three facesWriting clear, concise and compelling copy always begins with clear, precise and insightful thinking. And that beginning is the Communication Brief. The writing of one leads to the establishment of the common ground upon which we and our target audience can strike a mutual respect for sharing and receiving story. It is the finding of this common ground that I will endeavour to demonstrate in this post.

Naturally, it all begins with the gathering of relevant data and information about the subject, the target audience and their contexts and distilling it all down to the key proposition (the subject) and profile (target audience). Now I’ve done enough classes with marketing and communications practitioners to come to the conclusion that writing a CommBrief is a highly under-developed area of expertise. The sorry numbers show me that approximately 84% of “communications professionals” see demographics as the start all and end all. Little wonder we’re all seen as “consumers” rather than human beings. Ex-adman come film producer, David Puttnam (Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields) was already complaining about this back in the 70’s.

In this post I will focus on demonstrating how to profile a target audience to the point where you can actually see them in your mind’s eye, like they were across the table from you. Demographics is a good starting point but it’s not going to get us through the door of perception. And take note, we in the western world are exposed to approximately 5000 messages each day (Art & Copy; A film by Doug Pray). Even if we did a conservative estimate of, say, 1500, that’s still a case for information overload in most books. And how many messages does one register for every 1000? Last count was five to seven. Of those five to seven remembered communications, I will chance a guess that the copywriter and art director had a very deep understanding of where their target audience was at. But let’s not get bogged in statistics because I’m sure there’s the opposing view with a set of equally compelling statistics for keeping us all in the “consumer box” and perpetuating the in-grown mediocrity in marketing and communications departments here, there and you-know-where. So if you’re with them, this is where you can get off while the rest of us begin the search for The Real McCoy & Julia in the deep-digging business of target audience profiling.

To give you a step up to the level of strategic intelligence and creative insight that make legendary copywriters and art directors like Jack Vaughan, Lionel Hunt, John Bevins, David Denneen, Bob Isherwood, Allan Johnston, Ron Mather, Alan Morris, Kim Thorp, Gordon Trembath and Neil French residents of the AWARD Hall of Fame, I’m going to use two case studies from my Copywriting classes.  One profiles a single target audience and the other profiles a multi-target audience to test drive the process in the most rugged of terrains. I will be employing the knowledge of Psychologist, Social Researcher and great Australian thinker, Hugh Mackay, to enable us to create a life-like picture of the target audience in question. Mackay’s ground-breaking work has already been covered in my post What are the hopes, fears and desires of your target audience? In this one, we will put it into practice.

Case Study N˚1

Subject: Credit Card Insurance
Medium: Direct Mail letter
Target: Bank credit card holders

Demographics:

50/50 gender credit card customers of Australian-boutique banks such as Citibank and HSBC. Well-healed, affluent 40-something family bound. Average credit balance $5-10k. More often than not live beyond their bank balance whilst not generally reaching or exceeding their credit limit. This customer is responsible in ensuring their immediate financial obligations are met. They are also savvy and search for the best offer.

Psychographics:

He/she lives for the material moment but is forward thinking enough to ensure some safety net. They are confident enough to live beyond their bank balance but know they need to secure their income in case something happens (illness, injury, redundancy etc). It’s a fine balancing act, and they are aware enough to know that they could be vulnerable to the unforeseen. They just need to be reminded occasionally.

The desire that drives him/her:

In this context, they have the desire for control. “Due to circumstances beyond our control” is a familiar announcement in his/her book. The global financial crisis is their stark reminder. The recklessness of certain mortgage brokers and money-market traders in an under-regulated economy has cast a fearful shadow over their daily “lifestyle” more so than ever. But even though we can never be in full control, this desire has increased in intensity as the rate of change increases. The greater the rate and scope of change, the more the idea of control becomes an obsession. And here’s a universal truth: the only thing we can control is our own behaviour.

The key proposition:

Our professional advice to all valued customers: the only thing you can control is your own behaviour.

Case Study N˚2

Subject: Solar Roads proposal
Medium: Print
Target Audience: A funding body made up of six

Demographics:

50/50 gender in the professional class; aged 40+ executive leaders in their field of expertise. They have made it onto the Foreign Policy’s top 100 thinkers of 2010’s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them.

Psychographics: (key characteristic of each)                    The desire that drives him/her:

1 Equality and inclusiveness matters                                   The desire to connect

2 Need to think much bigger                                                The desire for something to happen

3 Green technology is good for business                             The desire to be taken seriously

4 Break top-down approach and act from the grassroots     The desire to be taken seriously

5 Need to treat problems before they arise                           The desire for control

6 Need to be able to run an entire country

without oil or new science                                                   The desire for something to happen

The common ground for all six:

In this context, the desire for something to happen would be the most likely common-thread that brings them together as decision makers on the panel. To act! move! create! change! make a difference! surges their intent to “rage against the dying of the light”. And this is a time of action because it speaks louder than words. What makes this even more resounding for these six people is the fact that they are conscious of being a committee, and they are the first to declare committees as notorious for non-action. Which leads us to the second desire they share equally, and that is to be taken seriously. “We’re not the usual committee suspects”. We want you to be absolutely clear that your idea must match, if not rise above, our size of thinking on this matter. We don’t just want something to happen, we want ingenuity to happen. If you’re idea is seriously breakthrough, then we’ll put our money where your mouth is.

The key proposition:

All the highways, freeways and carparks in the world can become power stations with solar road panels.

Now you have a go using this method and see what happens. If you’re serious about communicating with genuine empathy and respect for your target audience, your first step would be to consult Hugh Mackay’s What Makes Us Tick? It contains enough depth of knowledge and insight to turn any consumer into a human being.

And if you don’t have a target audience at all, you will now be able to create your own.

39 Comments

  1. Liam says:

    It seems difficult at first with so many variables to creating the target profile but this process really helps to boil it down.

  2. Karl says:

    I like how we can use the 10 Desires to make our proposition coherent when there is more than one target audience, rather than overcomplicating it

  3. Helen says:

    Hmm really interesting to apply this to our target audience. I think given the challenges of constant change the desire to control is a key element here. Thanks Nicolas

  4. Christopher says:

    I like how you are going into detail regarding your prospective customer.
    The research seems to be quite a large area of its own.

  5. Simon Carr says:

    Great post, and a simple and eloquent way of thinking, we are all people not just consumers.

  6. Alex D says:

    I found Case Study 2 – Psychographic points with corresponding desires very informative for understanding how to construct an image of your audience/demographic. This format really helped to clarify this relationship in my mind and how to position and analyse motivations behind behaviours, interests and preferences.

  7. Jessie L says:

    Great article. I was quite shocked to read that such a high percentage of “communications professionals” stop at demographics.

  8. Richard C says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed working through this with my example last week. It certainly makes all the difference and my client loved the outcome. Thanks again Nicolas.

  9. M. Soan says:

    Nick this is a great expansion on the single target market audience – I wanted to see what an audience would look like with more than one desire and this illustrates it beautifully. Giving the audience a face, a body and a set of hopes and fears personalises the message and the writing and, with a stroke of luck, elevates it to a point where it can reach the emotions rather than the superficial intellect of the many. Looking forward to reading Hugh’s book!

  10. Colette Easdown says:

    I loved the quote “mediocrity in marketing” The use of psychographics is often overlooked in planning an effective campaign. Profiling is simplified to the bare minimum, leaving us with hundreds of messages that barely register with their target audience. For an effective messages to push through the cloud of under achievers, a true picture of the target audience needs to be developed through psychographic profiling.

  11. Georgina Rychner says:

    The ‘hopes fears and desires’ approach has definitely changed my way of thinking about target audience. This post was really helpful in demonstrating how the approach can be applied to various projects. Loved the Dylan Thomas quote too!

  12. Julie Wood says:

    This really backs up my key takaway from our first session. The ability to clearly visualise our audience through the use of these profiling tools is incredibly valuable and should not be overlooked.

  13. Katie says:

    I like the multi-target audience as it adds a bit of complexity and challenge, My current target audience is feeling one way but is slowly converging to the opposite way (if that even makes sense!). By using all of these target audience tools you have provided us has helped me get a very detailed look at my target audience. So thanks!

  14. Sergio Vazquez says:

    ” writing a CommBrief is a highly under-developed area of expertise” Totally agree, and I believe this is the result of seeing the target audience only as consumers and not humans.

  15. Kirby Fenwick says:

    From the case studies your explore here, it’s obvious that knowing who you’re trying to communicate to and what their desires and fears are is paramount to good work. How can you produce effective copy if you don’t have this information? It seems even more pertinent when considering the number of messages we are bombarded with every day.

  16. Renee B says:

    I have to say in my job I think the end audience is not considered by the wider organisation much of the time. I mentioned the audience this week in a meeting and got looks of wonderment. I have basic demographic info but making the connection to psychographics will provide much more dimension to the picture

  17. Lucy says:

    Interesting post. Desires and fears. It is clear that this is just as integral to effective copy as any details of the brief, in may ways it provides a compass for the direction of key concept.

  18. Nicole Sykes says:

    Generally, I know our target audience quite well when I start writing however, we never seem to go into as much details as what you have included. This approach will be useful going forward as I can now tailor different pieces to different fans.

  19. Allison says:

    Thanks Nicolas. It’s quite eye opening to realise that I have not been taking any of this into account at all before I write copy. My manager does not provide a brief at all when I am given a project.

    Already I can see how invaluable this process is and how much more I have to learn. I will definitely start writing a communications brief before I even think about writing.

  20. NICOLAS says:

    It’s best to take a clinical approach by starting with the demographics, then into the more important psychographics, where we do a kind of map of your audience’s mind and heart. That map will give us signs of where their most pressing desire of desires lives.

  21. Michael H says:

    Thanks for the post Nic. It’s cool to see the case studies, namely the psychographics which I haven’t seen written in a marketing brief like this.

    I agree, Hugh Mackay is a great thinker and someone I admire too. His books are so well written and read like the good copy you love so much – clear, concise and compelling. He puts a reason to why we do, say or think anything really.

    I guess the difficult part is choosing the strongest desire to appeal to when everyone carries a fusion of all ten, ebbing and flowing with changing mood, circumstances etc. Do you drive it home with one or place a bet each way? It’s good to know you can appeal to more than one desire as you showed for the climate panel and spoke to desires to ‘make things happen’ and ‘be taken seriously’.

  22. Anagha says:

    Great post Nicolas! If we write as though we are having a one-on-one conversation with our audience, our message will definitely hit the mark! Treating your audience as human beings and giving them respect is very important

  23. Alphonse says:

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    I mean, what you say is valuable and all.
    Nevertheless just imagine if you added some great
    visuals or videos to give your posts more, “pop”!

    Your content is excellent but with images and clips, this
    website could undeniably be one of the most beneficial in its field.
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  24. Lucy says:

    Interesting reading. You can see how painting a dynamic picture of your audience allows you to write copy that can actually cut through the noise.

  25. Gillian Goller says:

    Great reading. Have to say the brief of case study 1, rang true for me personally! You certainly brought home the amount of clutter/busyness out there and to remember we are human beings so treat your target market with respect – as human beings and always include Psychographics or you will miss the mark.

  26. Janneke Coyle says:

    Great post thanks Nic. I agree with your comment about marketers seeing the target audience as ‘consumers’ rather than ‘human beings’. I am a markerter myself and my team is guilty of talking to the ‘consumer’ far too often. After reading your post I have realised what a waste of time and possibly damaging approach this is. I look forward to using your profiling technique and comparing the outcome.

  27. Great post thanks Nic. I agree with your comment about marketers seeing the target audience as ‘consumers’ rather than ‘human beings’. I am a markerter myself and my team is guilty of talking to the ‘consumer’ far too often. After reading your post I have realised what a waste of time and possibly damaging approach this is. I look forward to using your profiling technique and comparing the outcome.

  28. Leona Devaz says:

    Great post Nick. I’m still stuck at the stat of “exposed to approximately 5000 messages each day…..”. That astounds me, as it did when you mentioned it in class last week.

    I actually fit the brief of case study 1, so naturally resonated with that quite strongly! I’m really keen to explore the copywriters you mentioned as well – thanks for starting the turn the rusty cogs in my brain.

  29. Katrina says:

    Nick, what a wonderfully communicated and highly practical post. Thank you so much – you’ve given me some excellent food for thought! Cheers, Katrina

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