Brian Casel
Brian Casel

How Surveying Your Audience Changes Everything

by Brian Casel · Subscribe

A couple weeks back, I asked my audience to fill out this 60-second survey.

Today, I’d like to share with you what I learned, and exactly how I’m using this information.  But first, let me share some advice that my mother once gave me.

She used to teach MS Office to college students and professionals in classrooms and corporate training sessions.  She told me that the key to avoid being nervous about public speaking is to keep in mind that there are individuals in this room who are depending on you.  It’s your job to give them the info and lessons they need to upgrade their skills and get ahead in their career.  Don’t fail them.

That’s a huge responsibility.  But when you empathize with that person on the other end, everything comes into focus.

You instantly go from thoughts like:

  • “How do I look, how do I sound?”
  • “Is this boring?”
  • “Will people like this?”

To more useful ones, like:

  • “Am I being clear?”
  • “Am I telling you what you need to know?”
  • “Will you be able to use this?”

That about sums up my new perspective (since getting to know my audience) every time I sit down to write or press record on the video camera.

How to Survey Your Audience

Granted, this was my very first audience survey, so I can’t claim to be an “expert” on this topic.  But I can share a quick list of things I did, which I think worked out well:

  • I waited until my newsletter list grew to 4 figures.  If I had run the survey when my audience was smaller, there wouldn’t be enough data to draw meaningful conclusions.
  • I kept it short.  I named the survey the “60-second” survey and delivered on that promise by limiting it to only a few questions. I know people are donating their time when filling out a survey, so I wanted to respect that.  Some of the responses were lengthy and clearly took more than a minute to write (and I truly appreciate the detailed feedback!), but others were short and to the point.
  • I chose my questions wisely.  Since I kept it short, I had to decide exactly which questions would give me the most meaningful data.
  • I mixed multiple choice with free-form inputs.  Multiple choice allows me to focus the survey and it makes it easier to organize responses later.  Free form responses is where the real insights come through.  There’s nothing like listening to people describe exactly what their challenge and aspirations are, in their own words.  Some were one sentence long, others were 5+ paragraphs.  All of it is gold.
  • It was aimed at confirming assumptions.  Before the survey, I already had an educated guess at how to characterize my audience.  But I wasn’t sure.  I tailored the questions to confirm (or disprove) my assumptions.  They were confirmed (more on the outcome below).

Setting up the survey

I used Gravity Forms for WordPress.  It’s my go-to tool for creating any type of web form.  I could have used any other other tools out there, like SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, or many others.  But I know Gravity Forms inside and out, and I liked how it lets me create conditional questions (if you answered “A” to question one, then ask this question).

Gathering responses

The form responses are sent to my email inbox, where I set up a filter to automatically apply a label in Gmail.  This lets me easily group all my survey responses together, so I can review them again later.

I read every survey response as they come in (after I get my one thing done for the day, of course).  It’s easy to gain a general sense of the patterns and trends.

But in order to gain a definitive “answer” to the question, “who is my audience?”, I had to normalize the data.  To do that, I created a spreadsheet.  In one column, I listed the multiple choice questions and possible answers.  In the second column, I tallied up the answers.  After I read through a large chunk of them, the trends became pretty clear.  So I used a yellow highlight color to mark the answers with the highest response.

Collecting free-form responses

For the most part, these remain archived in Gmail.  But if there was a response that is particularly helpful, especially if it clearly describes a challenge or pain point, I copy and paste it into a long Google Doc.  I’ll then highlight the sentence(s) that really stand out.

Later on, I’ll refer back to this document when I’m writing copy for a landing page, or looking for ideas for what to write about.  There’s nothing more powerful than connecting with your audience by using their actual words.

What if you don’t have a large audience yet?

Surveying your audience may not high on your priority list if you don’t have much traffic or subscribers.  But guess what?  You can still reap the same benefits!  Here’s how:

Instead of gathering all of your audience research in one shot, as you would with a survey, collect that info gradually over time.

You should have started building your email list (and if you haven’t yet, do it now).  Create a simple autoresponder that is sent to new subscribers one day after they join your list.  Simply ask them, “what are you working on and what’s your biggest challenge?”

I’ve been sending this email for over a year now and I continue to receive replies.  Of course I read and respond to all of them.

But lately, I’m also tagging them with a label in Gmail, and pasting the notable responses into my Google Doc swipe file.  You can do the same thing, right from day one.

So that’s how I’d suggest you approach surveying, or researching your audience.  Now let me share some specifics on what I learned about you, and how it has impacted what I’m doing.

Here’s what I learned about you:

  • Most of you are currently freelancing/consulting
  • Some of you are currently employed
  • Meanwhile, you’re working to transition to a products-based business
  • …Or you’re already on your way to that goal
  • …Or instead of products, you’re looking scale up and grow your consultancy

What else…

  • Most of you are developers, some are designers, copywriters, and marketers.
  • You tune into many of the same blogs, podcasts, and people that I do.
  • Podcasts in general are even more popular than I thought (this makes me very happy)
  • Many of you have families with young kids, which makes it more challenging to invest time, but also drives you to want to level up.
  • You’re action-oriented, willing and ready to make moves, but want to ensure you’re being smart about it.
  • It turns out that my posts about personal productivity aren’t very interesting to you.  Duly noted!

And here’s how I’m using this information

Before the survey, I never had a clear picture of the person on the other end of this blog.  Without that, I could only look inward to find things to write about.  I would simply write.  I’d write about what I found interesting.  I’d only hope that others would find those same things interesting.  Sometimes they would.  But most of the time, who knows?

Now that I have a sense of who’s reading my stuff (that’s you!), where you’re at, and where you’re going, I finally know who I’m talking to!  I’m no longer just writing.  I’m writing to you.

This makes the task of coming up with topics, and ways to communicate them infinitely easier.  What does this actually look like in practice?

Themes of content

Based on what I know about you, I began giving lots of thought to the larger themes that I’ll be covering here on this blog.  Before brainstorming specific ideas for posts, I asked, what are the main challenges that my audience faces?

I believe those boil down to:

  • Getting customers
  • Transitioning from freelance to products
  • Systematizing and scaling up
  • Getting started

Now I’m able to better categorize all of the content on this site.  I haven’t visibly done this on the front-end of the site quite yet, but behind the scenes, I’m using these categories to plan topics and draw better connections between them.

Free and premium courses

Many of you went through my free video course on Content Marketing Automation.  I received lots of great feedback on that.  However, it was released before I surveyed my audience.

I came to realize that this topic — implementing content marketing in a way that can be systematized and delegated — may only have actionable value for a small segment of my audience.  It’s mainly directed at those who have established products, who haven’t done much in the way of content marketing, but want to.  So it will remain available for those of you want to explore it.

But now I’m much more focused on the more popular challenge within my audience, which is transitioning and leveling up from being a freelancer to running a product business full-time.  So I decided to create a new course to speak to that.

I’m now editing the videos for what will be a free introductory course on transitioning to products.  That’s arriving in a week or two (my newsletter subscribers will be the first to know).

Later this year, I’m planning a deep-dive premium course on the same topic.  Details to come.

Live Q&A Hangouts!

This is something I’ve been wanting to do forever, but never made it happen.  Well now that I know my audience, I know the topics that matter to you, and I’m ready to go live!

You might call these “Webinars”, but I’m thinking of them more like live Q&A Hangouts.  They’ll be a mix of prepared lessons, with a large portion opened up for questions from you.

My goal here is two-fold:

  • To give you the chance to pick my brain about this topic and learn from other’s questions, in a live setting.
  • I want to learn from you, simply by understanding which questions need answering.

Then, as I do with the survey responses, and the replies I get to my welcome email sent to newsletter subscribers, I’ll fold this stuff back into upcoming content and course topics.

I hope to meet you there!