By Robert Rose published June 15, 2020 Est Read Time: 14 min

Your Audience Is Not the Same as Your Marketing Database

I see you. You’re on your content marketing journey. You’re creating valuable content to support your business, and some of it’s working.

But now there are questions:

  • Is our content marketing more efficient than advertising?
  • How do we get more of the right kind of content?
  • Which content is driving sales?
  • How is this content helping SEO?
  • How do we measure content marketing?

You research. You come here to CMI and go to other places, looking for answers. You see a lot of talk about “building audiences.” And while there are varying, specific answers to your questions, they are overshadowed by this idea that if you’re “doing content marketing right” you should be building an audience.

“But,” you say, “isn’t that what we’re already doing?

“We have an email list. We’re gating our content to build our marketing database. Our demand generation people can use our data to put together a drip campaign. We’re using your technology to get intent data about the people who consume our content. We have an audience!”

You don’t.

Your marketing database is NOT your audience. In promotional marketing, you would never deliver the same blanket content to all your customers because they all didn’t buy the same thing. Why are you sending the same blanket message to all of those who haven’t?

Your #marketing database is NOT your audience, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

An audience is different. And it has different value than your marketing database.

What is an audience?

First, let’s define an audience. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

  1. A group of listeners or spectators, or a reading, viewing, or listening public. (The concert attracted a large audience. The film is intended for a young audience.)
  2. A group of ardent admirers or devotees. (He has developed an enthusiastic audience for his ideas.)

So, an audience is a group of people who gather willingly, enthusiastically to listen, view, read, or in some way consume your content.

It’s “willingly” and “enthusiastically” that are the important words.

I often ask of workshop attendees or clients, “If you put a full stop on every bit of your content production, who would miss it? Who in your marketing database would call you up and tell you they miss your weekly email newsletter, your tweets, your white papers?”

If there are any, those people are your audience.

The difference between your subscribed audience and your marketing database is the reason they are giving their information.

A subscriber doesn’t sign up only for the immediate content asset. A subscriber also signs up for what they’re going to get down the road.

Think about that entertainment app you subscribe to, the one you purchased to get access to that hot new show. You made the purchase just to get the immediate gratification of access to the show. Your continued subscription is based on your confidence that this app will continue to deliver value, most of which you haven’t yet even conceived.

Developing this trust and maintaining this confidence in future value is what separates a subscribed audience from a marketing database.

Developing trust and maintaining confidence in future value is what separates a subscribed audience from a marketing database, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Does that mean you should abandon all efforts to gate content or acquire email addresses for marketing purposes? No. Of course not. Both are viable strategies for marketing. But the value to the business that you can deliver from audiences, and the answer to all those questions posed in the beginning depend entirely on your ability to know the difference between the two.

In other words, if you’re building leads and somebody raises their hand to request a demonstration or a call, then calling immediately and selling to them is optimal to your strategy.

But if you’re building an audience, the absolute worst time to have a salesperson contact that subscriber to sell them something is right after they raised their hand to subscribe to your content. Why? Because they are at that trusting moment of “I’m hoping for future value from their content” and you just dashed that confidence with a sales message.

The worst time to have a salesperson contact a subscriber to sell them something is right after they raised their hand to subscribe to your #content, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

How to build an audience

At CMI, we have discussed at some length the value of audiences and the idea of ROA (return on audiences) as an investment. We’ve also talked through ways to measure the value of audiences that go beyond simple marketing database or lead acquisition.

Suffice to say it all comes down to looking at what audiences can help (holistically) the business accomplish. A subscribed and enthusiastic audience can help the business do things that would otherwise be more difficult. Audiences are a multiplier of efforts. Audiences are a tool that can help marketing differentiate, be more efficient and effective, and ultimately create better customers.

How do you build audiences?

Truly, this topic deserves its own curriculum as it may be one of the most challenging things that any company (media or otherwise) tries to do. Consumers have become choosy “buyers” about the things they subscribe to, and to say it’s a “buyer’s market” is quite the understatement.

Let’s look to three key ideas that can help the process of building an audience.

Idea 1: Audiences are different than buyers

Many companies develop buyer personas. It is one of the most valuable exercises from a product marketing perspective you can do. But because the reason for subscribing is different, so too is understanding your audience and what it needs.

You must understand your audience members from a different perspective than their need or want for your product or service. You have to understand their goals through the lens of inspiring, helping, teaching, or entertaining them to achieve something that goes beyond the bounds of your product/service.

You must understand your audience from a perspective other than their need for your product, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Ironically, this usually means you can and should target more niche (i.e., smaller) audiences than your product marketing TAM (total addressable market) addresses. This is where you can compete against media companies for the time and attention from audiences. Media companies need big, broad audiences to monetize them for advertising or subscription revenue. As marketers, you can afford to be niche and specific about segmenting your audiences.

You certainly need to understand how many are in your target audience and ensure that enough are viable to meet your intended goals. But you also need to know who they are as people, not just buyers of your product or service. Can you understand all the challenges they have so you might develop content that engages them beyond just your products’ features and benefits?

Example: Capital Group

The content marketing team at Capital Group, a financial services company, created one of those content experiences.

Its products, which include mutual funds and other investment vehicles, are targeted toward the millions of investors and advisors in the United States. However, it wanted to build an audience of its sweet-spot client – financial advisors. One way it could differentiate was to build a content platform just for those financial advisors. This content niche brought down the total target audience to about 250,000 people in the United States.

The company launched its Capital Ideas blog (and subsequent podcast) to help educate these financial advisors on the finer points of investing, economic trends, and the long-term implications of investing. Put simply, the content was designed for sophisticated, long-term investors who had put the effort into making financial advice a career decision.

The result is that more than 30,000 subscribed advisors have ranked Capital Group as one of the more trusted sources of information that helps them in their practice.

Want to learn more? Read the detailed case study here.

Idea 2: One audience, one platform, multiple attributes

One of the biggest challenges with building an audience in content marketing is deciding where to build it. When operating a classic campaign with a marketing-database mindset, it’s easier to conceive that you are building a gathering of people to convert into customers. You say, “The marketing database is about driving leads into sales,” therefore, the audience should be centered or built at the early or middle part of the customer’s journey.

But then a challenge arises. If you build an audience at another part of the customer journey (perhaps really early or even later) and it is different than the marketing database, then what happens when the audience members ultimately become leads, qualified leads, opportunities, new customers, old customers? Do they stop being part of the audience?

No. Unless they do.

What I mean is that there is not just one answer – no “correct” one. Your strategy, technology (and realistic capabilities) may vary as your audience evolves and possesses newly identified attributes. As in the first idea, the key is being aware of it and making a conscious decision one way or the other.

As you create your first, or seventh, owned media platform to build a subscribed audience, you want to make it specific to meeting both the needs of the audience AND the business goals it will support. Ideally, to quote my friend and CMI founder Joe Pulizzi, “one audience, one platform.” And I would add “one specific part of the journey.”

Does that mean you need an owned media experience at every step in the customer’s journey for each audience you want to build? Well, technically, ideally, yes, it does. And, over time, you will almost certainly manage a portfolio of these content-driven experiences (blogs, website, webinar programs, customer events, etc.). But you will have at least one. And that one is where you can anchor where your audience gathers.

The critical thing is to ground that one area, then add attributes as the audience members assume new identities related to your business. For example, you gain a subscriber. That subscriber at some point evolves to inherit an attribute called “lead.” Then, that person inherits a new attribute called “customer.” No matter how that person’s data technically moves in your system, you should have one view into your audience to show how and when each audience achieves a new attribute.

Example: Content Marketing Institute

At CMI, everyone who subscribes to our primary platform gathers here:

We then assign attributes as our audience takes different actions.

If someone attends webinars or events, resubscribes to newsletters, acts on an offer, we have one central audience, we can segment against those attributes. For example, we can tell that most of our “superfans” have attended two or more Content Marketing World events. We also can tell that any audience member who interacts with three different types of content is much more likely to buy a ticket to one of our events. That’s tremendous value when trying to determine who has evolved into an actual lead.

Idea 3: Give them a unique story or context to gather around

Why do people become an audience of something? It’s because they share an enthusiasm for a common frame of reference. And that frame of reference is either a unique story told broadly or a unique context told narrowly.

People become an audience of something because they share an enthusiasm for a common frame of reference, says @Robert_Rose via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

In other words, we become fans of Star Wars when we see a Star Wars movie, read a novel, or watch a television series. We become fans of the weather not because it’s a great story, but because it’s delivered by someone we particularly like or through an interesting interface.

Use this as levers you can pull as you think about building an audience. You can construct a point of view, a story that spans common contexts.

Example: Lincoln Electric

You might build an audience that engages with your story across multiple but common interfaces. Lincoln Electric built ARC magazine across both digital and print. The successful program attracts a very niche audience – artist makers who want to learn how to get into welding. It’s a unique value and specific story, but it’s delivered in a common set of contexts, such as a print magazine, a website, and in-person classes.

Example: CoverageBook’s Answer the Public

Consider AnswerThePublic.com. This is a tool built by CoverageBook with information anyone can get from Google’s API – search queries. However, the company wrapped it in an extraordinary interface (easy to use, intuitive) and offers it for free.

The key with both approaches is to lean back on the second idea and have a foundational or grounded place where the audience can subscribe and build its confidence in future value. For Lincoln Electric, that place was the magazine, which then brought the subscribers information about the physical classes, and other content elements. For CoverageBook, that place was AnswerthePublic.com.

More than leads

Ultimately, no matter where in the journey you build your audience, the opportunity is much more than driving leads, converting sales, or upselling customers. Building an audience is an investment in an asset that can serve many business purposes.

Just like your marketing database, some of your audience members may, indeed, become leads, opportunities, and sales. But also like your marketing database, most won’t. If you assume your audience-to-lead conversion rate to be the same as the average qualified lead to opportunity, you might see 15% turn into actionable leads. That means 85% didn’t.

But here’s the key. If those marketing contacts are simply scanned trade-show badges, purchased lists, or people who simply wanted that cool research you gated, the great majority of that 85% might be useless.

On the other hand, if they are audiences, the 85% can be just as valuable, and in some cases even more valuable than a lead. These 85% represent people who are willing and enthusiastically gathered to hear more from you. They will:

  • Almost certainly recommend your content to others in their network – thus giving you more organic reach
  • Ultimately have occasion to need your product or service and be predisposed to choosing you
  • Help you through targeting get better results from personalization or segmenting content
  • Provide you with insight into other products, markets, or even regions you may want to explore

We are all audience companies these days.

Don’t take my word for it. Watch media companies. As they evolve, they are not only building audiences that they monetize by selling advertisers temporary access to – they are selling products and services to them. They are, literally, making markets where none existed, using the power of an engaged audience to watch what the audience members purchase.

BuzzFeed for example, knows a high percentage of its audience loves cooking. It developed a new product brand called Tasty that is driving millions of dollars in revenue.

Brands that understand the power of audiences are setting new values to marketing by establishing direct, proprietary relationships with audiences. They are doing what smart marketers have been doing for 100 years. They are creating their own markets. Today, content only has value to the extent that it builds and keeps an audience.

Let’s go build yours.

Get the scoop on how to create great audience experiences and much more at ContentTECH Summit this August. Register for the virtual event today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Robert Rose

Robert is the founder and chief strategy officer of The Content Advisory, the education and consulting group for The Content Marketing Institute. Robert has worked with more than 500 companies, including 15 of the Fortune 100. He’s provided content marketing and strategy advice for global brands such as Capital One, NASA, Dell, McCormick Spices, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert’s third book – Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has been called the “book that rewrites the rules of marketing.” His second book – Experiences: The Seventh Era of Marketing is a top seller and has been called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” Robert’s first book, Managing Content Marketing, spent two weeks as a top 10 marketing book on Amazon.com and is generally considered to be the “owners manual” of the content marketing process. You can follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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