Your audience is what they do, not who they are

One of the biggest truisms in communications is “know your audience.” This is obviously good advice, because the more you know about someone, the easier it is to write for them.

When you’re figuring out who your audience is, you need to make sure you do this in a meaningful way. Every person has all kinds of different character traits, and only a few of them are going to be useful for your purposes. 

As an example, I was once asked to write an eDM to go out to a list of new leads. I asked who they were, and the person briefing me said, “Mostly women, aged 35-50.” 

Hmm. 

I had a quick look on the Stats website, and in NZ alone, “women aged 35-50” constitutes a whopping 500,000 people. I would expect that these women have very little in common beyond being born between 1968 and 1983. 

What to do?

I went back to the well-meaning person behind this brief, and asked for some more information. She was very accomodating, and told me a few more relevant details:

  • The leads had come from a booth the sales team had at a trade show.
  • The trade show was for business owners in a certain niche. 
  • The leads had been collected by showing people a short demo of our product, and asking them to share their email addresses to learn more about what we could do. 

This was a lot more useful than a reckoning of their ages and gender. I know knew the business they were in, the context in which they’d met us, what they knew about our product, and whether they were interested in hearing about it. 

What you do vs who you are

The lesson here is to think about what people do, rather than who they are. You’ll get a lot more value out of your communications if you can define your audience by their behaviour. 

If you’re using things like age and gender as your audience definition, you’ll have to make assumptions about people - usually based on stereotypes. This is not very helpful. But when you use people’s behaviour to define them, you don’t have to make assumptions - you’re dealing with crystal-clear information that they’ve given you, through their actions. 

So when you’re writing anything, take a second to think about what your audience has done. If you’re writing a speech, you know that your audience has chosen to go to an event. If you’re writing a blogpost about marketing and communication, you know that your audience has clicked a link to a blogpost on marketing and communication.

These concrete actions, while small, tell you quite a bit about your audience’s interests and priorities  - so make sure you consider them before you start writing. They'll give you a lot more information than vague, broadly defined demographic reckonings.