What’s So Hard About Outside-In Communication?

Posted: September 26, 2010 in General Writing Tips, Marketing Communications

A speech class I attended in college taught us that to write a powerful speech, we should focus first on, “What’s the one thing I want the audience to remember?” That’s wrong. Here’s why.

My very first product brochure, written in 1989, described a ground-breaking high-tech product. It enabled financial institutions to securely swap and store electronic encryption keys. (Up until then, if Bank A wanted to start passing transactions electronically with Bank B, the executives had to physically get together and trade written encryption keys.)

Possibly the most misguided brochure I ever wrote

This technology tremendously excited the CEO of our company. The competition, which had started their technology in World War II, had no technology as cool as ours. We earned at least three patents from the product. By his insistence, the headline on the brochure read, “Twenty Things You Can Do in Data Security (but Only with Excrypt).” The inside featured a cutaway photo of the product with 20 call-outs labeling each innovative feature.

Here’s the problem: not only the brochure, but the entire marketing campaign utterly failed to address the potential customer’s top objection. When the Excrypt salesforce tried to close deals, each bank asked some variation of, “If I commit to this unproven, brand-new technology and it breaks five years from now, will you still be in this business and ready with support?” We had nothing in any of our marketing literature to address that perfectly fair, very basic question.

The moral of the story (besides “never try to get the audience to remember 20 things”): sometimes the thing you want them to remember is something the audience doesn’t care about. At all.

Starting with this? Bad marketer!

I call this inside-out communication. It’s a marketing message that starts inside the organization and broadcasts outwards — without due consideration of the audience. If you’ll look for inside-out communication, you’ll spot it frequently. A classic, oft-repeated example: campaigns where a company announces, “We’re out to be number one!” This tactic doesn’t work, because it doesn’t mention a single benefit to an outside audience. It might help employee morale and satisfy the organization’s board. The rest of us yawn and tune out.

Great communication starts outside-in. The communicator starts with the question, “Who is my audience, and what do they care about?” You identify the audience, and you listen to them.

Starting with this? Good marketer!

Then — and only then — you ask, “What do I want them to remember?” But now the answer is more powerful, because you look for the spot where what they care about and what you care about overlap. With inside-out communication, you’re standing outside the conversation with a megaphone, trying to barge in. With outside-in communication, you can connect with the audience and have a conversation.

Does preferring outside-in communication to inside-out communication seem obvious and clear to you? It does to me. I have proven to bosses over and over that it works. But most executives absolutely hate it. Maybe they feel a loss of control by letting the audience influence the conversation; I dunno. Under some administrations I’ve worked under, I’ve had to wait until they spent literally millions of dollars on campaigns that failed or brought only marginal success, before they could be convinced to try the outside-in approach.

To understand your audience, of course you’d love to have expensive data from demographics firms, focus groups, industry analysts, and the like. You probably don’t have those things if you run a small business or if you’re a freelance writer. So here are three quick ‘n’ dirty, no-budget tactics that will help you think like your audience.

1) Read what they read. Every niche, however small, has an industry journal, an insider’s newsletter, or a blog circle. They might have a LinkedIn group, a Facebook page, or favorite Twitter feeds. Find them, read them, and get an instant snapshot of what your audience is already discussing.

2) Go where they go. If you have some money, go to their conferences and association meetings. If you have no money, find the local chapter, meet-up group, or fundraiser, and attend. Think like an anthropologist. Notice what your target tribe wears, talks about, laughs about; age, gender, apparent income… if you cultivate the ability to “hang out attentively,” you will gain more visceral knowledge of your audience than any focus group can grant you.

3) Know what they know. I am stunned at how many marketers try to write for specialized audiences, with no knowledge of the audience’s expertise. Whether you’re writing to doctors, dog lovers, IT geeks, homemakers, or whatever — Caribbean pirates — you’re handcuffing yourself if you write from ignorance. Try to learn the basics of their business. For God’s sake, it’s the Internet age; you can learn anything you want, in increments.

So let’s review: you can have far more effective communication, including more powerful influence on your target audience, if you simply care about what they’re thinking. With a reasonable amount of effort, you can learn their loves, fears, thoughts, and issues for free. Why on earth would you not try this?

What’s so hard about outside-in communication? Whatever it is, it can’t be as painful as inside-out communication. There’s not much worse than spending money to broadcast “the one thing you want them to remember,” only to endure an awkward silence as the world ignores you.

  1. […] 1. Inside-out content. Within your organization, you have a message you burn to impose upon the world. You blog it and tweet it and Facebook it, and the only Likes are from employees and your mom. What’s the problem? Relevance. The one thing you want them to remember is nothing they care about. (BTW, this is also why online display ads always flop.) Rethink your content from the outside-in perspective. […]

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