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Find and Define Your Audiences

There’s an audience for anything and everything. Do you know who your audiences are? How about your most important audiences? There’s a stage in message planning that I like to fondly refer to as audience identification. I don’t know why I like to refer to it as audience identification, because it’s really the definition that’s the most important part. Rather than get caught up in semantics, let’s just focus on the two components of audience identification I find most useful. You should start your audience identification process by grouping your audiences into categories. From there, you can develop some personas that best represent subgroups of these audiences. If you’re fortunate enough to have actual data to play with, you can take things a step further and get really granular with your audience identification. I’ve summarized my perspectives on this approach below for you to think about more. For those of you that actually do audience definition for a living, please jump in and give the readers something more constructive to work with.

The First Component – Target Publics (Audiences to You Younger Folk)

The first is determine the groups of people you’re communicating with – depending on how old you are, you might refer to them as publics (I do). Really, we’re talking about target audiences – groups of people you’re going to interact with. In school (the school that came after high school that is), I learned all about mass communications. You remember, where you have a message, a medium and an audience? Deliver said message to your target audience via the medium and voila, message delivered. Well, it doesn’t work that way anymore. You have to get as close to one-to-one communication as you can in this day and age, and clearly identifying your publics is only half the battle. For example, take everyone’s favorite public – the customer. Unless you sell white socks, you probably have more than one kind of customer. Actually, even if you do sell white socks, there are many different publics that buy those socks. I won’t take this illustration any further, you get the point. Unfortunately, just knowing that men buy socks isn’t going to give your copywriters much to go on – that’s where the second component of persona development comes in. But first, here are a few of the most-common publics you might want to include in your “official” target audience document:

  • Customers – the people that buy your products and services. This group will include prospective customers (people that haven’t bought yet), as well as current customers (those who already have made a purchase). Don’t just put everyone involved in the purchase decision in this bucket. If you work in business-to-business marketing and have a complex sales cycle, you’re looking for the decision-makers here. Similarly, if you’re a brand manager in a business-to-consumer segment, you know there are people that pull your product off the shelf and put it into their cart, and then there are all the other people in their lives that led up to that moment. See the next bullet…
  • Influencers – these are all the other people involved in the purchase process. Your sales and marketing leaders should have a good grasp on the sales process specific to your business. Lean on them to help you segment out the decision-makers from the influencers in your audience targeting. It’s important to develop message strategies that appeal to each of these groups. Some messages will fly with both, others are designed to influence the influencer. Take the time to get to know this process inside and out – your campaign ROI is driven by these people.
  • Employees -these are your messengers. The better they understand what you’re trying to say, the better you will say it. To help them understand your messaging, you have to understand them. This is why your employees are one of your target audiences you need to define in this stage of the process.
  • Investors/Shareholders – depending on the structure of your organization, this audience can be very important. If you have significant investor oversight (think public companies and venture-backed startups), you’ll need to have a strategy for communicating to this group. Like all the audiences in your summary, you need to understand what moves them, what’s important to them and what do they expect from a communications standpoint. You need them on your side.
  • Media -one of the most important influencer groups you serve… the all important media. Your public relations operation is dedicated to influencing this group, but how well do you understand the subgroups at play? A 30-year veteran of any newspaper ending in “Times” or “Post” is going to have different needs and interests than a journalist who writes content for anything with an RSS feed. There’s also the mainstream media and your industry specific outlets. Then there are the different types of media that reach the dozens of audiences you’re going to have after this exercise. With media targeting, you’ll want to get to a point where you know exactly the right outlet – and contact – to talk to when you’re trying to get a message to a specific audience.
  • Analysts – there are two primary types of analysts you should be concerned with during this exercise: financial analysts and research analysts. Financial analysts care about your share price or your prospects for going public (I’m generalizing here). Industry or research analysts (the good people at Forrester, Gartner, IDC, etc.) cover your industry. They’re the ones that help your customers develop a short list for companies they should buy their next stuff from. If you don’t have a good relationship with these analysts, your sales numbers will suffer. Get to know the people that cover your industry (or your market) and make sure you keep them up to date on your key messages and what you’re all about as an organization. Your public relations agency or internal team should be on this.
  • Special Interest Groups – this is a catchall category if I’ve ever seen one, but every type of organization has them. If you sell parking meters, there are groups dedicated to putting you out of business. Make some kind of dangerous product? There’s a group out there that wants to queue up a class action lawsuit. I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but be honest about the type of business you’re in and the groups out there that might not like it. Need I remind you of the challenges facing financial services organizations on that famous street in New York City? Yep, you need to have a communications strategy that addresses all your audiences. And then there’s the unions, lobbyists and other groups out there that might have influence over the audiences you’re trying to reach. If you don’t have any of these concerns, consider yourself lucky.
  • Government- if you have a compliance department, chances are you didn’t make all the rules you have to follow. Healthcare, Financial Services, Manufacturing, Technology, you name it, there are tons of industries impacted by the laws and compliance requirements set forth and enforced by the government. This could be a local concern for your organization – like zoning for a new store you want to bring to a small town. It could be much more significant than that. You know your business better than I do. If you have an audience responsible for some form of oversight, or an audience that can pass laws that restrict or enhance your ability to do business, you need to have a communication strategy that addresses those audiences.

These are just a few of the target audiences to consider when defining your publics. View your organization as the hub on a wheel, with each audience you serve representing a spoke. You may not need an active communications effort for each spoke, but it’s best to understand all the audiences at play when developing and planning for communicating your messages.

The Second Component – Persona Development

Persona development is the second component of audience planning I’d like you to consider. This is where you get to get all creative and clever about your audience definition. If you’ve worked around advertising at all, you’ve probably had a taste of persona development. Persona development is where you humanize the common features of a particular segment of your public (target audience) to help you get into the mindset of the customer. Let’s take the sock example. Maybe burly men buy your socks. Let’s assume your socks are heavy duty socks. The kind hard core athletes – like rugby players that tape their ears to their head to avoid getting them ripped off in the scrum. Let’s create a persona for Brutus to help us better visualize what might motivate him to buy your socks. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, the former captain of the cheerleading squad. Now they’ve got four boys who are following in Brutus’ footsteps – they’re always rolling around in the mud out back. Brutus’ wife Betsy doesn’t care about the same sock qualities as Brutus. She’s more concerned with them getting clean in the wash, and that the socks will last a long time. It costs a lot of money to keep all those boys in socks after all. If I haven’t lost you in this post yet, let me get to the point. Developing personas helps you to clarify the most common qualities that make up subgroups of your target audiences.

So how should you approach persona development? Take your customer audience as the starting point. This is the most important area to develop personas for. Go around the table and ask your team to suggest some typical examples of the most common customers you serve. You need to keep the number of personas you have at a level you can manage. If you have brand managers for every product you market, you can probably get away with five personas for every brand. If you’re a small organization with limited resources, maybe you only want five total personas to start with. The important point here is to humanize the audiences you’re serving. Rather than trying to communicate to moms with multiple children between the ages of 25-30, it’s more effective to develop communications campaigns for individuals that represent the commonalities among different segments of that audience. If you’ve been selling your products and services for a while now, you should be able to identify some personas to start with over the course of an hour meeting with your senior management. Start there and refine over time as you get to know the personas better. Before you know it, people will start talking about your personas as if they’re real people. “This will never fly with Jane,” or “Bob is going to love this new product” will become the norm in your planning sessions.

If on the other hand you have a hard time homing your target audiences down into some personas you can use, try to identify some of these qualities among the subgroups (then name them):

  • Is the person male or female?
  • How old are they?
  • What does the person do for a living?
  • Where do they live?
  • What is most important to them in life?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • What are they scared of?
  • What would make their life better?
  • What personality traits do they have?
  • Do they currently use your products and services? Why or why not?

You can probably think of a dozen or so other traits to look for when organizing your audience subgroups. Just get your people in the room and hit the whiteboard.

The Third Component – Using Real Data to Define Your Audiences

I know I said there were two components to audience identification that I use. Well, there’s actually a third that I use when I can – this one is based on research. If you have access to past purchase information and you actually know down to the decimal point who buys your socks, well, that’s great. That’s the best type of data to have on hand when developing messages for your existing buyers. The previous components will help you develop strategies to reach new customer segments, or to develop new approaches to expanding your reach among existing segments. If you know your demographics and can categories your target audiences using actual data, start there. You can then elaborate with the examples provided above.

As an extension of the third, data-driven component, social media is a relatively new tool in the audience identification toolbox. If you’re actively leveraging social platforms to interact with and engage your customers, chances are you’re sitting on some pretty useful data about your audiences. Facebook Insights for example will tell you a ton about the audiences interacting with your content. It will also give you – pay attention to this part – real data on the types of messages your audiences are most likely to respond to. This is data historically reserved for brands with big budgets and dedicated research departments (or agency resources). Now everyone can have this type of insight. If you are leveraging your social platforms to manage your conversations with customers, pull this data into your audience identification summaries. Not only will you be able to identify the groups and personas you’ll want to develop messaging for, but you’ll be able to home in on the messages that each group is most responsive to.

What Now Coach?

So you’ve gone through this exercise and have a much clearer idea of the audiences at play inside and outside of your organization. What now? Now comes the fun part, taking your message platform and developing messages specific to each of the audiences you communicate with. This process is sometimes referred to as message mapping – and it’s the topic of the next post in this series.

Share Your Thoughts. How do you approach audience identification? Do you use personas to plan your communications campaigns? What process or approach do you use that might benefit readers of this post? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Image Credit: “Binoculars – a working collection,” by jlcwalker / Flickr)

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

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    I have been surfing on-line more than three hours as of late, yet I never found any fascinating article like yours

  • http://bodinewilliams.com/ Bodine Williams

    This is an excellent post. I think that too often people want to be able to reach more people, rather than effectively targeting people who are actually going to listen, not just in PR or communications, but in a lot of aspects of running a business. It is hard to keep in mind that sometimes less is more, and I think that you’ve done a good job outlining crucial advice.