How To Do Audience Research That Helps Focus Your Content Marketing

It’s Sunday afternoon. You’ve popped around to see your gran, and she’s asking after your health.shutterstock_188162045-surprised-grandmother

“Well, Gran,” you answer, “this weekend I got totally wasted and fell asleep in a trash can.”

An unlikely response? I’m guessing it is for most people. That’s because, in real life, we tailor what we say to the person standing in front of us. However, when we’re speaking to an online audience, how do we do that? How do we know the person reading our copy isn’t horrified, offended or (possibly worse) bored?

In this article, I’m going to outline a few different ways to get to know your target audience. This research forms a crucial first step of content creation. To stand any chance of getting people to engage with your content, you need to create work that is relevant to their lives — that is, something they care about.

Before You Begin

There are two things you’ll want to do before you start your research.

1. Pin Down The Specific Questions You Are Trying To Answer

This will help you to avoid getting lost in a sea of information. After all, it’s not about the quantity but the quality of insights. If you’re working with others, make sure to agree on the questions before you get started and check back at intervals to see if you’re all still on track. The questions may relate specifically to your product or service, or they may concern your audience’s more general lifestyle, habits and feelings.

For example:

  • Where does my audience hang out online?
  • What is their biggest gripe at work?
  • What sort of content or article do they most enjoy reading?

2. Try To Research A Cross Section Of Your Audience

This mostly applies to conducting interviews where you can ask for specific personal details. However, it’s important to always be aware of whether your research is representative of your whole audience or else just a particular section. For more lightweight content pieces, a small section might be okay. But for large scale, expensive content projects, you’ll need to be confident you have a good idea of your audience at large.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain amount of guesswork here. Startups, for example, might not yet have a clear idea of who makes up their audience. But everyone needs to start somewhere. Using table such as the one below may help to visualise how diverse your research sample is (you can omit the sections that don’t apply).



Holding one-to-one interviews is likely to return the most focused and helpful results. However, there is certainly a knack to doing these well.

Finding Willing Interviewees

This is half the battle. The trick is to find the people who’ve recently engaged with you (and therefore know and care who you are).

Some Ideas:

  • Send customer satisfaction surveys to people who have made a recent purchase. Out of the people who reply, follow up and ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed.
  • Host a free meetup where, say, someone gives a talk about an industry topic. Then ask people who attended to be interviewed. By first giving people value, you’ll increase your chances of them wanting to help you out. For a cheap alternative, host a webinar instead. Collect the email addresses of attendees, and presto!
  • If you don’t have a large customer pool to dip into, you could try using Mechanical Turk (a site used to outsource small tasks). For more info on sourcing data, check out this article.
  • Cold calling or emailing doesn’t tend to generate a high number of responses. However, if you do go down this route, consider using a script template so that you know exactly what to say.

Tips On Holding Interviews

It’s best to avoid email in favour of phone calls or face-to-face interviews. This way, you can dig deeper into people’s answers, ask for clarification, etc.

Tip #1: Ask open-ended questions. These allow people to talk about their experiences in their own terms, and encourage more in-depth answers.

Open-ended question: What’s the most frustrating thing about problem X? Close-ended question: Is problem X frustrating for you?

Tip #2: Don’t ask leading questions. A leading question prompts customers to respond in a certain way, unfairly directing conversation down some paths and not others.

Leading question: Do you get annoyed with your boss? Non-leading question: What is your relationship with your boss like?

Tip #3: Help people to feel comfortable. People may feel shy about criticizing your company. So make sure to affirm their feelings (you don’t necessarily have to agree to affirm them).

Customer: I find your website really difficult to navigate around. Interviewer: I can see how it might be difficult. Can you tell me more about what causes you trouble?

Social Mediasocial-media-content-sharing-600

The use of social media often can be very revealing. Sometimes people aren’t that willing to share details over interviews, or simply aren’t aware of their own habits. (Might we be shocked to learn exactly how much of our time is swallowed up on BuzzFeed?) While there are many tools out there, here are just a few to get you started:

See What Your Customers Are Saying About You

  • Track your @mentions through a platform such as Tweetdeck (with custom columns) or experiment with something more integrated like some of Sprout Social‘s dashboards.

See Who Else Your Customers Follow On Twitter

  • Sprout Social is great for this.
  • You could also get acquainted with Followerwonk to see who’s linking to your content and any potential prospects in your niche.
  • Another good tool for finding fellow SEOs is Googlewonk, the Followerwonk for G+.

Find Out Which Content Your Customers Are Sharing

  • Create custom social links using the Google URL builder to track the click-throughs of various content pieces via your Google Analytics.

screen grab GA 2

An example of a Google Analytics dashboard. (Click to enlarge.)

Internal Sources Of Info

Some of the answers you are looking for may already lie in your company.

Depending on what your chosen research questions are, people in customer-facing roles may be a great source of information. Just be warned: they might be inclined to tell you about their most extreme or funny customer service stories that aren’t necessarily representative of the typical customer. Be sure to spend enough time talking to them to get a decent idea of the everyday questions, not just the anomalies.

Some Questions Might Be:

  • What do people most often misunderstand about the product?
  • What level of technical knowledge do people typically have?
  • What causes people most frustration?
  • What do people generally like about the company or product?

After The Research

Once you have compiled all your information, you can start identifying themes and patterns.


You might want to form a set of different customer personas. These can help to get a clear picture in your head of what your customers are like. For example:

Tom (32) is a busy IT consultant who set up his own business last year. He is always on the hunt for new tools to improve his productivity and loves hearing about the latest technology…

Please note: your personas should not be actual customers, but should be fictional characters that are each representative of a different section of your audience. For more info on personas and audience research, see Chapter One of this guide we created at Distilled.

Idea Generation

While you are looking through your research findings, jot down ideas for lightweight content pieces such as blogs and short videos. This will provide a resource you can call on when you need inspiration. You can start thinking about bigger content, too. Just be careful not to jump the gun – you want to make sure that enough of your audience will be interested in that particular piece.

Some Questions To Consider:

  • How can you answer the problems and frustrations of your audience with content?
  • How can you focus more around the things they love or find useful?
  • What kind of language and terminology will your audience most appreciate?
  • What medium do they like to engage with the most?
  • Do they like data/graphs? Plenty of images?

Stock images used with permission of

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Content Marketing | Content Marketing Column | How To Guides | How To Guides: Content Marketing


About The Author: works as a Copy Editor at Distilled, a creative online marketing agency. She spends her days crafting copy for the website, emails and other bigger pieces of content.

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