The very first step in your content marketing plan should be to pick your target audience. You’d think this would be common sense; however, skipping this step is actually an extremely common mistake.
The reason it’s such a common mistake is that marketers fear that by really focusing their message on just one audience, they will “lose out” on the hundreds/thousands/millions of other potential customers that aren’t a part of that audience.
The truth is that the benefits of targeting one niche actually outweigh the negatives.
In today’s post, I’m going to walk you through the process that you should follow to select a niche, as well as give you some examples of success.
How Knowing Your Target Audience Affects Content Strategy
Why Should You Pick a Target Market?
The reason that picking a target audience is so important comes down to this: the benefits of doing so far outweigh any downside that you can ever think of.
In the book, Good to Great, by Jim Collins, Jim conducted an extensive study on what makes great companies – as opposed to just good ones – and in the book he talks about something he calls the Hedgehog Strategy.
The point of the strategy is this: you need to find a market that you can totally dominate.
Do you think you could be the #1 marketing agency/consultant/SEO firm for everybody in the entire world? Not likely! There is simply too much competition for you to have any hope of achieving that.
Instead, as Jim points out in his book, great companies are extremely selective about who they are targeting, thereby significantly increasing the odds that they can achieve the #1 position in the mind of their audience.
I agree with Jim Collins and I think that a really killer inbound marketing strategy has to start with picking a very specific audience to create content for. If you have a different opinion, please share it down below in the comments.
How to Define a Targeted Audience
Defining your audience is not as hard as you might think. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to walk you through some ideas and strategies that you can use.
First, let’s use Apple as an example, and look at how they are using the Hedgehog strategy.
Do you think that the people who work at Apple are deeply passionate about creating amazing products?
So, with that in mind, do you think it would make sense that a suitable audience for Apple would be a group of people who believe what Apple believes? Again, I think the answer is yes.
For example, I’m a loyal Apple customer. I own an iMac, a Macbook Pro, an Apple TV, an iPhone, and an iPod mini.
Because I believe that ease of use and a killer design is more important than a bunch of technical details that I don’t care about – and I’m willing to pay more for it.
If you go to Apple’s website, you will see that all their messaging is for people just like me. The technical details are there, but they aren’t front and center like they would be with a company like Alienware.
Unlike Apple, Alienware makes PCs for gamers, and these folks are deeply concerned with technical specs and performance. While I’m sure Alienware’s customers enjoy a pretty looking computer, I’m equally sure that aesthetics have very little to do with their buying decision. Theirs is all about performance.
Do you think Alienware cares one bit about regular PC users that don’t play video games? Nope.
Do you think Apple cares one bit about highly price conscious buyers? Nope.
Both of these companies are successful because they know exactly who their customer is and they direct their entire marketing effort to reaching more of them.
Now that we covered why having your target market clearly defined, let’s talk about how to learn more about them, as well as to establish two way communication.
Researching and Connecting With Your Target Market
When it comes to researching and connecting with your target audience, there are several strategies that I suggest you use. They include:
- Talk to them
Conduct research on:
- Discussion Forums
- LinkedIn Groups
For Twitter, forums, and social networks, make sure that when you first start out that you spend the bulk of your time answering questions for other people. When you do this, the other people in the community are going to become interested in who you are, and when they do that, they will naturally think, “Hey, Dave is a cool guy. I wonder what else Dave has done?” Once you have established yourself as a knowledgeable person, the participants in these communities are going to come and check out your site.
So, with that said, lets have a look at some ways to use each resource.
Primary Research: Talk to Your Customers
If your organization already has a large customer base and you are looking to gain insights into how to attract more of your best customers, there is a very specific, unscripted process that will work well.
The goal here is to understand their psychographics (why they buy) more than their demographics (who they are).
This is a process that I first learned when I interviewed Adele Revella of Buyer Persona Institute. Adele has been doing this type of work for over 25 years and really knows her stuff.
During our interview, she gave me a high level overview of the process that she uses.
First, the person asking the questions cannot be involved in the company’s normal sales process. If they are, the customers aren’t likely to be as candid as they might otherwise be, and if that is the case, you aren’t going to gain the insights needed.
Step 1: Make a list of the customers & prospects who evaluated your firm, as well as your competition
You will want to interview people that chose your firm, as well as those that didn’t.
Step 2: Have a member of your team reach out to each one of them to have a conversation
The key, says Adele, is to not tell your customers that you are doing market research. Instead, you simply want to talk to them about the story of their decision to buy.
To do this, start off with the following question: Dave, take me back to the day when you first decided to look for a new [type of product] and tell me what happened?
According to Adele, it is absolutely critical that you start the ‘meat’ of the conversation with this question. You aren’t looking for random facts (like can be collected with a survey). Instead, you are looking for the story of their decision to make a purchase.
As you listen to them, you want to get them to expand on the story by asking all sorts of follow on questions.
For example, you might ask:
- How did you come up with a list of potential suppliers?
- Once you have this list, how did you narrow the list down?
- Were there things on their websites that affected your decision?
- If so, what types of things?
- How else did you research and evaluate each company?
- Did other people’s opinions factor in?
- Who were these people?
- What types of questions did you ask them?
- Who else in your own company did you collaborate with?
- What kind of input did they have?
- Why was it helpful?
As you might guess, there are a LOT of questions that you are going to ask and this is only just a sample. They key is to always focus on the story…as well as asking why they made each mini-decision along the way to the major decision.
If you’d like to dive deeper into how to develop your buyer personas, check out Adele’s blog.
Primary Research: Talk to Your Prospects
If you don’t yet have a large customer base, without a doubt, talking to the people who are in your target market will give you the most insight, when compared to the other strategies below.
In my case, I regularly reach out to people with an invitation to talk to be about being a guest on my podcast. If you don’t have a podcast, tell them you want to talk to them about some research you are doing for an article or ebook that you are writing.
By being a reporter, as opposed to a salesperson, you will find that it is much easier to get your calls and emails returned.
When my prospect accepts my invitation to connect, I start off the conversation by asking them about their business and they results they have achieved. I do this because I am genuinely interested in finding out if they would be a good person to have as a guest on the podcast.
As you might expect, the longer we talk, they more rapport that is built, and when that happens, I can now very easily finished up my pre-interview by asking them some of the following questions:
- Who would you really like to hear interviewed? (tells me who their influencers are)
- What blog(s) do you regularly read?
- Who do you follow on Twitter?
- What social networks do you spend time on?
- What magazines do you read?
- What conferences do you attend?
These are just a few of the questions that I suggest you use. I’m sure you can think of many more.
In addition to these questions, you should also invite your contacts to invest 5 minutes to complete a more detailed survey. The goal of the survey should be to gain additional insights into:
- Budget levels and/or spending patterns
- Consumption trends
- Preferred suppliers
- Problems they are looking to solve
- Which conferences/blogs/podcasts/magazines they rely on most
To host the survey, I suggest you use Survey Monkey.
The goal of my conversations is to gain an understanding of:
- What are the top issues/problems they are looking to solve?
- What language do they use to describe these problems?
- Who influenced any decisions they made about choosing a solution provider(s)?
What to Do With This Data
Once you have completed this primary research, I suggest you take some time to visit the websites that were commonly mentioned as being popular with your target market.
When looking at these sites, you are looking for data on:
- What are the top posts?
- What kinds of language is used?
- What kinds of offers are made?
- Who is commenting on their content?
Find the Most Popular Posts
To find the top posts, just look for the ones that are shared the most on social media. Posts with a lot of comments are also a strong indication of what is popular.
To help you analyze a site’s posts, I suggest you use Quicksprout’s free tool because it will save you heaps of time.
When you run the report, make sure to click the ‘social media analysis’ tab so you can see which pages were the most popular.
When I first learned of Twitter, I thought it was a huge waste of time. Now that I’m starting to figure out how to use it, I have actually become a pretty big fan.
When it comes to finding your target audience, as well as connecting with them, Twitter is pretty amazing.
For example, let’s suppose that you wanted to find and connect with hardcore gamers. How could you use Twitter to do that?
Well, you could first begin by looking for “best gaming PC” on Google. When I performed that search, that is how I found out about Alienware.
Next, I pulled up Alienware’s profile on Twitter and noticed that they had 62,672 followers while following only 130 people.
This tells me that Alienware is an influential brand in this space, and, because they don’t follow very many others, I also know that their 62,000 followers are legit. (whenever you see a Twitter profile that has a lot of followers, it can often be the result of their following a lot of others, just to get them to follow back)
The next thing I will want to know about Alienware is how much social authority they have.
Social Authority is ultimately a measure of influential activity. As such, it highlights content that is successful on Twitter. When you find users with high Social Authority, you’re finding great marketing strategies to analyze and mimic. And we think that this will help you be more successful with Twitter. – @peterbray
To discover how much social authority someone has, I’ve been using SEOmoz’s tool, FollowerWonk. This is a powerful tool that makes discovering influential Twitter accounts extremely easy.
As you can see below, Alienware is the most influential Twitter account for the phrase “pc gaming”. When I sorted by the Social Authority column, Alienware’s score of 61 put them on top.
Social Authority, in its simplest definition, is based upon re-tweets. If your tweets get lots of retweets, you have a high social authority. If you want more details on the science behind this, just read the entire post.
So now that we know Alienware has a high social authority and plenty of followers, the next move is to start connecting with the people that follow Alienware so that you can learn more about them.
To do that, I used FollowerWonk to find people that are interested in Alienware and then I sorted them by social authority. As you can see below, there are two users who actually have more social authority than Alienware. These are definitely people that you want to connect with because they can help you to really understand your audience (by speaking with them), as well as to help you to connect with your audience (by retweeting your tweets).
As you can see below, when I mouse over Anthony Wheeler, his total engagement is 56%. This is a good person to know if you want to learn more about hard core PC gamers, as well as to have the potential to get your content in front of many of them.
Even if you don’t have FollowerWonk, Twitter is a total goldmine because it gives you the ability to search the Twitter stream. You can search by topic, by hash tag (#PCGamer) or by user. As soon as you do, you are going to find endless ways to better understand what your target audience is interested in.
For virtually every topic you can think of, there is at least one discussion forum. Finding them is easy. Just go to Google and do a search.
When you participate in a discussion forum, you are going to see first hand what your target audience is interested in, what keeps them awake at night, and what they believe.
If your company sells to other businesses, I would strongly encourage that you check out LinkedIn Groups as they are very popular among the B2B crowd.
As you can see below, for the phrase, “marketing automation” there are 209 groups; the first of which is called Marketing Automation Experts. This group has 4,218 members, 142 discussions this month, and is considered to be very active.
Do you think that if you were to join this group that you could learn more about people who are interested in this topic? Do you think you could connect with a few of them? Do you think you could position yourself as an expert (assuming you are) within this community? Do you think that if you did, some of them would want to know more about you?
Each time I’ve started a new blog, I’m quick to incorporate surveys into my auto-responder sequence. I do this because I want to quickly find out who is reading my blog and what they are interested in. The more I learn about my audience, the better chance I will have of creating content that they will enthusiastically share with their respective followers.
For example, because I ask every new subscriber to complete a welcome survey, I have know that 15.9% of my audience are marketing agency owners, 41% are small business owners and 34% are solo-preneurs.
I also know that lead generation is the #1 challenge faced by my audience, hence why I do so many interviews to address that topic.
Once you have access to this type of information about your audience, you are now in a position to either create more content for the audience you have, so you can expand that audience, or, if the majority of your readers aren’t the exact audience you intended to have, you can now publish more content that will be of interest to your intended audience, as well as to share that content on the social networks where your audience hangs out (which we discovered by using Twitter to ask them directly).
Side Note: Check out this post on How To Know What To Write About.
If you don’t yet know that much about the demographics of your targeted audience, and you don’t yet have a following, don’t despair. There is another way to very easily get the demographic profile for virtually any marketing that you could possibly be interested in.
There isn’t a magazine around that isn’t staffed by a crack team of researchers, all of whom have invested countless hours in market research. You can bet they know exactly who their customer is and exactly what that customer wants to buy.
They know this because they need this information to pass along to their prospective advertisers.
Don’t have the funds for a research team that big? No problem. Just piggy back on the magazines.
For example, when I googled “Field and Stream Media Kit” I was taken right to this page. Once there, all I did was click on the demographics link to learn more about this audience. With just a few clicks of the mouse, I now know the median age, percentage that are college grads, percentage that are employed, percentage that served in the military, etc…
Let’s suppose that I wanted to know how many people in my local area and into hunting and fishing. How could I find that out? With Facebook, this is actually pretty easy to do. It won’t be 100% perfect, but it will be close enough to help you assess if your size of a certain targeted market is large enough.
To do this, just pretend as though you are going to create a paid ad on Facebook. You don’t have to actually publish the ad, but you do want access to the data that going through the ad creation process will give you.
As you can see below, when I did a search for people that lived in San Diego, aged 37 to 57 (I chose this because of the median age from the Field and Stream media kit), who are interested in hunting and fishing, I see that there are 11,120 people. If that number is too small, or too big, you can easily just make changes to your search criteria, and from those changes, you are likely to make some valuable distinctions.
For example, if I change the gender from men only to men and women, the 11,120 increases to 16,840. So, for this topic, I now know that the ratio of men to women is roughly 3:2. For this particular example, the answer was rather obvious beforehand, but that probably won’t be the case in many other niches you could be looking at.
I’m sure there are more tools than this, and if you have some good ones to suggest, please be sure and share your thoughts down in the comments below.
For companies with an established customer base, the most common mistake is assuming that you understand the psychographics of your best customers. Having a very strong understanding of your company and it’s products is by no means a guarantee that you really understand why your best customers bought.
If you are a younger company, by far the most common and most expensive mistake is trying to be everything to everyone. If you are going to get traction with your target market, you need that market, at least initially, to be as focused as possible so that the content you produce is highly relevant.
If you try to be everything to everyone, you will end up being nothing to no one.
Another common mistake is not taking the time to listen to your audience to really find out what they want (not the same as ‘why’ they buy). Surveys are a terrific way to do this, and if you do, be sure to ask questions that are both multiple choice as well as open-ended, because, while harder to analyze in aggregate, it’s those open-ended questions that can provide you with some really valuable insights.
No point in creating content that doesn’t draw your target audience’s attention. –Natalie Sisson
It’s also worth mentioning that one of the goals of your initial marketing campaign to your newly defined audience should be to further test and validate your chosen niche.
A marketing plan that doesn’t begin with a thorough understanding of the needs, wants, and desires of a very specifically designed target market isn’t really a marketing plan at all. Instead, it’s more of a hope and a prayer, and when it comes to business, hope is not a strategy.
Getting clear on who your target audience is has never been easier. Start by investing time in one-to-one conversations. After you have done that, use Twitter, discussion forums, LinkedIn Groups, Surveys, Magazine media kits, and Facebook to gain additional insights.
Not making use of these free resources will significantly reduce the effectiveness of anything that you try, and, even worse, could spell the end of your company before you ever have a chance to really get going.
Put the time into identifying your targeted audience and you will have taken a step that so many small business owners don’t put nearly enough focus on, and you will be in far better shape as a result.