How to understand your audience in order to make informed content decisions

8 minute read

Einstein said 'any fool can know. The point is to understand.' Having worked in audience research for the BBC previously, I experienced first hand the difference between knowing and understanding. The latter is essential in order to make informed decisions about your content that can help you target your audience(s) effectively.

Content creation: Audience research iceberg

It's a continual process:

  • Learn about your existing audience
  • Serve them the content they need, when they need it
  • Attract more of the same audience
  • Reach new audiences
  • Keep learning, reviewing and understanding

In the context of audiences, to know your audience is really focused around data and top-level stats. You may know, for example:

  • The number of followers you have on social channels
  • How many people subscribe to your newsletter
  • The number of unique visitors your blog gets each month
  • How many people are on a trial of your product

That's essential information to know and can often be linked to measures of success and business goals but as a content strategist, in order to get the line on a graph to keep moving up towards the right, I need to understand my audience. I need to know that we have 21,000 Twitter followers, but that number alone does not in any way help me make informed decisions around the content I plan, produce and publish. It tells me nothing of the key elements that I need to be privy to that moves me from knowing to understanding.

Why strive to understand your audience?

To understand  your audience is to dig beneath the numbers and learn about your audience in relation to their:

  • Motivations
  • Needs
  • Behaviours
  • Challenges
  • Pain points
  • Goals

And that audience can be existing customers/users, prospective groups, your client's customers, past customers. To some degree you also need to understand internal stakeholders and their needs but that is a separate body of information (and understanding) that should be acquired before you embark on any audience research.

The business benefits of understanding your audience are:

  • Position your marketing and content so it is more likely to reach your intended audience(s)
  • Form a vocabulary that will resonate with customers
  • Have the know-how to create meaningful content
  • Talk to customers in an authentic voice and tone that supports your brand identity

Understanding also offers benefits to your customers/users too:

  • They get the content they need, when and where they need it
  • They are spoken to in a manner that appeals to them
  • Their user experience is better because all content decisions have been informed

It's not a smooth road to understanding though. As with all processes, there are obstacles and challenges every step of the way.

The challenges of audience research

Here are some common challenges people face when thinking about audience research:

  • Our audience is everyone (one big group)
  • We have so many segments (lots of smaller groups)
  • There is no resource for audience research
  • It's not my job to do audience research
  • I can't piece all the data together to make it meaningful

Let's address these in order.

Your audience is not everyone. Creating content for everyone is creating content for no one. If you find yourself in that situation then prioritise. There will be groups within the umbrella of 'everyone' and you can segment those. Perhaps by location, agency or in-house, if they are a past/current/potential customer. But don't go too far and have so many groups that it becomes overwhelming to try and target them all. It's ok to keep it simple.

If you have lots of segments then prioritise those too. It may be that the bigger the segment the most important but don't assume that. Your prioritisation criteria will be determined by information available to you and business goals.If you are going to undertake a large audience research project involving focus groups, interviews, and surveys, then you will need to invest time, people and money. But you can also start small (more on that later in this post). Quick wins may then yield results that will help you get buy-in for more resource to ramp up your audience research (if it doesn't, you're still in a better position that you were).

Everyone can work to understand your audience

Everyone within an organisation can so some form of audience research. This is a good way of generating insight from all parts of a customer journey and interactions with your product/service too. You can embed simple techniques into your day-job so you don't get distracted by research but you are continually making gains towards understanding your audience.Even if you've completed research, you still face challenges. A common one is making sense of all the information you have, information that has come from several different sources. We'll come back to this shortly but don't give up. You've got as far as getting the data so you're almost there.

How to move from knowing your audience to understanding your audience

Before you start any research, big or small, you need to be clear on your 5 W's and one H.

  • Who needs to be involved
  • What do you want to find out
  • Where will the information come from
  • When do you need this to happen
  • Why are you doing the research
  • How will you do it

By answering these questions you're already starting to frame your research and ensure that you'll get the most from any time you invest in it. Treat it as you would any other project:

  • Write a brief
  • Consider resources needed
  • Get stakeholders on board
  • Put a timeline in place
  • Outline a post-research plan to ensure investment isn't wasted

Writing user stories to understand your audience

If that seems like overkill (and it's ok to admit that it might be, especially if the plan is to start small) then you can still keep your research activity meaningful, and writing user stories can help with this.

As a ...I want to ...So that ...

Here's an example for context:

As a content strategist providing how-to articles, I want to know how people describe their content production process, so that I can understand the common pains that content teams experience.

By now you will have a solid foundation to start doing the actual research. You can either commit to a large research project (resource intensive), little and often research tasks across the team, or start big and then continue small.Either way, you will need to determine:

  • What information already exists
  • What you need to commission/obtain
  • The tools that can help you
  • Resource that is required

Your audience research toolbox

Hopefully you don't need to start from scratch as there may be an abundance of data already available to you. This is a good time to do a familiar content strategy task, audit.

Audit all the tools currently being used to collect data. This includes analytics, social tools, and whatever else your organisation may use (Intercom, Drip, Kissmetrics, BuzzSumo, HubSpot, a shared feedback mailbox are just a few examples)

Create an inventory in a spreadsheet and note:

  • All tools currently being used
  • The cost of that tool (if applicable)
  • The data it collects
  • Who is responsible for managing it
  • The frequency it collects/reports data
  • Why it is relevant

Then you have a good view of the current state of play and can identify any gaps that need filling and perhaps even any tools that can be removed. If this data can be mapped to a customer journey at this stage then do so and rearrange them into the related narrative. This also helps reveal any shortcomings in data and information currently being gathered.

Assembling your research team

It's common practice to scale up or crew up teams for big projects (website redesigns for example). This can also be true of research and if that's the situation you find yourself in, enjoy the additional resource, but remember that at some point the team will be scaled back again.In those instances, consider who will be responsible for what (collecting/analysing/disseminating data) once the main project is complete. The earlier you plan for post-project, the less impact the reduced resource will have. This is why embedding 'little and often' research techniques can be beneficial as there is a consistent commitment and resource needed.

Focus on the right things to understand your audience

Only you can decide what research methods are best for you, depending on your resources, current state of play and research goals. Don't commit to any method without investigating further. If it helps, list the method and any pros and cons for that such as:

A table outlining audience research methods

Ensure the chosen method helps you focus on the right things too. At GatherContent, it wasn't important for us to focus on demographics, income, home life or media consumption when creating customer profiles (they are common elements to such research outputs). Rather we were focused on the major responsibilities of our customers, their pains, solutions and common objections.There is no one size fits all solution to audience research.

The (not so) secret weapon to understand your audience

One method that is available to all and will require little in the way of resource is one that many people don't make the most of. Yet is it so simple and obvious. What is the one thing we can all do that will get us onto the path of understanding our audiences?Talk to them.You can keep this simple. Just commit to speaking to 3 to 5 customers a week. Get everyone in the team on board with this too - depending on their role they may get different insights and collectively you can gain a good understanding of the entire customer journey.

You could forward all feedback to a shared mailbox and then appoint someone to identify themes and insights within the responses. (We do this at GatherContent and it's very effective). Ensure you have a purpose when you speak to people. What do you want to find out? A good time to write a purposeful research statement.

Pitfalls of research

There are a few pitfalls to be mindful of so that you can spot them if they start to arise and put an end to them before they derail your research:

  • You don't have enough data
  • Personal bias
  • What they say vs. what they do
  • Connecting the dots

Let's tackle these one at a time.

You don't have enough data

Decide what is an acceptable sample size for your data and strive to achieve that.  You need enough to be able to identify themes and insights, but not so much that you just can't delve into it all. I recently did a survey about this blog and had 288 responses which was ample to validate some assumptions and find common thoughts on certain issues. A dozen or so responses would have been interesting, but I would have been less confident acting on those.

Personal bias

Try not to let personal bias influence any responses. This is especially important when including focus groups and interviews in your process. If you can, get an experienced and independent facilitator who will be impartial.

What they say vs. what they do

What someone says they do/want, and what they actually do/want can be two different things, frustratingly so. This is where data to support and additional information can be useful. Validate claims against the data and just be aware when talking to people not to guide their response with loaded questions. Sometimes this can come from a good place as people may say what they think you want to hear but make it clear that honesty is absolutely paramount, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for them and yourself.

Connecting the dots

So much information that it can be hard to put it all together to derive insights. Again, keep it simple. You can always start small and add layers. Auditing your tools will help here too, as you can be sure of what information is coming from what source and which of those sources will answer one of your purposeful research statements or research project hypotheses.

The output of your research

Congratulations. You have reached the end of the gathering stage. But there is still work to do. You must ensure the data you collected is delivered in relevant formats. That could include:

  • Personas/customer profiles
  • Research decks and reports
  • Graphs and charts
  • User Journeys

Whatever the final result of your research, ensure it is:

  • Purposeful
  • Relevant
  • Useful

Like your content!

Learning from your research

Whatever you gain from your research, it will be time well spent.

You might confirm whatever you already understand. This is good because at least you can be sure you're making decisions based on accurate information.It could be that the research validates your assumptions. This means those assumptions become knowledge which can only be a good thing of course.

Perhaps the opposite is true and the research discounts your assumptions, but at least that means you can focus on the actual situation and won't be making decisions on a whim.

Finally, you may learn something and gain new insights. That's an exciting position to be in so embrace those insights and be inspired to use them to your advantage in the decisions you make around your content.

Disseminating the results

Don't keep the information to yourself, share it with everyone in the organisation. Even if they don't directly come into contact with customers/users, it is still important for them to have an understanding of who the customers are.

You need to get the information to the people that matter, deliver it in an appropriate way and make sure the information is used. Don't fall at the last hurdle and keep the information hidden away, or so complex that it just collects dust on a shelf or is hidden away in desk draws.

To effectively disseminate the information you should:

  • Decide who needs what information
  • Choose the best method to share with them (workshop, guides, slide deck)
  • Include only data and info that is relevant to them
  • Engage them as early as possible
  • Follow up - leave takeaways and keep the conversation going

The research was conducted for a reason and the results should be useful and helpful to people across the organisation. But you still need to make it easy for them to act on. At GatherContent, the results of our own research have been used to inform:

  • Future product development
  • Editorial decisions
  • Marketing messaging and copy
  • Our language and vocabulary
  • And much more!

Do you understand your audience?

It's never too late to invest in being able to understand your audience, or helping your clients' understand theirs.The better you understand your audience, the more relevant, useful and targeted your content will be. Start small, speak to customers often, never stop striving to understand


Content Operations: The Guide

How to build a scalable and repeatable process for producing effective content.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

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