Why Audience Research is the #1 Thing You Need to Master Your Content

After 8 years of offering marketing services + coaching, I can honestly say the #1 culprit of failed businesses is missing the mark on understanding who they’re serving.

Furthermore, after 8 years I can also say that some well-crafted market research makes the actual content marketing campaign downright easy to execute.

Don’t take my word for it though.

An Epic Tale of Failed Market Research – Gyms vs. Crossfit

Crossfit trainer yelling at woman lifting

This is one of my favorite stories. It goes something like this:

It’s year 2000 A.D.

Leaders in the gym industry are amid a raging price-battle. Blood is being shed at every street corner and no one’s getting out alive. (Okay that’s a little dramatic but you get the point – it’s intense).

You can now get a gym membership for as low as $10/m, and free trials are everywhere. Free week here, free month there.

Freebie shoppers can skip around to different gyms taking advantage of the war for all of eternity. They don’t have to pay at all before they suffer their annual New Year’s Resolution burnout and go into fitness hibernation for another year.

Why do gym owners put up with it? Because they’re convinced: “People just don’t want to pay for a membership when Planet Fitness is $10/m down the street. We have to be competitive.” (Sound familiar?)

In comes Crossfit stage left. Crossfit wants to open gyms too, but Crossfit is smart. It doesn’t want to get into the blood bath, so it observes the war zone before taking action to develop a strategy, determined to charge its worth.

Crossfit asks itself, “What will be worth paying more for, so I don’t have to fight the other gyms on price?”

Our champion hears muttering from the warzone. It’s the audience talking, voicing their complaints.

And get this: crossfit doesn’t hear a single complaint about price.

No, they hear people complaining about not being able to stick to their fitness goals. They start and stop, all the time. Yo-yoing their heart out.

The truth? People are tired of suffering resolution burnouts after NYE.

Abandoned workout equipment

They want sustainability, they just can’t find something worth sticking with.

“Oh, this is interesting,” Crossfit says under its breath as it intensely studies the warzone. It decides to dig even deeper into the psyche of its dear audience.

Pulling some of the audience aside, away from the bloodshed, Crossfit asks a simple question:

“Well, why do you quit going to the gym? What bugs you about it?”


A fountain of opportunities spills from the audience’s mouths. Again, not a single one is about price. Instead, they complain about Planet Fitness and its gang of goons like a scorned ex. How insecure and bored they feel walking into that place.

Crossfit lights up with glee, and learns a lot about what it can do to better cater to its beloved audience. Ultimately, Crossfit learns that there are two things that every single franchise isn’t executing on:

Camaraderie + Engaging Workouts that Vary in Activity, Location, etc.

It dawns on Crossfit: “

“They just want a gym class for adults! For fuck’s sake, this war won’t know what hit it.”

Gym class? Their audience wanted something fun and competitive, where they can be active in different ways, but also make friends that support them and cheer them on.

So, Crossfit creates this adult gym class with a cult-like culture, where community is God. Fitness is just a tool for fellowship. The Crossfit Gym is the place of worship.

“It costs 10x more to participate, but you get everything you’ve been missing, because we see you, hear you, support you. And, you’ll have the time of your life and make lifelong friends while getting healthy.” (Note: everyone who executes market research well gets to say this).

Results (by 2015, for consistency):

Planet Fitness – well under a half-billion in revenue, charging an average of $10-$20 per membership. Only coming up on about 1,000 gym locations. Price competitors will always get business, but to put these numbers into perspective, get this:

Crossfit? More common than Starbucks Scaled to $4 Billion from good market research that allowed it to charge anywhere from $96 – $150/m for individual memberships. Climbing quickly towards its 2016 milestone of 13,000 gym locations worldwide – more locations than Starbucks.


Do you think Crossfit would’ve accomplished any of this without having first developed a clear understanding of its audience?

I argue, no. It would’ve been another casualty of the blood bath.

Okay, but what does this have to do with content marketing?

Before any brand can land a customer – let alone millions of customers – it first has to learn to communicate with their audience about things like:

    • The problem they solve
    • How they’re different than the competitors
    • Why it’s worth the price
  • Clarity in who exactly they’re here to support

All of this among a bunch of other engagement pieces that build a brand culture, credibility, authority, and more.

Before there were Crossfitters, there was a conversation. And in that conversation, Crossfit made a promise to deliver on an adult gym class.

That promise only stuck because market research made it so.

Okay, But I’m Not in a Literal Warzone. How Do I Actually Get to Know My Market?

Most people overcomplicate and overthink this. But the answer to the question “how do I get to know my audience” always starts with one common sense sentiment, every time:

Just ask.

With that being said, obviously, there are processes you can put in place to know that you’re asking the right questions, and listening for the right cues to make your move on the battlefield.

I’ve tried a million forms of market research over the last 8 years – each feeling as ambiguous as the next, if not more. Then I stumbled across a method that made it objective, systematic, and finally, clear.

I call it the Ask & Deliver….because I’m a profoundly creative human.

The A&D

This method isn’t new. Ryan Levesque’s book Ask made it popular. The method is everywhere now, and you’re about to get proof of that in a second (and I wish I was there to see your face at the epiphany).

Anyway, there’s this one simple survey in that book that’s probably the most powerful piece of market research you can use right now. Mainly because it tells you, up front and center, why your target audience is mad at your competitors.

In other words: when your audience answers the questions, they’re telling you – verbatim – exactly what to offer them that no one else is offering them.

And let’s be clear: when most people talk about Market Research they get all 2002 AOL chat rooms. “What’s your A/S/L”. But it’s 2018 now.

We want to know where your interests lie first, then we figure out if there’s a demographic trend behind that later. Unless you’re selling breast pumps or something, obviously. (I’m counting on you to have some common sense when I say things, okay?)

This single survey alone will get you sales without the rest of the clutter of “The Ideal Client Avatar”. Yes you need to build that, but if you want to connect with buyers now, start here.

Now, this survey is so easy a kindergartener could do it, and so can you. It’s been tweaked about 12 million times (hence me tweaking the name for my rendition of it). But it works, and I’m going to walk you through how to do it, step by step.


Step 1: Build & Send

I have every one of my clients and students run this survey out to an audience of non-buyers. (The non-buyer part is important. Write that down).

This rendition has 5 questions, and is designed to give us everything we need to get started in creating an interest-based Client Avatar that you can add demographics to later.

The best part is it only requires about 20 responses, or just enough to spot some solid trends, so you’re not sifting through data all day instead of getting shit done.

The questions look a little like this (ahem, open up a Google Form or Airtable form and copy this. Yes, right now):

Sample form for performing audience research

I keep a templated version digitally so all I have to do is add the niche details in and shoot the link to the client. It takes about 5 minutes to do this.

Send it: Get some people in your base-level target audience (i.e. who have shown serious interest in your niche thing – or your competitors, nothing else about them matters too much right now) but who haven’t purchased your specific thing yet – I can’t stress this enough.

They can have a buyers history with your competitor, just not you. It’ll mess up the results.

You can do this through email, social media, whatever. Just get it out to 20 of the right people. Easy, right?

Step 2: Analyze the Results

Once results are in, analyzing them is simple on the surface: spot the trends and take a tally.

The most popular trending challenge is the one you want to address head on, coupled with the most popular frustration and fear you want to help them avoid or remedy, to reach the most common goal.

This is why you see a bunch of headlines about “How to do X without Y”.

How to Get Clients (big challenge) Without Being Salesy (big frustration/fear)

How to Lose Weight Before Summer (big challenge) Without Giving Up Carbs (big frustration)

This is where your face lights up and you say “Oh shit! This is really popular!” Yes, it is – because it works, and it will always work because your audience will always have big challenges, frustrations, goals, fears etc. that you can remedy.

Anyway, beneath the surface, analyzing your results can get a little more complicated.

What are they really trying to say?

The thing about any form of market research is that you have to learn to read between the lines of what your audience is really saying. What I mean is, your audience lies. All the time. To themselves and, in turn, to you. And business owners believing these lies is the real culprit of them not understanding their audience.

You don’t want to be that business owner. So, with every entry as you’re analyzing, you want to ask, “What are they really trying to say here?”

Here are the two most popular examples of what you’ll find when you ask yourself what they’re really trying to say:

    • Are they saying they don’t have time or are they really saying they’re not motivated enough to spend time on it using the current methods? (Like in the fitness niche, most people will say they don’t have time for the gym, which obviously isn’t true if you ask Crossfit – who got it right)
  • Are they saying it costs too much money or are they really saying they don’t see the unique, major value in it that makes it worthy of a higher price point? (Again, ask Crossfit, or Apple for that matter).

As you take note of what they’re really trying to say, categorize and tally them up. You want to see what the highest trending core response is for each question.

Then, move on to analyzing language.

Their Language vs. Your Language (A Case Study)

I want you to note something as fact right now: you don’t naturally speak the same language as your audience.

Let me repeat that: you do not speak the same language as your audience.

You don’t use the same words to describe their experience that they would. Think of yourself as the doctor, and they’re the patient. If you start rattling off naturally from an expert’s standpoint – with superior knowledge about your thing, including superior vernacular and reasoning skills in relation to your thing – that means you’ll use expert words and logic within how you explain stuff.

Most experts, even when they try to break something down, still explain at an “intermediate” level when they’re trying to be careful. Their audiences listen at a “beginner” level though. Your situation is no different.

So if you speak naturally about your thing to your audience, they’ll do one of three things:

    • Cock their heads to the side, reminding you that you need to speak plainly
    • Ask you, flat out, to explain
  • Pretend to understand, so they don’t sound dumb, and then move on and forget you because they do not, in fact, understand what you said. Therefore they didn’t connect with it.

Guess what most people do? Pretend, and disappear. Or, in digital world, assume it doesn’t apply to them and keep scrolling to find someone who communicates it “better” than you do.

Quick Example:

I made the stupid mistake of ignoring language in my market research a couple years ago. I hopped into a group of novice bloggers and started tossing around the term “lead magnet” in some engagement posts to bring them into my world.

The offer was great, I knew this because the research told me so. It was How to Get Blog Traffic Right Now Without an Existing Social Media Following or SEO. Pretty legit, yeah?

That’s funny, because you’d think I was invisible in a room of 100,000 people who were looking for this exact solution.

While I was tossing around the term “lead magnet” in conversations about capturing subscribers to build a list, I noticed that everyone else used a term I hate: “freebie”.

“Ah, damn.”

I repurposed the old content, switching that one word around and guess what? Suddenly everyone was interested and I started gaining traction for my first online course.

Not a single person asked me what “lead magnet” meant. They had no idea, and they didn’t care. They just moved on.

Suddenly when I started saying “freebie” they understood, and knew that I was talking to them.

How to Assess Language (The Case Study):

The funny thing is that had I been paying attention when I did my market research I would’ve noticed this and saved myself the struggle. You can pick up on key things about your audience’s verbiage before you ever create content.

Here’s an example from a client of mine:

Insights from the results of audience research

So, first thing’s first – check out the question.

“What are your goals when it comes to disciplining your child?”

Only, this client of mine helps people practice “respectful parenting”, not discipline. In fact, what she teaches is basically the exact opposite of what you normally think of when “disciplining” children. 

So why are we asking about discipline? Because parents say “discipline”. It’s that simple. This is not complicated. This word implies things like spankings, time outs, yelling, long lectures, and so on. Sounds stressful.

But what does it really mean to parents? What are they really trying to get out of that?

Every parent that uses traditional discipline is doing so to gain respect from their child so they can teach them lessons and shape them to be respectful adults.


But “respect” isn’t the word parents use, so we use their word in our marketing/market research.

Basically: Sell them what they think they want. Then as soon as they make it over that payment line, give them what they really need.

They think they want “discipline that works” because it’s what they’ve been taught. But what they’re really after is respect, which doesn’t really involve what they’re accustomed to at all.

Spot the Trends

Take another look at the screenshot.

The second line (yellow) is highlighted with a comment attached specifying the language used. Responders said all kinds of things to indicate that their biggest goal is to instill values in their children. But the most repeated way they communicated this was with the words: “learning to make better decisions”.

So in the copy and content, guess what my client is going to say? “Do you want to make sure your child is learning to make better decisions?” Because that’s her audience’s language.

So let’s conduct a split test:

Option 1:

Free Online Class: How to develop a mutually respectful relationship with your child so you can rest assured you’re instilling the right values in them.


Option 2:

How to get your kids to listen and make better decisions without redirection, time-outs, or yelling.

Which one do you think wins?

Exactly. Option 2.

This is the magic of speaking your audience’s language.

Now for the last (and most magical) step of the A&D.

3: Application –Turning Research Into Gold

This is the easiest part. All of the heavy lifting is done, and frankly you’re about to have a much easier time with all of your content than you’ve been having.

Once you’ve finished all the analysis and taking note of language, you need to solidify your brand or offer promise around this one easy formula:

I will help you [carry out objective – like “lose weight”] without [big frustration] so you can [big goal].

That’s it. Then just tweak it for brand messaging, Lead Magnet headlines, or offer copy. It’s that simple – don’t overthink it.

Just plug, play, and watch the magic happen.

The First Piece of Content

The first piece of content you create from this research is your lead magnet.

This is your flagship piece of free content, whether it’s a free PDF, Webinar, print brochure, etc. Every business needs one to address the top concerns and desires for their audience and prove that you’re hitting the mark on knowing what pain they’re in and how they want to be guided to a solution.

Your lead magnet doesn’t just attract leads to your business though. A great lead magnet attracts buyers and helps you weed out “freebie seekers”.

If you need help with that, go here.

The Neverending List of Topics

Outside of the Lead Magnet, you can use the A&D responses to spark individual blog post and content topics as well. Let’s say you see a lot of the same challenges or you pick up on a lot of the same false beliefs. Now’s your opportunity to speak on it in your content.

All of these supporting content pieces should lead back to the big brand promise. So if, for instance, your big brand promise is to teach bloggers how to make more money blogging without hitting 10k visitors per month, you can run individual content pieces about a bunch of stuff that leads back to that.


  • How to get targeted traffic to your blog
  • How to find high-end affiliate offers so you can sell less and make more
  • How to write persuasive blog posts that double as sales pages
    • The secret of long-tail keywords
  • Top 20 small niches that win big in the blogosphere

And so on. As long as they all fit under that big brand promise umbrella.

Not only that, but if you’re looking to apply SEO to your traffic scheme, you can take the questions and pain points your audiences puts in your view to launch your keyword research mission.

This way you know where to start, and how to angle the article.

Keep it going

Keep the topic list going by making your content as interactive as possible. As your audience grows and becomes more responsive, they’ll have more and more questions to add to the plate as you continue to deliver content, and you can choose whether to send them to a product or service, or to release more free content that dives into the topic.

bUt WhAt AbOuT dEmOgRaPhIcS?

Spongebob "bUt WhAt AbOuT dEmOgRaPhIcS?" Meme

Okay, now that you know what your priority is, we can talk demos.

Then vs. Now

It’s more important in 2019 to understand and categorize your audience by things like:

      • Interests
      • Pain Points
      • Desires
      • Hobbies
      • Goals
      • Lifestyle
    • Spending Habits

Maybe “generation” (damn millennials)

Where it used to be more important to categorize your target audience by things like:

    • Ethnicity
    • Gender
    • Age
    • Sexual Orientation
  • Coffee or Tea? (kidding)

Reason being? Being a man, woman, black, white, Southside Chicagoan, purple, clown, all used to dictate where you shopped, worked, and what kind of life you lived in general. In 1970, knowing one basic key demographic of your audience gave you a wealth of hidden information behind it.

Targeting women in their 20s? They’re getting married and reading XYZ magazine, so put a full page ad there. Then, put a bench billboard up outside of the most popular supermarket in this area – because you know it’s only the housewives that are doing the shopping there. In fact, let’s get an ad on that cereal box they all get to make sure they see it twice in the same day.

That’s how it used to be, and it worked. But unless you’ve been living in a Penguin colony you know things have evolved. Women like men who like romcoms now. Shit’s different. But demographics still have to fit somewhere, don’t they?

Yes. And there’s a simple way to cover it.

Warning: Pattern Ahead:

Spot the trends.

Once you put your offer out there at an interest-based level and start attracting some clients, you get to learn a few things, like:

1. If there are trends in demographics your brand naturally attracts. You might not expect to attract more men than women, or gen x over millennials, but it happens. And keeping an eye out for these things will help direct you in how to narrow down your outreach objectives to the highest ROI approach.

2.Who you don’t work well with. No I’m not talking about prejudice. More like one of my clients who’s in the self-development niche.

He didn’t start out targeting a specific gender. He’s an open-minded guy who gets along well with everyone, so it hadn’t even crossed his mind that he might only want to help men.

Still, about a year in he said he noticed that he was having moments where he felt like his female clients would ask questions that he – as a man – didn’t have the perspective to answer. He didn’t feel like his opinion was valid in those moments. And it simply made him uncomfortable to not be able to provide the same level of confident and clear support for all of his clients who were paying the same dollars.

So he niched down to targeting men as a way of maximizing the results he was able to give his clients, therefore maximizing his value and ROI accordingly.

3. And obviously, who you work really well with. Like a buddy of mine who’s in corporate consulting but has a really thick southern accent. I think it’s awesome. But he noticed that it seemed difficult for the northern corporate world to take him seriously. However….

South Corporate? Love him to death. Probably for not being one of those damned city slick talkers that always come with a swindle, you know.

So at the end of the day, the old adage still stands: “Go where the money is”. But in this case, you can replace money with “value” if that makes you more comfortable.

Regardless just keep in mind that your market will tell you how to approach them. All you have to do is pay attention, spot the trends, and ride the wave in the direction it takes you.

4. Take Action!

So now that you’ve gotten the long-form version of how it all works it’s probably best to leave you with a short form checklist:

    • Use the Ask & Deliver survey to collect information from non-buyers in your target audience (about 20 responses, or enough to see trends)
    • Analyze for trends in top challenges, frustrations, fears, desires/goals etc.
    • Then analyze for trends in language
    • Create your brand promise using the formula I will help you [carry out objective – like “lose weight”] without [big frustration] so you can [big goal].
    • Use the content around the topics your audience gives you to create interaction and a pool of ongoing topics
  • Add demographics to your interest-based avatar as you grow

Get these steps down and whatever struggles you were feeling with knowing and understanding your audience will dissipate.