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Source: Cameron Casey

We are in the business of building messages, and we love it. But as important as the message is, the audience is equally important. I think that most people understand that at a high level, but let’s dig down a little deeper. 

Targeting your message equals focus. As I’ve said 100 times, the great thing about entrepreneurs (commercial or social) is that they love to solve problems. They love to help people. However, the bad thing about entrepreneurs is that they love to solve problems. They love to help people. It’s essential that to help the most people in the most meaningful ways, we focus on what we do best and is needed most. 

I get it. When I started Spencer Brenneman almost ten years ago, I knew there were innumerable types of organizations we could help. (Wait. What? Ten years ago? How did that happen?) However, I soon realized that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Can you think of any instances in which being all things to all people could work? Imagine a restaurant whose menu offered everything: Italian, French, Chinese, Thai, Ethiopian, vegetarian, southern, kosher, steak, seafood, etc. It’s hard to imagine a restaurant like that could be either profitable or achieve a five-star rating.

We should all think about what we do the same way. Again, what do we do best? What is needed most? That’s where we need to focus our messages. Marry those two, and you have a clearer path to success.

Targeting swings both ways. The purpose of a well-crafted, compelling message is not just to attract people’s attention. It’s to attract the attention of the right people. Years ago, when I was a marketing director for a portfolio accounting software product, a well-intentioned engineer came up to me in the cafeteria and told me he had a great idea to market our product.

“You know those stickers they put on all the apples in the grocery store? We should put our message on them.”

Marvel Studios What GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

Stick to code, buddy.

Why on earth would we do that? Most grocery store shoppers wouldn’t even understand what the product does, let alone be in a position to buy from us. Forget the fact there’s no way we could fit our message on an apple sticker. That’s an extreme (although true) example, but the point remains the same. Why spend time speaking to more people than those who can genuinely benefit from what we do?

Beyond efficiencies, it’s important to avoid speaking to those we don’t want to help. On the for-profit side, those could include clients with low or negative profit margins. On the nonprofit side, it’s organizations whose core beliefs are at odds with our missions. Think corporate sponsors who are merely checking off boxes and not aligned strategically with what we do.

Targeting your message should go even deeper. Once you identify your core audiences, you have to think carefully about what each wants and needs to hear. Here’s an example: We are currently working with an amazing charter school. They have three core audiences: potential parents and students, prospective teachers, and corporate and foundation sponsors. Each of those audiences wants the same: quality education for children. Yet, they each come from different places.

  • Parents and students. How will the education the student receives from the school prepare them for a meaningful, successful life?
  • Teachers. How does the school align with their beliefs and philosophies, and can it provide them with the quality of life they’re looking for themselves?
  • Corporations and foundations. How does the school and its work align with their priorities and purpose?

Simply saying to each of these audiences that the school provides quality education to children is not enough. You have to speak to how it provides quality education to children in a way that meets their specific wants and needs.

Targeting your message should be based on data. Throughout my career, in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, I have encountered people who are convinced that they know what people want based on their long-established careers and experiences. I assure you they do not. (For the record, I have to check myself on this point from time to time as well. It’s human nature.)

Until you validate what you think is essential to each of your audiences, you’re simply guessing. Habitual guessing never hits the mark every time.

Targeting your message doesn’t mean you’re disingenuous. When I’ve spoken on this subject in the past, people reasonably ask how you do that without sounding two-faced or disingenuous. Who wants to be surrounded by people who just tell them what they want to hear?

The good news is that that’s where your brand strategy, or as we call it, the Focus & Messaging Framework, comes in. You can stay authentic while you target if you are crystal clear on:

Why your work matters;

What you do and how you do it in a way that is relevant and competitively differentiated from everyone else; and

The emotional way that your message comes to life.

Think of it this way: Do you say the same thing in the same way to all the people in your life? Your parents. Your children. Your favorite barista. Your colleagues. Your significant other. Probably not, yet you are still the same person. The same goes for organizations with a structured, strategic, and targeted message.

As you think about your message, think carefully about not just what you say but also to whom. Otherwise, be prepared to serve up mediocre Italian and Indian cuisine to some very limited, unhappy diners.

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