Jayne Haugen Olson on Why You Must Know Your Audience

By Juliet Stott  |  September 21, 2016

Know your Audience Image

MSPC’s Jayne Haugen Olson knows a thing or two about creating outstanding content. As VP of content, she oversees more than 15 proprietary and custom magazines, as well as a growing digital portfolio, which collectively reaches an impressive audience of 150 million readers each year.

Olson serves as the editor in chief of Delta Air Lines’ Sky magazine, the world’s leading in-flight print title with more than 5 million readers each month.

Olson, who also heads up MSPC’s content strategy and execution for numerous clients— including United Healthcare, Pillsbury and 3M—understands the importance of knowing your audience, sloppy writing styles and which brands are standing out in a crowded content world.

Olson’s efforts on behalf of MSPC’s clients were recognized this year by The Content Council, when she was named Best Content Director of the Year at the Pearl Awards.

How important is it for content creators to know who their audience is?

It is truly critical. If you think of an audience as a customer, or an audience as the person you want to engage with, or the person you want to buy your product or service, you need to know who they are. You don’t have a business without your customer.

At MSPC, our content creators use the acronym CAR, which stands for Content leads to Audience, which leads to Revenue. You have to have content to develop an audience that is positioned to help generate revenue.

Should insights shape the direction of content?

As an editor, I don’t want to completely bow to an altar of metrics and analytics, because I do believe content creation is a creative business. I think you want to inspire your audience; you want to have new ideas, thoughts and innovations before your audience even knows that they want it. Metrics help to test a new idea.

If you see engagement, then you can scale and grow it. If you find that your instincts are off, which can be humbling and eye-opening, you can kill the content. I see data as another touch point; it doesn’t need to be my everything, but it’s a really strong voice at the table.

Should you tailor content for audiences and channels? If so, how?

Yes, but the budget will dictate how you can do this. A client with a smaller budget may have to be creative about using one assignment in multiple channels. Another client with a larger budget could afford to, say, vary the visuals they use on social media and their website. It all depends on the budget and the needs of the audience.

The content should guide the audience on their journey—whether it’s a yearlong or lifelong journey, whether it’s a weight-loss or house-remodel journey—and give them an end result that compliments what the brand wants and what the consumer wants.

For example, we’re working with a client in the secondary education market, and the content we create is there to serve as a coach to its audience—reminding them how to best use their time, making sure they’re not skipping classes etc. For that, we want to use more immediate channels such as Twitter, but that kind of content will be short, like “here’s a little time-saving tip.”

But the information we create for their websites is longer and more detailed. It includes more how-to-dos, step-by-step style pieces. So the content we create varies on the needs of the audience and the channel they are viewing the content on.

You’ve said that your pet peeve is when you see an opening line of “_______ has something for everyone.” Why does this upset you? What’s the main problem with this approach to content?

As an editor I think it’s sloppy writing. The reality is, you don’t have something for everyone. When I read that opening line, it makes me think that the rest of the story is going to suck. If you’re a professional writer, and that’s the best you have, I am underwhelmed.

Good content creators should say, “We can’t please everyone, so who are we trying to reach? Who really needs this information?” It’s about targeting messages to relevant audiences.

Instead of throwing up blanket terms with the widest net possible, you need to really refine and figure out exactly who you want to reach, and then make a strategic approach to target them, and make it measurable so you can really see the impact your content is having.

So that statement is really to remind people to ask themselves about who you have information for, and to find out how you can talk to that audience in their voice, tone and style on the channels you know you’re going to find them on.

Should everyone try and emulate the likes of BuzzFeed in their style/approach?

The BuzzFeed style is not for everyone. If you’re a legacy brand that needs to be really serious, being buzzy and viral isn’t right for you. But a recent example where this approach can work is with one of our clients, Pillsbury.

One of our editors spotted a story that was going viral and getting a lot of shares, where someone had made a birthday cake from layers of pizzas instead of a traditional multilayered frosting sweet cake, and jumped in on the conversation.

The editor approached the team at General Mills’ kitchens and asked them if they could replicate the pizza cake idea using Pillsbury’s pizza crust, which they agreed to.

The content team photographed the kitchen staff recreating the pizza cake, wrote a how-to recipe to accompany the images and quickly pushed it out on social. The content was picked up by BuzzFeed, garnering our client 290,000 views on its recipe detail page and 46,000 shares on Facebook with 1,900 comments, giving it a reach of 2.9 million.

What are the dos and don’ts rules for creating great content?

Quality content needs to respect the fact that people only have so much time, so you need to make your content worth reading. This means the content needs to have some utility in it, something that the end user gets out of it—whether it’s entertainment, education or information. Ultimately the user needs to get something in return for their time—information that makes their life easier, better or happier.

The content needs to be part of a conversation with the audience; it shouldn’t just talk at them. The creators need to demonstrate that they understand the audience’s challenges, their needs and why they are reading your content.

We looked at one client’s website recently and noticed that 60 percent of the sentences started with their brand name. They realized that they were talking about themselves too much, and not enough about their customer and the needs they had.

I really believe you shouldn’t leave the audience with more questions than answers. If someone has to leave your site for additional information, you’ve lost them and they might never come back. So if you have an industry that needs a glossary of terms, you need to make that available on your own site as a sidebar. Don’t make people leave to figure out the answers somewhere else.

Always include a call to action within your content. What do you want your viewers/readers to do next? If you’re trying to sell something, what’s the call to action? If you want them to sign up for something, how are you making sure that your content enables them to take that next step, how is it guiding them there?

Finally, are there any brands/titles that you admire? What are they doing that makes them stand out?

I like brands that really feel like they emulate a lifestyle in some way. They’re the ones we all think about, like Red Bull, Disney and American Girl. There’s a lot to be said about brands like that. Realizing that they’re not just about the product they’re selling, but about a lifestyle too. If you think about American Girl, it doesn’t get talked about that much, but it’s a brand that sells a $100 doll that never goes on sale.

American Girl is not just a doll, it’s a lifestyle; they have little cafes, they have events fans can attend and books they can buy. I really respect brands that realize it’s not just about the core product they’re selling you, but how it informs the quality of your life, the lifestyle that you want and how the brand fits into that.

Read next: Content Marketing vs. Advertising: What’s the Difference, Again?

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