In my last two columns, I laid out a process for planning and executing an online lead generation campaign. The first step in that process is defining your audience. That got me thinking about just how one goes about defining audience for an online advertising campaign.
Developing a strategy for an online campaign is more important now than it ever has been: it's no longer enough just to have a collection of tactics organized around loose assumptions about audiences based on the content of a website.
The most important part of that strategy, however, is being sure that the media you use is reaching the right audience as much as possible. You have to be sure that you identify who is mostly likely interested in what you have to offer before you start offering it to them.
Every exercise in audience identification starts with some hypothesis that has at its center two questions: 1) who is already interested in what I have to offer? 2) who might be interested in what I have to offer? In answering these two questions, you will have appropriately identified your audience.
The best process to use in going about doing this is to apply what I have often called "zero-based media planning," something I've talked about before here in iMedia Connection.
Zero-based media planning is a process that assumes that the product being advertised has never been advertised before. It is a process that takes nothing for granted and proceeds from a point where nothing is known (a "zero" point).
The reason for this is to avoid all of the prejudices that come from historical assurances that can give the marketer an image of a world that may not actually exist, skewing your strategy towards addressing audiences and the circumstances those audiences find themselves in, in ways that may no longer suit the reality of the present state.
In today's harried and fluid environment, change is not only the one true constant, but it seems to happen faster than it used to.
In order to keep abreast of the world we are marketing in, it is necessary to keep checking in on that world.
How to do it
Clearing the table of anything that has come before is an important first step. Once you've established a tabula rasa for your planning, you can start putting things back onto it, filling that table with research, data and past experience. The pattern that emerges will be the audience you seek.
Part 1: syndicated research
Once you've asked of your product or service, who is interested in it and who might be interested in it, you are ready to start looking for answers.
Start by going through syndicated research tools such as MRI (Mediamark Research Inc) or Simmons. These are third-party research companies that use tens of thousands of survey responses and put them into a database that allows users to cross-tab multiple data points, everything from demographics, product usage, psychographics, and media usage.
As most lead generation programs make great use of the internet as a medium, Nielsen//NetRatings' @plan research tool is also valuable. It allows for the same kind of data-point cross-tabbing as does Simmons or MRI, only the audience universe is entirely internet based.
If the product or service you have to offer is from a familiar category, you will likely be able to pull data from any one of these sources in such a way that will allow you to identify basic demographics, preferred media, and regularly engaged activities of those who are the most frequent users of that product or service category. In some instances, you can even read this data against a brand-level identifier (e.g. heavy users of VO5 hair conditioner).
If the product or service to be marketed is of a less familiar or less common category, you'll need to consider methods for assembling a proxy for identifying your audience.
Perhaps you are selling snowboards. Though a snowboard product category does not exist in the syndicated research database, participation in snow sports, including snowboarding, is. If you are looking for an audience that you have defined as "intellectually curious," then a proxy for this audience might be to look at those people who read certain kinds of magazines or watch PBS.
These syndicated research tools will allow you to find out the demographics of your potential audience, the kinds of things they like to do, how they describe themselves, and other products or services they regularly use.
From this you can extrapolate the kinds of lists, affiliates, or other online media sources that have affinity with either how the audience is statistically identified (demographics) or how they are behaviorally identified (the things they do, the kinds of content and media they like).
Part 2: primary research
Of course, there is no way of identifying your audience better than to use research done by the marketer herself.
Throughout this exercise, proprietary research conducted by either the agency or the client should be looked at concurrently. It is the media planner's responsibility to find the common touch points between that information and the information gleaned from the more general syndicated research to arrive at a plan that includes elements with which the client is familiar and those elements with which they are not.
If the brand being promoted has conducted its own focus groups and surveys on what kinds of people are most likely to purchase the product, then more often than not the data is going to be more accurate, more immediate and therefore more executable.
There is no better way to know who your customers could be than asking the customers you have, who they are. As T. Scott Gross and BIGResearch wrote about in their book When Customers Talk, asking customers questions and listening to them when they have something to say is the best way to know who they are and what they want.
If as a marketer you have additional resources for conducting primary research, it is important to know there is a lot of it that can be conducted over the internet. Companies like HarrisInteractive, Insight Interactive and Greenfield Research can both conduct customized online surveys that can help the marketer learn more about what audiences are out there and which of those are most suited to the marketer's value proposition.
Part 3: your audience identifies YOU
Looking at audience identification through the lens of lead-generation reveals one more way to look at audience identification.
The level of detail offered up by research tools like those mentioned above is not always necessary.
One of the great things about using CPA media and co-registration is that a marketer only pays when someone selects their offer, which means that if an offer is put before someone who isn't interested then the marketer doesn't incur any cost. An experienced vendor will place offers on sites geared toward advertisers' audiences. Certainly a beauty offer on the NFL.com page wouldn't make sense. Sure, the leads that do come in might still be legitimate for the very tiny percentage of women on the site, but it won't be high volume.
A lot of defining the audience in this context is in writing the ad copy in such a way that it resonates with an advertiser's core audience. Certain offers will attract certain people. The offer you use is going to attract the audience you are looking for. Once your audience has been "found" by the attractiveness of your offer, you can further identify your audience after the fact.
Instead of trying to predict who your audience is, as a marketer you can develop a list of questions that can be asked of a customer either at the point of initial contact or once they have been sent to a landing site. Upon reading the data -- the answers to the questions -- a marketer can discover just what kind of audience is attracted to what the marketer has to offer.
What those questions should be depends on the product or service being promoted and the offer used to draw attention to it. If you are an education services client, knowing the level of education attained by your prospects is important. If you are a pharmaceutical company that sells allergy medicine indicated for hay fever, knowing if your prospect suffers from outdoor allergies or indoor allergies will allow you to know how to segment your audience and determine which segment is the one you should be focusing your attention on.
Part 4: experience
Nothing beats experience. If the agency or the marketer has a lot of experience promoting a product or service like the one for which a new lead generation program is being developed (or the product or service has already been the subject of a lead generation program), then there is little need to go through either of the two aforementioned procedures.
That said it never hurts to regularly "check in" on the state of the marketplace. As I mentioned above, the zero-based media planning practice prevents you from falling into the trap of complacency and keeps your marketing thinking fresh. It also allows you to find new audiences and, in turn, new opportunities.
Jim Meskauskas is Media Strategies Editor for iMedia Connection.
"Sent from my iPhone."
OK, I'm starting with the one that's going to spark the most protest, I imagine. But stick with me here. We all see this little tag on countless emails throughout the day, to the point where it's become almost as ubiquitous as email signatures themselves. There are many variations, of course, but the thrust behind them all is the same: "Hey, please pardon my brevity or typos. I'm tech-savvy enough to be working on-the-go, and I think you are important enough to receive a reply before I get back to my computer."
The "Sent from my mobile device" tag once served its purpose. But frankly, that purpose has expired. The idea that working from a mobile device is either 1) an excuse to be sloppy or 2) a sign that you're on the cutting edge of technology is no longer valid. Today's devices, if you're buying the right ones and using them correctly, enable our offices to travel in our pockets. Working on-the-go is not an excuse. In fact, you have no excuse not to work on the go.
If you can't figure out how to turn off that default "Sent from my iPhone" tag, then we have even bigger problems related to being outdated.
"Pleased to e-meet you."
I know this might seem like a nitpick. But if you're emailing phrases like this to newly introduced contacts, you need to reframe your thinking.
You don't "e-meet" someone. You just "meet" them. It's a digital world, and just because you don't shake hands with someone doesn't mean you don't have a real relationship with them. They're not "virtual." There's a real person at the end of that email, and some of your closest business partners might never see your face.
I'm not saying it's not valuable to have face time with people. It absolutely is. Picking up the phone or setting up a Google Hangout is also a great idea from time to time. But my point is that you shouldn't sell the relationship short just because it wasn't forged in person.
"We're one of the fastest-growing [fill in the blank]s."
If you use phrases like the above when describing your company, obviously you think "fastest-growing" is a good thing. And it probably feels like it is. Growth is good, right? More money, more power. But as Biggie taught us, it also means more (mo') problems.
If this industry -- and its many ups and downs -- has taught us anything, it's that "fastest-growing" doesn't always win the race. The best companies in this industry are strategic and cautious in their growth. Grabbing at every dollar within reach can result in unsustainable businesses -- ones that eventually disappoint clients and have to lay off a lot of previously optimistic and qualified employees. A more impressive claim would be, "We're one of the most fiscally sound [fill-in-the-blank]s." At least then we know you'll be here tomorrow.
"We just want the link."
I'm not saying links are bad. Now that search marketing has become a given, most marketers understand that links from reputable sites or publications can be great for your overall SEO strategy. But if you're still spending a lot of your time cruising the web and asking for backlinks wherever you think you can get them -- or worse, using shady tactics to score those links -- you need to pause for a moment and come to terms with the reality of 2014.
Links aren't as valuable as they once were. Value is valuable. Google and the other search engines (whatever those are) aren't fooled by the linking strategy you employed way back in 2011. So you're going to have to start working for those SEO boosts, and that's likely going to require some significant investment in content marketing.
"Any press is good press."
Argue with me on this one all you want. The notion that even bad publicity is good for a brand has been up for debate since publicity was invented. And plenty of marketers will still point to sales boosts that occur following even a tarnishing incident in the press. But if you think CEO scandals, social media slipups, and the occasional "accidental" nip slip are the way to get your brand the attention it deserves these days, you need to get with the times. It's the era of corporate responsibility, Jack. The internet has a memory like you wouldn't believe, and consumers these days are giving their long-term dollars to the brands that make them feel good about themselves and the world they live in.
"We have [insert insanely large number] of followers on [insert social network of choice]."
I don't feel like I should have to include this one here, but based on the number of times a day I hear a company tout its social media credibility in terms of follower numbers, apparently I do. Amassing fans is the easy part. Keeping them engaged and turning them into loyalists is the hard part. But that's ultimately what matters. So don't tell me how many followers you have. Tell me about what you're doing with those followers.
"I'm in digital marketing."
No, you're not. You're just in "marketing" now. The "digital" part is implied at this point. Even if you're making TV commercials or a spectacular fashion ad spread for the next issue of Vogue, you should be thinking about how that effort plays online and via mobile.
If you're still calling yourself a "digital marketer," don't feel bad. Just drop that first word and be happy! You're not the techy weirdo anymore. You're playing with the big boys now, and you should command respect. There's no reason to be pigeon-holing yourself. You always knew your skillset was the future of marketing. And that future is here.