If You Want to Reach an Audience, Define Who They Are

If You Want to Reach an Audience, Define Who They Are

Bringing Your Target Audience to Life Will Pump Life into Your Brand

When I conduct brand workshops for my clients, we create a foundational platform that can support their brand and all their marketing efforts. I take them through several group exercises, from SWOT analyses to making mood boards, with a fair amount of navel-gazing thrown in for good measure. But nearly every time we start the one where we create a persona to represent the target audience, someone raises their hand:

[quote]I don’t get why we’re doing this. We don’t want to limit who our customers are. We sell to all kinds of people.[/quote]

Ok, great. But you can’t be all things to all people. Even mega-brands like Apple and Pepsi have had to learn that lesson. Targeting ads to “anyone who needs a computer” or “people who like soda” doesn’t work because that’s not how a brand differentiates itself. A florist who thinks that everyone who walks into her shop does so because they fit into the category of “people who like flowers” doesn’t know much about her customers. And I guarantee you they don’t know much about her or her shop. And mutual ignorance between you and your audience is not a recipe for sustained business success.

Whoever they may be, your target audience has distinct objectives, challenges and needs that define them. Creating a representative sketch of these people paints a clear picture of them. It personifies what would otherwise be a nebulous group and enables you to think about who you’re talking to in concrete terms. This is incredibly helpful when developing messages that resonate and choosing the vehicles for those messages.

In reality, your customers and your prospects will deviate from any portrait you create in one or more respects. But defining them is not intended to dictate exactly who your audience is or can be with no deviations; that would not be practical. Nor is it intended to define your “dream customer” at the expense of actual ones. We’re not trying to exclude anyone here.

What we’re doing is identifying important characteristics of both current customers and those you target. The sketch you create will be a guide; a “shorthand” way of referring to your audience that, while perhaps not manifested in every detail, does bear out to be true in spirit. If your profile says that your target consumer likes to play chess, of course not every one of your clients will be a chess player. But the majority of them will fit the conventions most people would attribute to chess players.

The sketch you create will be a guide, a “shorthand” way of referring to your audience.

Defining your audience is not about boxing you in when it comes to the customers you pursue. It’s really about focusing on how you’re going to most effectively spend your limited time, energy and money so your marketing efforts pay off. And know that just because you define a target audience doesn’t mean others won’t be drawn in by your brand as well. Remember our florist friend? Let’s say her shop is down the street from an office park and she’s noticed that the majority of her customers are businessmen. So she defines her target audience (in a nutshell) as a busy male executive who needs an easy, thoughtful way to let his wife know he’s thinking about her. How sweet. Does that mean his just-as-busy female administrative assistant can’t pop in to send some birthday flowers to her mom? Of course not. But if most of our florist’s business is coming from the neighborhood Mr. Bigshots, she should 1) know that; and 2) use that information in her marketing.

Here’s a story that demonstrates the power of going through this exercise. Not too long ago I was leading a group of eight people through it. Their responses were minimal and I could tell no one saw much value in what we were doing. After coaxing answers out of them for about 30 minutes, we finally had a nice, comprehensive idea of who “our guy” was. I always like to give this archetypal person a name, so I asked them what it should be. Right away, someone said, “Stephen!” and the others chimed in with “Yes!” and “That’s perfect.” Everyone was nodding. I went to write the name at the top on the whiteboard, but hesitated after writing “S-t-e.”

I turned to the group: “Does he spell it with a V or a PH?”

Immediately, everyone responded, “PH!” and the whole place erupted in laughter. I could hardly believe my ears.

I pointed out to them how reluctant they had been to even do this exercise, but that each and every one of them knew without a doubt that this guy’s name was Stephen, not Steven. Why does it matter? Two reasons. First, the fact they all instinctively and emphatically knew it was PH meant that they all associated certain personality traits with spelling it that way. It could be formality, pretentiousness, blue-bloodedness, meticulousness, a strong sense of individuality, or something else. The point is, it mattered and they hadn’t realized it until that moment. Second, they obviously recognized their current clients in the fictional one we had just constructed, so already they were identifying with the profile and seeing how the process of flushing it out in detail – even drilling down to something as seemingly meaningless as how he spells his name – was turning lights on in their minds, getting them excited, and clueing them in as to who their brand needed to be talking to.

So I encourage you to try this exercise, even if you think it’s too limiting. Do it anyway. Push yourself to come up with detailed answers. Think of the person you create as your ideal, or target customer, and know that he or she is not your end-all, be-all, only-person-in-the-world-you-can-ever-talk-to prospect. Rather, he or she is your focus and your base. Your inspiration and your BS detector. Once you give this person life, he or she will begin talking to you in ways you never expected, encouraging you to follow through with some of your ideas, and stopping you from jumping the tracks with others. You’ll be in a constant conversation with the very customer you’re trying to reach. Which is a very powerful thing.

[box]Want to be in a constant conversation with the very customer you’re trying to reach?[/box]

The exercise itself is very basic, but the more detailed your answers are the more clear your target audience will become in your mind and, more important, in your marketing. Just copy these five headings into a Word document and have at it. Bullet points are fine. If it helps, think of all the details that define your own life, and come up with the equivalent for your audience profile. When you’re done, you can do what I do and string the bullets together for a multi-paragraph sketch in prose form. Don’t forget to name him (or her).

I also encourage you to find a suitable picture on the Internet that matches the description you just developed. It will really bring your audience to life. Just don’t use a celebrity or family member’s picture; they come with too much baggage and will only cloud up your definition.

[box style=”tick”]Copy the following five headings into a document and have at it.[/box]
Who are you? What do you do? Why should anyone care?

Who are you? What do you do? Why should anyone care?


Basic stats like age, gender, income, marital status, kids, etc.


What do they do for a living? For fun? What’s their living situation? How often do they vacation? Where do they go? Why? What are their hobbies?

Consumer behavior

What brands do they buy? Why? Where do they shop? Why? What about the media they consume: favorite TV shows, movies, music, books, etc.


How does this person feel about social issues? Politics? Religion? What are their morals? How do they feel about their job? etc.


What drives these decisions and attitudes? How does this person like to think of him/herself? What’s important to them in terms of how they are perceived and how they like to feel?

Defining your target audience is only one element of a solid brand platform; there are many others. You can read all about them and learn how to write your own brand platform in my book, You Got a Permit for that Brand You’re Trying to Build? How to Plan and Conduct a Workshop to Define Your Brand and Put Your Business on the Right Track.

  • Possible: Be something for someone. 
  • Impossible: Be everything to everyone.
  • Repossible: Know your brand AND your audience.
If you don't know who your audience is ... do they know who you are?

If you don’t know who your audience is … do they know who you are?

By |2017-05-24T13:28:06+00:00July 3rd, 2013|Marketing|2 Comments

About the Author:

Mike McGinty is an award-winning copywriter with a talent for uncovering and communicating unique brand stories. Working in both traditional and digital media, he collaborates with clients of all sizes to craft strategy and copy designed to build strong connections between brands and their audiences. Over his 19-year career he has brought his knack for distilling complicated information into compelling stories to a wide range of clients, including Cisco, AmEx, Google, Kaiser Permanente, UPS, Kodak, Diageo, Church’s Chicken, Cartoon Network, Fisher-Price, Mattel, and Warner Bros. Television. He works spans digital media, television, radio, print, outdoor, direct mail, video, and live events. He has been honored with dozens of awards, including the Clio, London International Advertising Awards, Tellys, Addys, and Webbys.


  1. Bradley Charbonneau July 4, 2013 at 2:12 am - Reply

    Hey Mike,

    Wow, this was one of those, “Yeah, yeah, I already know my audience.” but if you actually do the exercise you test what you think in your head versus what you then get onto paper. If it’s about the same, great, good for you–you do know your audience. But for many of us, ahem, like, uh, me, when you actually sit down and work on your business instead of just the daily for your business, you take it a step deeper and actually learn something.

    I just did your exercise above for two of my businesses and learned quite a bit! I’ve been wanting to have an option for Do It Yourself types for my WordPress design business and so I narrowed down who that ideal person is. They like IKEA because they want to save on costs, but they’d like it to look a little more stylish, a little more custom without going all the way to hiring a professional designer. Maybe they will later, but for now, they just want it done–but done nicely and on a smaller budget.

    Thanks for the action-packed post, Mike!

  2. […] Read the full piece: If You Want to Reach an Audience, Define Who They Are. […]

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