Marketing targeting: how to pick an audience that won’t waste your money

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” Meaning that, while it can be fun to get in the car and go on an adventure, directionless wandering doesn’t work well if you’re trying to meet a group of friends at a new restaurant for dinner reservations which are set for a specific date and time.

Instead,  it’s a better idea to plug the address into Google Maps or Waze and evaluate a number of possible routes, taking into account traffic information, construction, toll roads, accidents, and a variety of other factors to make the most efficient choice to get you to dinner, on time, and with the least amount of hassle.

Most importantly, you’d do all those things BEFORE getting underway.

Since this is a marketing blog, it won’t surprise you when I say that requires the same type of route planning… and in this case, we mean audience development.

Sure, sometimes it’s tempting to launch a campaign across a wide variety of media channels and with no specific targeting, and just see what happens. But, unless you’re really sure that you’ve got an irresistible offer, such free-spirit marketing is a pretty dumb idea, especially for smaller marketing budgets.

What to do instead: marketing audience development for small businesses

The smarter choice is to stop and think about your customers. And no, that can’t be everyone; as I heard it put the other day, “if you don’t define who you’re talking to, you aren’t talking to anybody”. If you can’t target your ads and customize your messaging to appeal directly to your ideal customer, you won’t appeal enough to anyone to make a difference.

So let’s look at it this way: while we know you’ll accept a sale from nearly anyone, who is actually most likely to buy your product or service? What do they “look” like? Are they young/old/middle-aged, male/female, rich/poor, college-educated, or dropouts? And what sort of media do they consume?

All these sorts of questions will help you make good decisions about your target marketing audience, and the time you spend up-front answering them will reap rewards in terms of increased revenue and profitability.

Our favorite way to do this is to think about your best customers: what are your easiest sales like? Who buys with the least fuss? Who makes you the most profit? And what do all those people have in common? Those commonalities make up your target customer.

Let’s break down a few of the common things you’ll want to think about when building a target audience for your marketing.

  • Gender: Generally speaking, are your customers men, women, (or does it matter?) If you’re selling women’s shoes, the majority of your customers are likely to be women or to identify as women, and so targeting men will likely be ineffective. (Note: there are usually exceptions to every rule; you MAY actually want to target men in specific situations, such as a campaign aimed at male customers during the holiday season, extolling the virtues of your shoes as holiday gifts) 
  • Age: What are the general age ranges of your customers? In some cases, this may be less important (everyone needs food, regardless of age, for instance), but in some cases, it’s absolutely critical to target age-appropriately. For example, if you’re selling million-dollar vacation homes, you probably don’t want to target anyone under the age of 18 (unless they also pop stars). 
  • Geographic area: If you only offer services in a certain set of zip codes, or if you have a physical storefront, you’ll want to make sure you don’t waste money targeting customers outside your physical trade area. Running Google Ads campaigns in France isn’t going to help drive customer traffic into your store located in Renton, Washington. (Of course, if you’re selling online, that’s a different story. But in that example, are you willing and able to ship from Renton to Paris? And if so, have you accounted for the incremental cost. currency exchange, and time involved?) 
  • Interests: This is particularly important for paid social media targeting. What interests do your customers have in common? Obviously, they should have some interest in your product, but is there something else they may all think about that could help you target them? If you’re a kids’ dentist, your target audience probably all has parenting and child-rearing interests in common, as well. 
  • Keywords: This is primarily a paid search marketing concern, but it bears some thought. Are you targeting the right keywords that your ideal customers would use (and excluding the wrong ones) effectively? If you’re running an adoption agency for dogs, you’ll likely want to put some negative keywords in place to exclude people looking for cats, or turtles, or zebras… (true story – we’ve seen some truly odd things pop up in search results reports for our clients). Even if you’re not doing search marketing, paying attention to your keywords is an important part of keeping up on your SEO (for more on Search Marketing and SEO, read this blog).
  • Media: Is your message going out on a channel that your target customers are likely to consume? Pinterest, for example, is an amazing way to reach suburban moms. But it’s probably not the first place someone looking to buy a used Maserati is going to turn. That said, there are likely some great Facebook Maserati groups where Maserati aficionados hang out—and that might be a great place to post your ad for your used Ghibli S Q4.

Remember, of course, that you may have different target customers for different ad campaigns. Say you’re a potter, and you want to promote a pottery class that you are teaching. That’s a different audience than you would normally use to sell your finished pieces, right? One would be people who may be interested in learning about how to make their own pottery; based on your experience that may be women between 30 and 45, who are interested in crafts, and like to get out of the house one night a week for a class with their friends (note: Pinterest could be a really good place to promote this!). But if you’re trying to sell your pottery directly, your audience may be, based on your sales history, both men and women, aged 45 to 65, who are interested in home decor, locally-made products, the arts, and farmer’s markets, and have a higher-than-average household income. Other channels may be a better way to reach them. 

The elements above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to selecting your target audience, but they form the beginnings of a good foundation. The more time (within reason, of course) you spend getting your target right upfront, the more success your campaigns will have—and the less money you’ll waste.

That said, we’d also counsel you to avoid analysis paralysis; when you reach a point where you feel like you’ve got the target about 80% “right”, launch your campaign! You can always monitor results and adjust going forward. Most small businesses can’t afford a formal market research study, so testing as you go is a great way to hone and perfect your ideal marketing audience.

And that sounds like a great topic for a future Guidepost, so we’ll stop here….

Happy small business marketing,

Theron and Katie

At Urban Sherpa Marketing Co. we offer marketing advisory, strategic planning, and services for small businesses and startups, including content marketing. Our goal is to make high-quality marketing possible for every business, no matter the size. Think of us as your outsourced marketing department, strategic marketing adviser, or even your phone-a-friend marketing lifeline.

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