Richard Branson, arguably one of the most likable entrepreneurs in the world, views his likability as one of his competitive advantages. Research backs this up. Likable people are more effective leaders, build deeper relationships, and have better reputations.
The good news is that likability is a learnable skill.
The challenge and opportunity is that what it takes to bex likable goes through shifts, and we’re at a major turning point.
In just the last 10 years, we’ve gone from hundreds of thousands of people creating books, videos, and articles to billions. That’s an exponentially bigger and quicker shift than the discovery of the printing press. Today, our content is our first impression. It reminds people that we exist, and it deepens relationships.
To gain insight into how to create content that deepens relationships and increases likability, I interviewed some of the country’s most successful content creators who have built deep relationships with millions of people through photos, articles, videos, and podcasts.
1. Start a Daily Journal. Then Publish the Best Stuff
I’ve found the most effective way to build true relationships through content is always authenticity. Something heartfelt and genuine tends to stand out pretty profoundly from all the noise online. Readers can even overlook inconsistencies, extra words, and more if the writer is being true to himself or herself.
A couple years back, I wrote an especially personal account of getting six-pack abs in six weeks (long story short: It wasn’t worth it). I just told the truth, no matter how painful and uncomfortable. In return, people connected with my message in a powerful and inspiring way. Over 20,000 people shared the story on social media, but what was most meaningful were the people who shared their own stories, their changing perspectives, and their truth–and it in no small way validated what I was building with Greatist, which now has 10 million visitors per month.
Being authentic can be surprisingly challenging, especially since there are so many expectations in terms of how people write, what stories they tell, and how they tell them. And that’s exactly why saying it like it actually is can be so sticky and not only drive clicks but also build real relationships.
I find the most successful way to write from a place of authenticity is actually just to…
- Write without worrying about misspellings and grammar.
- Write without worrying about making sense.
- Write without worrying about crafting a real beginning, middle, and end.
- Write on your cell phone on the subway or the bus.
- Write in your head, even, while you’re walking.
The more you write, in my experience, the easier it is to piece the best parts together later in a way that tells a compelling story. And the more likely it is that at some point you’ll forget about everything else and write just for you.
When you make your thoughts public, don’t be afraid to share the things you’re a little uncomfortable with having out there. At the same time, delete the things you’re a lot uncomfortable with the public seeing. Maybe save it for a later, maybe save it for never. The most powerful pieces shouldn’t betray you; they should be true to who you really are.
2. Create 10x Better Content
I create in-depth guides that aim to be 10x better than any other related content on the internet. In my experience, the rewards of creating 10x content are exponential. For example, I created a 40,000-word guide on content marketing. It took me months of time and thousands of dollars to create, but it ultimately led to 361,494 visitors and 8,421 email opt-ins. As a result of going beyond incremental improvements, the guides rank in the top 10 for the words they’re optimized for on Google and spread virally because people want to share them.
Here’s the replicable process I use to create guides:
- I identify the keywords I want to own on Google where I can create 10x better content than the other top search results. Brian Dean of Backlinko has created a great resource on how to do this.
- I make my content 10x better. I follow the checklist below:
Step-by-step Up-to-date Better written Lengthy (the longer the better–usually) Conversational (use the words “you” and “I”) Better designed (include images, screenshots, etc.) Compatible (mobile, tablet, and the Web)
- I spend as much time marketing my guide as I do creating it. Beyond sending the guide to your email list and social media followers, I recommend creating a list of influential tweeters and bloggers, reaching out to them, and making it easy for them to link to.
3. Understand the Trigger Words That Cause People to Value Your Content
Relationships are built by adding value over time. That’s how we built our company to 75 employees. However, value is a misunderstood word. Most people don’t realize that value is often created by valuing.
For example, you can give someone the best advice in the world, but if they don’t value it, they’re not going to take action. Therefore, the advice isn’t going to add value to their life.
In a fascinating study, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found that people who couldn’t experience emotions because of brain damage lost their ability to make simple decisions because of all the pros and cons. So, emotions help us value things.
Certain words are particularly powerful for triggering emotions, and many of those words vary by industry. To uncover trigger words, I recommend the following process:
- Identify Possible Words to Highlight. Write down all of the words and phrases your customers use when they’re talking about the problem they want your product to solve.
- Rate Them. Try to identify which ones have the highest emotional value. For each word, give your best guess on how much emotion would be triggered inside someone in your target market on a 100-point scale (1 being zero emotion and 100 being a nuclear explosion of emotion).
Let’s say we wrote down the words “relationship,” “sex,” and “cheat.” “Relationship” is not a very interesting word. It’s kind of boring. So, I might say that the word “relationship,” even to someone who wants one, might be 10 or 15. Now, what about the word “sex”? Sex is a very emotionally charged word. Just saying the word gets everyone to stop and pay attention. That might be an 80.
As my friend, Joe Polish, likes to say, “The difference between a $1 bill and a $100 bill is just the message that’s printed on it. They each cost the same amount to print, but you get very different results at the grocery store.” To spark some ideas on $100 words you can use, I recommend reading “50 Trigger Words and Phrases for Powerful Multimedia Content.”
4. Understand Your Ideal Customer Deeply. Then Segment
Our primary goal is to understand our target market very, very deeply, and we live in an amazing time where we can do that with free tools. For example, I spend five or six hours per day analyzing and trying to understand the data we collect from Google Analytics about the tens of millions of visitors our network of sites gets per month. In short, Google Analytics should be your best friend.
Once we understand our target market deeply, we divide it into three to five different segments based on demographics (i.e., age, gender, etc.). Every segment requires additional time to target, so three to five segments is a good balance of not too many and not too few.
The more we refine and understand each segment, the more we can:
- Target ads so only our target market sees them.
- Make the ad creative and more appealing.
- Customize the messaging to speak to the target market’s problems and goals.
- Use language and examples they can relate to.
- Analyze their unique behavior using Google Analytics. (We learn by observing the most popular content they navigate to.)
With this level of customization, only the right readers come to our site, and those readers trust us and get huge value because our content solves their problems.
I suggest checking out “The Small Business Guide to Google Analytics,” if you’re a newbie.
5. Explicitly Ask Readers to Comment
I’ve written 150 posts on LinkedIn, and they’ve generated 50,000 comments and ultimately over $1 million in new business. One of the ways that I’ve been able to generate so much conversation is by encouraging readers to comment by:
1. Asking them multiple, specific questions.
2. Bolding “you” and “your” to put the ball in their court.
3. Being active in the comments section.
Comments are powerful because they deepen your relationship with the commenters and everyone else reading. Furthermore, many platforms decide to feature content based on how many comments it has.
As an example, here is my call-to-action at the end of “5 Keys to Great Storytelling: Lessons from Barbara Corcoran“:
Now it’s your turn. Which of these five keys to great storytelling do you think is most important? How essential overall is storytelling to you as a business person? What questions do you have for Barbara Corcoran? Let me know your story in the Comments section below, and please do share this post with your network.
6. Use the Ask Approach
Just as in-person conversation is the best way to build relationships offline, email is the best way to build relationships online. Email beats social media because it has higher open rates (22.87 percent versus 6.15 percent). And people read most emails, whereas they view only a fraction of their social media.
With most email newsletters, the open rate for individual subscribers goes down over time. However, I’ve found a simple approach that actually flips that trend, so open rates go up. I call it the “Ask Approach,” and I’ve helped my clients earn over $37 million from applying the approach because they’ve had deeper relationships with and understanding of their readers. Here’s how it works:
- Ask a question. Every email you send out should have some sort of next action, which can be a question. This sets the expectation of a back-and-forth relationship rather than a one-way, passive broadcast.
- Ask people to hit reply. Instead of saying, “Click on this link and fill out this survey,” say something like, “I’ve got some emails planned out over the next couple of days, but before I do that, I want to make sure that what I cover is useful to you. Would you just do me a favor? Hit reply to this email and tell me, what’s the biggest challenge you’re having when it comes to XYZ?” It’s more personal, and it’s easier.
- Respond to that reply. When you have a small email list, I recommend that you read every response and reply to every person with a personal message that shows you’ve read their email. For example, you could say, “Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. What you said about XYZ is something that comes up over and over again.”
As your email list grows, you can bring on team members to help personally respond to each email and maintain this personal touch.
The Ask Approach works on two levels:
- It builds a much deeper relationship. It is a tremendous opportunity to stand out and get your market to bond with you because you took the time even though you’re busy. When you do this, it’s like a part of people’s brains light up. Then, whenever you publish something (on any platform), they’re more likely to respond.
- It helps you understand your market at a deeper level. By understanding your market’s challenges, you’ll be in a much better position to solve those challenges with future content.
7. Ask Questions Others Don’t Have the Balls to Ask
As your fan base grows, it can be challenging to serve both newbies who are coming to your content for the first time and diehard listeners who are experts. My podcast, The Art of Charm, has 1 million listeners per month, and I pride myself on being able to serve both audiences. Here’s how I do it:
I listen with a beginner’s mind.
I think about it as if I’m the audience member, and I ask myself, “What do I really want to know?” This makes sure the content is fun to listen to and easy for beginners to understand.
I look for holes in my guest’s expertise.
I ask a lot of questions that nobody else either has the balls or the presence of mind to ask, but that listeners really want to know. As a result, advanced listeners get content that they haven’t heard anywhere else.
Here’s the counterintuitive concept: Many listeners, especially advanced ones, aren’t just listening so they can learn for themselves. They’re learning so that they can share their knowledge with others and build their reputation as an expert.
If someone has holes in their expertise, they are less credible as a thought leader. I help them fill in those holes, and therefore, I help them share their expertise better.
8. Take the Content Is King Approach
There is a conflict that all content creators need to resolve upfront:
How much do you promote your product in your content?
How much do you just create really good content?
I strongly believe that content is king. The “content is king” approach leads to more appealing content, which leads to more viewers and deeper relationships among those viewers.
If 1,000 people see your video with a model drinking Coke versus 1 million people seeing a great video with a small, subtle plug for Coke at the end, you’ll have more reach and deeper relationships with the latter. I don’t think that individuals and companies should be afraid to make their brand so SUBTLE that it’s barely noticeable.
One video we created that epitomizes the power of this approach is “First Moon Party” for the new brand, HelloFlo. It went viral and was seen by 30 million people. This one video alone put the company on the map.
9. Use Metaphors in Your Content
In a great TED talk about online reputation, Juan Enriquez shares how hard it is to erase your online reputation by using a simple metaphor, “Your online life is as permanent as a tattoo.”
The metaphor, along with the image he shares (see above), cause viewers to quickly understand what he’s saying.
That’s the power of visual metaphors. They simplify complex concepts into concrete ideas that readers quickly understand intellectually and emotionally.
Decades of research by renowned cognitive neuroscientist George Lakoff shows that, contrary to popular belief, the brain is wired to understand complex concepts with metaphors, not abstract reasoning. Consider the metaphor of, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This simple metaphor has survived for centuries and in different cultures. If you use the right metaphor, your ideas can stick too.
I look for metaphors that:
- Explain themselves. You shouldn’t have to explain a metaphor. It’s like a joke. When you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny anymore.
- Evoke emotion. I look for metaphors that make me feel something. I particularly like ones that are witty and make me laugh.
- Are familiar. I like using familiar metaphors that people can immediately relate to in their day-to-day life.
My process for incorporating metaphors into content involves:
- Noticing great metaphors that I resonate with while reading.
- Keeping those metaphors in a PowerPoint idea bank.
- Looking for photos that really embody the metaphor. For example, take the metaphor of “a wave of emotion washed over me.” I would literally look for a photo of a wave to put in my idea bank.
- Referring back to the idea bank for new ideas when I’m creating content.
10. Add Photos That Evoke Emotions of Awe, Surprise, or Disbelief
I use photos and GIFs to spark emotion, which causes a connection with readers and increases the odds that they’ll share the article with people in their network.
As a very basic example, compare how the text and image below make you feel differently:
That’s the power of images.
Here is specific advice you can use:
- Add multiple images. It’s not enough to add one stock image to an article. For example, on our site, Dose, which has tens of millions of visitors per month, we use an image for every list item.
- Search on Google Images or Giphy by emotion. For example, let’s say I want to search for a photo that evokes surprise. I’d simply search for “surprise.”
- Select photos based on what’s worked before. I prioritize images and GIFs that have been proven to be successful already. As a rule of thumb, if it’s a GIF I’ve already seen before, I assume it’s more likely to be emotionally resonant than one I haven’t seen before.
Borrowing from Dave Kerpen’s tip above…now it’s your turn! Which of the tips above resonated the most with you? Why? Let me know your story in the Comments section below. I read every comment, because I love connecting with new people and hearing what works for them.
This article originally appeared on Inc.