A special thanks to MSP-C for its sponsorship of this section of CCO, which includes its participation in this interview

Listen to the extended interview.

In 2018, content marketing agency MSP-C was recognized for its self-proclaimed audience-first approach when its team left Cleveland, Ohio, with the award for Agency of the Year (more than 100 employees) safely packed in their luggage.

I spoke with MSP-C’s vice president of digital strategy, Kate Rogers, about her approach to audience strategy and how to avoid it becoming a simple numbers game.

JC: Does the fact we’re still debating reach versus niche mean that simply chasing the biggest audience is sometimes the right tactic? Why are we still having this discussion?

KR: It’s an interesting question. I certainly don’t mean this to sound like a hedge, but the right audience doesn’t really have a size dimension.

Nobody would argue against going after the right audience, which is more closely aligned to a niche play. You need to develop content that serves a specific group of people – and specificity doesn’t necessarily correlate to scale.

Marketers can get nervous that they’re not casting a wide-enough net, or they don’t want to appear as if they’ve overlooked a key segment. So, against our better judgment, we end up falling into reach strategies when we don’t need to.

Obviously, there’s a relationship between scale and ROI, but I don’t think that scale is necessarily the goal to chase. If you’re serving your audiences’ needs in a way that is meaningful and relevant, scale will be the outcome. Right?

There's a relationship between scale and ROI, but scale isn’t the goal to chase, says Kate Rogers of @MSPContent, via @CMIContent. Share on X

If you’re going to market saying, “Let’s scale, scale, scale,” maybe you have the wrong intention in mind.

The need to get management approval for a strategy – followed by the hamster wheel of reports, KPIs, and so on – means content marketing often gets reduced to a spreadsheet. How can marketers avoid every discussion about which strategy to approve or which levers to pull being reduced to whichever has bigger audience numbers attached?

It’s a persistent challenge. There is pressure to inflate your reach and your potential return. It’s annoying that we still have to fight this battle because – in a culture that prizes narrow-casting and personalized interactions – we should be able to effectively make the case for paying really close attention to the right audiences, even if it might not be the biggest audience.

I do think there’s a way to talk somebody off the ledge of big numbers. We need to pay closer attention to the people actually engaging with us, the people we’re forming real relationships with. These are the people likely to buy not just once, but again and again. So what we’re really after is loyalty, which is a terrific way to demonstrate business value.

“What we’re really after is loyalty, which is a terrific way to demonstrate business value,” says Kate Rogers of @MSPContent, via @CMIContent. Share on X

When you take an audience-first or customer-experience view, word of mouth, trust, and credibility are still vitally important and things we need to prize. Getting it right with that smaller group is always going to be more effective than reaching the bigger group in an insignificant way.

How should marketers look at metrics within this context of audience size?

Marketers can always improve how they look at metrics. We need to be more specific with how we’re looking at metrics and what types of KPIs we’re tracking. There’s a way that engagement metrics are important but that’s not to be confused with or mistaken for buying metrics. You can’t tout all this engagement if you’re not seeing that activity trickle down to some kind of lower-funnel conversion. You can talk about building community and having this robust conversation all day, but ultimately that does need to become a selling story.

Any calculation of ROI also implies that the bigger the number put in at one end, the better the number out on the other. Can a too simplistic view of ROI encourage the wrong approach to audience size?

It’s very easy to get off track when you get into an ROI conversation. Absolutely, there needs to be an ever-present justification for the efforts you’re putting in market and you need to understand what the cost and the value are. I would never suggest that that’s not the right thing to do.

But when we’re forced to break that down – “My media mix produced X and I’ve been blogging for six months and my sales are essentially flat” – it’s too easy to draw the wrong conclusions by treating tactics as isolated, or about the levers you’re pulling, or guessing why something happened.

If you have a conversation that’s more holistic – that makes space for a relationship between consistent and valuable content and a growing base of loyal consumers – you’re in a good place.

To grow a base of loyal consumers requires consistent, valuable content, says Kate Rogers of @MSPContent, via @CMIContent. Share on X

What are some of the most effective audience strategies you’ve seen?

I’m a huge proponent of answering shopper questions. Being direct and outright with honest, information-rich, resource-rich content in a variety of different formats to answer the questions consumers have along any type of buyer journey is a very smart way to go.

Also, there’s a big user-experience component to that. How do you run your digital platforms? Are they easy to navigate? Do the answers to questions feel editorial? Do they feel credible? Are you using the channels available to you in a way that’s seamless for consumers? Are you interesting? Do you cause friction or do you eliminate it?

So, instead of looking at the audience purely as a set of future sales numbers, the right audience strategy can still provide a huge amount of value that doesn’t necessarily show up in an ROI equation.

Right. What are these people telling us? How can we learn from the data? How can we discern their signals? What you thought were your most frequently asked questions may not be because you observe that nobody engages with that content across different channels. Be willing to scrap it and spend the time developing more content around the five questions they are clicking on.

You’re discerning signal from noise to improve the experience and eliminate friction. I think it changes what the conversation is and how you look at reporting.

I see a lot of clients still trying to figure out the best way to visualize data, which metrics to look at, and what is the best dashboard or whatever. But there are still a lot of top-line metrics people look at. They’ll look at email open and engagement rates, but they don’t really do content-level reporting. More of us should be drilling down into how individual pieces perform. How does this change what we think about our content?

In your work with clients, is there an expectation that an audience happens quickly? Or do they realize an audience is something they need to invest in for years before it delivers its full potential?

Content marketing is a long game, that’s absolutely true. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true that you have to wait for two years to see any results. You can always see momentum. You can see movement in the right direction. I’m an advocate of thinking in 30-, 60-, 90-day cycles.

The word consistency keeps coming up. You are building a relationship, a value exchange. The fulcrum is consistency – consistency over time to drive value and action.

And be patient. Are we continually tinkering with the experience? Are we looking at every little detail we possibly can? Brilliant strategy can completely fall down if the execution isn’t great – if it’s not standout. And the way to be great and to stand out is to be specific and to solve problems. Make things simple and delightful for your consumers so they’ll have no choice but to reward you with their business.

There’s real value in spending time finding the right audience, knowing what that group needs to hear and the way they need to hear it. If you get on that road and stay on that road, you will win. But it will take time.