The target audience is dead, long live the targeting ecosystem

Targetting abilities have refined over the years to a point of unprecedented accuracy, but by narrowing the field too much, do marketers run the risk of limiting their options? Stewart Gurney puts forward a compelling argument for why we should transition from the notion of the ‘target audience’ to the ‘target audience ecosystem’.

A few decades ago, the often asked question of ‘who is your target audience?’ was easily answered. 

Cereal brands targeted time-poor mums with kids aged three to five who liked to try new things and car brands would focus their efforts on targeting 40 year old men who believed that style was important and were willing to spend money on expensive holidays. Meanwhile, fashion brands chased the elusive cool kids who were independent thinkers and saw fashion as an extension of their individuality. 

Time was spent carefully crafting these personas, rafts of Roy Morgan runs detailing their media propensity and attitudes, cross-referenced with numerous focus groups trying to ‘really’ understand what made them tick. Then after all this detailed work trying to understand  ‘Stressed Sue from Parramatta’ we would create a TV ad, rigorously validated by ‘Sue’ during extensive pre-testing, and then sent to TV stations across the land to reach huge rafts of the population. All we had to do was sit back, watch the sales begin to spike and marvel at how accurate our targeting was. 

Our target audiences were caricatures of people we wanted to buy our products or services. Stereotypes of layered propensities that we would try to ‘find’ in the real world via nuanced channel mixes, different buying audiences and programmes they were ‘more likely’ to watch. 

In reality, we were saved by the media’s inability to actually, and exclusively, target these psychographic audiences. Putting a TV ad on free to air, regardless of the nuanced programme mix or station strategy, meant that you were creating reach. As Les Binet and Peter Field have recently proved, reach is king when it comes to driving market share and subsequent growth. This reach building broadcast media meant that more people that your target audience were exposed to your brand and therefore more potential buyers were able to respond to your messaging. Our focused approach to audience targeting seemed to work, solely because we weren’t really able to implement it in any meaningful way via our targeting strategies 

Media targeting abilities have drastically changed over recent years with the growth of digital technologies and programmatic capabilities. We can now actually reach the people we want to with our messaging. You can now target  ‘Sue’ with unprecedented accuracy, stalk her across the day and invest the majority of your money exclusively behind motivating her to purchase. TV and broadcast fragmentation has also meant that there are now more opportunities to target more accurately even across these traditionally mass-reaching channels. 

Putting all our proverbial eggs in a single target audience basket now seems scary. The margin for error is huge and getting it wrong could result in declines in marketing effectiveness and ultimately, wasted investment.

We have to start to think differently about the very notion of a target audience and think more holistically about the different ‘types’ of people attached to a brands growth – beyond the archetypes of the ‘ideal consumer’. As marketers we should be building ‘target audience ecosystems’ that cater for these different people and build comms purposely designed to motivate and engage them in different ways. An ecosystem of different but connected audiences built on genuine consumer behaviours and designed to reflect the various groups of people involved across a purchase journey. 

This sounds obvious, but unshackling yourself from a single target audience is a daunting prospect. Target audiences have become part and parcel of the marketing vernacular, they are easy to share and help to provide a sense of focus for a brand or business. However, greater growth will inevitably be unlocked by designing different comms for different audiences and considering all influences of the end purchase. 

While it’s tough, here are five initial rules to help guide you as you transition from target audiences to target ecosystem. 

Know the difference between who your brand is built for and who will ultimately buy it

Brands are beacons of meaning. They exist as collections of associations and engrams in the minds of consumers. Therefore, knowing who your brand stands up for and shares passions with, is still extremely valuable. Brands like Nike and Audi are built by understanding the communities that they represent. They deliberately aren’t for everyone, being polarising and clear on who your brand is for, and often not for, helps to drive differentiation and meaning. ‘Who your brand is for’ is often the audience used to source messaging, tone and brand aesthetic. This audience is different from sources of growth. Growth comes from reaching huge swathes of potential buyers and people in the market. This is about understanding the potential buyers of your category and focusing your media and marketing effort on being top of mind. 

Build audiences that are category or product specific

People demonstrate specific behaviours and attitudes depending on how they view specific categories. In essence, we shop categories not products and are certainly not defined by our beliefs or attitudes. Just because someone likes to take expensive holidays abroad does not mean they are likely to buy your slightly more expensive fabric detergent. While someone may consider herself a bit of a hipster and peruse many a Melbourne laneway in an evening, that does not mean they are going to buy your ‘cool’ chip brand. Focus on building audiences based on how people act or interact with your specific category, what the category needs are, what they are looking for and when those needs arise. 

Focus on building audiences based on behaviours and not attitudes 

How people think and feel is interesting. It can help shape who the brand is for and really direct messaging, but it’s not very useful when trying to drive growth. At best attitudes and opinions are fleeting, at worst they are made up by consumers and can be huge distractions for businesses and brands. Behaviours, by contrast, are actual signals creating genuine insight into how people have interacted with your brand, product or category. They are exceptionally powerful as past behaviour is often the precursor to future behaviours. With digital interactions now the mainstay of pretty much everything, we leave behind a whole load of rich behavioural data for us to build audiences with. Clicks, purchases, views, streams, visits – these are powerful behavioural indicators from which we can create audiences for us to use right across the funnel. From targeting those who have previously bought a product right at the top of the funnel, through to knowing when someone looked at specific content towards the bottom of the funnel, focusing on behaviours unlocks incredible potential for brands. 

Build different audiences across the consumer funnel or journey 

The recent rise in design thinking, and in particular customer journey mapping, has really helped to focus marketers back on consumer needs and desires. More importantly, it’s helped us to understand how these needs might fluctuate across any purchase journey. Across every category, what a consumer is looking for will ultimately change and evolve as they move across the purchase funnel. Instead of a ‘one size fits all’ target audience approach, we can build specific audiences and targets that directly address these consumer needs. For out of market or top of funnel targets, we need to remain salient to all current or potential purchasers of the category. As we get closer to purchase we can start to build targets that have demonstrated different needs or desires. For those people in the market for a new mobile phone, for example, we can build an ecosystem of audiences based on things like whether they have searched for ‘screen replacements’, looked at review sites that focus on specific styles or features or even target those who have been in proximity to phone stores. Building targets around these category specific behaviours allow us to be more relevant and tailor our messaging accordingly.

Messaging should complement targeting 

There is no point going to the effort of creating different audiences across an ecosystem if you aren’t going to build messaging or creative that specifically addresses those different audiences directly. The growth of dynamic creative optimisation (DCO) is a great way to help build bespoke creative work, tailored to the right audience at the right moment. Understanding and testing different messaging against different audiences is incredibly valuable. When balanced with an understanding of both short-term and long-term objectives it can fundamentally shape how you talk to your different consumers.

Targeting is more complicated, nuanced and powerful than ever before. Research company Nielsen suggests that 9 percent of sales contribution can be attributed directly to targeting. This contribution is only set to grow as precision marketing capabilities continue to emerge. Getting it right is critical for growth. The old notion of a target audience is simply not enough to address the opportunities that targeting the right audience can unlock. Marrying traditional brand-building expertise with emerging marketing theory, balancing media targeting capabilities with understanding how your consumers interact with your category, are all new challenges that must be addressed via audience creation and development. Next time someone asks you ‘who is your target audience’ don’t be scared to whip out an ecosystem that is geared for growth and not spend your time retelling the psychographic story of ‘Stressed Sue from Parramatta’.

Stewart Gurney is a freelance strategist and communications consultant 

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash.