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Your target market cannot be everyone

One of the first things I ask prospective clients is to specify their target audiences. Nine times out of ten they’re sure to respond, “We want to appeal to everyone!

I give the same response to them all: Try to make your product for everyone and you’ll appeal to no one.

If a company doesn’t know who they want to target, I’m very likely to forgo working with them. Without a target audience, there’s probably not going to be any valuable user research, making it nearly impossible for me to succeed.

Sometimes clients give me opportunity to do some initial research to discover potential audiences. Then with some good options in front of them, they can make the decision on whose needs to address first. This is about so much more than user experience — it’s a business decision, and must relate directly to the company’s vision, mission, strategy and value proposition.

In all fairness, many companies start out without clearly articulating the aforementioned and wait to see how the market will respond to what they put forward. I’ve particularly seen this with startups. Early success can certainly happen by putting some bait out there and waiting to see who bites. But in order to sustain success over time, organizations must have a target audience for whom to optimize the experience. Otherwise they’ll never be able to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Tom Fishburne, the author of Brand Camp and one of my favorite cartoonists, recently wrote a great post on target markets.

In his post he said something that particularly stuck with me:

The world doesn’t need another blandly appealing mainstream idea. I think the real opportunity is to find a niche and give them something they will walk over hot coals to buy. Even if it’s polarizing. Especially if it’s polarizing. By giving something truly remarkable to a niche, the idea can still be appealing to a wide audience. But it needs a niche at the core. The mainstream is not a target market.

It reminded me of a recent situation in which I found myself insisting to the CEO of a major online communications company that trying to be the next Verizon was not a strategy. “We have a target market of 55 million customers in the United States,” he said.

“You have a potential market of 55 million customers,” I maintained. “But who are you targeting right now?” I don’t think they had ever before considered this question.

Whether it be business executives or college students or transnational families, there is a smaller subset of the entire world to focus on. In time, your product offering can expand to attract other target markets.

Just remember: each audience has their own set of needs, and if you don’t have both eyes firmly planted on them, they’ll be sure to notice.

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  • http://www.megfowler.com Meg

    This is absolutely the same issue I come across when I'm writing copy for client sites. They don't have a clue who they want to speak to — they just want everyone to feel compelled to read when they get there.

    It won't happen.

    The same thing happens when clients are choosing keywords to optimize for… they want maximum traffic, without thinking of how that traffic will convert.

    If more companies and business owners learned that mass appeal is a myth, they'd find themselves the customers they've been looking for all along.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Next time ask them to name a book, newspaper or magazine that appeals to everyone and see what they come up with! Sometimes I think companies are under the impression that the web is a different beast simply because it's about reaching people sitting behind their computers and all it takes to move them to and through their site is a click. If only they understood how much negotiation is required just to earn a click!

      • Brian Durkin

        “If only they understood how much negotiation is required just to earn a click!” …classic, so true.

  • http://www.perfecttuna.com Samantha LeVan

    I loved reading this. It's a huge frustration for UX peeps. Who's our target? Everyone! A friend told me today the target market he was given is “people with a lot of money who like to spend freely.” I suspect the company will struggle until they figure out who to focus on within that segment.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Ha! If you asked me who my target audience is for my business I'd say, “Clients with a lot of money who like to spend freely.” :)

      Of course, I'd probably narrow the target by also saying, “Who want to change the world.”

  • http://changememe.com/ Louise

    Thanks for this, it's something we also struggle with in website development and copywriting. Web 2.0 has made it worse.

    I've made progress with the content team, they've got two people on their editorial board who are in a defined target audience. It was a huge wake up call for them.

  • jasonrobb

    Nice post Whit, how do you go about getting that initial research for potential markets? What tasks/process do you follow? Focus groups, surveys, ask friends & family (at least), all the above/none of the above?

    I like to compare target audiences to music choices. If you ask some one “what kind of music do you like?” There are some that will answer with something specific, e.g. blue grass country, and others who will say “Oh, I like anything!” — 9 times out of 10, that person does not like everything. Make them listen to death metal and that will open their eyes that they don't. Not that there's anything wrong with death metal, my point is go to the extremes to show examples of how inappropriate cowboy hats are to someone who likes death metal. Extremes get the point across in ways subtle examples don't paint the picture quite as vivid.

    How does this relate to getting stakeholders to reveal their target audience? They're not going to succeed at selling country music to death metal fans. It won't happen. You need to get specific, and the only way to do that is to ask people what kind of music they like (also what they don't like) and find your niche.

    So, who do we ask those questions to get the right answers?

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Jason, that's an awesome analogy and I just might steal it sometime. You're right that using an example to clarify how these choices matter might just focus everyone around the table.

      As for how I like the do research: I'm a firm believer in the good old fashioned one-on-one conversation. If we identify a few potential target audiences, I'll talk to 3-4 people within each one to find themes in their backgrounds, behaviors, attitudes, motivations, frustrations and tech savviness. Then I can go back to the client and say: “Here are our opportunities. Now you get to pick what the business wants to pursue.” That approach has always worked for me.

  • http://www.thisisaaronslife.com Aaron Irizarry

    Whitney,
    Nice post, I see this very consistently in the company I work for (a search marketing start up) , there is a general idea of who the target audience is, but within a short amount of time if goals aren't being meant they tweak the audience (small business to corporate and then back to small business), or focus, instead of a consistent dedicated focus to one product, or set of products for it's meant audience.

    I think this could be caused by lots of start up's being driven by investment, if they are not careful they end up chasing dollars

    It is a lot like watching a hyperactive child with a laser pointer.

    Again another informative, and useful post

    ~ Aaron I

  • PatrickCourtney

    Good stuff really dug this post. Do you find it an issue as UX person appealing to a target market without alienating other markets?

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      “Alienating” is a really strong word that I think rarely if ever happens in the online space. Short of doing something offensive to a particular group, you're simply making choices that would more effectively appeal to a certain type of audience. It doesn't have to be dramatic as in color scheme, imagery, or language. Instead it's about understanding the needs of your target and guiding them through the experience, while still accommodating other user types.
      A good example of this is an environmental web app I recently designed with Happy Cog (that hopefully will be launching soon so I can discuss in more detail). Our target audience is casual environmentalists so we dedicated most of the site to the needs of someone who cares enough to be there, but isn't devoting their life to the cause. But meanwhile, there are still a few key features to appeal to “deep greens” or treehugger types that will allow them to be the site's power users, without detracting from the experience had by the casuals.

      Does that make sense?

      • PatrickCourtney

        Yea, totally, thanks for the explanation. Would love to see this Happy Cog app when it's public. Thanks, Whitney!

        • Brian Durkin

          Understanding your core audience is important to talk to the model that most companies have of “Unknown User > Known User > Frequent User > Evangelist” and getting users through that progression. At first many companies might think “We need to design to everyone” but as Whitney is pointing out, you just can’t have that mentality and understanding what enables the user to successfully move along that journey.

  • http://www.spencerfry.com/ spencerfry

    I agree. To use a silly analogy: You need to plant the seed and then grow from there. You can't expect to be a huge tree without water and proper care. It's smart to keep focused on something attainable early on, but that also leaves you enough room to grow. You don't want to too narrowly define your brand.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Says a 3x successful entrepreneur. Thanks for posting your sentiments here.

    • http://twitter.com/mediajunkie xian

      that's similar to the “potemkin village” anti-pattern you see with community sites or message boards: it's better to start a single group and grow it organically, forking or calving-off as needed, than to set up a huge empty honeycomb and try to popualte it.

  • http://www.erinlynnyoung.com Erin Young

    I agree that focusing is important, and that bringing real conversations into the mix illuminates the opportunities so much better than anything else could. A client of mine was recently wanting to target two very different audiences, and conversations with each of them revealed that while one wanted every feature imaginable and expected to pay $10, the other expected to pay thousands and desired a tightly constrained feature set. I was so proud that my research influenced the team’s decision to commit to the latter audience. Big win.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      Erin, isn’t that the best feeling ever?! It’s so rewarding when we fight for our process the way we know works best and then have it result in such a crucial finding for the business. Research works! Bravo to you to seeing it through.

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