So you think you know your target audience?

25 Jan

It’s a lesson we learn in Communications 101. Know your target audience well. Then budgets and deadlines take over, and we settle for “Make intelligent guesses about your target audience.”

It’s a lesson worth going back to especially now, when many not-for-profits working on reproductive and sexual rights face huge budget cuts under the new political dispensation in the US. And it’s a lesson that the best minds in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign completely missed.

But first – what does “Know your target audience well” mean? For one, it means, “Know who your audience is.” In this case, the answer is not simply, “women”. Who are these women? What is their every day like?

Two, it means finding out where your target audience is in relation to the issues you’re talking about. If an audience segment is tilting in favour of what you have to say, why is it doing so? What are the pain points of individuals in that group that your message addresses? If the target audience is opposed to what you’re saying, what are their concerns, their objections and their barriers?

Not knowing the target audience well – or making assumptions about it – can result in messaging that’s completely off target.

Back to the Clinton campaign. The campaign rested on a big assumption. It assumed that people who support reproductive and sexual health and rights (made evident through their support for Planned Parenthood) would not vote for Donald Trump (because stopping federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a well-known Republican stance). Huge mistake.

The campaign completely missed that there is a large chunk of Trump voters who are actually Planned Parenthood supporters. A study on healthcare policy conducted just prior to the elections showed that 48% of people who planned to vote for Trump were in favour of continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They just didn’t know that voting Trump was contrary to their support for Planned Parenthood. And no one pointed this out to them.

The Clinton campaign, instead of focusing on issues, almost entirely focused on the personality of Donald Trump. Again, huge mistake.

In December, Planned Parenthood conducted a series of focus group discussions with people who supported the organisation but still voted Trump. Michelle Goldberg writes in Slate, “The focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump.”

In other words, the campaign should have firmly tied Trump to the Republican platform on which he stood. By focusing the majority of attention on his larger than life personality and derision for his “personal beliefs and actions,” the campaign divorced Trump from many of the specifics of the Republican agenda – such as cutting federal funding for Planned Parenthood. This, despite the fact that Trump had publicly stated that he would strip Planned Parenthood of funding unless it stopped supporting abortions.

Goldberg writes, “But many of the people in the focus groups didn’t know he’d made this assurance, and those who did didn’t take it seriously. It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favour. The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda.”

All this points to flawed campaign planning: not understanding how Trump’s women supporters perceived him and the Republican agenda, and therefore, not knowing where to attack.

The trajectory of this campaign holds invaluable lessons for the non-profit campaigner. Segment your target audience as narrowly as you can. Then systematically get to know each segment.

If you have the budget, invest it in target audience research. Actually, let me take that back. If the campaign is important, then get the money to invest in target audience research. If you absolutely don’t have the money, then get volunteers to at least do a dipstick survey.

Only then can you craft your key messages. And only, only then, develop your communication materials. Never, ever, start a campaign by thinking of what materials you’ll need.

You might think this is pretty elementary. But the best brains got this wrong. And Clinton lost her chance to connect with 48% of the women who voted for Trump.

Do you have an example of a campaign that went wrong or right, because of knowing the target audience well? Write in to us.


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