The blank white document with the flashing cursor: it can be an intimidating wall of nothingness staring down at you as you struggle to come up with something brilliant to write about.
“Have you got what it takes, punk?” Your empty page hisses at you. “You, me, and a fantastic content idea that knocks your audience’s socks off. Let’s do this.”
But you’ve got nothing. Your inspiration bank is overdrawn.
You’ve searched for keywords related to your field to see what other folks are writing about, but it all blurs together in a yawning abyss of listicles, how-tos, and “you’ll never guess” clickbait fluff.
How are you going to stand out?
More importantly, how are you going to deliver meaningful content that your target user will instantly connect to and share with others?
spy on your users
discover their pain
steal their words
Instant blogging gold.
Fear not: I’m going to give you some of the most legitimate, compassionate tools you can use in your content innovation workshop. When you implement some of the ideas I’m about to share with you, you’ll have a consistently replenished source of content inspiration.
Plus, the content you create will hit your user right where you want it to: where they hurt-- so you can help.
Read on to discover how to use your target user’s pain to create content that inspires them to action.
The Infinite Value of Pain
First of all, let’s talk about what I mean by “pain.”
Our lives are full of struggle. It's part of being alive.
Pain is the physical and emotional byproduct of struggle.
We experience pain in our bodies: the pain of illness or injury.
We experience pain in our minds: the pain of having a physical or emotional barrier to overcome.
Pain keeps us alert: it prevents us from causing further damage to ourselves by seeking help or healing.
When we can’t get help or can’t find healing, the pain of our struggle turns into suffering.
The cause of your pain may be as insignificant as the inability to open a pickle jar.
Or it could be as monumental as the heartbreak of miscarriage.
As producers of content, it's our job to:
Identify the reasons for our target prospect’s pain
Understand how their pain manifests: do they feel fearful? Alone? Enraged? Bored?
Offer content that will provide them help or healing from that pain.
“Why,” you may ask “would I ever want to exploit my user’s pain for my own benefit?”
Because it's not exploitation if you're offering empathy.
The point of content inspired by pain is to offer help with your target user’s struggle and end their suffering, not add to it.
Exploiting Pain vs. Empathizing With Pain
Let me give you an example of content that exploits pain.
Warning: if you’re squeamish over the acknowledgement of the existence of female genitalia, you may want to skip this bit. (Also: feminism, you guys. It’s 2016. Catch up.)
This is a vintage ad that's often shared as an advertising novelty. We raise our eyebrows, shake our heads and chuckle: Lysol? As a douche? Oh, those misguided, old-timey folks…
But let's take a closer look. Not through a 2016 lens, but from the point of view of this ad’s target user.
Let's say you're a woman who whose financial and social well-being depends on your husband’s marital happiness. You live in a world where domestic satisfaction-- in the kitchen, living room, and bedroom, is placed squarely on the shoulders of the wife. You do everything to fit the 1950’s image of the perfect housewife.
But your husband won't touch you. He rarely shows you affection and the few times you've been physically intimate he's expressed a lack of desire.
In this ad, Lysol identifies this woman’s pain quite insightfully: she feels shut out from her husband.
Being physically put off by one’s partner due to hygiene issues can be a perfectly relatable problem. I don’t know about you, but if my husband tries to kiss me in the morning before he brushes his teeth, he’s presented with a cheek. Ain’t no way I’m smooching that stank morning mouth.
No, the problem isn’t in the positioning of the pain. It’s in Lysol’s complete lack of empathy.
Here’s where their content moves into exploitation:
LYSOL AGITATES THEIR CUSTOMER’S WORST FEAR BY BLAMING HER FOR RUINING HER OWN MARRIAGE.
Do they recommend having a heart-to-heart with her husband about the reasons for his distance?
Do they offer empathy or say “you've done nothing wrong”?
No: Lysol points the finger and says “Your marriage is falling apart and it's your fault for not taking care of yourself.”
Talk about kicking a girl while she’s down.
Let’s analyze this abhorrent ad and see what we can do to make it a little less of a dick move on Lysol’s part.
The first thing you need to understand is that the ad follows a classic copywriting formula called “Problem-Agitation-Solution” (PAS).
The PAS formula is one of the easiest, most flexible ways to:
Present your understanding of a customer’s PROBLEM,
Further explore the emotional implications of the problem ( aka AGITATION), and then
Present a SOLUTION (usually your product or offer or-- in the case of blogging, your content).
So here’s how the Lysol Douche(bag) Ad shakes out:
Problem: Dave is shutting you out and you don't know why.
Agitation: You’ve failed to realize that “one intimate neglect” has shut you out of “married love.” (2016 translation: Dave’s physically repulsed by you and your unhygienic female parts.) Don’t you dare blame your husband--you need to look in the mirror. You’re not trying hard enough to “safeguard your dainty feminine allure.”
Solution: Lysol douche will protect your marriage and keep you desireable for your husband.
Now: I'm going to pretend the execs at Lysol, in a rare moment of compassion, hired me to rewrite this ad.
They still want to sell the same product (douche) to the same target buyer (a 1950’s housewife), so despite my postmodern feminist take on the whole scenario, I'm not going to solve the problem of overall systemic sexism in this ad.
But I am going to remove a bit of the blatant misogyny and replace the exploitative aspects with a little bit of empathy.
And I'm going to do it using the same PAS formula:
Problem: Your husband is shutting you out and you don't know why.
Agitation: You must be feeling so alone right now, and fearful that there's something you've done-- or haven't done to cause his distance. But we want you to know that you aren't alone: almost every marriage goes through a rough patch. And you shouldn't have to bear the burden of his happiness by yourself: marriage is a partnership.
Solution: Talk to your husband.
...And if you need us, Lysol’s here to help. Sign up to receive discounts on our products and practical advice on how to help your household clean up its act.
I'm still positioning Lysol as a possible solution to a problem within the target user’s marriage-- but not the only one. I'm still implying that the husband’s distance may be due to his reluctance to address a lack of feminine hygiene--but the fundamental problem is a lack of communication. Instead of blaming the buyer, I'm showing that I'm on her side and that I’m here to help.
What? I’m not positioning the product as the superhero, here to rescue the helpless damsel from her problems?
Nope. Because my goal isn’t just to sell a product, it’s to build trust between the brand and the customer. Empathy = more trust = more sales.
Dove & The Exquisite Beauty of Pain
For the past decade, skin care brand has been running the Campaign for Real Beauty: a brilliant series of ads that turn the beauty advertising industry on its head.
Instead of sending the traditional beauty product message “if you want to be beautiful, use our products”, Dove tells its target user “You’re unique and beautiful and you deserve to take care of yourself. Use our products.”
But you know what? Dove’s most acclaimed content rarely promotes Dove products.
They feature women and girls having heartfelt conversations about their perceptions of their own beauty, and accepting their beauty despite the onslaught of pressure for perfection placed upon them by society.
Nice message, but does it get women to buy Dove products?
You bet it does: sales have jumped from $2.5 billion in the first year to $4 billion as of 2014. AND it helped bring issues of body image and perceptions of beauty into the mainstream.
Some critics have pointed out that Unilever, the owner of the Dove brand, has been hypocritical in its Real Beauty Campaign. Axe fragrance is also owned by Unilever, and the men’s body spray famously promises the unbridled lust of random bikini-clad women to sell its products.
But then Axe came out with this:
That’s right: Axe put out a Real Beauty ad for dudes.
Men are faced with a media onslaught of “ideal” masculinity. You don’t need anything beyond yourself to be awesome. Use our product to help bring out the awesomeness within you.
Exploitation adds to someone’s suffering.
Empathy takes away their suffering by letting them know they aren't alone in their struggle.
If Exploitation of Pain Isn’t a Wise Choice, Why Do So Many Advertisers Use It?
Look: as we’ve learned from the clickbait that clings like barnacles to every news site we visit, exploitation can be effective in getting the quick click or sale. These companies are more interested in manipulating their customers into BUYING NOW over maintaining a growing relationship with them.
Imagine the outcome of the original Lysol ad: “GAH! THAT’s why Dave doesn’t want to sleep with me anymore??? Oh, I’m so embarrassed! I’m running out and getting a bottle of Lysol right now!”
But what happens if after undergoing what must be a very uncomfortable experience for her girl parts, Mrs. Dave still can’t get any lovin’ from her hubby?
“I feel duped. And used. And my lady parts hurt. Lysol is a terrible company.”
Now imagine the outcome of the re-written ad: In my empathy-fueled scenario, there are a variety of possible outcomes, but all of them lead to ongoing brand interaction.
“Huh. I really should talk to Dave about his being so distant.”
And after she follows the ad’s advice:
“Wow. I’m so glad we had that heart-to-heart. I feel closer than ever to Dave. I’m signing up for more advice from Lysol. What a great company.”
“Dave’s an emotionally unavailable jerk. At least I know that now. After I drink this old-fashioned, smoke this cigarette, and call a divorce lawyer, I’m signing up for more advice from Lysol. What a great company.”
“Whoa. I’m soooo glad I talked to Dave. I never knew he was such a clean-freak. I feel a little embarrassed, but it’s better than having him shun me. I’ll run out to the store and grab some of that Lysol stuff.”
“Dave’s gay. In 1950’s suburban America. Our marriage has a much bigger issue than a lack of feminine hygiene. Thanks, Lysol for helping me to make this discovery and stop blaming myself.”
And then a few weeks later:
“Oh look! There’s a coupon for a Lysol product. *CLIP*”
Quick sale? Not really.
So are we clear now? If you express empathy for your customer’s physical or emotional pain, you’ll earn their long-term trust.
Which brings me to the next question: do you understand your customer’s pain?
Like, reeeeally understand it?
If you’ve done your homework and have created a user persona and started to interact with your user’s digital tribes, you should have a pretty good feel for the problems that plague your target customer.
If you haven't done those things yet, I recommend you check out the posts linked above so you're fully equipped with an understanding of your customer's needs, desires, and challenges, and the communities they turn to for support & help.
Now the challenge is to figure out which problems will make the best content.
The “Sneaky Copycat” Technique to Content Ideation
I have a confession to make: this part is so easy I feel a little guilty charging my clients for it.
Here’s what I do:
Read or listen to conversations
See which comments/questions have the most engagement
Create a blog post based on the topic.
That’s it. Like I said: easy.
Here are my favorite places to discover ideas for content. I’m going to share an example screenshot, a topic idea for the blog post and then a content outline using the PAS solution:
I know, I know “never read the comments,” right? Well, in the case of content creation you’re going to have to hold your nose and dive in. Occasionally you’ll come up with buried treasure.
Check out this Facebook comment for a Scary Mommy post:
“My hubs will do anything you ask of him, but seems incapable of looking around and seeing what needs to be done.”
That comment got 190 likes.
There are at least 191 women out there with the same problem.
Let’s assume you’re a relationship counselor with a blog targeted to married women. How can you turn this problem/pain into a blog post your audience will immediately connect with?
Blog post idea: “How to Get Your Husband to Help Around the House Without Having To Ask”
Opening sentence (Problem): “If your hubs is anything like mine, he’ll do anything you ask of him, but seems incapable of looking around and seeing what needs to be done.”
Yep: I totally stole that commenter’s words. Why? Because they’re powerful enough to get 190 heads nodding. If they were originally written as copyrighted material (i.e. blog, advert, or book), I‘d never directly copy the words-- there’s the whole plagiarism-plus-just-not-cool thing-- but using a commenter’s words in this context is totally kosher.
Agitation (Remember: offer empathy): We’ve all been there: you try to drop subtle hints, hoping he’ll get the message. Or you just let the problem get worse, waiting for him to catch on. *Why* can’t he *see* the laundry overflowing the hamper?
Solution (What this blog post will help you do): Here are 11 nag-free methods to helping your hubby become aware of everyday tasks he may be overlooking.
Here's what's awesome about comments & discussion threads: you can immediately see which ones are getting the most people engaged. Take a look at this thread in a LinkedIn group for Search Engine Land:
“Am I missing anything? I know that a site not ranking can be loads of issues, but just want to better understand this URL issue, how to solve it, and why this URL was even generated in the first instance. It seems to be a site-wide issue as all the URL's have this unfriendly structure.”
Tom's thread has 12 comments while the rest of the recent threads in this group have none. Everyone commenting is an SEO expert with tips, so your blog post has already written itself. If you use links to these expert’s blogs and share your post with SEOers commenting on the the thread, you’ll have a bunch of shares since you’re using their advice.
Blog Post Idea: So Your Site Has Been Dropped from Google: What Are You Missing?
Problem: Can duplicate content be causing your entire site to disappear from the search results?
Agitation: You have a huge, content-rich website that has sunk to the bottom of the search rankings. When you investigate, you discover the culprit: a strange URL that’s been mysteriously generated--triggering the algorithm that penalizes large blocks of duplicate content. Where did this URL come from, and how can you make it go away so your website returns to its rightful place in the results?
Solution: They could be from query string parameters. Here’s what some SEO experts have to say about the dangers of session IDs, and what you can do to fix them.
This method takes a little more thought and reading time, but can be a profound source of content inspiration.
Rather than go through every step , I’m going to refer you to Joanna Weibe of Copy Hackers. She wrote a super-practical post on how she mines reviews for copy--check it out.
Give the Amazon book reviews a good lookin' over and try to discover your own blog post ideas from the pains the reviewers express.
Now take a look at what I came up with:
Blog Post Idea: Through the Darkness and Back: Real Women Share Their Experiences with PPD
Problem: You’re suffering from postpartum depression and none of the advice you’re getting seems to help.
Agitation: Getting advice from doctors and books just isn’t enough. We need to hear real stories so we know we aren’t alone. If there's one thing everyone with PPD needs to hear, it's that what you're going through isn't abnormal--and you WILL recover.
Solution: Here are some personal accounts from REAL PPD survivors, so you can see there’s a light at the end of this tunnel.
The key to using Quora as a content resource is to turn the most upvoted answers into questions. Part of the research for your post will already be done for you because most upvoted Quora answers have substantial evidence to back them up. Even if they don’t, you’ll have the ball rolling for a topic that’s proven to engage readers.
Blog Idea: Is Technology Developing Too Quickly for Political Systems to Adapt?
Problem: Will the pace of technology unravel the social contracts between government and its citizens?
Agitation: In the past the spread of misinformation was slowed by distance of geography and time-- giving citizens enough time to absorb and decipher between truth and propaganda. But today’s lightning fast connections mean the average voter is constantly bombarded with conspiracies, rumors, and deliberate misinformation created by political parties and their supporters. What does this mean for the future of democracy?
Solution: We’ll examine what top futurists say.
AMAs on Reddit/Product Hunt/Growth Hackers
First of all, a warning: you will get sucked into the Reddit lurking rabbit hole if you aren’t careful. But be prepared to discover some fantastic questions--and answers in the "Ask Me Anything" threads that you can transform into juicy blog posts.
For the uninitiated, an "Ask Me Anything" (or AMA) thread is when someone (often a well-known person within an industry, but not necessarily) invites the members of an online community to..well..ask them anything.
What results is a barrage of questions, and the AMA subject tries to answer (most of) them as thoughtfully as possible.
AMAs are great material for list posts. In this scenario, I've used the AMA as a spring board for a topic and would do additional research
Blog Post Idea: 14 Ways Love Is Different When You’re Older
Problem: Is love the same no matter your age or are there major differences?
Agitation: In 1995, Celeste was a 70-year-old widow who rekindled a romance with a high school sweetheart. She discovered that while love can be very intimate and invigorating, when you're older "a relationship is actually based on the relationship."
Solution: Let’s take a look at more ways that romance is different when it’s experienced in your golden years.
Well that should do it! By now you have more than enough sources of user pain to fill your Pit of Despair full of content inspiration. Go ahead and give them a try.
Love them? Hate them? Leave a comment to let me know which you found to be the most (or least) helpful for you!