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Understanding User Intent in Digital Marketing

When looking at website data, it’s sometimes easy to forget that users are in fact real people just like you and me. Rather than being data points to be crunched and manipulated, they’re living beings who are visiting us in order to scratch an itch: they want information on something.

In digital marketing, and content marketing in particular, it’s especially important that we understand what motivates users to perform certain searches.

One common framework for understanding search intent used by content marketing agencies is the transactional, informational, or navigational model.

Or as Google puts it,

  • Do (transactional)

Transactional searches are the most hotly contested in both organic and paid search, as they’re the nearest to the end of the funnel.

  • Know (informational)

For organic search, the informational category is generally the most competitive. There are many ways to skin this cat; you can go for the high-volume unbranded terms or you can target the long tail for smaller but comparatively easier wins. The problem is that the broader the term, the less clear the searcher’s intent is.

  • Go (navigational)

For brands, navigational keywords are generally the easiest to rank for, and this means they spend less time and effort monitoring and maintaining these rankings. However, this can leave them vulnerable to proactive competitors or negative PR.

Freeing ourselves of keyword tunnel vision

When we look at search terms, we see combinations of words. But it’s the intent behind the search that we need to be addressing.

I can pull a bunch of short- and long-tail search terms, group them into topics and then create content to match those terms, but this misses out the biggest piece of the puzzle (the informational search) even if I try to weed out the intent-marking terms like “buy online” or “near me”.

This is where we ask ourselves why the user is performing their search, and in doing so outmanoeuvre the competition by creating answers to not only their questions, but their actual needs.

Serving user intent = user experience

Going for intent frees us from keyword tunnel vision. We aim to serve human searchers, not just what they type into that little white box in their browser. We think about what someone might want to know – the keywords are a secondary factor.

If you can’t give people the information they seek, you’re not going to do very well as a website, let alone a search engine.

Google’s ability to understand what we’re looking for and provide access to information has made it one of the most important developments in human culture and history, ever. As marketers, it therefore makes sense that we do everything we can to help our users – and Google – achieve their goals.

As search becomes more “human”, optimising for user experience (i.e. intuitively giving people what they want) will become increasingly important. The simplest way to do this is to optimise for user intent; delivering on user intent creates better user experience, by definition.

The opportunity: Information seekers

For content marketers, the informational category offers the most significant opportunity for addressing user intent.

The traditional funnel (awareness, consideration, purchase) isn’t an accurate representation of how people seek information when they’re looking to buy something. In reality, it’s more like this:

Let’s put this into a real-word example.

Say you want to buy a digital camera. Photography gear isn’t cheap, so you want to do your research and make the best decision.

Your research process might go as follows:

  1. Google search for “Canon DSLR”
    1. See a product and look up reviews
    2. Shortlist items, look up reviews across YouTube, forums, blogs, overseas sellers, etc
    3. Decide on something that might be the right combination of price and features
  2. Search again for product name
    1. Shocked at the price, look up Gumtree used ads
    2. Find some items you hadn’t seen, Google for more info
    3. Refine your shortlist
  3. Go back to look for brand new cameras
    1. Notice Google Shopping or eBay ads and discover much cheaper prices for the same items
    2. Why are some people so much cheaper? Google the store names
    3. Whirlpool forum, find out that there’s a grey import market
    4. Look up grey import company reviews. Mainly forums come up
    5. Research into pros and cons of grey imports
  4. Start watching YouTube videos on totally different camera-related topics (e.g. photoshop, photography techniques) and consume this media
  5. Forget you were even shopping for a camera and start looking at lenses for days on end
  6. Days or weeks later, repeat this process until you feel confident you know enough to have made a good decision
  7. Purchase
  8. Continue researching for product support, tutorials, and new gear to go with your recent purchase
  9. Repeat ad nauseam.

(Source: this is more or less what I experienced myself when searching for a camera)

As you can see, there are multiple touchpoints where information is the key decision driver. You’re comparing products, learning the pros and cons, looking at related products, finding out about new purchasing channels, and so on.

The more places a brand can be during this process, the better.

People search repeatedly. Aim for their search refinements.

The moral of the story is that the information-gathering (or “consideration”) phase is the biggest slice of the funnel. By far.

Many brands get caught up in the final purchase stage and treat all searches as if they were transactional, but they shouldn’t. For most businesses, to limit yourself only to a website with prices on it is a huge missed opportunity.

This is the difference between YouTube or Facebook and Google Search. It’s very possible to come across something on social media or have Google suggest something to you at the bottom of the SERP, and for that to take you on a journey of learning and entertainment – and the further into your buying process you are, the more likely users are to engage.

We must understand how those people in the middle of the funnel are actually using the internet, and how they bounce around. The funnel model is a bit of a misnomer – very few people are really that linear in their decision making.

Brands must embrace the chaos that is the decision-making process and work out where they want to slot into the content landscape and engage with their prospective market. The time for websites to simply be online shopfronts is well and truly over.

But what about the cost of creating all this content?

You might ask yourself, “Why should retailers spend all that time and money creating content for someone who’s just going to buy used, or go somewhere else?”

Or is the real question: why aren’t they all doing it? Why isn’t everyone trying to one-up each other in positioning themselves as the place you should go to? A good salesperson who knows what they’re talking about and is genuinely interested in helping is the person I won’t for a second regret buying from.

They could create all this content and generate a Facebook page, Instagram account, YouTube subscriber count, newsletter or educational resource that users truly want to interact with. The bigger their following gets, the more they’ll be able to harness (i.e. monetize) that audience.

Their suppliers might start giving them special access to deals or new products, or they could begin holding paid events or meet-ups, with early access going exclusively to members of their list. Non-competing but related brands might start approaching them wanting to gain access to this audience, which would of course come at a fee.

These are just some of the ways that content marketing should be considered; it’s so much more than just blog posts optimised for high-volume keywords. All you need is some time and an internet connection, and something interesting, educational, informative or entertaining to say (which your audience actually wants to hear), and you will be able to build an audience.

People will forever look up YouTube reviews and forum comments. They’ll ask their Facebook friends, they’ll scroll through Instagram and Pinterest, all for different reasons and different stages of their indecision. In future they’ll search using their voice search assistant, and Google will show them results from whatever channel it deems fit. Being there is half the battle won.

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