The 8-Step SEO Strategy, Step 1: Define Your Target Audience and Their Needs
Until recently I headed up technical marketing for Yahoo Media, where our competition was in verticals like news, sports, movies, games, and finance to name a few. In terms of online competitiveness, this is nothing to sneeze at. This is how I learned to base everything I do on strategy.
A LESSON LEARNED
Let me tell you a story. Early in my tenure at Yahoo we tried to get into the site dev process in the early stages in order to work SEO into the Product Recommendations Documents (PRD) before wireframing began. But as a fairly new horizontal group not reporting into any of the products, this was often difficult. Nay, damn near impossible. So usually we made friends with the product teams and got in where we could.
On one specific project, one of the SEOs on my team was brought in during the wireframe stage. The entire product team held SEO-specific meetings every week to go over specific recommendations, taking them very seriously, and leaning on every word our team said. We were thrilled. We were hailing their efforts, promising big wins for the relaunch, and even hyping up the launch and it’s projected SEO results in the company SEO newsletter.
Then the site relaunched. Initially we saw a drop. This is expected, especially when you relaunch an entire site of that magnitude. Three weeks passed, and results were flat. Five weeks passed, no upward trend. Three months passed and the product team stopped talking to us. Results never went back up.
Like many SEOs, I was hired with one vague responsibility: to set up an SEO program and achieve results. Like many SEOs, we jumped right in and started spewing out SEO audits, rewriting title tags, offering up link suggestions, rewriting URLs and so on. And like many SEOs we promised results. But what we didn’t do, until that fateful launch, was develop a comprehensive strategy. Sure, we did keyword research, we recommended partnerships and widgets and architecture advice, but we didn’t step back and take a good look at our target audiences, what sites were meeting their specific needs in search results, and what we specifically could build into the product that would be far more desirable than what everyone else had (not even thought of yet ideally) to make sure our entire site is superior, resulting in the inevitable stealing of search traffic from our competitors.
Instead, in this instance, we started at wireframe stage, plopping in keywords and meta tags. Of course, the site really needed those things, and although it launched technically “optimized”, it wasn’t enough to provide a better product than our top competitor(s). A product that people want to visit, revisit, email to friends, share on social networks, and link to more than our competitors. It wasn’t even enough to move up in the rankings.
From that point on, if a property didn’t consult our team during the early concepting stages of a project, we shied away from working on that project at all. And let me tell you, things got a lot better.
AN 8-STEP STRATEGY FOR YOU TO USE
Doing SEO strategy right takes targeted competitive insight and very specific recommendations, beyond any SEO basics rulebook. And ideally a good relationship with the product (site) manager.
Over the next few posts, and starting with this one, I’m going to share with you a detailed 8-step process for creating your own SEO strategy (what I often refer to as an SRD (SEO Research Document)), beginning with defining target audiences and taking it all the way through some fairly comprehensive competitive research, search traffic projections, content strategies, and specific goals and prioritizations. The steps behind this are something you can templatize and use for every project, and your boss/clients will love it, I promise.
I’ll be writing this as I go, so I’d be interested in hearing how you do strategy now, and if there are any types of things you’d like to see covered in the posts.
Strategy is the type of thing that moves you up to the next level of SEO superstar. Ready?
STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE AND THEIR INTERESTS
The first step in most marketing campaigns, Search Marketing included, is to start by defining your target audience. Your target audience is a defined set of people who you are marketing your product to.
Traditionally, defining a target audience involves determining their age, sex, geographic locations, and especially their needs (aka pain points). Check out usability.gov’s description of personas and how to do task analysis & scenarios for more details, or better yet, read Vanessa Fox’s upcoming book about personas related to search and conversion.
What we want to zero in on for our SEO Strategy are those pain points. What do they want? What are their needs that aren’t being met? Knowing these things will help us better define a content strategy and prioritize content to bring to the forefront.
There are two reasons we start with audience needs rather than jumping straight into keyword research
- Content Strategy: You want to provide content and tools that are as relevant and useful as possible to your target audiences. This goes beyond regular SEO practices and into site strategy, although providing relevant, useful content in itself islinkbait. For example, let’s say I have a health site. I have several types of articles on health, drug information, and information on types of diseases and conditions. My angle on the site is that I’m targeting seniors. If I find out seniors are primarily interested in information on prescription drug plans and cheap Viagra, then I know that I want to provide information specifically on those things. This allows me to hone in on that market’s needs and deprioritize or bypass other content.
- Targeted Keyword Discovery: Ideally you’ll want to do keyword research based on what the audience wants, not solely on what content the site already has (or plans to have sans audience targeting), which may be limited. I can do keyword research on health conditions and drugs (content I have on my site) and determine what the general population is searching for and optimize my current content, or I can cast my net wide and look at what my target audience wants first, then do my keyword research. You may find there are needs that your site is not meeting. Knowing my senior audience is interested in primarily in prescription drug plans and cheap Viagra, I can first make sure I’m providing that content, and then further determine the top keywords in these areas (in the next article Step 2), and use those terms in relevant and high visibility areas on my site.
This screenshot from my own Strategy template below simply suggests adding information on the target audience and what they want. Specifics are as good as the research you do, and will likely be very different with each project. Let your Strategy template give you breathing room.
So how do you get target market info? Lets start with these scenarios.
Scenario 1: I know who my target audiences are, but I don’t know their pain points:
- Check out market research studies* online (you can find many free reports, but in-depth ones will usually cost you some money).
- Conduct surveys of your audience by putting surveys on your site, sending emails, hiring survey professionals, or using survey sites like SurveyMonkey
- Conduct focus groups – either on your own (if you can gather a group of people that you know are in your targeted demographic) or through a professional market research company
- Use social media listening platforms that provide topic buzz volume and sentiment by demographic (Nielsen Buzz Metrics and NetBase are two options, although not cheap)
- Forrester has a nifty little demographic profiling tool for social behavior online by audience
Scenario 2: I know my industry but don’t know whom exactly to target:
- Check out industry research studies* online (you can find many free reports, but in-depth ones will usually cost you some money).
- Search for industry statistics online. For example, here I found some great statistics on seniors that would allow me to better understand their current situation and what they need.
- Hire a research company that specializes on your industry
- Use social media listening platforms that provide topic buzz volume and sentiment by industry. I haven’t tested any social listening platforms with specific industries in mind to know exactly who provides demographic info based on industry. If you happen to know of tools that do this, please share with us in the comments.
*A few of the places you can find industry/market statistics:
- Federated Media
- The U.S. Census Bureau
Social media tools are especially useful if you’re planning on integrating search and social campaigns, as they are great research tools for both channels. Here’s a screenshot from NetBase that shows a demographics module on the left, as well as demographic results for the Crest Pro-Health brand being searched.
Research can get expensive when you really get into it, but you can find data if it exists on your industry/demographic, and you’re an experienced searcher. Be sure to check your sources, and don’t be afraid to email people and ask where they got their information if you need to.
Here’s what I found in free online info about my seniors audience in the Healthcare industry
- Seniors’ specific conditions
- Data found: Arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disorders are some of the leading causes of activity limitations among older people. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia alone afflict 4 million Americans, a figure expected to increase 350% by 2050 if no cure is found.
- What this means to me: These are topics I will provide extra information and tools on
- More senior women with disabilities than men
- Data Found: Older women were more likely than older men to experience disability, 43 percent and 40 percent, respectively
- What this means to me: I will put a little more emphasis on targeting senior women on my site, with articles and tools specifically geared to women.
- Top geographic locations where seniors are
- Data Found: Florida, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia were the states with the highest proportions 65 and older in 2000: 17.6 percent, 15.6 percent, and 15.3 percent, respectively
- What this means to me: I can provide local information like pharmacies, doctors, caregivers, nursing homes, etc with those primary areas highlighted. I can also target PPC ads in those geographic locations.
- Retirement info for single seniors
- Data Found: Fewer [seniors] who are married with children from a previous relationship and single females have a clear vision of what they hope to experience in—and what they must do to prepare for—retirement.
- What this means to me: Provide advice column content on retirement, especially geared towards these seniors.
- Caregivers are a secondary target
- Data Found: 34 million adults (16% of population) provide care to adults 50+ years.
- What this means to me: I might want to consider a section and/or tools/and/or articles targeted at people taking care of seniors as well.
- Potential advertising partners
- Data Found: Forty-eight percent of caregivers reported using at least one of seven outside services (e.g., transportation, home-delivered meals, respite, etc.) to supplement their caregiving
- What this means to me: These outside services are good targets for partnerships and advertising for the site.
This was all free information I found online in less than an hour, that gives me some great ideas for content, partnerships and potential tools to build into my site to be relevant and useful to my target audience. Of course this is just some quick loose data, so I’ll emphasize again: be careful where your data comes from (try to validate when possible), and think about how to use your data wisely.
START CREATING RECOMMENDATIONS IN YOUR STRATEGY DOCUMENT
Each of these discoveries is potential content or strategy, and should be written up in your SEO Strategy document. Provide as much data and reasoning as possible for why you recommend this content.
See the screenshot below for some of the sections for specific recommendations that you can add which will provide the meat of the document. Keep in mind this is a very flexible document – add recommendations that make sense (for example you may not always have specific design considerations for a project). Remember, it will be different every time you do it.
For each piece of content you are recommending, try to provide:
- Backup Data: Provide information backing up why this content will appeal to your audience
- Specifics: Be as specific as you can with your recommendations. For example if you’re suggesting partnering with meal home delivery sites, find out which ones are going to provide the most relevant info, at what cost if possible, and what the ideal partnership would look like for content and SEO purposes. Even provide contact information if you can.
This doesn’t have to be completely formalized right now because we’ll be getting even more insights to layer on top of this from our keyword research and competitive research in later steps. But add as much information as possible for now – you can always add more, change it or even change your mind and get rid of it later. We will finalize recommendations in Step 5.
NEXT STEP: KEYWORD RESEARCH
In the next article we’ll take a look at some methods for doing categorized keyword research that allows you to further prioritize content based on the popularity of categories of keywords.
In the meantime, do you have any suggestions, insights, tool recommendations or great places to find market research data or create personas? Please share!