As a marketer, I help my clients focus on the needs and desires of their audience. We spend a lot of time exploring exactly who their customer is, all the way from basic demographics (age, gender, professional role, geographic location, household income, etc.) to psychographics (lifestyles, philosophies, beliefs, values, opinions, etc.). Sometimes, we will develop customer personas – a composite individual who represents the larger group (kind of like an archetype character). We do all of this because marketing and sales success does not hinge on the latest social media platform or automated lead generation system; it depends on knowing as much as you can about the exact person you are trying to reach. When you can step inside that person’s head and anticipate her deepest needs and desires, it becomes almost easy to deliver the perfect solution to her problem and develop a marketing message that will sing through all the noise and go straight to her heart.
It is the same with art. And writing.
People (especially artists) often assume that artistic products, from paintings to pottery to the great American novel, follow different marketing rules than other, more commercial endeavors. People assume that art is either held to a higher standard that is less crass, more pure, driven only by the artist’s passion. Idealistic mantras echo around the Internet and through the artist’s head. Creators are encouraged to forget about everything except the art, create only for themselves, and eschew the siren call of commercialization or “selling out.”
I cringe when I hear this kind of talk. It’s not that I think artists should ignore the muse and focus only on turning a profit. Not at all. As an artist myself, I believe with all my heart in creating the work that is the truest expression of yourself. I believe in listening to your instincts, turning your back on the unsolicited input of others, and writing (or painting or carving or whatever) the thing that moves you. Knowing your audience isn’t about conforming to the pressures of an outside group, it’s about finding other members of your own “tribe,” as Seth Godin calls it. It’s about connecting with and serving the people who already “get it,” the people who need exactly what you’re offering (even though, maybe, they don’t know it yet).
I can understand why people get confused. The needs associated with more practical and tangible products are easier to label. A woman buying shampoo needs clean hair. A man buying a truck needs to haul something. A writer buying a pen needs something to write with. However, those are just the surface needs. Even the most mundane products deliver more than just the solution to a problem. There is almost always a second layer of needs to be met – an emotional layer. The woman buying shampoo doesn’t just want clean hair, she wants to feel sexy, beautiful, and confident. The man buying the truck doesn’t just need towing capacity, he needs to feel strong and capable. The writer buying a pen doesn’t just need to scratch a few lines in a notebook, she needs a writing instrument that embodies her commitment to her craft and her creativity.
These emotional needs are what drive people to buy a more expensive brand-name product instead of a generic one. These emotional needs are the ones met by good branding: logos, tag lines, visuals, copy, messaging. We use products for more than their intended purpose. We use them to build our identity, to define who we are to ourselves and other people. The art we buy is no different. Though it does not serve an immediately obvious practical purpose, it does meet a very real emotional need.
What purpose does a story serve?
Stories serve many different purposes. They entertain and distract us, offering much needed escape from our troubles. They inspire us. They educate us. They enable us to live out our fantasies. They offer us a chance to feel awe, wonder, hope, comfort. They provide us with a way to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Think about why you read. Why do you read (and love) a particular kind of story? What is it that makes your favorite books your favorites? Which of your emotional needs were met by those stories? Did you gain a greater understanding of yourself, the world, human nature, history? Did you get enjoyment from the read – maybe even laughing out loud? Did you feel release, crying or a sense of surrender? Did the book give you a feeling of belonging? Did it make you feel proud of having read it? How did the story serve you?
A story is not just words on a page. It is an experience. The same goes for all art. A person who buys a painting does not usually buy it simply because it’s pretty. She buys it because it “moves” her, it “speaks” to her. The image makes her experience something – an emotion – that fulfills a need. The painting is somehow part of her – a missing piece, if you will. The same is true of a story.
When we surround ourselves with visual art and other beautiful things we are not just creating our living environment, we are creating our world, our lives. Stories, though they are not physically present hung on the walls or sitting on shelves, do the same thing. Each story we read is woven into our psyche, it changes how we see ourselves and the world, it becomes part of our personal history and language.
As a writer, it’s important to be aware of all this. It’s important to know that you are not only creating a world of your own, you are helping your readers create their worlds. You are changing their perception of reality. Think about this when you ask yourself what kind of experience your story creates. Think about the kinds of changes you are manifesting by sharing your story. Do not let these wonderings direct your creative process, but just be aware. Sometimes, the experience readers have with your story will not be what you expected. That’s okay. The experience can be very fluid and is always subjective and influenced by the reader’s personal interpretation and general state of mind. Like a dream, a single story can mean many different things to many different people.
Unlike software or allen wrenches or kitchen appliances, a work of art should not be created to an audience’s specifications. The artist should never try to fabricate a work of art based on what he thinks the audience needs. The artist should create from his own experience and emotions and then find ways to connect with other people who either have already shared or would like to share those emotions and experiences. In this way, the artist’s (or author’s) brand will emerge organically and, because it evolves in an authentic way, it will be stronger and more enduring. This is why a deep understanding of your readers is so important. Get to know them. Learn about their lives. Understand how they are experiencing your work. The more you are in tune with the needs and desires of your “tribe,” the better you will be able to connect with them so that you can continue the journey together.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.