Your Audience Doesn't Matter, Sometimes
This sounds preposterous. I know, I know. And I might get a lot of eyeballs rolling for sure, but hear me out. ;)
I'm a fan of Linux. I remember partitioning my Windows PC to install an Ubuntu OS when I was a web enthusiast before discovering my passion for technology marketing. With its open-source philosophy, Linux attested to the power of challenging conventions.
In the early 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was that large corporations should develop operating systems. Linus Torvalds went against the grain and created Linux, an open-source operating system that allowed developers worldwide to collaborate and contribute. His audacious move challenged the status quo of proprietary software and demonstrated the power of open-source collaboration. Linux became a prominent operating system and influenced the open-source movement across various software domains.
But what if Torvalds had chosen to play it safe? What if he had tailored Linux to the established preferences and expectations of the corporate giants? In that scenario, Linux as we know it might never have existed. This narrative mirrors a broader truth: sometimes, to achieve greatness, you shouldn't always pander to your audience. It's about breaking free from the norm. It's about stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring new areas, even if it means going against the crowd. This can make you stand out and be seen as an expert.
But when is it convenient to release the pedal, shift gear, and drift with your idea, especially if you want to establish yourself or your business as a thought leader in your niche? Let’s discuss.
What does it mean to write for your audience, and why is it often recommended?
Knowing your audience is a fundamental principle for good reason. You'll never go far as a content writer if you do not consider your audience before you chase that blinking cursor on your document. The snippet below from the University of Arizona succinctly captures the importance of considering your audience:
Say you are trying to sell a product or service or build a following for your business; you must create relevant and appealing content for your target audience. Writing for your audience is like following a well-marked path on your journey. You must understand your readers' preferences, speak to their concerns, and deliver content that resonates with them. This is the foundation of effective communication and is essential for building a loyal audience.
However, as crucial as this audience-centric approach is, there is a point at which it can become a double-edged sword, hindering rather than fostering growth and innovation. The danger arises when content creators, be they writers, speakers, or industry experts, become so entrenched in their efforts to cater to their audience's desires that they forgo the pursuit of uncomfortable truths. In their quest for approval and popularity, they may inadvertently stifle their intellectual curiosity and limit their capacity for learning and growth. Same with their audience.
The uncomfortable truths are the untamed frontiers of knowledge and innovation. They are the areas where assumptions are questioned and new perspectives emerge. Embracing these uncomfortable truths is the drive for genuine growth and development, both on an individual and collective level.
Why is it beneficial to not write exclusively for your audience?
The real power of thought leaders comes from going beyond their audience's expectations. We can foster our intellectual evolution and contribute to advancing our respective fields.
Thought leaders are often recognized for their ability to challenge existing paradigms and introduce innovative ideas. If you constantly tailor your content to fit your audience's beliefs and expectations, you may miss the opportunity to disrupt the status quo and introduce fresh perspectives.
Richard Seroter's article is a classic example of challenging the prevailing narrative and introducing a new way of thinking in software development. In DevOps, "shift left" and "shift right" once dominated the discourse, emphasizing early security and post-deployment monitoring. However, Richard pioneered a game-changing philosophy called "shift down." This approach advocated for optimizing resources by reducing developers' cognitive load. It swiftly gained traction, inspiring DevOps and platform engineering communities to restructure their teams and empower developers.
The "shift down" philosophy sparked a transformative shift, liberating developers to focus on innovation. It is a testament to the power of challenging conventional wisdom and is now a foundational principle in DevOps, symbolizing the impact of innovative thought leadership.
Reach and Growth
One compelling reason to advocate for thinking beyond your current audience is the potential to reach a more extensive and diverse group of individuals. When content creators solely tailor their work to cater to their existing audience, they inadvertently limit their sphere of influence and the scope of their ideas. This constraint restricts their impact and confines them to a stagnant pool of readers or viewers.
Reaching a larger audience doesn't just expand one's reach; it also promotes a more holistic understanding of the subject matter. It fosters a dynamic and inclusive community that thrives on exchanging ideas and cross-pollinating diverse viewpoints. This, in turn, enriches the overall discourse and elevates the quality of the content. It becomes a mutual learning experience, with both the content creator and the audience benefiting from the expanded horizons.
Moreover, from a professional perspective, expanding one's audience can lead to new opportunities and collaborations. A more extensive and diverse readership can capture the attention of potential partners, sponsors, or collaborators who may be drawn to the broader impact and potential harmonies created by a more inclusive approach to content creation. Perhaps one of my LinkedIn connections, Andrew Holland, captures this point better in his recent post. I couldn’t agree more!
Originality and Uniqueness
To stand out as a thought leader, you must offer something different from what's readily available. Writing solely for your audience's current preferences might limit your ability to express unique viewpoints, making it challenging to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field. When drafting content outlines for our clients at Hackmamba, I first ask myself, "How can we make this article unique." I have constantly challenged writers to think creatively and out of the box and always strive to breathe unique insights into every piece they put out, not just for themselves but because the future of content relies on unique insights backed by experience, especially now our industry is haunted by Generative AI. Read my thought piece on "Collaborative content is the future, not competitive" to learn more.
Demonstrating expertise and credibility often involves taking calculated risks and advocating for unconventional ideas. While your audience's acceptance is crucial, showing that you're confident in your convictions and can provide well-reasoned arguments, even if they challenge common wisdom, is equally essential.
Consider Chad Fowler, known for his work in the Ruby on Rails community, who emphasized the importance of simplicity and convention over configuration. His unconventional ideas have greatly influenced the Ruby on Rails framework and the broader software development world.
Cultivating an Engaged Following
Thought leaders often attract followers who are genuinely interested in their unique perspectives. Occasionally, sharing your unfiltered thoughts and ideas can create a more authentic connection with like-minded individuals who appreciate your willingness to explore uncharted territory. Perhaps you’ve come across Cindy, perhaps not. Cindy Sridharan, also known as "copyconstruct" in the tech community, is a prominent thought leader in distributed systems and infrastructure scaling. Her unconventional perspectives and insights have earned her a dedicated following. Cindy is widely recognized for her candid and unfiltered commentary on complex technical topics.
Educating and Expanding Horizons
Part of being a thought leader involves educating your audience and broadening their understanding of a subject. This may require you to introduce initially unfamiliar or controversial concepts. While your audience may need time to catch up, you can be crucial in expanding their knowledge and challenging their preconceptions.
As a thought leader, you owe it to your followers to continuously provide valuable education and fresh insights. Failing to do so can lead to the "Law of Diminishing Returns," where your audience's interest wanes if they feel they no longer receive value from your output. When thought leaders cease to educate and challenge preconceptions, they risk losing their audience to other leaders who fulfill this vital role.
Thought leadership often thrives on open dialogue and debate. Presenting unconventional ideas and encouraging discourse can stimulate critical thinking within your field. This approach can lead to constructive discussions that push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding. True development and progress are often unattainable without challenging assumptions, sparking debates, and enforcing critical thinking. By fostering such discussions, thought leaders help their audience question established norms and explore new perspectives. This collaborative and intellectual environment is where innovation thrives, and it's the breeding ground for the evolution of ideas and the advancement of knowledge.
Understanding your readers, addressing their concerns, and delivering content that resonates with them is the bedrock of effective communication. The compass guides our journey to connect, educate, and engage. However, you must be willing to transcend the confines of your audience's expectations and venture into uncomfortable truths. The uncomfortable truths, those unexplored and often overlooked frontiers of knowledge, are where assumptions are questioned, and fresh perspectives emerge.
The call to move beyond audience-centric content creation carries with it a promise of reaching new horizons and exploring untapped opportunities. The prospect of getting a broader audience is about expanding one's reach, embracing fresh perspectives, and promoting inclusivity. It's about creating a more dynamic and enriching community that thrives on exchanging ideas and cross-pollinating diverse viewpoints.
Moreover, breaking away from the pattern of catering exclusively to one's existing audience opens the door to originality, credibility, and engagement. It allows thought leaders to venture into the uncharted, challenge established norms, and spark constructive discussions that push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding.
Henry Bassey spearheads Content and Marketing Operations at Hackmamba. A strong advocate for innovation and thought leadership, his commitment permeates every content he handles for clients at Hackmamba.
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