i have a confession to make.
over the last three years, i’ve quietly been sleeping with copyblogger readers.
not just once, but hundreds or possibly thousands of times.
i’ve slept with women. i’ve slept with men.
young or old, successful or inexperienced, i’ve gone to bed with them all, often more than one per day.
and you know what?
i’m totally unashamed. in fact, i want to go on record and publicly encourage you to sleep with your readers too.
just let me clear one thing up:
i’m not talking about sex
sorry to disappoint you.
of course, it’s a metaphor, creating the illusion of scandal to get your attention. tasteless, i know, but the truth is, i’m desperate.
out of the millions of writers in the world, only a handful truly understand the lesson i’m about to teach you. not because it’s particularly difficult or subtle, but because it’s boring, and so most writers ignore it.
somehow, i needed a way to make it interesting, and so i used a cheap trick to grab your attention. here’s why:
if you don’t understand this, you will never be a successful writer or marketer.
it doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much talent you have. get this wrong, and it all goes to waste.
so what is it?
it’s about life and death
imagine two women, lying in bed.
one can’t sleep because she is worried about her teenage daughter. it’s 2 am, and she still hasn’t come home. mom knows it’s probably just normal teenage rebelliousness, but she can’t stop the horrific images going through her head.
first she sees paramedics pulling the corpse of her daughter out of a car crash. next comes a vision of her huddled in a back alley, sobbing and broken because she’s just been raped. after that, she sees her daughter in an orange jumpsuit, holding on to the bars of her prison cell, looking forlorn for doing god knows what.
it doesn’t matter if it’s all nonsense. that worried mother will toss and turn for hours, hoping for sleep, fighting against her fears, but losing because it just scares her too bad.
the second woman can’t sleep either, but it’s for a different reason.
tomorrow, she is going back to work for the first time in twenty-two years. the mother of three kids, she is used to going to sleep every night at 10 pm, getting up at 5 am the next morning to prepare lunches and clothes, and then spending the rest of the day chauffeuring kids hither and yon — the normal life for your average suburban housewife.
secretly, she’s always wanted to work, but her children were just too important, so she shoved it away, locking it up safe in a corner of her heart, waiting for the day when her little chickies would grow up and leave the nest.
and at last, that day has come. her oldest packed up and went off to college two months ago, and rather than mope around the house all day, she decided to start looking for a job.
surprisingly, she found one, and she starts tomorrow. anxious but also strangely excited, she lays in bed, thinking not about bosses or paperwork or the commute to the office, but about going into a restaurant and having a quiet lunch all by herself or buying a nice suit and it actually being clean for more than two days, not stained by snot or puke or jammy fingerprints.
for the first time in years, she feels independent, empowered, important. and while she wouldn’t trade her previous life for all the money in the world … she likes feeling this way.
so she tosses and turns. knowing she should sleep, but unable to stop her mind from racing from one life change to another. all of them fresh, all of them exciting, all of them too sinfully delicious to drift off into lala land.
you probably didn’t realize it, but you just slept with two women
one couldn’t sleep because she was worried for her daughter, and the other couldn’t sleep because she was bursting with joy over her new life.
but you spent the entire night with both of them, listening, empathizing. learning them from the inside out. and now you can talk to them more intimately than anybody in the whole wide world …
the secret to writing, marketing, or really, life in general
it’s all about knowing what keeps people awake at night.
you’ve probably heard you need to profile your prospect, see the story through the eyes of your reader, or do your best to listen to people. but how many of us actually do that?
we write down a few demographic facts about our prospects, or we read a few letters from our readers, or we spend a few minutes listening to a coworker, and we think we understand them.
but we don’t. to really understand people, you need to know what keeps them awake until 2 am, tossing and turning and unable to sleep.
maybe it’s a fear like your daughter getting raped or your house getting foreclosed on or your wife discovering you are cheating on her. maybe it’s excitement from getting a new job or starting your own business or buying a new house.
there are an infinite number of reasons people stay awake
but everybody has them, and if you really want to influence readers, you need to know what those reasons are.
if you’re a writer or marketer, you also have to take a step further and know the common reason that keeps your audience up at night.
if your audience is politicians, it’s getting reelected. if your audience is parents, it’s their children. if your audience is bloggers, it’s their popularity or lack thereof (trust me, i have this one pegged).
how do you discover the common reason for your audience?
you sleep with them. not in reality, of course, but metaphorically.
you spend so much time with them, listen so carefully, and analyze them so deeply that you know what would keep them awake and what wouldn’t.
and here’s the kicker:
once you know, make a decision to talk about nothing else.
why some content is popular and the rest gets ignored
want a benchmark for predicting the popularity of your content?
here you go:
if it’s about something that would keep your readers up until 2 am, it has a shot at being popular. if it’s not, it doesn’t have a chance in hell.
and it all starts with your headline.
a couple of days ago, i gave you a collection of the most consistently popular structures for headlines in existence. fill in the blank, and you’re good to go.
but that raises a pretty big question:
what goes in the blank?
the answer is anything that keeps your readers up until 2 am.
let’s take a look at the headlines for two of my most popular posts, and i’ll show you what i mean …
example #1: 20 warning signs that your content sucks
20 warning signs that your content sucks
when i wrote this post, copyblogger was still using tweetmeme, and so its tweet count has been reset. but if i had to guess, i wouldn’t be surprised if it’s received over 2,000 tweets, and been linked to by somewhere between 50 and 100 different blogs.
because it’s like one of those dreams you have in high school where you realize you are wearing nothing but your underwear, and the whole class turns around and laughs at you.
where teenagers are insecure about their bodies, bloggers are insecure about their writing.
sure, they think it’s good, but what if it actually sucks?
what if that’s the reason they’re not getting any comments or links?
what if everyone who stops by their blog secretly thinks they’re a fool, but no one has the heart to tell them?
you can’t help but wonder when you’re publishing your best stuff but nobody is paying any attention. if your work is important enough to you, you might even lose some sleep over it.
so that’s why i wrote about it. i deliberately poked my finger in the wound to get their attention.
and it resonated with people on such a deep emotional level they couldn’t help talking about it.
example #2: how to quit your job, move to paradise, and get paid to change the world
how to quit your job, move to paradise, and get paid to change the world
with 5,518 shares on facebook and 2,365 tweets on twitter, this is the most popular post i’ve ever written, and some folks are saying it’s their favorite post of 2011 … from any blog.
because it’s about dreams.
every blogger dreams of quitting their job and writing full-time. every blogger dreams of moving to paradise and working from their laptop on the beach instead of a cubicle. every blogger dreams of somehow, some way doing their own small part to change the world.
and i packed all three dreams into a single headline. it’s like taking pure godiva chocolate, the world’s strongest espresso, and the finest scotch known to man, and combining them all into a single drink. the potency of it would damn near blow your head off.
same thing happened here. people were so touched they burst into tears. one guy emailed to say he had been planning to commit suicide, and the post changed his mind.
it wasn’t my impeccable grammar that stopped him. it wasn’t my flawless spelling. it wasn’t even, i’m sorry to say, my devilish good looks.
and it wasn’t my dream.
it was his dreams
his dreams, seen through a lens that made them seem achievable. all i did was build that lens.
in the end, i think that’s our most important job. not to inform, not to persuade, not even to entertain, but to construct lenses through which our readers can see their own dreams and nightmares more clearly.
and to do that, you have to sleep with them.
so put on your jammies.
climb into bed.
snuggle up close.
as they toss and turn, listen to what’s going through their mind.
and then write about nothing else.
about the author: in addition to serving as associate editor of copyblogger, jon morrow is on a mission to help good writers get traffic they deserve. if you’re one of them, check out his upcoming blog about (surprise!) blogging.
don’t forget to join us for this week’s live headline clinic! it’s tomorrow afternoon, and sonia simone and i want to take apart and rewrite your headline so it’s as amazing as it can possibly be. here’s where you go to get all the details.
reader comments (66)
it looks like i need to sleep with more of my audience. i know what they look and want to learn more about, but i don’t know what keeps them up at 2am and i think that’s at least part of what i’m missing. thanks.
georgina el morshdy says
wow. jon this is an awesome post. it’s so beautifully written and so compelling. as you say knowing your audience is old advice, but reading this post has taken my understanding of that old idea to a totally different level. crazy! i think i really get it now. what’s more, i’m thinking about my blog and i can see some serious opportunity to write new content that really connects. and now i’m mulling over those ideas, it’s definitely going to keep me awake tonight!
eugen oprea says
hey jon, this is just another epic post from you.
i get so inspired when i read articles like this one and they actually make me go and take that action you suggest.
thank you for that!
ps: now i am off to put my pajamas and into bed. 🙂
carmen sognonvi says
eugen i feel exactly the same way! i’m totally inspired to go out and take action!
we often read about how business owners should create “buyer personas” of our ideal clients/customers, but never have i seen it done quite as vividly as jon did in this post.
i think the key difference is that jon really took into account the human element. it wasn’t just a clinical description like: “suzy is a former stay-at-home mom who’s concerned about getting back into the work world.”
instead, jon connected to her fears and dreams and hopes.
jon morrow says
yep, knowing your reader is old advice, but very few people understand what that means. it took me several years to figure it out myself.
josh sarz says
you really write awesome posts, jon. i don’t know how you do it. there’s just a different aura with the kind of headline and content you give out. sometimes it sounds like you’re giving away too many “blogging secrets” with each of your posts.
thanks for the good read. oh, and don’t forget to enjoy your holiday season!
jon morrow says
thanks josh. warms my heart. 🙂
blog tyrant says
its an interesting and somewhat depressing marketing truth that people respond more to missing out on something than they do if you promise them something extra.
jonah lehrer, the popular neuro-scientist, says its all about dopamine cells that are hardwired to constantly seek that which will help us evolve. pleasure results from finding the solution to those problems that keep us awake at night.
great article jon. going back to my landing pages to find more ways to keep honest mums up at night.
only kidding. i’ve kept plenty of mums up at night already in my life.
only kidding. sonia, please don’t beat me for that comment.
gregory ciotti says
i’ve read the fear of missing out may be an evolutionary trait, given that not too many years ago, being “left out” of the group often resulted in a much worse outcome than being picked on in highschool (hint: you probably died, since chances of survival in a group of humans was much higher for the average caveman back in the day, geico cavemans not included).
funny that something like that could stick with us even as out civilizations advances, old habits die hard when their wired into your brain through evolution i guess.
on another note, jon, you killed it with this, just another post where i’m inspired to write better because i feel like a slacker after reading this. keep up the damn fine work, ya jerk. 🙂
blog tyrant says
greg, i like that we evolved from the average ones. makes me feel adequate. ha ha.
jon morrow says
i don’t remember where i read this, but most people also have much more hardwiring for fear than they do desire. from my own experience, that’s true. it’s actually much easier to write a post leveraging nightmares than it is dreams, although if you do it too often, your blog does get sort of gloomy. 🙂
desire is linked to gains, and fear is linked to losses. so, what you’d be looking for is loss aversion, first made famous by daniel kahneman, the first (and only i believe) psychologist to win a nobel prize in economics.
lynn ponder says
enjoyed the honesty of your writing. total newbie blogger that writes from the heart. i am learning as i go and by posts like this, it certainly helps me in my journey!
john pohl says
simply one of the most provocative posts i’ve ever read. amazingly, the body copy somehow surpassed the promise of the headline. ‘nuf said!
elizabeth cottrell says
holy toledo…you’re good, jon! i think i’m going to enjoy this naughty activity. i’ve been making excuses too long. thank you, thank you, thank you.
jon morrow says
you’re welcome, welcome, welcome! 😉
jon, slightly ot, but i guess you won’t mind, the launch video of your new blog is terrific, and i subscribed although i clicked just to have a look and fully determined not to subscribe to anything. good job indeed.
incidentally, your post above and the report you shared the other day are great too, else i would have never seen that video to start with…
rich weatherly says
great attention-getter and a solid point.
i agree with john pohl. your body copy drives home the point with precision.
jonathan martin says
once again you’ve gone and given us some brilliant insights, and great advice on how to write better articles. and, you made it sound so easy!!
can’t thank you enough, truly!!
merry christmas and happy holidays to everyone on copyblogger!!
lj innes says
so contrary to what i’ve been taught, sleeping around is good for your reputation – who would have thunk? lol -thanks for the inspiration. one thing i love about writing and marketing is that everyone is so helpful in trying to advance each other’s careers. that alone is enough to make a girl feel randy! kind of like when you read a fortune cookie and end each fortune with “in bed.” it’s been right in front of my face the whole time! awesome!
this is definitely the best example on how to put yourself in people’s shoes and see the world from their perspective! simply excellent.
i feel so dirty.
sonia simone says
jon morrow says
lewis lalanne aka nerd #2 says
your comment makes me think of ace ventura – pet detective crying in the shower after he discovers that he’d actually french kissed ray finkle. hahaha!
lewis lalanne aka nerd #2 says
i love the premise you’re running with here jon – going deeper into conversations people are having with themselves. and i believe that the “s” word is at the core of this conversation – shame.
the sources of shame start with the proposition that “i must be loved”
and this has various ramifications such as i must be popular, i must be accepted, i must be approved of, i must be un-criticized. and then therefore, it is awful if i am un-popular, unacceptable, disapproved, criticized ridiculed, etc.
the second main source of shame comes from the idea of, “i must achieve”
and this means i must achieve many things and it’s amazing how many there really are, such as competence, excellence, intelligence, normality, physical perfection, emotional maturity, strength of character, moral goodness, godliness, saint hood, nobility, and the special subheading of this is, in the sexual area where we particularly, in our society and probably in most, ally or connect our feelings of shame that i must achieve sexual adequacy, sexual conquest, sexual excellence, sexual normality, sexual decency, and sexual morality to say the least.
and to sum up all of these things into one phrase, you’re really saying, when you’re ashamed, “i must achieve greatness, goodness, and godliness.”
and then the obvious conclusion with these premises is that it is therefore, awful if i am . . . incompetent, average, stupid, idiosyncratic, physically imperfect, emotionally disturbed, weak in character, immoral or bad, ignoble, un-saintly, un-godly.
by the same token, it is awful if you are sexually inadequate, sexually un-attractive, sexually average, sexually deviant, sexually indecent.
but you can see that with these nice premises, and the conclusions there of, that practically everyone would feel ashamed.
i believe that as an info-marketer, when the by-product of you sleeping around with your prospects gives you all of their specific shames they’re doing their damnedest to avoid and you show up in their inbox with answers that help them dramatically lower the levels of shame they feel around this particular subject they’re interested in, you become their hero, their savior.
thank you jon for making internet marketing world a better place with all the work you’re doing with sonia this week to help people become attuned to the difference that makes the difference in communication. 🙂
and thank you lewis for this reply … nails it even deeper.
lewis lalanne aka nerd #2 says
you’re most certainly welcome deborah. 🙂 i’m actually publishing a 7,000+ word post on overcoming shame on friday so the concept was very fresh in my mind.
jon morrow says
good examples. and yep, you do become a savior or hero when you get this right.
roger earnhardt says
if you were going to sleep with all your readers, the least you could do was buy us dinner.
jon morrow says
cori padgett says
“to really understand people, you need to know what keeps them awake until 2 am, tossing and turning and unable to sleep.”
that line just nails it. so well said jon, great post. i love the dirty lead-in too, always fun to write using outrageous metaphors! 🙂
daniel roach says
this exercise has killed more of my blog posts than i want to admit. hovering over the “publish” button, i’ll look at the headline and ask if this addresses something that my readers have lost sleep over. many a well written (says the writer) blog post has bitten the dust because the answer was no.
i have a love/hate relationship with this, as you can imagine 🙂
jon morrow says
well, you need to decide if the topic is something they lose sleep over before you write the post. if you wait until it’s time to publish, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of wasted effort. 🙂
daniel roach says
now you tell me! 🙂 you’re right of course. it’s a hard learned lesson, but even taking the time to redo a post is worth the improved performance and engagement i *eventually* get. great post, by the way, jon, i always look forward to your writing.
hashim warren says
i’ve surveyed my readers, i interviewed them over the phone, i work with them, eat lunch with, and i am them. yet i didn’t realize what kept them up at night until i wrote a post on making more money. it is consistently the most popular article on my site. however, people were adamant that they don’t care about money when i did my research and even when i talk to collegues and friends.
so, how do you find out what keeps up at night when your audience is too embarrassed to say it?
jon morrow says
the short answer is, “empathy.” rarely ever do they tell you directly, so you have to feel your way through it. when you’re listening to them, pay more attention to their emotions than their words.
“it’s all about knowing what keeps people awake at night.”
right there is the ‘crunch line’. i’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t been deprived of sleep worrying about a problem in their life. that means that the reachable market from this angle is near unlimited.
that’s a big market.
connect with the reader. understand them. sit with them and listen. learn, discover, create for them. then, listen to them again. and keep creating 🙂
i feel like i just had the top of my head taken off and everything is wide open … love it love it love it !!!! thank you.
terrific post jon. “intentional empathy” offers powerful insight into the world of our prospect/client. and you wield it masterfully.
clayton makepeace called it “crawling inside the skin” of your prospect. which sounds creepy in a bodysnatchers sort of way. your “sleeping with your prospect” approach is just as memorable and a lot more friendly.
since romancing a prospect is more a chick flick than a horror, i’ll go with your new metaphor.
jan hemmingsen says
had i seen the headline in brian clarks tweet i wouldn’t have bothered i think.
what i saw was the promise to reveal the secret of writing, marketing or life itself, which in itself is so outrageous that i should have known better than to expect anything but..
it is a decent post and shouldn’t really have to resort to sensationalism i think. the headline certainly ruins more than it helps…
as for the message i guess that it is a possible angle on writing, but it is not the only one and certainly not the most important one…
damn that’s a good headline! jumped right out at me from my feedburner list…..had to click on it right away. who says those tabloids aren’t worth reading from time to time? (not that i ….do……usually…..)
martyn chamberlin says
jon, i rarely have time to read and savor an article’s every word, but today you made me do it.
“one guy emailed to say he had been planning to commit suicide, and the post changed his mind.”
dana wilson says
another thought-provoking and inspiring post! i always get my post (finally) finished and get in a hurry to get it into cyberspace without spending enough time on the title. duh! i appreciate your very engaging copy and your words of wisdom! thanks again.
michael james says
very inspiring, but easier said than done. for me the writing part comes easy; it’s the getting in other people’s heads i struggle with. makes me wonder if i shouldn’t just write about what keeps me up at night worrying. there has to be other people worrying about the same thing, right?
roger sanchez says
outstanding stuff! i found it funny that i’m up right at 6:30 this morning and reading this. what got me up so early? i found myself tossing and turning and thinking to myself; what can i write today to get more visitors to my blog. reading the article this morning was just as good as my first cup of coffee! thanks for the motivation, i needed that!
mark mcculloch says
well i must be honest when i first seent he title sleeping with readers i was a little confused lol but having read the blog post itself i can see this is a fantastic post and very good advise.
thank you for it.
nice post! i totally agree that you have to “sleep” aka survey your audience before you market
content, products and services. if you don’t know what buttons to press you’ll never dominate
a niche. although your post was spot on with making a statement, you left out the “how to”.
on a scale of 1 to 10 i give this post a 6.5 because your analogies were nice and you
really drove home the concept of surveying to discover what people wants and need…
…but unfortunately you didn’t tell us how to do this… not good!
belinda weaver says
fantastic story telling jon – of course. although you are talking about blogging your point has a much wider application for business owners and marketers. as i copywriter i am often trying to get this information out of my clients and it can often mean asking the same question in many different ways. you’ve just inspired me and i’ve updated my creative brief interview to use some of the same emotive language you use.
instead of asking, “what problem do you solve?” i’m going to ask “what your customers awake at 2am?”
thanks for shifting my perspective. my clients will get better marketing as a result!
faizan elahi says
excellent post, john, you are a vary talented writer.
martin bergmann says
for those of you who haven’t yet started a blog, you won’t understand. you weren’t there man! just trying one blog will get you hooked. sure, you say you’re just experimenting with blogging.
then soon, you are blogging everyday. you wake up trying to search around to see who has commented on your blog. then it gets to be a 3 or 4 blogpost a day habit, and you’re still saying, “i can quit anytime i want”.
catchy headline! 🙂
(oh, and a good article, too. 🙂 )
astro gremlin says
jon, i cannot find my socks. your way with words knocked my socks off so hard they are gone. you had me hooked at, “somehow, i needed a way to make it interesting, and so i used a cheap trick to grab your attention. here’s why:
if you don’t understand this, you will never be a successful writer or marketer.” now i’m wondering if everything i’ve ever written is utter crap. thanks for the nightmare.
diane dolinsky-pickar says
i appreciate your emphasis, jon, on zeroing in to what keeps your readers awake at night, because there are few emotions as prevalent as fear during these tough economic times when few have an escape hatch from heavy responsibilities.
indeed, insomnia is as pervasive in adults as creeping waistlines. from what i have observed, not all of them can brush away their nagging fears by pulling on headphones and plugging into an ipad. on some level, anxiety seeps through. for many of us, that anxiety revolves around making a living, taking care of kids, and the myriad other worries of real life. you put it well. we aren’t sitting buddhas.
i would love to know your tips and tricks for drawing out the details of what comprise a reader’s fears. sometimes when someone hits the ‘contact us’ button on my blog, i am able to start a conversation and ask them directly what problems they experience and what endless loops are catching and not letting go. but these opportunities are few and far between. i have found that going out to places where folks are mixing and mingling is a more direct channel to gain access to their concerns. especially if there is trust in the room, and a structured process for people to share their worries aloud without fear of appearing silly. so, i try to get out and about regularly to do this kind of research.
i just wish that i could telescope the time it takes to become an expert in my niche! ah, to have a dream and keep on pluggin….
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