How to use audience research to create a content strategy

Remember in elementary school when you first learned how to write papers? Your teacher covered how to write letters, book reports, and the 5 paragraph essay, but one of the first things they made sure we understood was that before we started writing a draft we needed to know who we were writing to. The same is true for writing online. 

Before you can write a word, you have to know who you’re writing to. 

Why audience research is your first step?

Audience research answers “why”  

You’ll learn why your audience buys, feels, speaks, reads, etc the way they do. You can learn a lot of “what” answers with analytics, but in order to understand the “why,” you have to do audience research. 

Knowing is better than guessing

Without audience research, you’re making assumptions and guessing. It’s the equivalent of throwing spaghetti on the wall to see if it sticks. Audience research is the one way to create a strategy without a lot of guesswork. 

Audience research becomes your strategy

When you’ve done your research well, your content strategy becomes a puzzle you put together.

Simply put, if you’re not doing audience research you won’t be able to compete against your competitors. In Hubspot’s “Not Another State of Marketing Report”, they found that 72% of marketers do market research and 80% of those companies use the research to inform business decisions. 

So, what do you do if you know you need audience research, but you’re struggling to get buy-in from your boss or client?

How to Get Buy-In From Your Boss or Client

I spoke with Alli Blum, a conversion copywriter for SaaS companies, who is obsessed with all things audience research and copy. Alli gave me 4 tips for convincing your boss or client that audience research is a must-have. 

1. Define what you mean by research

As marketers and copywriters, we know what *we* mean when we say research, but research is a fairly broad term that is used by product people, UX teams, Customer Experience, and marketing and is often very costly and time-intensive. 

For many SaaS companies, product marketers do research and everyone else does customer support or A/B testing. 

That’s why you should be very specific when discussing research. Rather than say, “I always start with research.” Let them know, “I’m going to ask a four-question survey.” or  “I’m going to speak with 15 customers.” Or “spend 5 hours of project time”.

Decide before you begin how you’re going to perform your research and frame your project timeline and scope in that way.

2. Deliver a solution, not research

Research nerds love to talk about research. We get excited about the process and the possibilities, but our clients and bosses… not so much. They want action, they want change, they want you to do the job they hired you to do. So, in order to meet their expectations, and perform the research required to meet them well, wrap your research up in a deliverable. 

Start with the problem they hired you to solve and let them know you can solve it by knowing the answers to these certain questions. 

3. Use what you’ve got

A response you’ll likely hear often is “we’ve got tons of research!” If you hear this, then ask to see the research. Sometimes, you can learn what you need to know by looking through the research they’ve already performed. 

4. Do the research anyways

I think this was one of the best pieces of advice Alli taught me. If you can’t seem to get any budget or time approval, and no one has any research to show you, then just do what you can on your own. Your boss/client can’t stop you from spending a couple hours reading through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Amazon, Glassdoor, G2, or Capterra. There are tons of places online where you can get a decent idea of what your customers are saying.

When you’ve got the A-OK to dig a little deeper and get some specific answers, what’s your next step? Qualitative research.

How to do qualitative research

Qualitative research is the data you gather that can’t easily be placed in a numbers chart or graph-- it’s the words, emotions, and buying triggers of your audience. Qualitative data is how you learn more about who your audience is, why they buy, feel, think the way they do, and how you can help them. 

One of the best ways to gather the words and emotions of your audience is to speak with them. Customer interviews are the gold standard of qualitative research. While it may feel intimidating to get on the phone and ask a stranger questions about how they feel, it’s one of the best ways to understand who they are. 

Conduct Interviews

The most important aspect of a good interview is to listen. You should spend more time listening to the other person than you spend speaking. 

Here are my nine tips for a successful interview.

  1. Spend a few minutes on chit chat. Talking about the weather may seem like a complete waste of time, but it will actually give your customer time to warm up and get to know you on a personal level.
  2. Actively listen. This means that your focus is on the customer. Put away all distractions, find a place to sit that will allow you to focus on the customer. Let them speak more than you do.
  3. Do not sell to them. This conversation is not about taking the opportunity to upsell or convert this customer. If you try to sell to them all trust is gone and they will not give you genuine answers.
  4. Be comfortable with the silence. Awkward silences are just that—awkward. But when they happen, allow the customer to be the one to break the silence. If there’s been silence for more than a few seconds repeat the last thing the customer said. For example, “You were saying that you had a difficult time learning how to add new files to your database. Tell me more about that.”
  5. Keep it friendly. Use the customer’s name whenever you naturally can, be agreeable, kind, and respectful of their time. Don’t interrupt and don’t correct them if you think they’re wrong. 
  6. Be thankful. Let the customer know of this is a huge favor for you. 
  7. Get to the core of the emotion. If the customer responds that they were excited when they found the product, it’s important to know what “excited” means to them, and what were the triggers to excitement. 
  8. Stick to the time limit. On average, these conversations can take 20-45 minutes. Schedule longer than you think you may need for the first few. Getting off the phone early is never an issue, but going too long can be an inconvenience to you both.
  9. Change the conversation. If the customer never opened up and isn’t giving great answers, be willing to change the conversation for a moment. Go back to the chit chat. Let them get comfortable, and when they are, you can resume by saying, “Oh yeah! I forgot to ask you about…”

Once you’ve had a few conversations, you’ll begin to notice a pattern in the issues and words customers are using. The exact number varies, but around 5-10 customer conversations is usually enough to identify the repetitive words and gather qualitative data.

Create Surveys

A good survey is more than just asking questions and getting answers. It’s all about the way you ask the questions, what questions you ask, and how you get your answers. A good survey will help you learn more about your audience and use your finding to create a content strategy.

1. Write a rough draft.
The rough draft of your survey should include all the questions and ideas you’d like answered. This isn’t the place to edit or modify your questions. Ask everything you can imagine you’d want to know.

2. Edit your questions.
This step is where things get cut. This is where you determine which questions have bias, which questions are unnecessary and exactly how many questions you should ask. To deep dive into this process, check out our course on survey design.

3. Format your questions.
Now that you know how to ask the questions, it’s time to consider how you want to receive the answers. Here are the most popular ways to format your questions.

  • Open-ended questions
  • Close-ended questions
  • Likert Scale

4. Design the survey.
If you’ve spent hours crafting the perfect questions you don’t want to throw them onto a plain template and call it a day. Use a great design help guide respondents through the survey. 

When designing, keep in mind who is taking the survey. Are you sending this to high school seniors? Mid-level managers at work? Stay-at-home moms?

5. Test the survey

Before sending your survey out to the masses, test it on a small group of trusted people. Try it out on colleagues who didn’t participate in the creation or a small group of customers. 

Let the testers know this is a test run, and that you’d appreciate their feedback on any confusing questions, wording or format. 

Then, when you receive their feedback, make the appropriate changes. 

6. Send out and promote your survey.
Use all of your promotion channels to get as many relevant responses as possible. Reach out via email, social media, give your audience as many opportunities as possible to complete the survey. 

Sometimes, it’s helpful to include an incentive for a completed survey. Incentives are small gifts or discounts that you can give to anyone who completes the survey. 

Use Social Media 

If you’re one of the people whose boss or client never approved research, then learning how to find voice of the customer data on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and Amazon is going to be your best option for qualitative research. 

When trying to learn what customers have to say about a specific company, I’ll search the companies feeds, comments, and ask if I can have access to/ or a screenshot of the DM’s. 

You’re looking for repetitive questions, commonly used words (both positive and negative), and any words or phrases that evoke emotion. 

If you’re looking for information about an entire industry, pick four or five competitors and look through their G2 or Capterra reviews, and social feeds. When reading through the reviews and comments, look for statements when customers express excitement, happiness, frustration, and anger. 

Now that you’ve got tons of qualitative data, how do you organize it all?

How to organize your qualitative research

To keep all of your data organized, in one place, and actually useable, you’ll need a space that you can share and use easily.

This is where you transfer all the information you get into an organized document that can be shared with your boss or client. 

It sounds like a big fat pain, but it doesn’t have to be. The easiest way to organize insights is to categorize responses in a way that makes them easy to find later.

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Open a Google Sheets doc or Excel
  • Name each column after a category - for example: Churn, Onboarding, Sales, Unique value proposition, Product use, delighted customers. 

Your category titles will vary from project to project depending on what insights you’re looking for. Just make sure it’s easily searchable.

  • When reading through the survey responses, copy and paste any intriguing, interesting, or repetitive answers into the correct category. 

Here’s a quick example.

And that’s it! Now you have customer’s words organized by tone or awareness, and you can easily capture the right quote or question when needed.

How to turn audience research into content strategy

The first thing I look for when turning audience research into a content strategy is customer questions. Customers often need help learning how to use the product or the benefits of a feature. So, how do you take a customer’s words and turn it into a content strategy?

Step One: Look through the research
Whether you were the one to record and paste every word, or it was someone else, it’s a good idea to take a step back at this point and look at the bigger picture. Read through your sheet and notice any words or phrases used often, or was the same question asked by a few different customers? These are the things you want to pay attention to.

Step Two: Keyword Research
Keyword research is still an important aspect of a content strategy even if you have lots of great audience research. Keyword research will help you find the gaps that competitors aren’t addressing. Combining audience research and keyword research helps you create a strategy for both humans and search engine bots. 

Step Three: Put it in a Template
I use a simple Google Sheet to record my content marketing strategies for clients. You can use Airtable,, Notion, or a number of other tools if you’re more comfortable. It doesn’t have to be fancy, something easy to read, search, and use will be what works best for you and your clients or team. 

Create columns for keywords, blog topics, repurposing options, content upgrades, or deliverables, other blogs that are ranking for the keyword. 

This is where you combine what you know about your audience- their challenges, questions, concerns, and keywords to build a content strategy that will help educate and engage your audience.

Write, Publish, and Promote

The final step to every strategy is the execution. Start with either creating the content yourself or hiring professionals to do the work for you. Your research revealed the type of content your audience wants to consume. So, if you found that most of your audience enjoys video, then you don’t want to invest heavily in blog posts. 

Once the content is created you need to get the word out! Spend time and energy on promoting each piece of content. Because your content is your audience builder and a huge piece of an overall campaign strategy it’s worth the time and investment.

Get creative with your promotion with interesting collaborations, ads, or email campaigns. 
All the audience research and prep work you’ve done to this point is to ensure this phase of the process is successful. 

Make It Your Routine

Begin to implement small ways you can do audience research into your weekly routine. If you can continue to schedule a few phone calls a week you’ll learn impactful and relevant information that you can use to refine your content, copy, and campaigns.

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