Find Out Which Topics Your Audience Cares About In Five Simple Steps

Find Out Which Topics Your Audience Cares About In Five Simple Steps

A crucial element in Content Marketing audience research consists of finding out what topics your prospective customers are interested in. Because even if you write about “more or less” the right thing, you might still miss the mark.

Here’s how to take the guesswork out of it and systematically analyse your audience’s content preferences.

 

This is a topic within Content Marketing Strategy. Remember – Content Marketing consists of these four pillars.

The four pillars of Content Marketing

Strategy itself needs to consider four main areas of work: The Customer, the Content, the Process and the Company. With the topic at hand, we find ourselves in the Customer area.

Content Marketing Strategy contents

(to read about all the other areas, download our Content Marketing Strategy eBook).

So today, we’ll do a deep dive on researching our desired audience’s current content usage. After all, we need to find out what the people we want to pay attention to us are reading.

Again, let’s remind ourselves that Content Marketing does not mean you will blog about how lovely your product or service is. Because no one outside of your company is interested in that. The role of Content Marketing is to create content that your audience will really enjoy reading / seeing / listening to. This will then allow you to build a stronger relationship with them. (read here more about the very basics of Content Marketing)

In other words, you’re creating a magazine in order to attract and engage your current and prospective customers.

So, let’s pick a specific example. Imagine you’re a software company selling a productivity tool for software engineers, and your target audience are CIOs and IT Directors of medium-sized to large companies.

Here’s how to do research on their existing content habits.

 

1. Find out which social media platforms your audience uses

In this case, as we’re talking CIOs and IT Directors, it’s pretty safe to assume they are not hanging out on Snapchat adding dog ears to their selfies.

Since our target audience is defined by their job title, the most reasonable starting point is LinkedIn. Join CIO and IT Manager groups on LinkedIn, look at who is running them, and who inside them is the most vocal sharer of content, both their own and others’.

You can also simply google “most influential CIOs”, that will also give you a host of great intel.

Compile 20 influencers, both people and publications. (This will come in very handy later on, when you research your topics and when you want to promote your content.). Rank them by their combined followership on the social media platforms that matter.

 

2. Note what kind of content the influencers engage with

And do it in a systematic way:

Go through each influencer’s last 10 content posts on LinkedIn and Twitter. Note the topic and how much social engagements these posts received.

Over time, content categories will emerge. Let’s say that for our purposes, these are

    1. General interest tech news. CIOs are interested in innovation topics, so things like self-driving cars, automation and artificial intelligence are high on the agenda.
    2. Management topics, such as how to manage a team.
    3. Broader self-improvement and entrepreneurship topics.

A quick aside: Even if your company’s topic (productivity for engineers) is not among the most discussed, that doesn’t matter – you can write about it anyway (among many other things), but you need to make sure to adapt it to one of the categories that emerged. In our hypothetical case in which we sell a productivity tool for coders, the topic of engineers’ productivity will fit nicely in categories 1 and 2 above: You can write about it from a tech perspective, if there is an interesting tech angle to it, and of course it will offer plenty of angles to speak about engineer productivity from a management angle.

Say you’ve analysed 200 content pieces in this way. You will note in which category they fall and can put together a simple pie chart to see their distribution.

pie chart on topic categories - unweighted

Run a quick sanity check to see if there is disproportionate engagement in one of those areas. Simply note down how many shares, likes and comments each item got. If you want to be extra thorough, give comments 3 points, shares 2 points and likes 1 point.

This way, you’ll get a weighted pie chart that will show you the relative popularity of each category.

pie chart on topic categories - weighted

In this example, we can see that topics in area 3 (self-improvement) are relatively few and far in between (first pie chart), but when you consider the engagement they receive, the picture changes considerably. (Just make sure this is not due to one or two exceptionally well-received posts, but distributed evenly). If you find something like this, you may have stumbled on a potential content goldmine: there’s not too much self-improvement content for CIOs but when it shows up, people like it. That’s a great niche to occupy!

So now you’ve identified which content areas your audience is interested in publicly. It’s important to complement it with your own original research.

 

3. Complement your research with surveys and direct conversations

As with any other group, you will have some within your audience who are active on social media, and others less so. You need to make sure you also look inside the heads of…

  • …those who are active on social media. You don’t only want to see their public consumption but also their private one. Maybe they love cartoons like Dilbert or XKCD that they don’t share on social media.
  • …those who are not active on social media. They very likely to also read work and role-related content, they just do it privately. They are as important as the others.

If you already have a database of prospects and clients, you can contact them with a survey or request a 10 minute phone call just to discuss what they read / watch / listen to. If you don’t, you’ll have play the cold calling and introductions game. Nobody said it was easy.

From these conversations, you may get a completely different angle for your magazine. Maybe a content category will emerge that does not have to do with a CIO’s role at all, and be much more general work related (like Dilbert or the “Rules of Work” books).

 

4. Put it all together & create a content hypothesis

All this research will give you a content profile of what your audience is interested in.

By no means should you take the content split as gospel and split your magazine along the same lines (e.g. 30% innovation topics, 50% IT team management topics, 20% self-improvement as per the pie charts above).

While looking through all this content, see if something stands out to you from a content USP point of view. What do I mean by content USP? Basically, there’s 3 main ways how you can create a new content angle in your field:

Be better than anyone else

Is there one of the 6 categories where the content is poor and we can stand out simply by doing better and more interesting content?

This also includes

  • making dense, difficult-to-get-through content easier to read by including charts, diagrams, doodles, cartoons etc or
  • creating similar content but with a very different tone of voice that we believe our audience will appreciate more.
  • adding commentary in a content universe that is replete with facts but few opinions (e.g. discussing the merits of a particular technology, or critiquing IT team management fads).

Cover a new niche

Is there an untapped content niche? E.g. a gaping lack of content about IT department leadership and instantly 20 topic ideas come up that you could write about?

Combine popular topics

Is there a promising content combination you could do?

  • E.g. there’s a lot about IT team management and a lot about general news about AI, but there are ways to deploy AI on team management and we have good reasons to believe that this would be interesting
  • Or you see that successful social commentary content is often connected with good storytelling, and you decide to bring storytelling into the IT arena and start each content article with a relevant story.

You need to make up your mind on what you believe you will be good in covering.

 

5. Test, test, test

We can be as thorough as we want in our research, a reality check is the best proof of your concept. So make sure your initial content coverage is relatively broad to encompass all areas in question. You will see your audience’s engagement on each of your topics. This will give you further indicators on which content route to double down on.

 

Conclusion

But this research helps you to corroborate your assumptions and keep you from diving into topics your audience will definitely NOT be interested in.

Good luck!

And don’t forget to pick up your copy of our Content Marketing Strategy eBook to get the full picture of research you will need to do to establish a killer Content Marketing practice.

 

 

Cover Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

How Great Content Marketing Mimics Good Friendships

How Great Content Marketing Mimics Good Friendships

We all know that good friendships are built on mutual enrichment, consistency, authenticity and trust. 

They also happen to be the best values for great Content Marketing.

 

Last week I was talking about company culture with Misha Gopaul. He said something really interesting:

“Strong values are the foundation of a strong culture. They create the organisation’s personality, so that in the same way you know what one of your good friends would do in a given situation, people in the company know how to act more autonomously.”

This friendship analogy made me think that great Content Marketing is, as well, like a friend to your audience.

Let me explain.

One of my favourite writers is Sam Harris. I listen to his podcast and have read most of his books.

Sam Harris

But unlike many other authors and thinkers I follow, Sam sometimes pops into my mind when I’m pondering a political or societal topic. I ask myself “What would Sam Harris think about this?”

That’s a rare status that normally only close friends have. You know, those types of friends who have unique views on the world and who make hours fly by when you’re engrossed in a fascinating conversation with them. This is now the way I view Sam Harris and his views, as if he were a friend I learn from, even though I don’t know him personally.

In other words, he’s a great content brand.

Let’s explore what we can learn from him for our Content Marketing work. Can we also become like friends to our audience?

(And no, you don’t have to agree with Sam’s positions to learn a lesson. If you hate his politics, try to see past that.)

 

1) Offer New Ideas

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris is difficult to pigeon-hole. On the surface, he sounds like a political liberal, with his merciless criticism of Donald Trump and attacks on religion. But then there is his very nuanced stand on the topic of gun control which genuinely surprised me when I read it. Or his firm pro-Israel position which is not right-wing, but rather emanates from his brand of moral philosophy.

With his book “Waking Up”, he has removed the mystical woo-woo from mindfulness meditation for me, and I started a regular meditating practice which lasts to this day. And his book “The Moral Landscape” has introduced me to a completely new viewpoint on the question of Good and Evil.

 

Friends

Friends don’t need to have new ideas or dazzle you intellectually. But it makes a hell of a difference if they do. Say you meet someone at school. You’re both 14. Hopefully, as you age, you learn and gather wisdom. You stay sufficiently similar (e.g. you are both interested in career success, or have a friendly rivalry in an artistic area, or share the same sense of humour) but you aren’t carbon copies of each other, and therefore enrich each other with new perspectives.

With those people who don’t evolve alongside you, the friendship fizzles out. Especially when you feel like they are stuck in their old ways and haven’t come up with anything new to add to their life. White-picket-fence dullness.

 

The Takeaway for Content Marketers

There’s no way around it: You have to create something original. At least from time to time. It’s ok to do the occasional roundup post and retweet articles from other people. But to really matter as a content brand, you have to bring something new to the table. No one will be your friend if all you do is parroting others.

(And by the way: That is hard. This post took me 12 hours to write)

 

2) Be Consistent

Consistency in Substance

Lesson from Sam

Even if, occasionally, Sam Harris’s views come unexpected, they are, when you engage with them deeply, very consistent with each other. There’s a straight line connecting his position on the Israel / Palestine conflict with his book The Moral Landscape. Or take his very radical support for free speech that makes him criticise anyone across the political spectrum and defend the words of the indefensible.

Friends

Between friends, inconsistencies in substance are called … lies. Or dishonesty. In the best case, they are confusions of the mind. Hardly a good foundation for a friendship.

 

The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Consistency in substance drives trust. And while there are plenty of examples of public figures who seem to be getting away with flip-flopping on key issues, don’t be tempted by it. Unlike voters, your audience is not ideologically beholden to you, and is less likely to forgive you intellectual dishonesty, especially when they can smell opportunistic (read: financial) reasons on your part.

Admitting that you changed your mind is, of course, allowed, as long as you don’t change your mind so often that you appear mentally unstable.

Consistency in substance is also a commitment to quality. If you allow publish a sloppily researched blog post or a low-value white paper, your audience will remember. You’re letting them down.

 

Consistency in Form

Lesson from Sam

With a Sam Harris blog post, book, or podcast episode, I know I get the following:

  1. Intellectual precision. His choice of words is superb. He captures complex thoughts in a way that make me go “I kinda felt this way, but couldn’t have phrased it that well.” I’ve come to expect these brain treats from Sam.
  2. Calm tone of voice: Although he often deals with very controversial topics in a debate format, he almost never raises his voice.
  3. Dry humour: Sam has a great sense of humour and I can count on him making me smirk with his quips and absurd analogies – sometimes brouhaha funny, sometimes just incisive and smart.
  4. No arrogance: Despite being a first-rate intellectual, he never condescends. When he explains something, it doesn’t feel like lecturing, it feels like we’re exploring the topic together.

 

Friends

Friendships need consistency. You need to dedicate time to nurture them and you can’t be huggy and sweet one day, and cold and distant the next.

 

The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Be consistent in your tone of voice. That’s not going to be easy. Sam Harris is a one-man show and does nothing but writing all day. You, on the other hand, are a marketer with presumably many responsibilities, writing being one of them. Also, you will have colleagues and freelancers creating content for you.

Therefore, it’s important that over time, as you grow your content marketing practice, you establish a tone of voice and write down who you are, how you write, and what you stand for. There’s a great Acrolinx eBook on how to do that.

Another important consistency in form is you simply showing up. Kontent360 newsletters go out on Tuesday before noon. Every week.

 

3) Be Authentic

I know, the dreaded A word. It’s a cliché but one of the good ones.

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris used to struggle with his bad conscience on eating meat, both in and outside the context of industrial farming. He implicitly admitted being a hypocrite by eating meat without being able to ethically defend it. 

For someone who has made his career on advocating the supremacy of rationality and often taking the moral high ground, it was a bold move at the time to admit such a lapse of ethical, reasoned thinking. 

Admitting to his own imperfection made Harris more relatable and authentic. He’s not hiding his flaws, like most other public figures would in this case. 

(btw – this may have contributed to a level of pressure which made him go vegetarian in late 2016.)

 

Friends

Friends show you their ugly side as well. They don’t sugarcoat it when they feel lousy and they let off steam when they are with you. And that’s great. It gives you the opportunity to crack open a beer and bond over tears or at least a good bitching session.

 

The Takeaway for Content Marketers

Admit to a struggle, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be the most personal, and don’t use your audience as a therapist. But as long as it’s relevant to your field, and adds value to your audience, go for it.

For example, I did that by admitting to Kontent360’s shortcomings in the area of collecting email addresses on our blog. Too many how-to blog posts assume that time is unlimited and they expect the reader to implement everything one is suggesting. So I thought of giving my audience a break by admitting that I’m not perfect either. Particularly tricky because this is my field, so I should be best-in-class. 

By admitting that Kontent360 is itself falling short of that high standard, I hope I have made myself more relatable to all those Content Marketers struggling to fit everything into a 40 hour work week.

4) Don’t Have An Agenda

Lesson from Sam

Sam Harris isn’t looking for trends to jump on to grow his follower base. He just follows his interest, which makes his views all the more informed and insightful. He also doesn’t shy away from esoteric topics which few of his readers will understand or necessarily care for, such as cosmology, the foundations of science, or whether humans have free will.

 

Friends

Good friends don’t have an agenda. They spend time with you because they enjoy your company. They have their quirks and yes, sometimes it can get tedious when they tell you how great it was dressing up as Darth Vader at Comic Con. (Don’t worry, you also bore them when you mope about your ex boyfriend. Friendship’s a give and take).

This is also why network marketing is one of the fastest ways to lose friends. When you start selling essential oils or herbal supplements to your mates, you poison the pristine lake of true friendship with the sewage of a commercial agenda.

 

Takeaway for Content Marketers

This one is really subtle. Because you will rightly say that the whole idea of Content Marketing is Having An Agenda. After all, you’re not providing the content out of the goodness of heart. You want your audience to become customers.

My argument is:

  • In Content Marketing, most people in your audience know what game is being played and each side accepts the rules.
  • The rules from the audience’s viewpoint: I know you’re a company selling stuff. I know you want my money. But because you add value to me through great content, I allow you to come into my inbox. I am conscious that through this process, I am more likely to, at some point, buy from you. I accept you sending me occasional sales emails. 
  • The rules from the company’s viewpoint: I know you don’t want to buy now. Doesn’t matter. If you give me permission, I will send you high quality content to build a relationship over time. Maybe you will never buy. That’s ok, too. I will still send you great content. 
  • Because both sides KNOW what game is being played and are willing participants, there’s no agenda problem if the company wants their audience to buy something. The audience knew this would be coming at some point.

So what WOULD a company’s dishonest Agenda-Driven Behaviour in the context of Content Marketing look like? For example:

  • Segmenting those users who read but never buy, and subject them to a bombardment of sales emails (“might as well”).
  • Guilting your audience into buying from you.
  • Providing crappy content and hoping they won’t notice.
  • Selling email addresses or using them for another business of yours.

So: Stick to the rules of the game. Provide high value content without asking for anything in return (except the occasional email address and extra info).

 

Still – you can’t convert friends into customers, right?

You will correctly point out that the sole purpose of Content Marketing is to, ultimately, bring in new customers, and how does THAT carry over into the friend analogy? It would be awfully sad if the ultimate purpose of friendship would be the extraction of profit from the other person, wouldn’t it? After all, we DON’T want to be that network marketer who hawks those dubious supplements to his friends, right?

First of all, we’re all grown-ups here. I’m not implying that we’re building up REAL friendship with our audience. We’re just borrowing from the concept of friendship to build as good and as genuine a relationship with our audience as we can.

Second: Even transactions are part of a friendship. Friendships are a give AND take. We all know people who are just a bit too self-centered, they always talk about themselves. They’re the Me Monster. 

Me Monsters disrupt the transaction that is inherent in every friendship: We are friends to get our mutual social needs (listening, laughing, whining, seeking advice, sharing experiences) met. BOTH of us. Not just one side. If all a friend does is talk about herself, she will soon find herself without real friendships.

And that is why it’s ok to ask your audience to buy your stuff. You, as a content marketer, have done your bit. You added value to your audience through great content. When you ask them to buy, that’s like a friend saying “ok, can we briefly talk about my things now?”.

This does not mean that your audience are breaking their side of the agreement by never buying, because them never buying is part of what you, the company, signed up for. You knew this was very possible to happen.

To reinvoke the analogy:

By having friends, a person is getting their emotional needs met. The beauty of a great friendship is that it leaves both sides better off.

By having customers, companies are getting their financial needs met. The beauty of a good business transaction is that it leaves both sides better off.

See where I’m going with this?

When you build the customer relationship with the right person and have the friend framework in mind, then a conversion is like when you take someone’s number at a party because you want to hang out. Or when you invite a new friend into your existing group of friends. Or suggest a trip together. These moments of transition from one stage to the next can be awkward and uncomfortable. But if the other side says yes, then hooray! You just deepened the relationship and find yourself at a higher level with them. 

 

Conclusion

By bringing in the friend analogy into the field of Content Marketing, I don’t mean to imply that you should strive to actually become friends with your audience, or even to use this term with them. That’d be like the fakery of employers calling the company a family.

But remember the quote in the beginning – Misha was talking about how a good company culture resembled a friendship: Through culture, the team gets to understand the character of the imaginary person (the company) and acts like that person would act. I experienced this in my 3.5 years Google, where people regularly reflected on the “Don’t be evil” mantra, e.g. by asking things in conversations like “If Google buys Motorola and doesn’t give all employees stock options, is that evil?” 

And in the same way, a great content brand is like a friend. It offers interesting insights, is consistent, is authentic, and doesn’t have an agenda.

And it boldly attempts to deepen the friendship.

 

Image Credit: Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash, Wikipedia

How a swimming pool installation company in rural Virginia saved their business with content marketing

How a swimming pool installation company in rural Virginia saved their business with content marketing

A spectacular turnaround story, River Pools and Spas (RPS) in Warsaw, VA (USA) is a thing of legends in the Content Marketing community, not least because of how unlikely it sounds: A company digging holes and installing swimming pools as the shining example of writing blog posts and e-books, written about in the New York Times and profiled in books about content marketing? Go on – tell me more.

In 2009, during the Great Recession, swimming pools were one of the first things that affluent American homeowners cut back on.

But not only was demand for new pools tanking, customers even wanted their deposits returned – i.e. business that the company had thought to be “in the bag” suddenly vanished retroactively! This suffocated the company of cash.

At $4 million annual revenue, River Pools and Spas were spending $250k per year on outbound marketing. Out of four competitors in the region, they were the smallest.

The only way to stay afloat in a shrinking market is to steal market share. But how to do that with a dwindling cash balance? CEO Marcus Sheridan discovered content marketing (he prefers the term “inbound marketing” – I’m discussing here why I prefer “content”). He read the success stories (unsuspecting that one day he would become one of the most famous ones) and decided he would give it a try. He started a blog on the company website which previously had served merely as a virtual shop front.

Marcus Sheridan, then CEO of River Pools and Spas

Just don’t take the laptop into the pool. (Source: NY Times)

Blogging, Sheridan thought, would kill not two but three birds with one stone:

    1) It’s free, and if it worked he would be able cut back on his marketing spend
    2) It would differentiate him from his competitors
    3) It would make use of his spare time given flagging demand

But what to write about?
It soon became clear that the best topic to cover would be all the questions people had about swimming pools. And there were many. A swimming pool is a huge expenditure and buyers have a lot of questions before committing: What are the pros and cons of fiberglass pools? What is the installation process? How do fiberglass pools stack up against concrete pools? What is the yearly maintenance cost of a swimming pool?

Sheridan simply started writing answers to the most frequent questions that customers asked him on a regular basis. He thought: “If they ask me in person, they’ll also be googling it.” And at the time, there was no other company that publicly answered customers’ questions on these topics. Either they didn’t think it was important enough or they considered this information to be too valuable to simply give away.

Only Marcus Sheridan wasn’t simply “giving” his information “away”.
He collected readers’ email addresses, observed which of his emails his subscribers were reading, optimised email subject lines to grow email open rates, alternated content emails with salesy ones … and started counting as the dollar bills were piling up. By 2011, two years after his decision to go all out on content marketing, River Pool and Spas was selling more fiberglass pools than any other company in North America. And yes, you read that right.

These days, the company continues doing well and has a readership of 200,000 monthly visits during the summer months – truly extraordinary for what used to be a mere shopfront of a high-end product company.

What lessons can we learn from this story?

1. Evergreen content wins
Questions around swimming pools don’t change much over the years. Barring some high-tech breakthroughs that make pools magically install and fill themselves, people will still be asking about pros and cons, cost, duration etc. Answer their questions and you’re half-way there. Evergreen content is also one of the secrets behind Tim Ferriss’ huge success as a blogger and even more so as a podcaster.

2. Giving is receiving
Sheridan made great use of one of the cornerstones of persuasion: Reciprocity. Robert Cialdini describes in his seminal book Influence how Hare Krishna followers soliciting donations in an airport dramatically improved their results by giving strangers a flower first. Even if it was unsolicited, value had been transferred, people’s urge to reciprocate kicked in and off they went and handed over a few dollars (in this case, surely not without a dash of resentment).

In his e-book, Sheridan recounts a story of a customer who had been reading his blog and, while in his office, said that she would now check out competitors’ offers. Ever the sales shark, Sheridan told her that she could of course do that. But given that he had been giving her (as she herself said) trustworthy information on the topic of pool installation, would she be able to trust his competitors as much as him? The customer turned on a dime and signed on the dotted line. Sometimes reciprocity needs a little nudge.

When people receive value from you, they remember. Like with the friend on Facebook who regularly posts interesting observations or links to thoughtful articles, we accumulate molecules of gratitude which end up amounting to an overall positive feeling about that person. In contrast, all the image-building, humblebragging, selfie-posting bores slowly develop into full-blown morons in our mind’s eye.

In business, it works the same way. If you are genuinely helpful, and what you write is well thought through, people will remember and recommend you, even if they aren’t customers themselves. And if, one day, they do become interested in buying your product… guess which provider they will see in a more favourable light? The company whose ads clutter their Facebook feed and keep them from watching YouTube clips? Or the company that generously gave them free advice in their area of expertise?

3. Talk about competitors and products you don’t offer
Sheridan advocates reviewing one’s competitors which is something that most other companies would balk at and would consider crazy: Why draw attention to competitors?
Well, it’s an easy decision if your mindset is to give customers what they want. And customers want to see comparisons between companies. Do you really think that customers buying a swimming pool would not look at alternative offers? Customers are well informed. And you show that you have their best interest in mind by giving them what they want. Because they will remember they got this information from you.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to convert readers into customers. Go ahead, show them all the email harvesting pop-overs you want and send them finely targeted conversion emails. But banking on customers’ ignorance about your competitors is not a viable long-term strategy.

This philosophy is also why Amazon shows links to competitors’ sites at the end of their product listings:
amazon-image
Why would they do this? Well, if you arrive at the end of the page and indicate that you didn’t find what you were looking for – how likely are you going to convert with Amazon? Most likely you are on your way out. So Amazon collects a little token from another seller for passing you on to them.

“Well, at least they make money from passing the buyer on!” you may say. This is true. Marcus Sheridan could as well plant some affiliate links in his competitors’ reviews. But this is not how the swimming pool industry works, so in the meantime he’s not making any currency off his competitor reviews other than readers’ goodwill. And that’s worth money in the long run.

The Upshot and the Inspiration

Marcus Sheridan’s story was one of my earliest inspirations to get into Content Marketing. His radical approach to honesty towards customers and long-term thinking are at the core of the Kontent360 business philosophy.

mncfoaalu5o-david-lezcano

Further sources:
Joe Pulizzi: Epic Content Marketing

Check out a 4 minute video to learn more about the turnaround story of the company

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