When my kids were small my family traveled to eastern Kentucky to visit my in-laws for Christmas each year. It was both terribly stressful and a whole lot of fun. One of the challenges early on was choosing gifts for people I didn’t know especially well, who had the means to mostly buy what they wanted when they wanted it.
For a time, I worked in a pottery shop that carried all sorts of interesting gifts. Since I got a discount, it was a good place to do some Christmas shopping. One year, the pottery shop got some interesting puzzles. They were handmade tavern puzzles, similar to these.
My father-in-law, Pappy, was an exceedingly clever man. He came up with all sorts of innovative solutions for problems and enjoyed woodworking. I thought a tavern puzzle was the perfect gift—unusual, entertaining, a little challenging.
And, when Pappy opened it, he said, “hmmmm….” and immediately started working on it. I was so proud of having found something he didn’t already have and that he liked.
The next year, we got a new batch of tavern puzzles in stock at the pottery store, and I bought him another one. This time, he opened it and said, “Are you trying to give me another heart attack?”
As it turned out, the tavern puzzle wasn’t such a good gift. It wasn’t entertaining so much as it was stressful. He couldn’t solve it, and ended up getting his granddaughter (my niece) to look up the solution online. It was frustrating in the extreme.
This is a common content marketing mistake.
Organizations produce content showing how their product or service solves a particular problem. The content is clear, well-written, entertaining—but doesn’t solve the problem their audience has.
Much like the tavern puzzle was well-made and entertaining, it didn’t provide what my audience needed. (The next year, I got Pappy a little porcupine with bristles for cleaning your shoes before you went in the house and he loved it.)
How can you avoid frustrating your audience? You have to find out what it is they actually need and want instead of simply guessing.
Thorough audience research is the cornerstone of an effective content strategy, and each method of learning about your audience has pros and cons. For example, surveys are fun, people usually enjoy them, but writing an unbiased survey is a specialized skill. Getting an adequate number of responses to draw conclusions may require incentives such as discounts or exclusive content.
Surveys can be pop-ups on your site, shared through social media, or sent via email. The best method depends on several factors including what you’re trying to learn, your reach on each platform, and whether you have someone who can craft the right survey questions.
Focus groups are another good audience research tool, but again, have benefits and drawbacks. Social listening can be a powerful way to find out how people feel about your brand or product (sentiment analysis) or how they feel about your competitors.
Buying gifts for someone who already seems to have everything is always a little bit risky. However, if I’d actually asked Pappy (or his wife) if he liked puzzles, I would have had a better idea of whether or not to buy that first one. And, I should have asked if he enjoyed the first one instead of assuming he did.
Too often, marketing professionals and company leaders think they know who their audience is and what they need. I can’t count the number of times in my career I’ve heard the Henry Ford quote, “If I would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
The thing is, content marketing is about understanding what people do want (to get themselves and their cargo from place to place efficiently) and show them how your product or service can help them. It’s not about ignoring what people want and giving them what you think they need instead.