Treat Your Marketing Database as an Audience? That’s a Mistake

Estimated read time 12 min read

Modern marketing’s evolution leads to what you classically understand as “content marketing.”

A main theme in my new book, Content Marketing Strategy, is that overall descriptions of modern marketing contain strong elements of managing content and evolving operations, so marketing acts more like an internal media company.

Take consulting firm McKinsey’s definition:

 “Modern marketing is the ability to harness the full capabilities of the business to provide the best experience for customers and thereby drive growth.”

Or look at the American Marketing Association’s explanation:

 “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Now, compare those to the Content Marketing Institute’s definition of content marketing written about a decade ago:

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

I won’t stretch the comparison too far because the definitions involve an integration, not a replacement. Classic marketing and content marketing have always had an intricate relationship. But the new, pronounced focus on operating like a media company – and getting your owned media house in order – is telling. More and more marketing teams recognize the value of building an audience.

But what does that really mean? Haven’t you already been doing that?

Your marketing database is not your audience

When asked about building an audience, your content team might say something like, “We have an email list. We’re gating some of our content to build our marketing database.” The demand generation team might say, “We have a marketing automation system that drips content to our prospects. We use technology to gather intent data about those people.”  The sales team might then say, “We have a whole re-messaging program for people who fall out of the funnel and send them our wonderful content.”  

Then, all together, you might shout: “We have an audience.”

But you don’t.

Your marketing database is NOT your audience.

Let me put it hierarchically: You have an audience. Some of whom also might be prospects, leads, and customers. You should value the audience inherently differently than your marketing database.

What is an audience?

Merriam-Webster defines an audience as:

  1. A group of listeners or spectators; a reading, viewing, or listening public
  2. A group of ardent admirers or devotees

So, an audience (relevant to this usage of the word) is a group of people who gather willingly and enthusiastically to listen, view, read, or in some way consume your content.

“Willingly” and “enthusiastically” are the important words.

I often ask workshop attendees and clients, “If you put a full stop on every bit of your content production, who would miss it? Who in your marketing dataset would contact you to say they missed your weekly email newsletter, media posts, or white papers?”

If you have any of those people, they are in your audience.

The difference between a subscribed audience and an addressable marketing lead lies in the reason (the intent) they give their information. A subscriber doesn’t only sign up for immediate access to a content asset. A subscriber signs up for the promise of the future value of what’s promised after that initial asset.

Think about why you signed up for that streaming app. Maybe you wanted immediate gratification by watching the premiere of the hot, new show. But the real intent behind your purchase was that the show’s remaining episodes would be entertaining. Your decision to continue the subscription is based on the level of trust (your confidence) that the streaming service will deliver value, most of which you haven’t even conceived.

Developing this level of trust and maintaining this confidence in future value separates a subscribed audience from a marketing database.

Does that mean, as marketers, you should abandon all efforts to gate your content and acquire contact information for direct marketing purposes? No.

As I’ve written, gating and ungating are viable strategies. Both speak to the increasingly powerful idea of marketing operating like a media company. Some content acts as the “product” – delivering value and building the audience. And some content is meant to be “promotional” – persuading prospects that your products provide value. Knowing the difference between product and promotional content is key.

If you’re building an audience, the absolute worst time for a salesperson to contact subscribers is right after they fill out the form. Why? Because they are that trusting moment of “future value.” And your brand just dashed that confidence with a heaping tablespoon of “How much value can I sell you today?”

How to build an audience

In my book, classes, and consulting practice, I discuss at length the value of audiences and the idea of ROA (return on audiences) as an investment metric for modern marketing. I also talk about measuring audiences’ value beyond a marketing or lead conversion.

My advice comes down to what audiences can help the business accomplish. See, again, I’m talking about setting broader business objectives – not tactical direct marketing goals.

Subscribed audiences are multipliers. They ultimately act as a renewable asset that can help the business differentiate, be more efficient and effective, and, ultimately, create better, more valuable customers.

Let’s look at three key ideas that help the process of building an audience:

Idea 1: Treat audiences differently than buyers

Many companies develop buyer personas. From a product marketing perspective, the valuable exercise helps facilitate the buying process. But the reason for subscribing is different, and so is understanding the audience and what it needs.

You must understand your audience members and what they value from a perspective other than their need for your product or service. You have to understand them through the lens of inspiring, helping, teaching, or entertaining them to achieve something beyond the bounds of your product or service.

Ironically, you usually can and should target more niche (i.e., smaller) audiences than your product marketing’s total addressable market. You will compete against media companies for audience time and attention. Media companies need big, broad audiences to monetize them through advertising or subscription revenue. Your brand does not. As a marketer, you can afford to be specific about segmenting your audiences and the value you provide.

But you need to know your audience as people, not just buyers of your product or service. (You can follow this process for developing audience personas.) The bottom line is you must devote the time and energy to do the research and understand all their challenges to develop a range of ideas for content beyond your products’ features and benefits.

This case study on a company that worked through this may help.

Idea 2: Think of one audience, one platform, and multiple attributes

A big challenge in building an audience is where to build it.

In a classic campaign with a marketing-database mindset, you build a gathering of people to convert into customers. You say, “The marketing database is about driving leads into sales.” Therefore, the audience should be centered or built at the early or middle part of the customer’s journey.

But a challenge arises. When you build an audience at another part of the customer journey that differs from the marketing database, what happens to the audience when they scatter – becoming leads, qualified leads, opportunities, new customers, and old customers? Do they stop being part of the original audience?

I see this in B2B marketing, where one audience built in the early awareness stage gets put into a marketing database. But then, when they sign up for a sales-enablement experience (say, a webinar), they are added to yet another marketing database. With this database thinking, the brand creates siloed dead ends technically and editorially. It’s not long until a singular customer receives tens of emails from the company sent through the siloed marketing databases that speak to irrelevant values and needs.

Where do you build your audience? The answer points to the convergence of marketing strategy and content strategy. As a business creates its first or seventh owned media platform to build an audience, it must make it specific to the needs of the audience AND the business goals it will support. Ideally, one audience per platform.

Do you need an owned media experience for each audience persona at every step in the customer journey? Well, technically and ideally, yes. But, of course, that is unrealistic.

The task becomes to figure out where audiences become buyers, loyal, or ready to move into a buying, upsell, or cross-sell stage. Once you map this carefully, you can figure out how the platforms work together to create an integrated set of journeys for the different personas.

Over time, you will almost certainly manage a portfolio of these content-driven experiences – blogs, websites, webinar programs, customer events, etc. To make this portfolio work, you must NOT think in terms of “handoff” – where a subscriber is now a “lead” or a “customer.” You must adopt a mindset, as well as the technology infrastructure, to have one database that assigns attributes to the engaged audiences.

You gain a subscriber. That person evolves to inherit an attribute called “lead.” Later, that person inherits a new attribute called “customer.” No matter how that person’s data technically moves in your system, you have one view into your audience that shows how and when each audience member achieves a new attribute.

Idea 3: Give a unique story and a unique context to gather around

Remember Merriam-Webster’s second definition of audience as “a group of ardent admirers or devotees”? People become that kind of audience because they share a common enthusiasm. It could be for a unique story told broadly or a unique context told narrowly. In other words, people can become the audience of the story and/or the storyteller. The most ardent and devoted audiences do both.

For example, you become a fan of Star Wars when you see a Star Wars movie, read a novel, or watch a television series. In those cases, the storyteller has much less to do with your fandom than the story itself. However, you also become fans of news and trends not because they are impactful stories but because they are delivered by a storyteller or an interesting interface you like.

Marketers should use these levers to build audiences and find out where and how to balance both types of content. Construct unique stories that span common contexts and create common stories told from a unique context.

Take Salesforce’s The Ecopreneurs. The 11-episode series told the stories of everyday people stepping up to create extraordinary climate solutions. It serves as a wonderful example of building an audience based on the value of the story itself. Salesforce barely makes a mention of the brand. And Salesforce, as the storyteller, certainly isn’t the reason an audience would subscribe to see all 11 episodes.

Compare that to Salesforce’s Ask More of AI. The nine-episode series contains multiple stories about thought leaders in the technology industry. However, audiences aren’t subscribing to any one story but to the storyteller of Salesforce and Clara Shih, the CEO of Salesforce AI.

Both series are successful, and both feed off each other. Subscribers to Salesforce+ may sign up for the promise of future value from either option. The value delivered by one feeds the discovery and loyalty to the other. People who loved the Ecopreneurs videos are more likely to give the AI show a try because they trusted the story first and are now open to trusting the storyteller. The reverse is also true.

Audiences are more than leads

Ultimately, no matter where in the journey you build an audience, the opportunity is more than driving leads, converting sales, or upselling customers. Building an audience is an investment in an asset that can serve many business purposes.

Just as with your marketing database, many (if not most) of your audience members may, indeed, never become leads, opportunities, or sales. Let’s assume your audience-to-lead conversion rate to be the same as the average qualified-lead-to-opportunity ratio. You might see 15% turn into actionable leads. That means 85% didn’t.

But here is the key difference. If those marketing contacts are simply scanned trade-show badges, purchased lists, or people who wanted that cool digital content asset you gated, the great majority of that 85% is useless.

On the other hand, if those contacts are audiences, that 85% can be valuable and, in some cases, even more valuable than leads. These 85% represent people who are willing and enthusiastically gathered to hear more from you. They will:

  • Recommend your content to others in their network – thus giving you more organic reach to new audiences (and thus new customers)
  • Have occasion to need your product or service and be predisposed to choosing you
  • Help data targeting to get better results from personalization or segmenting content and/or paid media efforts
  • Provide insight into other products, markets, or even regions you may want to explore.

We are all audience companies these days

Don’t take my word for it. Just watch today’s purebred media companies. As they evolve, they not only build audiences and sell access to those people through advertising, they sell products and services to those audiences. Media companies make markets where none existed, using the power of an engaged audience to learn what audience members purchase and develop better products as a result.

Why, as product and service brands, do you not avail yourself of the same kind of operation?

Brands that understand the power of audiences set new values for the entirety of marketing by establishing direct, proprietary relationships with audiences. They do what smart marketers have been doing for 100 years. They create their markets. Today, only content has value to build and keep an audience.

Marketing’s job has changed. It’s time to build audiences.

Updated from a June 2020 post.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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