8 essential marketing research steps every digital strategy needs

8 essential marketing strategy steps - Talked About Marketing - Photo by Celpax on Unsplash.

This may seem obvious but everybody should start with these marketing research steps before developing their digital strategy. However, it's surprising how many people don’t.

Most businesses will have specific audiences they sell to and the more specific you can get about your audiences the better.

Research is the most essential part of any strategy you do because if you haven't got that part right then we can be sure your strategy's not going to be right, or at least it’s not going to be a good as it could be.

There are eight critical areas of research you need to do. Of course, there's more research you can do (and the more the better) but to be realistic these eight are probably the primary ones that you need to do and you can't get away with doing any less than this and still have a successful strategy.

1. Who is your audience, and where do they hang out online?

So the first piece of marketing research is working out who your audience is and where they hang out online. Now that might sound simple, but you'll be surprised how many people don't take this step, or they might say my audience is all men or women in their thirties. That's a good starting point but you need to be very specific, as specific as you possibly can be about who your audience is, and then follow up with where they hang out online.

Who your audiences are is really about who is going to be buying your products? You might find that there is often more than one audience category.

For example, if it's a service you're providing like psychology services, you would have different types of customers. Your first and most obvious type of customer would be someone who needs psychological support so the customer that you would sit down in your clinic and be treated by you. So that customer would have some needs and as a practitioner, you'd probably be able to have a good guess about what those needs are and have a good idea what category your customer fits into.

But then we need to dig further. What are the similarities amongst your customers? Do you service mostly females or exclusively females, exclusively males, or run a clinic that focuses on kids psychology? You would have different categories of customers that would have different needs. For example, kids would have different needs to adults; pregnant women would have different needs to non-pregnant women, etc.

Anyway, you get the idea, so one category for that psychology business would be actual clients that you see.

The second category might be referrals. You may have GP's and other medical practitioners who refer clients to you. They are another type of audience that you need to service. As you can see, you'll need to have a different strategy for that audience when compared to the audience that is the actual end customer or end-user. You will need to define this.

So, your clients might sit in several categories and your referrers may even have several separate groups. If we keep digging we might uncover that you have parents who are looking for a psychologist for their child. They would be a different category. This psychology business may have three different audiences and you would need to research where these different audiences hang out online. For example, you need to determine where medical practitioners go to get their information and how do they work out which psychologists to refer people to?

You would have to do that research and find that out because it's no point putting posts on Facebook for medical practitioners, if they don’t hang out there, if they hang out in a medical forum, or if they get their information from a regular newsletter that comes out from a Medical Association. It's quite likely they might need face-to-face introductions, or use professional development sessions to get their information. Is there a professional network that you could tap into?

Let's consider your clients; people directly searching for Psychological Services. They might be on Facebook, which is a safe choice, or perhaps they are in forums? They might be on YouTube searching for helpful videos to deal with whatever psychological issue they may be living with, or perhaps they are following other pages like beyond blue or government support agencies? These are the sort of patterns that you need to research.

Rather than guess, you need to find out where these people are, so what are some tools for finding that out?

You can start by looking at your existing customers. Take a few current customers from each category and see what you can find out about them if possible. Interview them and talk to them. Find out from a few of your existing referrers where they get their information from. Find out from one of your current customers where they get their psychology information from? Perhaps it’s from books? Perhaps you could do blog posts reviewing the most popular books on subjects that you specialise in?

I hope you can see how this type of research is going to have a massive impact on what your strategy ends up being and the ultimate channels that you use in your marketing.

It's very easy to say Facebook is where your audience hangs out because everyone's on Facebook. However, Facebook is a very noisy busy platform and people are generally not there to buy stuff, so it's not always the most effective place to put your content.

2. Who are your competition/peers and what are they doing well and doing badly?

The next part of your marketing research is about your competition. Who are your competition or your peers and what are they doing, both good and bad? I find it very helpful to make a list of competitors and use some tools online to do this. There are some excellent free tools that analyse what they're doing and how they're working.

You need to be honest and critical throughout this process so you can learn from others about what works and what's not working, or what they are not doing that might provide opportunities for you to fill a gap in the market.

Some of the free tools you might use to look at what your competition are doing are:

  1. Semrush: A tool that lets you put in a competitive website and get an overview of their digital presence. It will show you the traffic they get, the keywords they rank for, any advertising they're doing and how effective it is, and it will show you the backlinks to their site (links from others that point to your competitor's site). If you're not sure who your competitors are, entering your website into Semrush will reveal who its data thinks is your greatest competitors, based on the content on your site. You can check out their social media profiles to see how active they are, see which posts of theirs are getting the best results and the most comments.
  2. Buzzsumo: A site where you can put in a topic and it will show you the most popular and most shared articles that are written on that topic. It can be a great place to do some research and find out what your competition and peers are doing that is successful. It can inspire you to write a better article or a better piece of content than the top piece of content on the web.
  3. Google search. Simply do a Google search for the typical things that your customers might search for and check out what ranks. Pay attention to who your competitors are in the google space by seeing who comes up in organic search listings (the main listings, not the ads), and see who's actually advertising to have their links come up on those keywords (this will be the advertising links that come up at the top of Google). Follow the links, see where they take you and see what you can learn about your competitors.

So it’s really good to make a list of what your peers and competitors do that's good and make a list of the things that they don't do well, so you can fill the gaps.

For example, if we take the psychology business, you might discover that amongst your competitors no one's really talking about depression or no one has excellent helpful resources about depression, so there's an opportunity for you to find a niche spot in the market and make an impression. This is precious research. By finding out more about your competition, you can make sure you're competing and not just producing substandard content or a substandard site, when compared to your competitors.

3. Audience Pain points

The next marketing research step is to identify your audience's pain points.

Think of pain points as problems your business solves for your customer. So, for example, an audience pain point for our psychologist might be someone exclaiming, “I feel depressed”. You could then list all the potential solutions that you have to that problem and then these will form an excellent basis later on for your content plan.

So, in this step, list as many of these pain points as you can, preferably at least 10, along with their solutions (real and potential) because this will be a solid foundation for your content in your planning later on.

4. Resources and budgets

This next marketing research step sounds pretty boring and run-of-the-mill but there's no point coming up with a digital strategy that requires 30 hours a week of content production and a million-dollar budget if you've only got two hours a week and $1,000.

So this might not take you long to do. You might have those figures off the top of your head to say I've got 3 hours a week to do marketing and I've got $10,000 a year. But you might not have that information because you're going from day to day, job to job, without really thinking proactively about what you're going to spend on marketing and how you're going to budget for it. In this case, you might want to look at our upcoming blog posts on how to come up with a marketing budget.

In the meantime, what you need to do is put a strategy in place first, like the one we're starting to make with this research topic, and from your strategy will come a really clear plan for the year that you can then put a budget against.

It’s still good in this first instance to have a ballpark to say I'm prepared to spend x hours a week and have a budget of x dollars to do my strategy. You may even use a ballpark of 5% of your time and income as a starting point.

5. Policies and procedures

Dare I say it again? This step sounds boring and unexciting but it could make or break a business.

At a bare minimum, you need to at least address privacy with a privacy policy and publish terms and conditions on your website. Apart from being diligent, you need these in place because Google, Facebook, and other advertising platforms, are reluctant to send traffic to websites that don't have a privacy policy and terms and conditions page It's a bit of a marker for them that this site might be spammy.

So you need to make sure that you have at least a privacy policy on your website and you need to have procedures in place for dealing with privacy questions and security. Put some time aside now to set your cybersecurity procedures because many businesses have fallen apart overnight after being hacked, or at least they've had huge reputational damage that's easy to avoid. Simple things like having Two Factor Authentication (2FA) on all your accounts, even though that takes a little bit longer and might be a little bit annoying to login, is a good place to start safeguarding against being hacked.

Next, have a strong password policy use a password app to generate strong passwords. We have long passed those days when having a password based on your address or your pet's name with a number in it is considered safe. They are too easy for hackers to guess these days.

Also make sure your website address starts with HTTPS, meaning you have a security certificate on your site - this is an important trust signal for search engines and humans, with some browsers warning people against clicking into your website if you only have HTTP in place.

On your website, be sure to display a good privacy policy with protection of personal private data of your customers and clients, along with having a policy and procedure for dealing with complaints and social media comments. This is really important because sometimes you can get caught out on Facebook when someone makes a comment or asks a question at 11pm that makes you look bad you really need to be able to respond to those situations quite quickly. The best way to do that and keep a level head, is to think about it beforehand and have a bit of a procedure and policy in place for how you going to deal with negative comments on Facebook and what are you going to do if you account gets hacked.

This last part of step 5 boils down to creating a What If list with pre-thought-out responses and tactics in place so that you're not caught off guard and that your business doesn't get damaged by something that's quite easy to avoid if you think about it beforehand.

6. What barriers can you remove for your customers?

There are barriers or things that are stopping your customers from using your product or service that you can help them overcome, and this step focusses on how to change that. For example, if I'm a psychologist, one of my barriers might be my location. People may not be prepared to travel more than, say, 15 or 20 minutes to get to their appointment, which dramatically reduces the pool of potential customers available.

One of the ways you might be able to remove that barrier would be to set up a few offices in different locations and be there on different days of the week so you increase your potential customers. You could also provide online counselling so that again you make a bigger pool of customers you can service.

Another barrier might be the cost of your service. Your solution could involve looking at ways to subsidise people's appointment costs through grants or foundations.

Other typical barriers for a psychologist might be fear; your customers might be anxious about going to see a psychologist. One way to address this might be through a sequence of reassuring videos or emails or blog posts, that slowly gain the confidence of a customer, reassuring them that their information is confidential, demonstrating the procedures involved in therapy, explaining what you can and cannot reveal about your clients, etc.

At this stage, really what you're doing is listing those barriers that you can see for customers and your business. Ultimately, you're asking, why don't people buy from me, before listing basic strategies for how you might overcome these barriers so that they're no longer blocking people from becoming your customers.

7. Thought leadership

Thought leaders are people who are experts in their field of business and recognised nationally or internationally as such. It's invaluable for you to consider how you might position yourself as a thought leader in your area because the benefits are great, and long lasting.

Taking our psychology example again, famous psychologists like Brené Brown have become welll-known for their psychology and have developed a huge following and become well-respected. So too, has Dr Phil, although he's not my cup of tea. Steve has even referred to video about empathy by Brené Brown, in a workshop series he ran for TiCSA on improving customer service.

Be that as it may, your challenge in this step is to identify the thought leaders in your subject area and then develop a strategy to make friends with them and connect with them because if you can foster those relationships and get one of those thought leaders to endorse your product or share a bit of your content or link to your website, you grow in stature in the eyes of your audience.

This engagement might also include a conversation on social media or by email with a thought leader, or they might do a guest post on your website (or vice versa), giving your business an enormous amount of credibility. Even if you don’t get to the point of connecting with those thought leaders, simply knowing what they're doing, how they doing it, and observing them, is going to be great research for your own business and the planning of your strategy.

Working out what makes Brené Brown such a success in the field of psychology, enables you to learn from that thought leader so you can apply these principles to your own business or practice and improve on them.

8. Define your products

The final marketing research step we're addressing here is the crucial one of defining your products, defining exactly what it is that you're offering.

This is deliberately last on the list because hopefully along the way, as you've worked through the research steps like defining audience pain points and removing barriers, you will have gained some insights into your customers so that you can work out what your product is and how to describe them in a way that is focussed on solving customers' problems.

A great start is to have a value proposition, describing how your product directly solves the problem(s) that you know your customers have. Therefore, right up front in this part of your research, ask yourself:

  • What are my products/Services?
  • Who are they for?
  • Why are they better or how do they compare to my competitors or peers?
  • What pain points do they solve for my audience?
  • How do these products/services relate to my resources?
  • What barriers do I need to remove for customers?
  • How does my offering relate to thought leaders in the subject area and what they're saying about what people should do?

By working through these questions, you will have created a very neat little start-up package to enable you to start thinking about the rest of your strategy, your content strategy, the channels that you can be posting to, and what your goals should be for your marketing.

These all feed into goal setting and you can learn more about that in our previous article, SMART goals for your marketing strategy.

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