Content Intelligence Blog

13 min read

How to plan content that actually connects with your audience

Dec 19, 2019 2:05:07 PM

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At Vennli we help marketers that are tired of guessing build content marketing plans that achieve growth goals. With that in mind, our own content strategy relies on creating valuable content for our marketer audience. To succeed we know our content needs to answer the questions related to the needs and desires of Leader Lori, Stretched Steve, and the rest of the gang.

leader lori

stretched steve

able allie

content carl

Does one of these Persona descriptions match you as a marketer?

If you are reading this article, we believe there’s a good chance one of them does. We’ve spent significant effort to get closer to our target audience. That effort helps us focus our content on the pains, needs, and questions of our prospective customers.

Just like Vennli, your content effectiveness will take a giant leap forward when you get specific about how your content plans connect to your customers.

I’ll be the first to admit it takes work to stay up to date with your target audience. But if you are already committed to content marketing and you don’t clearly connect with your target audience you are paying a big price and may be wasting your time and money. Moreover, if you are about to make the leap into content marketing, you should know that it is an investment to plan content you are confident will engage your audience, but it’s worth it.

This article shares the steps to plan content that connects with customers’ needs and desires so that you start reaping the benefits from your content marketing investment.

Table of Contents
  • The costs of not understanding your audience
  • An alternative: Connect marketing content to audience needs and desires
  • Step 1: Define your target audience
  • Step 2: Plan content topics that match audience needs and desires by journey stage
  • Step 3: Evaluate content performance relative to audience
  • Get more connected to your audience today

The costs of not understanding your audience

We easily fall into the trap that putting out some content is better than putting out no content - even if it means the topic is a little undirected, or we are not sure if we are promoting to quite the right audience. While it is true that a consistent stream of content is important to see the rewards from content marketing, content that does not speak to your target audience or is not positioned to reach your target audience will not drive results no matter how consistently you publish.

What happens when you don't know exactly who your audience is or where they are? 

Wasted ad dollars

I was recently talking to a colleague about their experience at a previous organization. The organization was spending $10,000 a month on ads that were not intentionally targeted to any given audience. Marketing was simply hoping that at least some of their ad content was reaching their intended audience.

Wasted traffic

When you are not sure of the steps your prospect is likely to take and the questions he or she needs to answer before becoming a customer, you end up creating content or promoting it in ways that are unproductive. For example, you may be buying the wrong keywords for your paid search strategy, or you may be driving people to gated content that is a buyer comparison guide when what they really need is a broad description of the product category. 

Wasted leads

You may be effectively targeting your audience but still missing the mark. When your content does not answer an important question for your audience or does not entertain or inspire them in a way they find valuable, they won't come back for more - and they certainly won't respond to your call to action to take the next step forward in the customer journey.

The reality

How confident are you that you know how your audience is struggling and what they are searching at each step of the customer journey?

Not so confident?

Don't fret. You’re in good company.

The Content Management and Strategy Survey by CMI highlights that the most common challenges faced by content marketers are:

  • Prioritizing audiences (71%)
  • Knowing what is most important to audiences (61%)
  • Knowing audience goal at different stages (50%)
  • Knowing customer journey (49%)

An alternative: Connect marketing content to audience needs and desires

There is a better way, and it's worth it (e.g., growing sales, growing repeat purchases and renewals).

To do it right takes discipline, but anyone - including you - can do it. What are we waiting for? Let’s deep dive into how to build customer needs and desires into every content plan.

Step 1: Define your target audience

We’d all love to have as much information about our target audience as possible when planning content, including:

  • Targetable characteristics
  • Customer journey
  • Marketing channels where our audience hangs out
  • Needs and desires
  • Perceptions of our strengths vs. competition
  • Preferred content format
  • Past content performance

That is a boatload of information. Let's break it down into bite-sized chunks and discuss the information we need to consider to build great Personas that represent our audience.

Targetable characteristics

Targetable Characteristics include demographics or firmographics. These characteristics help size and prioritize your audience. They also allow you to target your audience when paying for ads.

Customer journey

The customer journey refers to the steps someone in your audience will take to move from discovering their challenge, to becoming aware of your brand, to ultimately becoming a brand advocate. This could include a formal purchase process with multiple stakeholders or a purely digital journey that the customer navigates online.

Marketing channels where our audience hangs out

Regardless of the type of journey, we also need to know the regular habits and media consumption of our audience so that we can identify the best marketing channels to share and promote our content. Then, depending on the communities and media outlets where your audience hangs out, you may choose to promote your content using social platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or you may be best served by direct mail, email, organic and paid traffic to your blog, or a guest appearance on a popular podcast.

Needs and Desires

Needs and desires include the problem, or reason your customer is in the market for your product category in the first place all the way down to specific preferences for product features. Early on a prospect will be most focused on her understanding and solving her problem. Later, as she evaluates and adopts a solution, the focus will change to comparing alternatives and then to getting the most out of her investment.

Perceptions of our strengths vs. competition

Customers choose our offerings when they perceive it as better than alternatives in at least one dimension. That competitive advantage may relate to the features of the offering itself, or it may have more to do with convenience, availability, personal preference, brand affinity, or past relationships. We’ll want to know the perceived advantages so we can emphasize them in our content. We may also look to neutralize the advantages of our competition through changes in our offering and improved communication.

Preferred Content Format and Promotional Channels

The content format and channels by which you promote content will differ based on the intended audience. Is a video, eBook, how-to article, infographic, webinar, podcast, or case study best? The answer will depend on how your audience prefers to consume content at different points in their decision journey.

Past Content Performance

Past content performance is simply the measurement of your previous marketing content efforts. This will provide feedback to reinforce or update your beliefs about the characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors of your audience. Having a benchmark for traffic and engagement performance for a particular audience will help you know when things are going well or when it is time for a course correction.

A documented Persona for each of your major customer segments is a great way to start capturing your target audience definition. Be careful. It will quickly become unwieldy if you don't have a good place to store and maintain it. You may start with a slide or a spreadsheet on your own computer. Try moving to a shared file or collaborative tool to build organizational alignment around your target audience. (Shameless plug: Vennli has a built in tool for managing persona data).

The more detail you build around your target audience over time, the more effective your content will become. Get started with the best data you have today and make a plan to improve what you know about your audience. Here are suggestions to improve how well you know your audience:

  • Ask others in your organization to fill in gaps and edit your Persona descriptions based on their beliefs
  • Check out your customers’ profiles on LinkedIn or Facebook and look for clues that will help you update your description or validate what you already have
  • Look for language around customer pain and product benefit on your own website, your offering pages, and the websites of a few competitors
  • Talk to a handful of customers that you believe reflect your Persona to better understand the motivations behind their behavior
  • Conduct a survey of your target audience
  • Use an AI tool such as Vennli’s Content Intelligence Platform to quickly review topic suggestions from third party data sources such as Google search data

Step 2: Plan content topics, format, and promotional channels that match audience needs and desires by journey stage

No matter how precise your audience description, you still need to break through the noise to reach your intended audience. This is where the messaging for headlines, ad copy, keywords, and meta descriptions on web pages is crucial. When your messaging tells a clear story about who the content is for, it does two great things. First, it attracts the right audience like a magnet. Second, it warns everyone else to stay away.

Content intelligence tools like Vennli, SEO tools, and direct customer research are all resources for revisiting your assumptions about your audience’s biggest pains and how they are looking to solve them.

Getting the messaging right is only half the battle. You then need to plan valuable content that answers their questions and helps them make decisions.

Your content topic, format, and distribution channel should match your audience needs and preferences. Those needs and preferences will change as your customers move through their journey. It’s important that you take the time to map journey stages to identify the content Formats, Channels, and Topics most relevant to your audience at each stage.

Where possible you should also differentiate your content from competition. Differentiating your content gives your audience a reason to engage (and ultimately choose) you at each stage of the journey. Also, you can make your audience’s choice easier by providing a clear contrast to the competing alternatives.

It’s time to pull your Persona descriptions off the shelf and translate those descriptions into action now that you are planning your content calendar. One useful tool for taking what you know about your audience and translating that to content is to build a Content Topic List for a content campaign. You can make a grid with the relevant personas listed as rows and the stages of the customer journey listed as columns. Then, fill in the content topics you believe will answer the questions important to your audience at each stage of the journey. These content topics will now guide your content creation across different journey stages.

I use a shorthand for identifying the types of topics that will best support different journey stages:

  • Individual needs and goals for Awareness
  • Category and product benefits for Consideration
  • Product attributes and features for conversion
  • Achieved outcomes and desired use case goals for retention
  • Category and product benefits that are inspiring, easily shareable, or build a sense of community for Advocacy

Content marketing for personas in the customer journey

You can build a similar table for content format and channels so that you can start to see your content plan coming together with content formats, channels, and topics outlined for each journey stage.

Step 3: Evaluate content performance

There are three ways content can fail:

  1. Content created does not match content plan
  2. Content distributed does not reach intended audience
  3. Content experienced does not engage audience

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Content execution is off plan

What is planned isn’t always what gets done. The first place to evaluate content performance is to look at your content execution. You may conduct a content audit to surface gaps in your existing content in terms of its match to the customer journey and its match to customer needs and desires. This is a big investment but one that can pay off when you prioritize your content calendar to produce content to close the biggest gaps. Tools are being created that will make the content audit process simpler in the future.

Start auditing each new piece of content if a full content audit is not an option. Use the content brief as a checklist to quickly review the new content as it nears completion.

What content brief, you ask?

Use this template as a standard format for capturing the plan for each piece of content. It makes producing content less ambiguous whether you are creating it yourself or working with team members or an agency. And it makes it easy to flag when content is off track from the plan.

contnet brief2

Content distribution does not reach audience

The best way to optimize your content operation once you have your target audience nailed down is to take feedback from your current content activities and feed that back into your content plans. In order to do that you’ll need to invest in ways to measure content performance.

Analytics tools broadly come in four different flavors if most of your content is digital:

  • Search
  • Website
  • Email
  • Social

If a large portion of your content is offline or through earned media you’ll want to invest in a broader range of tools for measuring reach and engagement through those channels.

As soon as you have an analytics tools that provides data for at least one channel, you can put it to work. Successful content is measured in two steps:

  • Traffic - How many of my intended audience are finding the content?
  • Engagement - How many of my intended audience take some action that demonstrates they are getting value from the content?

Unique page views is a traffic metric that works well for online content. The same idea can be applied in other formats such as open rate for emails or booth visits for events.

Of course, there are many ways to drive traffic to our content. We know what really matters for achieving our growth goals is to drive the right kind of traffic - the right kind of traffic being individuals that have the pain our offering can solve.

When you start looking for ways to increase traffic, the first place to start is to ensure you have defined targetable characteristics for your intended audience and you are using those defined characteristics for any paid promotion. Social platforms and many programmatic ad platforms make this easy today, but you should also dig into audience characteristics if you have a paid influencer or affiliate strategy. Doing your homework will also pay off when selecting earned media outlets such as online publications or news media to target for content placement.

Once you are confident you are targeting your intended audience, you can start considering your traffic metrics. If you are not seeing the traffic you expect for early stage content, you’ll want to ask yourself if you're targeting or you're messaging around customer pain should be adjusted. If you are not seeing the traffic progressing through content at various stages of the customer journey then it may be time to do more research and refine your messaging or the content itself. The next section digs into content engagement.

Content does not engage audience

The most valuable engagement metric is one that shows the audience is ready to take the next step in the customer journey. Measuring this level of engagement becomes simpler when marketing content has a clear call-to-action. One distinguishing feature of marketing content from content built specifically for news and entertainment is that marketing content should always have a clear call-to-action (i.e., an invitation for the audience to do something next after consuming the content).

Start reviewing traffic and engagement data in order to improve future content plans. Specifically, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a particular journey stage where traffic or engagement falls off?
    (May need to create additional content for this stage or improve the existing content)
  • Are there particular topics that have higher than average or lower than average traffic or engagement?
    (May need to expand coverage of high value topics and consider direct customer research to uncover additional high value topics)
  • Are there particular content formats that have higher traffic or engagement?
    (May need to focus content production resources on these formats)
  • Are there particular distribution or promotion channels that have higher or lower than average engagement?
    (May need to increase placement in high performing channels and reduce placement in lower performing channels while continuing to experiment to test existing and new channels)

Note how the opportunities for improvement relate back to the dimensions of the content brief. This highlights the benefit from adopting a smart content planning process: Plan content in a standard way that ties to audience needs and desires, share your content with the intended audience, measure its performance, and then update the plans for your next content based on what you learn. Bada bing, bada boom.

Get more connected to your audience TODAY

Here are three things you can start doing today to get more connected to your audience. You can find more details around these tips in a post focused on smart content planning.

1. Build a library that can be the single source of truth for key business assumptions related to content.
Some assumptions are so fundamental to the success of the business, they deserve a home of their own. Once these resources live in one place, it is easy to collaborate, align, and plan new activities. For content planning, these are things like the description of:
  • Target audience personas
  • Customer journey(s)
  • Distribution and promotion channels.

2. Find ways to take a quick pulse on audience needs and desires related to your specific content campaign.
You rarely have time to do fresh research on your target audience for a new content campaign. However, this shouldn’t be an excuse for not using what you have. Simply getting your content topics out on paper in an organized way can connect your content more effectively to your audience. Share your content topic list with others in your organization that are familiar with the customer you have in mind. Ask them to fill in gaps and edit your topic list based on their beliefs about your audience.

2. Invest in marketing analytics tailored for content measurement.
Marketing automation suites are becoming better at collecting and reporting metrics across a variety of channels. Picking the right marketing automation tool for your organization can simplify your analytics strategy.

Tired of guessing when it comes to your content? Check out a free trial of the Vennli content intelligence platform and see how you can start content marketing with confidence. 


Personas-Mockup-webThe Ultimate Guide to Building the Best Buyer Personas 

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Bart Frischknecht, PhD
Written by Bart Frischknecht, PhD

Vice President, Product Strategy, Vennli
Bart is all about building marketing technology to help business leaders achieve growth goals. He is passionate about using data to put customers’ needs and choices at the center of strategic decision making. Bart’s background is a blend of design, marketing, and engineering, which provides a unique perspective on a company’s role to create, communicate, and deliver value to its customers.

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