Understand Your Audience

The Curious Case of the Smart Customer

Cabinet of curiosities: Ferrante Imperato, Naples,  1599
Cabinet of curiosities: Ferrante Imperato, Naples, 1599

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ― Plutarch

Welcome to my new blog! Here on a semi-regular basis, I’ll be sharing my thoughts about creating credible, compelling content for demanding audiences.

You already know that your customers and prospects are highly educated professional workers. They’re probably at least moderately affluent, socially active, and well-traveled. They’re certainly experts in their own fields. Abigail Housen of Harvard has developed some interesting research about how adults with active minds learn about unfamiliar topics (such as modern art). The ideas she uncovered can also help in deciding on what information these people need to make a decision — say, to purchase a complex, expensive software solution or new business system.

The key finding is that these users like to discover and analyze information themselves. They do not want to be told what to think or what to do next. A pile of information, however clearly written and painstakingly presented, is less important to them than a means by which they can acquire actual knowledge and keep it in their heads, adding to their personal skill sets and protecting their organizations as well.

What does this mean for those of us crafting a detailed information piece like a white paper or case study? It means your prospects are likely to have a lot of questions. These days, any business decision is a big deal, and they may already know enough to have doubts about the wisdom of proceeding at all. The challenge is to present them with writing that fires the emotions as well as the intellect. You have to tap into their genuine, natural curiosity to learn more — and thereby engage with you on the next step.

In other words — your prospects will appreciate any explanations you can provide, but ultimately they want to arrive at an informed judgement on their own. You’ll succeed best if you can take your prospects on a journey, where they first explore the basics of what you have to offer, then move on to ways of analyzing and comprehending at a deeper level.

Want to know more? You can check out Housen’s theories of aesthetic development at the Visual Thinking Strategies website. And for even more fun, don’t miss the history of Ferrante Imperato’s cabinet of curiosities at Strange Science! Here’s a teaser:

Imperato didn’t just put his best specimens on display or publish books about them. He also performed demonstrations for visitors. While some naturalists could decide who merited a demonstration and who did not, Imperato probably couldn’t afford to be so uppity. He was, after all, just a lowly apothecary, and his visitors often enjoyed a higher social status than he did. … Not only notable for what it included, Imperato’s collection was perhaps just as important for what it did not include: speaking tubes, fun-house-style mirrors, or magic lanterns.

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