When I was working at a dotcom startup, my company was so sure we had our target audience pegged down that we drew a wall-sized portrait of a representative individual — a skateboarding male, 18-35 years old, who prefers to wear backwards hats and skater gear. All of our marketing efforts were tailored to serving this demographic, and more specifically, this person that was literally looking down at us every day.
Business was good, too. Our strategy was working. So when we partnered with a data collection company to do some simple research, we did a double take at their reports after a few months. Our audience was actually soccer moms, age 25-40, riding around in minivans with their kids.
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We had worked so painstakingly to create a persona for young males that this rocked our worlds. But, in spite of ourselves and our complete whiff at figuring out our target audience, we were experiencing success. Once we found out we were actually a soccer mom brand, we kept our same marketing approach and only changed up a few featured items to match who was actually receiving our content.
Looking back, we were fortunate. We got by despite making a critical mistake early — we assumed our audience without getting to know its true identity. This approach doesn’t work for the vast majority of companies. Our message happened to resonate with a particular audience, but when a marketing strategy doesn’t inspire a big response, many organizations blame the message instead of re-examining the audience.
There’s never a bad time to give yourself a gut check to make sure you’re talking to the right audience. Best case scenario, you’ll be validated for making excellent assumptions. Worst case, you’ll be way off, but you’ll have all the data you need to change course quickly.
The only proven method for discovering your real target audience is by talking to customers and potential customers. That much should be obvious. Finding out who they really are takes more than simple demographic surveys and yes/no questionnaires, however.
There are several different ways you can get to know your audience and some key questions that help shine a light on who they are. If you think you know your audience already, you should be able to answer these. If not, it’s time to sharpen your listening skills.
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How does your audience like to receive content from you?
Knowing how your audience behaves is a great indicator of how they’d prefer you to behave as well. What type of content is your audience sharing, and what are the mediums they’re using to share it? Interacting with the right people isn’t difficult once you know where they are. The most effective messages are the ones that don’t feel intrusive or "salesy," so use social monitoring tools to pinpoint how comfortable your audience is with different content delivery mechanisms, then leverage those for your own benefit.
How does your audience interact with you?
If you’re already sparking a healthy conversation with an audience, then you’re probably in the right ballpark. But you can still go deeper to find out if your interactions are surface-level engagement or if you’re actually inspiring deep-seeded brand commitment.
Engaged audiences are interested in your content and maybe your product or service offerings. They’re often in the early stages of the buyer journey and may interact with you by asking questions pre-purchase. Committed audiences, on the other hand, are ready to eat up whatever content you feed them. Their form of interaction is pro-active — they don’t wait around for you to take the lead. They’ll open up a line of dialogue that probes deeper into a piece of content you published. To them, the story you’re telling is so relevant to their day-to-day interests that you’ve practically read their minds.
If you can say with confidence that the majority of your audience is committed on a deeper level, then you’re talking to the right people.
How frequently does your audience interact with you?
By chance, you can put out a piece of content that’s hyper-relevant to someone in that moment. An individual might share that piece, even make a purchase, and show signs of a dedicated, committed audience member. But it could also be fool’s gold, a case of lightning striking once.
Frequency of interaction is a key determining factor of selecting the right target audience. Are you providing content that piques your audience’s interest, even when they’re not looking to make a purchase? Do they look up to you as a thought leader in your category? This is where knowing your audience’s pain points inside and out can help you identify the right messaging that will inspire frequent interaction. If you know what frustrates your customers, you can more consistently provide them with solutions that will deepen their trust and relationship with you.
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You might be selling business to business, but don’t forget that you’re selling to individual people within that business. And people vary wildly in the way they consume messages, the media they use and their relationships with products and services. Instead of assuming your audience all behaves the same way and drawing a representative portrait to hang on your office walls, use the tools at your disposal to remove the guesswork and help you better reach the right people.