Nonprofit Communications Strategy: Who’s your audience?


This post is part of my series: How to create a nonprofit communications strategy

Critical to the the success of any communications piece is identifying who you want to reach. So the next step in developing your nonprofit communications strategy is to determine your target audiences.

This step can be as straight or complex as you like keeping in mind that the better you define the audience for your communications, the more successful you will be. Much of the work for this step should be available through the research you conducted upfront.

“Everybody’ is not an audience

One group of people that is not your audience is everybody.

If you try to reach everybody all at the same time, you’re not going to be very successful at reaching anybody.

There are too many differences between people to get the majority of them to act in a way that achieves your goals and objectives. In fact, I expect you are not trying to get everybody to take the same actions or know the same information.

It’s also difficult to effectively and efficiently reach a wide range of audiences especially with limited resources. So you need to set priorities on which audiences you are trying to achieve.

When I developed an awareness campaign for Women’s Crisis Services, they legitimately want to reach every woman in Waterloo Region. But we dived into who which identifiable groups they wanted to reach. We settled on women 18 – 25 because a study showed those women had the lowest awareness of the organization’s unique role in the community and the importance of having them know the signs of abuse as they established adult relationships.

Having multiple audiences is expected

Having multiple audiences is fine–likely even necessary. The more diverse your organization is, the more key audiences it will have. Normally, a specific piece or an awareness campaign has one primary audience. But your overarching communications strategy needs to identify all of the key audiences without essentially identifying everybody and treating them all with equal importance.

Make a list of who you are trying to reach and what you know about them.

Try to keep the set of audiences to a short, manageable set. I also recommend having a hierarchy of primary, secondary and perhaps tertiary audiences with the understanding that the more important the audience is to your organization, the more resources (time & funds) you dedicate to reaching it.

For each target audience, you want to include a short bulleted list of the key information about that group.

Start with relevant demographic information such as age range, gender, income where they live, etc. Consider typical behaviours and lifestyle choices. What do they do? Where can you find them? What communications tools are likely to effectively reach them?

Being relevant is important. Not all demographic factors, for example, are relevant in making decisions on how to reach an audience. Gender may be critical to your audience (such as when building awareness of violence against women) but it could also be irrelevant (such as getting parents to read to their children).

Be as specific as possible. Is the country they live in most important? Or is the city, the neighbourhood or the housing complex the place thatt is important?

When analyzing each audience, consider:

  • What do they already know about your organization?
  • How are they likely to react to your message and why?
  • What factors influence the audience that receives your message – Are they literate? Are there any cultural differences?
  • Are there any difficulties you might have in communicating with each audience?.

Think of a person that would belong to that group and describe them

A good strategy to describe your key audience is to think of them as one specific person and to describe them as a full fictional person with a name and backstory. You might like to do this as a group brainstorming activity to provoke discussion and get a well rounded description.

Here’s a good description of a straight forward process written by Darren Barefoot in a guest post for Beth Kanter’s blog:

Write a short profile of a few of your target audience members. Give them a name, find a photo of them on a stock photography site and flesh out their biographical details. How old are they? Where do they work? How do they spend their spare time? What websites and blogs do they read? What other organizations do they support? Then add information related to your organization: what are their values as it relates to your cause? How did they discover your organization? Have they taken action on your issue in the past?

By identifying and describing these fictional members and potential supporters, you can achieve more clarity around your communications activities. You can also build a consensus among your colleagues about who exactly your target audience is. They may have very different ideas on this topic. These characters can then become common reference points for your team. We sometimes hear our clients reference their user stories in their day-to-day work like “well, this month’s newsletter is more for Josh or Sally than Maurice.”

Earlier this year, I did a similar biographical sketching with a client for an awareness campaign. we brainstormed two people they wanted to reach. One that is using their services and one who represented who they weren’t already reaching and serving.

This same process is also known as creating “personas.” Doing can be a more sophisticated process. Here’s a good outline of it that appeared in The Guardian.

No longer a passive audience

Before I conclude, I’d like to address the term “audience.” It’s a term that is normally described as passive. Typically an audience is presented information that it receives–and hopefully acts upon.

With the emergence of social media as an important tool, the “audience” is no longer passive. Other terms better capture the dynamic dialogues and conversations that occur in this space and are even becoming integrated into more broadcast oriented mediums like websites and television. But I use it here because it the term “audience” remains is a good way to describe the people you are trying to reach.

“Target audience” is often used to identify the priority group you are trying to reach. I do try to avoid that terminology due to its violent imagery and war connotations especially when I’m working with organizations dealing with the results of violence. I prefer talking about “key audiences” but still find myself using the default language at times.

How do you identify your key audiences for your nonprofit COMMUNICATIONS strategy? Or what questions are on your mind?

Read the other posts in my series: How to create a nonprofit communications strategy