We’ve talked a fair amount on this blog about social tools, the role of PR and marketing in lead generation and the changing landscape of analytics. One thing that can get lost in the rush to the latest tool or trend conversation is a fundamental tenant: the value of truly knowing your audience. By that I don’t mean knowing how many Twitter followers you have or how many initial clicks you had to your latest new website; I mean knowing who they are in detail, what their preferences are and what will continue to engage them short and long term.

I was reminded of this when recently reading a great piece in The Guardian on the new wave of data-driven journalism sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight and the Upshot. The biggest takeaway for me wasn’t the analysis of the overall worth of these sites to the field of journalism per se or their “new” approach via data and visuals. It was the question of what audience they were designed to address. The main questions still looming to me were: Are sites like this too broad? Will they chase away their natural data-happy readers by trying to do too much for too many? When data potentially shows a fragmented audience experience, what’s the strategy moving forward?

Now, put these questions through the filter of audience attention and engagement. A story in a recent TIME Magazine piece by Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile showed some pretty compelling data around questions like, “Do clicks = engagement?” and “Do we share what we really read in depth?” What struck me in this piece wasn’t that measurement itself is wrong or inconsequential. It’s that we come to each situation with a bias, and that bias affects what we measure. It can cause real damage to our marketing and communications strategy.

For example, many clients and prospects initially ask about audience growth, e.g. social channel growth in a vacuum as a success metric. Sure, growing audience is a great goal – as long as that audience is the right one for you. Knowing who that audience is means engaging on a variety of tactical and strategic journeys.

  • First, ask yourself: Do we attract the influencers that matter to us? Check out SocMetrics and Klout scores, build a list through FollowerWonk in Moz and directly engage via Twitter. This is a great first step to defining the audience, but that’s exactly what it is: a first step.
  • Next, build a content calendar that mixes the right percentage of sharing and promotion, making sure to cross-pollinate across your channels and actively engage in conversations. From there, how do we know that is working?
  • Let’s look at traffic patterns. How’s the traffic back to the site? Let’s say traffic is looking pretty good overall week to week, and we can see which blog posts are resonating the most. But wait – that data doesn’t tie to your latest offerings or what the CEO is pushing as the strategic initiative this quarter. Does that mean we need a whole new audience?
  • Let’s check Google Analytics. Are we gaining net new unique visitors? Great, we didn’t ignore the CEO or the new products. But what about the established products that fuel our R&D and innovation? For an established brand, recurring visitors can be a better indicator to show engagement with additional pieces of content and movement down the funnel. Now we’re risking being at odds with senior management’s vision or getting enraged sales VPs asking what the heck we’re doing in marketing.
  • To cover our bases, let’s set up a separate social presence and strategy for the emerging parts of our business! Great – who is going to manage that exactly? Do we need to go through this entire audience process again? What about the audience that is already engaged with us for both product sets on established channels – do we “push” them one way or another?

We started this journey with a bias: audience growth meant success. Where we ended was well intentioned and potentially either misdirected or damaging to the company’s overall revenue goals. Don’t worry. As evidenced in some of the earlier examples, media, advertisers and journalists are all going through the same process. Data is informing more and more decisions – and this is good thing. What that data means can never live without context. Test out your assumptions, gather your data via Google Analytics, FollowerWonk, HootSuite or whatever your tool of choice may be, and make sure to always cross-reference that data to ensure leading indicators support your strategy. Those findings, when tied to strategy, can drive content, engagement and revenue with your right audience.