“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
(always misattributed to Mark Twain)
Well to be honest, it’s probably both in this case.
Now, yeah yeah I get it, you probably take for granted that knowing who your customer is and what they want is a fundamental aspect of marketing.
It’s literally Marketing 101 shit.
And yet, ask enough marketers and business owners who their customers are, and you far too often will still get the dreaded “well, really everyone” as a response.
Ask them how their offering helps those customers, and you get a long-winded list of features and background story, not benefits (let alone unique or compelling ones).
Ask them where their customers go for trusted and relevant information, and you get “Google”.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
So I wrote this to help clarify some things since, yes it’s still true that knowing your customer and their challenges is critical to creating an impactful offer and message, and – in these days of dark social, the death of cookies, and rapid changes in search behavior (along with rising costs of SEM) – knowing where they are and who they trust is more and more critical.
Note: This whole piece is from a largely B2B perspective, though most of it will be relevant in the B2C world as well – after all, whether B2B or B2C, all business is H2H (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Whooooo are you? Ooh ooh ooh ooh. – classic rock customer research specialist
So, if indeed your customer isn’t everyone – and it isn’t – then who is it?
Let’s not start with all your potential customers, or even necessarily the customers you already have. We want to focus on your ideal customer.
This will likely be an amalgamation of aspects of your best customers.
Questions to ask:
- Who are our best customers?
- What qualities and/or characteristics make them great customers?
- Who are our worst customers?
- Why is that? What makes working with them difficult for us?
- Who are we in the best position to serve (based on our product/service, our strengths, our organizational structure, our values, etc.)
After ruminating on that a bit, and ideally getting some cross-functional input (customer service, sales, finance/operations, etc.), it’s time to put together an Ideal Customer Persona (ICP).
In B2B we start our “who” with a business profile.
- What kind of business/entity are you serving? What industry (or industries)?
- What size business do you serve best? Do you measure size in people or revenue?
Then we move to the humans involved. I’m gonna skip gender in this list but if for some specific reason that’s an ideal aspect for you, have at it – but tread lightly. Think about:
- Job title
- Age range
- Work / educational background
- Income / budget
- People they report to, have to get approval from, etc.
- Communication preferences
- Core interests, values, pursuits
Now give them a clever little (and hopefully alliterative) name like Sales Manager Sid or VP Val, so it feels like a real person and is easy to remember, and you’re off and running.
But of course who they are is only part of it… to craft a clear message and create compelling content that’s actually relevant to them, you need to know what they’re dealing with, trying to accomplish, or trying to overcome that you can truly help them with.
If you gotta problem, yo I’ll solve it. -Vanilla ICP
To put it in brutal old salesy terms, what pain are they experiencing that you are in a position to help alleviate (through both your service and your content)?
What needs to change??
One way to get at this is through a simple before/after exercise:
Picture your ideal customer right now, in the situation they’re in, with their current problem(s).
- What does that situation look like?
- What are they doing?
- How are they feeling? (this is an important one)
- What are they saying? (actual customer quotes are great)
- What do they have (like results, circumstances, etc.)
Ok, now imagine their problem is solved (because of your amazing offering no doubt) – now answer all those questions again.
That is the transformation you’re out to sell.
Oh, and you know what’s even better than your ideas and beliefs about what this person is dealing with? THEM ACTUALLY TELLING YOU.
Not that I don’t believe that you know everything about your customer and what they’re going through and what they need but-oh wait no it is that 👀
I know you’re an expert, but nobody knows everything, things change, and our views unavoidably get biased by our closeness to our own solution and desire to frame everything around that.
When we’re working through brand strategy with clients, we always include a customer survey as part of our process, to verify the customer info they’re giving, validate messaging assumptions, and find new angles and gaps in both message and product/delivery.
Every single time we learn something of substantive value out of doing that. And sometimes we learn that indeed we need to rethink what the client had thought was most important to the people they’re out to serve.
You may be an expert, and you may indeed be right, but test it. You know what they say about assuming things! I recommend not making an ass out of anyone.
Ok, so now you have a bead on who they are and what they need.
But here’s the part that’s likely changed most in recent years.
Where oh where could my ICP be? Dark Social took her away from me… – Google/SEO devotee
When we’re working with clients to clarify their ideal customer persona, we always ask about their ICP’s trusted information sources. Where do they go for relevant information that they can use to improve, change, or solve something?
Almost always, the first answers are “Google” and “their colleagues (or friends in B2C)”.
The latter of which is true. The former, less so by the day.
The strategy of pouring money into SEO and SEM, looking for easily attributable conversions from high-intent traffic is fast becoming bankrupt for most businesses, especially in B2B, where those conversions aren’t sales but “leads” (MQL’s) of dubious quality that then require followup from sales teams and cycles of automated “nurture” campaigns.
Is SEO dead? Nah. It’s just very different, and less of a factor than it was, say, 10 years ago.
Here’s why (the very short version anyway):
- Google wants to keep people on Google.
Take a look at what comes up when you search something. Ads, maybe some YouTube videos, then snippets, where Google tries to answer your inquiry with a piece of someone’s content – without you having to click through to their site. And then maybe 2-3 organic results? Then of course Google will serve up some related questions that others have asked, with snippets to answer them, and after that, a few more organic results. When people search something on Google, 66% of the time they never leave Google. That’s ostensibly great for the searcher, less great for the thousands of small businesses trying to succeed through relevant content being found on Google. And speaking of small businesses…
- You’ll probably never rank on “page 1” anyway.
Even if Google itself wasn’t stealing all the no-scroll real estate with ads and snippets and whatever they come up with next (looking at you, “generative search”), competition is fierce – and you likely don’t have the resources to keep up with the big brands, aggregators, content mills, review sites, and everyone else who’ve been leveraging their massive budgets, in-house and outsourced teams, and strategic partnerships – with just a dash of black hat tactics and big tech collusion – for years now. It’s not in any way a level field… so maybe don’t try to play on it?
- People are searching differently.
Yes folks are still Googling things, but it tends to be later in “the buyer journey”, and either for more specific definitions or resources, or to jump back into a tunnel they’d been down before and then gotten away from. When knowledgeable people are looking into something, they look in specific niche places like subreddits (some people I know use Google to search for info on Reddit), Discord servers, Facebook Groups, etc. – and a growing portion of folks (not just the young ones) turn first to video-driven platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram to search for both explanatory and instructional info.
So while SEO in general may not be dead, the “crank out basic blog posts and wait for Google to send people your way” approach definitely is.
In fact, even our clients’ typical other stated source of customer info, “their colleagues”, requires more strategic thought and research.
Yes of course word of mouth is the best form of marketing, and you shouldn’t be trying to use content to replace that – you should use it to improve it.
See, the ways that people share info has also changed, just like how we search has. Since the pandemic shutdowns, even the older and less tech-savvy folks have (necessarily for a while) moved online with their communications.
Enter, “Dark Social”.
Sounds ominous, right? It’s not.
Dark Social simply refers to all the ways that people consume and share info (mostly online) that aren’t visible to companies or attributable by their marketing software. It includes:
- Word of mouth (texts, call, in-person convos, DM’s, etc.)
- Events and meetups (virtual and irl)
- Messaging apps (Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal, etc.)
- Employee communications (Zoom, Teams, Slack, PM software, etc.)
- Groups & Communities (FB Groups, Slack communities, Discord servers, etc.)
- Content Platforms (YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Patreon, etc.)
- and of course engagement on social media platforms (commenting, sharing, messaging, etc.)
If you think about it, this covers a whoooole lot of how people share.
In our agency alone, every single day, someone shares some resource or relevant piece of content like this.
I’ve created a messaging group on Linkedin so the brand managers and marketing techs and I can forward each other posts we come across that seem valuable in some way (often with relevant commentary added). We share links in Slack. We talk about podcast episodes in our zoom meetings. We email each other links, with ideas for client blog posts and videos. We share tools in a group Slack channel called #coffeetalk that we think would be effective or efficient for what we’re working on (as well as a ton of memes and custom GIFs and inside jokes). And on and on.
In fact, even back in 2016, a full 84% of consumers’ outbound sharing from publishers’ and marketers’ websites now takes place via private, dark social channels such as email, social networks, and instant messaging. And the number and relevance of those methods has only grown since then.
So, all of this to say that no, the answer to “where is my customer going for trusted info” is not as simple as Google or colleagues/peers.
And if you want to reach them with your message, you have to be where they are, and make that message easy to share through the channels they prefer.
So how do you find out where they are?
I’m sure you’re already aware of at least a couple info sources, maybe their main trade association, or a longstanding large publication, but I recommend doing a little more work on it so that you’re not wasting money on the messaging and content you create.
Get outside your head and beyond your own perspective and knowledge base. There’s gold in them there hills.
Send out something to your customers, prospects, and even a list of folks that match your target persona and ask them where they get their info, what online groups they participate in, what trade shows they go to, what associations they’re in, which social platforms they use most often, etc. This approach leans more efficient than effective, as there’s no ability to dig in deeper on any particular answer, and of course surveys have a classically low participation rate (so think about some sort of incentive), but it’s a great place to start and get some quick insight.
Meet with your best customers and have the convo live. This will yield the most nuanced response, and deeper insight, but of course is more resource-heavy than sending surveys and only so many people will be willing to take the time to meet so the sample size will be low.
- Passively-collected data at scale
Use a tool like SparkToro or Audiens (or others) to research the people you’re looking for and find out – based on their attributes, followed hashtags, or behaviors – what platforms they frequent, what influencers they follow, what pods they subscribe to, etc.
Depending on your resources and situation, you can use any of these approaches individually, but we’d recommend using all 3 if possible as that will give you the best view into your best bet(s) for where – and how – to engage and speak to your intended audience.
(for a deeper dive on that subject, check out my convo with Rand Fishkin on Blowing Up Brands)
In a noise-ridden world of a thousand platforms, a million marketers, and conflicting advice about which channel or tactic or trend is best (often given by folks who specialize in and make their money off that particular method), I’m strongly suggesting you go back to basics.
Sure, channels are important. Methods matter. You will need to employ one tactic or another – you’ll likely employ a bunch of them no doubt.
A channel being hot and new, or cheap to engage in, or recommended by your favorite influencer, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if the people you want to reach aren’t there…
And it won’t matter if you do reach them if your message falls flat and they’re indifferent to your content because you don’t actually know what they need, care about, and are struggling with…
And you can’t figure out what they need and care about if you don’t muster up the courage to let go of “everyone” and actually focus on the people you’re in position to serve the best.
So slow down, take a step back, and sort out who that is. It’ll be well worth it, I promise.
And if you don’t knowww, now you know! -Notorious ICP