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23 Ways to do Audience Research (and Better Understand Your Customers)

I have good news for you.

It’s not going to seem like good news at first though.

In fact, it’s going to seem like a really sad state of affairs.

Let me explain…

According to a massive study by CoSChedule, 65% of marketers report doing audience research “rarely or never.”

And a recent study by CX Network revealed that 63% of consumers think marketers are “trying to sell them things they don’t need.”

So….. 65% of marketers are operating on guesswork and assumptions. Annnnnd 63% of consumers think marketers are trying to bamboozle them.

Coincidence?

Perhaps.

Or maaaybe this is why we marketers sometimes get a bad rap. 

(This is where the good news comes in.)

If the majority of marketers aren’t doing audience research, and the majority of consumers aren’t convinced by their lacklustre efforts, that means there is a MASSIVE opportunity for marketers like you and me to stand out.

And audience research, though severely underrated, is the missing piece of the puzzle.

“The Father of Advertising” himself agrees…

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” – David Ogilvy

And it appears that one of the world’s top conversion copywriters agrees…

“I always start with research and discovery. The best messages are not hiding in my head or my client’s heads. The best messages are out there best spoken by our prospects.” – Joanna Wiebe

 

Ready for more good news?

There are lots of ways to do audience research. (This is also bad news because… OVERWHELM 😬)

Some research methods are more useful than others for truly understanding your audience.

This article is a comprehensive list of practically all the ways you can do audience research.

I’ve done my best to include only enough detail to help you decide if it’s the right tactic for your company.

Because there are many, you may want to use this nifty table of contents to get you where you want to go. 

Table of Contents

*A quick caveat before you dive in: The “effort” rating I’ve given each audience research method is on a scale of 1-5 (💪 to 💪💪💪💪💪) While I’ve tried to be thoughtful about these ratings, practically every method on this list can be as quick & easy, or as comprehensive and time-consuming as you want to make it. In other words, you get out what you put in. Okay, go ahead. Happy researching.

 

1. Customer Interviews

Effort: 💪💪💪

A 1:1 customer interview is just what it sounds like—a conversation between you and a current or prospective customer. No middle man, no survey questions, no sales pitches.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Better understand what motivates customers to buy
✅ Gain insight into your customers’ pains, desires, goals, and buying objections
✅ Discover specific buying triggers
✅ Identify new marketing channels or tactics to try
✅ Use your customer’s buying journey to map your growth plan
✅ Use your customer’s own words to write high-converting sales copy

What to expect:

According to a study by ProfitWell, companies that talk to 10 or more customers a month for the purpose of customer research grow 2-3X faster than those who don’t.

The goal of this type of interview is to better understand what triggers customers to consider buying your product/service in the first place. When done right, you’ll pull out oodles of valuable insights in the process including: their pain points, buying objections, desires, goals, and the alternatives they considered—all in their own words. One of the most important insights you can uncover is the “job” that customers hire your product to do. If you’re not familiar with the Jobs To Be Done methodology, I highly recommend watching this video.

These interviews are usually conducted on the phone, (although taking a local customer out for coffee never hurts,) and often require little to no incentive to get people a call. Customers are usually quite happy to share their experience with your brand—some even find it quite cathartic.

While there is a definite technique to pulling out the type of insights known as “golden nuggets”—the kind that transforms sales copy and inspires entire marketing campaigns—the most important thing about conducting 1:1 customer interviews is that you’re there to listen, not to sell.

This style of audience research is also great for collecting feedback and creating a better overall customer experience—meaning more repeat customers. Understanding what people like and dislike about your product will allow you to continuously improve it, and develop a killer retention marketing strategy.

In terms of the commitment, the time spent on the phone with each customer averages about 30 minutes, the entire process of contacting them to schedule the call, conducting the interview, and coding and analyzing the data will put you at about 60 mins per interview. I recommend getting a small batch of interviews under your belt (say, 3-6 per customer segment.)

 


 

“One interview is worth 1000 surveys.”

~ Des Trayner, CEO of Intercom


 
The Pros:

😍 Easy to get people to commit to a 30-minute phone conversation
😍 People are more likely to open up and share during a 1:1 conversation
😍 You’ll hear about your customer’s pains, desires, goals and more first-hand
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)
😍 Identifying buying triggers helps you reach your customers earlier in their buying journey
😍 Strengthens relationships with your customers and grow brand affinity
😍 Costs nothing (except your time) to execute
😍 Can be done in your pj’s (the ultimate win, obviously)

The Cons:

😱 Can be intimidating without the proper tools and training
😱 Easy to bias interview if you’re not careful, which could lead to inaccurate assumptions
😱 Analyzing your “data” (ie. your customer’s words) and figuring out how to action what you learn can be tricky if you don’t have a system
😱 Can be difficult to get buy-in/budget from your boss or client (click here for a helpful resource)

Conducting 1:1 customer interviews takes skill and practice, both of which you can get from my upcoming Trigger Technique Masterclass. I’m still ironing out the details, so join my email list to find out more soon 🙂

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2. Focus Groups

Effort: 💪💪💪💪💪

A research technique that gathers a small group of people (usually 5-8 participants) for an in-person discussion around a brand, product, ad, or concept that a company is testing out. 

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅  Make sure you’re headed in the right direction with a product or idea
✅  Gain insight into a specific audience’s pains, desires, goals, and buying objections
✅  Get immediate and detailed feedback on potential marketing campaigns before launching
✅  Observe how people talk to others about your brand in the real world

What to expect:

Focus groups have been used for decades across virtually every industry. They’ve even informed some well-known products ranging from children’s toys, like Barbie, to instant cake kits.

Focus groups are typically led by a moderator whose goal is to facilitate conversation, encouraging each person to freely share their opinions, beliefs and preferences related. Many market research firms offer focus group facilitation in special rooms that are designed to be neutral (alright let’s face it, they’re intentionally BLAND) and allow the client to observe the group through a one-way mirror. 

While hiring a firm to conduct your focus groups may seem like an unnecessary expense, it could be the difference between great take-aways and leaving empty-handed.

It’s not easy to keep a group discussion flowing in a natural way while ensuring that each participant is contributing equally and the research objective is being fulfilled. In other words, moderating your own focus group might be biting off more than you can chew.

The Pros:

😍 You’ll hear about your customer’s pains, desires, goals and more first-hand
😍 In-person format allows you to observe facial expressions and body language
😍 Group setting means multiple perspectives are expressed in each discussion
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)

The Cons:

😱 Difficult to dig deep into any one participant’s experience/opinions
😱 Participants are inevitably influenced by one another
😱 “Groupthink” can cause participants to change their opinions to fit in
😱 Human nature is to want to look better in front of others (answers might not be totally honest)
😱 Requires participants to be geographically close to one another
😱 Logistical challenges of getting 5+ people in a room together
😱 Often requires an incentive to find participants
😱 Multiple focus groups are needed in order to see patterns/compensate for any irregularities
😱 Takes practice to become a skilled moderator

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3. Competitive Analysis

Effort: 💪💪💪

An in-depth look at your major competitors and their marketing collateral for the purpose of documenting what’s working/what’s not. 

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Launch a new product/enter a new market
✅ Improve existing marketing collateral
✅ Avoid messaging, tactics, or channels that don’t work with your audience
✅ Find inspiration for new content
✅ Identify gaps in the market

 
What to expect:

A competitive analysis usually includes observing and analyzing your direct competitors’ marketing and sales channels, messaging, content marketing, social media engagement, and customer reviews. 

It’s also helpful to conduct a SWOT analysis, which identifies their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, so that you can see where there are gaps in the market and room for improvement. (Before you start SWOTing, check out this article to ensure you’re doing it right).

Another tip for competitive analysis is to use the Wayback Machine to see how your competitor’s websites have changed over time. The changes they’ve made to images, messaging, and call-to-actions that could indicate what wasn’t working for them. 

You can also set up a Google Alert to be notified when they are in the news, so you know always know what they are up to.

But don’t stop at just observing their top of funnel tactics—subscribe to their email list and analyze their nurture sequences. Start a free trial and observe their onboarding process, call to actions, and user experience. Book a demo and see how the sales team presents their product. The more time you invest in this research method, the more you will learn. 

Once you’ve done these steps for your top competitor, you’ll want to repeat them with any other direct competitors you might have.

 


“Competitive research offers marketers the ability to gain insight into gaps in their existing strategies. From a content marketing lens, the power of reverse engineering successful content efforts of competition is a powerful way to gain insight. I call it the Sherlock Homeboy approach.

The idea is simple. Reverse engineer content that is generating highly valuable backlinks, consistent social shares, rising to the top of Reddit or getting press. Understand why it’s achieving such a significant amount of success and apply those lessons to the content you create moving forward.” 

~ Ross Simmonds, CEO of Foundation Marketing


 

The Pros:

😍 Helps you differentiate your brand from a competitor
😍 Helps you focus on areas where your competitors are weakest
😍 Identifies gaps in the market that you can fill 
😍 Can save you from spending time on tactics or channels that are not effective
😍 Costs nothing (except your time)
😍 Can be done in your pj’s (ie. all online)

The Cons:

😱 Not always clear what is/isn’t working (try to collect data when possible!)
😱 Can be time-consuming if you have a lot of competitors

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4. Interview Your Clients / Teammates

Effort: 💪

Interviews with people who work directly with the audience in question. If you work in an agency, this could mean interviewing your client. If you’re an in-house marketer, interview your colleagues in sales and customer success.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

Gain insight into a specific audience’s pains, desires, goals, and buying objections
✅ Cannot get buy-in and/or budget to conduct 1:1 interviews with customers

What to expect:

The questions you can ask your clients or teammates about the audience in question are going to be similar to those you would ask their customers. Your goal is to uncover the customer’s pains, desires, goals, buying objections, the alternatives they’ve considered, and ultimately, to understand why they buy your products in the first place.

The Pros:

😍 Helps you uncover your customer’s pains, desires, etc.
😍 Helps build empathy and understanding for the audience
😍 Your clients or team may be able to see customers more objectively than the customers see themselves
😍 Easy access to clients/team members
😍 Costs nothing (except your time)
😍 Can help build trust with agency clients
😍 Can help improve understanding and communication with in-house teams

The Cons:

😱 Your clients aren’t likely asking the questions that you need answers to when they’re talking customers, so insights may be surface-level (vs. in-depth)
😱 Clients and in-house teams can have long-standing assumptions about their customers that aren’t true
😱 Clients and in-house teams can have their own biases that can skew their perception of customers
😱 You won’t develop the same level of empathy for the audience from second-hand accounts

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5. Listen to Sales/ Customer Success Calls

Effort: 💪💪💪

Become a fly on the wall during sales calls with prospects or customer success calls with existing customers. Or better yet? Conduct a few customer success calls yourself. 

Use this audience research method if you:

  Gain insight into a specific audience’s pains, desires, goals, and buying objections
✅ Cannot get buy-in/budget to do 1:1 customer interviews
✅ Want to improve communication and understanding between internal teams

What to expect:

This method will allow you to identify and document a lot of the same key insights you would on a 1:1 customer interview (e.g., objections, pains, desires, goals, alternatives, etc.).

Your sales and customer success teams can likely already fill you in on patterns that they hear from customers and prospects, but these teams may not pick up on some things that are more relevant to you as a marketer. That’s why listening in yourself—or better yet, taking turns manning customer support lines yourself—can help you to unearth golden nuggets that you’d otherwise miss.

Like 1:1 customer interviews, this audience research method may also allow you to snag “voice of the customer” phrases and vocab that you can use in your marketing and sales copy. Voila! Effective copy without the guesswork!

Hint: If YOU are your sales/customer success team (i.e., the person usually doing these calls) record the audio and listen to it again after for those key insights. Repeat the process for 5 or more calls and you should begin to see patterns.

This method works best when prospects are actively engaged in the conversation and have questions, opinions, and beliefs about the product. In other words, you may not get the same insights from a cold sales call, especially if the prospect isn’t “problem-aware.” Similarly, product demos may not lend themselves to good data collection if the salesperson is doing the majority of the talking. The more the customer is able to share, the more insights you will gather.

The Pros:

😍 Easy to execute (assuming you have a few calls lined up)
😍 You’ll hear about your customer’s pains, desires, goals and more first-hand
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)
😍 You’ll hear how your sales team talks about the product and what your customers respond to most favourably 
😍 Increased communication understanding between sales, CS & marketing
😍 Costs nothing (except your time)

The Cons:

😱 Your team aren’t likely asking the questions that you need answers to when they’re talking customers, so insights may be surface-level (vs. in-depth)
😱 You’re not in the driver’s seat during the call, so you can’t ask for details or clarity when needed
😱 Customers may not be as honest or forthcoming during a sales call as they would on a 1:1 customer interview
😱 If your team doesn’t follow an interview framework, you may need to listen to a more calls in order to begin seeing patterns

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6. Facebook Audience Insights

Effort: 💪

A free tool within the Facebook Ads Manager platform that can help you get high-level insight into an audience’s preferences and activities online. This can improve your targeting, inspire experiments, and (hopefully) reach more right-fit customers.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Better understand who makes up your target audiences 
✅ Identify interests/brands popular amongst your audience
✅ Optimize your ad targeting
✅ Get inspiration for a new ad campaigns

What to expect:

There are a few ways to use this tool (I won’t get into the details here, check out this article for more info,) but essentially Audience Insights is designed to aggregate data from Facebook’s users so that you can better understand the type of people that make up a certain audience. You can use it on your own custom audience, a competitor’s audience, or a subset of Facebook users who meet the demographic criteria you specify. 

The Pros:

😍 Easy access & free to use
😍 Facebook has access to third-party info (not just the info they collect from users)
😍 Can inspire new content or ad campaign ideas
😍 Can help you optimize your ad campaign targeting
😍 Insights can be saved and used in Facebook ad campaigns 
😍 Will allow you to import your own custom audience list (from your email newsletter for instance)
😍 Will allow you to analyze people who have interacted with your Facebook page (or a competitor’s)

The Cons:

😱 Very high-level insights that don’t tell you much beyond demographics & interests
😱 Not a ton of functionality when it comes to customizing the data you’re shown
😱 Interest targeting is more limited than in the Audiences tool, so you can’t always find the topics you’re looking for
😱 Learning who your audience is still won’t tell you why they buy

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 7. Secondary Market Research 

Effort: 💪

Market research (often in the form of reports, case studies, white papers, censuses, etc.) conducted by third-party organizations such as market research firms or governments and made available online.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Learn more about your market or industry
✅ Gather statistics or demographic data to help inform your marketing
✅ Understand the size of a market or historical buying behaviour

What to expect:

This is the method most people probably think of when they hear “market research.” Big research firms like Forrester, Gartner Group, and Nielson, who charge companies a lot of money to conduct large-scale, industry-wide studies. Then there are public data sources like The United States Census Bureau, Statistics Canada, etc. that offer demographic data from their respective countries and make it accessible to anyone.

This type of research can often complement your own research nicely, although it probably shouldn’t replace it. Even an in-depth report on your audience or industry will leave you with questions specific to the context in which people use your product as opposed to a competitor, but it can help confirm, for instance, whether there is in fact market demand for your product.

The Pros:

😍 A quick Google search can reveal some studies already available online
😍 Research is generally considered very reliable when done by reputable organizations

The Cons:

😱 Limited to what data is readily available
😱 Typically says what’s happening in a market doing, but doesn’t provide insight into WHY it’s happening

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8. On-Site Surveys

Effort: 💪

Using a third-party app to ask anonymous website visitors a specific question to learn more about them.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Ask participants a specific question
✅ Gather data about the type of people who visit your website
✅ Learn from your users or return customers

What to expect:

This type of survey is a good way to gather information about the type of people who are visiting your website. In fact, one of the most common use cases for this type of survey is “Which of the following best describes you?” followed by a list of job titles/roles. But you can also ask questions to understand their motivations like, “What brought you here today?” or to better understand the buying journey like “How did you find out about us?”

There are many tools available to create this type of survey (e.g. RightMessage, Intercom, Drift, etc.) but the original and perhaps still most well known is HotJar. A quick Google search of “HotJar alternatives” will give you lots of other options however, if that one doesn’t suit your fancy. 

 


“Why are people leaving your website? What were they looking for? Who are they? You can speculate all day—or, you can ask these very questions to your website visitors and get real answers that will help you make changes and grow.

On-site surveys are the perfect way to do it. They are small pop-ups that slide in from the side of the page, and you can use them to ask quick questions about your visitors’ drivers (aka: the reasons that drove them to your page) or the barriers they are experiencing (aka: the reason(s) they are considering leaving your site). This is all very abstract, so here are 23 examples of onsite survey questions I collected from various websites that give you a clearer idea of the questions you could be asking your visitors.”

~ Dr. Fio Dossetto, Senior Editor at HotJar


 
The Pros:

😍 Easy and inexpensive to execute
😍 Lots of tools to choose from
😍 Can conduct a series of surveys very quickly
😍 Simple user experience (they don’t have to leave the page)
😍 You start getting results immediately
😍 Can make changes anytime

The Cons:

😱 Limited to 1, maaaybe 2 questions at a time
😱 Visitors are anonymous 
😱 No control over who fills out your survey (they might not fit your target persona)
😱 Less control over the format/style than with other survey tools
😱 The lower your web traffic, the longer you’ll need to run the survey 

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9. Customer Surveys

Effort: 💪💪

Asking your existing customers or your entire audience, a series of questions to learn more about them. You can do this via email, phone, direct mail, in-person, text message, even carrier pigeon. Whatever gets you dem responses.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Confirm an assumption
✅ Get answers to very specific questions
✅ Backup qualitative research with some hard numbers

 
What to expect:

Surveying your existing audience/customers is a great way to backup qualitative research. It can also prove/disprove assumptions in the absence of qualitative research, although it won’t give you the same depth of understanding or empathy that 1:1 interviews will. 

The most common way to conduct surveys nowadays is online, and there are many tools you can use to make it a great user experience for your participants.

Conducting surveys that produce accurate, unbiased results is part art and part science. Ask too many questions and your participants won’t finish the survey. Ask too few questions and you’re missing out on key insights. Ask the right questions the wrong way and you’ll get misleading answers. Do you see what I mean? I recommend reading this article, as well as this article from Survey Monkey as a crash course in conducting surveys. 

The Pros:

😍 Easy and often free to execute
😍 Less likely to have to require an incentive when they are your own audience
😍 You control the format, style, wording, etc.
😍 Insights are statistically significant
😍 It’s often easier to convince skeptics when you present hard numbers

The Cons:

😱 You may need to offer an incentive to get a large enough sample size
😱 Results can be skewed by the fact that people most likely to respond are your most engaged followers/customers
😱 Easy to skew the data by asking questions the wrong way 
😱 Easy to miss out on key insights with close-ended questions

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10. Third-Party Surveys

Effort: 💪💪

Using a third-party market research company to conduct a survey with participants who match the profile of your target customer. 

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Confirm an assumption
✅ Get answers to very specific questions
✅ Backup qualitative research insights with some numbers
✅ Get data from a sample size larger than your own audience

 
What to expect:

The most common reason researchers opt to go this route when conducting surveys is because they don’t have access to a large enough group of participants who match the customer persona. If your audience is small or you’re looking at targeting a new customer segment, this may be your only option for surveying a large sample size.

Having said this, if you read my notes above about surveying your own customers/audience, you may be wondering if conducting your own survey is a wise decision anyway. After all, people devote their entire careers to understanding and promoting proper surveying techniques. What are the chances you’ll get it right the first time? Hiring a third party to conduct a survey can reduce some of the overwhelm that comes with doing the work yourself and ensure the data you collect is as reliable as possible.

The Pros:

😍 Skilled researchers designing your survey/questions
😍 Access to larger sample sizes

The Cons:

😱 Participants are incentivized to take the survey, meaning they may not actually fit the profile of your target customer
😱 Lack of vested interest in your company means participants feel less pressure to answer honestly
😱 Can be expensive
😱 Slower than surveying your own audience

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11. User Testing

Effort: 💪💪💪

The process of having hypothetical users try out your product (or explore your website) so that you can observe the way they use it and collect feedback to help you improve it.

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Want feedback on a new or existing product design or web property
✅ Want to better understand how people use your product or website
✅ Want to understand users’ expectations of your product or website
✅ Want to make your product “stickier” and get more repeat customers
✅ Want to figure out how to improve your website so that you can increase conversions

What to expect:

Getting people to test out your product or website can be incredibly valuable at every stage of business. Not only does it give you feedback on what users like and dislike about it, but in asking them questions about their experience with your product/website you can begin to learn more about what they look for in a solution like yours. User Testing is particularly relevant for physical products and tech products, but there’s no reason why other businesses shouldn’t do user testing too. 

Check out these stats from UserTesting.com!

While you can spend as much or as little time on user testing as you want, there are of course some best practices you should try to follow. One of the easiest ways to ensure you’re following best practices is to use a company like UserTesting.com to help you find testers, facilitate the tests, and collect feedback. However, anecdotal user testing with your own network is always better than nothing.

If you’d like to do user testing on your own I recommend doing more research before getting started so that you can reap the biggest benefits. Check out this article for help getting started.

The Pros:

😍 Gives insight into what people like/dislike about your product
😍 Very helpful for discovering usability issues
😍 In-person format allows you to observe facial expressions, body language, etc.
😍 Opportunity to listen to how customers talk so thay you can strengthen your messaging

The Cons:

😱 Can be time-consuming and costly to organize
😱 Can be challenging to document a user’s actions

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12. Copy Testing

Effort: 💪💪

Copy testing is the process of using consumer feedback to determine which sales or marketing copy is likely to be more effective. 

Use this audience research method if you: 

✅ Get feedback on your copy before launching it publicly
✅ Plan to A/B test your ad copy
✅ Are launching a campaign with a large ad budget and want to ensure the messaging hits the mark
✅ Want insights around why one campaign outperformed another
✅ Want to figure out how to improve your messaging so that you can increase conversions

What to expect:

If you wanted to test your marketing messaging in the past, you’d need to run A/B tests on your website with tools like Optimizely or test your ad copy using advertising platforms like Facebook and Google. The tricky thing with A/B testing on your website is that you need a decent amount of site traffic/conversions in order to trust the results (check out this in-depth article from CXL to learn more about A/B testing.)

If you don’t get a lot of web traffic and don’t have a big ad budget, don’t worry. These days, copy testing is a matter of submitting your copy to a company like copytesting.com, whose software immediately begins crowdsourcing feedback on your creative from real people. And because they ensure the copy testing audience fits the profile of your intended ad audience, you’ll know that the insights you get back are highly relevant.

Copy testing tends to look at two different factors: recall—is your ad memorable, and persuasion—does your ad make customers want to take action. The key to any copy test, however, is whether or not you can put the results to use. If you simply ask someone rate or rank your ads, you’ll know which one they prefer. But if you ask them “what came to mind when you saw this ad?” you can begin to understand how an ad makes someone think and feel. And that, my friend, is the jackpot.

While it won’t always make sense to spend a few hundred dollars on a copy test, this exercise can be very useful in cases where you have a large amount of ad spend that you want to use as effectively as possible. After all, why pay to run multiple ads when you could test first and put the entire ad spend behind the winner?

 


“You have copy on your website and landing pages. How do you know if the message gets through? Is it clear? Which parts of the argument are compelling, what’s actually turning people off? This is where you need to do copy testing with copytesting.com. It gives you line by line, paragraph by paragraph feedback on your copy from your actual target audience.”

~ Peep Laja, Founder & CEO of CXL and Copytesting


 
The Pros:

😍 Can save a lot of money on a large ad campaign
😍 Often gives you results faster than an A/B testing
😍 Gives you better insight into why certain messaging works better than an A/B test
😍 Helps you develop ad creative that resonates with the people who matter most
😍 Helps you understand what works with your audience so you can develop better copy going forward

The Cons:

😱 Can result in bland campaigns because crowdsourcing tends to penalize anything too unique
😱 When copy isn’t accompanied by graphics some of the context is lost
😱 Costs money each time

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13. Run Experiments

Effort: 💪💪💪

Experimentation, for the purpose of audience research, involves testing specific variables (such as channels, copy, visuals, CTAs, etc.) to determine the effect they have on the success of a particular marketing tactic or strategy.

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Aren’t sure what will work with your audience
✅ Want to test how different customer segments respond to your message or marketing materials
✅ Aren’t satisfied with your current conversion rates

What to expect:

If you just read about copy testing and thought “I’ll never run another test again!” slow your roll, Pilsbury. 


Like any audience research method, there is a time and place for experimentation. For instance, you may want to test whether a tactic or channel is worth the investment in the first place (think: putting flyers in local mailboxes,) or something that requires customers to interact with in the wild rather than in a test environment (e.g. like a CTA button on your website.) This is where you need to know how to properly develop, execute and measure experiments. Experimentation is 

Experimentation will look different depending on your business, the scale of the experiments you want to run, and whether or not you use a service like Optimizely to conduct them versus running them on your own. What’s important is that you develop a plan before you start experimenting, and measure your results. 

The Pros:

😍 Allows you to compare tactics against one another
😍 Turns abstract ideas into measurable tests
😍 Helps you to pare big ideas down into MVPs (minimum viable products) you can execute quickly
😍 Forces you to approach tactics more methodically (hypothesis, procedure, results, verdict)

The Cons:

😱 Tells you what people are doing on your site but not why they’re doing it
😱 Can be time-consuming
😱 You may end up with mostly failed experiments (if you don’t start with qualitative research first)
😱 Can be misleading if not well structured

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14. Ethnographic Research

Effort: 💪  / 💪💪💪💪 (depending on the place/event, this could be really easy, or a big commitment!)

Attend events that your customers attend (ie., conferences and trade shows) or spend time wherever it is they hang out based on their unique interests/job titles (ie., yoga studios, dog parks, salons, etc.)

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Gain insight into your customers’ pains, desires, goals, and buying objections
✅ Build personal relationships with your customers
✅ Observe how people talk to others about your brand in the real world
✅ Develop deeper empathy with an audience quickly

What to expect:

Meeting with members of your target audience face-to-face can give you great insight into how your product is used “in the wild.” For instance, if your product is an innovative new dog harness, hanging out at dog parks will allow you to see first-hand how dog owners use a harness IRL, hear how they talk about their current choice of harness, and talk to them about the reasons they use a harness in the first place.

If your product is for businesses, you might benefit from attending trade shows/conferences because of the opportunity to networking and to position your brand as a thought-leader, and one that is in tune with the customer.

 


“If companies want to create better content and connect with their best future customers (and keep their best present ones!), they need to look beyond demographics, titles and even psychographics. Knowing your customers is about understanding their needs in the context of everything in and around them. This requires understanding your customers AND culture. This is why we apply ethnographic research techniques – such as participatory observation – to our research toolkit.

It takes time and it’s not a one-time thing (it requires ongoing participatory observation, not just a one-and-done report), but that time you invest will pay off big time. There is no better research than the kind that can also help you with your marketing efforts in real-time. Here’s a Slideshare presentation from a few years back – it breaks down what we look at.”

~ Tara Hunt, Co-founder of Truly.


 
The Pros:

😍 Can observe customers in real social/professional situations
😍 Build affinity by giving your brand a human face
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)
😍 Gain empathy for your customers
😍 Network with potential customers who might later buy your product

The Cons:

😱 Can be time-consuming and costly (especially if it requires travel)
😱 Not really scalable
😱 Difficult to take notes/document observations (without being creepy)

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15. Google Analytics

Effort: 💪💪💪

Google Analytics is an online analytics tool offered by Google that allows you to track your web traffic and create reports based on the metrics you want to measure. 

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Understand who visits your website and what actions they take on it
✅ Understand how your website is performing
✅ Identify holes in your funnel related to your website
✅ A/B test elements on your website/assets that send traffic to your website
✅ Better understand how people find your website (including referring sites)

What to expect:

You’re probably already familiar with Google Analytics. But have you considered using it for audience research? While it won’t tell you everything you need to know about your website visitors (far from it, in fact) it can help you answer questions like, “Which sites are sending me the most referral traffic?” and “Which countries/cities do my website visitors come from?” and “Which pages of my website do visitors spend the most time on?”

Google also offers free complementary tools including Google URL Builder (allows you to create trackable links), Google Tag Manager (lets you track actions taken on your website without coding), and Google Optimize (a free experimentation tool.)

The Pros:

😍 Free & compatible with any website
😍 Robust platform allows you to create highly customized reports
😍 Training is free & available online
😍 Gives insight into how people are using your website
😍 Allows you to track how visitors find your website
😍 Allows you to track new vs. returning visitors

The Cons:

😱 Requires some training to become proficient
😱 Aggregate data means you can’t track the buying journey of any one customer
😱 Can be difficult to make sense of the data if you are new to analytics
😱 Tells you what people are doing on your site but not why they’re doing it

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16. Heatmaps & Screen Recordings

Effort: 💪

Visual tools that show you how visitors interact with your website.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Improve your website conversion rates
✅ Better understand what visitors are looking for when they come to your site

What to expect:

While heat maps and screen recording tools work differently, their basic goal is the same: to show you how visitors use your website. For instance, what they look for, things they click on, and where they get stuck. Think of it as user testing for your site.

Heat maps use a warm-to-cool colour spectrum to show you things like, where people click, how far down the page they scroll, where/in what directions they move their mouse, etc. These maps are generated using aggregate data from many website visitors. Recordings, on the other hand, show you the exact movements and actions of individual site visitors.

The Pros:

😍 Visual representation makes data easier to digest
😍 Can vastly improve website conversion rates
😍 Many software options to choose from

The Cons:

😱 Tells you what people are doing on your site but not why they’re doing it
😱 Requires significant web traffic to be trustworthy
😱 Can be misinterpreted if not combined with other research methods to avoid biases

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17. Proto-Personas

Effort: 💪

A proto-persona (or ad-hoc persona) is a persona that is created using your team’s intuition and anecdotal evidence (“ad-hoc” meaning improvised or impromptu).

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Want to quickly identify & document the assumptions you will later prove/disprove
✅ Are unable to do other forms of customer research
✅ Need a quick “band-aid” solution for a team that’s feeling scattered/unfocused

What to expect:

As you’ve likely guessed, this isn’t the ideal approach to audience research. In fact, it’s sort of a last resort. But having proto-personas—even ones that are based on assumptions—is better than making it up as you go along. And if we’re being honest, this is how a lot of personas are developed. ?

When based on objective findings from other methods of audience research, personas can be incredibly powerful. When based on assumptions, they are simply a way to get all your thoughts on paper, stay focused on a specific customer type, and shed light on what information you need to confirm with research.

Basing anything on assumptions is like eating “empty calorie” foods—like potato chips and candy?

The Pros:

😍 A starting point for customer research 
😍 Highlights what you don’t know (and need to find out)
😍 Helps you to document the difference between various customer segments

The Cons:

😱 Not a good long-term strategy
😱 If your assumptions are wrong it could lead to bad marketing decisions (ie. wasted time & money)

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18. Online Observation (aka Creeping)

Effort: 💪💪💪

Searching the comments and posts of relevant online forums, communities, blogs, review sites and social media accounts for insights into who your customers are and what’s important to them.

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Can’t get buy-in/budget to do 1:1 customer interviews
✅ Are looking for swipe-able VOC phrases/vocab
✅ Need content/marketing tactic inspiration

What to expect:

Your current customers and ideal customers are likely already talking about you or your competitors every day online and in the real world (e.g., social media, reviews, live events) and submitting feedback directly to your team (e.g. email responses, support tickets). Observing these channels and gathering this data is an easy way to learn more about your audiences’ pain, goals, desires, motivations, buying objections, and alternative solutions.

 


“Your customers are talking online: on forums, review sites, and more. If you don’t know what they are saying and aren’t incorporating that feedback into your product, you are missing opportunities. Additionally, you can find out what your competitors are doing really well, and that can be a huge opportunity.”

~ Jonathan Dunnett, Program Manager at VENN 


 

For a crash course in online observation, check out this Forget the Funnel webinar with yours truly.

The Pros:

😍 Easy & cost-effective to conduct
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)
😍 Can inspire new content/tactics/channels to try
😍 Review sites offer a good insight into satisfaction with your competitor’s products
😍 Can do it in your pj’s 🙂

The Cons:

😱 Insights will be limited to only what people are sharing organically online
😱 Insights are likely to be surface-level (vs. in-depth)
😱 Can be quite time-consuming
😱 Difficult to know if someone really does fit your customer persona
😱 Difficult to find insights on buying triggers

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19. Analyze Chat Transcripts

Effort: 💪💪

You know those little chat apps that seem to pop up on every website these days? Well, those conversations with customers can be a goldmine of insights for marketers. Analyzing the transcripts from customer conversations sales can help you to pull out frequently asked questions, keywords, and phrases that give insight into customers’ top questions and concerns.

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Cannot get buy-in/budget for 1:1 customer interviews
✅ Want to better understand which customers are using chat support / for what reasons
✅ Want to better understand sales/CS conversations & processes

What to expect:

When it comes to collecting feedback from your transcripts, I recommend using The Spotlight Framework created by Drift CEO David Cancel. This will help ensure you’re focusing on the right part of the feedback—the root cause— rather than simply the subject of that feedback.

The Pros:

😍 Cost-effective & easy to execute
😍 Faster than conducting 1:1 customer interviews
😍 Insight into top pains, priorities, questions & objections
😍 You can swipe your customer’s own words to write high-converting copy (aka “voice of the customer” or “VOC”)

The Cons:

😱 Insights will be limited to only what people are asking questions about (i.e. sales or tech support questions)
😱 Insights are likely to be surface-level (vs. in-depth)

😱 Not as effective for building empathy/relationships built with customers
😱 Cannot ask for more detail/clarity
😱 Limited to the information customers provide organically

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20. Audience Intelligence Tools

Effort: 💪💪

Online tools that use audience data to tell you more about what your audience (or ideal audience) is doing online.

Use this audience research method if you want to:

✅ Get deeper insights on your existing social media followers
✅ Compare your social media audience to that of your competitors
✅ Discover where your ideal customers hang out and who influences them

What to expect:

There are tons of tools you can use to get data around the engagement, interests and influence of the people who follow your brand, but these tools aren’t created equal. To give you a sense of the spectrum, here are just a few of the tools (there are loads more out there) I’ve come across that offer varying degrees of audience analysis:

FollowerWonk is like a more robust version of Twitter Analytics. It gives you deeper insights into the demographics and social influence you followers have, but is far from a complete research solution. 

Social Rank allows you to sort and filter Twitter and Instagram followers based on demographics and interests (on an individual level, not just aggregate) so you can identify your “most valuable” followers.

SparkToro crawls millions of social and web profiles to find what (and who) your audience reads, listens to, watches, follows, shares, and talks about online. Currently still in Early Access Beta (but coming soon!) SparkToro also has awesome free tools that tell you about a user’s “fake follower” count, Twitter engagement score, and trending posts.

Affinio uses artificial intelligence to incorporate data to do what they call “digital ethnography” (in other words, the study of online cultures.) In their reporting, they include the silent majority (users who don’t often post/comment,) whose interests and influencers are important to understanding the social culture of your audience. 

BrandWatch coining themselves as the Rolls Royce of audience analytics platforms, BrandWatch offers a range of products (e.g., consumer research, audience intelligence, competitive analysis) that each come with a hefty price tag. 

The Pros:

😍 Helpful when you have a large audience to analyze
😍 Offer unique tools that could help with competitive analysis
😍 Go beyond demographic data
😍 Can help you identify effective marketing channels and audience influencers fast

The Cons:

😱 Can be uber expensive (depends on the tool)
😱 It’s not always easy to know how to action audience insights (depends on the tool)
😱 Insights won’t be as deep as first-hand research
😱 Does not build empathy/personal relationships like first-hand research

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21. Poll (or simply ask) Your Network

Effort: 💪

Use channels such as social media/email to ask your audience specific questions.

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Have a specific question to ask
✅ Want a less formal approach than conducting a survey
✅ Are looking for more anecdotal responses

What to expect:

Since the release of polls on most social media platforms, it’s quite common to see people asking their followers to answer simple questions about their preferences, habits and experiences. While these are not super scientific, well-controlled surveys, they can definitely 

Of course, you can do the same thing via email, like this one my teammate Sarah received a few days ago from an über talented email copywriter she follows:

The Pros:

😍 Very easy to execute
😍 Likely to get higher engagement than a formal survey

The cons:

😱 Limited to those in your current network
😱 You often can’t ask follow-up questions to understand the context behind their answer
😱 Your network may not be made of exclusively of your target customers
😱 Can be tricky to analyze all the responses as one data set to spot patterns

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22. Customer Panels

Effort: 💪💪💪💪

From your best customers, identify 4-9 who are willing to be your go-to focus group for research questions, feedback, and opinions. 

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Want to be more in touch with your customers
✅ Are committed to ongoing customer research
✅ Want to build personal relationships with & empathy for your customers

What to expect:

This method will look different depending on your business the level of engagement your customers are willing to have. For some, a customer panel could be as simple as a group of contacts you email when a question comes up. For others, it might involve hosting a quarterly team meeting where the entire customer panel is conferenced in and interviewed about their use of your product (this is a fantastic way to build empathy across the whole team!)

Regardless of the shape it takes, the idea behind a customer panel is that you have a predetermined group of loyal customers willing to help you with your research when needed. Think of them as your board of advisers—and, in turn, they will see you as a brand who cares about their wants and needs. Win-win 🙂

The Pros:

😍 Inexpensive and easy to execute
😍 Builds personal relationships with customers
😍 Allows you to hear their pains, etc. first-hand
😍 Positions you as a brand who cares about your customers
😍 Lots of opportunity for VOC phrases/vocab

The Cons:

😱 Small sample size means it should not be your only form of research

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23. Review Relevant Job Descriptions

Effort: 💪💪

Analyze job descriptions for roles that could be alternative solutions to your product For example, if you sell accounting software you could read job descriptions for a bookkeeper. (e.g., hiring a bookkeeper versus using bookkeeping software.)

Use this audience research method if you:

✅ Have a product that in some cases replaces a real person (often B2B SaaS)
✅ Want to better understand the customer’s pains and goals

What to expect:

This research technique doesn’t require a specific methodology, but it will take a bit of repetition. The key here will be finding job postings from organizations who fit the profile of your ideal customers, and compare as many of them as possible in order to identify the common responsibilities and skills they are looking for in a successful candidate. These requirements for the job *should* correlate to benefits of your product if filling the role truly is an alternative solution to your product.

The Pros:

😍 Costs nothing except your time
😍 Unique insights from an often overlooked competitor

The Cons:

😱 Can be time-consuming to find job descriptions
😱 Does not offer insight into every aspect of the buying journey (buying triggers, objections, etc.)

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In Case it Wasn’t Clear…

There are lots of ways you can do audience research.

And while they are not all created equal, doing some form of audience research is definitely better than being among the 65% of marketers who do it “rarely.”

The best-case scenario is that you would select a few different methods that complement one another (aim for a combo of qualitative and quantitative,) do some initial research, and then take small steps to bake audience research into your weekly schedule.

If you’ve just skimmed this post and are now like:

“Katelyn, just TELL me. What is the best bang for my buck?”

I’m going to say 1:1 customer interviews every time.

They will give you:

✅ Rich, detailed insights into the customer’s buying journey
✅ First-hand accounts that build empathy (empathy = a marketer’s superpower)
✅ Oodles of new content/experiment ideas
✅ Done-for-you copy, direct from the mouth of the customer 

What more could you ask for from a few hours of audience research?

For a step-by-step guide to conducting customer interviews, join my email list. I’m working on a new masterclass that will give you everything you need to become a customer research wizard.

I’ll share the details via email as soon as I get my ducks in a row 🙂

 


I want to hear from you!

Questions? Comments? Cheesecake? Tweet @katebour ?