Start Your Content Strategy Part 1: Know Your Audience
Guest Blog by Chris Bintliff
Neil was clearly exasperated. We were talking about web strategies for his enterprise services business. No small outfit – they have the largest service staff in his state and the largest inventory. But like a lot of small-medium sized businesses, you wouldn’t know it from his website. It was thin on meaningful content, clunky with awkward graphics, and generally not an interesting experience representative of his business or audience.
He was overwhelmed with options, choices, and concepts that confused him about digital marketing. It’s not that he wasn’t curious or interested in doing the best thing, but he was swamped. His expertise is in running his business, not running his website. An agency he’d hired was not helping with the confusing and expensive options and promises they were offering. He told me how they’d tried a few Google AdWord buys, done a little Facebook and email marketing, but hadn’t really seen any results. When I asked him about a strategy for his content, he let out a long sigh and said, “Honestly, we’re just kind of…hoping it all comes together somehow.”
“Neil,” I said, “I’m afraid that’s not how it works.”
Content is anything that communicates in your online or digital strategies. It’s text, of course, and also imagery, video, graphics, animations – all of it matters in telling your story and in helping your users accomplish the mission they have in being on your website.
Having a strategy for this content means knowing what to share with whom in your audience and when, and why. Some people are just looking for your phone number, while others want to buy something from you or watch videos about your products, and still others will be really engaged with testimonials or case studies. Knowing what kind of content helps the different users of your website engage most fully with you lets you start making smart business decisions. A content strategy is the first and most essential part of making your website work for you. Work like generating leads, building traffic, and demonstrating thought leadership.
86% of small businesses don’t have a content strategy and just going with their guts on what to say, when, and to whom.
Great content helps make your website a powerhouse salesperson on your staff, or a fantastic marketer. Without a content strategy, on the other hand, we risk having our website be an expensive, pretty place to find a phone number or email address – and unfortunately most small business are rolling this way. According to a 2014 survey of 16,000 small businesses, 86% don’t have a content strategy and are just going with their guts about what to say, and when, and to whom. Like Neil, they’re just hoping it comes together somehow.
Identifying the nature of your business and matching it with the needs and expectations of your intended web audience can feel confusing, yet this is crucial to start building a strategy for content that makes an impact on that audience. One way I like to start the conversation is through a simple analysis of what I call the Business/Relationship Framework. The Framework will take me a minute to explain, but it’s easy to understand. I’ll introduce the Framework in this post, and then coming up in Part 2 you’ll work through a simple exercise with me and see if, by the end, you’ve shed a little more light on the reality of your web content and can start thinking of it strategically.
To create easy understanding, put the notion of content strategy aside for a minute as we identify 3 simple segments within which we all do business or want to do business:
This is the most fundamental business relationship we have. The Transactional segment consists of people giving us money for stuff we sell or do, and not much more. Customers most comfortable living in this space share a few common traits:
- They’re value seekers. They’re looking for the cheapest price or the best deal, period.
- They’re comparison shoppers. For a meaningful purchase they’ll do a lot of research before buying.
- They’re price conscious. They’re coupon clippers and deal makers.
Your customers in the Transactional segment aren’t necessarily loyal. If somebody down the street sells a widget for $5 less than you, they’ll go buy it over there, or get you to negotiate selling it for less.
As businesses, we respond to the customers in this segment by:
- Having a broad inventory. To keep these customers coming to us instead of going down the street, we need to have what they’re looking for.
- Having product diversity. Sure, we have that in red, and blue, and green. We have the smaller size, too.
- Pricing competitively. When you see a banner in a store that says something like, “If you find it for less somewhere else we’ll match their price and give you 10%”, that’s a tipoff that you’re in the Transactional space.
For us businesses, the Transactional space can be low margin and high volume. Note, too, that talking about “inventory” and “product diversity” isn’t limited to widgets and stuff on shelves. It can mean the people, skill sets, or services you provide.
Maybe the largest segment for most of us is the Practical segment. In the Practical segment we think a little more about why people are doing business with us, and when. The realities of this segment are more nuanced than the price-driven Transactional.
Customers in this space exhibit traits like:
- They have a specific problem. They’re not tinkering with an idea or researching – they’ve identified their need.
- They have more immediate needs. Sometimes these are distress or duress customers. Buying tires, for instance, is for many people a Practical decision.
- Convenience is king. These customers will pay a premium for convenience, often even over quality. They’ll make a purchase that works for them “for now” with plans to upgrade later if it doesn’t work out.
Your customers in this space aren’t coming to you because you make the best cakes in town, they’re coming to you because they need a cake for a party tomorrow and you’re open past 7:00. Oh, and while they’re in your store they’ll pick up some birthday candles too. It doesn’t matter to them that you sell your candles for $3 more than the guy next door – that guy’s not open right now and you are.
We respond in business to Practical customers by:
- Understanding buying behaviors. Why are our customers doing business with us? When?
- Having market awareness. Do many of our customers live in a certain area? Keep certain hours? Have particular needs?
- Being available. This can mean having muliple locations, 24/7 service, late hours, open on weekends, etc.
The Aspirational segment is where many of us like to think we do business. This is the stuff we tell others about our business, or the daydreams we had when we started our business. This segment is rooted in emotion and experience, for both business and customer.
Our Aspirational customers can be:
- Loyal. They’ll stick with us through thick and thin. Even if we screw up, they’ll avoid leaving us and try to work it out with us instead.
- Evangelists. They’ll tell others about us! They’ll spread the word!
- Believers and Followers. These customers love what we do and will be interested in what we do next. They love the cakes we bake so much that when we announce that we’re also now selling pies, they’ll be eager to give it a try.
Our business realities and responses to these customers include:
- Customer service. The single biggest hallmark of doing business in the Aspirational space is a real commitment (and not just a slogan) to serving the customer.
- Experience. In this space, our customers are looking for something deeper than just a transaction or a problem solved. They don’t just want to buy cake, they want a cool place to come in and eat the cake, with pleasing background music and free wifi.
- Innovation. Because our customers includes Believers and Followers, we have some license – obligation, even – to innovate. To create new ideas, products, or services to meet the growing or evolving needs of these customers.
The Aspirational segment is a special kind of hard work. Our customers here aren’t obsessed with price, but they do have unique and sometimes high standards. Passion can be currency here, and that can be a double-edged sword. Because we have to think in terms of service and experience, we have to have a lot of confidence in ourselves, our people, and our services to meet these unique needs. The reward is that this can be high margin, low volume, repeat business.
The Business/Relationship Segments in action
An illustration for these segments in real life might be purchasing an iPad. I can go to Wal-mart to buy an iPad for a Transactional experience. Wal-mart’s business model is to have lots of stores and sell lots of stuff, with lots of multi-disciplined employees who might be in electronics this morning and gardening this afternoon. To buy an iPad, I’ll ask a person to unlock a display case and head to check-out. There might be a small inventory of cables or accessories. My interaction with the employee will likely be minimal and my overall experience will be generally nondescript.
I can go to Best Buy to buy the iPad in a Practical space. There are lots of Best Buy stores around, and the people working there might have a bit more specialized knowledge of the iPad in case I have any questions. While I’m there I can pick up a case for my iPad and maybe some cables and check out some headphones or buy a DVD. When I check out I can use or earn loyalty points with their Rewards program.
Finally, I can purchase the iPad at the Apple Store for an Aspirational experience. Apple’s retail experience is significantly different from Wal-mart or Best Buy – no aisles to walk through, no TV’s to buy or pet food to browse. Tables are well organized with iPads for me to tap and swipe through, with product comparisons, price and more information right there on the screen. The lighting, layout, and design of the store encourages exploration. Employees have specialized knowledge about only this product, and when I buy my iPad they can help set it up for me or I can enroll in classes to learn how to get started. Apple makes buying the iPad an experience. The price is the same as at Wal-mart or Best Buy, but the emotional investment is dramatically different.
It’s important to point out that while I said many of us like to think of ourselves in the Aspirational segment, no segment is necessarily better or worse than any other – that’s subjective. Wal-mart, Best Buy, and the Apple store are all very successful at what they do, accommodating the market they’re after. And of course, each of us has to consider aspects of every segment in our business, no matter what – pricing, buying behaviors, and customer service are important to all of us – and it’s an over-simplification to say Aspirational customers don’t care at all about price. Even a single customer exhibits all of these traits to some degree. The ideas is to see the Business/Relationships Framework as a simplified structure to help you make quick but meaningful identifications and assessments.
In Part 2 of this series I’ll show you how to apply specific content like words, images, video and layout to have the most impact on a Transactional, Practical, or Aspirational audience. I’ll introduce you to an easy and essential exercise to scan your website and assess if your content and design is really reaching your intended audience.
If you liked this post you’ll love an upcoming Start Your Strategy workshop that I’m leading at iCandy World Headquarters on June 16. We dive deeper into the Business/Relationship Framework, but that’s just the start. Join us as we build your content strategy, explore what makes a great (and not-so-great) web experience for your users, and how my modern conversion funnel can help you define the right content for the right people at the right time. It’s a fun, immersive, powerful day that you won’t want to miss.