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Build a Better Understanding of Customers, Get a Competitive Advantage

A decade ago, your company website might have been a kind of digital brochure with some basic contact information. Taking that approach in 2013 will make you look like you're wearing mom jeans to Coachella.

These days, a successful digital presence is a living, breathing, meaningful experience--rooted in inspiration, customer empathy and clear utility. Your goal is to provide real value to prospects and customers by anticipating their needs, giving them a reason to do business with you and fostering their loyalty to your brand. There's even a verb for all this: grokking--understanding or communicating through empathy or intuition.

The problem is that creating a great web experience is easy in theory but difficult in practice, if only because there's so much that can be done. Broad, generalized web content doesn't resonate with visitors. So, how do you tailor your content to fit specific needs?

The answer is by looking not just at customer demographics but at behavior. Standard demographic data doesn't cut it anymore, says Justin Gray, CEO of LeadMD, a marketing technology company based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Why? Because such simple customer profiles don't tell you how to reach people, only that they exist.

Instead, you should be building example profiles of people who influence or make decisions about what you're selling. Marketers call these "buyer personas," and they can be enormously helpful in persuading potential customers to choose you over a competitor.

Take a look at this stat from Demandbase/Ziff Davis: When crafting new content, just 36 percent of marketers focus their attention on buyer personas. You need to be one of them. So consider not only who your ideal customers are (job title, industry, location or company size) but also how they live and work. Are they on the road a lot? Are they online? Offline? Where do they get information? Who influences the decisions they make? Which blogs do they read?

Other questions to consider: What associations do they belong to?

What events do they attend? Which social networks do they rely on? Do your twentysomething prospects poll their friends on Facebook and Twitter, read recommendations on Yelp or browse Pinterest? What factors might they consider before pulling the trigger on a purchase?

There are ways to get this information, starting with asking. You could telephone a few customers (both happy and grumpy) and interview them; you might also query current prospects. Talking in person or by phone is best, but you can also gather information via a free survey tool like SurveyMonkey.com.

Essentially, knowing who you are selling to--and why and how they buy--makes your job a whole lot easier. The buyer personas "become the root of how we talk to our buyers," Gray says.

Insightful buyer personas can inform strategies for messaging or content marketing, product launches, ad campaigns and sales alignment, says Adele Revella of the Buyer Persona Institute, a training and consulting company in Puget Sound, Wash. The key, she adds, is to think of such customer insight as your secret weapon: "When you know when, how and why buyers look for an answer to the problems that you address, that knowledge is a significant source of competitive advantage for your business."

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012)

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This article was originally published in the July 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Behavioral Theory.

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