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Should Audience Research Go in the Too-Hard Basket?

We’ve all heard many times that the success of any content strategy relies on the depth and understanding of your target audience(s). But often that’s easier said than done.

Why? Because audience research takes time, money and effort. A lot of it, if you want to do it well.

It also requires functions from across the business to be working together, completely aligned in what they are trying to achieve. This is often the hardest thing of all to achieve.

Which is why this work often doesn’t get done.

There are no shortcuts to building a robust, audience-focused content strategy that drives action and ultimately, serves the needs of your organisation. It’s also a hard sell internally, particularly when budget is scarce and there are other burning platforms to be extinguished.

But what if you break the project up into manageable chunks, or mini-projects, and demonstrate the benefit as you go? Think of it as eating the elephant in dainty, affordable bites.

Then the first step would be to get a better understanding of your target audience(s), building a profile or persona of each audience group, and documenting the topics you’re going to talk to them about.

This work can then be used to gather internal support for the next stage in standing up the content strategy, which is usually moving it to execution (i.e. building your content calendar). You’ll have a much better chance of securing funding for extra resources and tools if you’ve got the research to support your work.

First things first: What is a content strategy?

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) is one of the world’s leading content education and training institutions. I refer to their research a lot in my own work. Even if you’re only a casual practitioner of content, I highly recommend CMI as a source.

In this article you’ll find CMI’s full definition of content marketing, including this excerpt:

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.

And that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. I would also add there needs to be an element of data behind the science - it’s the only way you can really demonstrate you’re in the mind of the audience. And that’s where audience research and persona development comes into the mix.

Why do you call it content strategy and not content marketing? Are they the same thing?

In short, yes. I’ve adopted the terminology of content strategy rather than content marketing because I’ve used this approach in industries where you need to be careful with the ‘m’ word (marketing, that is).

For example, you can use content strategy for workforce engagement very effectively, but if there’s even a whiff of suspicion that you’re marketing to your people, the whole program may never see the light of day.

Think of it this way: you don’t necessarily have to be selling physical products and services to use content strategy. It can also be used to sell ideas through the provision of valuable, educational content. In fact, it does this particularly well.

So where do I get this audience data from?

Great question! I’m glad you asked. If your first instinct was to ‘Google it’, then you’re not that far off the mark!

Start with social listening

Social listening is a fancy marketing word for keeping track of what’s being said about you across the web and in particular, social media. Of course, you should be doing this anyway, content program or otherwise. But if you’re in the early stages of building audience personas, it’s time to put this activity on steroids.

Social listening is a great place to start so you can get some high-level information about your target audience and what they’re saying about your brand. There are many tools available to help with this, which make life a lot easier, and some are already built into the solutions many organisations use to monitor coverage in traditional media outlets.

DIY social listening is a lot harder and more time-consuming, but it’s doable.

Get the internal point-of-view

It’s always good to ask people within your organisation for their opinion on your target audience groups. What do they care about? What do they think about the organisation? What do they need from us?

Try to get this information from those people internally who talk to members of your target audiences the most, such as those in sales and service/support. You should also talk to executives, but be aware that they may not have as many current, direct interactions with members of the target audience ‘at the coalface’.

They will, however, have much to say about the organisation’s desired outcomes for each audience, and what the organisation wants to talk to them about.

Go direct to the source… ask your audience

You can’t do this work effectively without talking directly to representative members of the target audience. Social listening is only ever going to provide a very general view, and the internal perspective can always be biased or simply incorrect.

You’ll need to undertake quantitative research (a survey), aiming for at least 100 responses to ensure the quality of the dataset (although, if you know your audience persona group is relatively small and specific, less will do). You should also supplement this with quantitative research (interviews) of at least five representatives of the target audience.

During this process you should ask them all the brand-based questions outlined above, and you should also try to find out more about them, personally.

What keeps them awake at night? Which websites do they visit regularly? Do they have kids?

While each audience persona grouping is made up of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, there are likely to be some commonalities across the group. Having this information and weaving it into your content will give you an edge over your competitors and other trusted sources.

What happens when I’ve got the data?

This is when the magic happens! Once you have all your inputs, it’s time to crunch and analyse the data.

The final output of this work is what I’ve referred to throughout this article as an audience persona. It’s a deceptively simple artefact - it usually fits onto one page and it describes a fictitious representative of your audience group. And yes, this persona even has a name and a picture!

Essentially, this can be used to guide anyone who writes or creates content for this audience group. You know who you’re writing for: they have a name, a face, likes and dislikes, pain points and even preferred media types.

When I first started working with audience personas, I was skeptical. In fact, I remember thinking the whole concept was very naff. But I can promise you, it works, particularly when you have a bit of writer’s block happening or something you’re working on just isn’t coming together.

A secondary or supporting artefact for each persona is their content pillars - the three or four topics that you know they want to hear about, and that the organisation wants to talk to them about. If it’s not one of their pillars, then they probably don’t need to know about it.

As you can probably guess, this isn’t just a data crunching exercise - it also needs some strategic and creative flair to bring it all to life. So please, no handing the data off to whoever does your financial reporting to prepare a PowerPoint slide deck!

Need some help with your content strategy?

Our Persona & Pillar package will help take the guesswork out of your content creation efforts. We’ll take charge of all your qualitative and quantitative research, social listening and competitor research. Packages start from AU$7499 ex GST.

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