What’s important to you really isn’t important

One of the most common mistakes organizations make when developing communications materials may surprise you. They completely lose sight of the people for whom the messages are actually intended.

Okay, that may sound a little confusing. It may even have you shaking your head. But I’ve seen it happen again and again. Companies invest huge amounts of money to develop websites, advertising, brochures, and other materials, and then forget all about the people who will be reading and/or viewing them.

“They concentrate on what’s important to internal audiences instead of focusing on what really matters…”

How can that be? Very simple. They concentrate on what’s important to internal audiences instead of focusing on what really matters to the target audience. Sometimes, it’s driven by ego, whether that’s individual or institutional ego. “We know we’re the best, and so should everyone else.” But everyone else doesn’t. And they won’t discover that you’re indeed the best unless you can get them to pay attention. (Not to mention the fact that they’ll be more convinced if you give them what they need to draw that conclusion on their own.)

One of the biggest contributing factors to this problem is the typical corporate approval chain. In most companies, one person lacks the authority to approve any kind of message, so those messages get sent along the organization chart. In most cases, they move upwards, rather than laterally or down.

Because the people in the boxes near the bottom are concerned about looking good to their bosses (and their bosses’ bosses), they begin to change the messages into something that will appeal to good old J.P. and the rest of the executive circle.

But J.P. and his buddies aren’t the target audience! In fact, they’re typically several steps removed from the target audience. The messages that make J.P. and company happy and warm probably aren’t the same ones that will connect with and motivate the company’s potential customers.

What’s important to your internal audiences at any level is usually vastly different from what matters to the folks who buy your product or service, and when your materials drone on about internal concerns, your organization comes across like the boring guy at the party who spends the whole evening talking about himself.

Evidence of this shows up in other ways, too. I’ve listened as many companies have insisted that the fact they are a “Division of XYZ Enterprises” or some similar phrase be placed prominently in their ad or brochure. And they bristle when I ask, “Who cares?” I point out that the business relationship between their company and its parent may be important to the internal folks, but prospective customers are far more interested in what you’re going to do for them.

You see, a key part of an effective copywriter’s role is to serve as an advocate for the reader or other target audience. That isn’t some blue-sky idealistic or artistic concept – it’s just good business sense. The work my peers and I do succeeds only when the message speaks to the audience and encourages them to take action. If the goal is to sell 200 veeblefetzers, and the ad I create moves 500 of them, I’ll appear to be pretty darned competent.

But if that ad gets twisted and turned into a piece of ego-driven self-gratification and fails to connect with the audience, the veeblefetzers stay on the shelf. And, more often than not, guess where the blame gets placed?

If you really want to communicate effectively and productively, stop talking to yourself. As you think about adding items to your materials or modifying what’s been created on your behalf, ask yourself whether those changes are being made to impress internal folks or to convince the customers and prospects who really count. If you’re one of the links on the approval chain, stand up for your external audiences. Your willingness to do so may very well spell the difference between success and disappointment.