The very first step in any communications or marketing strategy is defining your target audience so that you can tailor your message or pitch accordingly. For businesses, this is usually your typical potential buyers of a product or service. For a nonprofit, it could be potential clients for a program, volunteers for an initiative, advocates to spread a message, or donors to support a cause.

Try to keep it to one target audience per product or service whenever possible. Different products may often have different target audiences. For example, Gillette created multiple lines of razors to target different audiences based on price point and gender. In the same way a nonprofit might want to define target audiences for clients, volunteers, and donors separately (even if there is some overlap). In other instances, a single product might have multiple customer niches that require completely different marketing. For example, an event venue would market the same space in completely different ways for weddings and business parties, or a nonprofit might take different fundraising approaches with college students and business executives.

Identifying Your Target Audience

The following questions are designed to help you better identify your target audience so that you can fine-tune your messaging to reach them more effectively.

1. What is the desired action of your target audience?

Again, this is heavily dependent on whether you’re a business, nonprofit, school, or other type of organization.

  • Buying your product or service
  • Donating to your organization
  • Volunteering for an event
  • Advocating by spreading the word and educating others
  • Signing up for membership

2. What demographic groups are most likely to take the desired action?

Figure out not only who has a need for your product or service, but also who is most likely to take action (buy, donate, volunteer). Consider the following factors but be cautious not to whittle things down too far.

  • Age Group
  • Gender (M, F, both)
  • Location (local, regional, national &/or urban, suburban, rural)
  • Marital/Family Status
  • Income Level
  • Education Level
  • Occupation

Digging into the data you have on your current audience can help you understand which characteristics are most likely to help you grow your target audience.  You may be able to find this data in your CRM or donor database if it’s available, or you can draw insights from audience analytics tools in Google Analytics or social media analytics. Depending on the state of your existing internal data, it’s possible you have some of these details but not all. If you’re finding significant gaps in your demographic information, a data append can fill in additional information.

By evaluating the demographic data of your existing audience, you may reveal patterns about which groups are most likely to buy your product or support your organization.

3. How do they think?

This information can be gathered through interviewing or surveying existing customers or supporters.

  • Personality types
  • Attitudes
  • Values
  • Interest/Hobbies
  • Lifestyles
  • Behaviors

4. What needs, challenges, and frustrations do they have?
Understanding where your audience’s needs and frustrations are, helps to shift the conversation from how they can help you (“buy my product”) to how you can help them. Often times this is communicated very subtly. You won’t see Charity Water saying, “We know you feel the need to belong to something that is both cool and makes an impact. We’re both, so you should give us money.”

5. How does your idea, service, or product help your target audience or align with their values?
What problem does it solve? How does it make their lives easier? Better? What would motivate them to pay for it,  or to support it?

6. What drives them to make purchasing decisions? (purchasing, donating, volunteering, sharing, etc)
What influences them to take that final step? What obstacles might be in their way? One product I worked with did an amazing job at marketing to potential users of our product and generated tons of interest and excitement on an advertising budget of virtually $0. Unfortunately we significantly underestimated the challenges these excited potential customers would have convincing those that hold the organization’s purse strings to authorize the purchase of the service. The time we were forced to spend on demos and emails walking these leaders through the benefits slowed us down and increased new account acquisition costs.

7. Do they currently use (or support) a product or service of your organization or that of a similar organization?
If so, this means that they have shown an active interest in your type of service (good) but may be open to new opportunities or may be satisfied with the way things are.

8. What media do they currently use?
Consider the magazines they read, tv & movies they watch, websites they visit, and social media sites they frequent. For social media, consider the times they are most active and what types of content they engage with (follows, clicks, comments, mentions, likes, and shares).

9. What types of content or messages have they found most engaging in the past?

Review your previous marketing efforts to see what has resulted in the highest engagement or conversion before.

This may include:

  • Email marketing engagement data, such as open rate or click-through rate
  • Web analytics information, such as which pages on your site recieve the most visitors or views
  • Social media analytics, including which types of media your audience interacts with (video, photos, graphics, etc).

10. Are you confident you picked the right target audience?
It’s all about balance. If you try to reach everyone you will likely appeal to no-one, but if only a handful of people meet all your criteria you have broken things down too far. You should also question your assumptions. Will they really benefit from your product or service? If so will they recognize it enough to spend the required money (or time)? Do you really understand what goes into their decision-making process or are you just guessing? Lastly, how realistic is it that you will be able to reach them with your message?

Not sure of an answer, or want to verify a hunch? With a little persistence, Google can prove quite helpful in helping track down research that others have already compiled on your target. Search for blog posts, magazine articles, and survey results that talk about your target market. You also might want to consider creating a survey of your own where you can ask your current customers for feedback.

Reaching Your Target Audience

Defining the market is the tough part. Now that you know who you are targeting, you should find it much easier to figure out what marketing messages will resonate with them and which media channels will be most effective at reaching them.

The tactics should vary based on both goals and audiences. A clothing brand trying to increase sales for a new product launch will have a very different strategy than a private school seeking item donations for an upcoming silent auction. As an example, let’s consider a local animal shelter that is trying to attract volunteers to help with routine feedings and cleanup.  By working through the questions outlined above, the animal shelter would be able to craft a strategy for the following marketing channels:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO) – The shelter should make sure the site can appear in search results for relevant terms like “volunteer at animal shelter.” To be successful, the website should be free of issues that prevent Google’s crawlers from navigating the site (like broken links), and there should be content published that meets the search intent. This may be a page on the website that explains the impact volunteers have on the shelter and some information about getting involved.
  • Paid search advertising – In addition to trying to capture traffic from organic search, you may also want to consider pay-per-click advertising in search. Registered nonprofit organizations are eligible for $10,000 in free ad credits per month via the Google Ad Grant.  These credits can be used to bid on specific keywords that are relevant to your target audience. The animal shelter may choose to apply for the grant on their own, or potentially work with an agency that specializes in Google Ad grant management. With free advertising from the Google Ad Grant, the animal shelter could send potential supporters straight to their volunteer registration page. 
  • Direct mail or flyers -The shelter could create a pamphlet or flyer to distribute to local businesses, especially any that may already be affiliated with the cause, like a pet store. Or, if you have address information about your target audience, you could contact them individually via direct mail. Depending on your resources this could be as simple as a handwritten postcard. 
  • Social media – The shelter could attract new volunteers using social media through both paid and free strategies. By using targeted audience information, ads for volunteers could be placed in front of the right groups who may be interested in spending their time at the shelter. Or, the shelter could create a campaign that works off the social network of existing volunteers by asking them to share their favorite memories of pets finding their forever homes.

This list is not exhaustive, and you should consider other tactics based on factors like your end goal, audience characteristics and size, timeline, and more.