Step 3: Identifying the “Right” Audience

Strategic communications planning is the foundation for successful and impactful communications and marketing activities. Each month, Vanguard Communications is releasing a new article describing each step of this important process. Click through to read past articles from our Strategic Communications Planning series. Interested in bringing the strategic communications planning process to your organization? Send us a note and let us know how we can help.

This is a critical step in strategic communications planning that can go wrong if done incorrectly. Common missteps include already having a target audience in mind when you begin planning; having a very loosely defined audience (e.g., “the general public”); or to having too many audiences.

To help you avoid these common errors, here are some pointers that will help you identify the audience(s) you should be targeting to achieve your communications goal and objectives. Doing this exercise will also help save you time and money down the road as you begin implementing your plan.

To begin finding the best audience, build off the previous foundational steps of your strategic communications plan. Go back to your situational analysis and consider your communication goal and objectives — this will help you think critically about which audience(s) you should be trying to reach.

Identify no more than two or three priority audiences and then consider what they know about, and where they stand on the issues you are addressing. We call this the Continuum of Understanding and Acceptance. Determining where your audience falls on this scale will help you understand how likely they are to change their beliefs or behavior.

Some audiences span several phases of the continuum. To counteract this, segment your audience by splitting them down into smaller groups based on common characteristics of needs. Ask yourself who is most impacted by your issue, who is most likely to change their behavior, and who can you realistically reach. Audience segmentation is important because it helps you prioritize your resources to ensure maximum impact when you begin implementing your strategic communications plan.

EXAMPLE: If you are developing a campaign that aims to get more people to wear face masks, your audience might be “adults in the United States” (too broad). To segment this audience, consider who might see the most value in face covers and work from there. An audience segment in this example might be “U.S. adults with parents over the age of 65 who live in areas of the country with high infection rates of COVID-19.”

Once an audience segment is identified, you need to learn as much as you can about them. A great way to approach this is to act as if you are buying someone in this audience segment a gift. You should also consider the barriers and benefits this audience segment faces when it comes to changing their mind or adopting positive behaviors related to your issue. Understanding barriers and benefits helps ensure your message resonates and prevents messages that are tone-deaf, inappropriate or not aligned with reality.

EXAMPLE: Using the previous scenario as an example, encouraging people in communities of color to wear face masks might come across as tone-deaf. A barrier for many people in these communities is the stigma and discrimination they face when they wear a face cover (and in some localities, it’s even illegal!). For this audience, you should consider what factors might help overcome this barrier, such as new ordinances, discussions with law enforcement or appeals to community health.

Throughout all these steps, you are going to have to do research. Common research methods include focus groups, intercept interviews, online surveys and one-on-one interviews. At Vanguard, we also look at studies in academic journals or research organizations (such as the Pew Research Center). Finally, there is always the classic Google search — just make sure the sources you look at from your search are reputable.

Following these steps will help you identify the audience you should be targeting with your strategic communications plan. Sometimes it isn’t the audience you thought you would be targeting — but it is the audience that will help you achieve your communication goal and objectives. And remember, achieving your communication goal and objectives means you’re one step closer to achieving your organizational goals.