Department store magnate John Wannamaker famously remarked nearly a century ago, “I waste half of my money on advertising, now if only I knew which half.”
This advertising adage made sense during a time where the most accurate measure you had of an ad’s penetration and retention were Nielsen ratings, focus groups, and maybe a correlated spike in sales numbers.
Rosser Reeves, the legendary advertiser who some say was the inspiration for Don Draper from “Mad Men,” made a career based on his ability to gather rudimentary statistics about advertising, and this feat was only possible with a monumental, nationwide effort and access to mounds of proprietary client data.
This was the old world of advertising, and things couldn’t be more different today. Advertisers have never had access to such abundant and granular information about consumer behavior.
With such potent data, there is clearly great potential to get scientific with what content you or a content marketing company create and how you tailor this content to your audience.
In this article, I’ll explore a formulaic and scientific approach to determining the best possible content mix for your audience.
Understand Your Audience
Many new entrants into content marketing want to know how to create “great content.” However, the idea that there is such a thing as universally great content is a myth. This is because one of the fundamental characteristics of quality content is how appropriate it is for the intended audience.
Another added dimension of quality content is the authenticity. This seems obvious enough. The things you say have to match the things you do.
A retail chain could write the absolute best content about employee rights and small-business development; yet, because the source isn’t quite aligned with the message, nobody would take it seriously.
The first step to building the right content for your audience is to understand your core values. Getting a clear, coherent picture of your ideals will dictate the topics that you can speak authoritatively and authentically on.
Since a surprising number of businesses seem to have never formalized their mission or outlined their customer personas, the next sections will offer some quick exercises to help you craft answers to these crucial questions.
Construct a Golden Circle
The TEDx talk “Start With Why,” by marketing guru Simon Sinek, has become something of a modern classic since he delivered it less than a decade ago.
In the talk (which I highly recommend you watch, if you haven’t already), Sinek brilliantly argues that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” To complement this core insight, he offers up a framework for understanding how the most compelling organizations understand themselves.
He calls this framework the “Golden Circle,” and it is a fairly simple way of putting your organization’s mission into writing. Start with the “why” in the center and build your way outwards.
An important thing to remember is that your “why” cannot mention “what” you do or “how” you do it. It has to be bigger than your product or process. It needs to be your purpose.
Once you understand your purpose, you can move on to the next step, which is getting a sense of who will actually be receptive to your message and what they are like.
Build Out a Customer Empathy Map
As I mentioned previously, a hallmark of good content is how appropriate it is for your audience. A message or cause that might resonate with your mother would likely frustrate or bore a teenager and vice versa. This discrepancy is only normal.
However, in an attempt to please everybody, many people build out content or marketing messages that aim to please everyone. This is a surefire path to mediocrity. As Aristotle once wisely noted, “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
Or, put more modernly in a great article by Oliver Emberton, “If you aren’t pissing someone off, you probably aren’t doing anything important.”
The greatest companies tend to have not only the most vocal fans but also the most vocal critics. This is because they create messages so narrowly catered to a core audience that they (purposefully) exclude everyone else.
The first necessary step to emulating these organizations is to gain a deep understanding of your customers’ thoughts and beliefs. A powerful tool to aid in finding your target audience is something called a Customer Empathy Map.
Think long and hard about each of the variables the Empathy Map presents. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes and try to imagine what websites they read, what political beliefs they hold, what bothers them, what their aspirations are. Exhaust every avenue for exploration and build out robust buyer personas. All the while, keep in mind the answer you previously had to the “why” at the heart of your Golden Circle.
If you do both of these exercises correctly there will be overlap between what your customers see, feel, and believe and the central purpose of your organization. At the nexus of your core beliefs and the beliefs of your customers is where your ideal subjects for content will lie.
Craft Your Message
With the insights gained through the Golden Circle and Customer Empathy Map you should now have a sense of where you can begin to search for content topics that will be effective and resonant.
Start by brainstorming a list of questions that your audience might ask you that reflects your shared interests and beliefs. The “pains/gains” section of the Customer Empathy Map can be particularly beneficial for generating potential ideas. What problems can you solve? What relevant expertise can you offer to share?
After generating a lengthy list of potential topics/questions/ideas, then you can start to evaluate them based on the question, “what would be the most efficient/appropriate medium to relay this message?”
If your main value proposition is to offer in-depth resource content addressing specific considerations for buying a new home, then blog posts might be the most appropriate option. On the other hand, if the question you’re answering is, “what are some cool ways I can style my hair?” then Instagram/Pinterest posts would likely be more effective.
Coming at questions off topic and medium blind would leave you grasping at straws and beginning your tests with unfounded assumptions. However, following this process leads to firmly established hypotheses that you can test.
Test, Test, Test
While the processes outlined above might yield a series of strong guesses regarding the ideal content for your audience; so far, all you have are theories. They may give you a good jumping-off point for experimenting with content, but you will have no concrete information to act on until you put these hypotheses to the test.
When designing tests for experimenting with different content, messaging, and channels, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind.
The first is that the best tests allow you to fail quickly and cheaply, while still gleaning valuable insight from these failures. Come to terms with the fact that nearly all of your hypotheses will be either partially or completely wrong. As British intellectual Christopher Monckton aptly put it: “You can’t prove any hypothesis, you can only improve or disprove it.”
The important thing when designing tests is that your tests allow these failures to be quick and painless and that they ask clear questions that can be answered by either failure or success.
A necessary element to constructing these tests is setting up clear, universal metrics that can help you tie together many different tests. Since you will likely be working with different platforms and each will have their own set of metrics, it will be very important to construct KPIs that can help equalize your results.
The best way to do this is to build smart links using UTMs for all of your content marketing and then have these tagged links correspond back to site events on Google Analytics. This way all the separate “vanity metrics” such as likes, shares, and follows can be linked back to particular actions users take on your site.
After all, the actions that the user ultimately ends up taking after interacting with your content is the only result you care about, and this way you can accurately and easily compare different platforms and channels throughout your campaigns.
If The Data Points Somewhere, Go All In
After formulating theories, testing your hypotheses, and rigorously analyzing your results you should have a strong understanding of where your audience is most receptive and what they are receptive to.
While you should be diligent in collecting your data, equalizing your results with smart KPIs, and looking to replicate these results, once you reach a point where you are confident in your assumptions don’t hesitate to follow the data.
Armed with the information you’ve collected, redirect all of your efforts to the one or two best-performing channels. Keep on rigorously testing your content structure and topics and collecting data on what works best.
The more data you collect, the more optimized your posts will become and the clearer your understanding about what works and what doesn’t will be. Keep it up, and you’ll soon begin generating ideas you know will work faster than you can create them.
Discovering content marketing strategies that work and generating ideas for content might be hard in the beginning, but being diligent and testing early on allows your insights to build off one another and snowball into momentum. However, this momentum will only build if you incorporate these processes into your content strategy from day one and keep to it.
While I have had success with the formula I’ve outlined here, perhaps the most important aspect of figuring out the right content for your audience is to simply codify your process and stick with it consistently.