If there’s one thing this world needs less of, it’s marketing jargon.
I make an exception for “audience-first,” though. It’s one of the rare grandiose marketing terms that actually captures a semblance of sensibility — and it can act as a thought-provoking catalyst in your everyday work. An audience-first approach allows you to be both more creative and more targeted, which are two ways to differentiate yourself from the noise of mass content marketing.
But for audience first to mean something, we need to start with a definition.
What is audience-first?
“Audience-first” is the always-on approach of leveraging first- and third-party audience insights, metrics and KPIs to develop and distribute content that meets the evolving needs of both new and existing target audiences.
When you look at it like this, your audience is no longer just a result of your efforts — they’re active contributors. They are the defining element that shapes how and what you do. They grow alongside you. This approach is truly about audience development and sustainment.
As content marketers, obtaining an audience too often happens after content development. If you’re conceptualizing distribution efforts after the content is created, you’re already too late.
Instead, operate as an audience-first content marketer. Bring data and insights into the mix at the initial stage of a content program. Focus on whom you’re creating content for, where they prefer to consume content, the formats that will resonate with them and customized messages to spark content engagement.
Put simply, don’t wait to invite your digital marketing or distribution expert to a quick meeting after your creative work is done. Make them part of the team in the first place, and audience-first content creation becomes a virtuous cycle.
Who is your audience, really?
A common misconception is that the audience you’re attempting to reach is just your existing target audience, or even just who you believe should be in your target audience, such as buyers or members. However, a truly successful content marketing program succeeds when you’re able to attract non-buyers (or non-joiners, in the case of association marketing) into your content ecosystem, too.
Non-buyers are valuable in many ways. They’re able to amplify your content and message through their own networks and channels. Non-buyers also provide critical data through how they engage with content — data that, in turn, helps you target those currently within your target audience who are ready to buy.
By casting a wide net and creating, distributing and measuring content beyond your narrow existing audience, you showcase thought leadership and expertise to readers who may need you down the line. The buyer journey is rarely linear, and your content should act as the magnet that can pull them back in when they’re close enough (with search or paid distribution) to spark that attraction.
Building sustainable audiences
Within the traditional content marketing funnel, the loyalty stage is viewed as the marker of success. If you’re able to attract brand loyalists through long-term content engagement, then you’re a mature content-centric company.
While the loyalty stage of the funnel is a great goal to set for any content program, it’s often the most elusive.
That may be in part because of the fleeting nature of attention. When we think of great content, we typically recall a single piece that resonated with us, not entire programs. Even the most revered content marketing brands have trouble creating a depth of content that provides ongoing value over time. So how do you continuously capture the hearts and minds of an audience? How do you own an audience over time rather than renting them through a single piece of content?
This is where inbound marketing can help. Attracting a reader to your content is simply the handshake to a deeper brand-audience relationship. Creating a pathway to capture information from hand-raisers who want to hear from your brand will allow for the continuous direct and personalized distribution of relevant content.
For example, converting email subscribers allows you to understand individual engagement metrics to apply to your content development. By looking at single content interactions and conversions, your program as a whole gets more effective and efficient.
It also helps you provide valuable content on an ongoing basis. Hoping someone continuously seeks your content without providing a narrative as to why they should is an approach that leads to disappointment — for you and for the people to whom you’re trying to show ROI.
If you’re not audience-first, you’re last
Without an audience-first approach to content marketing, you run the risk of misaligning the content with the intended reader. This misalignment can have profound effects on the success of the program as a whole and how you measure it, as your metrics will lag behind goals and benchmarks.
Develop a clear idea of your audience, including but also beyond your direct buyers or members. Then create content you know they’re seeking to ensure a built-in audience when content launches, making distributing that content much easier.
Your work doesn’t stop with creating content that reaches the desired audience, though. Measure their reaction, then optimize and adjust as necessary to sustain that audience over time. When you do it right, “audience-first” becomes much more than a buzzword. It becomes an effective way to work.