Many organisations rely on audience personas as a base for their content strategy.

But do they actually give you the full picture about your target markets, where they are and how they consume content?  

The problem 

Not very long ago, getting content to an audience was relatively straightforward.

You simply had to craft your message, make it somewhat memorable, and then interrupt whatever audience you wanted to reach.

More often than not, the best way to do that was to buy their attention through ads. But targeting audiences through content has become a lot more difficult.

New channels, new devices, new platforms and new mediums have made it much easier for consumers to gravitate to the content that they do want, in a format that they want it, and ignore the messages that they don’t want to be subjected to. 

But as more and more branded content is produced, more and more of it becomes ambient, ignored and ineffective. That’s a huge amount of resource that isn’t achieving its full potential. 

This problem stems from brands lacking any meaningful insight about their audiences and how they behave online.

Without understanding this key principle, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the right content, the right medium and the right tone to attract the attention of your target market. 

But we have audience personas, don’t we? 

Many organisations rely on their audience personas to overcome this problem, but do these tell the full picture about your target markets, where they are and how they consume content?

It’s possible that these personas aren’t giving you the full picture. 

The typical audience persona 

When marketers, particularly those that tend to focus on traditional channels rather than digital platforms, talk about marketing personas, they typically talk in very broad terms about their “average customer”.

That could take the form statements like: 

Our audience is a single or co-habiting professional 25-35 year old male, living in a rented flat in London, with a household income of £40k.

In a world where it was easy to interrupt your target audience, largely by knowing what magazine they read or what TV shows they were likely to be watching, this sort of profile usually would suffice. 

Knowing the content types your audiences like, and the mediums that your audiences use is important, but alone it doesn’t give you enough to ensure that your content makes an impression. 

But when it is much more difficult to reach your target audience, this level of persona doesn’t give your brand the full picture when it comes to targeting your message.

Getting the full picture 

Digital has enabled and empowered consumers to behave very differently to how they would offline, and this is reflected in the way they consume content, engage with brands and purchase.

Email and social media has superceeded call centres as a customer service channel, review sites have become central to word of mouth (WOM) marketing and mobile has transformed the way in which consumers can access on demand services – everything from music to taxi cabs. 

It means that your audience persona has to become much more than just a demographic profile.

Instead, it has to become a reflection of the evolving and capricious behaviour that your target audiences display across multiple platforms and multiple devices. 

Essentially, this comes down to understanding three key elements of behaviour; what motivates an audience, where they are located digitally, and how they participate in the consumer-brand dialogue. 

Location 

This isn’t an issue of geography, this is about understanding where your audiences are digitally active. You need to know which media they consume, what they read, which social networks they use and at what times.

You also need to understand what devices they are using, and ensure that your content is being delivered in a way that is accessible on that device. 

Motivation 

Different consumers are motivated by different things. Some value quality, others value customer service, whilst many are driven by a desire for a bargain. 

The same is true of your content. Do your audiences need reassurance, or do they need something that makes them laugh? Are they looking to be convinced, or entertained? Finding this motivation will ultimately drive the direction of your content. 

Participation 

Different audience groups interact with content, and interact with brands, in different ways and for different purposes. 

You need to understand not only what content your audience consumes, but how they consume it, how they engage with it and how they respond to it.

This is ultimately about tempering your message and tone for each audience group depending on their current need and buying stage. 

Your audience personas have to become much more than just a demographic profile. It has to be a reflection of the evolving and capricious behaviour of your audience.

It’s all about relevant, targeted content 

Understanding these three core pillars of audience profiling is what will ultimately allow you to create relevant, targeted content that appeals to the wants and needs of your audience. This dramatically increases the effectiveness of your content. 

The most notable changes to Google in recent years have focused on protecting search results from manipulation from external sources.

Namely, Google wants to prevent any one organisation or individual from influencing search results to their benefit and the detriment of users. 

Information Needs 

This covers the types of information that an audience would seek, both from a purchasing perspective and from a general audience consumption perspective. 

If, for example, your target audience is young mothers, the areas of interest are likely to include: 

  • Baby nutrition.
  • Health and wellbeing. 
  • Early learning. 
  • Breast feeding. 
  • Parenting advice. 
  • Self-help and lifestyle. 

This will give you a clear indication of the types of content that an audience group actively looks for, indicating where this group has an affinity for particular information, content delivery styles and formats. 

Information Sources 

Where looking at information needs provide you with topics of interest to your audience, it only provides you with a brief snapshot of where or how they prefer to consume this content.

Looking at the preferred sources of this information provides you with three key pieces of insight: 

  • The types of media that the audience trusts. Does your audience place a lot of trust in respected and established media, or do they favour lesser-known blogs and user generated content? 
  • The format that the audiences prefers to consume content in. Does your audience use video or image-based platforms on a regular basis? This could indicate a preference to that content format. 
  • Their preferred media platforms. Does your audience use social media as an information source, where they could lean towards more viral content, or do they actively seek out content through specific apps or platforms? 

This analysis not only tells you where you can access these audiences, but also the manner in which you can access them. 

Brand Engagement 

Gaining an insight into the brands that your audiences have an affinity with is extremely useful in understanding exactly what they value and what motivates them as a consumer.

If your audiences have an affinity to a lot of budget or discounted brands, then it indicates an audience that is extremely price sensitive or conscious about value for money. 

Conversely, those that align to premium brands may favour product quality or service, rather than price. You may also find that an audience aligns to more established brands, rather than newer start-up or disrupter brands, indicating that they value reputation very highly. 

There is a lot of insight that you can gather from the brands that your audiences align with, even if they are not brands that would typically apply to your particular industry.

Where does your content fit on your audience’s spectrum? 

Using this insight, brand marketers can essentially build a spectrum for their target audiences.

This spectrum is set based on the values, the needs and behaviours demonstrated by your audience groups, and is used to specifically target the right format, the right tone and the right delivery for your content. 

Using our example of a ‘young mother’ audience from earlier, we can build a sample content spectrum based on insight on their brand engagement, their information sources and their information needs. 

In this hypothetical example, our research may highlight that: 

This audience group values information about health, safety and learning, and they seek this information from multiple but trusted sources. 

Insights from their information sources indicates that whilst they value content from reputable and established sources, they respect the content from prominent parenting blogs, which may present relatable issues in a quirky and humorous way. 

That this audience group has a strong affinity to well-established brands, irrespective of their price point. This trust of established and prominent brands, both mass and premium market, suggests that this group values trust, safety and reliability. 

Using this data, we can build a spectrum that reflects this. 

This spectrum provides a framework upon which a brand can set its content’s agenda. It ensures that content addresses a relevant topic and, importantly, addresses that topic at the right level and at the right tone. 

From here, you can determine any content areas that are either prime areas that you need to address, or areas that may not be appropriate for your brand to discuss. 

Importantly, applying this brand filter to the spectrum minimises the potential risk that can often arise from creative forms of marketing.

It provides a clear framework for dictating which issues should be avoided by your brand, which should be addressed and how you should address those issues, in terms of tone and delivery.

The Brand Filter 

The brand filter is essentially a process that you apply to this spectrum to determine both if and how your brand should produce content relating to a particular issue. 

For many brands, certain topics or issues may be particularly sensitive or off limits, either from a brand perspective or from a regulatory perspective (especially for those brands operating in heavily regulated sectors. 

Applying this brand filter to the content spectrum minimises the potential risks that can often arise from creative forms of marketing.

It provides a clear framework for dictating which issues should be avoided by your brand, which should be addressed and how you should address those issues, in terms of tone and delivery. 

Creating content that your audiences will love 

It is often claimed that audiences don’t actively seek branded content and, whilst there may be an element of truth in that suggestion, it is often rooted in the fact that so much branded content fails to address the actual needs of the audiences they are trying to attract.

Many brands feel that content needs to be a direct sales exercise, rather than a way of simply reaching a core audience. 

But by following this process to understand how your audience behaves, what they value and where they consume content, beyond the typical “audience personas” that so many brands rely on, you can create content that your audience will love, build that brand affinity and drive stronger returns on investment from content marketing.

Philip McGuin

Published 9 October, 2015 by Philip McGuin

Philip McGuin is the Head of Insight at Stickyeyes and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (5)

Ben Potter

Ben Potter, Director at Ben Potter - new business mentor

Hi Philip,

Great article. I fully agree that the typical persona's brands hang on the wall (and base many of their decisions on) are often not nearly as rich as they should be.

I therefore also fully subscribe to the view that brands need to understand more about their actual customers and their needs, motivations, etc in order to shape content strategy (and indeed other aspects of their digital strategy).

In the article you reference what a client should know but don't actually recommend the means by which brands can acquire this information. Some of it may come from Analytics, for example (location type stuff) but what about the more qualitative / attitudinal insight?

Thanks,

Ben

about 2 years ago

Philip McGuin

Philip McGuin, Director of Consultancy at Stickyeyes

@Ben Glad you found the article useful. Of course there are a raft of resources in addition to analytics. We're lucky enough to have developed and have access to a number of proprietary tools in-house but we also use Global Web Index (paid) and YouGov (free to a point) amongst others. Might be the subject of another in-depth econsultancy blog post - I'll see what I can pull together.

about 2 years ago

Christine Mackenzie Ross

Christine Mackenzie Ross, Social Media Manager at Digital Marketing Freelancer

Hi Philip,

I've cited your article in my draft submission for CAM Diploma in Digital Marketing Planning. It succinctly identified and streamlined the three areas that define my target customer persona.
A wonderfully well informed, piece. . Thank you!

about 2 years ago

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Roberta Fabretti, Global Digital Manager at Bayer

Hello,
Thanks for the article.
I always aim for a deeper understanding of consumers' online behavior, but how can we get this 3-dimensional level of information? are there research institutes able to give this granularity? or should we only rely on Facebook insights?
Thanks,

Roberta

about 2 years ago

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Cheri Simonet, Principal Owner at d.Mark consulting LLC

Great article - written so well and totally on the mark I'll definitely site it in a future blog post! Thank you for sharing this excellent information!

almost 2 years ago

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