Using customer insight to steer your digital strategy

As audiences receive information from an ever increasing variety of sources, where should you be focusing your resources? At Publishing & Media Expo in February, Luke Bilton, head of content for UBM Live London, shared tips for using customer insight to keep pace with the changing needs of your audience and advertisers.

By Luke Bilton

One of the best things about working in digital is the pace of change. Every day, you get sent a curveball or two; it could be a new potential technology partner, social network, or shiny new app to evaluate.

If you have any chance of delivering to a coherent strategy, more often than not it means saying ‘no’ to the many intriguing distractions and staying focused, a position which can feel contradictory when striving to create an innovating digital business.

Someone who knew a thing or two about innovation was Steve Jobs who famously remarked that "people think focus means saying ‘yes’ to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying ‘no’ to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

A good question to ask when deciding which ideas to pursue is, “Will this offer a noticeably improved experience for our customers?” If not, then consider investing your precious time and resources in something else.

What is our role?

The need for focus is more apparent when you consider how fundamentally the editorial and advertising model is being disrupted. The internet is made up of an estimated 14.5 trillion live web pages and the pace of growth continues to accelerate. This is being driven by a democratisation of digital publishing tools, meaning that anyone can create and share content for free, and by the large disruptive technology players who are dividing the web between them.

This oversupply of advertising inventory should be a major concern for publishers as truly native digital businesses can be far more effective than we are at creating page views. Sites with high levels of user generated content, such as Reddit, have turned the network effect to their advantage, generating 4.4 billion page views per month and scarily they only have 22 employees.

When I compare it to our own publishing businesses, Reddit are roughly 10,000 times more effective at converting their employees into page views. There is simply not enough advertising to go around and the cost per thousand (CPM) of online advertising falls year-on-year. Furthermore, ‘Banner blindness’ - the phenomenon whereby users have trained their brains not to even see, let alone click on, advertising - is another nail in the display coffin.

So if the model of selling advertising around editorial isn't going to survive long term, what will?

The answer probably lies somewhere in the strength of our relationships within our niche, built on strong audience data, and on ensuring we retain stronger direct relationships with our advertisers than programmatic algorithms currently have. If it is customer relationships and brand which make a publishing business unique, then these assets neither have to be tethered to an editorial / display advertising model nor to a periodical publishing schedule.

One response is for publishers to move away from serving third-party advertising towards more of an agency relationship with their clients in which we share our expertise in audience engagement to create sponsored content and native advertising. Forbes’ BrandVoice and Buzzfeed are both good examples of advertisers’ content being intertwined with editorial values in a way which elevates it beyond ‘advertorial’ to something altogether more engaging.

Another response is for publishers to identify opportunities for a new value proposition with which to connect with their audience. An inspiring example of this is Haymarket’s AOP Award winning Stats Zone, an app which builds on FourFourTwo magazine’s existing audience and authority in football to create a new product based around live data and match analysis. While they still have the page-turner magazine app, in Stats Zone, they have created something quite interesting.

To help uncover opportunities like this, I’m a firm believer in using customer insight into both your users and advertisers to help you to reappraise your role within the market.

Segmenting your audience

There is always a temptation to pigeonhole an entire audience into easy, generic categories such as ABC1 but, in truth, many different people interact with your brand for numerous reasons. This is particularly true online where search and sharing makes content discovery borderless.

Creating audience personas for your most important segments is a step towards recognising the diversity within your market and sharpen your thinking on the content you’re targeting at each profile.

Audience personas can be applied to any audience, whether B2B or B2C. For example, when I was at Future Publishing, T3 magazine’s two main audience personas were ‘Steve’ the geeky gadget lover and ‘Paul’ the city-boy who liked the cachet of having the latest shiny gizmo – both were interested in technology, but for very different reasons. At the Chelsea Magazine Company, we used audience personas as a tool to define the needs of amateur artists who were creating art and the art buyers who would buy their work. In the B2B markets that UBM Live serves, we are using audience personas to map our markets’ supply chains and organograms to identify the content needs of different job functions.

Quantitative readership surveys emailed out to your database are a useful way to map your existing database, particularly if followed up with face-to-face interviews to add depth and understanding to the data.

Useful questions to ask when building audience profiles include:

* What are their concerns and challenges? Open-ended questions as a free-text field usually allow for 3-4 strong clusters of themes to emerge from the survey.

* Which social networks do they use? Forgetting the differentiation between work and personal, where do they spend their time?

* What are their preferred content types? What value do they place on your news vs video, webinars, whitepapers, news, blogs etc.

* Fun questions which might unlock a different perspective on their psychological drivers.

From this data, some segments should emerge – by age, behaviour, job title – giving you insight into the types of products and services which would appeal to them.

To become embedded in the culture of your teams, audience profiles should be brought to life with a photo, a name (ideally the most common name of readers in that segment) and a short narrative about who they are.

Reaching new audiences

If the audience survey helps you to stay on top of the shifting needs of your existing audience, there are many free online tools to help you to do the same with the wider pool of internet users.

A fascinating by-product of humans turning to search engines to answer their questions is that Google now has collected a vast amount of data which sheds light on how people are thinking at any given time, which subjects they prioritise and the language they use to express it.

Google provides many free tools to help you interrogate this insight, allowing you to break it down by time or geography, on the understanding that the more you use their services, the more you are likely to use their paid-for targeting. Hardly altruism, but very useful nonetheless!

Some helpful tools for analysis include:

* Google Keyword Planner: At the core of any SEO strategy will be Google’s Adword Planner, letting you see the volumes of keywords that users are searching for and how competitive they are.

* Google Trends: For topline comparisons of how different phrases compare and the relationships between them, Google Trends can provide some fascinating results.

* UberSuggest.org: Google Suggest (the way that the search engine offers to finish your sentence for you) is a remarkable feature of the search engine, based as it is on the shared experience of how millions of others have entered the same sentence before you. UberSuggest interrogates the database in the same way.

* Social media monitoring tools are becoming increasingly useful in identifying and responding to trends. Which are the subjects and social platforms around which your target audiences are gravitating towards?

Tools such as these should give a statistical foundation to make informed decisions on what is important to the audience and the language they use to express it. It’s useful insight to inform both the content you’re producing and the overall user experience of your website.

For example, does your market tend to search for ‘How To’ do something rather that a ‘Tutorial’ or ‘Feature’? If so, then labelling it as such might make it a simpler experience for your users.

How commercial is your content?

When reappraising your publishing business, it’s worth thinking about how effectively you are delivering an environment that advertisers need to invest in year after year. Is the content we are creating delivering an audience who are engaged and ready to buy from your advertisers? Can we prove a direct link between advertising spend and return on investment?

The masters at this are Google who now have the world's largest advertising business in any medium by targeting people actively searching for products with a ‘credit card in one hand, mouse in the other’ and by making it easy to prove the correlation between money spent and outcome achieved.

An interesting tool to help evaluate this is SEM Rush.com which allows you to compare the volume of traffic that you and your competitors get from search with an estimate of the value that your content is worth to Google (ie. how much are advertisers paying to be displayed alongside your content on Google).

By dividing the volume by the value, you end up with a helpful commercial index by which you can compare content businesses of different sectors and sizes like-for-like.

For example, Future's Techradar.com is an incredibly efficient machine at targeting high value keywords for the latest consumer electronics products (eg. 'Playstation Reviews') which deliver a highly targeted audience that retailers and manufacturers want to attract.

Compared to a much larger, but much less product-focused proposition, such as MailOnline which trades in mass market tittle-tattle, Techradar is clearly far more effective at creating page views which are valued by advertisers.

This kind of analysis can be applied to any basket of titles to see who is using their precious resources in the most valuable way for advertisers.

Is your content made up of general news and thought leadership which may work for branding but might be considered non-essential by advertisers? Or is it the reviews which are directly influencing the products your users purchase? A balanced content strategy may have a healthy mix of both, but the more you can demonstrate the ROI of advertising, the better.

Understanding your advertisers

It is a fairly obvious point but we don't speak to our clients enough and usually don’t have a deep understanding of their overall business, tending to make assumptions about the makeup of their budget and objectives.

Similarly, our clients tend to assume that we only offer the service they have bought from us in the past, and conversations remain restricted to the diminishing display advertising pot. As a result, we can miss opportunities for being considered for other marketing projects and budgets which we could assist with.

A simple way to address this is to task your sales team with talking clients through a structured survey over the phone or in person. Typical questions might be:

* What is the overall size of your marketing budget, not just advertising?

* How does their budget breaks down between print / online / events?

* What types of marketing services do they rank as important? Are they going to other suppliers for services we could offer?

It can be surprising to hear how much your clients are actually spending on digital – it just might not be on digital advertising options you currently offer, but on video creation, web development, social media, some of which your team could probably help with. Any consultative sell should involve these questions anyway but all too often we either don’t ask them or we don’t capture the responses in a structured fashion. Gathering insight in this way allows us to segment our clients in different ways.

A better understanding of how your advertiser universe prioritises their budgets should help with the development of services which cater to different size clients and influence how you might structure your team between long tail telesales and key account management.

Just test something

Desk based research can only get you so far of course. The quicker you can get out of PowerPoint and into live user testing the better, as real life consumer behaviour will always be different to your models.

One of the most important lean startup techniques is that of the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP). By getting a product – no matter how basic – into your market, you immediately start the build-measure-learn feedback loop to learn about what your customers are actually responding to.

The advantage of getting an MVP live quickly is that it helps to drive risk out of a business model by testing assumptions on a low cost base.

The principles of user testing can and should be applied to improving all parts of the online publishing model, from site structure itself to the images and headlines which you use.

An inspiration in this area is Upworthy.com, one of the new breed of publishers which has successfully mastered optimising their content for social media, with an average of 75,000 Facebook shares per article.

Since launch in 2012, they now get 80 million visitors per month on their site – astonishing growth which has been driven by a relentless focus on making content which resonates on an emotional level.

Co-Founder Peter Koechley has focused on A/B testing to achieve this. He’s built a company-wide testing culture that relies on data, not opinions, to make decisions – testing headlines, content and other factors to see what performs best. His contributors famously have to write at least 25 headlines for every new article that is published!

Explaining why testing is so fundamental to the Upworthy model, Peter says: “We’re maybe as good as a coin-flip at guessing what’s going to work best for our users. We rely on testing to just make better decisions. People are really fascinating and interesting… and weird! It’s really hard to guess their behaviours accurately.”

Around the world, the digital businesses which are succeeding are those which have a clear focus on the data they are collecting and are responding decisively. As the media landscape continues to evolve, those that are thriving seem to share values of data-driven insight and of focused entrepreneurialism.

Most of us are not blessed with Steve Jobs’ ability to transform entire industries by force of personality and intuition. For the rest of us, a curiosity around our metrics and willingness to act on them are not a bad substitute.