Want stronger content? 7 steps to truly understanding your audience

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For decades, there was a formula for how content creators — journalists, TV producers, radio show hosts — decided what consumers would get as “front page” news. For the most part, they figured if it mattered to them, it must matter to you.

We — and I can say we, as a 20-year veteran of print and digital newsrooms — typically sat around a big table, looked at the day’s events, and then decided what the general population needed to or wanted to read. It was never particularly scientific and was based mostly on the opinions of the people around that big table.

More recently, the script has flipped, and, in the era of page view-driven digital journalism, endless sources are filling the internet with the kind of content people want to read.

Speak your audience’s language

The real insight comes once you truly understand your audience and begin delivering content that’s going to speak to them, knowing that business goals are always more attainable with an engaged, committed reader.

This is how the brands who have entered the mix as content creators and distributors find their place in the ever-expanding content mix.

First, marketers have the ability to understand their audience far better than the news media ever even tried to do. Second, the delivery tools available today are so precise that it’s really possible to find the right readers, in the right places, and target them with content that will actually move them along the path as a customer — and, ultimately, to a business conversion. It’s this model of using content to help shape behavior that sits at the core of content marketing — with an emphasis on the marketing.

So, you think you’ve got your audience down pat? You still need to ask one crucial question.

Did you go deep enough? Like, really, really deep?

The trouble I see, as a content marketer, is that we too often look at a reader through the narrow prism of how they interact with our product or brand. That approach is a trap that leads to building content that’s brand-driven, rather than reader-centric. And, just as importantly, it’s a prime way to miss an opportunity to connect in the more genuine, engaging way that will increase engagement, loyalty and, ultimately, business actions.

In my former life as digital content director of a major news and politics site, I found that we often failed to think of our users as having lives and interests beyond politics. Whereas the rest of the media has traditionally been reliant on advertisers, we had discovered content marketing before it was such a buzzword.

I was primarily responsible for growing the audience (both in size and in frequency of engagement). I also worked with product and sales teams to attract readers who would purchase the company’s paid subscription newsletters and a suite of subsidiary products.

It’s relatively easy to grow internet traffic — just expand your audience profile, turn to click-bait, use any number of the tricks out there. But since we weren’t interested in chasing the ubiquitous advertiser-paid banner ad impressions, we would only be successful if we delivered the right audience. It had to be readers interested in the products we already sold, or products we could develop within our brand ethos.

Get to know what makes your audience tick

So, we knew our target: baby boomers living in the heartland who like to read about news and politics. However, they’re also baby boomers living in the heartland who like the outdoors, enjoy traveling, reading books and indulge in celebrity gossip. That still sounds pretty generic, right? Every newspaper and website has sports, travel, entertainment and gossip.

But it’s not as generic as you may think. When it came to celebrity news, for example, they weren’t trying to keep up with the Kardashians. To our readers, celebrities of interest were the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” Clint Eastwood and Jane Fonda (the Jane Fonda haters were legion, but boy, people couldn’t help but click a Jane Fonda headline).

They traveled to places like Branson, Myrtle Beach, the Dakotas. When outside, they’d be hunting, fishing or playing golf. And when they sat down with a book, it was more likely to be a presidential memoir than “The Girl on the Train.”

It’s this level of audience insight that allowed us to take what sounded like generic content pillars — Sports, Lifestyle, Celebrity — and home in on delivering exactly the kind of content that would speak to readers who would also subscribe to our paid products.

We brought in more than a million new readers a month in short order, saw CRM email acquisition spike, and began to not only support existing products but to develop new revenue streams, such as a wildly popular and profitable golf email newsletter.

From a brand perspective, particularly in the pharmaceutical arena where I now work, going deeper in your audience identification needs to be the bedrock of your content strategy.

Just knowing them in general terms isn’t enough. What effect does the disease condition have on their day-to-day life? What challenges do they face even when they’re not thinking about their illness?

  • Sure, that oncology patient is likely interested in organic foods, but have you considered she’s also pinching every penny because her family is now living off one income and can really use some advice on budgeting?
  • Is a diabetic constantly being harped on to start exercising, but feeling overwhelmed by all the sneaker choices at Foot Locker?
  • That patient struggling with mental illness likely needs tips on finding a great doctor, but what he really wants are tips for talking to his boss about working from home when the thought of leaving the house in the morning is too much to bear.

If you are looking to get deeper with your audience insights, the first step is to widen that lens and see what you discover.

  1. Go Deeper. Understand their life, their wants, their needs.
  2. Drill on pillars. Find the most relevant topics within those categories.
  3. Hit the right tone. It’s often not what you say, but how you say it.
  4. Right place, right time. Create content that reaches them when and where they’re looking.
  5. Target. Not every piece of content needs 100 percent audience appeal. Use tools to get specific messaging to specific sub-segments.
  6. Don’t oversell. Build your calls to action in a way that is natural and never forced. The better you know your customer, the better you’ll convert them.
  7. Never stop learning. Experiment, learn, optimize, and truly understand your audience, and your content marketing will reach new heights.

With those seven steps, we’ve designed an updated formula for more effective content creation. Let’s move to a future where organizations publish content that intrigues because it’s intended to teach and share, rather than simply preach or sell.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

As Vice President/Director, Managing Editor, digital publishing veteran Ron Varrial brings more than 15 years of experience to the social strategy department at Digitas Health LifeBrands, where he builds and executes content plans for several Digitas Health clients, helping them improve and build on their social media platforms and communications to patients. Varrial possesses a unique perspective to social strategy, having built a content incubator at Newsmax Media – one of the largest political websites in the U.S. – that re-imagined what content marketing means in a news environment. As Digital Content Director, he led SEO and content projects to grow brand awareness and product specific marketing. Varrial previously served as Managing Editor for Metro U.S. Newspaper, where he led the paper’s initial transformation toward a digital-first model, delivering sustained 600 percent growth of traffic and revenue as well as the company’s first month of 1 million unique users.


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