Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Know Your Target Audience

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a weekly feature of this blog devoted to improving your communications skills.  This time we're talking about improving your odds of attaining your communications objectives by understanding exactly whom it is you're trying to reach.

When you craft a piece of writing, a verbal presentation, or an email, you start with a pretty good idea of your message, or  what you want to say.  You're also clear about your mission, or what you want to accomplish.  But to help your message fulfill its mission, you also need to know your market -- that is, the segment of the population that you want to reach.

"Market?"  I can hear some of you saying.  "Isn't that a very sales-y way to put it?"  Yes, it is.  Face it, all you artists and English majors: if you're looking to impact people with your words, you are seeking to sell to them.  The transaction looks like this:

Basic Communications Success Formula
  1. I present you with ideas, packaged in the form of writing, speech, or other medium; 
  2. You give me the response I want, packaged in the form of approval, attention, belief, action, or (possibly even) money.
It's a sale, all right.  Why else do we call it "reader buy-in"?

So make like a Marketing major, and do some serious thinking about who's on the receiving end of your message. Profile your audience. Start by asking: What are...

  • Their unifying elements -- What do these people have in common?  Are they professionals, management, or entrepreneurs? Homeowners or renters?  Baby boomers or Gen-X'ers?  
  • Their priorities -- What do they think is important?  What are their wants, needs, pursuits, hobbies, and interests?
  • Their propensities -- What behaviors do they usually exhibit, and when?   Are they passive or active?   Do they respond to intellectual rationale, or emotional pitches?  
  • Their boogiemen -- What are they fearful or anxious about?   What things threaten their sense of well-being?  What risks do they always have on their radar?
  • Their dreams -- What transcendent ideas matter to them?  What fuels their passion to make a difference?  What legacy do they seek to leave?
Answering these questions will help you develop a distinct picture of the people to whom you're aiming your communication. With this profile in mind,  you'll naturally find yourself selecting words and illustrations that resonate with your target group, and rejecting approaches, concepts and metaphors that will turn them off.

The concept of profiling came to life for me when I helped develop and implement a sales training course.  The learners were taught to chat with a prospective buyer and listen for facts that would help them sell.  For instance, if the prospect mentioned that he had a very busy life, the salesperson would mentally add that fact to his customer profile and highlight the time-saving features of the product.  If the prospect was facing financial challenges, the salesperson would highlight the product's cost-saving features.

The salesperson who conducts customer profiling in this way seeks to gain a sales advantage by sorting a potential customer's verbal clues to match a product to their needs and wishes.  In a similar way, we communicators need to present our "product" in a way that captures the' interest and imagination or our target audience.

The best communication presentations are the ones that draw nods, elicit sympathy, and spark affinity.  They make people laugh, or cry.  They inspire them to take action, or hold their ground.  We say that they hit home.  But how can you hit home unless you've first discovered where your listeners live, moment by moment -- in their thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and concerns? 

Too often, writers write as though they think they have an automatic psychic bond with the people they want to impact. Or, worse still, they assume that their readers' tastes and motivations mirror their own.  They don't really think about who they're writing to.  It's the equivalent of talking to someone without looking them in the eye.   The wise communicator will try her best to find out ahead of time exactly who her listeners are, and approach her topic in the way that most respects their point of view. 

Blindly stereotyping your audience is a bad way to proceed.  People interpret stereotyping as contempt -- and they're right.   Do NOT make assumptions.  Nothing aggravates an audience more than being told who they should be, or  what they should be thinking, feeling or doing.  

However, having an accurate picture of your audience will empower your communication.  If people sense that you understand them and have their interests at heart, they will allow your message to proceed past their defense perimeters.   

Don't go into your communication blindfolded, trusting in your awesome writing ability to make a psychic connection with your readers.  Care enough about your communications goal to research exactly whom you're trying to reach.   Then use that awareness to edit out anything in your message that might communicate non-acceptance or accentuate the differences between your world and theirs.  

Are you sending your communications out scatter-shot, assuming they will find their mark?  Or are you delivering your ideas with targeting precision?


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