But “understanding” isn't a destination. It's a journey. It's a process of constant review, refinement and readjustment. Without regularly revisiting its target audience, the performance of a brand will decline at worst or stagnate at best.
To ensure you have the tools and knowledge you need to understand your audience and grow your brand, we’ve constructed this guide to researching your audience, dividing it into segments and ultimately building accurate, useful buyer personas to drive your strategies.
By the end of this guide, you’ll be able to target, market and sell to the right audience, at the right time, with the right methods.
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Every journey towards understanding begins with defining a target audience.
A target audience is the group of customers or potential customers who want or need (or would want or need) your products or services. These are the people who are most likely to seek out, engage with and ultimately purchase your offering.
A good target audience is:
You can't be all things to all people. There will be groups of people who will be unlikely, unwilling or unable to engage with your business and including them in your target audience could be more detrimental than beneficial. Specific trumps general every time.
Gut feelings and assumptions have no place in defining a target audience. Inclusions and exclusions must be backed by unbiased data gathered from accurate market research. Informed guesses can be a good starting point, but certainly aren't the end point.
A target audience should be made up of people who want to engage with your business, rather than the people your business wants to engage with. There should be a genuine benefit for the potential customers through engaging with your messaging or offering.
Laura sells formalwear. She discovers through research that her latest range has a lot of potential amongst 20-25 year-old professionals in Sydney because of its value for money and suitability for someone new to the workforce.
Laura has a great target audience here: she knows that the people she is targeting will get something from her product, she has made sure her research is accurate and not just a gut feeling, and she has a very specific set of people to chase.
Geoff sells luxury vehicles. He decides to target people with a lot of disposable income, because he wants to maximise his profits. He thinks that business owners would be a good start.
Geoff has made the mistake of targeting people he wants to reach, using assumptions about his audience’s wants and needs, and, worst of all, has only a vague idea of what demographics he wants to target.
Once you have established a target audience, you will be able to use channels and messaging to which this audience will be most receptive. This ensures you don't waste marketing spend on inappropriate mediums that your potential customers don't use or don't engage heavily with.
You'll also be able to tweak your brand personality, tone and general messaging to better fit with the target audience, resulting in more memorable, more effective comms.
Understanding your audience provides insights into unmet needs, as well as a thorough knowledge of the environment in which a product is sold. This allows a business to better develop their product/service offering and selling strategy to meet their audience’s demands.
Topics of research in this arena might include:
Once validated, the insights gleaned from these factors can be used to test different market entry strategies, expansion decisions, and new feature development.
Once a target audience has been defined, you can adjust your overall business direction to better suit your customers.
This could come down to how the business operations and divisional responsibilities are structured to best meet the needs of the target audience. Taking this customer-centric approach can have flow-on benefits for customer experience, retention and loyalty.
By knowing who you are selling to, you can better evolve your company for the right audience, rather than spending precious time trying to be everything to everyone.
At its core, understanding an audience is about finding the answers to a series of simple questions:
All of these questions focus on who the customer is and what they want.
For business-to-consumer (B2C) audiences, factors that you should consider in better understanding your audience include:
For business-to-business (B2B) audiences, you should consider:
The more of this information you can gather, the more accurately you can define your target audience and the more effective you can be in reaching them.
Tip: An excellent source of information is your current customer base. Begin your journey by defining your target audiences among your existing customers. Start with the most valuable segments: those who have a high lifetime value, buy frequently, or spend a significant amount when they do business with you.
There are two types of market research that are used to gather information for defining a target audience: qualitative and quantitative.
Each of these use different research methods and gather different kinds of data that you can use to gain insight into your product and your brand from the customers’ perspective.
Both of these types of research are used in conjunction to form a complete picture of your audience.
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Qualitative research is based around understanding experiences.
It’s typically not quite so focused around statistics as quantitative research. Rather, it gives specific insights into small numbers of individuals and usually can’t be generalised.
It gives you a deep dive into specific aspects of your target audience that quantitative, generalisable data may not be able to provide.
It’s particularly helpful when creating buyer personas.
Qualitative includes the following methods:
Interviews are typically conducted between a single researcher and a single respondent, either in person, over the phone or over a voice messaging system like Skype. They consist of a series of structured questions (where they are defined beforehand) or unstructured questions (where the interview is more conversational and the questions are fluid, usually using a discussion guide).
The general idea is to query the respondent about their motivations for and influences on purchasing and using your product or service.
The questions tend to be a mixture of specific and general questions, both about the product and the customer. Typical interview questions include:
Tip: Interviews are an excellent opportunity for brands to gauge their customers’ mindset—this, one-on-one time is valuable, so use it to get to know your customers as much as possible. Don’t just ask about the products and their experiences with your brand and your competitors, but also about the customer’s interests, perspectives, likes and dislikes, and so on.
A focus group involves gathering a group of customers/consumers in a controlled space, where the participants are asked to discuss a brand, product or service. Their interactions, attitudes and opinions are recorded.
Focus groups allow brands to gather verbal and non-verbal responses to the product, as well as avoiding the structured nature of an interview. Focus group discussions are also more fluid, often uncovering areas of interest and answering questions that interviewers or surveyors may not have thought to explore.
Typical focus group uses include:
Tip: The moderator has a list of questions that the research must answer, but the beauty of focus groups is the rich data that comes out of discussion between the group once they feel relaxed with each other. Sometimes the most insightful findings happen once the moderator fades into the background and participants ask their own questions of each other.
A market research participant may be asked to keep a diary or a journal to record their experiences with your brand, product or service. This usually includes a series of open-ended and closed questions, which are completed by the participant on a regular basis.
That might be at the end of a day (or week or month), after a specific event, or at some other defined point.
Alternatively, the participant can also be given a more open-ended task, in which they can fill in a journal as little or as much as they want, whenever they feel it necessary. Sometimes this can also include multimedia, such as images, text, videos and location tagging.
This method is useful for capturing your customer’s true voice, free of influence by researchers or other participants, as well as capturing initial and long-term reactions.
Tip: Consumers often have trouble accurately recalling what they did, when they did it and why they did something after the fact. When using journals, try and encourage your participants to enter their data as close to “real time” as possible. This can often lead to more accurate and useful information about how people are actually behaving and why.
There are a wide variety of different observation types, but all share the same basic principle: observing your participants using the product or service and noting their reactions.
Observations are typically used to gather in-situ information. That is, the participant is observed using the object or service in the actual scenario they would in real life.
The behaviour of the participant is recorded and later coded to reveal research insights. For example, a person using your company’s new vacuum cleaner may repeatedly have to return to the socket in order to plug the vacuum back in—this could reveal a need to either educate users better about the extension cord provided, or the need for a longer built-in cord.
Observational studies are a popular way to get detailed environmental information about your product or service, and more importantly, the way that your customers use it.
Tip: People often behave in ways that are at odds with the way they tell you they will behave. This disparity shouldn’t be seen as a frustration; rather, it presents the opportunity to gather extremely insightful data about stated behaviours and actual behaviour.
Social listening is the process of monitoring conversations online in order to better understand what customers (and potential customers) are saying about your business in general.
Social listening is different from social monitoring, in that it focuses on the larger strategic view. Monitoring looks at specific instances of social mentions, whereas social listening looks at the overall health of the brand in the social space.
For example, a complaint about slow connection speeds posted on an ISP’s Facebook page would be social monitoring, whereas social listening would be an amalgamation of all comments on that Facebook page and their tone—positive or negative.
When used as a research method, it is an excellent source of customer feedback without the potential researcher biases in interviews, observations and surveys.
Tip: Social listening is especially valuable for getting rapid feedback on your social media strategy, particularly in terms of content marketing efforts. Make sure to review social listening regularly to ensure you are hitting the mark.
Quantitative research is focused on statistics.
It typically requires robust sample sizes, and the results can then be generalised. They can be in-depth and targeted, or general and high-level—but it can lack the “real-life” insights that qualitative research can grant.
Related content: Should you use a market research agency?
Much like qualitative research, there are many forms of gathering quantitative data. These include:
Surveys are a series of questions that are asked of a large body of respondents. These questions can be posed in a number of forms, but common ways include multiple choice, yes/no, open-ended or a Likert scale.
Surveys are possibly the most popular form of quantitative research. They are easy to administer, quick to decode and can gather a large amount of useful data in a short amount of time. The fact that the questions included in the survey can range from opinions to demographic data is also incredibly valuable when defining a target audience.
However, there are some drawbacks in surveys, in that there is no guarantee you will get enough responses for a valid result, and the results you do get may be skewed simply by the method or question formats used. Surveys, particularly those without open-ended questions, need to be very carefully worded in order to make sure respondents can answer in an accurate, unbiased way.
Tip: Avoid any kind of bias when asking questions in your surveys. Stay neutral in your wording, make sure you aren’t being ambiguous, and ensure that you give enough context to ensure the respondents can answer accurately.
Data analysis involves taking information that you already have—such as existing customer information—and putting it through analysis to uncover insights.
For example, if you had 500 existing customers and wanted to build a profile of your target audience, you might analyse your data and discover that the vast majority of your audience are young women who are repeat purchasers and typically spend $50 every visit.
With that information, you now have the beginnings of a target audience.
However, your ability to utilise this data relies completely on the existing quality and depth of your information. If you collect no information about your customers or their purchase history, then you may not be able to glean many useful insights.
Additionally, most companies don’t gather enough data to draw conclusions about more qualitative matters such as values, likes and dislikes, hobbies, and so on.
Data analysis is an effective starting point for building a target audience. However, it is certainly not the only kind of research you should perform.
Tip: Take all of your data into account. At this stage, you can’t afford to make assumptions about which customer data is going to form a part of your target audience—analyse everything and find the trends.
Trend analysis is similar to general data analysis, but focuses specifically on identifying trends in your business/market. It involves comparing previous data with current data to extract insights.
This might include:
With the right analysis tools and talent, you can get a picture of the general behaviour of your current customers/market and, combined with other data from your market research, forecast where these trends may go in the future.
Once again, this depends strongly on the quality of your existing data. If you don’t collect this data, you can’t analyse it.
Tip: Trend analysis should begin with understanding and identifying success metrics first, and what drives them. There’s no point trending a metric that has no relevance to your business’s or brand’s performance.
Once this data has been gathered, you are now able to convert it into actionable information. The first step in doing that is to segment your data.
Segmentation is the process of separating out your audience into different groups (segments).
People who are similar are grouped together and each segment will likely respond differently to various marketing efforts.
Segmentation allows you to get more granular information on your audience, giving you insights that you may otherwise miss were you to only view them from a high-level, target audience perspective. This allows marketers to customise their approach to create more effective marketing strategies.
Let’s say you were a retailer who dealt primarily in clothing.
You decide to survey your customers, using the techniques outlined above, asking them to tell you what they bought from you recently, and to give you a rating out of 10.
The results show that the vast majority bought jeans recently, and across the board, you get an average score of 8/10—a good score.
However, you decide to segment your data and separate those who bought jeans from those who bought t-shirts, and you analyse just the t-shirt purchases.
These results tell a different story. You find that people have been deeply dissatisfied with their recent purchase of a t-shirt, and you are scoring far lower than you’d like in that department.
You decide to find a new supplier for the t-shirts in order to address your disappointed customers’ concerns, fixing a satisfaction problem before it starts to affect your reputation.
As a result, your score among the t-shirt purchasers increases, and you gain a number of loyal customers among this group for your proactive approach to their issues.
Segmentation also has the benefit of allowing you to uncover key action points for your business by identifying areas where the importance of a particular factor is high among your customers, but your current performance is low.
Let’s use the previous example of the clothing retailer again. Part of your market research included a question about how important your customers think certain clothing traits are, such as:
Also included is a question regarding how your customers think your brand is performing in these factors.
After segmenting by importance and performance, you find that while you are performing well in “uniqueness”, this is actually not a high priority for your customers. Rather, they are more concerned with their purchases being on-trend; something that they have also ranked your business poorly for.
You now immediately have an action point for your next order from your suppliers: less focus on unique, more focus on trends.
You can segment in a thousand possible ways, but some of the most common include:
Which segments you use ultimately comes down to your goals for your analysis.
Ideally, you’ll be checking each of these major groupings (if applicable to your business) regularly to identify any missed niches or potential problems, as well as for research into target audiences for new products and/or marketing campaigns.
The final step to better understanding your audience is the creation of buyer personas.
A buyer persona is a representation of the kind of customer you want to attract, built from market research and data from your real customers, presented as a semi-fictional person.
A buyer persona informs strategy at every stage of the buyer’s journey.
During Attract, it gives you insight into their mindset, what their challenges and goals are and where you can reach them.
During Convert, it tells you what to say to them and how to say it, including how you can address their challenges and goals.
During Close, it tells you how to serve your customer, what success looks like for them and tells you whether the relationship is healthy.
During Delight, it tells you how to wow your customer, what the extra mile is for them and what else you can do to improve the customer experience.
Ultimately, a buyer persona tells you what to say, how to say it, and where.
While your target audience might include a wide variety of different people, usually heavily focusing on demographics, your buyer persona is far more focused and specific, and generally includes likes, needs, desires and interests.
Think of the buyer persona as an example of one of the customers within your target audience. It helps you to personify your segment.
For example, the target audience of a pet food manufacturer might be people between the ages of 25 and 50 who own at least one animal, live in Sydney and earn between $60,000 and $80,000 a year.
One of the buyer personas might be Dog-Lover Deborah, a woman from Parramatta who buys dog food twice a week and is currently thinking of adopting a second puppy.
Related content: 3 common mistakes to avoid when creating buyer personas
Building a buyer persona gives you a target to aim for that is more specific than just an audience. It helps a business to position their brand and their products/service with a person in mind in both their marketing and selling efforts.
Knowing the background, wants, needs, challenges and goals of your audience means you are building a business that isn’t just providing a product or a service. You’re able to create something that speaks to your customers on a far more personal level, driving loyalty and better outcomes for both your company and your customers as a result.
In short, buyer personas present something—or rather, someone—far more specific and human for you to base your strategy around.
Related content: How to develop your marketing personas - step by step
Modern technology and big data has opened new doors to understanding your audience—which, in turn, has made it even more important for businesses to proactively invest in market research activities if they want to compete in today’s business world.
To understand your audience, you’ll need to:
Using this methodology, you’ll be able to build a company that fosters strong market share and customer retention; where you don’t just target everyone hoping for a lucky hit, but strategically strike at those who would benefit most from your offerings.
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