James daSilva spends his days overseeing SmartBrief’s vast leadership and management content. In fact, James helped build SmartBrief into the content powerhouse it is today.
But he didn’t start out as a marketer. Far from it. As a college student, he double-majored in communications and philosophy. Philosophy gets a bad rap as an impractical major that leads to being unemployed, but James says those classes offered him useful preparation for what he does now — it taught him how writing works. How you can build an argument, word by word, sentence by sentence. And how you can take those same arguments and ideas apart.
In his role at SmartBrief, he helps his team of writers produce content that has “good bones,” and that starts with one of those key fundamentals in writing — knowing your audience. It sounds simple, yet much of the content overload we all encounter stems from a lack of understanding what the audience wants.
I asked James about the importance of focusing on your audience and why that’s so hard for many people to do.
How do you get yourself into the mind of your audience?
I think with any sort of industry, it’s as simple as just reading the major trade publications, finding out who the big companies are in the space. If there’s a trade association or multiple trade associations, literally looking at their website and what their policy positions are. Sometimes these industries surprise you — some of them are very divided, or have a position that might not be quite what you expected. Maybe it’s more nuanced than you expected, or maybe it’s less nuanced.
Here’s an example. I edit a newsletter now on reverse logistics, which is everything that happens after the sale. Best Buy’s Geek Squad is reverse logistics, because that’s support. If you buy a refurbished product from a tech outlet, that’s reverse logistics. If you’re getting rid of your old bulky computer and you go to a recycling center instead of just tossing it in the trash, that waste stream is reverse logistics.
To edit that newsletter, I had to do a lot of reading about the space. A lot of it started with looking at the main association’s website and reading their in-house magazine to grasp the difference between the 50 Best Buy or Amazon stories I’m reading that have nothing to do with reverse logistics and finding the few that are like, “Oh, that’s what affects them.” Understanding your audience starts with knowing them. What do they care about? What’s on their mind? What problems are they facing?
Do you have some secret you can offer or tricks you use to get into people’s headspace?
There’s no secret. You just have to get into the material. With the work I do on SmartBrief’s Leadership brief, I look closely at what leadership and management content people are engaged with. I don’t let that wholly guide me, but I try to figure out why one story works and why another story didn’t. Was it the headline? Is it just a topic that they don’t care about?
I really dig into our the specifics of what they say, too. When we survey people, I read all the write-in responses to get a sense of who these people are and what they want. It’s that philosophy training coming back to help me. Thinking analytically about writing, about ideas, about people.
How do you deal with content fatigue for your readers? How do you cut through the noise?
I try to think about the audience as on a longer journey. We’re putting out these daily newsletters, and everybody’s putting out leadership and management content constantly, but I try to think about ‘How am I going to feed both their short-term and long-term interests and needs?’ It’s about helping them today, but also thinking ahead. What do I need to inform them about in the next three months, six months, three years?
I try to surprise people with our leadership and management content. One of the big problems that a lot of leadership and management content creators run into is that they’re not telling their reader anything that they don’t already know. If you just put a list of fairly agreeable concepts without any depth, your reader will yawn. They can’t do anything with that information and you haven’t given them anything of value.
I’d rather somebody take one of those ideas, write 700 words on it, and show me that you have some new take on it or even write something that your audience might disagree with. That at least will force people to think about it.
You’re managing and leading a team yourself. How do you approach that aspect of the job?
Reading, again, plays a crucial role. I read leadership and management content all the time, and not just sort of speed-read-and-move-on-with-my-day reading. I actively engage with applying what I learn to my management style. How can I do hiring interviews or employee reviews better? Are there better questions I can ask? How can I lead better meetings? How can I figure out how to make projects a little bit more successful and a little less just languishing because everyone’s waiting for someone else to do something?
An important thing for me to realize is that everybody’s on their own journey. There are folks who want to move up, do new things and do bigger things — maybe not even at the company — and I can help them do that. Then there are people who want to retire with the company, and I can help them do that, too. And then there’s everything in between, and the people who don’t know what they want to do. So again, even with leadership, it comes down to knowing your audience. How can I help them get where they want to go?
It’s that way with leading a team and that way for writing. We’re all just trying to help people get where they are going.