If you don’t know who you’re writing to, you might as well just write your masterpiece, put it in a bottle, and give it to a flat-earther to throw off the edge of the ice wall.
You simply cannot neglect the task of articulating exactly who you are speaking to when you write. Does anyone listen to the homeless guy screaming at all the passers by in Times Square? Nobody will listen to you either, unless they sense that you are speaking to them directly. And, there is a writing version of showering up, brushing your teeth, putting on a suit, and looking your intended audience in the eye so that they know when they read you that you are intending to speak to them.
When people trust you because you present yourself credibly and speak to them specifically, then they can learn to trust you. You can either say things that fortify or corrode their trust. But how do you know which you’re doing? Building trust is simple: Understand them and speak their language.
What’s an Audience Avatar?
The way that professional writers articulate who their audience is is building audience avatars. For example, if you’re intending to speak to old ladies about a how to participate in an increasingly youthful church that seems to care less and less about the contributions of the elderly, you might write to an avatar called “65 Year-Old Betty.”
65-Year-Old Betty is a Baby Boomer. She’s female. She’s been a Christian her entire life. She’s a retired school teacher. She loves working with children. On and on and on.
What if you’re writing to young, untrained pastors to help them streamline a better process for sermon writing? You could create an avatar called “25-Year-Old Todd.” Todd became a Christian in his teens. He’s a recent seminary graduate. He doesn’t have much sermon-writing experience. Yada yada yada.
And, as you acquire new readers, you adjust your avatars based on who’s following you. If Betty ends up being 55, works part time, and has no kids, and no 65-year-old Bettys are engaging with your content, then adjust your avatar to reach the audience who is willing to engage with your content. This is an ongoing process that never ends for writers.
The Unbearable Cost of Neglecting Your Audience Avatars
The larger your audience gets, the more constrained you are to ask yourself the question: “How can I serve them in particular?” When you build an audience, you aren’t building a relationship with avatars—you’re building a relationship with real people. And your user avatars should be flexible enough to conform to the demographics who find you trustworthy.
But if you don’t begin thinking in terms of audience avatars from the outset, then you’ll have no way of understanding, categorizing, or adjusting any of your audience relationships as your platform grows.
Sowing the seeds of audience avatars in the beginning of your writing career is like architecting your farm to produce the maximum yield. If you plant the corn, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers all in the same place, it will be exponentially harder to reap a yield from your plants when harvest time comes.
But if you build a taxonomy that separates them—marketers call this “list segmentation,” which is breaking up your audience into multiple sub-populations based on each avatar—then you can harvest each plant in season, and you can cultivate the health of each audience according to their need.
The 9 Variables of a High-Return Avatar
Let’s dive into the 9 variables involved in architecting simple (but effective) audience avatars that will mature from hypothetical readers into tens of thousands of real people in a matter of years.
Every generation engages content differently.
The Silent Generation was born between 1925 and 1945. They don’t often read blogs. They buy books, and they digest them thoroughly. They enjoy straightforward, devotional writing that is instructive, traditional, and draws metaphors from nature and industry.
The Baby Boomer Generation (Boomers) was born between 1946 and 1964. They primarily consume content in the form of blogs. They care about being perceived as “in the know,” cutting edge, and up-to-date. When writing to this audience, positioning yourself as an authority in the industry who challenges the status quo will build your credibility most quickly.
Generation X (GenX) represents people born between 1964 and 1980. Now entering late middle age, GenX is concerned with optimized performance, efficiency, and scale. They want straightforward, practical information that helps them in their daily lives in the near-term.
Generation Y (Millennials) represents people born between 1981and 1996. They respond to highly emotive language, appeals to empathy, and concerns for social equity. This generation does have a sub-faction of highly rational, conservative readers who will desire a traditional writing style similar to The Silent Generation. However, what distinguishes this generation more than anything is their polarization—if you can speak as, to, or within a specific team on one end of a polarized population, you will magnetically amass a large amount of millennials rooting for (or against) you as loyal readers.
Generation Z (GenZ) was born between 1996 and 2010. GenZ has moved back toward The Silent Generation, as the Millennial conservative sub-faction has grown in its generational market share through the virality of online forums such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan. They are highly diagnostic, socially conscious thinkers who have both the bleeding heart of the millennials and the reverence for the wisdom of agile traditionalism of The Silent Generation.
Male and female readers, generally, bring different expectations, preferences, and assumptions to what they read. Have in mind for each audience avatar exactly what gender you’re speaking to. Of course, when writers take on gender-based assumptions in forming avatars, you could miss certain creative opportunities to reach minorities within these genders that aren’t represented by the conventional wisdom. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that this wisdom is generic, and ought to inform the general architecture of your content and brand strategy, not determine or constrain the final shape or material of your writing.
Having said that, women tend to prefer a softer brand color palette, writing from personal experience, and a desire for solidarity. Publishing houses generally act on the assumption that women more easily become loyal readers of writers who write from the heart, draw on a traditionally feminine aesthetic, and write in terms that are native to typical female vocabulary.
Men tend to prefer tactical advice, born of credentialed experience, that can be abstracted, analyzed, and applied. This, of course, isn’t always true. But men who buy books and read blogs usually do so with a teams mentality—looking for an “us vs. them” within which to be militated.
Don’t assume the politics of your readers. Consciously write each piece in a way that is politically agnostic, or strategically targeted. Don’t write “Our sitting U. S. President is so stupid” and expect to keep half your audience. If your brand of writing is explicitly political, then understand and own your own policies. But recognize that stepping into politics—even borrowing language from the “left” or the “right”—could itself be a major turn off for a majority of your audience.
The five categories to keep in mind, especially in the Christian space, are:
Various labels, such as Libertarian, Socialist, and Capitalist inflect differently across each of these five categories simultaneously. You should peg each of your audience avatars as one of these five categories.
There are four variables that inform the potential religious upbringing of your audience. They are: Whether they are Christian, whether they were raised Christian, whether they have had a good or bad experience with the church, and finally, whether they are confident or struggling to maintain their faith.
Urban readers tend to be more culturally empathetic since they rub shoulders with diverse cultures more often. Urban readers are higher in empathy, and lower in tendencies toward control and combatism. They desire socially conscious writing that casts an ethical vision for the future.
Suburban readers exist mostly in homogenous communities. They are generally split between male and female along political lines—suburban men leaning Republican, and suburban females leaning Democrat.
Rural readers are typically conservative. They don’t desire to become experts on the topic in which they’re reading, but rather to experience something inspirational, devotional, or motivational.
Denominational affiliation is an enormous factor in understanding your audience psychology:
Mainstream Christian readers are looking for generic inspiration.
International Christians are often looking for basic Biblical education.
Baptist Christians are often looking for information about their denomination, sermon preparation information, and devotional educational literature.
Reformed Christians are often looking to read educational materials about their confession of faith, historical theology, and intramural orthodox theological debates.
Charismatic Christians are often looking either for emotionally evocative resources that are deeply artistic, excellent in quality, and design-heavy. Likewise, Charistmatics tend to more often pursue secular means of achieving excellence in the church, such as: How to Apply Toastmaster Skills to Sermon Prep, Critical MBA Skills for Pastors, etc.
Evangelical Christians tend to desire more devotional material. A majority of Evangelical search results are Boomer and Millennial, which are both militant generations, which accounts for most of the toxicity around blog sharing that catalyzes on social media channels such as Facebook.
Rich and poor audiences behave very differently online. If any part of your writing business model depends on selling eBooks, 90% of those sales—depending on your pricing scale—will come from wealthy readers.
However, a majority of your actual traffic will come from low-income readers, since the user psychology of each reader drives them to use the internet in different ways. Wealthy internet users tend to use the internet as a solution to real-life problems, and are therefore more likely to have a buyer’s intent, as well as a buyer’s resources. Poor internet users tend to use the internet as an escape, and therefore have neither the inclination toward nor the resources for becoming one of your customers.
It’s better to have different monetization strategies for each kind of user. Monetize wealthy readers through direct-purchase calls to action, and monetize poor readers by accumulating their emails as part of a list (email, RSS, podcast, etc.), and implement affiliate advertising or sponsorship advertising in order to monetize their very existence on your list.
8. Position in the Church
It’s important to know whether your audience is comprised of pastors or lay Christians. Pastors have a completely different orientation toward Christian content than lay Christians. For lay Christians, the content always has immediate personal import. Pastors have an eye toward professional utility—what you’re saying either translates into professional usefulness or it doesn’t.
If you don’t know if your audience is comprised of pastors, it will be very difficult to determine what sort of voice and content you should use to shape your writing brand.
Use this 8-variable matrix to articulate every single audience avatar that you intend to reach. When you do this, your writing will be more effective, your thesis will feel more intuitively relevant and practical for your readers, and you will feel more confident in the value of your writing.
Use the 8-point checklist (in the downloadable eBook below) as a companion to this article in order to build your list of audience avatars and build more brand loyalty among your readers.