In real estate, it’s “location, location, location.”
In content marketing, there’s a similar mantra: “audience, audience, audience.”
If you can create content that both fits the needs of your audience, and meets your business goals at the same time, you will have hit the sweet spot of content marketing.
But if you don’t understand your audience and don’t target your content for them, you might as well do broadcast advertising. You might as well go back to billboards and general audience TV channels to try to seed your message into the entire population.
Good luck with that.
It might work for the likes of Coke, but most B2B marketers do not have a product that can serve an audience as wide as Coca-Cola’s. And they do not have a Coke-sized marketing budget. But fortunately, they need nowhere near a Coke-sized audience.
Most B2B marketers – even those working for Fortune 500s – need to be far more targeted and strategic about whom they reach.
That’s why content marketing can work so well, and why it works even better if you focus on the concept of an audience, and specifically (almost implicitly) a targeted audience.
The Content Marketing Institute itself defines having an audience as a core element of content marketing.
To them, content marketing is:
“a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” (The emphasis is my own.)
In their own research, they’ve found that the most successful B2B content marketers tend to be extra-focused on the job of building an audience.
Benefits of understanding your audience
If we can serve this well-defined group of people well, we’ll gain the thing most coveted by modern marketers: engagement.
Highly engaged audiences deliver all sorts of benefits. They buy our products and services, sure. But they also refer other customers. They share our content. They occasionally become employees.
But if we don’t meet our audience’s needs and expectations… it’s crickets when we publish something. When we “ship” something. At our conference tables and talks.
How do we understand these people better? If keeping them engaged and happy is basically required for marketing success, how do we know what they want?
We can ask them, sure. But even asking them a direct question about what they want may not be enough. As Henry Ford so famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Really good audience research delivers the kinds of insights that let you make jumps your audience might not even think of. Just be careful – that level of insight doesn’t come from just a few hours of research. But it is worth the days and even weeks it can require.
Here’s one stat to prove how worthwhile audience research can be:
“Successful marketers are 242% more likely to report conducting audience research at least once per quarter (when compared with those who don’t).
And marketers who do so at least once per year or more are 303% more likely to achieve their marketing goals (80% of the time or more).”
It may just be that doing audience research simply lets you define personas better. “Companies who meet or exceed revenue goals are 2.4X as likely to be effective or very effective at using personas than those who miss lead and revenue goals.”
Who’s responsible for all this audience research?
You may be starting to see that researching your audience is not a quick little exercise. It takes hours, maybe even days or weeks. And, if you really want an edge, it’s ongoing work.
Who’s going to do all this work?
In larger companies, it may be a customer advocate – or a whole floor of them. These are the people who will make understanding their audiences key to their job description. They’ll design studies, do focus groups – do everything they can to get into the minds (even the subconscious) of their audiences.
For smaller shops, you may have one or two people with this responsibility. Or you may not. Even though we’re in “the age of the customer”, many companies still do audience research in fits and starts.
Of course, sales people will inherently work to understand their company’s prospective audiences. Their paychecks ride on that knowledge. And hopefully, marketing will be doing its own research, too. Though it’s always better if marketing works in sync with sales.
Then there’s customer service. The people who are often responsible for delivering the customer experience. If your business is progressive, they may be constantly surveying the customer experience and trying to improve it.
How you handle audience research is up to you. Whoever does it is ideally also one of its end users.
But please, just do it. Even a little bit. It can save tens of thousands of dollars later on.
Where to do your audience research
How do companies learn about their customers? There are many options:
1. Talk to them.
OK… not to belabor the obvious… but when was the last time you actually talked to a customer or member of your target audience?
If you’re in sales or customer service, you might say, “5 minutes ago.”
But what if you’re in marketing?
Let’s frame this as an opportunity rather than a problem. Talking to your customers and target audience members – and talking to them a lot – is probably the best way to know what they like and dislike. And more importantly, what they need.
How do you do this? Well, there’s no shortage of industry groups around. Attend those meetings. Get on LinkedIn groups if you can find some that are helpful. Facebook groups are often good, too.
Then there are all the conferences every industry offers. If you can’t talk to customers in your regular work, perhaps schedule at least a conference every quarter or so and go spend 2-4 days just talking to your target audience and customers.
Why talking to real people is so effective
Surveys are great, but they make a lot of assumptions. You can have people fill out even a 20-question survey and still miss their viewpoints on critical topics.
Checking your reports on which content has done well is good, too. But it’s ultimately very superficial information. It tells you what people share, link to and comment on… but that’s just nothing comparing to having coffee with a member of your audience.
If for no other reason, try to talk to your customers for the same reason copywriters do: To steal their words.
OK… maybe not steal, but borrow. It’s a classic trick of copywriters to go talk to prospects, or lurk in forums, or read product reviews, to get actual words their targets use to describe their problems and what they want.
Copywriters will often lift entire sentences from this research. Why? Because it helps develop copy that converts like gangbusters. It creates content that speaks to prospects’ specific needs and pain points.
That ends up being the most important quality of content in the purchasing process:
The virtue of curation is you can test how your audience responds to other peoples’ content, but without having to create it yourself.
It is far easier to find and share 100 articles than it is to create 100 articles. And how those curated articles perform with your audience can give you valuable insights into what they care about – and what they don’t care about.
Use the data from that curated content to inform which content pieces you decide to develop in-house. If you read the data right, it should increase how well your in-house content is received.
That means more traffic, leads and sales from the content you create, and a more engaged audience.
3. Connect with influencers.
Influencers are professional audience builders. Their livelihood depends on how engaged their audiences are. So if you don’t have the resources to get into the trenches of what your audience wants, go talk to an influencer.
Or partner with one. To create content like blog posts and ebooks. Or to do webinars. Or to speak for you at industry events or on their podcast.
Just make sure you pick the right influencer, and make sure you have ample opportunity to get their insights into your target audience. It might make sense to have them create a few profiles of people in their audience, and then see how what they know about these people compares to what you know about them.
Many B2B marketers are increasing their influencer marketing budgets anyway. Adding some audience research and insights might complement your other efforts.
4. Do a survey – even via a Facebook messenger bot.
Sure, it’s one of the classic ways to do market research. But surveys work, and they can get you fantastic information about specific targeted audiences.
You can even use Facebook Messenger to run a survey. Or stick with any of the traditional survey tools.
Not sure what to ask about in your surveys? Lisa Murton Beets of The Content Marketing Institute advised marketers to “conduct brief surveys about their [audience’s] pain points” in an interview with KoMarketing last year.
5. Study your own reports.
Most marketers have no shortage of data. We’re drowning in it, in fact. But the right data? Meh – that’s harder to find.
But find it you must. Because your website is holding secrets about which content your audience likes best. So are your social media accounts. And your email marketing reports. The data you need is also in your chatbots, videos, webinar data – all of it.
Studying the data you already have is an easy way to learn more about your audiences. You could learn even more if you started split-testing which content they like best, and to see which content formats they might want more.
You may already know the term for reviewing past content performance. It’s called a content audit. Some of your competitors are doing one every year, if not a mini-audit every quarter.
It might be a good idea for you to take a deep look at how your own content is performing, too.
6. Set up a listening station on social media.
You can do this the low-tech way or the high-tech way. As you surely know, there are many martech solutions available for social listening. You may already have a social media tool that lets you monitor conversations.
If you do, that’s great. If you don’t, there is no shortage of options for social listening tools. They can range from free to low-cost options that are $20-50 a month, to enterprise-grade solutions that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a month.
As with most things, if you’re short on time, automating social listening may be the best way to go. Even if it costs $1,000+ a month.
But if you can, put as much human time into social listening as you put into managing your aggregated reports. It’s really helpful to drill down to individual posts that people share, to read the blog comments that mention your company, or perhaps an industry term you’re monitoring.
Sure, it takes time. But knowing your audience is worth it.
Marketers have a lot of technology to manage these days. That’s all to the good – especially if you can manage to use most of the martech you’ve got. But for this one area of information – knowing your audience – it is sometimes best to put the technology aside.
It’s time to truly listen.
In other words, learn to listen to your audience as much as you learn to ask questions. The best market research specialists know that audiences – given time – can often give them better insights than what they would know to ask for.