You Don’t Understand Your Reader – Why That’s a Problem (and How to Fix it)

I had to understand recruiting, fast. I had to know how it worked. I had to know the processes involved. And most importantly, I had to know what problems businesses were facing when they hired a recruiter.


Let me clarify: I’m not a recruiter. I’ve never worked in recruiting. I have no plans of ever being a recruiter.


But I had a client who ran an executive search recruiting firm. And that meant it was my business to know all there was to know about recruiting.


The problem? I knew nothing at all about recruiting.


Of course, in my line of work that’s not really a problem. It’s a simple fact of life that you’re going to have to research and write convincingly about things you’ve never encountered before.


I’ll come back to this story about research on recruiting practices in a bit. But here’s the point: good research practices are a must. But if you don’t want to spend weeks researching a topic, smart research practices are also a must.


Now what do I mean by that? Just this: writing is a performance art. It’s always done with an audience in mind.


If you want to produce a great piece of writing, it’s important to know your stuff. But more importantly: you have to know the stuff the audience is interested in hearing.


Imagine this: think of a time when somebody told you a boring story. They kept doubling back on themselves, losing the thread of the story, and explaining things you didn’t care about. Maybe you didn’t roll your eyes, stamp your foot, and check your watch—but you certainly wanted to.


Now imagine this: think of a time when somebody told you an amazing story. All the details were spot-on. You hung onto every word. You leaned in closer to hear better and you were eager to hear what came next.


Now here’s a question: where’s the difference? The difference is that a good storyteller removes all the irrelevant information from the story.


When asked how he sculpted the David, Michelangelo is supposed to have said, “I took the block of marble and removed everything that was not David.” Good storytelling works in much the same way. It removes everything the audience doesn’t care about.


Now you get the basic principle. Let’s apply it to copywriting.


What Do You Need to Know About Your Reader?

Here’s the basic fact: you need to know what your reader really cares about.


Not what your reader says they care about. Not what your reader thinks they ought to care about. Not what your reader’s father told them to care about.


No, you need to know what your reader really cares about.


Example: too few businesses really understand what they’re really selling. They think they’re selling a vacuum cleaner, a SaaS solution, or a faster car. What they’re really selling is a clean floor, a more efficient network, and time.


So many businesses write promotional materials that focus on things no buyer would ever care about. They’ll tell me everything about what their product or service is, but they’ll tell me almost nothing about what it does.


When you take a look at a company website, it’s obvious which businesses took the time to find out what their market really cares about. They’re the ones that make sense. They’re the ones that explain complex offers in simple terms. They’re the ones that focus on what the customer wants to see, not what the business wants to say.


This is the number one challenge a copywriter has to face on a daily basis: learn to see things from the reader’s point of view.


When you craft your copy, it’s your job to hold the reader’s interest. It’s your job to stir up buying desire. It’s your job to inspire the reader to take action.


That means every line of your copy must be written with the goal of action in mind. Your copy must flow like a river that can’t help but be guided to the conclusion. Your copy must feel so natural that your reader almost feels like they’re reading their own thoughts.


This means you have to understand what problems your customers want solved. It means you have to know what their goals are. And it means you have to be able to show them how buying from you will get them what they already want.


  • If you can understand the reader’s pain, you can gently point it out to them. You can be the doctor who comes in and diagnoses the problem. The goal here isn’t to hurt your reader or scare them too much: it’s only to allow them to agree they have a problem that needs to be solved.
  • If you can understand your reader’s goals, you can see where they would like to be. This means you can show them different ways of getting what they want. Your readers are smart people, so if there’s an easier way to get what they want, they’ll be sure to take it.
  • If you understand how buying from you will get your customers what they want, you have a compelling story. This is the ultimate goal. If you can let your reader see how buying from you will get them what you want, you have everything.


Without understanding what the customer wants, there is no copywriting. If you want to have any chance of success, you have to understand the customer.


The customer is waiting for you to tell them something amazing. So let’s get to it!


Putting Together a Customer Persona

By this point I hope you’re sold on the idea that it’s important to understand your customer. If you can’t agree with that, you might as well stop reading right now. Because from here on I’m going to start telling you how to get into your customer’s head.


One way to do this—the way I personally do it—is to put together a customer persona.


What’s a customer persona? A customer persona is a description of your ideal customer. The person who is meant to buy from you. The person who has the problems you can solve. The person who will be ecstatic to hear the story you have to tell.


The purpose of putting together a customer persona is to understand who your customer is and how you can guide them to the right buying decision.


Put it this way: when you’re writing, it’s ten times easier if you imagine yourself writing for one individual person. This way you can anticipate the person’s reactions. You can anticipate more or less how the person thinks. You know the person, in other words.


For a piece of copy to be convincing, you have to have an image of your ideal reader in mind. Otherwise you’ll be all over the place. You won’t tell a clear story. You won’t be convincing.


At the end of this article I’ll give you a set of questions to ask yourself when you put your customer persona together. It’s best to go through these questions one-by-one. Give them thorough answers. Remember: the clearer idea you have of your ideal reader, the better you’ll be able to write for them.


And the better you can write for them, the more likely they are to realize they need you to solve their problems.


How I Figured Out What I Needed to Know

Let’s go back to the story about me and my executive search client.


I didn’t know a whole lot about recruiting. But what I did know what I didn’t know—I mean, I knew what I had to know in order to write convincingly for my client’s potential customers.


To write persuasively about recruiting, I had to know two main things. I had to know:


  • What specific problems lead companies to hire executive search firms.
  • Why companies hire one executive search firm over another.


In other words, I had to know what pain my reader might be experiencing and what they thought they wanted to solve it.


So how did I do my research? With the internet, of course!


Believe it or not, some of the most useful customer research can show up on social media. Sites like Quora, Reddit, and Twitter are wonderful for this kind of thing.


Quora is a question and answer site, where users list questions on every topic under the sun and other users answer them. A few quick searches can show you a list of questions about whatever industry you’re interested in. Type in something like “hiring a recruiter” in the search bar and you’ll find plenty of examples of what your market cares about.


You’ll find the questions people who are thinking about buying in your industry are wondering about when they’re thinking about buying in your industry.


This makes it an extremely useful site for that kind of thing. Some small businesses manage to generate all or most of their new leads by answering questions on Quora.


Quora is a great tool for this process, and other sites can be used in pretty much the same way. Personally, I usually use Reddit and Twitter if Quora doesn’t give me what I’m looking for. Between the three of them, I always get what I need.


Using these techniques, I can reliably figure out what my readers are looking for and how to give it to them. It’s not a difficult process once you get the hang of it.


So now let’s take a look at some of the questions you should be asking yourself when you put together your customer persona.


Step-by-Step: Putting Together a Customer Persona

Ask yourself the following questions. Figure out precise, detailed answers for all of them. It pays to take this seriously. Give these at least a paragraph each if you want to get the most out of them:


  1. What position does my ideal customer occupy in his/her organization?
  2. What pains are my ideal customer experiencing, and how is he/she trying to solve them?
  3. How clear an idea of the problem does my ideal customer have? That is, do they understand exactly what the problem is and exactly what a solution would look like? Or do they only have symptoms and need me to diagnose the disease?
  4. Where does my ideal customer go to find answers to his/her problem?
  5. What does a typical day in my ideal customer’s life look like? What are this person’s responsibilities? What are this person’s everyday worries?
  6. What outcomes do my ideal customer want to see?
  7. What story I can tell that will show my ideal customer how my service will solve their problem and (more importantly) relieve their pain?
  8. What incentives prompt my ideal customer to take action?
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