(Really) Defining Your Audience

One of the first (and most obvious) questions to talk about within Web project teams surrounds the nature of the target market.  Who is your audience?  You will find this question at the top of most questionnaires and planning briefs used by agencies because it’s extremely important.  If you don’t know the preferences of your target market, how will you ever serve them with a Web site?

As important as this question is, in many cases it is addressed only casually.  In planning discussions, the question tends to be glossed over and the answer only given broadly to get to the next.  Typical answers include things like “mostly male and some female,” “younger people,” or “anyone over 18.”  There are exceptions, certainly, but many project managers don’t truly put in the time to really uncover the nature of the very audience that they serve.  Generally characterizing your audience in 30 seconds isn’t really defining your audience.

It takes time, it takes resources, and it’s not the most exciting thing to do (most project managers are anxious to see some new design ideas).  But investing in really defining the audience will not only enhance the effectiveness of the end product, it will really support the production process itself in a variety of facets.

So let’s take a look at how an audience should really be defined.  For starters, there is no universal formula for defining a Web site audience.  Consider that the best talk show interviewers are known not for simply running through a list of pre-written questions with a guest, but instead letting the nature of the guest’s responses dictate the flow of subsequent questions.  A successful interview is a thoughtful, probing exchange–not a lock-step process.  Exploring the nature of your Web site’s audience should be no different:  deep, exploritative, and intuitive.

You have to start somewhere, of course, so here are a few high-level discussion questions for a project team:

Once you’ve run through a handful of high-level questions, the next step is to generate some more probing questions based upon the responses you come up with.  If you reason that your site will likely be used in short bursts during business hours, the group might formulate a question regarding the most critical 3 or 4 pieces of information that you should communicate.  Likewise, if you determine that your visitors really want to know what your current rate structure is without having to pick up the phone or want to see a picture of your office’s interior, then let that dictate your thinking.  Although these items may seem insignificant when first discussed, they cut to the core of what your site ought to be.

For many sites, an in-depth discussion will be enough.  Many organizations know the needs and wants of their customers quite well.  In other cases, you might consider surveying your users using a simple Web form or even a telephone survey.  Questions can be subjective, objective, or both.

In the end, you should set an internal goal of really defining your audience and its needs.  You may even elect to develop a one page user profile that really reflects the nature of your typical user and his/her needs.  Have fun with it.