Content Strategy

Why You Need Original Research for Content Marketing

By Christine Warner on April 2, 2019

Audience personas, segmentation, and journeys are common pillars of content marketing-informing all elements of the content strategy, targeting techniques, and distribution methods. However, when faced with the pressure of launch timelines, budget constraints, and performance expectations, marketers can easily overlook the foundational phase of content strategy development: audience research.

Original research for content marketing takes the guesswork out of audience development. It's risky to rely on projected impressions of your audience's challenges, values, concerns, lifestyle, needs, interests, and desires. If you get it wrong, it can have drastic consequences on the success of your content marketing, and can even negatively impact your organization's brand and business.

The process of researching and defining your audience immerses you and your team in the mindset and life of the people you hope to reach through your marketing and help through your products or services. This team-wide involvement in your audience research strategy has long-term benefits in streamlining your messaging and centering everyone around the people you are serving and targeting.

People Are More Complex Than Their Demographics

Your audience is full of real people-each with his or her own unique identity and life. It's not enough to define them just by their demographics. How is someone's income level or location going to help you understand their emotions or interests? Original audience research will help you get to a level of in-depth understanding that goes beyond demographic criteria and generalizations. Demographics are a good place to start, but your audience research strategy shouldn't stop there.

female demographics

Image attribution: Omar Lopez

Thorough audience research incorporates qualitative methods. "Really get to know (your audience) via interviews, surveys, and focus groups," suggests Santiago Castillo, founder of Schema Strategy, LLC. "Learn about their favorite activities, their professional and personal ambitions, what makes them anxious, their personalities, their attitudes toward life, and what items they can't live without."

It helps to view this sort of research as the start of a relationship-you wouldn't say you really know someone just by reading a few bullet points. It takes full conversations and quality time to get to that point.

Original Research Leads to Personalized Content

Relevance is content marketing currency. How is original research going to help you be more relevant? Personalization. Any regular consumer has loads of content to engage with or ignore, so differentiation is a marketing mandate. Showing your audience that you actually "get" them and are positioned to make their lives better can be the difference in their choice between you and a competitor. Accenture's 2018 Personalization Pulse Check report found that 91 percent of consumers are more likely to shop with brands that recognize and remember them, and can provide relevant offers and recommendations.

Personalization isn't creepy, it's expected. The Accenture study also found that 73 percent of consumers don't feel that a retailer or service provider has ever communicated with them in a way that felt too personalized. Relevant, personalized content also makes people more receptive to product mentions and branded calls to action. It builds your credibility, increasing trust in whatever you present or suggest as a next step or action item.

Your Audience Tells You Where to Find Them

In addition to crafting compelling messaging, original research for content marketing feeds your content distribution strategy. Whatever method of research you deploy, be sure to ask your audience about their preferred content channels, current consumption habits, trusted information sources, and digital device usage. This gives you exactly what you need to choose the right distribution channels to maximize your promotion budget-saving upfront time and money for channel optimization.

I've seen the effectiveness of this audience insight in my own career. Before my team at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles launched a regional marketing initiative on behalf of Catholic schools, we surveyed more than 8,000 parents in the archdiocesan regions. The learnings strictly directed our marketing strategy. When choosing a school for their children, these parents trust personal recommendations the most. This led us to create a parent referral program to generate leads. We focused our advertising budget on Facebook and Google after learning these were the top two channels for daily usage and school research. Without this guidance, we could have wasted much of our distribution budget.

audience insights and the customer journey

Image attribution: Robert Bye

Expanding on this channel knowledge, talking directly to people in your audience helps you create realistic journey maps. In focus groups, interviews, or surveys, you can learn about the specific touch points they use to discover brands and make purchases. Castillo shares the journey map example of a hypothetical restaurant customer named Alice: "This includes its search ads, landing page, and menu, as well as how easy it is for Alice to order, how long she waits for her food, her experience with the delivery person, and her enjoyment of the food."

Research Is An Investment in Consumer Relationships

Research by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) shows that 81 percent of B2C marketers are concerned with creating content that builds loyalty. Personalization is central to building loyalty, and effective personalization is accomplished through audience research. If loyalty is such a big concern for marketers, we should embrace audience research as a long-term investment.

The CMI also found that only 46 percent of marketers segment their demand generation efforts using personas. And that's a big miss for all the other marketers! Original research should be viewed as an investment in relationships with your audience. Any relationship takes time and work to nurture, but it's worth the effort, especially when you're rewarded with solid support and investment from consumers. Your relationship with your audience can't rely on borrowed insights, assumptions, or stereotypes-it has to start with you.

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Featured image attribution: Jo Szczepanska


Christine Warner

Christine Warner is a freelance writer and digital marketer with agency, brand, and non-profit experience developing integrated campaigns and content platforms for diverse brands such as Uber, Samsung, Walgreens, Victoria’s Secret, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Dignity Health. Her digital marketing specialties include content marketing strategy, customer relationship management, brand product marketing, digital media planning, social media marketing, and search engine optimization. Currently, she is the Senior Manager of Digital for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where she oversees the digital marketing efforts for the various non-profit communities and ministries throughout Southern California. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to various lifestyle and marketing publications. You can check out her writing portfolio to browse all her work.