In order to really start a conversation about audience research, I need to start at thirty thousand feet with this marketing idea: Marketing is about building.

It’s about building long-term and short-term strategies, plans, engagement initiatives, and campaigns that lead to things like relationships, loyalty, trust, and, of course, revenue. Each social media campaign, email series, content marketing initiative, or any other effort provides us with an opportunity to build all of these with our audience. They also give us another layer of information about our audience that we can then analyze, revise and repeat.

All of this is to get business, sure, that’s the ultimate objective, but from a marketer’s standpoint, we’re also looking for answers that clarify why something did or didn’t work, so we can create better plans for the future with confidence. Without this analytical step, we often find ourselves in a position where marketing becomes cyclical and rarely gets the traction it needs to provide the ROI that it promises.

But what can we do if this historical data doesn’t exist? Or, as is often the case, we’re ready to get much more out of a marketing plan than we have previously? In both of these situations, audience research is an important step.

Why? Because audience research provides the clarity we need to lay a strong foundation for both current and future marketing efforts at the strategy phase of a project. In the first place, it informs our messaging strategy to ensure that we’re promoting our message in the right places (so we’re not talking in the wrong room).

On the other hand, understanding a target market has always been valuable to marketers and businesses, but in the digital space, where there are literally hundreds of thousands of small opportunities and micro moments to reach certain people, it becomes more important to have a clear understanding of where an audience hangs out online in order to align our marketing initiatives with their values, concerns and needs.

Starting audience research with questions

There are many ways to approach this kind of research, but the best, from our perspective, is a structured list of precursor questions that we’re trying to answer. These vary by client, but some of the most common and high-level are questions like:

  • Who are we trying to reach?
  • Where are they online?
  • What kind of content do they engage with?
  • How do they talk or interact with each other?
  • What do they think about our market/industry?
  • What problems, questions, and concerns do they have about our products or services?
  • How can we engage them?
  • How can we help?

These examples are broad, and could even be considered “basic,” but they provide a strong place for us to start and, as we dig deeper into each answer, narrows our audience down into smaller, more targeted segments. At each step of the process, we’re understanding a little more about the types of people that would welcome the product or service that we’re providing -if only they were reached at the right moment.

As our marketing efforts increase, little details about the audience can be learned through campaign data, but when entering into a new market sector, or starting with no previous campaign information, we’re trying to find ways to reach these segments, catch their attention, and learn what we might say once we have their attention. These answers are a huge first step in a journey towards successful campaigns.

Using the answers for better campaigns

Which leads us to the campaigns and initiatives themselves. The most helpful part of audience research is the analysis portion. Once the questions are answered, we’re able to sit down with all of the data and see the channels that each segment is using and the conversations they’re having. This is where a structured research approach really shines, because it can show clearly which segments are the best to target for immediate results and which ones are worth building into for future gains.

Of course, without the proper creative execution, the results and analysis are just a fancy research exercise. The translation from data to creative (marketing assets and initiatives) is a strategic one. We take the findings from each of the questions and use them to guide the language, messaging and designs for campaign initiatives and marketing collateral.

For example, we worked with a client who was trying to build the relationship between their brand and millennials (a pretty broad demographic). Through audience research, we found that the ideal target were looking to support organizations who, as opposed to just being a strong brand, could directly show how donations were helping the cause. This guided our content recommendations and creative output across-the-board for this audience.

A common setback with audience research discussions

Like everything in marketing and business in general, one of the largest questions and setbacks that surrounds audience research is about its value. After all, can’t the intuition of one or several people be enough to guide a marketing campaign? And what about a business knowing their customer? Isn’t that possible without having to research it?

These are questions that we get asked a lot, and rightly so. In a marketing budget, there isn’t room for research or tactics that are just “nice to haves.” Few of us ever have that luxury. So we need to make sure that each step we take has the value that it promises.

Does audience research hit that mark?

The simple answer is yes. The benefits gleaned from structured audience research, in both short-term wins and long-term gains, is worth it.

Intuition can only go so far

Intuition can get a marketing strategy to a certain point. It can even go so far as to make small initiatives successful. But as I said earlier, marketing is about building.

What we often find is that marketers who haven’t conducted a proper audience research initiative at the beginning of their online initiatives, find themselves struggling to set up campaigns that can be scaled to bring in the traffic, leads, revenue that they’re looking for from digital. The results are often initiatives that lack clarity of purpose and target and ultimately waste a good deal of time and money.

Of course, audience research isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool to either start or scale successful marketing efforts.

Jared Rypkema Jared Rypkema

Content Strategist and Copywriter at Station Four

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