I’m Deep if You Say I Am
I’ve taken a lot of writing classes and sat through a lot of truly bizarre interpretations of my work as a result. There’s nothing like being hailed as a genius when you don’t deserve it. After one class I told the professor (confessed, really) that I didn’t understand how on earth people could have liked my flat-out terrible poem so much. He told me something very simple.
“You’re entitled to whatever your audience gives you.”
As a writer, I tend to think that my work is all about me and my message but that’s not really the case. Once you create something and release it into the world, you lose the ability to control response. Was my poem terrible? Yeah. I spent five minutes on it right before class just so I’d have something to present. But did anyone else know that? Not in the least. They were looking for (and found) depth and connection that had absolutely nothing redeeming behind it. I got an A on the strength of their reviews, not on my writing.
Every day someone looks at your product and sees something in it that’s unique to them. Their vision, their perception and their needs shape what your product means. Brand building, at its heart, is about trying to tell people how to think about your product. You want them to think about your company, your product, you the way you think of yourself.
Sometimes, though, your audience gives you more credit than you deserve. When that happens, don’t argue with them. Realize that you’ve been given a gift. Smile and accept it.
The Unexpected Audience
The audience is fickle, however, and they can remove meaning from your work just as easily as they instill it. It’s a lesson that author Gregory Levey just learned for himself. Gregory, you see, wrote a book called Shut Up, I’m Talking, a memoir about his time working for the Israeli government. He dutifully created a Facebook page to promote his book and gathered a few fans. Then, out of nowhere, he got a LOT of fans. 700,000 of them, in fact. More than Dan Brown, New York City and The New York Times.
But Gregory’s 700,000 fans haven’t read his book. They don’t even know there is a book. They just like the phrase “Shut up, I’m talking.” And that leaves him in an awkward place. Does he write to them all? (“To be honest, if I wrote what I really thought about them, it probably wouldn’t be too flattering.”) Does he ignore them and try to touch his real fans only? Does he embrace what’s been given to him by his audience, even if they’re (as Gawker calls them) “Facebook’s dumbest users”?
With publishing in such precarious shape right now, I suppose authors should embrace any kind of attention they can get, even if it’s completely misguided.
Getting the right kind of traffic is always a marketer’s goal. If you find yourself with an influx of non-targeted traffic, you have two choices, try a different message or adapt to meet the new audience’s needs. If everyone’s telling you that you’re about THIS when you think you’re about THAT, you have to decide if you’re wrong or they are. The trick is that even if it’s them, it’s still your job to change it. Your audience is finding meaning in something you never intended. What are you going to do about it?