This content contains 4304 words and is approximately a 17-minute read.
How do you most often communicate with those around you? If you are like most of us, it is through speech. Simple talking is the way we communicate thoughts, ideas, and emotions. And even when we do write, the words we put on paper simply represent an expression of those words we would otherwise speak. In light of that, language is very important.
If you were to give a presentation to a group of people who spoke an entirely different language than your own, you would have several choices. First, you could speak in your own language and rely on an interpreter to get your message across to the audience. Second, you could take the time to learn the language of your audience so that you could speak to them directly. Third, you could speak in whatever language makes you comfortable and hope for the best.
When it comes to online marketing, it is quite common for business owners to choose the third option. They create content in whatever way seems normal and natural and then hope it will effectively reach the target audience. That is the wrong way to go. Creating effective content means producing content in the ‘language’ of the audience, so to speak. And in order to know what that language is, you need to know who your target audience is.
In summary, the first step in creating effective content is identifying your audience and the online (not literal) language they speak. Only then can you begin to understand how to create content to reach them.
The Online Audience
Prior to the introduction of the internet as a commercial entity in the 1980s, people consumed information in much different ways. Your parents and grandparents likely read the daily newspaper to stay abreast of what was happening locally and nationally. The adults of that day also read periodicals including weekly and monthly magazines. And, of course, books were extremely popular as well.
News was also consumed via television and radio formats. Families would gather together to hear local and national broadcasts before turning to entertainment options. Advertisements aired during prime TV and radio times bombarded consumers with all kinds of messages. Nothing was done online because online access simply did not exist.
Step back and think about the implications of all that. How did people understand the information they consumed prior to the internet? It was remarkably different. For example, there was no such thing as an emoticon 20 years ago. Writers, whether composing articles for newspapers or writing letters to relatives across town, did not use shorthand phrases like LOL and IMHO. Written language was a lot more formal and structured.
A Totally Different Environment
Consumers in the 21st century have largely abandoned old guard media. Print newspapers and magazines are dying quickly; traditional television is being replaced by streaming services and on-demand content; the vast majority of people under the age of 50 now get and consume most of their information online.
Check out the following statistics from a 2015 Ofcom report:
- 76% of internet users read news websites
- 83% of internet users research information relating to leisure time activities
- 70% of internet users research health related information
- 94% of internet users send and receive e-mails regularly
- 75% of internet users use social media sites on apps
- 73% of internet users watch and/or download video content
- 60% of internet users watch and/or download TV programmes and films.
The Ofcom data also shows that 97% of those with internet access engage in general surfing and/or browsing. Combine that with the key statistic mentioned in the introduction of this course – 90% of all British households have internet access – and it is clear to see how important quality content is.
The way we consume information has changed dramatically. Subsequently, the way we write and use language has also changed. Online content must be created with those changes in mind if it is to be effective.
How People Read Online Content
Internet users like to consume content in multiple ways. They read, watch videos, listen to audio streams, and participate in surveys and polls. The key to creating effective content is to not make assumptions. Do not assume that just because a piece of content you created meets your standards of quality that everyone who runs across it will actually take the time to consume it.
Since we are focusing on written content, it is incumbent for us to ask just how people read. Well, a 2008 study that presented people with written content in various forms and then measured their responses revealed some interesting things. The study tracked eye movement as well as things like how web browsers are used and how the size of a screen affects consumption of online content.
The most important take away from that study can be encapsulated in a single word: scan. Whereas people who are given a book or magazine to read will make the effort to go through each sentence word by word, online content consumers are more apt to scan first. They will scan a piece of content, briefly looking at things like titles, subtitles, and bulleted lists before determining whether a piece is actually worth reading or not.
This suggests that you could write an excellent 1,000-word piece that details your chosen topic with precision and an artistic nuance, only to find that no one actually reads the piece all the way through. How is this possible? It happens all the time when content creators don’t create scannable content.
We discuss what scannable content looks like in another blog post. For now, it’s enough to know that internet users are looking for information in short, bite-sized chunks that they can consume and digest quickly. They are not looking for content that requires a lot of mental work.
The Need for Speed
The 2008 study also revealed that people prefer speed when it comes to consuming online content. Interestingly enough, the human brain of the 21st century has developed its own reading pattern that is perfectly adapted to the online age. The pattern is based on three components:
- Horizontal Movement – The reading begins with horizontal movement across the upper part of the page. This allows the brain to take in the title, any associated images at the top of the page, and any introduction that may have been offered.
- Second Horizontal Movement – The pattern follows with a second horizontal movement with the eyes focused about one-third down the visible screen area. With this movement, the brain is looking for relevant information that might be contained in subheadings or bulleted lists.
- Vertical Movement – The third movement in the pattern has the eyes scanning from top to bottom on the left side (for languages that move from left to right). This movement is looking for line breaks to determine how long paragraphs are.
This reading pattern has been named the ‘F’ pattern because the two horizontal movements followed by the single vertical movement essentially forms the letter ‘F’. Fortunately, associating the pattern with the letter makes it easy to understand and remember.
The point of all this is to underscore the fact that it does not take long for the eyes and brain to complete this brief pattern of scanning. The mind of the internet user can determine very quickly, without ever scrolling, whether a piece of content is worth the effort to fully consume. Experts say the entire process takes 15 seconds or less.
That’s right, you have about 15 seconds to grab the attention of website visitors before they move on to the next page. If you do not create scannable content capable of doing that, it will not matter how well-written your piece is.
Now that you know how people read online content, it’s time to learn how to exploit their natural tendencies in order to increase the chances that they will consume your content to its fullest.
Identifying Your Audience
Knowing how your target audience is likely to consume online content is just the beginning. You need to know who your audience is as well. Otherwise, how can you craft a message to reach them?
We like to think of identifying the audience as similar to identifying and teaching pupils in a school. The school’s principal does not simply assume all the children in attendance are the same age and with identical abilities. Rather, the school collects information on the children before the new term starts, for the purposes of dividing them into groups that can be taught at the appropriate level.
This way of looking at things instructs us, as content creators, that not every internet user will be interested in what we have to say. For instance, Connotations is a company specialising in online content creation. Our message will only be of interest to those looking for our services. Thus, we tailor our content to those specific internet users.
Understand Your Organisation
What exactly is your organisation? Are you running a business, a non-profit, or something else entirely? Furthermore, what is it your organisation is trying to accomplish? The answers to these three questions form the foundation for identifying your target audience.
For the purposes of this section, we will talk about a fictional company known as the Acme Widget Company. They are a for-profit organisation specialising in plastic widgets with sharp blades that are used to scrape windows. Now we know what the organisation is and the fact that it is a profit generating venture. Next, we need to know what it is that they are trying to accomplish.
In short, their primary goal is to sell widgets. Great. Now we can begin to zero in on their primary audience. This begins by understanding what the Acme Widget Company offers that the competition does not. For example, Acme might be unique in several ways:
- They hand-make their widgets rather than importing them from China
- All their widgets come with a 30-day, money-back guarantee
- They offer free, same day shipping in the UK; one-day shipping elsewhere.
By asking and answering a few basic questions, we now have a fairly good profile of the Acme Widget Company from a marketing standpoint. We know what the organisation is; we know it is a for-profit organisation; we know what the organisation is trying to accomplish; we know what they offer that the competition does not. Now it’s time to apply the information to identifying the target audience.
Understanding Who Benefits
An organisation’s target audience is those groups of people who would most benefit from the products or services offered. So, what kinds of people would most benefit from an Acme widget? Professional painters are one group that immediately comes to mind.
Painters use widgets to scrape paint off windows after a completed job. They might also use the widgets to remove old caulking so that new caulking can be applied. Painters would be part of our target audience.
Widgets also act as fairly efficient box cutters, too. They are small, they easily fit in a pocket, and they are less expensive than utility knives. So who uses box cutters? People that come to mind include shipping and receiving clerks, warehouse employees, retail store stockers, delivery people, and the like.
We could continue exploring different groups of people, but you get the point. There are certain kinds of people who would find handmade widgets from Acme helpful. They are the ones we want to target with our content.
Understanding How They Think
One last thing to consider about identifying the target audience is understanding how they think. This is a critical aspect of content creation that is often overlooked. Unfortunately, far too many content creators simply assume that everyone in the world thinks like them. This is just not true.
Let’s say you receive a package in the mail. You are so excited that you probably don’t care how you get the box open. You are probably not concerned about whether your efforts damage the box so badly that it cannot be used again. You just want what’s inside. Don’t assume every shipping and receiving clerk you hope to sell widgets to opens packages the same way. In fact, it is quite likely that shipping clerks do things quite differently.
A shipping clerk is not going to want to damage a box in any way. Why? Because that same box can be used to ship goods out of the warehouse. There’s no point in the company investing in its own stock of boxes if recycling those they receive can be used instead. In light of that, the shipping and receiving clerk is going to be a lot more careful. He or she is going to want to cut the packing tape cleanly without damaging the box.
You can generate content that speaks to that shipping and receiving clerk. The content does not even have to address Acme widgets directly. It can be something as benign as a discussion about how to best recycle boxes. You could mention the widgets in passing and still effectively get the message across.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
There are lots of different ways SEO experts have come up with to help content creators identify and think like their target audiences. One of them, creating audience profiles, we discuss a couple of paragraphs down. Perhaps the easiest way to do it, though, is to simply put yourself in the shoes of someone who might buy your products or services.
Let’s say you run a window washing company. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers. What do you think you would expect from a contractor?
Maybe your highest priority is to get the best possible price without sacrificing a good job. Perhaps you need someone with the capacity to wash windows that are three stories up. Maybe you have a rather large conservatory surrounded by an exquisitely landscaped garden and you want a window washer who can get the job done while protecting your flowers and shrubs.
You will undoubtedly be looking for whatever is most important to you as you browse online for window washers. Well, guess what? If your search for contractors leads you to an article talking about the safest and most effective way to clean conservatory windows, don’t you think you’d be likely to follow that link? Wouldn’t you at least scan that blog post? Absolutely you would – because clean conservatory windows with no garden damage are a priority of yours.
Listen to Their Questions
Another good technique for learning to think the way your customers think is to listen closely to the questions they ask. You might even make a point of writing down those questions for a month or two. What customers ask reveal exactly what they are thinking.
Take a minute right now and just think about the most frequently asked questions you hear. If you can understand the intent behind those questions, you will get a good idea of what kinds of thoughts are running through the minds of your customers. And by the way, you can use those questions to create your own FAQ page. FAQ pages are exceptionally popular as online content for driving traffic.
Along with customer questions, consider how you answer them. This is important because it tells you what your customers are thinking. If you provide an answer that the customer is satisfied with, you obviously understood what they wanted to know. If your answer is unsatisfactory, you missed it somewhere. This will prompt another question, which will give you another opportunity to answer. The back-and-forth will help you better understand customers if you pay attention.
Audience profiles are something that marketing experts and software developers use all the time. Marketing experts are interested in audience profiles because such profiles tell them how to market using various forms of content. Software developers use the profiles, for example, to direct how smartphone apps are designed in terms of function and user interface.
The idea behind audience profiles is to go beyond mere messaging to get to the core of what we are all after: conversion. What is conversion? In the simplest possible terms, conversion is encouraging a website visitor or app user to take positive action. Conversion on a retail website would be convincing customers to buy something. Conversion for a non-profit organisation might be to convince someone to get involved by joining and helping the organisation.
Creating audience profiles can help you become a better content creator by supplying you with a framework around which you can create your pieces. For purposes of illustration, let us return to the fictional Acme Widget Company. Let’s also assume that market research has demonstrated Acme’s two biggest customer groups are professional painters and commercial shipping and receiving departments.
Creating Audience Profiles
A clever way to look at audience profiles is to consider them a form of demographics. The first target group for Acme is professional painters, so we can build a demographic group around them simply by doing a little market research. Our research indicates that:
- Painters make an average £26,000 annually
- Annual pay for painters has increased 7.4% over the last year
- The majority of painters are younger and middle-aged males
- Most painters work in the trade and construction industry
- The top three markets for painters are the South East, London, and the South West.
From just this little bit of data, we can begin to form an image in our mind of what the average professional painter in Great Britain is like. We know his approximate age range, his average annual salary, and where he is most likely to find work. Now we can start to tailor messages that will appeal to painters. For what purpose? To convince them to buy their widgets from the Acme Widget Company.
Though our fictional company and audience profiles are rather crude, they drive home the point sufficiently enough. What we did for painters could also be done for commercial shipping and receiving departments, with the only difference being that shipping and receiving departments would be profiled as business entities rather than individual persons. Messaging would be B2B (business-to-business) rather than B2C (business-to-consumer).
Don’t Assume – Ask Instead
As helpful as it is to create audience profiles, the one massive mistake far too many content creators make is to create those profiles based on assumptions. This goes back to the idea of mistakenly assuming that everyone thinks like you do. Assumptions are not the right way to go.
It is appropriate to do market research using online sources to get a solid start on audience profiles. But if market research does not turn up enough data to create an adequate profile, do not just assume to fill in the holes. Instead, ask. The Acme Widget Company should be asking its customers things like:
- How often do you buy our widgets?
- How do you most often use our widgets?
- Why do you prefer our widgets over competing products?
- How could we make our widgets better?
- Do you recommend Acme to others? Why or why not?
Nothing can substitute for the actual thoughts of customers when building audience profiles. Such thoughts are key to helping content creators truly understand their target audiences, thereby giving them a direction for content creation.
Their Need, Your Solution
Remember that the point of using audience profiles is to increase conversion rates. In other words, you want your content and the outlets used to promote it to encourage people to utilise your products or services. It’s great to drive traffic to your website, but traffic alone is not going to pay the bills. You need that traffic to ultimately generate revenue.
When you look at content creation from a revenue generation standpoint, one principle becomes crystal clear: your target audience has a need and you have the solution for that need. Looked at in this light, audience profiles become even more important.
Since the Acme Widget Company knows its products are in high demand among professional painters, they can craft content specifically focused at those painters in order to convince them that Acme widgets are their best option. Painters need widgets; the Acme Widget Company manufactures and sells widgets. It is a marriage made in heaven. However, it is a marriage that will never take place if the bride and groom aren’t aware of one another’s existence.
Creating Customer Personas
There is an extension of audience profiles known as customer personas. The customer persona is a more refined, detailed profile of what a single customer might look like. Customer personas are very popular with marketing experts attempting to tailor a single message to a single group.
Customer personas are not appropriate in every situation. In fact, it would not be worth developing customer personas simply for the purposes of writing blog posts or curating industry news. Such generalised information rarely has such a specialised impact. However, there are other cases when customer personas are very helpful.
Let’s say the Acme Widget Company decided to expand its business by getting into silicone kitchen utensils. Their first product in this category is going to be a revolutionary new turner that they guarantee will never stick to any kind of food. If the marketing department is smart, the first thing they will come to understand is that a silicone turner is not a product with broad appeal. It is going to be used only by a limited number of people.
Creating a customer persona in this case would involve creating three or four fictional individuals who would use the turner on a regular basis. You might imagine one of the people to be a young mother with one school-age child, a part-time job, and a husband who works full-time. What kind of messages do you think would appeal to this young mother?
How It’s Actually Done
Creating customer personas may seem way out of your league at this point, so here is some good news: it’s not hard to do once you get the hang of it. Another bit of good news is that there are plenty of generic templates available online that you can download for free. If you find a template you like, you can simply fill in the information under the various headings and have a customer persona in mere minutes.
A standard customer persona includes:
- a name and job title
- the customer’s place of employment
- a job description
- demographics (age, sex, salary, family, education, etc.)
- goals and challenges
- personal values and fears
- a targeted marketing message
- an elevator pitch.
Some of the information in the customer persona will be completely made up. These are things like name and job title. However, it helps to do a bit of market research for other parts of the profile. For example, it would take only a few minutes to find information to create an accurate job description for whatever occupation is chosen.
As for the elevator pitch, this is simply a message you could convey to this customer in a 30-second elevator ride. The message must be short and concise enough to make your point well understood without leaving the customer confused. For example:
“Acme is now offering a brand-new, revolutionary turner for your kitchen. Its silicone construction guarantees it will never stick to your food – period! Just imagine how much easier it will be to cook and clean up with this great new utensil.”
Our elevator pitch concisely explains what is on offer. It highlights what is unique about the product AND how the young mother would benefit from owning one. Our fictional customer now has reason to go learn more about the turner. Anticipating that, we can now create content that will encourage her to buy.
Start Thinking Like Them
The whole point of creating customer personas is to get you to start thinking like the people you want to reach with your content. Personas are not intended to be 100% accurate. Nevertheless, the closer a customer persona is to reality, the more effective your marketing message will be. We recommend using the following four sources to create customer personas:
- General statistical and descriptive data found online
- Analytics data generated by your SEO efforts
- Social media research and engagement
- Your actual customers (ask them questions!).
Marketing experts recommend between three and five customer personas at any given time. You can have more or less, depending on the scale of your operations. Regardless of the number though, remember that customer personas are intended to help you get inside the minds of those you are trying to reach. The most important benefit of the customer persona is that it gets you thinking about what you are doing so that your content creation efforts don’t end up being aimless.
In this article we have learned quite a bit about understanding your online audience. Hopefully, you have come to the realisation that effective content creation requires understanding who it is you are trying to reach. If nothing else, this one point is the primary thing to remember from this module. You cannot create effective content if you don’t know who that content is designed to reach. It is just that simple.
Before we close out this article, here are the most relevant points to remember:
- People consume information in different ways today as compared to previous generations
- Information in the 21st century is consumed primarily through digital means
- People consume digital information differently (i.e., they scan articles before they read)
- In order to understand your target audience, you must first understand your organisation
- Understanding your target audience is about understanding how customers think
- Audience profiles and customer personas can help you better understand your target audience.