We’ve all seen emotionally-charged blog posts, videos, and content go viral. While other posts are important and useful—how to make your own wine rack, for instance—they aren’t exactly “click-bait.”

The way you use content to reach and engage your audience is weirdly similar to the way you approach real-life relationships. Take it from Buzzfeed’s publisher, Dao Nguyen: “It can be a list, it can be a long-form story, it can be an essay, but if a story stirs an emotion then it drives sharing.”

So, in honor of the official hearts-candy-and-feels month, let’s talk about the four things to remember when creating content that connects. Because I have personal experience with it, we’ll focus on written content that’s presented on your platform of choice, whether that’s your blog, Facebook page, or emails.

1. Be Picky

In today’s increasingly specialized world of brand content and social platforms, we want more than just likes and shares. Seek real engagement from a real, convert-able audience, even if that means it’s smaller. In one of my favorite films, Little Women, that little (brat) Amy says to her older sister, “You don’t need scores of suitors. You need only one… if he’s the right one.” #Wisdom.

OK, so you don’t want just one heavily invested customer clicking away on your content (unless it’s Bill Gates). But the principle holds: you’ve got to focus your content on the right people first. It might feel like you’re narrowing things down too much, but trust me, you’re not. Don’t be a sprinkler. Be a hose. Better to have one thriving tree full of faithful consumers than a bunch of tiny blades of grass. (I’m done with the gardening analogy now.)

2. Don’t Assume They’re All The Same

How many times have you accused the opposite sex of “all being the same,” or “wanting one thing”? Naturally, you’ll want to create assumptions about your readers. People are suckers for stories about cute dog shenanigans, you think to yourself. Everyone loves vampires.

The truth is, the mainstream populace didn’t think about making out with vampires until the Cullen clan showed up. You limit the creativity of your content when you assume people only want to hear about your product, and nothing else. I mean, would you want to go on a date with someone that only talked about themselves, or constantly showed you photos of someone else’s cute puppy?

3. Think About What Motivates Your Audience

This might sound like I’m reneging on point #2, so let me clarify: there’s a difference between creating content based on broad assumptions about your audience, and making smart content decisions based on your deep knowledge of your followers. Let me put it this way – pretend you cyber stalk some poor person before a date. From their social pages, it looks like they’re not a serial killer, they have brown hair, like Arrested Development, and sometimes make sushi… but you don’t know what makes them want to make that sushi and marathon comedy on Netflix.

So this part is based on your best guess. What would make them want to move into your luxury apartment community, and when are they likely to consider it? How can you tailor your content to fit their interests?

4. Know Where The Relationship is Going

As a Creative Writing Major, I hoped to make people feel something with my stories. But when you’re writing with that agenda in mind, it’s hard to be true to your story. Is there a clear purpose or end goal; a call to action? Or are you manipulating their emotions for no good reason? (More on this later.)

So the big question. What to do with all of these nice fluffy thoughts… let’s get into the nitty gritty of it.

How to Create Emotional Content

My last job was in a church. It seems unrelated to what I’m currently doing as a Content Specialist, but it shaped the way I see people and the content that really reaches them.

We sent a lot of emails, and I was always curious to see what kind of content actually had the biggest impact? What did people click on? What made them read through an email to the very end? It was simpler than I thought. The most popular emails and posts had these three things in common:

They Featured Other People

Every fall, we launched a series of daily devotionals featuring stories written by people in the church. These posts were replied to, liked, and referred to consistently. The personal struggles and stories of people really touched readers, and gave them a stronger connection to the people that surrounded them on Sundays.

Eat24

Apply it: You don’t have to make every piece of content an interview with your happy clients. You can make things more personal and relatable by using a recognizable brand voice and sharing content consistent with that voice – one that readers want to make their new BFF. Local San Diego’s EAT24 online food ordering service is a good example. (For all you east coasters, it’s basically Seamless with funnier writers.) They really know their audience – and play up the humor in their “Bacon Sriracha Unicorn Diaries.” Yes, they’re taking a huge “overplayed trend” risk here. But read a bit, and tell me you don’t feel like you want to hang with these guys for a day. I’ll take this stuff over safe corporate-speak any day.

With an Identifiable Struggle

In every one of these stories, the author presented a struggle. Even those who didn’t consider themselves “writers” showed consistency in the way they told the story – and it always involved conflict and vulnerability. Whether or not it was presented in the most effective way, it was always there, and I got to tease that out of each story.

Apply it: Know the struggles of your audience, and bring them up. Are you reaching out to traveling business people? Identify tips for easier travel, and emphasize the convenience of temporary housing. Show you understand, and create rapport. The struggle is the crux of much of your content, and you should place that issue at the very top of your content. Not only will this produce better results for a Google search, but readers will know immediately whether this is a post that will be relevant to them.

Lifehacker

This post by the self-help site Lifehacker is a great example. First, the title actually presents the issue: “Why It’s So Hard to Learn from Our Mistakes (and What You Can Do).” Then, the first lines don’t waste any time getting to the problem. “You know how important it is to learn from your mistakes, but…[d]espite our best efforts to learn, our brains fight us every step of the way.” Now there’s a problem we have all encountered, and we’re primed for the next part of the formula…

And a Viable “Solution”

The “solution” in these stories wasn’t always presented neatly wrapped. Sometimes, the author would present a problem at the beginning of the passage that wasn’t resolved. By the end, some were still dealing with a serious health issue, financial problems, or emotional struggle. Regardless, there was always resolution, even if it was just an attitude or perspective change. And at the very bottom, many of the writers wrote out a call-to-action for their readers; some tangible action they could take that day.

Apply it: Don’t get so caught up in creating a story that creates an emotional response that you forget to offer a call to action – preferably one that highlights you or your business/services as the solution. It seems like common sense, but this goes back to Principle #4 – Know Where The Relationship is Going. The solution and call-to-action is extremely effective when coupled with the first two parts of your story, as the reader is seeking the answer to the problem, and is far more likely to do something about it, especially if it’s easy. In the marketing world, it’s known as “conversion.” No church pun intended.

When you apply these principles, you may not see a huge jump in the numbers of your followers. But you’re much more likely to see engagement where it counts: in comments, in conversions, in the numbers of people who stop clicking “unsubscribe.” Of course, there are no guarantees – breakups happen, and sometimes we’re rejected despite our best efforts. But we forge onward, because quite honestly, there are plenty of fish in the social sea.