By Brad Shorr published May 22, 2012

How to Serve Multiple Audiences by Using a Segmented Website Structure

The problem: Sites with a “something for everyone” architecture rarely satisfy anyone.

Serve multiple audiences with a "content cafeteria," CMIAppealing to multiple audiences is one of the biggest challenges in creating content for corporate websites.

A typical business site typically draws visits from:

  • Customers
  • Shoppers
  • Suppliers
  • Investors
  • Employees
  • Job seekers
  • Media

Firms that recognize the importance of these various groups attempt to appeal to all of them, usually by building content sections with high-level navigation labels, such as For Investors, Careers, or Media Center. Using this type of audience segmentation far exceeds doing nothing, but it still falls short.

The key issues

Watered-down messaging. Content fed to all audiences serves too many masters. Product pages, for instance, must be highly detailed for shoppers doing research, persuasive enough to influence shoppers who are in decision-making mode, and yet not so persuasive as to annoy customers who already know the pitch. The usual solution is to say a little about everything and not much about anything — a recipe for blandness.

Content fed to specific audience segments can be nuanced, up to a point. For instance, messaging in the Investors section could differ noticeably from that in the Careers section. However, segmented messaging gets watered down by the need to maintain a consistent writing tone and design scheme across the entire site.

Substandard user experience. Diluted messaging is not the only site factor that leaves visitors cold. Because audiences are looking for different types of information, navigation must be executed to an absolute “T” to enable everyone to find what they need — far easier said than done.

For example, detailed product pages are of keen interest to both customers and shoppers, and yet these pages are often buried deep in the page hierarchy with hard-to-find links. On the other hand, if navigation makes these detailed pages prominent, reporters or investors wanting an executive summary may be confused by the detail. By attempting to serve all audiences, sites can easily end up satisfying none of them.

Missed conversion opportunities. Most lead generation sites display at least one or two offers. However, most of these efforts — white paper downloads, free consultations, etc. — are targeted to shoppers. And while this is a great start, few sites bother to set up conversion paths for suppliers, employees, investors, or media — and perhaps even their own existing customers.

Yet if firms were to try to develop conversion strategies for all of these audiences, implementation would remain a challenge. When a site is loaded up with 10 or 20 offers, it starts to look like a used car lot. Navigational and design limitations also get in the way.

The solution: Sites that are fully segmented by audience type

The “content cafeteria” approach to site architecture I’ll lay out now attempts to overcome these problems. It is based on allowing users to self-identify their audience type and to navigate to a highly customized “microsite” built specially around the needs of that audience.

The hoped-for result is a corporate site that:

  • speaks persuasively to each audience
  • maximizes the user experience of each audience
  • includes compelling calls-to-action perfectly suited to each audience

This is the type of site that could really elevate a brand, drive leads, and deliver ROI on multiple fronts.

The idea of segmenting a site by audience type is nothing new. Two types of organizations using this approach now are colleges — whose sites have separate sections for students and parents — and staffing firms — whose sites have distinct sections for employers and job seekers.

What is new is the ability to expand the model for general business use. Here, I emphasize B2B lead generation sites because that’s what I know best, but I don’t see why the content cafeteria model couldn’t work just as well for B2Cs and e-commerce sites of either type.

The content cafeteria model allows users to identify themselves both on the site home page and on every page of every site section. In addition to providing consistent navigation, this self-select design element would help tie the various sections together into a coherent brand.

Each section of the site can be thought of as a microsite, having its own navigation, design, messaging, and conversion paths. In this scheme, the main site (corporate home section) would contain only high-level information about products, services, company, etc., along with a detailed explanation of what people will find in each audience section.

Let’s see how the model addresses the issues of messaging, user experience, and conversion.

Persuasive messaging

Audience-driven site sections enable copywriters and designers to address the core needs of each user with maximum impact. Thus the messaging strategy for product pages might look something like this:

  • For customers: Include a quick resell (i.e., “Remember why you bought this product?”), and highlight specification changes and upgrade options. A little product jargon might even be OK. Lots and lots of pages would be developed for this section.
  • For shoppers: Emphasize benefits, and use simpler, jargon-free language, since this group will be less familiar with the terrain than customers are. Include more graphical elements for both clarity and persuasion. Again, lots of pages will be developed here.
  • For investors: With a financial spin, review the product’s position in the market and how it fits into the overall product line. Only one or two pages would likely be needed here.
  • For employees: Get personal and talk about who developed the product, why it was developed, and how it compares to the competition. This could be set up as a blog, rather than a set of static pages.
  • For media: Present a one-paragraph elevator pitch, along with a few bullet points noting newsworthy aspects of the product (if any). Only one or two pages would likely be needed here.

Maximizing user experience

Improved user experience would come largely from messaging (which we just covered), and conversion activity (discussed below). Clearly, these are shortcomings of business-as-usual corporate sites that contribute to their reputation for being dull and minimally useful. The content cafeteria model makes it possible to get past these obstacles and send visitors away impressed — and, better yet, also having done something.

Improved conversion

Sometimes we marketers are guilty of “settling” — of assuming that certain user types are just there for information and there’s nothing to be done about it. However, what if we took the attitude that every user can be converted? For one thing, it would certainly force us to use our imaginations!

Here are some conversion messaging ideas for oft-neglected audience segments, just to get the creative juices flowing:

  • For customers: Sign up for an annual business review. Volunteer for a beta test in exchange for a discount. Refer a customer.
  • For suppliers: Sign up for an annual business review. Sign up to participate in a product show/open house. Refer a customer.
  • For investors: Subscribe to a monthly newsletter from the CEO. Sign up for a quarterly performance review webinar. Refer a customer.
  • For employees: Contribute time or money to a corporate charity drive. Take an employee-satisfaction survey. Refer a customer.
  • For media: Schedule an interview with a member of the executive management team. Request technical information for researching a new story. Refer a customer.

A “microsite” approach allows developers the latitude needed in design, navigation, and content to create scores of enticing conversion paths that produce qualified leads, create dialog, and build loyalty.

SEO considerations

Domain structure: For the greatest SEO impact, a subfolder structure is generally best:

  • www.company.com
  • www.company.com/customers
  • www.company.com/shoppers
  • www.company.com/suppliers
  • www.company.com/investors
  • www.company.com/job-seekers
  • www.company.com/media

Duplicate content: Even with the cafeteria model, it’s likely certain pages could be used globally or in multiple sections (subfolders). For SEO purposes, duplicate pages should be not be indexed. Making pages unique requires about 70 percent of content to be unique.

Challenges

If this model were problem-free, everybody would be using it. One issue that jumps out at me is how much creative work is required from content strategists, writers, and designers. A second challenge is a little ironic: Even though the model offers a better user experience, its very novelty would probably confuse new site users.

Over to you: Do the benefits of a content cafeteria architecture outweigh the challenges? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.

Author: Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

Other posts by Brad Shorr

  • resonancesocial

    Thanks, Brad – great article! 

  • http://www.c-e.com/ chrismoritz

    I’m a huge fan of the self-segmentation approach. Better chance to align content to explicitly-stated intention. Also a great way to keep tire-kickers out of your conversion rate reporting. 

    We’ve used this technique for client sites for years, to great effect!

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Glad you mention conversions — to me this seems like the biggest opportunity for websites to get an edge over the competition. 

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    I absolutely agree with your emphasis on segmenting content. One way that my technology clients do this is by the vertical markets they serve, e.g., solutions for healthcare, finance, government, etc. This segmenting means there is some redundant content across the site, but they get the benefit of more attentive customers.

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Janice, We’ve used this approach as well, and it’s a step in the right direction for sure, especially if the products and/or client needs are truly different for the various verticals. We always like to do business with people who understand us!

  • ken perkins

    Brad – do you have any examples of sites that have implemented this segmentation approach well?

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      No, Ken, I do not. As I mentioned in the post, college/university sites and staffing firm use this approach with varying degrees of effectiveness, but I’d love to see an example in a more generalized b2b or b2c site. 

      • http://webscoutmarketing.com Laura (Bell) Greeno

        I think this one does a great job segmenting from the home page, then creating a unique and targeted message for each! http://www.centraldesktop.com/

  • http://joywriting.com.au/ John Joyce

    Thanks Brad – invaluable insight. One of the things I most like about CMI is the way posts seems to arraive as if by magic when I’m working on that very issue! Thanks again…

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      CMI has excellent editors, so I’m not totally surprised they can read minds!

  • http://propertyagents.co/real-estate-lead-generation-course Muhammad Ayaz

    Hi Brad! 

    Thanks for the nice post and In my opinion if you have the strategy to deal with the different of audiences than you would a way to serve them at a time on your blog or website and for this I like your idea of doing it in segmented way.

  • http://twitter.com/boinzy Daniel Burns

    No examples. Darn.

  • http://www.twitter.com/MarkACarbone Mark A Carbone

    Brad,
    Can you point us to 5 websites that you have either built or ones you believe are getting it right using this approach.  I believe it’s the way it should be 100%.  I just don’t know of many great examples out there.

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Mark, Daniel — I’m also looking for examples. My post is an attempt to lay out the theory, but in practice I have not seen it. 

  • Johnn Four

    This is an interesting article. I’ll be mulling over it for awhile. I wonder about how to preserve user experience when a person’s tasks take them through multiple cafeteria microsites?

    Where does continuity of trust and function come from, and how can it be designed well?

    I also wonder about site search and external search (SEO). For example, in Microsite A “program” is a course or some structured content, and in Microsite B “program” is a software offering. I guess context would sort that out?

    • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

      Those are excellent questions! Certainly, this model would be a real challenge for design, since there would have to be continuity among the sites as well as enough uniqueness to keep visitors oriented. Well thought out keyword strategy should take care of overlap. Regardless of the site structure, you’d want to avoid using the same terms for pages that have a different thematic focus. For internal search, context would definitely help — one approach that just now occurs to me would be to have the internal search results display the meta descriptions for matching pages. 

  • http://twitter.com/andrewschulkind Andrew Schulkind

    Very interesting article, and like Johnn Four, I’ve been mulling it over. I think he’s on to something in questioning how the user experience would be affected when a user has interest in multiple microsites. 

    What about the idea, which I’ve long held, that there’s value in the cross-pollination that more tightly integrated site sections can create? For example, a non-profit would want their donors and prospective donors to have easy access to the program pages that are primarily aimed at the population they serve. It’s the stuff that’s not meant as “marketing” for a particular audience segment that frequently has the most impact on that segment.

    And I think you’re right, Brad, about it taking an enormous amount of creativity on the part of content strategists and writers. I wonder if the return would be worth that additional investment.

  • Jadene Mayla

    I enjoyed your article. However, you mentioned navigation but didn’t provide information on that. A few sentences describing what to consider or giving an example, as you went into for conversion strategies, would round out this article.

  • http://ifactory.com.au/ iFactory

    Great article, very useful and articulate.