Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Improving Your Content Marketing With Better Questions

Added on by Tom Webster.

I've been talking a lot lately about developing an audience strategy to inform your content strategy, and there is simply no way to do that without learning about the needs, wants and desires of the people who might potentially interact with your content. This means talking to people who are not only your customers, but also to people who aren't. Otherwise, you are dealing with content tactics, and not audience strategy.

To tackle a strategic problem requires a strategic approach, and in my business, that means starting with why. The mistake I see many content marketers making, however, is that they are starting with the what. This can take various forms, but if you are starting with the story you need to tell, and then working out how to tell that story to various personas through content, you are working backwards. Starting with the needs, wants and desires of an audience (not all of whom are customers) requires you to start with them, not with your content, and with why they do or do not consume your content. 

In fact, the question of why people do or do not do anything (from buying your product to reading your content) is the central existential question upon which any communications or content strategy should be based.

So, how do we get there? A former boss and eternal mentor of mine, Frank Cody, once put it to me like this: figure out what an audience expects, and then be that thing, and you will be successful. But the key to making this a strategic exercise is to resist starting with the what questions, and find ways to begin with the why questions.  

I'll close with a thought experiment to hopefully get your creative juices flowing. Let's say you wanted to build an audience for a content marketing blog. What should you write about? Well, my advice is always to start with the audience, and not with your content, and that means asking them some questions. But consider the following two ways of asking those questions:

1. What kind(s) of content would you like to see? _____________

2. What kind(s) of content would you like to see? 

  • A. Blue
  • B. Red
  • C. Green
  • D. Yellow
  • E. Orange

The latter question is expedient, and readily fits into the "survey primate" program of your choice, but it's not a great question to start a strategy with. The biggest problem with starting with this kind of question is that you came up with the choices. What if there are audience segments who prefer ecru, or taupe, or one of the myriad other off-white colors? You'll never know, because you didn't think to include it as a choice. 

So this leaves us with Option 1, which seems in principle like it would be a better question to ask, albeit a harder one to code and make sense of. But there is a problem with starting here, as well: you are already putting an audience into a "what" frame of mind. That's fine when you get down to tactics, but not when you are trying to develop a strategy.

If you ask people "what" they like to read, they'll tell you what they are already reading. That's not the path to differentiation.  As a strategic question, Option 1 fails because it doesn't really get at why an audience prefers that kind of content, merely that they enjoy it. But that is not the path to opportunity; it is merely the path to identifying what they are already reading and consuming. It's exactly like what Burger King did when they researched what fast-food customers were looking for, and the answer they got was McDonald's.

So let's ask a better question to come up with the why. Here are seven blogs that talk about content marketing. Take out a piece of paper, and put them into an order that makes sense to you: 

Convince and Convert

Social Media Explorer

Top Rank Online Marketing Blog

Businesses Grow

Content Marketing Institute

Christoper Penn

The Sales Lion 

I'll wait here.

OK. Done? Now, if I were next to you, walking you through this exercise, you might ask me "what order?" or "how?" I would simply ask you to sort them into an order that means something to you--a value judgement--and offer no more advice than that. 

At the end of the process, you'll have an ordered list of seven blogs, and the well of your mind has yet to be poisoned with any "what" questions. At this point, I would ask you why you ordered them in that way--why you ranked one ahead of the other, and why you put the one in last that you did. We'd talk for a while. And in the process, I'll learn FAR more about what makes you tick than simply "what content you like to read." I'll know why you value these blogs, and what criteria make you passionate.

Asking the "what" questions is central to developing tactics, but at the outset, at the strategic level, it's all about the why. And it's very simple to get to the why if you remind yourself that the goal of these questions is not to answer "what" questions--or indeed, ANY question about your brand or product. It's to learn about people.  

Your first questions should be about the whys of your audience, not the whats of your product. Do that, and you are playing at the next level.