Audience First: Strategic Spaghetti

First, the question: Are you looking to create compelling, high mileage content? Have you been charged with capturing the fleeting, distractible attention of a critical audience? Does your job or your brand rely upon it?

Next, the bad news: Unless you’ve adopted a very particular approach – called “Audience First” – most likely the spaghetti you throw on the proverbial wall is going to flop, landing soggy on the floor. You may think you have phenomenal ideas. You may be the brightest bulb in the room. But these days, gaining someone’s attention amid a landscape oozing with media involves more than your brilliant creativity. It requires careful strategy, summarized as follows: You. Must. Know. Your. Audience.

And finally, the good news: Once you’ve carefully identified your audience and have gotten to know them extremely well (i.e. their interests, habits, behaviors, obsessions), your engagement rate can soar.

I’ll tell you how I know this and then I will tell you how it works. 

At the start of my career, long before launching and running a successful creative agency, I worked in the music business as an artist manager. For better or worse, I chose to hitch my fortunes to people who I found to be extremely talented, to a point where I couldn’t help but be motivated to dial-for-dollars and find them opportunities in live performance and recordings. Other artist managers would take on the tough task of calling clubs or local programmers and inundating them with CDs , posters, tickets, you name it. They played the shotgun approach: by getting the word out to many, they hoped to land a few; they worked extremely hard to develop loyal fans who evangelized to their friends, who passed it along to their friends. 

My secret to launching the career of a niche act? : getting to know the target audience and appealing to them in the best way possible. I became successful not because I made the most phone calls, but because I made the right phone calls. Instead of placing 100 calls to land 10 gigs, I pondered the 10 phone calls I could make that would land 100 gigs. Who was the primary audience? Not the fans and not the venues. I figured out that my best audience were the people who book those venues: booking agents. In an effort to identify the best agents, I requested informational interview calls with their target audience: the local venues. I knew several well and asked them, “Who are the agents you trust most? If an act canceled last minute, what agent could you call to deliver a class act that would still delight your audience?” I waited for any names that came up repeatedly, and indeed several did. Then, I was able to call on those top agents, noting that so-and-so-programmer (a key client of theirs) had mentioned them by name and that I had an act to pitch to them. I got to know my audience – the agents – very well and then carefully pitched artists to them that would be a good fit for their market. My artists were moved to the top of the list, and soon we had agents fighting over them — and for good reason — two of my artists quickly became the top-booking acts within their sector.

I left artist management years ago and now run a creative agency, but I find my early experience in music as relevant as ever. Before the phrase “Audience First” became a common marketing term, I had already learned the effectiveness of doing the hard work to identify an ideal audience and then target them with personalized content. At the time, even the most precision marketing meant a ton of proverbial spaghetti-wall-tossing. Nowadays, with the digital tools to measure all manner of user data, adopting an “Audience First” approach to content creation and marketing is far easier. 

Many agencies still think about their audience after content has been created. Once satisfied with their creative work, they bring in the strategists to decide next steps. But what if your target audience doesn’t respond to such content? What if you are sending it at a time when they are not online? 

These days, “Audience First'' is a data-forward approach that solves for these issues before content is even created. It means the first step of your content development and distribution strategies is asking the questions, “Who is the audience,” “What are their interests and behaviors,” and, “How do we reach them?”

My company, Haystack Needle, is often hired to help companies achieve very specific predetermined digital campaign goals. ROI is frequently measured by Click Through Rates (CTRs) and Impressions (CPM), so our success is easily measurable and transparent. Ultimately, our content is only as good as its ability to reach and influence the perceptions or behaviors of our client’s target audience. To hit our goals, we bring strategists into campaigns at the earliest stages, to help us define and learn about our audience(s) at the most granular level.  Like digital archaeologists, we sift through search-and-social media metrics and create a detailed audience profile that drives the rest of the campaign.

We often find there are two ways to identify such audiences: some are “provided” and most are “discovered.”  This means sometimes we’ve been given a specific audience to target, and other times we need to go out and find it. 

  1. A provided audience is one that has been narrowly defined and “given” to us by a client. This might be a CRM list of previous customers, employees or shareholders and may include contact information such as emails or phone numbers. All the available information is fed through the various social media analytic filters to reveal defining details about the audience that helps us tailor our content specifically for them. When we are given a provided audience we are able to get extremely impressive CTRs (we’re talking consistently above 1%, for you number focused nerds). 
  2. A discovered audience is one in which a client identifies the “type” of audience(s) they’d like to reach (i.e. C-Suite executives in Boston, frequent business travelers based on the West Coast, or institutional investors in healthcare), and we devise ways to directly get the attention of this audience. We use keywords and search criteria such as interests, habits, employment history, etc. to define the audience and then target our campaigns based on what we find. CTR percentage is not as high with discovered audiences – but it is still more effective than throwing spaghetti at the wall. 

While the early heavy lift of data mining and analysis helps with initial success rates, a true “Audience First” approach must be iterative and ever-evolving to fit audience needs. We use A/B testing of various images and messages and adapt our content to that which proves stickiest. As campaigns evolve, the audience becomes active (if unwitting) contributors to your ongoing strategy. Thus, while an Audience First approach is extremely useful for targeted messages and Call To Actions (CTAs) , as I discovered with my experience long ago, it is perhaps even more effective as a tool to develop and sustain long term audience relationships. 

“Audience First'' is about putting quality over quantity in your content creation and distribution. It’s about throwing less but much stickier spaghetti. While it may be a no-brainer to utilize the abundance of actionable user data when launching social media campaigns, we’ve seen that an “Audience First” approach serves us well across all of our company’s creative teams.  

  • Our web design, for example, evolves based on visitors’ viewing habits. We’ve studied enough of the analytics that we can almost predict a new visitor’s behavior when arriving on a site. This enables us to design according to these anticipated behaviors. For example, we may make either a specific “Team Member” biography page or the “About Us” page easier to find as a teaser on the Home Page, because that’s where users often visit first.
  • Our branding team brings quantitative analysis into our design by studying a peer set of logos and determining what common themes, colors, and style emerge. We design a new logo using peer set comparison as a benchmark to target the appropriate audience.  
  • Our video team can direct corporate videos based on the type of video and the intended audience. They adjust the location, tone of voice, background music, type of clothes, and even whether to use a teleprompter, all depending on who they hope to reach. 

An “Audience First” approach not only challenges us to be more creative but it requires cultivating a deeper sense of connection to the “fans” we are trying to reach. The truth is, I wasn’t just a young artist manager making shoot-from-the-hip phone calls, I was a proud and very active participant in the entertainment industry – hence, I understood the audience.  When you commit to “Audience First,”  you can wield the most valuable marketing tool available, authenticity.  Authenticity can’t be manufactured or calculated – yet it can sell anything – from logos to websites, videos to social posts. And believe it or not, based on my early years as an artist manager, it even gets you the gig. 

Just ask some of my former artist partners, including this guy or these guys.

Townsend Belisle
Founder and CEO at Haystack Needle

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