Lately I’ve been having a lot of phone calls with companies — big and small — that go something like this:

Them: “We’re so excited to get going on this project! Our marketing strategy is still ‘under construction,’ but this white paper is going to kick everything off nicely.”

Me: “Great! I’m excited to write this for you. Now, first things first. Who’s the target audience?”

Them: “Well, we haven’t figured that out yet. Probably the C-Suite and developers, but we’re not 100% sure.”

Me (inwardly cringing): “Hmm. Okay. Well, the C-Suite and developers are two very different audiences with very different needs and very different problems. We’ll really need to zero in on your specific audience — industry, role, etc. — before we can get started on this project.”

Them: “Oh. Okay. Yeah, market research is on the list of to-dos for the year, but it’s going to be a while before we can get to it. Can you still write this white paper?”

Me: “I really think you need to do your market research first, before we start this project. I don’t want to waste your budget on an asset that won’t show any ROI for you — and if I don’t know who, specifically, the target audience is … well, I’m writing to nobody. And nobody is exactly who is going to read the content and engage with your company because of it.”

Oof. That’s never a fun conversation to have. Especially when it’s with a company I would LOVE to work with.

And it’s not just the startups who are diving head-first into creating content without any sense of their target audience. Even established companies and enterprise corporations sometimes jump the gun.

I never want to dissuade someone from creating quality content to support their marketing and sales initiatives. But without an audience, you’re shouting into the void. And that’s a big, fat waste of marketing budget.

To build those long-term customer relationships and get measurable results for your business, your market research, marketing strategy, and content production should all work hand-in-hand.

While there’s always a bit of trial and error in any marketing initiative, writing content based on what you think is true about your audience is the equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks.

When it comes to your audience, knowledge is everything. Knowing your audience helps you (and your content writer) determine the right topics for your content, use the right language to connect with the reader, structure the content so it’s most easy for the reader to engage with, and get it into the hands of the audience in the most efficient way.

You wouldn’t design a sales strategy without market research. Don’t design a marketing strategy without it, either.

Now, most of my clients have a pretty good idea of the industry or vertical they’re selling to. Where things often go awry is in figuring out the people element. Who are you trying to reach with your marketing content?

  • What’s their role (title, responsibilities, goals)?
  • What’s their educational background?
  • What’s keeping them up at night?
  • What do they believe?
  • What are their pet peeves?
  • How do they get their information?

Can you see how the answers would differ wildly between a C-Suite exec and a software developer? And can you see how content would need to be written very differently for each of them?

“Healthcare organizations” may be the general market you’re targeting. But executive leadership, HR professionals, healthcare providers and supply-chain managers within healthcare organizations all have very different perspectives and needs.

Take this Office Depot white paper, for example: Benefits of Vendor Consolidation in the New Healthcare Economy. Do you think the marketing team went “Hmm. Well let’s write this white paper for the healthcare vertical. I’m not sure which role we should target, but it’ll be a great asset anyway.”? Absolutely not. That was a big-ticket asset to produce — from hiring the writer to getting it designed to promoting it. One look at that white paper and you know they knew exactly who they were creating it for, what that audience cares about, and how they were going to use this white paper to engage with those people.

Get the benefits of vendor consolidation in the new healthcare economy

You have to understand your audience to understand and solve their pain points.

This is as true in your marketing content as it is in your sales process.

So who, specifically, are you trying to engage with when you create the marketing asset you’re thinking about creating?

If you don’t have the faintest idea, start by looking at your metrics and talking to your sales team.

  • Who is engaging most with your company right now?
  • Who is actually paying for your product or service? (Often this a different person than who asks your sales team for a demo.)
  • How many people are involved in a buying decision, and what are their roles?
  • Is there a group of people that consistently engage with your company and don’t buy? (No, don’t double down on creating content for these people in attempt to get their attention. Focus your efforts on the people who are already buying.)

These basic questions should help you zero in on the specific people you should be getting to know better — and the specific people you should be creating content for.

Only once you’ve zeroed in on those key roles is it time to do your market research.

Because now it’s time to actually talk to these people.

Sure, you can start with passive research — use Google and LinkedIn to learn more about some of these specific roles. But active market research, otherwise known as voice-of-the-customer, is a necessary step in getting the kinds of insights that will drive a truly successful marketing campaign.

Getting voice-of-the-customer insight is all about listening. So schedule interviews with your top customers. Send out surveys to previous and current customers. If your website is your best salesperson, set up a pop-up survey to learn more about what is driving people there. (Here’s a masterclass in listening to customers from my brilliant colleague Laura Lopuch.)

NOW you have the market research you need to start creating effective content.

Put the key points of what you learned into a buyer persona document for each of the roles you’re targeting. And let those buyer persona documents guide your content decision-making.

Finally, in addition to sharing those buyer personas with your content writer, give the writer access to the raw voice-of-the-customer data.

That raw data is an absolute goldmine when it comes to getting inside your customers’ heads and learning their language. When your content writer uses your customers’ own words in the content, the customer sees themselves on the page. And the customer personally connects with the content.

To sum this up:

Market research first. Content creation second.

Now you have the formula for more successful marketing initiatives.