Why understanding your audience is crucial for your business

If you don’t know who you’re publishing for, what are you doing?

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Author of Designing the Invisible, Rob Mills says understanding your audience is crucial for your business.

While working at the BBC as an audience researcher, Rob says he worked on a programme about rugby. The team had assumed women wouldn’t be interested – but in fact – 50% of the channel’s audience were women.

“Assuming who your audience is based on research conducted six years previously is such a risky thing to do! This made me realise how important it is to take the time to find out more about them.”

Rob admits the title ‘Content Strategist’ is a little broad. He creates content and manages the blog at GatherContent, an online platform where teams organise content for their website. He also organises, facilitates and hosts community webinars, content strategy masterclasses and the content strategy advent calendar (you might see a familiar face behind door 21).

Being an audience researcher helps Rob in his current role – he was involved in different research projects such as analysing the radio listening and overnight viewing figures for radio and TV. He says: “That set me up nicely as I had gathered experience with data analysis and I knew how to find patterns and stories within data.”

Rob’s passionate about creating the perfect content for the right audience. But there’s a difference between knowing and understanding your audience.

“If you don’t know who your audience is, how can you make informed decisions? How do you know what content you need to create? What voice and tone does it need to be in? And where does it need to go?"

Step 1: Research. Step 2: Research. Step 3: Research.

“At GatherContent we try to create content at the points where we can see people need it. If, for example, we find customers are struggling to use the workflow feature, we’ll create content around this to help people use it more successfully (aside from also looking to see how we can improve the product).”

Rob recommends investing in audience or customer research (and to do it as early as possible) – even if you’ve already got an assumption about your audience.

“I expect you’ll find out something new, but even if you don’t and it just validates your assumptions, then they’re no longer that – it becomes knowledge.”

More structured research methods include having an email address that’s used just for feedback so they can organise content by urgency or theme.

Rob thinks a great web experience is all part of the package. “Everyone wants everything now and on demand, why wouldn’t we make things easier and more pleasant for people?”

"We have a responsibility (aside from trying to sell things to customers) to make the web a beautiful place with good content. It needs to be user-focused.”

Rob confirms copy is essential – as it can either help people do what they need to do or make it more difficult. It’s the same with language. It can be difficult to get it right for your brand. Communicating clearly, using plain English, being authentic and consistent in language, tone and voice is key.

Brands fall into the trap of doing what everyone else is doing

Rob has a bugbear about matching the right tone of voice for your audience. 

“Innocent were the trailblazers in ‘being your mate’ and it suited them because they produce smoothies.

“But now lots of organisations are trying to do it. I get the thought behind it but if I’m going to a bank for a mortgage, I want to have some kind of trust. The ‘hey I’m your buddy’ can go too far. There needs to be a balance between being professional and friendly.

To avoid this common problem (yep, you guessed it) brands need to do their research. After this they'll understand who they're talking to and how to approach their tone of voice.

“I also see lots of jargon as companies fear that they’re ‘dumbing down’ what they’re offering by using plain English. But it’s not about that – it’s about clarity and being helpful.”

You can follow Rob on Twitter @RobertMills

Rob is Content Strategist at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways, WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy at leading industry events.