Understanding your Target Audience 

OK, so you’ve  outlined the purpose, focus, goals, and objectives of your campaign. You’ve also taken the time to segment the potential market, evaluate each subset, and select one or more target audience. Now you’re ready to get to the fun stuff, it’s time to start designing messages and strategies, right? Nope, not quite yet. While segmentation variables can tell you a lot about a given group of people, they only provide an overall snapshot. More research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of your target audience/s. Specifically, you’ll want to identify relevant barriers, desired benefits, and potential motivations.

As mentioned in a previous post, social marketing is focused on behavior and behavior change. To design and implement a successful campaign that addresses or modifies a particular behavior, it is absolutely essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the manner in which your target audience engages with and relates to said behavior. In other words, you have to understand the who, what, when, where, how, and most importantly, whyWhereas segmentation data and formative research may give you a valuable picture of the who, what, when, where, and how of a particular behavior, you’ll need to dig deeper to understand the why.

Understanding the Why: Barriers and Benefits

Social exchange theory is one way that we can look at and understand the why behind an individual’s engagement in a certain behavior. Exchange theory postulates that human interaction and social behavior is the result of a negotiated cost/benefit exchange. According to the theory, for an exchange or behavior to take place, the benefits (perceived or real) must be equal to or greater than the costs (perceived or real). While it seems straightforward and obvious on the surface, a true understanding of perceived costs and benefits associated with a particular behavior goes beyond assumptions and requires careful investigation. Understanding this exchange is also paramount to designing effective strategies and messages.

Barriers – Barriers are best understood at the “costs” that your target audience associates with performing a behavior. While barriers are often economic in nature, they also include other categories such as time, social, psychological, or physical costs.

Benefits – Benefits are properly conceptualized as what your target audience wants, needs, or values.  When promoting a behavior, it is essential to communicate how the behavior will address or provide a benefit desired by the target audience.

The Role of Research

There’s that word again: research. Understanding your target audience on a deeper level means gaining insight into their particular barriers and benefits. Failure to do so may result in the design of ineffective messages or campaign strategies. For example, if your campaign to support the arts is touting an economical benefit of arts participation while the actual benefit that your target audience wants/values/needs is social, your message may be falling on deaf ears. Along the same line of thought, if you concentrate your resources on mitigating barriers that you assume to be important while failing to address the actual or perceived barriers of your target audience, you have missed the mark once again. Although well-intentioned, your efforts to enact a positive change by addressing assumed barriers will be futile.

Research regarding your target audience and their perceived barriers/benefits can be done in a variety of ways. While secondary data sources (literary reviews, previously conducted studies, existing survey data, etc.) can be a starting point, deeper insight is often dependent on primary research that involves the collection of qualitative data through surveys, focus groups, or key informant interviews.

Strategic and sophisticated campaigns are heavily dependent on research and the ability to gain a comprehensive understanding of your target audience. Arts advocates and arts organizations looking to support and encourage the vitality of the arts in society would be wise to incorporate such tactics when working to communicate the value of the arts and arts participation. Indeed, there are many different values and benefits of the arts. Communicating those that are most relevant to a particular target audience may be the key to boosting participation, engagement, and overall support.

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