How well do you know your audience?
You probably know if they’re customers, clients, stakeholders, or supporters. You may know if they’re fans, interested but not engaged, or occasional visitors. But even if you have data on your audience, how well do you actually know them?
Do you know what they need? What they desire? What moves them to action?
When you’re creating content you hope they consume, are you creating that content with them in mind, or are you only pushing something you want at them?
When you start creating content online, you may feel like you’re throwing words into the vast ether and hoping that someone (anyone) pays attention. As you begin to grow your audience, you may not care who they are or what they need and desire. People are reading and that’s the important thing.
But you want to continue growing your audience. You want to increase your reach, and that means working for a better understanding of who your audience is.
In a brick and mortar store, for example, you can get to know your customers face to face. You have chances to interact with them, and get to know them personally.
But if your audience — your community — is entirely virtual, how do you get to know them on a personal level?
One of my favorite restaurants in my post-college hometown knew me — my drink would be waiting for me by the time I got to my table, and after I moved, they would send jars of their green salsa with friends who visited me in my new town.
The staff at the restaurant knew me — what I wanted and desired — because they engaged with me directly over a tangible product. It’s not as easy to interact with a virtual audience. You have to figure out what the online version of a customer’s favorite meal is and how you can meet their desires without ever seeing them in person.
Getting to know your audience is a lot like moving to a new city — you have to learn a new community. You’re living and working among this new group of people within a certain set of boundaries. Learning your way around involves a lot of homework and research, and then trial and error as you figure things out.
When you move to a new neighborhood or a new town, it takes a while to learn your way around. You might think you have all the best routes and landmarks down just from looking at a map, and then one of your neighbors points out a great shortcut or little-known pizza joint.
Finding the local hot spots or cool events help you become part of the community. You feel like you understand where you live, like you’re in the know.
Getting to know your online audience is much the same. It’s getting to know your virtual community.
I just moved to a new city. In fact, I type this having only now reconnected to the world through internet service. (Handy tip: cable guys always have really interesting perspectives on your new town.)
Before I chose which city I planned to spend the next year in, I spent a weekend here with friends, talked to a lot of people, and read the local newspaper. To find my new apartment, I studied maps of different neighborhoods and spent way too much time on apartmentratings.com.
I looked up where my favorite grocery stores were located and how to get there. I found the closest farmers market and library, and asked my leasing agent where to get good pizza in the neighborhood.
After I moved, I went exploring. Driving different directions to run errands (I can tell you where all the area Targets are located, because I’ve been in all but one of them), hitting up a local craft market, watching March Madness in a local sports bar, talking to people and asking them for recommendations for local places and events.
And though I definitely have moving on the brain right now, figuring out a new hometown is a lot like figuring out your audience.
Just like how you would research a new city, you need to map out your audience, figure out who they are, where they are, and what they care about.
One thing I did before moving was do some research on my new city through social media. I followed the local paper and some blogs on Twitter, checked the Facebook pages for local events and restaurants, and read through the city government website.
Direct engagement through social media is one way to map your audience, though it has a couple of caveats to consider.
The first caveat is that social media is best used as engagement, meaning two-way communications. Yes, you should post links and push content, but taking the time to respond to questions and having a back and forth conversation with the people in your audience will provide a more meaningful experience for both of you.
The second is that you’re probably not going to be able to be present and active on all the platforms. It’s better to use one or two tools well than try to use all of them at the same time poorly.
Knowing your audience means knowing where they are and which tools they use, then being there. You may be a grand wizard at Twitter, but if your audience is on Tumblr, that’s where you need to be, too.
Do your research. What do your customers respond to? What are your competitors doing? Who else in your community is doing good work, and how are they engaging with the community?
Data is your friend. Built-in tools on your specific platform (for example, Google Analytics) can help you determine your reach.
Read as much as you can. Trade press, social media, articles from competing publications, content created by your customers, academic research, news from fields adjacent to yours, even general news: some of these might seem obvious to help you learn, but you never know when you’ll pick up something important from an unexpected place.
What are your customers saying about you? What are the saying about your competition? What’s going on in your industry or field?
You need to figure out routes and local hidden treasures by learning who your most dedicated and most persuadable customers or readers are.
Who always leaves a comment? What product or idea caught on unexpectedly?
Engage with other content creators. You may want to ask for their advice, or you may want to target a different niche.
You should talk with your community to figure out where your audience’s hotspots are and what people gather around. Learn where the problem spots are, and who can help you fix them.
Ask your customers directly. You can solicit feedback from your audience directly on your website, either through a contact form or through the comments on an article. You could email a survey or post a poll on Twitter.
Be thoughtful in your questions. Know what information you need from them, and be specific in how you ask. In other words, don’t ask them if they like the blog, or even if the information you present is useful. Ask how many times have they used information from the blog in the real world, or what topics would they like to see covered.
The same holds true for other types of content. Think of your end goal — what do you want your audience to do with the content you give them? Then, work back to find the right questions to ask them.
You might discover that you need to change the way you do things, because your audience only has access to certain resources. To circle back to my cable company saga, I had to switch cable companies when I moved (with all the chaos and frustration that entails) because my area is only wired for one carrier.
Are you possibly frustrating your audience by doing things a certain way? Can you make their lives easier by changing how you engage with them?
You might think that as a content creator your primary role is to — wait for it — create content.
Yes, that’s your job. But if you’re creating content that isn’t being watched, read, or listened to, it’s a bit like the lonely tree falling in the forest. Does anyone ever experience it?
Your primary role is to be a part of your virtual community. You are the leader of your community — the mayor or city manager, if you will — and that puts you in charge of not only getting the content out there, but also making it content that your audience actually cares about.
You can’t create great content without knowing who you’re creating it for and what they care about.
If you write a food blog, you should know if your readers are interested in elaborate, time-consuming gourmet creations, or 30-minute meals.
If you want to sell hand-crafted wooden furniture, it would be helpful to know if your customers are more interested in functional pieces like cutting boards and salad bowls, or decorative works like vases and sculptures.
To find out who your audience is and what they care about, you have to engage with them. Talk to them, or more importantly, listen to them.
Challenge what you think you know about your audience. Really get to know them and what they care about, and then translate that into your content.
One way to do that is to create your own Voice and Vision profile. This report is something we do at Craft Your Content to help our clients learn who they are, who their audience is, and what they want to communicate to the world.
Taking some time to learn your audience — the community you’re building of like-minded people who consume your content and engage with you — will help you create better content more efficiently.
We all know that there are potholes, big and small, in engaging with your audience. The comments section on many sites can be a lot like the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” It’s a little risky, because you have to make yourself vulnerable to your audience, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.
That engagement, good and sometimes bad, is what helps build community. You learn who your audience is, and you build trust.
An important thing to remember is that, just like your community, your audience is made up of individuals. And those individuals are going to do different things in different ways on different timelines.
You may find a spectrum of audience traits, but you’re never going to be able to target every single one of your communications to fit every single audience member.
If you’ve built trust with your audience, it’s okay that not every piece of content will hit the sweet spot. They know who you are and as long as your communication with them stays true to that knowledge, they won’t go anywhere.
For example, my favorite kitchen store does a great job with their emails. I enjoy reading them, and they frequently get me to head to their website to learn about classes or sales. But every year, they do this whole Valentine’s Day thing, and it’s just not my scene.
I tend to ignore those particular emails, but because they’ve established trust and I know who they are, I don’t hold it against them.
Just like moving to a new city, building your virtual community can be a little scary. But doing a little work to map things out pays off in the end, helping you build a vibrant audience to consume your content.
It’s okay to ask for help. Just like you have friends to help pack boxes or load your moving truck, ask the broader network around your community for their advice. Just like you would ask a new neighbor for recommendations, ask your audience what they think.
When you really get to know your audience as a community, you understand what they need and what you can provide. That level of engagement and trust helps make you an expert and leader in your field, which translates to more readers and customers for your content.
So, get out there, and get involved with your community. Engage your audience; get to know them and let them get to know you. Actively become part of your virtual community, just as you would in your hometown.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.