Audience Research: Start With the Data You Already Have
Conducting audience research may seem like a daunting task. Yes, it’s a bit of work, but trust me, it’s worth it and can yield valuable insights that can help you cobble together a far more informed approach than if you were working on hypotheses alone.
The process of audience research can feel a lot less intimidating when you break it down into smaller pieces, then take a step back to analyze your research as a whole. Better yet, you don’t need a battery of specific audience research tools to take the plunge. What many people and organizations don’t realize is that they may already be sitting on a treasure trove of data that offers valuable insight into their target audience’s wants, needs, and pain points.
The simplest starting point is to assess and start with the data you already have before taking a deeper dive and conducting surveys or interviews (and other tactics that support your audience research strategy). Not only can foraging for this existing data help you save time, saving you from doubling-back in areas where you already have data and doing unnecessary work, but this information can serve as a springboard to ask the right questions of your clients and customers to fill in those knowledge gaps.
In this post we’ll give you ideas for the different types of data you may already have that can be used to paint a comprehensive customer profile. You’ll learn more about these different data sources and how they can be used to formulate audience research.
Although the data you have may be quantitative in nature, it can help guide you to ask the right questions to back this with qualitative data; asking questions and hearing it straight from your target audience, in their words, to get a more human view of a bunch of faceless numbers.
While pie charts and bar graphs can provide terrific at-a-glance information, delving into qualitative data can help you uncover the “why” behind those statistics and get a better grasp of audience sentiment.
What Types of Data Can Marketers Use to Learn About Their Audience?
Marketers may already have access -- or can gain easy access -- to existing data for their clients to learn about their audience. Even the smallest piece of data can yield big insights, or let you know where you need to fill in your gaps in information with additional research you conduct yourself.
- Existing Marketing Studies
- Chat Logs and Customer Service Transcripts
- Internal Sales Teams
- Customer Reviews
- Social Media
- Industry-Related Forums and Reddit
- Google Analytics
- PPC Data
Maybe your client previously worked with a research firm to create customer profiling studies? Or maybe they conducted some independent research. Great! This means you’ve got some insights to check out and a baseline to compare any research you may conduct.
Ask your client for access to these target audience marketing studies and comb through them for valuable nuggets of information. When reviewing these studies, be objective. Recognize that this information, while helpful, will not be the be-all, end-all to your audience research. Consider:
- How long ago was this research conducted? If it was done several years ago, you may want to follow up to see what has changed since then and if your client acted upon any of the findings presented in this earlier research.
- The quality of the research. Not every piece of research is done right. If the research was conducted by a firm that specializes in branding, audience research, or a similar discipline, chances are you will have well-documented research that follows a precise methodology. If your client conducted the research in-house, it may not be as thorough, unless they have employees with a background in this type of research.
- Does the data relate to your research objective? Having a clearly-defined research objective from the outset of your audience research project can help prevent you from going down a rabbit hole and diverting your focus from the problem you’re trying to solve. When reviewing existing marketing studies, you may come across some interesting information. This information may be good to know and file away to add context to data that you may encounter later. However, if it does not directly tie to your objective, these insights will be less valuable for the direct impact of your research.
Your client may have a beautifully documented series of A/B tests that analyze their target audience and arrive at relevant findings. And that’s awesome! Or, they may have some random notes on customer service calls or chat logs that only offer some generalized findings. While it’s not the best you could hope for, that’s cool, too! It still serves as something to work from and identify where you need to find more comprehensive research. Knowing what you have at your disposal is half the battle!
And that brings us to another type of data you may already have at your fingertips….
Chat logs and customer service transcripts can give you insight into common questions, concerns, and issues people have throughout their search journey. Looking through chats and transcripts can help you understand what takes them out of the search funnel and where there may be a break in the process that needs to be fixed. You also learn more about pain points; with pricing, a particular offer, or an inability to find the information they need.
Your client may have access to records of real-time conversations with customers or potential customers. Ask your client’s customer service team to share any chat logs they may have saved or recordings or transcripts of customer service calls. “But that’s a lot of chats to read and a lot of phone calls to listen to,” you might say. Don’t worry! You do not have to spend your entire workweek poring manually through these logs in order to find items of value. There are quite a few shortcuts that can help you effectively parse this data for useful insights:
- Use automation tools to help analyze research at scale. Instead of manually poring through every single line in your chat logs, you can drop those chats into an Ngram analysis. Within natural language processing, Ngrams are strings of words (ranging from two to five words, or possibly more) that appear grouped together across multiple conversations, such as within chats or forums. An Ngram analyzer tool can help you glean insights, find common threads, and expand your research based on those terms. Once you have a better feel for the commonalities that frequently occur in these chats, you can then manually review chats where those terms pop up for a deeper contextual analysis of the situation. Note: While you can certainly take shortcuts to find areas that are frequent pain points to customers, don’t skimp on analyzing those key phrases within the context of a greater conversation.
- Transcribe customer calls for easier analysis. If you have hours of customer calls, there are transcription services that can save you time by transcribing those chats and giving you a document to parse through or run through an Ngram analysis. In addition to saving you time, these transcription services also save you money if you compare the overhead of hours spent listening to every single recording versus transcription costs (several cents per minute).
While there’s nothing quite like hearing directly from customers, speaking with your clients’ internal sales teams can give you another perspective on customer pain points. These folks are on the front lines of dealing with customers. They can share valuable insights with you since they work closest with customers and are a font of knowledge. Here are some tactics to leverage learning from this cohort:
- Interview sales representatives or team members who work closely with customers. Ask your client if you can speak with several members of their internal sales teams to learn more about why prospects and customers reach out and the types of questions they have. If speaking with internal sales team members, be aware that they could be somewhat biased. If you think the answers they’re giving you may feel a little blind or paint too rosy of a picture, take those conversations with a grain of salt and look to subsequent customer interviews or reviews to get a more comprehensive view of the situation.
- Conduct mock interviews with internal teams. Another way to approach interviewing sales reps or other customer team members is to conduct mock interviews with them. In these mock interviews, you’d essentially be role-playing and instruct the sales rep to answer your questions from the perspective of the customer. This can shift their mode of thinking from being a salesperson or representative of their company and put them in the customer's shoes by answering as them.
- Ask to observe sales calls. You can also go one step beyond interviewing sales representatives and ask if they will allow you to sit in on sales calls to observe how they interact. This can give you the benefit of hearing these conversations first-hand.
But what if you don’t have access to your clients’ sales teams? Sometimes, if your own company (yes, we’re talking to you, Digital Marketing Pros!) is big enough or has enough of a sample size of individuals who mirror your clients’ own demographic, you can interview members of your own team to uncover audience pain points. For industries that are more universal in nature (think: stuff everyone encounters in their day-to-day like insurance, healthcare, or online shopping), interviewing your own colleagues in the cube-next-door can give you a supply of data to collect and build upon.
Another great way to tap into the pulse of customers is to look at product reviews. If a client’s website has the capability to include direct reviews from customers (beyond glowing testimonials), comb through products and gather user sentiment from people who actually purchased products.
Similarly, hop on over to Amazon to look at reviews for products to see what customers are saying about your clients’ products and their competition. If your client deals in software, Capterra is another great place to see aggregated reviews. Yelp or Google reviews are other good options to look at, too. Here are tips for analyzing customer reviews:
- Check out how many reviews there are for a given product. A product that has 200 reviews can give you a much larger sample size than a product with just 10 reviews.
- Compare the percentages of reviews. How many of those 200 reviews have five stars? Or one star? Conversely, how many of those 10 reviews are five-star or one-star reviews?
- Read through the text on these reviews or filter by phrases. (Or scrape a page and plug that text into your ol’ pal, the Ngram Analyzer!) As noted above, the same principle applies: examine the full review for better context whenever you stumble upon common phrases or pain points.
If your client doesn’t have product reviews on their website or on a large retail site like Amazon, Home Depot, or another site, you can get more user feedback by looking to social media and related forums (such as Reddit or industry-specific forums for those in a particular niche).
Welcome to the 21st century, where nearly every person, business, and entity has its own social media presence. And while all businesses may have a particular product or offering, every consumer has their own opinion of said product -- and will take to social media to either advocate or critique that product if the spirit moves them.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, 14% of Americans have admitted to changing their minds about an issue or product based on something they’ve seen on social media. That means that roughly one out of every six people will read a review or see something written by a person they’ve never met before and lend considerable weight to it when it comes to making a decision.
- Look at your clients’ social media profiles. You can take a look at them manually, scrolling through, or can look to social listening tools like Hootsuite, Hubspot, and others to get a bigger picture of their social footprint. See what people are saying, asking about, and questions they may have about products. Cross-reference that data with what information is actually on their website. Do customers have easy access to this information? Or is it buried on the site? Or is it not addressed at all?
- Look to native Audience Insights tools built-into social media. Beyond observing on-profile audience interaction with your clients’ social media profiles, Facebook and Twitter have Audience Insights tools baked into their interface that can be of particular interest to businesses. By taking a gander at Twitter Audience Insights, you can uncover data relating to followers’ location, interests and more. Similarly, Facebook Audience Insights offer similar data, giving you an opportunity to dig in more granularly to learn about your audience’s likes, interests, job titles, and even relationship status -- on top of age, gender, and geographic data.
By asking your client for access to their social media profiles, you have an opportunity to poke around and gather this information and compare and contrast it with other types of audience data.
While social media can give you a bird’s eye view into an audience’s interaction with a brand or product, being able to mine industry-related forums for information can also provide you with valuable audience insights. These brand-agnostic insights can give you a deeper, and potentially more candid, glimpse into user sentiment for a specific product or industry.
While your client and their sales representatives may be able to point you to industry-specific forums, more general information can be found on public message boards like Reddit. Users on these forums are often quite detailed and unfettered with what they share since it gives them an unbiased space to communicate with others about their findings, excitement, or frustrations.
As an added bonus, you can scrape relevant Reddit forums for information. On top of any recommended forums and Subreddits, you may uncover or that your client can point to, you can also use this tool to find more related Subreddits. (There’s always a way to find even more data in the wild if you dig deep enough!)
Speaking of other sources of data, Google Analytics (GA) may be the granddaddy of them all! If your client has Google Analytics configured on their site, there is a wealth of information that you can pull into reports and metrics to review.
- Look at referral traffic, demographics, and devices to build out a user portrait. For starters, if you’re able to access insights from your clients’ social media platforms, you can compare and contrast that data with GA to see which social media platforms are your largest source of referral traffic. Then, armed with that data, further examine that traffic in GA with reports detailing your audience’s demographics (such as age, gender, and geography), as well as what devices they’re using to interact (like mobile or desktop), and who among them is converting.
- Behavior and engagement metrics show what your audience is searching for and how they use that info. Apart from demographics, diving into behavior and engagement data in GA can help you further distinguish between new users and returning users, as well as the paths they take throughout your client’s website. It allows you to see what information they’re looking for, how they’re looking for it, and what they do once (or if) they find it.
The data you pull from Google Analytics is not only valuable to learn about your audience and how they currently interact with your website, but it can also help inform UX to help your audience more easily find the information that answers their questions in the future.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to your client’s PPC data or work with a team of devoted PPC practitioners, cross-divisional collaboration can help uncover some unexpected audience findings. By looking at your team’s PPC data -- particularly, leveraging Search Query Reports -- you can develop more of an understanding as to how people are really searching for your product.
- Dig into your Search Query Report. Similar to looking at relevant reports in Google Analytics, your Search Query Report can show you which queries lead to conversions, as well as rates for impressions (with or without clicks!) and the CTR for individual queries or ad groups. (You can also use these reports to help you find wasted spend.)
Remember: at the heart of every search query is a person.
It’s not just a phrase or string of words typed into Google (or Bing, if that’s your bag). It’s just an indicator of how an individual is searching for an answer to a question they have. And that person may be one of many individuals who have a similar problem or question that they want answered.
Remembering that people comprise your audience can help you make better use of the data you already have and use it to probe deeper and gain a greater understanding of their wants and needs.
Getting Started With Audience Research: You May Already Have A Lot of Info!
Starting to really -- and methodically -- paint a comprehensive portrait of your target audience(s) does not have to be complicated. Knowing what information you already have in your arsenal can help you figure out any gaps in your research, or figure out the questions you need to ask to get the whole picture.
We hope the different pieces and tools we’ve mentioned here give you some ideas for where to start. From there, assess each piece individually, then compile that information to look at it as a whole to identify gaps and move onto the next phase. Remember: it’s a process! You won’t get there overnight, but it’s worthwhile to better understand your audience and better serve their needs.
Looking for more expert insights on audience research? Check out these other installments from our Audience Research Guide:
- Chapter 1: Optimizing for People: Why User Research Matters for Marketers
- Chapter 2: How to Write a Marketing Research Objective