Tom Webster is vice-president of strategy for Edison Research, a custom market research company best known as the sole providers of exit polling data during US elections for all the major news networks. He also hosts the Marketing Companion podcast with marketing consultant and author Mark Schaefer, and he blogs at BrandSavant.com.

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I invited Tom to Marketing Smarts to discuss how marketers can create more effective content by understanding the "why" of their audience, rather than jumping straight into content strategy (or even creating personas). Along the way, we talk about infographics, ways to present data in the most persuasive way possible, and grifting (a little)!

Here are just a few highlights from our conversation.

Compare the cost of collecting data with the cost of making a mistake (04:50): "[V]alue me as a consumer. When you show me that value, I'm more likely to take [your] survey, and if you show absolutely no value, if you just fire off to your database 'here's a 50-question survey, please answer it, it'll help make us more profitable' (or whatever), you're going to get a poor response rate to that. The people who do respond to it are shut-ins and terminally bored people, and you're not going to get a representative view of your customer database. If the cost of screwing up is high, then you need to put some value behind the request. If the cost of screwing up is low, then don't worry about it. Go ahead and try it out. Make the mistake if need be, but if the cost of making that mistake is high, then it's probably worth spending a small percentage of that cost to get it right."

You need to understand the "why" of your audience before you can create an effective content strategy (07:22): "I've seen the strategy and the process behind content strategy. I've looked at the suggested steps and the received wisdom, and Step 1 of a content strategy in the received wisdom that I've seen is the development of personas. You make up this kind of fakey people like 'Oliver Outsource,' and  'Activist Amy' and 'Buys-a-lot-Bob,' or whatever, and you craft content that fits these fakey people that you've created, and that content is all shaped around how they buy your product, how they interact with your product or service, and the reasons why they have come to consume your content, and that's fine, but that's not an audience. When you conduct audience research and you are looking really to figure out who could buy your product, who might need your service, and why, you've got to back the lens up. Persona development is a part of that, but it isn't Step 1 in audience research: It's about Step 8."

When reviewing audience data to choose marketing tactics, set out to prove yourself wrong (16:59): "The exact thing you have to do to fix [bias in your thinking] is so simple and easy to do and concrete.... If you are a marketer, you have data, you have information, you have theories, you have hypotheses: Your goal should be to prove yourself wrong. That's really simple: Prove yourself wrong. If you think something is the way it is for a given reason, if you think you know something about your current customers, if you think you understand their motivation, your first impulse should be to prove yourself wrong. Honestly, that would fix most of your ails, because if you can prove yourself wrong quickly, then you were wrong. If you can't prove yourself wrong, then you were right. If you try to prove yourself right, you'll do it every time: we're good at that, but that might not be the right answer."

For more information, visit brandsavant.com, or follow Tom on Twitter: @webby2001.

Tom and I covered a lot more ground, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

This episode brought to you by the MarketingProfs Professional Development Program.

Music credit: Noam Weinstein.