I was recently honoured to present at the Information Industry Network’s Digital Content Strategies forum. I wanted to share my insights with you in two parts:

  • Part 1: 6 simple steps to convert site analytics data into valuable audience personas
  • Part 2: 12 steps to creating effective content strategies to service your audiences.

I’ll be exploring questions you can ask from your analytics, but won’t be getting technical. There’s lot of resources available that show you how to use analytics tools such as Google Analytics, including this great post from Fast Company. At Sift Media, we’ve blogged about using site analytics to understand the interests of your audience, highlighting tips for what to look for in your analytics tool.

Putting the focus of content on people

Over the last few years, there’s been a shift in the way content creators are approaching the content they create. Not so long ago, the goal was to write for search engines using keywords and search terms to improve search rankings and drive traffic. The New York Times explained this well back in 2006. This created a tension in the way people wrote, often meaning they had to adjust their style to ‘write for’ Google.

Now, there’s a bigger movement towards getting back to writing for people.

Quote from Kevin Delaney, Quartz on the Digiday podcast, May 2015

Quote from Kevin Delaney, Quartz on the Digiday podcast, May 2015

The move towards site-as-a-service

Jeff Jarvis has been evangelising a new movement towards thinking about your site-as-a-service. This approach is being adopted by a number of successful publishers, including Quartz. Publishers embracing this approach are moving away from just creating content that writers and editors want to produce to a model where content is a service. By understanding the individuals using their sites, they are exploring how their content becomes a service that helps people accomplish something.

PART 1: 6 simple steps to convert site analytics data into valuable audience personas

A valuable way to help with this shift to focusing on how to service the different individuals interacting with your site is by using personas, a technique that has been a key part of technical developments and design projects.

So what is a persona? Smashing Magazine describes personas as a model that summaries a specific person based upon research and observations. Usability.org expands this definition by adding that personas can help you represent the key audience segments engaging with your content and use them as a point of reference to consider how you serve them.

The purpose of developing audience personas

By reviewing your site analytics and using other sources, such as surveys and interviews, you can develop audience personas that help you define who your key digital audiences are. By establishing data informed insights, you can create an understanding of their characteristics and needs. Once captured, you can apply those insights to create content strategies that engage, retain, serve, and grow your digital audiences.

A proven approach to building your personas

I'm going to share the 6 steps we've been through at Sift Media to develop our early audience personas. I've focused this post on using your site analytics to start the process. You can add additional data sources later to build out your personas, including speaking to your audiences. It will help you personalise the data you collect and help you really understand how you can support the people engaging with your content.

1. Capture what you’d like to know about your audience first

Before you start, I’ve found it useful to think about what you’d like to know about your audiences. You’ll probably have a lot of questions. Some of these will be easier to answer, others may take more time and more data. By filtering your questions down to a manageable size (around 5 to 10 is a good place to start), you can use these to help you focus when looking at your data and analytics.

A few suggested questions to help you start

Questions that could help you start this process include looking at how many people visit your site each month. What interests them? How long do they spend reading? How often do they come back? What do they do on a mobile device vs a desktop? These initial questions will help you start gathering data to get an early picture of your audiences.

Before you start looking at data, work out what you’d like to know

2. Explore your site analytics to identify trends & behaviours

Armed with your questions, work with someone who is good at using your analytics tool. You’ll have a lot of data to look through, but use the questions you’ve captured to help focus the information you gather. One tip we have is to check the way content is tagged on your sites. It may be that people have added to this over time. Consider using content tags that will help you make sense of the activity happening on your sites.

A framework to capture your observations

As you work through your questions, capture what you find using a framework such as the one below. You can start making sense of the data and see patterns that will form the basis of identifying who your key audiences are.

A framework to capture your data observations

3. Segment your audience

Another useful way of understanding your audience is to explore building segments based upon certain criteria. For example, as a B2B digital publisher, we have a segment that looks at businesses with 50 to 250 employees. We can use that data to help us understand what content they need, what themes are important to them, and what time of day they engage with different types of content. We also have a segment looking at mobile users so we can understand the behaviour and context of their engagement with us. You can focus in on those segments that you want to understand more. Note: personas are meant to depict an individual person. But if you are unable to do this initially, this can be a useful approach to help you identify where you want to focus your efforts. We’ve created a few segments that we use to understand what is happening with parts of our audience and across our site. We’ve then used those to determine some of our personas.

Identify how loyal your audiences are

We’ve identified 3 core audiences that we track based upon their loyalty each month:

  • Flyby audiences read 1 to 3 pieces of content per month. These people tend to come from search or social. They dip in for the information they need to help them solve a problem.
  • Loyal audiences read 4 to 20 pieces of content per month. We’re focusing in on our loyal audiences with our content teams. Our logic is that these are the people coming back regularly that we’d like to understand more so we can better service them and grow their engagement with us.
  • Power audience read 20 plus pieces of content per month. We’ve noticed that these people are hungry for content. The actively seek new content, regularly working through sections on our sites.

Segmenting your audience on frequency of visit can help understand your audience loyalty

4. Develop 3 key personas from the data

As you start gathering data, you’ll see lots of patterns that you might want to focus on. My suggestion is to start simple. Focus on the 3 bigger audiences for now. You can build upon these later if needed. It’s always best to start simply and then evolve later.

To identify your 3 personas, use the data you’ve gathered and split out distinctive patterns into 3 audiences. These differences maybe be big or small. You’re looking to see things that can help you differentiate the audience based upon a behaviour or interest. This will help you start to understand how they are different. Using a table like the one below can be useful to help you sort your data. If you have a data management platform, you can add anonymous data such as job titles to your analytics. This will help you see what interests those audience members. You can also find ‘look-alikes’ within your audience to help you identify those that may be similar.

Capture the data discover in a table to help you see patterns and identify your 3 personas

Once you’ve completed your table, you can start to develop your data personas.

Capture their browsing habits, what content interests them and how they use different devices. You can use something like the diagram below initially to map your data. Once you’ve built this picture, give your persona a name to help identify the individual who is engaging with your content.

Start building your persona from the insights you’ve found

5. Engage editors and other interested teams

Once you’ve captured your 3 personas, pull together a simple slide to help visualise them. Use one slide per persona. Don’t worry too much about the design of the slide just yet. Concentrate on getting the data together into an easy to read format.

Encourage conversations about what you’ve found

Start engaging with other teams on what you’ve found. Your early drafts will often create good debate, as well as a few surprises. Editorial teams often have an idea of who they are writing for. Sometimes, your personas reinforce that. But they can also help spot new audiences that they may not have considered. Talk about the data you’ve found and how the teams could use these. Explore how the content teams can use the personas to evolve their content strategies. Gather additional questions that they’d like to know. You can use these to evolve your personas.

6. Tell the stories within your data to help people understand your audience

Data can be very confusing. Not everyone gets excited by numbers, tables, spreadsheets and patterns. Help people understand what you’ve found by identifying and sharing stories. These stories can be about how people use mobile devices, what content is popular at weekends, content preferences your audience may have, and how people share content through social channels.

Once you have your stories and personas, bring them alive internally. Make them visible. We’ve developed insights packs for our teams that we share quarterly. We’ve created editorial dashboards within our data management platform to help editors see in real-time how audiences are engaging with their content. We tell our data stories each month by displaying a presentation on a big screen within the office near the kitchen. MailChimp have brought their users alive in posters that they have within their office. This can really help spark conversations about your audiences, helping people understand who they are serving.

Coming soon – Part 2: 12 steps to creating effective content strategies to service your audiences

You now have your 3 personas. You've engaged your teams in what you've found and have applied any feedback. So how can you use your personas to develop content strategies for them? In part 2, I’ll explain how you can do this in 12 steps.