THE BLOG
05/15/2014 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

72 Percent of Marketers Can't Find Their Target Audience Online -- Can You?

A few months ago I was at (yet another) digital conference. The conference was great like most others - expert attendees, informative topics, interesting speakers, good food, you name it. The themes were similar - "Brand = Customer Experience," "Mastering The Buyer's Journey," "Tracking A Customer From 'Interest' to 'Purchase," "Why You Need a Mini-CIO for Marketing," "Data is the New Nirvana," "Managing Highly Instrumented Web Sites," etc.

On the surface, it seemed like marketing had never had it so good; it looked like there was a rebirth of marketing. Marketers have so many software applications, so many consultants, so much data...so many possibilities. With data and software, marketing had gained the ability to show its worth with hard numbers and objective and irrefutable results, thus granting marketers an equal seat at the table with sales and product development. They weren't just the "touchy-feely" brand and logo people any more: they could produce and show real results. Beneath the surface, though...things were different. How so?

At the end of that first day, one veteran marketer remarked wryly with a slight nod of his head - "Everything is possible. Nothing is practical."

I was intrigued. Over the next day, I spent more time in the halls talking to marketers instead of in sessions, peeling back the onion with second- and third-level questions to find out how they were doing and their perspective on the market. I was shocked to see the stress, the skepticism, and the negativity - especially given how much hype there has been in this domain.

Intrigued, my company, DNN, decided to commission a study to find out what marketers in mid-market companies (50-5,000 employees) were truly thinking.

Here is a summary of three findings we found in the Marketing Got Complicated study:
1. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority
The rapid rise of social channels - Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Slideshare, et al; the "easy" availability of marketing software (there are hundreds of marketing applications); and the vast increase in the time people spend tethered to the Internet means a plethora of "opportunities" to be out there, get noticed, and hopefully make money.

By trying to be everywhere, talking to everybody and doing everything - are marketers in some ways doing nothing? Out of the seven priorities we laid out, 75 percent of the firms chose five out of the seven as high or very high priorities. 75 percent of companies with 1,000+ employees used AT LEAST FIVE marketing applications. Interestingly, 33 percent of companies with fewer than 100 employees also used AT LEAST FIVE marketing applications.

The only problem - Being busy doesn't make money. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

2. Being busy is not the same as being effective
"Social" is the new "holy grail," or at least has been until very recently. Everybody wants to be on every social channel possible - it's almost like if they aren't there, they're missing out on something. 89 percent of the companies we surveyed said it was important they have their own online community. 88 percent said it was important for them to engage with customers on social media channels.

The tendency, in terms of social, has been to go shallow and go broad. Should we have online branded communities? Yes. Compelling Facebook presence? Yes. LinkedIn Groups? Yes. Pinterest? Yes. Slideshare? Yes. Twitter? Yes. Google+? Yes. Vine? Yes. YouTube? Yes. The result: the frequency of activity is high, but the frequency of activity per channel is low. The amount of content distributed is high but the quality of content is low. The number of posts is high but the content resonance (shares, likes, network effect, referral traffic, etc.) is low. The net result is a lot of busy work with little impact.

3. Marketers are struggling to get noticed by their target audience
There is a content glut out there. When everybody blogs, and when everybody tweets the same message 10 times a day or 20 times a week - it only means the Internet has become as noisy as the corner bar, and the only way to converse is to yell. The problem with that is it gets tiring quickly, and it is difficult to have an intelligent and useful conversation.

Our survey results corroborate this. 79 percent say it's a challenge to get (and hold) the attention of target customers; 72 percent say it is difficult to find their target audiences online.
So, whither from here? This is no easy time to be a marketer. Here is some food for thought for what you can do to improve your chances of success. One word of caution - Advice is easy to dispense, hard to follow. This is no different. Here is the easy part:

A. Ruthlessly prioritize. Figure out what moves the needle and do that super well. Drop things that don't move the needle or that you aren't sure about or that you don't have the time for. Tweeting once a week does neither you nor the market any service. A poorly orchestrated Facebook presence is worse than no presence at all. Investing a lot of money in community software when you don't have the time, resources, bandwidth or business strategy to make it work is counter-productive for both revenue and brand-building.

Treat building branded online communities and social media engagement as a business strategy - and not as a fun experiment. Which watering holes do their users frequent? In the old world, enterprises sponsored and attended every conference that was ever held. Smaller businesses with limited resources were more strategic in how they picked which conferences to put their money and resources in. In the new online world, the principle remains the same. Of the myriad online channels - which watering holes do your customers and prospects frequent? Which one helps you reach your target market? Which specific channels is your content competence best suited for? As for building branded online communities...how important is it for you to "own" the behavioral data of your customers versus just building a brand? How much time do you have? How much budget? How much high-quality content can you reliably generate continuously - week on week? Beyond a weekly or daily blog what can you offer on your community portal that your users or customers will keep coming back for? The key is to answer these and a bunch of other questions before figuring out whether or not you are ready for your own branded customer or user community.

C. Be obsessed with content quality and content value. When a user clicks on your content link and gives you five minutes of his time you have an obligation. You have a responsibility. You must ensure they get genuine value for having invested those five minutes to read your content. Treat that as sacred. Don't flout that trust.

In 2001, when Apple came out with the iPod, there were already many other MP3 players on the market. People have short memories, but it took a few years and a Windows version for the iPod to catch on. It was a super-crowded market. It was a tough market to break into. It took time to get traction, even for Apple. But, iPod eventually did take off. How? Quality won. A better product won. Value won. Take a look at the iPod sales growth from 2001 to 2004, and you will see what I mean.

Quality counts. Attention to detail counts. Focus on value counts. It is no different for content. Take the time, and pay attention to create and distribute high-value content consistently and continuously. Be smart about your reach and distribution. Be patient. The results will come.