brainwaveBy Meghan Bardwell, marketing coordinator for Heinz Marketing

What articles and news do your customers read daily? How do they purchase your product—online or catalog? Do they frequently visit and interact on social media sites? What’s their age group and typical job title?

If you can’t answer the questions above, you have a problem. Without a fundamental understanding of your audience, how can you create content that they want to read? Easy answer: you can’t.

The first step to creating valuable content for potential and current customers is to lay a foundational understanding of who they are. You need to know what they want, what their pain points are, and how your product or service can address them. Think of it this way: Audience needs + your business goals = content plan.

At the July Content Strategy Workshops I attended in Vancouver, B.C., Laura Creekmore, a content strategist, presented a workshop called “Content Designed for Your Audience.”

She laid out some great ways to research your audience so you can develop a content plan that really fits their needs. Here are three important steps:

1. Research your prospects

Before you can start building a truly effective content plan, you need some hard-core, solid facts about your target audience. That means pulling reports, asking questions, and running tests. Some useful information-gathering techniques include:

  • Card sorting—Typically used in user experience work to help create categories, build consensus on naming conventions, and organize a website. You can also create a ‘message architecture’ with card sorting to help your team focus on voice and tone for content.
  • Contextual interviews—Interview your customers in context. For an automotive company, you might want to take a ride in a car with a customer. For a travel website, you might want to visit your customer’s office and watch while they book their travel.
  • Focus groups—Can be formal or informal. You can recruit customers or prospects to meet as a small group and discuss their experience with your product or their needs. Focus groups need an experience moderator. Keep in mind that these groups are more useful for getting feedback about your current offerings and not good for finding future products.
  • Sales data—Can give you valuable intelligence on your customers. How much did you sell and to whom did you sell? Depending on volume, evaluating sales data may require significant data analysis skills.
  • Search analytics—Analyze the traffic flow and behavior on your website. Evaluate the terms people are searching on your site and consider whether you’re using the best terms, or whether you should offer different products and services based on their self-identified needs.
  • Surveys—Among the most flexible techniques. Can be formal or informal, in-person, phone, email, online. The real trick is figuring out what and when to ask to get useful data.
  • Usability testing—Can conduct in-person or remotely to understand how your customers view and understand (or don’t) your website.
  • Web analytics—Can give you lots and lots of information about how often, how many, and what. Keep in mind that it’s only part of the puzzle, however. Customers might stay on a page for a long time for good reasons (it’s full of fascinating content they love) or bad reasons (it’s a total mess and they’re massively confused). Web analytics don’t tell you why.

2. Develop a customer and prospect personas

Putting a face to your customers is incredibly helpful as you develop a content plan. To create the face, research is the key. Don’t make wild guesses about what you think they like or dislike; use the data that you’ve uncovered. A persona can include these key fields:

  • Name
  • Photo
  • Short description/tagline
  • Top 3 needs
  • Bio
  • Information sources
  • Career/job
  • Family
  • Living situation/details
  • Leisure time
  • Consumer preferences

3. Determine the best media channels to reach your audience

Using the data that you’ve now gathered, decide which channels will be the most effective in reaching your prospects. Remember, not all channels will be useful. Channels include a wide range of areas, from paper catalogs and coupons to Facebook or radio. If your prospects are more interested in a print catalog than Facebook, then don’t focus on Facebook!

Interested in learning more? Creekmore recommended a couple books to get you started on better understanding your audience: The User is Always Right by Steve Mulder and Ziv Yaar, and Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice (Ginny) Redish.