Wherever you go, whatever you read, you get to hear on every corner that every successful content strategy starts with a solid understanding of your audience.
And it makes sense.
The problem is that most bloggers and content marketers out there have no idea who their actual audience is – and what their ideal customer looks like. And if you’re thinking right now, “Wait a second, Olga – you’re wrong! I do know my ideal customer! He’s around 40 years old, has a C-level position in online retail, and is looking to boost sales fast and easy,” let me tell you something: you’re wrong.
Step 1: Understand Demographics vs. Affinities
Having a vague idea of the demographics that making up your customer means having no idea whatsoever about who your customer is. Having a general idea of who your reader is does not mean you're knowing who you’re actually writing for.
- Do you know where your customer likes to shop?
- Which are his favorite websites?
- What are his go-to sources for education?
- What are the biggest pain points at his job?
- What does he want to achieve?
- What does he need to succeed?
- What doubts might he have in regards to your product or service?
- If your product/service ceases to exist, which would be the alternative that he’d choose?
If silence was an answer to these questions, you have a lot of homework to do.
Author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck once said something that many of us marketers should be paying serious attention to:
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
This is a brilliant quote, but let me repeat my favorite part, to emphasize it even more: “Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one."
Translated into contemporary marketing language, Steinbeck spoke of what we now refer to as content personas – clear representations of your typical reader that consumes your content on a (hopefully) regular basis. And the more fleshed out these personas are, the more effective they will be – and the more successful your business will be, too.
A recent study showed, however, that there’s a huge perception gap between how well businesses think they are marketing and what the customer experience actually is. "Brands like to talk about how well they know what their consumers want. But the truth is, they’re barely scratching the surface,” says Shareen Pathak from Digiday, referring to a study done by IBM and Econsultancy.
Do your readers even think you're relevant?
According to that study, 81% of marketers believe that they have a complete understanding of their consumers — and yet, 78% of consumers claim that they feel “misunderstood”. And what’s more, 79% of consumers feel that the information they’re getting from brands is “irrelevant."
Irrelevant. That’s the word most of your customers think when they get an email from you. Hurts, doesn’t it?
To prevent that (and by ‘preventing’ I mean to start getting more leads, have your emails opened and clicked, your content read and shared, your landing pages convert, etc.), there’s one thing you should do: create a solid content persona.
Know the risk of not asking
When it comes to persona research, the word “research" should be an underlying foundation of the whole process. No guesses, no assumptions. Otherwise, you risk repeating the failure story of JC Penney.
Content persona failure: JC Penney
Back in 2012, JC Penney, a big but stagnating department store chain in America, got a new CEO – Ron Johnson, who was previously in charge of Apple’s retail stores.
While CEO for just a month, Johnson launched a complete rebranding of JC Penney, getting rid of the old school coupon system – a fundamental strategy that the 114-year-old retailer has been relying on for decades. Johnson introduced new “everyday low prices.” What was at first ecstatically celebrated as the company’s rebirth turned out to be a massive failure. Within a year, JC Penney had lost $1 billion, shares sloping downward. In another six months, Johnson was out.
How did this happen?
As Johnson admitted himself later, he just didn’t understand the customer. He said:
I thought people were just tired of coupons and all this stuff. The reality is all of the couponing we did, there were a certain part of the customers that loved that. They gravitated to stores that competed that way. So our core customer, I think, was much more dependent and enjoyed coupons more than I understood.
Johnson completely misread what the customers wanted because he never cared to ask them what it was.
I’m going to give you some foolproof methods of persona-making, which will help you initiate a good honest conversation with your customers, get to know them better and ultimately, watch your business shine and prosper. So let us begin!
How to research the persona of a content reader
Now, first things first, let’s make it clear from the very beginning what content persona is and what it isn’t. Kelly Hungerford, a former Director of Community at Paper.li, explains that one of the biggest misconceptions made about personas is viewing them as purely fictional characters:
Personas are not fictional! They are the distilled voice of real customers that represent attributes for a very specific set of people. Sure, they are fictional in the sense that one profile wraps so many attributes, but their problems, needs and interests are very real.
Personas allow you to understand your readers more closely and finally start seeing things from their point of view. In other words, they allow you to see the forest for the trees.
And how exactly you achieve that?
Online research: Understand demographics with analytics tools and newsletter subscribers
First things first: get a sneak peek into your analytics tools: Google Analytics, as well as Alexa, Facebook Insights, Google Adwords Display Planner etc. are perfect places to collect demographic stats about your readers. Where do they come from? How old are they? What education do they have?
Quantitative data can provide an essential background information, oftentimes very necessary at the beginning (if you want to target to a certain age group, for instance). But the truth is, there's always a certain limit to what you can find out.
Nadya Khoya, a Marketing Director at Venngage, suggests a better method to identify your audience's demographics by tracking down the top readers of your blog. It is an easy procedure, really.
First, go through your subscribers list. Then run every email you’ve got through Rapportive, so that you can get their location, gender, job title, company, industry, etc. without having to ask. And voila! The information you get this way is way more detailed and narrowed down than you’ll get to see in Google Analytics, which only tells you general information (like “some college” or “no college” in the education category, for instance).
When it comes to building content personas, however, you need to see what people are thinking – in other words, you need to go inside of people's heads to really understand them. To do that, proceed onto the next steps of persona research.
Useful tools to identify pain points and scour online reviews
Do you have a competitor that offers a similar product or service to yours, targeting a similar audience? Probably. Which means that the users have already left tons of feedback on the Internet that you can use to your advantage.
Start with Amazon Reviews.
Amazon Reviews are a perfect go-to source to plug more information about what your potential customers love and hate. Say you sell watches for men. If you type it in, Amazon will give you thousands of watches that people have bought and reviewed over time.
This particular one is from Casio, for example, and here’s what a user has to say about their
Casio Men's PAG240-1CR model:
Here you’ve discovered one big pain point: barely audible alarm that doesn’t last long enough and does not repeat. 37 of 44 people (84%) found that review helpful, which means that this group of people is sharing the same struggle when it comes to men's watches.
Other places to look include Yelp, AppStore and GooglePlay.
With almost 80% of the US population having at least one social network profile, it makes more sense than ever to do persona research on social media. What brands does your customer like on Facebook? What news does they read on Twitter? What interest boards do they have on Pinterest?
This information sheds light on who your customer really is. This is more than meaningless demographic stats that don’t tell you anything about a person’s life. Social media can help you create a complete portfolio of the likes and preferences of your target market.
Facebook’s micro societies are pure gold for any marketer looking to discover communities of like-minded people who openly discuss their problems online. If it’s about the difficulties of solo traveling amongst twenty-something females, there’s a group for that. Or if it’s about taking care of chihuahuas, there’s a group for that too. Truth is, Facebook is a mine of hidden information – you only have to dig in.
Additionally, you can dive into forums to find out what people think in regards to particular products or services. Forums are a perfect way to do customer tracking: that’s where people openly voice their concerns and frustrations, after all. So once you find a forum with a perfect target group, get ready to digest loads of commentary: but get ready to filter it, too.
How do you find forums? Easy. You can type in Google’s search bar your niche and add the word “forum" to it. Google will present you with a number of forums and discussion boards to peek into.
So, if you’re trying to sell organic oils, for example, you'd want to find out what people really worry about when using oils for their skin – what benefits they’re looking for, which horror stories they’ve experienced and what are the major questions they have in general – in order to address those concerns later on in your content. This can help you write a guide, a Q&A post, a pros and cons list, a review of different types of oils for different types of purposes, etc.
It’s a great starting point to find out more about what people are genuinely concerned about – and also brainstorm for new content ideas (a sweet perk).
Quora and Reddit
Quora and Reddit come in extremely handy here too, as they’re both huge information resources used by almost 300 million people on a monthly basis. And 300 million people is a lot of people. So everything you might want to know about your target audience is already out there, hidden behind massive subreddits, written in stone in numerous Quora threads. You only have to sift through and identify relevant threads.
Step 2: Get in Touch with Your Readers
Online research will take time – and yet, as extensive as it is, it's just preparation for what really lies in store. In order to fully understand your customer and have a complete picture in mind, you have to personally reach out to them and start talking. Literally.
Online customer surveys
Conducting a survey amongst your existing customers will help a great deal if you want to get into their heads and know exactly what they’re thinking. Consider asking 7-10 questions, and make sure they’re open-ended: don’t lead people to the answers you're looking for – allow them express themselves!
What type of questions should you ask? Well, that depends. Nina Stepanov, Associate Marketing Manager at inbound.org, recommends to dig deep on all the Hows, Whens, Wheres, and How Oftens – and also try to get a sneak peek into the competition.
Aside from demographic questions (that you can't get from Google Analytics or elsewhere), I'd highly recommend asking questions about how they use similar services/products or alternate services/products currently.
When inbound.org were doing their initial persona research, here are some of the questions they asked:
1. What other sites do you frequent to stay up-to-date on the marketing industry?
Answers included sites like GrowthHackers, Copyblogger, Moz, etc.
2. What do you love about those sites?
Answers included specific details about what those sites do to make their experience better. This question made it clear what type of a user this person was and what they were looking for.
3. How often do you visit those sites?
This question aimed to focus thoughts on retention and how to measure it based on different types of users.
4. When do you visit those sites?
Day and time – THAT should drive your marketing!
Now, note that inbound.org is an industry of community building – so setting apart the different buckets of users was essential in order to create a stellar experience for each and every group, Nina specified.
For every business, questions will be different. The important thing to remember here, though, is that you first have to collect relevant touch points of how customers interact with your product or service – and then, base your questions on that knowledge.
Useful tools: survey.io's demo survey, Typeform, Google Consumer Surveys and in-person interviews
While online surveys are great, the truth is, people aren’t going to open up to you online as much as they do offline. So going personal and talking to people first hand is ultimately the best way to create content personas. If you can speak to your own customers – that’s perfect. If you don’t have them yet, then try to speak to the customers of your competitor.
Once you’ve prepared a few open-ended questions, reach out to people and either schedule a Skype or a phone call or, even better, hit up network events.
Useful tools: Calendly, Doodle, web and exit surveys
Depending on your goals and what you need to find out from your website visitors, you can ask open-ended or multiple choice questions in a small pop-up form. These pop-ups can function as an exit survey, i.e. appear when people clicked to leave the website, or show up with a few second delay.
The key to getting questions answered lies in experimenting. Change your questions once in a while to test phrasing and style, and see which generates most responses with better insights.
If the question “What did you come to this site to do?” didn’t collect many answers, try “Did you find what you were looking for?” instead to see the difference. In other words, it's all about testing, testing, and more testing!
Tools to use: Qualaroo, Survicate
Step 3: Put Your Persona Together
Finally, you’ve talked to all the customers, asked all the questions possible, been through all the online forums out there. Now it’s time to start segmenting the data you collected into cohorts, on which you will base your content personas. You've finally reached the moment of truth!
Having carefully reviewed each and every answer, you’ll start to recognize different patterns and underlying foundations that these answers are built on. It’s your task now to create 2-4 representations of a “typical user” of your product or service, with his or her “typical" problems, “typical” behaviour patterns, “typical” needs, dreams and everything else that you’ve discovered in the process.
Then, give your persona a name, a face – and a story that will eventually help you shape your content.
Here’s an example for a travel app, like Trail Wallet, which is an expense tracker.
Yvonne Kind, age 22.
Yvonne is a recent graduate in PR and communications. She comes from a small town in Poland, from a family with a moderate income, and she didn’t get the chance to travel much when she was a child. She went abroad for the first time right after graduation, doing a typical Euro-trip with her elder sister, when she finally discovered her passion for travel. Her dream is to backpack around Southeast Asia.
Yvonne doesn’t have a clear career plan yet (at the moment she’s completing a PR internship in a local agency, but she’s not sure that’s her dream job). She likes to research ways that can help her save a buck or two when she’s on the road. Her favorite blogs are Nomadic Matt, where she gets to read about interesting tips, tricks and travel hacks, and World of Wanderlust, where she finds out about the off-the-beaten-path destinations. She prefers articles written in a colloquial style, narrating about personal experiences.
This is a story of a real person, with real motivations, desires, concerns, fears and aspirations.
And what do you do with all this knowledge? I’m glad you asked, because I have Adam Connell explaining it in juicy detail:
When we apply personas to content, that's where the magic happens. It gives us the insight we need to turn a generic article like 'How To Save Money Abroad' into something ultra specific such as 'A Backpacker's Guide To Saving Money In Thailand.' And I'm not just talking about a quick title change – if you have clear personas in mind, the level of specificity will run right through the entire article. Which is great because it's easy to ignore a generic blog post coming through our social media feeds, but when we see one that speaks directly to us, we'll be far more likely to read it.
So next time you do content brainstorming, think about the topic that will speak out to Yvonne, providing a real value for her and helping her out.
Content Persona Takeaways
Building personas takes time. It’s a long-lasting project that can take you one, three or even 6 months to complete, with continuous alterations to be constantly made in the future. And while it is a lot of manual, tedious work to do a proper persona research, the process is often enlightening, and the results – rewarding.
Knowing about the problems and challenges of your target audience, and being able to personally relate to those challenge, will completely change the way you market your product. It will go from what you THINK your customers like, to what you KNOW they want. And that, my friend, is what will help you either make it or break it at the end of the day.
Let us know about your content persona success story in the comments!