There is a rare joy that content marketers feel when their content engine hits full capacity. Traffic is growing healthily; content production is a well-oiled machine; your audience reach feels strong and wide.
As good as that feeling is, it's often followed by the unpleasant realization that there isn't really a stage for "completed" when it comes to content marketing. The work was well done, and it will need to be well done again, very soon.
Marketers don't interact with static audiences. People change, culture moves, and the market is constantly in flux with new products, drivers, and ideas. Even the most robust content engine has to keep up with shifting audiences if it wants to survive. But the process of staying in touch with growing audiences can be more difficult than we might expect.
They're Just Not That Into You
With the eternally busy schedule of most content teams, adding vigilant audience monitoring to their workload may feel daunting. Thankfully, there are many audience monitoring techniques that overlap with work most content marketers are already doing. No matter how long your current task list is, you should always be keeping an eye out for the signs that your existing audience isn't as healthy as you may assume.
There are three primary reasons why you might see slowing in your audience reach, and you can spot these drivers in your regular analytics reporting.
Your target audience has changed
Audiences aren't static, and that means that a target group that's been working for your brand for a long time will change. This might mean you need to serve them in a new way, or that you may need to bring a new audience into your fold. This can be signaled through incremental changes in your demographic reporting. If you're noticing increases in demographics you haven't targeted specifically before, or declines in niches that have previously been your mainstay, it might be time to reevaluate the needs of your target audience.
Your target audience has become saturated
This is an issue that is more likely to hit brands working in smaller geographical areas or targeting smaller populations. If you notice that you're dedicating ever-increasing amounts of time, budget, and manpower to improving your content efforts, but are only seeing nominal growth despite fantastic engagement metrics, you may need to explore expanding your target market.
New competition has entered the field
Everything in content marketing is fine and good, until a new competitor enters your space and mucks up your equilibrium. Sudden declines in SERPs served or jumps in paid search and programmatic spend might indicate that you have a new competitive force eating away at your target audience.
Any of these drivers will make it difficult to continue to grow an audience. You can choose to put more effort and spend into your engine as returns continue to diminish-but a much more efficient and less costly approach is to proactively look for new audience opportunities through your regular content marketing processes.
Passive Understanding, Active Pursuit
Image attribution: Yolanda Sun
Regardless of whether you've spotted any audience warning signs or are just looking to be proactive about growing an audience, there are a number of passive and active tactics that your team can work into your regular content scheduling.
A simple model to follow consists of three phases: exploration, investigation, and piloting. Each step moves your team towards engaging with a new audience in a new way.
Exploration is the most basic step in an audience research process. Simply put, exploration is the process by which you enable your team member to interrogate their hunches.
Maybe one of your specialists suspects that the age range of your target audience is moving up a bit. Perhaps a content creator has suggested that a particular interest group could be likely candidates for your brand. By teaching your team members simple exploration techniques, you can start testing these assumptions to see if any might stick. A few ways to explore your audience include:
- Demographic Review: Your team should be checking basic site analytics on a regular basis. If this is the case, it's likely that you're collecting high-level demographic data. Checking these markers could uncover some expected pathways. Perhaps you're performing well with a group you never thought to target, or you're seeing slippage with audiences you considered to be stable for your brand.
- Being the Audience: "Being the audience" is a simple practice that only takes about ten minutes. Pop open an incognito window, and pretend you're a member of your target audience. What searches do you execute? How do you research your own brand? What review pages, forums, or other third-party conversations start affecting your search? Understanding your audience's experiences and influences can help impact positioning and targeting in a way that metrics might not always reveal.
- Exploratory Segmentation: If you think there might be a specific audience segment that might react strongly to your brand's message, look for simple ways to segment them out during your normal marketing activity, and compare their performance to the rest of your marketing efforts. If they overperform, you might have an audience worth targeting.
The investigation stage is how your team follows up on hunches that appear to be true. You've prodded an assumption and found some surprisingly high metrics or an unexpected community online. The next step is to start researching this potential audience without over-committing your content creation resources to the effort. You might "investigate" your new audiences with:
- A/B Testing: This tactic is particularly well suited to brands that complement their content with email campaigns, or who were able to discover a potential audience through segmentation. An investigative A/B test takes segmentation a step further and explores the question: Would specific content for this audience improve their reaction to our brand? Begin messaging your specific potential audience, but include standard messaging for your broader audience along with these new efforts. Does the resulting change in behavior warrant further work to make specific content in the future?
- Surveys: Surveying is a classic market research technique that's become much cheaper and easier to execute. This is a powerful follow-up tactic for investigations that were spurred from a demographic metric. Simple surveys delivered and validated online can give you a lot of insight into the changing interests or needs of your current audience or new audiences that may be receptive to your brand.
- Focus Groups: Focus groups are a great follow-up on "being the audience" exploration. They let you test for differences between your behavior and your actual target audience's behavior. This can help you identify changing perceptions or competitor influences that might be impacting the way you interact with your audiences.
Image attribution: Blake Guidry
You've explored your assumptions, investigated those that seem worthwhile, and found one or two actionable audiences that you're ready to commit some content effort toward. Pilot campaigns are the last incremental step where you do exactly that. At this stage, your content marketing should be carrying on as usual, but you'll now add a small deployment of content for your target audience to see how it performs and to determine whether it would scale in a worthwhile way. As you start piloting your next audience, remember to:
- Define Key Performance Metrics First: The easiest mistake you can make when running a content test or pilot is to want the test to succeed. If you don't have hard KPIs set up front, when you reach the end of your test, you'll be more inclined to bias when interpreting results. Instead, define what you would need to see to consider a test to be successful and make that a solid watermark your pilot has to hit.
- Define a Time Frame: Your team only has some much time to support an extra pilot effort, and KPIs are only relevant in a given time window. When defining KPIs for your pilot, also make sure to define a specific time frame in which you'll run the test-and then stick to it.
- Be Sustainable: It can be easy to get excited about a pilot campaign that you believe in. But if your excitement results in deploying tactics or content that you won't be able to sustain while scaling, then your test is largely useless. Make sure that your pilot test is reasonably conservative in its resources so that a successful test can become part of your regular content pipeline afterwards.
Always Be Looking Forward
People change, both in predictable and in completely unpredictable ways, making growing an audience a constant challenge. The only way your brand will be able to reliably react is to make sure you are always looking for your next audience. While big research pushes during quarterly or yearly reviews can certainly help, continuous, incremental testing from your content executors can provide nimble insights into opportunities for your brand community to grow.
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Featured image attribution: Ben White