What do your customer groups call themselves?

Victorian novel lovers?
Money savers?
Chief executives in the automotive industry?

All of the above? Maybe.

But I’m going to guess that they don’t call themselves “low hanging fruit” or “recent email subscriber.”

Our customers are more than buyer personas; they’re members of communities and online audiences. Most content marketing and link building efforts lack audience-centric design. Focus on the person behind the persona, and you’ll reap the rewards.

Going Native
In this post, we’re going to use ethnographic-based research methods* to create a qualitative method for delving into audience. In the academic world, ethnographic research entails researcher immersion into the culture of study, often as an observer, though sometimes as a participant, the goal being to describe a culture in its own terms. This research often does not begin with a fully-orchestrated plan of study, but allows learnings and conversations to direct next steps (source). By the end of this post, you’ll be able to outline a process for defining and publishing for your company or client’s audiences, not just how a marketer sees them, but as they see themselves.

What Really Defines An Audience?
Everyone has a different definition, but here’s ours: An audience is a grouping of people with specific pains, needs and characteristics, who self-identify enough with these shared attributes that ad-driven publications or passion-driven publications exist for them.

These customer audiences can be self-selecting, such as “stay at home moms” or “stock car racing fans” or they can be results of unchosen conditions, such as “sufferers of mental illness.” They may rally around hobbies, career paths, life circumstances, geographies and even demographic. Most companies’ customers are the combinations of a few distinct audiences. Finding and understanding them is the first step toward creating content that meets their needs outside of your product offerings and in a way that enables link building efforts.

Finding Customer Audiences
The only way to get to audiences is through in-depth research. In traditional ethnographic research, teams interview and observe participants in their homes or workplaces to see the pains and needs in their everyday lives. Not all content marketing budgets may support such a hands on strategy (and observing customers as they read your guest posts may be a bit intimidating), but there are ways to mimic these methods in the online world with research, as you’ll see below.

From a scientific perspective, ethnography works best when the research enables us to get close enough to a group to see it as an ‘insider’ while remaining an objective outsider:

“…many ethnographers do not believe that understanding requires that they become full members of the group(s) being studied. Indeed, many believe that this must not occur if a valid and useful account is to be produced. These researchers believe the ethnographer must try to be both outsider and insider, staying on the margins of the group both socially and intellectually. This is because what is required is both an outside and an inside view. For this reason it is sometimes emphasized that, besides seeking to “understand”, the ethnographer must also try to see familiar settings as “anthropologically strange”, as they would be seen by someone from another society, adopting what we might call the Martian perspective.” (source)

Presumably, most marketers already know the nuances of their own industry, but understanding audience also requires they step far enough outside their industry to see it as a Martian might – objectively. As we explore new audiences, prospect for publishers and write content for them, it’s important to get a grasp of their terms and vernacular.

What to Look For:

1. What Do They Call Themselves?

This needs to be the central and very first thing, to make sure you’re finding the right links pages, blogs and reporters. A buyer persona isn’t enough for effective audience focused link building. It’s more important to know what the audience calls itself as opposed to what you have labelled it.

If you’re looking for that audience, you need to look for it everywhere, and constantly, as terminology is ever-changing. If we prospected for “secretaries” instead of “receptionists,” we’re going to miss some opportunities. Sometimes groups reappropriate a formerly negative terminology for themselves (“Queer” as an example).

Example: Powertools for Woodworkers
The marketers define the hobbyist segment as “pro lite” or “semi pro” – but these people don’t define themselves that way. If you end up just looking at this segment that you know is a good audience for you, you may not end up understanding this audience.

In our research into the online woodworking community, we also saw references to “serious woodworkers.” The implication being that these “serious” practitioners of woodworking use certain tools or practices. We wondered if woodworkers tended to use the term “serious” for avid practitioners more than other hobbyists, and it turns out, they do, at least compared to gardeners and mechanics.

Total Google Results: 2.2 million
“Serious Woodworkers” Results: 13,100
Serious as % of Total: .5%

Total Google Results: 188 million
“Serious Mechanics” Results: 4,310
Serious as % of Total: .002%

Total Results: 36 million
“Serious Gardeners” Results: 32,700
Serious as % of Total: .09%

Turns out that yes, being described “serious” is more appropriate for woodworkers than for mechanics. Were I a content creator in the woodworking world, an insight like this would help me publish more community fitting content… and to prospect more precisely for outreach opportunities.

2. What Terms Do They Use?

In the world of motorcyclists, bikers can be “riders” and shared routes are often called “tracks.” “Incubators” mean very different things to medical doctors and Silicon Valley tech folks.

Understanding audience isn’t just about what they call themselves; it’s also about what they call their environment. Is an air wrench called an air wrench if it’s in a auto repair shop vs. an airplane hangar? Just like an American English speaker can quickly spot a British writer with words like “colour,” there are little “tells” of audience non-memberships.

Where to Look:

Finding Your Customer Audience Online
Go broad with your customer audience and look for the type of publications that are out there for them.

Let’s say we’ve created a new high-end table saw for woodworkers. Our “persona” would be a pro-hobbyist (“prosumer”) who’s been woodworking for 1-5 years and now recognizes that their existing tools are hindering their growth.

To find our audiences, we start broad – “woodworkers” – and find subsets: self labelled audience for whom there are publishers. We then get as granular as possible, until blogs no longer exist.

  • “newbie” woodworker (< 1 year woodworking, or someone with a lack of desire for growth)
  • Woodworkers who are women
  • Woodworkers who are trying to start a business
  • Professional woodworkers
  • “Neanderthals” who specialize in using old-timey tools
  • “Tool-specific” woodworkers (ie: “Turners” who use lathes)
  • “Tool Junkies” who mostly enjoy collecting tools

… and so on.

1. Forum Research

We don’t mean dropping forum links. We mean forum listening. Forums are a great resource because they are so informal and anonymous. People go to forums when they have an acute and urgent question or need. They don’t always use punctuation, and they don’t usually self-edit. Forums are, in some ways, as close as you’re going to get to your audiences without observing them in their living room.

How are customer audiences talking about their pains or sharing advice?
How are they talking about your product and your competitors’ products?
Are they talking about your product?
What are the categories within these forums, and how do they relate to your current content offerings?

2. Blog Research

Blogs and online publications help us see audiences the way publishers see them. Publishers don’t see our customers as “buyers;” publishers see them as “readers.” Finding the right kind of blog is important. Company blogs (such as the Citation Labs Blog) are directed at potential buyers.

Quick and dirty litmus test for Audience (versus Persona) Blog: Does this blog belong to a competitor of your company (or client)?

Yes: It’s based on a sales persona. Person seeking _______.

No: It’s based on an audience. Person who is ________.

3. Customer Conversations (hop on the phone!)

These conversations are different from traditional surveys in which most questions are measured on quantitative metrics (multiple choice or “rate on a scale,” etc). Ethnographic interviews are more similar to a cocktail party chat than to a survey or census; you may talk to 20 people instead of 2,000, but the conversations will lead to a better big-picture understanding of their lifestyle.

Academic literature on ethnographic research defines three types of interview questions that are equally applicable to customer conversations.

Descriptive questions: “Tell me about your average woodworking session.”
Structural questions: “How have you organized your woodworking shop or area?”
Contrast questions: “Compared to when you started woodworking, what are the main differences in your current woodworking habits or routines?”

4. Customer Support Rep Conversations

Company salespeople have the benefit of being in the trenches. They know customers by name and can help the marketing team get an overall sense of who their audience is. In a way, these team members have been engaging in ethnographic research as part of their daily duties. But they also have blinders on. If a salesperson has been selling to Person X for 10 years, it may have escaped his notice than in the last 2-3 years, Person Y has entered the market, but with slightly different needs than Person X. This is why it’s important to remain especially objective from the subject of this interview – learn from his or her perspective, but remember that it’s secondary source material.

Plus, comparing some existing primary research to the conclusions of your secondary sources may help to bring forward some blinders you’ve put on, or areas that have escaped your notice.

How To Use Your Findings To Prospect For Publishers
Throughout your research, you’re noting terms used to describe segments of your markets or audience. You can use the Link Prospector for a more thorough search or peruse Google to create lists of potential outreach partners.

“term(s)” + blog
“term(s)” + forum
“term(s)” + community
“term(s)” + news
“term(s)” + publication

Conclusion: Audience is Defined by Lifestyle

Buyer personas emphasize sales; they’re defined by “customer needs” and “customer intent.” Audience is defined by lifestyle. When we’re talking to an audience, we’re talking about getting in front of our customers, where they already consume content, using the terms that they use, focusing on problems that they face, whether they’re related to our product or not.

*While our methods are based on ethnographic research, they don’t fully follow traditional academic ethnographic guidelines, which typically involve many hundreds of hours focused on key individual participants in their native environment.

Additional Sources on Ethnography:

What is ethnography?

A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries

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