Do we still need target audiences?

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There seems to be an increasing fragmentation of thinking on users and target audiences: customers, journeys, media segmentations, user experiences; they all come from different perspectives and often generate very different outcomes. The latest APG Noisy Thinking event sought to understand more about different kinds of thinking and provide different opinions on whether we need target audiences anymore. A client, a researcher, a media strategist, a tech strategist and a strategist turned CEO turned entrepreneur were each invited to give the audience five minutes on the subject.

Andy Davidson, managing director of Flamingo spoke first. He’s done 50 target audience related projects in the last few years, so he drew on those to pull out some tips and pitfalls, and truths about the importance of targeting for behaviour. ‘Biscuit eaters everywhere’ is neither incisive nor helpful. You have to be really specific to influence human behaviour. And in that context some of the biggest hits are written to an astonishingly precise and small target audience; for example, Star Wars aimed at kids who ‘love medieval histories in space, without irony or embarrassment’ = 20 year global franchise.

"We need targets. Without them, we are aimless"
Andy Davidson, MD of Flamingo London

Creative targets are very important because they force a brand to nail its colours to the mast so people know what it’s for. But you shouldn’t confuse your creative target with your actual target (of course Mercedes want anyone who can to buy their car).

Davidson used a video metaphor of flocks of starlings to demonstrate that you can’t think about people as target audience in just one category – you need to understand all the other stuff they do so that you see your brand or category in the context of a whole life. The ‘cyclist’ in London is also a pedestrian, a tube user, a driver and Uber fanatic. If you can take a step back and really understand the context you might have a better idea of where they are going.

And if you’re in doubt the key is propensity: How much you think they can be influenced in their behaviour.

So Andy’s answer is yes; we do need target audiences. Be precise and specific and go for behaviour.

The second person to speak was Frank Durden, who spent 18 years in advertising and has just completed 18 months as a client CMO. He learned very fast about how differently clients think about target audiences when he got up to address his first board meeting with a clear picture of their target audience, only to be met with blank faces.

Frank’s answer is yes, but remember that your client is playing another numbers-driven game that you have to fit into to win.

Next came Verra Budimlija, a creative planner until she was seduced by the life of the media strategist and as CSO of MEC. She started off by addressing the old idea that you push from consideration through to purchase via the funnel, and noting that now we think about purchase journeys as being on a continuum. We know that people are constantly forming opinions about brands through active and passive stages.

Verras answer is yes and no: it depends where you are in the journey and the passive and active stages need different approaches. The passive phase could be five years in which you stay connected with your market as broad audience connection: Nivea and X Factor or Colgate 2 minute tales for kids.

Will Whalley was formerly a strategist at AMVBBDO and is now brand planner at Google, focusing mainly on YouTube. He explained that the notion of target audience for Google and specifically Youtube is clear:

So Will’s answer is yes – and go big, and go digital broadcast.

  • Don’t go for specific audiences, but all category buyers
  • Don’t presume targeting will take you smaller – it can go bigger
  • Digital is better broadcast; not anti broadcast

Lucy Jameson was a CSO and then CEO of Grey and is currently preparing to launch a new agency. She’s been working with start-ups who are obsessed by performance marketing – least waste, micro targets and people who are already in the market, risking endless re-targeting of ever smaller groups.

Her plea is to forget all of that and go wide and embrace waste.

This post first appeared on the APG Knowledge articles