Earn the right to be heard

Note: the reason many marketing campaigns fail is because the audience doesn't yet trust the company (or person) doing the marketing. Here is a simple framework for changing that.

A lot of the lessons I learned about marketing I learned as a youth worker.

For 8 years, I worked for a community charity that put on programs for teenagers.

The challenge with teenagers is they're very suspicious of anything that comes from the adult world. This is because most programs for teens are hatched in boardrooms by adults: the grown-ups come up with all the solutions without listening to teens. Most of these solutions fail, because they don't address the real issues that kids have.

Our team did things differently. Instead of coming up with our own ideas of what teens needed, or trying to get them to come to us, we went to them. We hung out in their world. For example: I spent a lot of time at the skateboard park as a chaperone. High schools would also ask us to be hall monitors during the lunch hour, or to coach team sports.

We called this "earning the right to be heard." Instead of barging into the world of kids with our own agenda, we just hung out, listened to them, and showed them kindness.

After months of observation, we were able to determine their true needs.

The #1 pattern we observed was that teens deeply valued the friendships they had with their peers. You could invite them to the coolest event in town, but if their friends weren't coming, they weren't going.

The second thing we noticed was that Friday night was the most important day of the week for kids. They had a lot of anxiety about "not having anything to do" or "not knowing where everyone was meeting up." (Keep in mind, this was years ago, before every teen had an iPhone.)

With this information, we validated an idea called Dinner Club. With the support of the community, we reserved a bunch of tables at a local restaurant. We then let kids know that they could come and hang out every Friday at 5pm.

These events were hugely successful because they addressed a big pain for kids: now, they had a time, and a place they could rely on every Friday. It was a natural meeting spot; a place they were almost guaranteed to see their friends at.

All that groundwork had another advantage: because teens trusted us, we were also able to help the kids struggling with deeper issues (things like drug and alcohol abuse) by getting them into treatment programs.

How does this apply to marketers?

Brands, startups and solo-preneurs who are building an audience can learn a lot from this model.

The marketing world is full of ways to "blast" your potential customers (for example, the word "e-blast" is often used to describe a marketing email). But "blast" is a terrible word: nobody wants to be "blasted".

But people do want to be understood. Instead of shooting out messages from our home base, we should be hanging out with people, in their world, and earning the right to be heard.

Earn the right to heard: this is the right mantra for any marketer. Don't barge in with your own ideas; instead listen to people, and show them kindness.

A great example of this is Nate Kontny. He's the founder of Draftin.com, which is an app that helps people become better writers. Draft is doing really well, but doesn't use traditional marketing. Instead, Nate spends time hanging out on Reddit and Twitter and answering questions from people who want advice on writing. Look at his answer to this thread on Reddit. He spends time in the community, shows kindness, and earns the right to be heard.

I've been practicing this technique for over 10 years, and I haven't seen a better model for building trust. If you want to build a genuine trust between you and your audience, I highly recommend it. Here are the steps again:

  • Meet them where they're at (hang out in their world)

  • Do lots of listening

  • Look for opportunities to help and show kindness

  • Observe the underlying pains of the community

  • Create a hypothesis for what you think the pain is, and how you could address it

  • Validate your idea, by launching something small, and building on top of it

I hope this is helpful!

Justin Jackson

PS: This is a sample essay from the Build Your Audience course. You can get it here.

Published on July 29th, 2014
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