I am going to let you in on a little secret no one in the content marketing industry wants you to know: The marketing part is easy. It’s the content part that’s hard.
The central challenge of content marketing is getting people to engage with the content you publish or, to put it simply:
The secret to success in content marketing is to create content people care about.
But how does a marketer go about creating content people care about?
By taking the time to care about the people they are marketing to. By knowing who these “people” are, where they can be found, what they need, and when and why they need it. By surfacing the right message at the right time in the right place to the right person–a state I like to call Content Nirvana.
Finding Your Audience: Research
Creating content without knowing your audience is a surefire strategy for campaign failure. This is why audience research should always play a part in the process of developing new content and/or a content marketing strategy. It equips marketers, content creators and decision makers with hard data from real people so they can make informed decisions about what kind of content to produce and where to distribute it.
There are multiple ways to gather data on your audience and, ideally, you would pull data from multiple sources to create a detailed composite of your target group. Analytics, surveys and interviews are three of the most common ways to do audience research.
By far the easiest and least expensive way to gain insights into your online audience and their behaviors is to review your site metrics. Even the most basic data logs can yield useful insights into your audience demographics and behavior by displaying clear trends in:
- Geographic location
- Preferred time(s) of day to interact with the site
- Referral channels (how they reached your site)
- Preferred content formats
- And so much more!
Sometimes the results can be a real surprise. For example, a client based out of Asia was working with the Portent team to optimize its online marketing efforts as it moved into new markets. The client was looking to expand into English-speaking countries, choosing to focus heavily on North America.
However, after conducting a review of user data in Google Analytics, it was revealed that a fair number of website visitors were coming from India. This insight enabled the client to not only develop targeted marketing messages for their Indian audience but also led them to reconsider whether they had their sales team located in the right places.
While analytics provide a wealth of quantitative data, there is a limit to its insights. Surveys yield personal quantitative data and qualitative insights that often can’t be found through search engine or browser histories. Conducting a visitor survey via email, website or social media channels can be an effective way to define the basic demographics of your core audiences, including personal data points such as:
- Marital status
Audience research surveys that use open-ended questions can also be particularly helpful in validating (or debunking) popular beliefs about why your customers choose to work with you. Ask your audience questions such as:
- How did you first hear about us?
- Why did you visit our website?
- How satisfied are you with our customer service?
- How easy was it for you to complete your purchase?
Behavioral questions like these allow marketers to put together a clearer picture of why and how customers interact with a particular product, service or business by exploring the personal stories behind the actions. I once worked with a client who had been in business for several decades, amassing a very loyal following in the process. This client was relatively new to digital marketing and asked that I evaluate their website.
The results of their audience survey showed that nearly a quarter of respondents had first gained brand awareness from hearing the client speak on his weekly radio show–that had ceased broadcasting in 1987! This came as a real shock to the client, who had canceled the broadcast due to dwindling ratings but, in light of these findings, was now reconsidering whether to start it up again by broadcast or podcast.
Only by looking beyond basic transactional data and delving deeper into each audience member’s personal history was I able to go back in time and identify this new place to distribute content. When there’s a match like this–between audience, place, and time–that’s content nirvana.
Interviews & Observation
One of the oldest methods of data collection–pure observation–can be an invaluable tool for determining how people interact with a product. Personal interviews, conducted either in person or over the phone, can supply the “why” behind consumer interactions. Combining in-depth interviews with observation, such as with a focus group or user testing session, can allow you to view human interactions with your product/service and speak directly with your audience members to determine the thoughts behind their actions.
Interviews are the place to solicit in-depth, truthful feedback. Seek clarity on the interviewee’s thoughts and feelings about your organization:
- What do you think of our product/service?
- How could we improve your online experience?
- What do you like/not like about our website?
Aim to interview a minimum of 5 people who are representative of your personas in age, race, gender and other demographics. Avoid the common pitfall of interviewing family and friends of your organization. These people are too close to your organization to provide unbiased opinions and are often less representative of your audience groups as a whole. An easy way to find interview subjects is to include a “request to contact” question in your audience survey to identify people willing to speak with you. Offering a small token of appreciation, such as a $5 gift card or company schwag, can be an effective motivator as well.
The goal of audience interviews is to get people to share their innermost thoughts, not tell you what you want to hear. Expect answers to be long and rambling–in fact, encourage this! It often produces the most original insights. Case in point, one client I worked with had a rather dated-looking website and wanted me to conduct interviews with users of their current site before developing a new design. When asked what she thought of the current website, one interviewee exclaimed:
“1997 called. They want their website back!”
This got a lot of laughs from everyone involved–including the client. It was also a useful way to describe in greater detail what people thought of the website beyond that it “looks ugly/old.” It even became the yardstick against which our creative team compared elements throughout the design process: “Does this look too 1997?” they would ask.
Putting It All Together: Audience Personas
So what do you do with all this audience information once it’s been collected? Start building personas! Audience personas act as representative archetypes of your core audience groups; a unified symbol of the diverse set of individuals who comprise your audience. Offering an easily digestible snapshot of audience demographics and behaviors, personas are a powerful tool used by editorial, marketing and design teams to quickly and efficiently convey key information to freelancers, vendors, executives, stakeholders and each other.
Start by looking for trends across the data and group audiences together by shared demographics, actions and/or motivations. This will lay the foundation for evidence-based audience personas. As you comb through the data, you should be answering questions like:
Is my audience clustered in specific regions of the country or globe?
Do older people prefer a different set of products than other age groups?
Are there demographic similarities between the people who come to my site from Facebook vs. search engines?
Building Your Personas
Think of each persona as a mini style guide that outlines questions to answer, key phrases to use and which channels are best for content distribution for that particular audience. A good audience persona should address the four elements needed for content nirvana: person, place, time and message.
Simply giving the persona a first and last name immediately humanizes him or her and enables content creators to better visualize the person they are writing for. Give your persona a job, a family, a hometown. Provide a personal backstory that explains how specific life circumstances have led to your organization.
Always try to include a discussion about which channels are best for reaching that particular audience. Depending on your specific organization and business goals, this could be as narrow as a few pages on a website or as broad as a comprehensive list of all online and offline media outlets.
Knowing what stage of the sales funnel your audience is at when viewing your content is critical to producing the right message. Include a list of interactions this person could have with your organization and a short description of how and why they do so.
Be sure to include key messaging, phrases to use and avoid, and potential calls to action in your personas. This will help align content with marketing goals and strategies by providing a standardized terminology and clear value proposition, as well as cut down on the back and forth of the editing process. Developing editorial guidelines are very helpful for content creators, especially if the language has been previously vetted by stakeholders.
Aim to create 3 – 5 one-page personas to represent your core audiences, with the one that represents the largest group of people designated as a “primary” persona. Having fewer than 3 personas risks discounting secondary and tertiary groups who, when combined, may account for a significant portion of your total audience. Having too many personas risks diluting your message.
Here is an example of an audience persona for a technology company that licenses its customer relations management (CRM) software.
Note how everything fits neatly onto a single page; this is intentional. The goal is to produce a document that people will actually use. I’ve had content creators tell me they’ve printed out their personas and posted them next to their workspace for easy reference while they’re developing content.
Download a copy of this audience persona template.
Find Your Content Nirvana
Many successes in history can be attributed to the simple coincidence of being in the right place at the right time. But times, they are a changing, and as Secrets of the Millionaire Mind author, T. Harv Eker, puts it, “It’s not enough to be in the right place at the right time. You have to be the right person in the right place at the right time.” Or, in the case of content, you have to send the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time. When all of these elements (place, person, time, message) align, you will have achieved a state of content nirvana.
Remember the secrets I shared with you at the beginning of this post:
The secret to success in content marketing is to create content people care about… And the way to create content people care about is to care about the people who are viewing it.
Or, as marketing guru Lewis Howes succinctly states:
“Know your audience.”