Why Most “Know Your Audience” Articles Do Not Know Their Audience

know your audience

Oh no, not another “know your audience” article. You know how this goes. I’ll coat common sense in marketing jargon and chirp it at you in a condescending tone of authority. I’ll convince you that I’m revealing top secret tips that will magically unlock flocks of buyer personas that become your target audience. I’ll persuade you that you need to know your audience’s age, sex, salary and online interests, as if you didn’t know how to Google and stalk properly.

You might yawn and say, yes, you know that writer and that type of post. But do you feel like the writers of such perky patronization knows you? No. How could they? They honestly think acting like a syrupy mannequin and talking down to you works. You could read 10 articles on the “know your audience” topic that all sound the same.  That’s why those articles blur in your head. They’re an example of articles that certainly do not know or care to know their audience.

Respect your audience

Knowing your audience means knowing they’re worthy of respect, full of nuance, and ripe with contradiction. It means knowing that they’re individuals, not merely members of a group. To know your audience, you have to be emotionally intelligent yourself. You can’t be someone who views the complexity of human nature as a math formula.

I know, I know, I’m being too contrarian. Knowing your audience is about knowing them generally, not wading in the nitty-gritty details. Of course, you’ll need to simplify, but you don’t want to presume, assume or stereotype too much. There’s a balance between simplifying and assuming to keep in mind. And it’s one that emotionally intelligent writers nail because they know that despite all the superficial differences between age, sex, job, interests, region and online behaviors, there are traits that reach target audiences beyond persona level.

Learn from the greatest living copywriter

Regarded as the greatest living copywriter (he must be, if he managed to get that tagline attributed to him on every bio and site), Gary Bencivenga is part copywriter, part psychologist. He too, would agree why it is important to know your audience when communicating and emphasizes the importance of developing emotional intelligence:

 “The vast majority of products are sold because of the need for love, the fear of shame, the pride of achievement, the drive for recognition, the yearning to feel important, the urge to look attractive, the lust for power, the longing for romance, the need to feel secure, the terror of facing the unknown, the lifelong hunger for self-esteem and so on.

“Emotions are the fire of human motivation, the combustible force that secretly drives most decisions to buy. When your marketing harnesses those forces correctly you will generate explosive increases in response.”

Bencivenga’s genius here is that he’s not intent on looking for shortcuts. Knowing your audience is not easy. It’s easier to stereotype your audience. But in doing so, you will lose your audience. He’s bringing up motivation that seems too broad, and you may think that someone’s interest in soccer is specific. As a copywriter, you’ve got to think about why people are motivated to play soccer. They like to feel powerful! They like to feel tough. They like to win. So selling a protein bar to a soccer team is not just about soccer; it’s about staying tough and powerful in soccer. See how it’s not about the superficial details we know about someone, but understanding the psychology underlying the interest, age, sex, job, hobby, online buying habits and so forth that helps us know our audience?!

Audience we think we’re targeting vs. the full picture

In the TV series “Better Call Saul,” there’s a relevant sequence that depicts why it is important to know your audience when communicating. Saul is a flamboyant lawyer working amongst by-the-book lawyers, and he shoots a commercial with an elderly lady in a rocking chair concerned about financial fraud at her nursing home. The commercial appears to be respectful and straightforward in Saul’s judgment, but unfortunately, the lawyers are upset to have their brand name associated solely with an elderly audience and berate Saul for using his own voice for the voice-over call to action at the end of the commercial. They even go so far as to say that after a 2-1 vote, they want to fire Saul for making it.

Basically, what’s happening here is that Saul was focusing on one legal case’s audience, and the rest of the lawyers are considering their audience at large. Both groups mean well, and both groups are right. But what’s key is that the lawyers believe they cannot make content that alienates some audience members.

In this example, knowing your audience is about widening the net, not narrowing it. If you focus too much on soccer players with your protein bar, you may lose your yogis.  When you focus on emotional intelligence, respect and big-picture thinking, you’ll find you know your audience better than ever before. Need writers who know and respect their audience? Contact WriterAccess today!

Samantha S writes direct, dynamic, digestible copy for any purpose and any medium. She has written for apps, games, websites, literary journals, trade magazines, newspapers, e-commerce brands and health//nutrition brands. Samantha’s most notable achievements are authoring a guidebook for College Prowler, interviewing Leonardo Dicaprio, Zac Efron, and Amy Sherman-Palladino for The Hollywood Reporter, reviewing books for Publishers Weekly, covering the World Series of Poker, teaching creative writing at Harvard-Westlake, and working as Editor-in-Chief of The Oval literary magazine.


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