Stop Marketing Up

If you're concerned about digital content, then you probably have something to do with marketing. The first rule in marketing is "Know Thy Audience." And yet, so many of the executives I encounter have very little or no exposure to their audiences.

I teach workshops on digital strategy and web writing, and the first rule I teach is "Know Thy User." I talk about different methods for understanding your audience, including user personas. User personas are a user experience design tool-your team brainstorms and creates three to five different archetypes that describe the users of your website. In marketing, we refer to it as audience-or customer-segmentation. Yet so many executives have resistance to using this tool. They would prefer to shoot in the dark or to pretend that their audience is just like them.

If you are a marketing executive, chances are you have an advanced degree, went to college, and make more than $65,000 yearly. This puts you above most of America by a wide percentage. You don't look like your audience, sound like your audience, or act like your audience. In short, you're suffering from "marketing-up syndrome," when really you should be target marketing.

Much of my content work is in healthcare, in which plain language and easily understood concepts are critical for customers. If a hospital's website reads like a Ph.D. thesis, patients may be concerned that its doctors will talk to them in a way they don't understand, using words they have to look up in a dictionary.
People don't want that. They want plain language, conversational tones, and engaging content. Plain language is not about dumbing down your content. It's about picking words customers know and understand-not words that are used in M.B.A classes at Harvard.

So how do you cure your marketing-up syndrome? Walk among your people. Go spend time where your audience spends time. If you're marketing for hospitals, spend time with average patients. If you're selling cars, hang out at car dealerships. If you're marketing higher education, spend time with seniors in high school who are choosing colleges-or adults who are considering going back to school.

Your goal is to create a picture of who these people are and why they would want to buy your product. This means research-and a lot of it.
The best way to do any research is to triangulate your data to ensure you are coming to the right conclusions. Look at what you do know for sure; use search data, analytics data, numbers from your digital ad buys, survey data, focus groups information, Facebook likes, engagement on social media-whatever data you might have that tells you where your audience is and how they like to spend their time.

You only really have to answer three important questions: Who are our customers? What do they care about? How can we give them information that is relevant to them?

After you have the data in hand, create three to five personas that describe who and what your customers look and act like. How old are they? What do they do? How much money do they make? Are they married? Do they have children? Where do they shop? What do they care about? Who did they vote for in the last election? Did they vote at all?

Once you know who they are and what they are like, it's much easier to describe their motivation for engaging with your brand or product. Once you do that, you're in much better shape to target them.

As digital marketing becomes more complex, with social media, search engine optimization, and mobile complicating marketing strategies, content professionals' sophistication levels need to rise. But that doesn't mean that you need to communicate that sophistication to your audience. Rather, a better approach is to keep your content marketing mix unique and diversified, but keep your messaging simple and market-appropriate.

If you're not convinced, consider educating the audience members in your content marketing mix with content that exposes them to new ideas and thought patterns. Explain everything you talk about using plain language, metaphors, and proven techniques for engaging your audience. Learn what they like and what they don't like.

And, really, try creating user personas. They are a great tool for brainstorming about your audience. Everyone on your content marketing team will know who they are writing, creating, and managing content for, and they will create better content for it. It's called target marketing for a reason--in today's day and age you want, and need, to hit the center of the bull's-eye.