, they probably obsess about the footwear that will help them to avoid that pain.
If you’re a nutritionist, you know your audience will care about having energy, avoiding sickness, and getting the highest quality food at the best prices, all of which stem from their desires for survival, life enjoyment and extension, quality, and bargains.
In my case, the audience is creatives – writers, musicians, artists, designers, etc. One fear we all have in common is making fools of ourselves in public (which relates to the desire for social approval). So, when I did this exercise, I had a main category under Fears & Frustrations called, “Making a fool of myself” and I included the following entries underneath: I’ll be criticized, people will make fun of me, I’ll be exposed as a fraud, I’ll screw up in public, I’ll waste money on bad advice, I’m not ready for bigger things, and I’ll look like an idiot.
Many creatives also have a strong desire to leave a legacy. So, in my “Leave a legacy” category under Dreams & Desires, I included becoming famous, being remembered for my work, being appreciated by my peers, being a trendsetter, changing the world, inspiring people, and improving people’s lives and situations.
Once you’ve made a start on your lists using this method, you can start to flesh it out with data from the real world.
3 Simple Ways to Gain Access to Your Readers’ Innermost Thoughts
You don’t have to steal your readers’ email passwords in order to know what they’re thinking. Instead, try these tactics.
1) Observe and take notes
Watch the interaction between readers in your blog post comments, on social media, etc. Collect and keep track of all the great nuggets – anything relating to fears, frustrations, or their most cherished dreams.
In “An Open Letter to Writers Struggling to Find Their Courage”, Jon wrote a controversial post that had readers not only replying to him, but also discussing amongst themselves.
For example, Leigh writes to Leah –
Fwiw, I am married with a kid and I don’t have a full time job beyond my writing. I’m building a business. I’m writing books. I’m guest posting.
It is scary, and I’ve made sacrifices to make it happen. But I also did it the other way for too long, and these sacrifices are far better than always wondering when I would finally write.
So here are some fears – around supporting a child, having to make sacrifices, and “wondering when I would finally write” – that are repeated by commenters several times in response to this post.
In the same post, you’ll find big dreams too:
Personally, I have a 2 year plan to write full-time which some people think is crazy. This post was just the rocket fuel I needed as assurance I’m on the right track!
Of course, not everyone has an audience as large as Jon’s, but even a modest following can yield useful insights. If your content is hitting a nerve, you’ll see those discussions played out, just on a smaller scale.
2) Listen to what they are already telling you
If you already have direct contact with some of your readers – maybe you have clients or customers who reflect your blog audience – then you already have a great source of insights for your empathy lists.
Collect and save any insights your audience gives you – whether it comes by email, in person, by phone or over Skype.
When someone tells you, “I’d love to work from home more like you do. I’d really love to set my own schedule,” you know that one of their desires is more flexibility. So add “flexible schedule” to your Dreams & Desires list.
And don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions until you get to a real understanding of the issue. Your goal is to understand not just what they think and feel, but why.
If a reader mentions that the hardest part of a project is getting started, ask “Why is that the hardest part?” Maybe they don’t have a process figured out yet, or they’re afraid they’ll fail, or they can’t find time in their schedule. Add their answer to your list under Fears & Frustrations.
3) Go right ahead and ask them what they think
Instead of waiting for valuable information to drift in, you can create a simple survey, email your subscriber list, canvas social media followers, or write a blog post to ask about people’s biggest dreams and scariest obstacles and to find out what they need to move forward.
Keep your questions open-ended to encourage responses. And remember that people won’t always feel comfortable sharing in public spaces like blog comments, so offer to take conversations over to the privacy of email.
I recently asked my readers about their visions in our Facebook group. Everyone wanted to change the way the world thinks in some way. They wanted to work from anywhere. Some wanted to write fiction. All of them wanted to help others. These are all dreams and desires for my list.
Build Your Empathy Muscles by Looking Beyond Your Own Blog
If your current audience is small you’ll need to look beyond your own blog to gather more empathy-building intelligence for your lists. And even if your blog is more established, casting the net wider will help you to understand the people who might read your blog in the future.
So use your earlier detective work to create a hit list of other blogs you suspect your audience reads in addition to yours. Chances are, those blogs hold clues to attracting and engaging a larger audience for your own blog.
Study their most popular posts and see what readers are saying in the comments. Use the process described above to distill their dreams, desires, fears and frustrations.
Use a tool like Buzzsumo to find content that has gone viral in your space. Notice people’s reactions to it and pay close attention to the emotions it triggered or any needs that it fulfilled.
Use Topsy to research viral Twitter content to find which which issues set your audience alight on that platform.
Dan Cassaro, a graphic artist, had a tweet that went viral when he responded to a network’s request he submit his art to a contest without compensation. This one caused a reaction among creatives who are often asked to work for free – a huge frustration for that group.
When a topic blows up like this on social media, it can be a powerful addition to your lists.
Using Empathy to Create Content that Grabs and Holds Your Readers
Once you have your two lists, you’ll use these insights to guide everything you write.
Think about which items on your list keep your readers up at night. Fears that keep them awake with worry. Dreams that keep them awake with excitement. Your headlines and post content will flow directly from these points.
Use your lists to craft headlines that hook readers in and openings that tap into their deepest thoughts. You’ll build loyalty and credibility because your readers will know you understand them, and you’ll inspire change because your readers will trust you to guide them.
The following examples (one real, one imagined) show headlines and post openings that channel readers’ fears of criticism:
And these examples are driven by the desire to leave a legacy:
It’s not magic. Even though we like to believe that we’re all completely unique individuals, when we cluster around a topic, we’re really very much alike.
Follow this process and you’ll see that the closer you get to your reader’s “hidden” secrets, the bigger a reaction you’ll elicit and the more they will love you for it.
And you’ll know you’re on the right track when you get comments like this:
- “Thank you so much; this was perfect timing!”
- “This was exactly what I needed to hear today.”
- “It’s like you were reading my mind!”
- “I’ve been putting this off, but I’m going to get started right away.”
So revisit this exercise often. Toss out your old notes and start over again. Each time, you’ll be strengthening those empathy muscles.
Do You Want a Blog That’s Thriving or Just Barely Surviving?
You don’t have to settle for a blog that’s met with modest enthusiasm and lukewarm engagement. Empathy is not just a born talent – it can also be a learned skill.
Empathy allows you to connect with your readers in a way that will excite them, build loyalty, and have them hanging on your every word.
So put your lists of dreams, desires, fears and frustration at the heart of your writer’s toolkit – they are as important as your thesaurus or your battered notebook of ideas. Use them to guide everything you write – blog posts, emails, even your About Page.
Repeat the exercise a couple of times a year and you’ll be blown away by the reaction from your readers. You’ll understand them so well that they’ll wonder if you’re now the one setting the wiretaps.
So grab two pieces of paper and get started. Your wildly popular blog awaits.