It is typical when you get started writing marketing copy to think, “Who wouldn’t want this? Our target market is everyone in the whole wide world!”
If you are currently thinking this, you’re being overzealous. In the excitement of a new product or service, it’s not uncommon to think of reasons why people from all walks of life would want what you have to offer. But in reality, your target market is small.
More importantly, from a practical standpoint, you can’t reach everyone. You need to focus. You want your copy to speak to the people who are most likely to become paying customers. If you try to be too broad, you’ll end up connecting with nobody.
So how do you figure out how to connect with that smaller portion of the population that is more likely to buy what you're selling? You have to start by asking big, broad questions, and then narrow it down until you know exactly who you're talking to, and how they think.
Seemingly dumb questions that will help you get to know your audience
Start by asking the most broad questions you can think of:
Don’t just stop with basic demographic information, though. Ask deeper questions that get to the heart of the types of people your users will be. You may have to do some research for some of these answers or make some educated guesses.
Write all of these answers down, and you’re starting to get a better idea of your target audience. It should read something like this:
“Young men in the U.S., living in big cities and using our product for social reasons, looking for ways to connect with friends and find new experiences.”
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Share this idea of your target audience with your team. Get everyone to agree and sign off on the description you've created before going any further.
I know I told you to focus on your first users and stop thinking about taking over the world, but it doesn't hurt to think about what’s next. If you have the good fortune to expand your target later on , it’s best to not paint yourself into a corner.
An example of this is the early days of Amazon.com. When all they were selling was books, they could have positioned itself as the destination for bibliophiles and bookworms. But they chose not to paint themselves into a corner by focusing entirely on that audience. And as they’ve added products and services far beyond books, now they are that rare company whose target market is just about everyone with a pulse.
Know Them Intimately
I’m going to share one of my crappy similes about writing for the web: A good website is like the bar on the TV show Cheers. You know, the place where everyone knows your name. If your target gets there and feels like the site isn’t for people like her, she’s going to leave and head to the next bar. If she enters your site and feels welcome, she’ll stick around and order a drink.
One way to get to know your target user is to give him or her a name. Give yourself a name to think of whenever you’re writing something for your favorite customer.
Procter & Gamble is famous for coming up with creative, descriptive names for their target audiences, with names like Value-Seeking Valerie or Deep-Cleaning Deborah. For a healthcare system client of mine, they named their target audience Barbara, because that was the most popular name in the state for women age 38-55, our target audience.
These nicknames should help you create a mental picture of a member of your target audience. As you do your research, you can feel like you’re getting to know this person. When I first encountered this simple trick, it seemed silly. But there’s a reason that ad agencies and marketers have been doing this for years. It helps.
Get into character
I take this trick one step further. I think of someone I know and try to make that friend or family member the personification of my target. I want to really identify with my target audience, and I find it’s easiest when I focus on one person who I already know really well.
For a home care website, it was my mom. When I wrote for a car cleaner, I thought of my friend Adam, who’s a car guy. I’m not very interested in cars or in the best ways to take care of my house, but I channel their different personalities to write copy that reaches them. It actually goes deeper than writing for these people. I write as these people.
That brings me to the most powerful thing I’ve learned about writing marketing copy: writing is acting.
An actor gets inside the mind of the character he is playing. He does so to the point that not only can he convincingly perform a script as that person, but he can improvise a scene in character and believably portray that person in the moment. As you are writing, you need to be able to inhabit the character of your target audience and speak in their voice and write what matters most to them.
Actors are famous for doing research to get into their roles, and that’s the writer’s job as well. Once the main stakeholders have signed off on your description of your likely target, start doing lifestyle research, trying to understand what makes your target audience click.
This starts by making some assumptions about your user, taking even more guesses about how your user would answer questions like:
You can also do some research and conduct interviews to answer these questions, especially if your startup already has users.
As soon as I became the writer for the home care website, I got a subscription to Real Simple magazine and Martha Stewart Living. I started watching more HGTV, Food Network and TLC. And I would drop by cooking stores, design boutiques and arts and crafts shops when I was out shopping.
I was looking not just for inspiration and article ideas, I also wanted to understand the atmosphere. I wanted to hear how people talked. What topics they’d bring up in conversation. How the writers in the magazines wrote. What type of humor seemed to work.
On a daily basis, I’d visit some of the websites that our target audience would visit. I wanted to know what the latest news was in their lives, and not just the latest ideas for the home. I wanted to know what she was talking about with her friends.
Very little of this research made it’s way, word-for-word, into my writing, but it all helped me as a writer. Just as an actor may find a subtle mannerism in his research to flesh out the character he is playing, all of this research helped me in small ways to connect with my target.
For instance, I know that someone who's interested in doing a great job taking care of her home might use a short declarative statement to express excitement, something like, “What a delight.” A car guy wouldn’t be caught dead saying something like that.
As you’re doing your research, take notes of interesting turns of phrase, touching quotes, cool ideas and funny jokes. I find the app Evernote is a great way to keep track of all of these inspirational ideas. Then you can go back and drop versions of these same ideas into your writing.
Coming out of this exercise, you should now have a good idea of what’s important to your target audience, especially when it comes to the area of their life that your product or service will help them. Write down your observations, and return to them when you start making an outline of what you’re going to write about in the next chapter and throughout the process of writing.
Understanding your target is more than just writing. Knowing your audience will help you with every single aspect of creating and marketing your idea. It will help you decide what to write about - and just as importantly, what not to write about. It will inform how you choose to speak to them and which marketing channels you pursue based on where you think you can find them. Most importantly, knowing your audience will help you build a better product because you’ll always have your user in mind.