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3 Keys to Activating an Audience with Smarter Content

Ben Straley
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Everyone's talking about content marketing these days. OK, maybe not "everyone," but certainly a whole bunch of people are doing so within the search marketing and digital media business.

So what's all the hoopla about anyway? Content marketing refers to the practice of creating unique content, driving an audience to it, and then hoping (praying) that the content is useful or engaging enough to get people to remember, share, and talk about it. When marketers make this happen, it's good for consumers and great for the brands behind it.

Before going any further, it's important to point out that the process described above is virtually indistinguishable from the process advertisers have followed for a hundred years. The difference between then and now is that with advent of search, social media, and mobile devices, advertisers can no longer rely on TV and radio (or banner ads for that matter) to deliver a captive audience. They have to earn it. That's where content comes in.

The holy grail of content marketing is to make the process as predictable, repeatable, and scalable as the 30-second television spot or the banner ad without giving up the organic authenticity that distinguishes good branded content from marketing noise. What has been so dramatically and irrevocably disrupted is the narrow control over distribution.

There used to be three broadcast TV networks, then there were hundreds of cable channels, now there's YouTube. Content is and always has been king, but the means of its distribution are now mediated through the eyes, ears, hearts, and relationships of 2+ billion people. Brands must earn the attention of their audience and that is content marketing's raison d'être.

So what are the keys to effective content marketing? It turns out there are three – the "who," "what," and "where."

Know Your Audience

When we talk about the "who" of a content marketing strategy, we're talking about the target and the actual audiences for your content. There's the audience that already cares and the audience you want to care. Effective content marketers follow a three-step audience research, planning, and measurement process to maximize the odds that their content strategy is going to reach and engage the intended target audience.

Audience research involves gathering and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data to build a "data dossier" on your target audience. Essentially, you're looking to create one or more data-driven personae based on first-party data from customers, partners, employees, and market research providers. This is the "who" you want to reach with your content marketing.

Just like the message boxer Mike Tyson delivered when he said "everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth," content marketers recognize that all bets are off as soon as the content makes contact in the wilds of social media. There's no telling how the content will be discovered or by whom.

As a result of this uncertainty, it's vital to have tools in place to collect actual audience data to compare against the personae developed during the research and planning stage. There are a number of good free and premium platforms out there to gather and analyze actual demographic, psychographic, behavioral, and social audience attributes, including Quantcast (free), Google Analytics (free), comScore (paid), Lotame (paid), and BlueKai (paid).

Analysis of the actual audience size and composition provides tremendous measurement and optimization opportunities. When asked to justify the ROI of a content marketing program, audience data is vital for quantifying the reach and level of engagement with the brand content among the target audience.

This should sound familiar to anyone who has used GRPs to research, plan, and measure media performance. Same concept, but now it can be applied using a more census-based and real-time approach – requirements in today's dynamic and highly fragmented digital media landscape.

Tell Stories

Once content marketers have a firm understanding of your target audience and technology in place to measure against it, the challenge is to figure out what kinds of content to create or curate to reach that audience on recurring and engaging basis at scale.

The best sales people are incredible story tellers. They use stories to establish trust, deliver memorable information, and create a sense of urgency. Stories are the content.

Great storytelling is like magic and as such is impossible to automate. It is an art. But what is possible to make a scalable part of your process for determining what kinds of content to create is the real-time feedback from your target audience.

Since you've got the tools in place to collect this data, use it to understand what's driving discovery and engagement among the target. Is it the product preview video content, the case studies, the infographics, or none/all of the above?

Your audience data and web analytics can hold the key to understanding what kinds of stories told in which form(s) are the most likely to lead to discovery, engagement, and sharing.

Reach Them Where They Are

The section head above is a bit cliché, but it is truer now than ever. What's different today is when we say "where" we don't just mean the website the target audience is on, we're also referring to where they are in time and space (i.e., their context.

A story that reaches a consumer who is looking at his or her Facebook news feed on an iPhone while riding the bus to work is a very different opportunity than one where the content reaches a dad who is sitting on his couch with the TV on while thumbing through the news on Flipboard. The need states are as different as are the jobs these folks are trying to do. (One is connecting with friends, while the other is catching up on today's news.)

Watching where the target audience discovers and subsequently shares stories is critical to understanding their true reach and relevancy. In addition, tracing the trajectory of the story from one member of the target audience to another is a great indicator of where to buy PPC and other forms of advertising to further amplify the message(s) and incrementally expand its reach. Here again, data and analytics play a key role in content marketing strategy and execution.

Conclusion

Every content marketing program should leverage tools and technologies that track and make actionable data relating to your audience (target vs. actual), content (forms and stories), and points of distribution (devices, sites, etc). This is what makes content smarter.

From there it's about putting processes in place to produce continuously the key insights about what is or isn't activating the target audience, and feed them into the creative process where the art and magic of storytelling happens.

Finally, developing a set of metrics and benchmarks that reveals the true reach, engagement, and ROI of each unit of content will provide your business with the necessary feedback to know when and where to invest to achieve the best possible financial and strategic outcomes in the near and long terms.


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