So You Think You’ve Built an Audience? Not So Fast

You may have built a database of leads. But unless you know how to turn those casual hand raisers into a community of engaged subscribers, you’re letting marketing value slip through your fingers. Here’s what you need to know.

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

But there are always lingering 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 our brand’s SEO efforts?
  • How do we measure the impact of our content?

And there’s also the biggest one of them all:

  • How do we continue to grow our success?

You research. You visit CMI and other resources, looking for answers. 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 from 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 or purchase for the same reasons. Why are you sending the same blanket message to everybody on your list regardless of the circumstances that put them on that list?

An audience is different. And it provides a different level of value than your marketing database every could.

Audiences are built on expectations of future value

I often ask CMI’s workshop attendees and our consulting 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 you find any people who do this, those people are your audience.

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 ongoing subscription is based on your confidence that this app will continue to deliver value, most of which you haven’t yet conceived.

Subscribers don’t sign up to receive a particular content asset. Subscribers sign up for what they trust they are going to receive down the road.

Developing this trust and maintaining this confidence in future value are what separate 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

A database is a divider; an audience is a multiplier

Building an audience – and measuring the returns on your audience investment (ROA) – all comes down to looking at what audiences can (holistically) help your business accomplish. A subscribed and enthusiastic audience can help you do things that would otherwise be more difficult.

A database serves to divide your audience into neat little segments you can market to with content. But having an audience of trusting subscribers is what enables you to multiply the impact of all that content. It’s a tool that marketers can use to differentiate, be more efficient, and, ultimately, create better customers.

Does that mean you should abandon all efforts to gate content and acquire email addresses for marketing purposes? No, of course not. Both are viable strategies for marketing. But the business value that you can achieve through audiences – and the answers to all those questions posed above – depend entirely on your ability to distinguish between the two and use each to your brand’s best advantage.

How do marketers build audiences?

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

Let’s look at three key ideas that can guide your process of building an audience:

Idea 1 – Appeal to people needs, not just purchase needs: Many companies develop buyer personas. From a product marketing perspective, it is one of the most valuable exercises you can do. But because the reason for subscribing is different, so too is understanding your audience and what it takes to keep them as subscribers.

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 offerings.

Ironically, this usually means you can and should target more niche (i.e., smaller) audiences than your product marketing total addressable market (TAM). This is where you can compete against media companies for the time and attention of 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 your audience segments.

Media companies need big, broad audiences to monetize them for ad or subscription revenue. As #contentmarketers, we can afford to be more niche and specific about our audience segments, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

You certainly need to understand how many are in your target audience and ensure that enough of them are viable to meet your intended goals. But you also need to know who they are as people, not just as customers. Can you understand all the challenges they have so you can create content that will engage them beyond just your products’ features and benefits?

Example – Capital Group: The content marketing team at Capital Group, a financial services company, has created this kind of content experience.

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 approached this was by building a content platform that exclusively served the needs of those advisors. This content niche brought 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 long-term implications. Put simply, the content is designed for sophisticated, long-term investors who put the effort into making financial advice a career decision.

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

Idea 2 – Anchor your experience and gradually add new 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 easy to conceive that you are gathering people to convert into customers. You say, “The marketing database is about driving leads into sales,” therefore, the audience should be centered on or built at the early or middle part of the customer 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 those 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 no universally correct answer. 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 about whom you consider to be part of your audience, one way or the other.

As you create your first (or your seventh, 10th, or beyond) 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 their engagement supports. 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 journey for each audience you want to build? Well, technically, yes. That’s the ideal. And, over time, you will almost certainly manage a portfolio of these content-driven experiences (blogs, website, webinar programs, customer events, etc.). But you can start with one. And that one is where you can anchor the multiple places where your audience gathers.

The critical thing is to ground that one platform, 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 through your system, you should have one view into your audience that shows 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 members take different actions.

If someone attends webinars or events, resubscribes to newsletters, or acts on an offer, they are still part of our one central audience that we segment against those attributes. For example, we can tell that most of our “super fans” 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 information is a tremendous value when trying to determine who has evolved into an actual lead – and how we can leverage that evolution to continue to engage them through our content.

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.

In other words, we become fans of Star Wars (a unique story) 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 (a unique, narrowly defined context).

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

Example – CoverageBook’s Answer the Public: A useful example to consider is AnswerThePublic.com. This is a tool built 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 this kind of approach is to lean on the second idea and have a foundational or grounded place where the audience can subscribe and build its confidence in future value. For CoverageBook, that place was AnswerthePublic.com.

Audiences deliver more than just leads

Ultimately, no matter where in the journey you build your audience, the opportunity is about 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 will not. 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 the other 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 to your business anyway.

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

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

We are all audience companies

Don’t just take my word for that. Look at how media companies have been evolving. Not only are they building audiences they can monetize by selling advertisers temporary access, they are directly selling products and services to those audiences. They are, literally, making markets where none existed, using the power of an engaged audience to monitor what the audience members purchase and sustain the value exchange long term.

Brands that understand the power of audiences are adding new marketing value by establishing direct, proprietary relationships with them. They are doing what smart marketers have been doing for 100 years: creating their own markets.

Today, content has value only to the extent that it builds and keeps an audience. How are you building yours?

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].


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 catch up with Robert on his popular podcast - The Weekly Wrap. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.


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