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An approach to online audience research and tools

I’ve just written a guide for my fellow consultants at NixonMcInnes about my approach to online audience research, and some of my favourite tools. So I thought I’d share it here. Disclaimer: it’s certainly not exhaustive and I haven’t covered all the details of all the tools, but it is hopefully a good starting point.

Defining the question

The selected approach and tools you use for online research will vary greatly depending on what questions you are trying to answer. The more specific the question, the easier it will be to choose the right tool. Think about what knowledge would be most useful to you, and why you are doing the research in the first place. Start with the following:

Who do you want to find out about?

  • Existing customers/contacts in general?
  • Potential customers in general?
  • A certain demographic – women aged 30-45 in the UK?
  • A certain interest group – people who like crime thrillers in the UK?
  • A behavioural group – people who also visit site X (your site / competitor site etc.)?

What do you already know about them?

What data sets do you already have?

  • Do you have an email list?
  • A Twitter following?
  • Facebook fans?
  • A direct mailing list?
  • Sales data?

If you have data on audience X, or a decent sized sample of audience X (e.g. a segment of your existing contacts), it could be used as a representative sample from which to research the wider audience. It could also be integrated with other data sets to provide insights.

What do you want to know?

  • What are their demographics?
  • What are their most commonly visited websites?
  • What are their most searched for keywords?
  • What proportion of the audience is subscribed to our mailing list?
  • What proportion of the audience is following us on Twitter?
  • Who are the most followed people on Twitter by this audience? (Who is most popular to this audience?)
  • Who are the most connected people on Twitter amongst this audience? (Who is most influential amongst this audience?)
  • Who is the most vocal online amongst this audience?
  • What are their most commonly visited TOPICAL websites?

Don’t say ‘all of it’ or you’ll never get anywhere. Depending on what audience you are interested in, and what you already know about them, you will only be able to answer certain questions, depending on the input and outputs of each tool.

When selecting a research tool, consider what kind of answer you want to get. It’s useful to think about this in order check that the chosen tool will give you what you need.

Why do you want to know that? What decisions might you make as a result?

Check that the possible answers you might get will actually inform your decision making in your work. What actions are you likely to take if you get a certain answer? If you’re not likely to change anything, or to confirm any existing thinking, do you need to invest in the research to answer that question? If the answer is no, rethink what it is you really need to find out.


Google Display Network Ad Planner – free


The following inputs are optional – you can leave all inputs blank for an audience which covers the global online audience, or restrict by one or more of the following:

  • Geography
  • Language
  • Demographics
  • Online activity (other site/s your audience visits)
  • Interests
  • Site content (only show results similar to X site or sites with X keywords)
  • Topics (only show results in X topic category e.g. online communities)
  • Exclude topics

Note that if you put in too niche an audience the volume will be too small and you’ll get no results.


Output sites are now limited to sites within the Google Display Network i.e. won’t include Twitter or Facebook.

  • Audience Match: balanced results that most closely match the audience you define
  • Composition Index: smaller sites where your audience concentrates most heavily
  • Audience Reach: larger sites that reach the highest percentage of your audience
  • Content Match: match the content you specify instead of the make-up of your audience
  • Audience planning – estimated demographics and volume for the audience input

The above research methods are for the ‘Search for placements’ option within Ad Planner. You can also use the ‘Audience planning’ tool to get total online audience volume stats and the ‘Search by placement’ tool to get demographic data about a certain website, which can be filtered to a country location.

Google Insights for Search – free


These can be filtered to web search, image search, product search or news search, by country and subregion, by year and by category. For each of the following, you can put in one to four different options to allow a comparison.

  • Search terms
  • Locations and subregions
  • Time ranges


Depending on the chosen inputs, some of the following:

  • Comparitive ‘interest over time’ timeline (relative volume of searches) including forecast
  • Related news headlines
  • Total comparitive metrics for interest
  • Regional interest per search term – heat map which can be played over time and top regions listed
  • Top related search terms overall
  • Top ‘rising searches’ (most significant increase)
  • Download above as CSV

Google Trends for Search and Websites – free

Google Trends for Search does mostly the same as Google Insights for Search except:

  • Output includes actual volumes as a metric rather than relative volumes
  • Output does not include a map, but does include the list of top regions

Google Trends for Websites

Input: one or more website URLs. Optional filter by region and year.


  • Comparitive actual volumes of visitors to the site over time
  • Top regions per website
  • Sites also visited
  • Keywords searched for

Brandwatch – paid

Brandwatch is one of many paid for buzz monitoring platforms. Most of them have similar inputs and outputs.


  • Keywords mentioned in content
  • Region
  • Time range


  • Volume of mentions over time
  • Top authors/websites by volume of mentions per author/website
  • Top authors/websites by visitors to site / volume of Twitter followers / influence on Twitter
  • Top key words within overall conversations
  • Links to original and snippets of all mentions of keyword
  • Sentiment of mentions (this varies greatly in accuracy depending on the content)

You can also filter by any of the above and re-run the reports.

Followerwonk – free & paid additional options

The following is all Twitter data:


  • Keywords in bio
  • Name
  • Location
  • URL
  • Minimum and maximum following / follower count
  • Mimumum and maximum number of tweets made
  • Limit to your account’s connections
  • One or more Twitter account usernames


Depending on which options you choose to input, the outputs may include:

  • Twitter usernames including influence metric, tweet count, following count, follower count
  • Venn diagram showing overlap between multiple Twitter users’ followers/following groups
  • Comparitive charts for multiple Twitter users’ days on Twitter, average new followers per day, total tweets and average tweets per week.
  • Volume of new followers/follows over time
  • The following data about a Twitter users’ followers/following group:
    • Global heat map
    • Influence scores
    • Inferred gender (based on names)
    • Follower counts
    • Following counts
    • Account ages (how long they’ve been on Twitter)
    • Recency of latest tweet
    • Total tweets
    • Languages
    • Most active hours in the day
    • Bio word cloud and ‘two word’ word cloud
    • Location word cloud

Facebook Marketplace Ads – free

The following only applies to Facebook data:


  • Demographics
  • Location
  • Precise interests by keyword or broad category
  • Connections to your pages/apps/events
  • Sexuality
  • Relationship status
  • Language
  • Education
  • Workplaces


  • Volume of matching active Facebook users

Google analytics – free

For your own websites only:

Inputs / filters

  • Time frame/s
  • Specific web page / section of the site
  • Source/s of visitor (referral, search, specific source)


  • Volume of visitors over time
  • Popularity of pages
  • Sources of visitors
  • Keywords searched for to get to the site
  • Keywords searched for within the site’s own search
  • Route through the site (what pages people were on before and after a page)
  • Which pages people leave your site from the most

Google Benchmarks & Insights / Internet Stats – free

White papers and research documents about a broad range of audiences.

Links to other people’s research into trends, media consuption, verticals etc.

More tools

There are hundreds of available research tools for online audience or competitor research. If you’re looking for statistics, take a look at my list, and add or change tags to filter or change the list of results. Try Twitter, stats, data or tools:

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