In this post...
learn from a real-life example why publishing content written in third person can cripple your content marketing efforts. As a marketing writer, I care about two sets of content perceptions: 1) how you, my client, perceive my content, and 2) how your readers perceive the content I wrote for you. When the two perceptions clash, trouble lies ahead.
What happens when a reader first encounters your content?
Maybe it’s content on your new, inspired website.
Maybe it’s in a brochure, or an ebook.
Maybe it’s content in your email newsletter, or in a blog post.
Whatever the content, your reader has already made several decisions about you before she starts reading, subconsciously forming first impressions based on things like visual unity, content hierarchy, and overall aesthetic.
Those first impressions help a reader determine whether you’re professional, serious, spunky, traditional, artsy, or probably not worth the effort of moving in for a closer look at—or read of—the content.
First impressions are a separate but important part of content perceptions, but I don't want to talk about first impressions here.
Here, I want to talk about what happens when readers get PAST the first impressions and into the content ... past the first impressions and through the front door.
What do they perceive then?
Two sets of content perceptions I care about
As a marketing writer, I always wonder about two sets of content perceptions:
- Your perception as the client who hired me
- The perception of end readers
In fact, as a marketing writer, one of the scariest and most exciting times for me is when I’m about to step into the role of end reader by opening a final, designed version of a piece of content I created.
Now, I’m not talking about a piece of content you and I went back and forth on, reshaping, refining, and redesigning. In cases like that, I know what the final piece will be like because I helped you create it, every step of the way.
Here, I’m talking about projects for which I do nothing more than submit a first draft.
Yep, that happens.
Maybe it’s a rush project—no time to send it back to Renae for edits; push on!
Maybe it’s a budget issue—let’s edit in-house and save Renae’s hours for the next project.
Whatever the case, I submitted the draft whenever ago, and I’m about to open the final, designed piece.
Yikes! I always feel a little bit of fear and trepidation.
- Will the piece look good?
- Did you use my ideas for graphics?
- Did you feel the need to edit heavily?
- Did you keep the organization scheme?
- Did you keep that pushing-the-limits-of-bold headline I wasn’t sure about?
- Will this be one of those amazing win-instances when the text in the final is practically the same as the text I submitted in the first draft?
Naturally, I always aim for the latter, because the latter means I did my job well: I asked the right questions, unearthed the right information, and communicated the right messages in the right ways.
Well, after reading a piece of mine that I discovered "in the wild,” I felt a little boggled—and a lot disappointed.
Boggled by a real-life client's editing decisions
The piece looked okay.
And through a quick peek at the document, I could see that the meat was still there in the front section—in the intro, the headlines, the transitions.
The back of the piece looked markedly different from what I submitted, but that’s typical for a rushed project like this one.
What boggled and disappointed me was finding that someone [I know who did it!] had edited out the heart and soul of the piece, stripping it of voice and personality.
Here are a few examples using nonsensical verbiage for client privacy.
My Submitted Version
The Published Version
Online gamery made the problem worse. Gamery, now the top Internet playground, accounts for 50+ percent of all time spent online.
Consumer migration to online gaming complicated matters further. Gaming platforms represent the top Internet destinations and account for 50+ percent of all time spent online.
Wordy! But my primary complaint here is about “consumer migration.” WTF?! Do people actually talk like that?
We gamers tried to keep pace by shifting to online and portal gaming, but we quickly discovered a different set of rules.
Gamers tried to keep pace by shifting to online and portal gaming, but they quickly discovered a different set of rules.
I’d have cut several words from my version, given time. But the trouble here lies in the transition to third person in the published version. Third person sucks as much online as it does in scholarly articles. Avoid it whenever you can.
These [things] give our games…
These [things] give games…
My version positions the “author” as being with and speaking directly to the reader. The published version speaks at and about the reader. (The entire published version speaks that way, from front to back cover. Stripping the 'you' out makes it a tedious read!)
X eliminates the cost, risk, and time associated with other options. It also does one better by freeing you from the need to practice….
X eliminates the cost, risk, and time associated with traditional options by freeing gamers from the need to practice….
Yuck. My version is a bit stuffy, too. Given editing time, I’d have nixed the words “eliminated” and “associated,” among other changes. But notice how the text sounds 10x stuffier when you take the reader, or the “you,” out of it.
You know the kinds of tools we’re talking about: x tools, y tools, z tools.
These are tools typically categorized as x tools, y tools, z tools.
You probably get the point by now….
The question is not Who let the dog out? but WHY let the dog out?
So here’s my question, posed in the title of this post: Why are you – or if not you, then why are many marketers – afraid to speak to readers in marketing content?
Why strip the “you”?
I can make a few educated guesses:
- Writing in second person sounds unprofessional; we want to sound professional!
- Writing in second person is too folksy; we’re not folksy!
- Writing in second person does not convey authority; we want to be the authority!
- Writing in third person is the way “big” companies do it; we want to sound big!
- Writing in third person is the way we’ve always done it; we don’t want to change!
For most of the content I've written over my lifetime, those reasons are invalid.
This blog post is written in second person; do you find it unprofessional?
Do you find this blog post folksy?
Do you perceive me as anything less than an authority on the topic I’m writing about?
Bigness isn’t an issue for me; I’m a freelancer, a micro-business.
And not wanting to change? Well, that’s never a good excuse for mediocrity.
That was the wrong way; here is the RIGHT way
Here’s what I suggest.
The next time you sit down to write a piece of content—blog post, web page, email message, ebook, or any other document—think about your readers.
Write TO them.
Empathize WITH them.
Write as if you’re sitting in a room with them, sharing your knowledge and expertise and imparting whatever wisdom you want to impart.
(Leave out the ums and ems, though!)
The thing is: You’re in business to make your readers’ lives easier, and I believe with all of my heart that you START doing that while they’re still prospects—while you’re marketing to them and telling them how what you sell will make their lives better, richer, faster, easier.
Readers will appreciate the gesture because your content will be easier and more pleasurable to read.
And when content’s more pleasurable and easier to read … guess what? More readers will read it.
Here’s another thought: What if you not only made your content educational, but also FUN to read?
That’s a different topic for a different blog post!