How to Use Target Audiences to Level-up Your Marketing

When used effectively, a target audience strategy provides a human-centered check on your brand, content, and marketing strategies.
Cosmic insights user personas target audiences

Understanding your target audience is one of the most powerful elements of an effective brand and marketing strategy. It’s also, however, one of the most misunderstood. We find that more often than not, organizations think they know their audience, but very few have a properly developed target audience strategy in place.

When used effectively, a target audience strategy provides a human-centered check on your brand, content, and marketing strategies. Without this, your marketing efforts won’t resonate with the people you’re trying to inspire to take action—or worse, your efforts may even end up working against you. Your organization’s success hinges on earning the attention and support of the people who care most about your cause, so it’s crucial that you take the time to deeply understand who they are and why they care.

This article walks through our framework for defining and refining your target audience strategy, so that you can level-up your marketing and amplify your impact.

Step 1: Identify Your Core Personas

Personas are, simply put, the archetypal groups of people that matter most to your organization. If you’ve gone through a persona exercise before, you may have seen persona profiles that look like this: “Donna the Donor is a 42 year-old CPA, mother of two boys, drives a Prius, and shops exclusively at Whole Foods ...”

We find this approach to personas to be mostly unnecessary, misguided, and rarely backed by real data.

Instead, simply think of your core personas more like key audience segments. For example, the personas for a nonprofit museum might be: major gifts donors, members, volunteers, partners, and board members.

We’ve found that keeping your personas simple and focused is more useful than building out in-depth, overly specific, fictional profiles. If you can use personas to effectively check and guide your marketing, any additional depth is optional—if not overkill.

There is value, however, in understanding a few key attributes for each persona that can inform and guide your marketing strategies.

Step 2: Further Develop Your Personas

Once you’ve determined your core personas, the next step is to develop a deeper understanding of each type. Begin by answering the following questions for each persona with your internal team.

What are their motivations, beliefs, and values?

To effectively capture your audience’s attention, it’s critical to understand their core motivations, beliefs, and values. What inspires them to take positive actions? How do their beliefs and values align with your organization’s mission?

Some personas may be more motivated by data and metrics, while others might resonate more with emotional appeal. Some value transparency, while others value history or legacy.

Often, you’ll find shared qualities across personas, and that’s ok. Just be sure to understand what motivates each persona so that you can use this data to inform your marketing strategies.

What are their fears, barriers, and doubts?

Equally important to understanding your target audience’s motivations, beliefs, and values is to be aware of the fears, barriers, and doubts that might prevent them from supporting your organization.

A universal barrier due to our increasingly busy digital lives is ‘the economy of attention.’ On average, smartphone users in the US receive nearly 46 push notifications and over 100 business-related emails every day. When you add in notifications from Slack, Asana, Trello, Basecamp, and other platforms, this becomes a serious barrier that can prevent your audience from staying connected and keeping your organization top of mind. How can you stand out from the barrage of overwhelming inputs competing for your target audience’s attention?

Other barriers might be lack of awareness, premature or unclear asks, or doubt that their actions will make a real impact.

For each persona, outline a clear understanding of their barriers and develop simple strategies to overcome them over time.

What benefits, services, or products do you offer them?

There’s no need to overcomplicate this. Simply consider the value your organization provides for each persona. How does your work benefit them? What services or products do you offer that are relevant to their needs or wants? Why would they pick you over one of your competitors? How are you differentiating your organization from others in your space?

Although straightforward, having a clear and comprehensive outline of your organization’s benefits can help inform your strategies moving forward.

Target Audience Interview Questions

What are you asking them to do?

This seemingly obvious question is often overlooked or unclear in marketing materials and campaigns. It might seem self-evident what you’re asking each persona to do, but unless you have a clear ask—presented as a clear Call to Action (CTA) in your campaigns—your audience might hit a roadblock right before the finish line.

Here, it’s important to keep your ask clear and focused, as too many choices lead to indecision and lack of action. We recommend outlining the primary and secondary actions you will ask each persona to take to help further your impact.

How can you reach your audience where they are?

Different audiences often prefer different channels or platforms, so it’s important to outline preferred channels of marketing and communications for each of your personas. The core concept here is to know where your audience naturally engages with organizations like yours so that you can more easily reach them where they are.

Is your major gifts donor persona type more likely to resonate with email marketing rather than instagram campaigns? Or maybe they’re best reached through high-touch, in-person events.

Do your volunteers respond best to social media posts? Then don’t send them an email asking them to get involved.

We recommend establishing a primary and secondary channel for each persona and keeping that in mind for your content, communications, and campaigns.

Step 3: Test Your Target Audience Strategy

Once you’ve completed your internal draft, be sure to test your assumptions by setting up short interviews with ideal representatives for each of your core personas. Walk through the attributes you’ve defined for each persona, and be sure they resonate with your interviewee.

Here, a simple conversation leads to valuable insights:

“What first motivated you to support our organization? What might have held you back from taking action? Where do you prefer to follow us for updates? Which of your beliefs or values do you feel most align with our mission? What ways would you prefer to contribute to our cause?”

Often, the difference between your assumptions and real data are the missing links preventing your marketing efforts from performing to their full potential. Even a subtle disconnect can produce lackluster results.

Step 4: Put Your Target Audience Strategy to Use

Once you’ve completed your target audience strategy, you’re on your way to making your marketing more impactful. But having a clear strategy is only half the battle.

Now it’s critical to share and train everyone in your organization on your new target audience strategy. Schedule a meeting with your leadership team and walk through the purpose, process, and results of the strategy you just spent so much time and effort creating (Feel free to link them to this article for context). You need buy-in on your approach or no one will integrate your hard work into their strategy, habits, or actions.

Check your brand, marketing, and content strategies, and all current and planned marketing campaigns against your target audience strategy. With your deeper understanding of your audience, does your existing messaging speak to them effectively? Are you appealing to their motivations, beliefs, and values? Do you have strategies in place to overcome their fears, barriers, and doubts? What do you offer them, and what are you asking them to do? Are you reaching them through the right marketing channels?

Over time, it’s easy to lose sight of the important insights a target audience strategy reveals. A clearly defined target audience is a helpful tool to ensure your marketing is on-target, effective, and as impactful as possible.

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