Content Strategy

Are You Really Listening to Audience Insights, or Just Creating Content?

By Lauren McMenemy on July 24, 2018

With everyone from sales to HR to fellow marketers demanding more content to support their own work, what content marketing has time for audience insights?

Now add in today's rapidly changing news cycle and our instinctive response to adjust strategy to fit with these short-term, clickable trends, and often those in charge of content creation are too busy reacting to really think. When So-and-So needs this report by end of this week and Such-and-Such wants a social campaign ASAP, the priority becomes finding any quick solution to keep up with the demand center rather than thinking strategically about your larger content goals.

The problem is, creating all this reactionary content results in random acts of marketing with no specific plan or strategy to back them up. Worse still: You completely forget to consider your audience.

Marketers know that content strategy must start with the audience, so why do so many of us ignore them when we're planning our content? We must make room in our workflow to truly listen to our audience and our customers and ensure it's their needs and challenges driving our content, not the whims of colleagues who neglected to loop in the content team before starting a campaign.

And the best way to get those insights is to listen-really listen-to what's happening around you. To evoke Stephen Covey's immortal words: "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." When your content leads with your new service or your annual review, your brand is basically replying to itself and making it so you're the only one in the conversation.

date conversation

Image attribution: Alex Holyoake

Writer and marketer Luan Wise talks about "empathic listening," meaning "listening with the intent to understand, to get inside another person's frame of reference or world view." She writes for GMA: "When you truly understand your audience, you can focus on problem-solving-showing how you can help your audience overcome their challenges and achieve their goals with your product or service."

Luckily, these days we have a ready-made way to eavesdrop on consumer conversations thanks to the rise and rise of social media. Here we find what Wise calls "the currency of a new commercial relationship between business and consumers [. . .] the true barometer of corporate and brand credibility." But it's not just about what's happening on Twitter or Facebook; audience insights get stronger the more one-on-one you go.

How else can you really listen to what the consumer is saying-and how can you translate those responses into stronger content for your business? Explore some of these approaches in order to truly understand what your audience is telling you.

Social Listening and Social Insights

Let's start with the obvious, since it's likely you're already dabbling in social listening. Before starting any listening program, you need to know why you are listening in the first place. You might want to monitor a campaign's success, track brand sentiment, maybe even peek at competitor conversations. It's important to also know the difference between listening and insights:

  • Social listening, or monitoring, is continuous, tracking brand mentions for public relations or customer service. It helps you to report on conversation volume and respond directly to consumers.
  • Social insights, or social research, is more in-depth, helping you to understand naturally-occurring categories of conversation. It helps you to understand behavior, needs, views, and opinions, and also to see the role a brand plays in everyday life.

There are many, many tools out there that help you to do this, both free and paid-for, making reporting dead easy. Sophisticated tools can monitor complex search queries, provide sentiment analysis, even bring in image recognition and geolocation. This can all help you paint a strong picture of your audience and what it is they're looking for.

Desktop Research

Desktop research is labor-intensive and often unstructured and unfocused, but it can bring you some good insights into how people are talking about your industry, your brand, and their issues. Setting up a Google Alert for keywords is a good place to start, as is regularly checking competitor blog comments, LinkedIn groups, and forums. Thanks to AI, we've begun to automate a lot of these research techniques now, and you'll find many social listening tools bringing forum crawls into their monitoring arsenal.

SEO Research

Your SEO team or agency will be able to advise on the terms and topics people are searching for online, which will again give you direct insights into their needs and challenges. Likewise, they'll be able to tell you about user intent in search, which will help you ideate for top of funnel content. If you haven't yet, start involving SEO researchers in your editorial meetings and ideation. They can spot patterns and bring insights that you just won't see from website traffic stats and social listening.

Audience Surveys

Neon sign reading

Image attribution: Mohammad Metri

Not sure if your content is landing? Try asking those it's designed for directly. You shouldn't survey your audience too regularly, or they'll grow tired and disengaged, but by introducing a short, concise survey you can gain insights from the people reading your content about what's working-and what isn't. You could send it as part of your regular newsletter to subscribers, send a specific email to a target group, or even include a pop-up for feedback once someone lands on your content to ensure you're reaching casual viewers, too. Surveys can be done in-house using free tools like Google Forms, Survey Monkey, or Typeform. You could also enlist the help of a dedicated specialist to ensure data is anonymized and cleaned up before you get it-an important consideration in these days of GDPR.

Focus Groups

man staring at phone

Image attribution: Kevin Grieve

A specialist research firm can also help you to conduct focus groups with your audience to hear more from them. This is not something you'll likely do on a regular basis, but can be a good way to kick-start a new initiative, or for times you know something's not right but can't pin down the specific issue yourselves. The importance of the external interviewer factor, especially in avoiding bias, should not be underestimated. Conducting this sort of research in-house can lead to inaccurate results as people couch their responses in politeness. Sure, focus groups are costly, but the audience insights you get from them are priceless.

Survey Says: Translating Audience Analysis to Content Strategy

So once you've got really robust audience insights, what comes next? The important thing here is you've listened, so you've got a much better idea of what your audience is looking for from your business's content. You can use these insights to drive your content program, from ideation on blogs to developing content pillars and personas. You can also use them to push back on colleagues who demand attention for content you now know isn't what your audience wants. It might not be great for office politics, but your audience will thank you for it.

Listening in whatever format-whether it's social monitoring tools, desktop and SEO research, audience surveys, or focus groups-can help bolster content strategy and ensure you're creating content that your audience is actually interested in. And if you're ever unsure it's working, listen harder. Ask the audience. Your content strategy exists to pull them into your ecosystem, after all, so there's no better place to start.

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Reeney Jenkins


Lauren McMenemy

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.