Your Customers Are Talking. Are You Hearing Them?

Four Best Practices for Listening to Your Audience

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Companies know more about customers now more than ever. But do they really understand their audience?

Most of the time, the answer is no. Organizations are trying. But most haven't learned the biggest skill required in our data-driven world: How to listen to what people tell us about themselves.

We're trained to look at consumers in a certain way. For the past 50 years, brands and publishers have relied on focus groups, demographic data and vertical segmentation to define their customers and audiences. Using this research, they craft marketing messages designed to attract these groups.

But in the digital world, you don't need to limit yourself to predefined definitions, or make assumptions about who your audience is. You can delve into the real data that people offer up with every click of their mouse and swipe of their finger. So you can truly discover how varied your customers and audiences are, what they want from you, and how you can cater to them in the way that's profitable for you and for them.

The trick is learning to really listen to the signals people are giving you. And we need to listen. Understanding the story driven by data is critical to future growth in digital. There are varieties of approaches you can take to understand what people are saying. Consider just a few strategies:

1. Look at sequencing. By considering the sequence of the steps that people take as they interact with your brand, you can develop a more sophisticated understanding of their wants and needs. For instance, if you're a financial services company, of course you track when your customers make a stock trade or put more money into an investment account. But it's just as crucial to know what kind of actions they took before and after those tasks, whether they looked at different pieces of research you provided, or if they came to your site after visiting a mortgage calculator.

2. Study frequency and recency. Studying the habits of your customers can also help you understand how valuable they are to you. For instance, publishers track page views, but by understanding the rate of consumption of your content, you gain more insight into what kind of viewership you have and tailor your marketing and content suggestions accordingly. Do your visitors read one piece of content during a visit, or multiple? How often do they return and where do they start out on your site?

3. Expand your notion of conversion. Conversion isn't simply selling someone a product or signing them up for emails. Instead, think about conversion as any bit of data people act on. Do they click on recommended articles, share content, play around with specific parts of an interactive graphic? By analyzing these bits of declared or volunteered data, you can understand an affinity between different pieces of information or subjects you might not have noticed before.

4. Learn that targeting isn't just for ads. Targeting can be used for much more than simply dishing up marketing. Take the example of a social media audience. Typically, this audiences zips into a publisher's site through a shared link -- and then zips out. You can respond in a few ways. By pulling together more data about different types of social media users, you can figure out how to gain their loyalty by targeting content to them that they have a higher affinity for. Or you may use targeting to restrict the higher-quality ads or content that you show them if they don't seem interested in interacting with it.

The ultimate goal is to listen to what your customers are telling you. This builds reference points that you can then use to expand your understanding of who your audience truly is -- because there are so many potential customers we're not seeing right in front of us.

In the online world, there are no absolutes, no walls. People show up at your site whom you might never have expected -- and aren't able to engage with because you aren't looking for them. The audience is talking to you. Now is your chance to listen to them.

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