Why Targeting Users Has to Go Beyond Keyword Research, Far Beyond
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Targeting users, whether it be in the context of SEO or marketing per se, has become one of those topics you never stop hearing about. Certainly, this is due to ever-advancing technology that seeks to serve users with the precise content that speaks to their needs and wants.
The problem with all of the never-ending content that comes out around targeting users is that it relies on using strategies that don't get to the heart of the issue, namely, the heart of the user.
Here's how to take user targeting to the next level... and the best part, you only need your brain to do it.
The Problem with Keyword Research as a Tool to Target User Intent
A while back I was doing some research on the SERP around the prominence of "super-authorities" in the medical niche (i.e., WebMD) among the search results. Of course, I was using all sorts of tools to dive into the queries that would form the basis of my research. As it would turn out, a lot of the queries I was focusing on revolved around pregnancy (this was totally by chance). Also, by chance, my sister was pregnant at the time. After sifting through tons of mass-produced keyword suggestions I decided to ask my sister what she would search for vis-à-vis pregnancy. Do you know what? The queries I got from the tools had nothing to do with the queries my sister was actually running. They were lightyears apart.
Do you know why?
Because keyword research is really a topical tool. It's meant to help you understand what topics and subtopics it takes to comprehensively tackle a certain area and target a certain user.
It's not meant to be granular, necessarily. It's not meant to get you inside the head of the user. Simply, using keyword research to target user intent is like trying to change a tire with a fork. Now, that's not to say that keyword research doesn't help to uncover user intent. It certainly does, at the topic level.
In other words, keyword research is a top-level tool to uncover the general intents that users may have in regard to a given topic, product, etc.
Keyword research is completely and utterly unable to actually penetrate the user's mind, which is what understanding intent is all about.
The Problem with Pain Points
Before I get into what I think has to go into uncovering user intent and audience targeting, I want to talk about pain points for a quick (or maybe not so quick) moment.
The idea of targeting intent is really to be able to target the user. That means being able to address their pain points. Pretty straight forward.
However, the problem I find with pain points is that they are often too cerebral. In a way, constructing pain points whether it be via some sort of data analytics or survey or whatnot is not what will give you insight into the consumer/user.
Like keyword research, all of this is a good start.
Diving into the data, etc. helps you to identify the user's problem but it doesn't help you understand that problem. Just as is the case with keyword research, a data-driven approach to identifying pain points can't help you crack the surface. All it can do is point you to the problems, to the area you want to focus on.
If you want to uncover intent and target the user's pain points, you should go deeper and you should go in a different direction.
Getting Into the User's Mindset Is Your Only Choice
Let's slow this down. When we target an audience or see to uncover user intent... what are we trying to do? Obviously, we're trying to get into the user's mindset. And we do this by rummaging through a set of scraped keywords or user interaction analytics... because that makes sense! (Insert sarcasm.)
When you say it out loud it's kind of silly in a way. We're trying to uncover a person's mindset and the context of their mental life with methods that are either very surface-like or entirely quantitative!
That's what I meant earlier when I said processes like keyword research can only point you in a general direction. But that's not what you really want, ultimately speaking. As we just said, you're really trying to understand the user.
I mean, say you've identified a certain pain point. Great. But you still need to understand the significance of that problem to the user, the consequences of that problem, why that problem even exists for them, and most importantly what it's like to experience that problem.
Understanding the User's Inner-Experience
There is only one way to really be able to uncover user intent and target an audience and that's because there's only one way to understand the user's frame of reference. While data and analytics and keyword research can point you in the right direction, empathy is the only way to really understand user intent and what your audience really wants and has problems with.
I know, all of my data friends just rolled their eyes... but try understanding your spouse or partner with data and see how far you get.
Forget cracking user intent and targeting audiences. Take this from the perspective of trying to understand the context of a person's mental life. Approach whoever your "targeting" by trying to understand:
a) The context that is their life
b) How that context is most likely experienced (i.e., apply empathy)
There is no other way to write for a certain user intent or target a certain audience without understanding life from their point of view... which means understanding (to whatever degree you can) what living that person's life must be like. We know this as empathy.
Let me run through a quick example. Take a stay at home dad back in the day before the concept was a bit more commonplace (I use this example as a father of four myself). Could you imagine that fella's life? That dad, who is just trying to do what's best for his kids, was probably the butt of a lot jokes behind his back. I mean, you'd have to imagine such a dad would be aware of this stigma and wonder what that would be like to experience.
It's really not hard to do. You'd have to think that such a scenario would be lonely, isolating, angering, and downright ostracizing.
Now you have a real profile to work with. From here you can understand why this demographic has certain problems, which problems are significant, what these problems mean to their actual lives, etc.
From a keyword research perspective, this is gold. Whatever tool can tell you that whatever keywords are what you should focus on when dealing with a topic. But what the tools can't give you is the emotional context that your targeting should exist withing (in our case, ostracization). More than that, knowing the user's genuine emotional state might make you reconsider the path your keyword research sends you on.
Here's the process as best as I can express it (because the process of empathizing is hard to define in concrete terms for obvious reasons):
1) Determine the life situation of your audience: In our case, a stay at home dad in a time period where that was a real rarity.
2) Extrapolate the consequences of that life situation: What are the logical emotional consequences of your audience's life situation. In our case, it wasn't hard to think our audience would be isolated and ostracized to a significant extent.
3) Empathize: I don't have any magic wisdom for you here. And yes, I do think that in order to be an effective content creator, content SEO, and overall marketer you need to be empathetic. To target an audience effectively you need to emotionally identify with their life situation and its impact on their mental life. Unless you feel what their situation is there are going to be gaps in your marketing efforts at all levels.
The Path to Building Empathy for Better SEO, Content, & Marketing In General
Empathizing with your audience is a tall order and it may seem like an unrealistic task. That said, there are things you can do to help you foster empathy. Specifically, it's creating the context for yourself.
The more context you have around your audience's life situation the more naturally empathy will flow. In practical terms that could mean conducting surveys that dive deep into your audience's lives, having actual conversations with your demographic, etc.
I get it. You don't have time for tons of conversations or the budget/staff for an extensive survey. That's fine. Join online communities related to your target audience. It can be as simple as joining a forum, following some folk on Twitter (or utilizing a Twitter list), and just observing the conversation in order to see what your audience talks about and how they talk about what they talk about (their tone, overall emotional orientation, etc.)
Being familiar with your audience's interactions online can give you the right context so that you can ultimately be empathetic.
The Empathetic Bonus
I want to highlight the advantage of empathetic marketing. Sure, you could get close to how your audiences perceive reality without real empathy. However, take our case from earlier. Imagine someone being ridiculed and ostracized for being a stay at home dad and being subject to all sorts of negative perception due to some outdated views of the world. That would seriously suck. You really feel for someone in that situation. It kind of makes you want to maybe offer them some solutions to make their life easier and better, doesn't it?
The upshot of empathetic marketing is that it is conducive to offering genuine solutions. It's conducive to content and marketing that comes off as genuine. And, of course, when the consumer of your content or product can tell you're coming from a genuine place you're far more likely to garner clicks, conversions, and all that other good marketing metric stuff!
Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water
I just want to be clear before I sign off here. There is a lot you can get out of typical keyword research or by going through the usual route towards determining pain points. It's a very important part of the process, as I've said. More than that, real empathy is hard, and it can also be hit or miss. You might not be able to produce it in every situation and that's OK. It's OK to rely on the "traditional tools." My point isn't that they are not effective. Rather, it's that if you want to truly get into your audience's mindset and to understand their inner-intents you have to have some degree of empathy. If you want your content or product to come off as being in the genuine interest of the user, it has to come from a place of empathy.