If you've been working in marketing at all over the past year, you've probably witnessed an argument about the effectiveness of content marketing.

To some businesses, content is the bright future of marketing; others are skeptical about whether it truly drives engagement. The latter group argues that not all content marketing drives measurable results. But some marketers have figured out the secret to creating engaging content.

What breaks the good content marketers away from the pack is their ability to tell a story—and to tell that story to the right people.

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of content marketers, from such leading brands as Scripps Networks, Allrecipes.com, and the Associated Press at the Experian Marketing Services 2014 Client Summit. The panel members all agreed that content marketers need to tell the story their audience needs to hear.

Content marketing done right results in increased business and loyalty to the brand, but to realize these benefits, marketers need to design content with specific audience segments in mind. As the panelists discussed, that requires great data and great listening skills, especially when asking the following questions.

1. Why are consumers here?

"Different consumers often visit the same website with very different intentions," stated Gary Feldman, vice-president of Strategic and Digital Ad Sales Research for Scripps Networks Interactive. "Are they looking to be educated? Or are they looking to be inspired? For HGTV, we have to understand why they're visiting our site to deliver a meaningful brand experience. If they hope to be educated, we're going to deliver very different content than if they're visiting for design inspiration."

Seth Harris, manager of Strategy and Digital Products for the Associated Press, agreed that identifying consumer segments was key to a great content and product strategy. "The format of news content has changed so much over the years. What used to be simple text stories now have video, photo and social content," he said, arguing that one of the main ways to make strategic and product decisions is through understanding consumer behavior.

2. Who are they?

One of the most important forms of segmentation is based on customer profiles—the demographic, attitudinal, and lifestyle data that identifies interests and preferred content topics. A 19-year-old man from Wisconsin will have different content preferences than those of a thirty-something woman living in New York City. Even two women of the same age living in the same building can have dramatically different interests.

To gain a complete understanding of customers, marketers have to combine different data points. There's offline data, such as age, gender, attitudes, and brand preferences. There's also data on a consumer's online behavior. "Profiling our audience behavior and customers' audience behavior is key," explained Harris. "We use online and offline profiles to understand what content engages those audiences."

3. How are they connecting?

Even a single consumer can be in the mood for different types of content depending on the device he or she is using, social media being browsed, time of day, or season of the year.

Grace Preyapongpisan, vice-president of Business Intelligence for Allrecipes.com, explained, "We've found that the consumers connecting through mobile devices are often looking for quick dinner ideas, while those who connect through laptops tend to plan more extensive menus."

Many laptop users on her site are parents searching for big breakfast meals they can make as a family on the weekends. Additionally, she said that she sees content preferences fluctuate. "Some recipes are timeless—there's always demand for that content," she said. "But other recipes are seasonal—they spike in interest at certain times of the year or if they suddenly become popular."

Feldman added that different social media platforms can also help marketers determine intent. "For some brands, Facebook tends to engage consumers who are already viewers. Pinterest, on the other hand, can be more of an inspiration platform and often resonates with consumers who are new to a brand."

The success of content marketing depends on telling an engaging story. By understanding who consumers are, how they are connecting, and why they are interested, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions about how you can drive marketing results.

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Who, How, and Why: Three Keys to Successful Content Marketing

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image of Callie Reynolds

Callie Reynolds is senior director of client engagement for Experian Marketing Services.

LinkedIn: Callie Williams Reynolds

Twitter: @CallieMCW