Every year, amazing businesses fail simply because the people who would buy from them (their target audience) didn’t know they existed.
I blame “Field of Dreams.”
The movie came out in 1989 and was an instant classic, but the concept behind its tagline — “If you build it, he will come” — has misled millions of entrepreneurs into thinking a great service or product is all they need to succeed. Unfortunately, customers will not simply wake up one morning with an inexplicable urge to visit your website. You have to take the thing you built to them.
Tips to find your target audience
Your target audience is not everybody
Early-stage entrepreneurs are often terrified of missing out on potential customers, so they paint their ideal audience in overly broad strokes. Marketing to everybody with money might seem like a safe bet, but three things happen when you take this approach:
- You try to hit every channel, spreading your message so thin that it doesn’t get traction anywhere.
- You waste a lot of time, money and other resources talking to people who will never buy from you.
- You keep your messages broad and generic to avoid turning anyone off. As a result, they don’t resonate with anyone.
Developing a target audience doesn’t mean you won’t do business with people who don’t fit the mold. You can still sell to anyone who wants to buy from you.
Targeting allows you to devote your time, energy and resources to activities with the most impact. Knowing your ideal customer simplifies your marketing. You can focus on the channels they use and the benefits they want and ignore everything else.
Along the way, you will still pick up customers you weren’t directly targeting. For example, Nike doesn’t try to sell shoes to everyone with feet. It targets high-performance athletes. Plenty of Nike customers don’t fit that description. Some are weekend warriors who admire high-performance athletes. Some aren’t athletic at all and just like to wear Nike in their day-to-day lives. I’m sure Nike is happy to accept the revenue from these secondary markets. But look at its marketing, and you’ll see its messages stay laser focused.
Building an audience, part 1: Know yourself
Identifying your target audience means a little introspection. You have to dig into who your company and your customers really are.
First, start with your company. Why does your business exist?
If you said “to make money,” try again. There are plenty of easier ways to make money than to start your own business. Dig deeper: What problem does your company live to solve, or what value does it bring to the world?
For example, IKEA’s vision statement is “to create a better everyday life for the many people.” Its mission statement is “to offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”
Your entire marketing plan is more effective when you are clear on your purpose and how you achieve it.
Here’s another question to ask yourself: What makes you different from the competition? Chances are, someone else in your space offers similar products or services. Why should customers choose you? This might be a material difference, like the craftsmanship of your product, or it could be an intangible difference, like your commitment to sustainability.
You now have your vision, your mission and your unique selling proposition. Just by identifying your target audience, you’re laying the foundation for your entire marketing plan.
Building an audience, part 2: Know your customers
Now, about that audience — it’s time to get inside their heads. Think of the problem it is your company’s mission to solve. Now, imagine a person who has that problem. Connect the dots between their problem and how your solution should seem like the natural choice.
Let’s look back at IKEA. A key part of its mission is offering functional, low-priced furniture. Who needs functional, affordable furniture? Young adults setting up their first home.
How are people in your target market solving their problem right now? The IKEA audience is probably making do with hand-me-down furniture, cheap pieces from a discount store and repurposed items, like crates.
What issues is this causing? Maybe their place looks grim, and they want to upgrade their aesthetic. Maybe their furniture doesn’t function the way they need it to.
Remember, your competition is not just other companies. It’s any way your audience is solving their problem without you.
You may discover you have several target audiences with different needs. This is normal. When developing your messages and distribution strategies, focus on one at a time, and draw all of the messages back to that core mission statement.
What customers need to hear
Now, you know who your audience is and how you can help them. The next step is getting their attention so you can tell them about your products or services.
Even though you’ve identified the problem, you’re still guessing at what your ideal customer wants. It’s time to replace guesswork with research.
If you already have customers, use surveys, focus groups and one-on-one interviews to see what brought them to you. Ask what was going on before they became a customer and how their lives have changed since.
If you don’t yet have customers, you can survey or conduct focus groups with people in your target audience. For example, if you’re IKEA, you can pay a survey company to survey adults in their 20s at entry-level jobs.
You can also mine information from other people’s customers. Check out reviews on Amazon and Yelp to see what people liked or didn’t like about products or services similar to yours. Read forums like Quora and Reddit to see what your target customers are talking about.
Your most effective messaging addresses the customer’s problem, your solution and the thing that makes you unique. For example, I wrote copy for a dental practice’s website, and the company was convinced its unique selling proposition was its high-tech tools. Customer research, however, showed that patients were more interested in the practice’s calm atmosphere and how it reduced patient fear.
Be in the right place at the right time
The most perfect, persuasive message in the world won’t work if your ideal customer never sees it.
Get the most bang for your buck by putting your content where your target audience hangs out. If you’re selling video games to Generation Z boys, highway billboards and Facebook ads will be a waste of money. A YouTube influencer, however, could give you outstanding reach.
You also want your audience to see your message when they’re in the right frame of mind. A jewelry design studio targeting married men probably won’t get much benefit from advertising in a hot rod magazine, even if the audience overlaps. The studio should target the men when they’re thinking about their relationship, not their car.
Closing the loop
Once you have your audience’s attention, don’t get ahead of yourself in your eagerness to close the sale. Buyers go through a journey, and it’s important to meet them where they are.
At the top of the funnel, they realize they have a problem. Next, they become interested in solving the problem. Then, they realize you have a solution. Finally, they want to buy your solution.
Throw a sales pitch at someone too early in their journey, and you come across as desperate. Push “did you know” educational content at someone ready to buy, and you come across as dense. Instead, make content for people at each stage of the journey for each product or service category you offer. The message stays the same, but the information you deliver and how you package it will be different.
Finally, don’t abandon your audience once they buy. Offer an outstanding customer experience to build repeat buyers and advocates who will spread the word about your brand via word-of-mouth marketing.
Keep talking to customers to spot opportunities for new offerings and audiences. Use positive feedback to fuel content and negative feedback to improve your offer.
You’ve put an unbelievable amount of heart and work into building your startup. Don’t let it all go to waste by looking to a 30-year-old movie for marketing advice. If you build it, they will not come. If you build it, find them, and tell them about it. You just might stand a chance.
Originally published June 15, 2021.