Think about a time you were sure you knew something—so sure you would have bet your life on it—but you turned out to be wrong. Maybe when you were a kid, you thought chocolate milk came from brown cows. Perhaps you were certain the phrase was “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” Eventually, with the introduction of new information, your bubble bursts.
This is no different in marketing. Many brands are certain they know who their audience is. But, really, they’re just certain of who they want their audience to be. There’s no shame in that; it happens to the best of us. However, to be effective as a marketer, your content marketing program must be audience-centric.
It’s surprising how often this gets overlooked. In Forrester’s 2016 report, Customer Experience, And Marketing, the market research group states that only 18 percent CMOs surveyed said that customer experience derives from brand strategy.
That being said, there might be hope on the horizon. A study conducted by SiriusDecisions highlighted an emerging awareness of audience-centric content marketing. The report states:
“As part of a SiriusDecisions study of 225 CMOs and marketing executives in 2015, we asked them to identify the most critical external-facing changes they needed to make in the next two years to support their marketing strategies. Ranking high in their top five priorities was the need to shift their marketing approach from a product-centric orientation to one that centers on audiences.”
Many who provide advice on this subject start with something like “rank your audience” or “prioritize your audience segments.” That’s great advice…if you’re correct about your audience and buyer personas! If not, you’re wasting a lot of time and energy trying to talk to people who aren’t interested.
That’s why we’re starting at the most basic level.
Know who your audience actually is
Have you ever been roped into going to a party hosted by a friend-of-a-friend? You’re only vaguely acquainted, but you go anyway just to be polite. It’s a tricky situation—especially if you blindly assume this new social circle will have a similar dynamic as your group of friends.
Soon you find yourself making jokes and references that would typically go over well. But they just aren’t landing. You weren’t intentionally trying to alienate people. You just neglected to read the room because you made assumptions about the people you were talking to. After this embarrassing misunderstanding, it becomes readily apparent why you need to truly know who your audience is.
Buyer personas are the key to understanding your audience. They’re profiles of your ideal customers. Think of it as creating a fictional, yet realistic, character. You’re giving a face, maybe even a name, to your audience members. They could also be the key to meeting your business goals. A 2016 study by Cintell found that companies that exceed lead and revenue goals were 2.2 times more likely to have documented personas than companies that missed their targets.
There are several important questions you need to answer to start this process. And you need to answer them honestly.
- What problem are we solving?
- Who are we talking to and who are our current customers?
- Who is the competition?
- Why do our customers care about us and what do they gain by going with us instead of a competitor?
It’s likely that you’ll have more than one answer to some of these questions. That’s good! Most brands create several buyer personas to make sure they’re covering everyone in their potential audience. By answering these questions, you’ll start to uncover details about your audience members. They might include things such as:
- Job title
- Job function
- Pain points
With so many variables to identify, how do you confirm that you’re on the right track? There are many tried and true ways to gather this information. Analytic data is a major one. With Google Analytics or a number of other analytics tools, you can get customized reports on your website traffic. With those reports, you can see exactly who’s coming to your website from search engines, apps, emails and more.
Speaking of analytics, remember to use Facebook’s Audience Insights as a resource, as well. Social media—particularly Facebook—has become an indispensable part of content marketing. Facebook, for better or worse, also has a lot of useful information on your potential customers. You can get a very clear snapshot of your audience on that platform. Both Google Analytics and Facebook Insights are excellent ways to collect your audience’s basic demographic data.
Another way to understand your audience is simply to ask. Make user surveys a regular part of your content marketing program. Construct a survey with clear, simple-to-answer questions to find out what your customers are thinking. You can also conduct consumer interviews, although you’ll probably have to offer some sort of incentive for participating.
The research from Cintell makes a persuasive case for this strategy. The study found that 70 percent of companies who missed revenue and lead goals did not conduct qualitative persona interviews. These strategies are valuable because they collect feedback on pain points and motivations.
But you can also gather insights by looking inward. Monitor your best and worst performing pieces of content, and you’ll see what information people are (and aren’t) seeking. Similarly, your sales team should be utilized. Talk to the people actually selling your product or service and see who they’re talking to. Ask them if there are any subjects or issues that are continually raised, and you’ll start to see your audience’s challenges.
As your operation grows, you’re able to obtain more and more customer data. Combine it with industry research and your professional observations, and your audience starts to take shape.
Understand your audience
After you’ve developed your buyer personas, you need to delve into their world. In the course of developing your buyer personas, you’ll start to see pain points, needs and challenges. That’s a good start, but you need to know them as you know yourself. This ensures you’re producing content that actually connects with the right people.
If you have the budget, an efficient way to do this is with an analytics tool like Affinio. It uses machine learning to develop interest-based segments in your audience. You’ll know your audience members’ favorite brands and influencers, their hobbies and how they self-describe. Furthermore, you can see exactly what content interests them and where they’re getting it.
But don’t stop there! To get the full picture, experience what your audience experiences. Follow the brands and influencers they follow. Use the platforms they use. In addition to examining and experiencing your audience’s interests, stay up-to-date with advances in the industry and the culture at large. Preferences are subject to change as new trends and platforms emerge, and you don’t want to be left behind.
Create quality, helpful content
Ironically, the best practices associated with starting a content marketing program can lead some astray. As we’ve noted previously, one of the most important aspects of content marketing is an editorial calendar. It guides your content production and helps you deliver content on a regular schedule.
Therein lies the problem, though. Often, the focus is directed solely at the production process—getting something, anything on your blog and social media accounts. Meanwhile, any thoughtful consideration of who is consuming your content is shelved due to lack of time or knowledge. In some cases, that later date never comes. Instead, understanding your audience should come first. Then you’re able to distribute timely, audience-centric content that’s actually useful to the people coming to your website.
Another trap that young content marketing programs fall into is making all their content about me, me, me rather than the audience they should be appealing to. The detailed knowledge you’ve accumulated about your audience should now be put to use.
You need to write about what your audience actually cares about. People initially coming to your website are going to be curious about a broader range of topics than the people you’ve already convinced to buy your product or service. You need to anticipate the questions they have and provide answers.
This requires truly knowing your audience, what you do and what problems you solve. That’s the starting point for a brainstorm about all the potential subjects related, even tangentially, to what you do. It effectively expands your content archive and simultaneously improves the performance of your content marketing efforts by putting the audience’s needs first.
This approach is also in line with PowerPost’s brand publishing philosophy. It’s centered around the idea of brands investing heavily in their owned media. This entails operating as a media company would so that you drive the conversation on your own digital property. When executed correctly, the result is high-quality, thoughtful content that facilitates real connections. It’s the antithesis of the in-your-face quick sell that was prevalent in the past.
It can be an uncomfortable experience, but you owe it to yourself to re-examine what you really know about your audience. You must consider whether or not the conception you have of your audience matches reality. Is it based on your wishes and wants or real data?
It’s okay if you find that you were mistaken. It just means you now have an opportunity to make your content marketing even more effective. And besides, there’s no need to cry over spilt chocolate milk.
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