What does “Know Your Audience” Even Mean?

One of the most popular pieces of advice for communicators these days is “know your audience”. This is sage advice. It’s also nearly useless. It’s such an open ended piece of counsel that all meaning as has escaped. What does it mean, and if it has a meaning, how do you do it?

THE WHAT

1) Determine if you have an audience.

This is so obvious that it often gets over looked. Is your subject matter of interest to people other than yourself?  Determining this is especially important if you are seeking to sell your work (e.g. get published or get advertisers on your site). If you want people to invest time and money in your product you must first make sure there are people who will do so.

2) Determine who the prospective audience is.

This is a demographic and the more specific the better. It could be “writers”, but “fiction writers” would be even better. It could be “women” but “young professional women” would be better. Sometimes this is determined very clearly by subject, for example Moody Publishers released a book recently called First Time Dad. Guess who the audience is for that one? Other times it is a broad audience, like with many fiction works. In this case using works similar to yours to position it will help you and the reader understand what this is supposed to be. Regardless of the subject, a project should not be undertaken or pitched until there is a clear understanding of who is the targeted recipient.

3) Determine what this audience wants and needs to hear.

Many authors misguidedly start here. They have an interest in something and so they write the assumption others will be interested as well . Writing your own interests is fine if you are writing for you, but if your aim is to help others or to get published it can’t be sole determining factor.  You must find the pulse of the audiences desires and needs (they’re often not the same thing).

THE HOW

How you go about doing these things is not neatly defined. It will depend on if you start with an idea or a group of people. Let’s look at these individually.

1) Starting with an idea

If you have an idea that you want to write about then you go through the three steps above. As laid out. You do so by reading widely and surveying readers on what they have read. It is enormously helpful to find objective reviewers of your idea and your writing (emphasis on objective, those who will object to bad ideas or poor writing). As you read and survey and get feedback you will begin to find a patterns that tell you if you have an audience and specifically who they are. The last things to consider are these.

A) What has the audience already heard?

B) How was it communicated to them?

C) Is your writing different in content and/or style?

2) Starting with an audience

My sense is that this more rare, but it’s not uncommon (business books, books for soldiers, books for moms, etc.). But starting with a defined audience can be really helpful because it nullifies numbers 1 and 2 above. It puts all the emphasis on to number 3, determining what the audience wants and needs to hear. The same three questions must be asked here just as they were previously.

A) What has the audience already heard?

B) How was it communicated to them?

C) Is your writing different in content and/or style?

Knowing your audience is the most effective way to communicate with them. It is vitally important. It can also be a tremendous amount of work. But the pay-off is there because it will give you direction, give you a goal, and shape your writing into something useful.