By Zaine Clark
25 Feb 2019

The Payoff of Audience Research


While SEO is best categorized as a marketing discipline, most SEOs don’t think of sitting down and actually talking with their client’s customers. After all, most simply put, our job is to improve search engine visibility and rankings while increasing conversions. But can we really do our jobs if we assume we understand what search engine users are looking for, without having those conversations?

We have a different approach at Seer Interactive. Although we do want to increase search visibility, we want to make sure that we are drawing the right customers to our client’s websites and solving their problems. One of the best ways to understand customers is to give them your time: sit down and talk with them.

Why Should You Do Audience Research?

Keyword research is a great way to see what people are searching for and how they try to find it. Google even provides us with “People Also Ask” and “Related Searches,” which are both great resources for finding what people are searching for and identifying intent. But do you want to know the greatest resource for understanding what people are searching for?

People. Once people tell you what they want to find, what they couldn’t find, things they loved and things they hated, then it’s time to perform your keyword research and craft your content strategy. In the field of new product development, gathering this data is the standard best practice — and it works! Why wouldn’t we bring these practices into digital marketing.

Investing in Audience Research

There are two types of investment to keep in mind when proposing audience research (whether internally, or to a client): time investment and financial investment.

Time & Financial Investments for Audience Interviews

As digital marketers, our clients pay us for our time, expertise, and direction. When you pitch interviewing your client’s customers, you may receive some pushback regarding time and money. That makes sense. However, understanding exactly what the audience is searching for and providing it to them yields big returns.

Because it takes time to complete the interviews, compile your findings, then make sense of the interview responses, it costs money. Before you even start the interviews, you need permissions to record phone calls and screen shares. Then, you’ll need to get a panel together (if applicable). After the interviews are finished, you’ll need to distill down the interviews into a set of findings.

In my experience, interviewing can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour per person, so if you want to interview 15 people, that’s 7-15 extra hours of work to account for. And that doesn’t include listening for a second time, re-watching the videos, and making sense of your findings.

As SEOs, do we really want to spend our time and our client’s money interviewing people, analyzing our notes and comments, and then doing the research that goes into creating content? Is interviewing people going to help you reach that goal of increasing organic conversions by X%?

Absolutely we do. After all, these are the people that are searching and ultimately converting for our clients and determining our success as SEOs. So why wouldn’t you want to hear from them?

The Process Of Conducting Audience Research

The Interviews

To kick things off, you’ll need to compile questions that will help you reach the goal of your research, followed by a list of individuals from your client (or your customers, if you are in-house) and start scheduling those interviews. It’s often tough to take notes, be a good listener, and think of follow-up questions simultaneously, so I recommend getting permission to record the audio from the interviews and going back later to take notes.

It’s important to avoid leading questions. We ask our clients’ customers why they started searching, with the aim of identifying the initial pain point, what was going on in their lives at the time, who else was involved in the decision, and other important contextual details.

From that point, we hop on a screen share and have the interviewee walks us through their journey; we have them perform multiple searches and watch them as they go through the SERPs. We ask them what they were trying to find, what would have made the content they clicked on more trustworthy or more useful, what they do and don’t like about the sites they found, and what those sites were missing. We also listen for comments like, “I wish the client site would have told me this,” or “I was frustrated when I couldn’t find…” and other responses that let us know something is missing. When content is “missing” for the searchers, you’ve found the golden ticket (assuming that it’s a recurring issue, and not from only one interviewee). You’ll want to understand why they type what they do, why they click on the results they choose, what makes them stay on the page, or why they bounce.

Making Sense Of the Interview Data

When you begin looking at your notes from the interview responses, keep track of common themes you find. It’s also a good idea to get a colleague to go through the responses as well and pull out any themes they notice. Focus on identifying the major pain points, what’s missing that would help the customer through their journey, and even their post-purchase needs. Really dig in to identify what they are looking for, where they try to find it, and how you can get in front of them.

The Results

From my experiences, what is learned from audience interviews can completely change your SEO strategy, and sometimes even the business strategy for your company or your clients. The best way I can share the impact of audience interviews is with a personal story:

Recently at Seer, a colleague and I went through this process for our client. Using this process, we identified seven new content opportunities that we would not have found through a content gap analysis.

The interviewees explained to us what they were looking for, but couldn’t find any information about on the internet.  Something that we noticed with this particular client was that searchers couldn’t seem to find answers to some pretty low funnel questions. We then created content related to these topics, which resulted in 4 new pages. These 4 low-funnel pages, after only being live for 2 months, have increased traffic year-over-year by over 9%, which is great! But we expect these numbers to climb as these pages are live for a longer period of time and begin to gain more authority.

We also made updates to existing pages that, as a result, have seen tremendous growth. The 10 pages that we made adjustments to have seen a combined total of 86% growth year-over-year and have sourced over 80% more new users year-over-year. We have also seen an increase in average ranking position from 21 down to 9.6, meaning that we are appearing more frequently on the first page of SERPs.

Our client was able to walk away from our research understanding their audience’s pain points and how they are searching to better serve them via other channels such as PPC, Social, and more.

The Takeaways

Although conducting audience interviews has associated costs, the payoff is well worth the time and money. After completing audience interviews, you will know your audience better than they know themselves. You will know what kind of content they are looking for, what would make them convert, and how they actually complete their search process. To those of us at Seer, that’s priceless.

Or at least until we see an increase in transactions, revenue, or assisted conversions — then we can assign a monetary value to the process.

Zaine Clark

Zaine is a Senior SEO Associate at Seer Interactive, where he helps to craft SEO strategies using audience insights and big data to inform decisions. Through understanding the audience and using cross-divisional data, he helps his clients increase their organic visibility and drive revenue. Zaine and the Seer team understand that behind every search is a person.