Is Anybody Out There? Finding Your Audience in the Digital Age

The answer is yes, there are people out there. But they wont respond if you don’t speak to them—directly to them.

The great thing about social marketing is that now, suddenly, every brand and every consumer has a voice if they want one. But oftentimes, brands will take a megaphone and blast their message across the land without specific targets in mind. This is where, in the quest to craft the perfect digital strategy, developing audience personas are very important.

Craig Davis, Founder of Brandkarma said, “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.” But first, you must find out what it is that your people are interested in.

What You Need Personas For

In the age of social media, specificity and personalization matter. Your digital audience is inundated with brand messaging that is trying to reach as many people as possible, and, in doing so, is watered down and bland. Consumers don’t generally respond in a substantive way to a brand message that doesn’t have a personal element; they respond when a brand message resonates with them, and in order to resonate with someone, you need to really understand who they are.

Audience personas help you understand who it is that you’re speaking to. In developing audience personas, you discover what their unstated needs and desires are, and the places in their life that your brand might be a natural fit. This helps you understand not only 1) who to target but 2) how to craft content that is specific to specific audiences and channels.

Ways to Gather Audience Information

Audience personas don’t materialize out of thin air. To create personas, you can do things like conduct audience interviews or perform an organizational audit.

The best possible path to conduct audience research is to, well, interview your audience. So if you can speak directly to them, do so. This could happen in many forms. If you send out regular email blasts, there isn’t a reason one of them can’t be a nicely-worded survey prompt. Think about any time you’ve completed a survey and why. Was it because the survey promised to be short? Was well-designed? Because the ask was authentic and well-written?

If you have form fields on your website that users must complete before going further, collect that data. This could give you information about things like company size, revenue range, and pain points.

Well-designed gamified surveys are also an option. Incentivize users to complete a survey with a giveaway or by making it fun to complete, like a game. Don’t forget that you can also simply call up current clients and ask them a few questions to clarify your research. Clients that understand that you’re only trying to better serve them will likely give you five minutes of their day to assist.

Organizational audits are fantastic supplements to direct client interviews. The key here is to engage people and departments across your organization, particularly those in the sales department, who can often be strangely siloed from marketers. Because members of your sales department talk to your audience daily, it’s important to leverage their knowledge when crafting personas. What complaints do they often encounter? What language do they use that converts the most? When are their sales the most successful? What profiles can they provide about all your current clients? Remember: no data point is inconsequential at the information-gathering stage.

Crafting the Personas

The basic information is relatively easy to get: information such as where your audience lives, their job titles, median age, and main issues. But can you answer these questions?

  • What are their online habits?
  • What are their core beliefs?
  • What do they love most about their job?
  • What are they reading?
  • What are they learning?
  • Who are they following?
  • Who inspires them?
  • Where are they traveling?
  • What are they investing in?
  • What products do they use?
  • Who are their friends?
  • What’s on their bucket list?

A complete persona involves these questions, because what you’re trying to find out is not only how your business can meet their business needs, but how what you do fits into areas of their lives that inform all of their actions. For example, if you are looking to target different kinds of donors, do you know how your marketing messages could be aligned with the kind of inspiration they like to get from TED Talks?

Nonprofits have a leg up on this kind of thing because their brand already centers around at least one cause, and your job is to access the part of your target audience that responds to cause marketing.

Ideally, you will write 3-4 brand personas for different segments of your audience. You might have separate personas for advocates, volunteers, grant makers and foundations, and donors. Within those personas, you might have further segmentations. Are you targeting both millennial donors and high dollar donors? Will your cause resonate more with the women in households who tend to make those kinds of financial decisions?

Quick Tip: Personas don't have to be designed in a super fancy way -- as long as the key information is clear. But there are some great online tools to help you such as Extensio's User Persona Creator.

An Example of a Brand Persona

Here is an example of a persona for a nonprofit that curates after school programs for youth in at-risk neighborhoods focused on cooking and food education.

Amelia "The Millennial Intern" 

Amelia works an office job in the DC area after graduating from school with a liberal arts education. She is competent and intelligent, but under-used at her office and sees no upward mobility. Amelia holds values from her college experience and her liberal peers about affecting large-scale change in your community through small-scale actions. Her income is modest, and she’s thinking about making the jump to the nonprofit sector, but needs to get her feet wet before committing and to get experience.
 She is 25 years old, single, and lives with roommates. Amelia is social media-savvy, majored in English and minored in Business, and depends partially on financial support from her parents, scholarships, and fellowships. She enjoys reading literary fiction and poetry, binge-watching Netflix, 10K road races in DC, and pub trivia. When she has extra money, she spends it on nice meals out with her friends, but mostly she doesn’t have money to eat out. She is politically engaged, and votes in midterms and presidential elections, but doesn’t know much about local politics. Amelia likes kids, but has no reason to engage with them on a regular basis.
  • Financial security with a job that actually makes a difference
  • To be engaged in and settled with a community but to also have upward mobility at a job.
  • To use her millennial experience with digital media in her work.
  • That she doesn’t have enough experience to make the jump
  • That she won’t find a job that truly engages her and uses all her skills.
  • That she’s chosen the wrong path post-graduation.
Main sources of entertainment and information:
  • Facebook and Snapchat
  • YouTube influencers
  • Refinery 29 and Gawker
  • The New York Times and Slate
  • Friends at other nonprofits

How to Use the Persona

Once everyone on your marketing team understands what kind of life Amelia lives, her past experience, and what she wants, you can begin to alter or create content that targets her specifically.

An important part you’ll find out is where to push your content, or what channels you should be creating content for. For example, a useful move here would be Facebook ads targeted at recent college graduates in the DC area who like Gawker and the New York Times. Another option would be to consider leveraging a local influencer on Snapchat or YouTube.

You’ll also know what voice to adopt in your content. Brand messaging here could focus on Amelia’s insecurity about her current path making a difference, and the small amount of time she could spend helping kids in her local community learn about good food. Brand messaging could also inform Amelia that volunteers with the organization have the opportunity to come on board as part- or full-time staff after a period of 6 months of service, so she knows her volunteering would also be useful in her search for a more fulfilling career. Much of the messaging targeted towards Amelia should imitate language she sees in her everyday life: light and clever, but informed about serious issues, and overall authentic in intent.


When you know who your audience is, you can create the right kind of messages that will resonate with them, wherever they are. Your content will land more frequently, and you’ll find inspiration to create new and different kinds of content. These personas will also be critical in developing your audience journey maps, which is exactly what we’ll discuss next week.