Your Author Brand Needs to Answer One Question

road questionYou need to know who you’re selling to and why they are buying.

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.

Photo Credit: milos milosevic via Compfight cc

32 thoughts on “Your Author Brand Needs to Answer One Question

  1. This is an important post for writers to read.
    No matter what the field, you must know / understand the intended audience.
    Even if you don’t wish to “write for a targeted group” you have to understand what potential readers/buyer are and want in order to position your book in the market – and grab their attention with posts in social media/book cover blurs/summaries/even in talks. Wisely showing how elements in your character/plot/writing fits what they are interested in is part of the game for a successful writer – especially now that fewer have publishers’ big marketing departments behind them. Great insights

    • I think the idea of this post is to remind us that no one lives in a bubble, so if you write honestly it’s bound to resonate with someone…probably many someone’s. Trying to write for the market is too fickle because it’s constantly changing and will sound forced and worst of all derivative. Great post!

      • I know some very successful authors who do exactly that – write for the market. They make money. How they manage to do that repeatedly with ease. I don’t know
        But sometimes wonder if that’s just considered their “day job” to support what they really want to write.
        If you’ve been in publishing and selling books, you do learn how to present a book to appeal to a buyer/target customer even if that book wasn’t written with them in mind.
        You don’t have to sell yourself out, but if you want to sell, you do need to know your book – and what the readers want – and how to show them you book fits them. (Of course not every book will fit every person – but pitching to big consumer groups like libraries and book stores takes a bit of thinking outside the box sometimes. We always wanted our authors to succeed and get their books out there)

      • I agree that there are some writers who seem to be on the pulse of the market, and I don’t think of that as selling out. However, I think while an author has the responsibility to package and sell to the market, their writing shouldn’t be informed by the market. Too many of us don’t get published and if you only write to sell books it’s even rougher. You have to like what your writing and only then will the author be able to truly sell to the market.

      • Definitely agree. While some writers manage to “read” what their own fans want and provide that. A writer has to be true to themselves or writing won’t ring true.
        If going the traditional route, it helps to position what you have already written in the most attractive light. Readers really want to like books – they really do.
        That begins with a writer who likes his/her own book.
        Good points

      • Love this conversation! 🙂

        I have heard over and over (from industry people I respect) that you should not base your writing career on “writing for the market” because the market is a moving target. Are there people who ride the coattails of huge bestsellers. Of course. (Think of all the teen vampire series that came out after Twilight went crazy.)

        I believe that for writing to be really good, for it to be the kind of art that truly touches someone, its creation must come from an authentic and true place. There are career writers (James Patterson comes to mind) who crank out book after book, many of them based on a formula and catering to the trends in the marketplace. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I guess I’d rather create something that was inspired by what I want to write – what I need to write – vs. what I think I *should* write.

        Developing and building an author brand based on the genuine relationships you develop with your readers – really understanding them and seeing where your ideas and their collide – this seems to me to be a smarter way to create a lasting conversation and a loyal following.

        Thanks for bringing a new layer to this post with your great questions and thoughts. So glad to have you both here!

  2. Excellent post, though for me, knowing what my readers want is difficult because my audience is so diverse…I write about religion, social issues, contemporary young adults, and some readers are interested in all three, while others may find the combination distasteful. Sometimes I wonder if I’m spreading myself too thin and should stick to one niche.

    • Some writers spend a lifetime figuring out where their particular “groove” lives, but I think just being aware and starting to pay attention is a great start to making sense of it all. When you’re covering multiple topics, I’d try to think less in terms of the “topic buckets” and more in terms of the experience. Is there a consistent experience that you create with your writing? Just food for thought.

  3. This is really a great post. Partly because I work in art as well as writing. Excuse one confusion on my part. Is the one question “What purpose does a story serve?” or is it the assumed question, “Who is your audience.” Anyway, I think this is important discussion and will re-blog and share if that is all right. Much of the changes in marketing, and the marketing efforts, and expectations, are falling on the authors more in this digital era during the past ten to fifteen years.

    • Perfectly valid question, Tim. 🙂

      The “One Question” is about knowing (REALLY knowing) your audience. Wrapped up in knowing them is knowing why they read your stories, which will tell you what purpose your story serves.

      Thanks for the comment and the reblog!

  4. Reblogged this on timdesmondblog and commented:
    As Jamie Lee Wallace has connected both writing and art, this blog is worth spreading to different circles. Authors have been taught that genres have rules, and some have been taught that “main stream is a genre” too. As an author who also does art work, it connects with me on several levels. The discussion is fascinating, and addresses marketing too.

  5. Thanks for another thought-provoking piece. I’m going to share it with Fiction Writers Group on Facebook!

  6. Suddenly Jamie,
    Stimulates discussion.

    I think that like many authors I address my writing to one person–my composite model of all the people I am writing for. I ask myself, “Would Steve understand this? Is this important to Steve?” I’ve tried many other ways of judging the appropriateness of the writing, and judging from the sales returns, the single model is my best approach.

    • Writing to one person is the best (perhaps the only) way to go. And, honestly, perhaps the most efficient person to choose as your audience of one, is yourself.

      What makes your writing – anyone’s writing – stand out is that the story is one only that person could have told. Though you may borrow and steal from the work of others (perfectly acceptable, by the way, all the greats do it), the final product is shaped by you … by your passion, inspiration, muse – whatever you want to call it.

      Then, when you release this out into the world, you are trying to find other people who “get it.” Like Steve. “Steve” gets you and you get him. Two peas in a pod. I think that for many authors, “Steve” is just an alter ego.

      Thanks to YOU for stimulating the conversation. You’ve given me even more to think about!

  7. This post has given me something to think about, both as a reader and a writer. Lately, I’m having trouble connecting with books and I worry I’m losing the joy of reading. Maybe I need to consider what engages me as a reader in order to discover my target audience. After all, I can’t be the only one who wanders aimlessly though Chapters before deciding to re-read an old favourite because nothing new grabs me.

    • I’ve been feeling some of that same angst. I really WANT to like a new book, but it just doesn’t grab me. I like to tell myself that it’s because I’ve become a more discerning reader, not that I’ve developed some kind of reader’s ADD. 😉

  8. Pingback: Weekend Edition: More than a Story, Pressure, Superheroes Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write - Write to Live

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