Pinpointing your target audience is a perennial issue—no matter how small or massive your business or nonprofit, no matter if your marketing budget is flush with gold doubloons or basically nonexistent, no matter if you’re selling a product, an experience, or an idea.

You probably already understand that running a successful business (and any successful marketing campaign) hinges on your thorough, imaginative, and ongoing understanding of the people you want to serve. The tough truth is that none of the other business elements will count—not the worthiness of the cause, not the excellence of the product—if the people who will love it, buy it, and rave about it can’t find you. 

There are already a lot of great guides online to defining a target audience with extensive lists of thoughtful questions, and I’m posting my favorites below. But typically these guides dive so quickly into the weeds that they make the basic task at hand seem thorny and impossible.

Before you break out those buyer profile templates and draw up your segmented advertisements, take just one step backward.

You are looking for just three things. These can be tackled in any order.


The Problem

What is the one problem your organization addresses? What issue does your product solve? What event occurs that makes your business necessary? What is the negative emotion that is dispelled every time a customer attends your event or uses your items?

People will engage deeply when the things you offer solve or ameliorate problems they’re facing. If you already have loyal customers or followers, you have already been doing this, perhaps without understanding what it is you’re solving for them.

Your task is to find out from the audience’s perspective what they’re going through, and how you are helping or can help in the future.


The Demographic

Your audience can be defined by a whole host of traits that are by definition externally verifiable. The traits might define something at the individual level, such as one’s age or location. Or they might say something about groups, such as pageview numbers revealing popular topics on your blog. There are also demographic traits that pertain only to your organization, such as defining which segments of your total audience use which channels to communication with your business.

The thing to note here is that intuition doesn’t serve marketers very well in defining their demographic audience. People tend to need to put faces on faceless groups, and it’s too easy for a handful of personal experiences or feelings to shape how you understand the audience as a whole.

Your task is to dig into your data—sales, website, social media, anything you have—and verify everything you can about the people you serve. (For those who haven’t launched yet, this is where competitive analysis comes in.)


The Psychographic

Unlike demographic traits, your audience’s psychographic traits are the defining factors that only the individuals themselves could verify. What do your customers believe? What do they value? How do they feel about [insert anything relevant to your business]?

Depending on your business case, this can be the hardest or easiest third of the work of defining your audience. It will likely require a combination of quantitative data analytics and qualitative data like surveys or SERP analysis.

If you can pinpoint what your audience values, believes, fears, or finds fulfilling, and you know what problem your organization solves for those people, you can create a whole host of segmented messages based on demographics.


You should begin work from whichever corner of this triangle seems easiest! You’ll find that one insight inevitably leads to another. Remember to simplify: if you can’t state your findings in less than 30 seconds, you can probably keep whittling.

Take this away: The work of defining your target audience is ultimately about reframing your business’s identity: it’s not about “what you do” but “who you are working for, and what they need or want.”


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