Understanding Your Audience is Key to Your Website’s Success

Sara Steever
Sara Steever

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All websites have unique users with definite expectations. Identifying a website’s users and building a site that caters to their needs is fundamental to the success of the website. As specialists in marketing to agriculture and rural lifestyle audiences, we devote countless hours of research and observation to better understand the website visitors we serve and the websites we build.

If you polled most people, they would probably classify farmers as luddites. In fact, 94 percent of farmers own a smartphone or cell phone, which is 11 percent higher than the general public*. As tech-savvy business owners, farmers need to make market decisions on the fly. Our research keeps us from assumptions that would underserve this audience. It’s a lesson anyone building a website must learn.

While agriculture may not be your bag, the techniques below can help you understand any audience and lay the proper foundation for a website that meets their needs.

1. Gather Materials

Locate all of the marketing, educational and research materials your company or client has produced over the last couple of years. These should provide clues for audience identification, and you will need them eventually for content development, branding references and stakeholder review. Sometimes documents are produced internally because marketing materials don’t do an adequate job of speaking to a specific audience. Dig deep!

2. Tap Stakeholders

Within your company or client’s operation is a cross-section of individuals that will understand the people that comprise your audiences. You will need their buy-in for many tasks during the development process, but for this exercise, you need them for identifying audiences, locating potential interview candidates and participating in a goal setting session.

The best mix is representative of all viewpoints across the company, but in order to manage your group, try to keep the number of stakeholders to a minimum — seven or fewer is ideal. Marketing, sales, product or division managers, IT and C-level staff are typical, but the group depends on the size and management of your company or client. Before you meet as a group, streamline the process by gathering Internal Assessment information and summarizing findings for presentation.

3. Internal Assessment

Who are your audiences?

While this should be mostly understood, here are some additional places to research:

  • Interview your stakeholders individually, but remember they are not your customers. Unless your website is for internal use only, don’t stop there.
  • Review the marketing materials you gathered earlier – this may help identify some niches.
  • Talk to the front line, some of which have been provided by your stakeholders. For our clients, that means the parts guy at the counter, the seed salesman, the veterinarian, the agronomist, etc.
  • Review your current website analytics. If you use Google Analytics, you can apply filters to learn who is visiting your website. Depending on your industry, this can be a gold mine of information.

Once you have identified these audiences, you can move on to understanding their needs.

What are their goals? Five to seven interviews per audience will provide valuable insight into their expectations. Questions should revolve around existing interactions with your company, general expectations, comfort with website functionalities, use of mobile, use of social media, examples of websites they like and use frequently and open-ended wish list thoughts.

What are their behaviors? An even more effective method of determining audience’s needs is to perform usability testing on your own website and competitor’s websites. This testing will close the gap between what users say and what they actually do.

Done well, usability testing is a science unto itself, so hire a professional if possible. Make sure that the testing revolves around the goals set from the interviews. Five to seven audience members tested per website is the rule of thumb. From this research, you should be able to confirm the usefulness of existing functionalities and solidify where opportunities lay. Summarize your findings for the goal identification session.

4. Goal Identification Session

Time to put all of your preparation to use and bring your stakeholders together for a working session. Bring your research summaries and functionality checklist, along with an agenda, to keep the meeting on task. All summarized documentation should be presented at the beginning of the meeting. If any audiences or competitors have been missed, they should be identified at this time. Glean what you can from the stakeholders and assess if there is a need to perform more research later.

A sample agenda would include:

Introduction

  • Review possible audiences from research findings to approve and prioritize audiences.
  • Identify goals: For each audience that makes the cut, determine appropriate goals. Use the summarized interviews to help your team understand why user goals are different from internal business goals. For example, users’ goals might include the ability to view their transaction history, customize the content on their homepage or save a wish list of items. Business goals might be to increase sales or build customer relationships.
  • Align goals: User goals must be supported in three ways.

Content Strategy

Content strategy is critical because your website is primarily content. Content architecture, concise communication, branding consistency, search engine optimization and social media optimization all stem from this strategy. Consider carefully the sources of your content, not just for the launch of the website, but for its long-term life and health.

In her article titled The Discipline of Content Strategy, Kristina Halvorson lists the primary areas of content strategy:

  • Editorial strategy
  • Web writing
  • Metadata strategy
  • Search engine optimization
  • Content management strategy
  • Content channel distribution strategy
  • Set expectations within the stakeholder group that any user goals must be supported by the right content.

Technical functionalities

Once your goals are set and content strategy is mapped, you are ready to refine the list of functionality that will support those decisions. Provide a comprehensive list of functionality options to prompt the team, but remember that any functionality must match up with the above goals and strategies. Pay special attention to functionality your competitors provide that passed the usability test. That’s where the bar is set from your user’s viewpoint.

If you determine your website includes any business-class integrations, discuss this at length with stakeholders. A separate task force may be required to finalize the details of this type of investment.

With the increase of mobile technology and smartphone usage, include discussions for mobile development. Progressive companies design for mobile first and include technologies that can determine the user’s device and serve up the proper version of your website. If your website needs a shelf life longer than 12 months, you must consider mobile.

Success metrics

Determine how the success of the website will be measured. The easiest metrics may not be the most meaningful. Google Analytics is a very powerful tool, but requires experience to learn much beyond general traffic numbers. Metrics must reinforce the primary goals of the website.

Establishing the goal-oriented metrics early allows your website to evolve strategically.

At the end of the session, you should have a clear picture of how your website will serve each of your audiences:

Audience One

  • Goal One

- Content strategy tactics
- Functionalities
- Success metrics

  • Goal Two

- Content strategy tactics
- Functionalities
- Success metrics

  • Etc.

Audience Two, etc.

This outline will serve as a touchstone during other phases of website development that will ensure the project stays on track.

Summary

While this article only covers the users’ optic, it is important to consider broader business goals as well as the internal or political goals of an organization. Like the rest of us, users don’t know what they don’t know, so they cannot be the only perspective that drives the development of the website. However, their insight is invaluable, and overlooking it will cost you the success of the website.

*Successful Farming, 2011 Mobile Phone Study

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