If I’m Not the Target Audience, Who Is?

Ever since I wrote my first fundraising appeal back in theReagan administration, I have been chanting under my breath, “I am not the target audience.” But that raises an important question: Just who is the target audience?

Some nonprofits have gone to elaborate lengths to define their target audience, determining her age, lifestyle and shopping patterns, and sometimes even giving her a name. While that seems a bit over-the-top to me (but hey, whatever works!), the other end of the spectrum is to not even bothering to figure out that there is a target audience … and it probably isn’t you.

To answer the question asked above, let’s first answer a few other important questions.

Why does it matter that we know who the target audience is?
There is a series of humorous client comments turned into posters on WebDesignDev’s website. My hands-down favorite is, “The target audience is males and females aged zero and up.” But of course, while that sounds appealing, it’s just not realistic. At any nonprofit, the goal of a direct-mail letter or an eappeal is to raise money. We all know that people won’t just part with that hard-earned currency because we ask them to. And different people are motivated by different things.

Writing “to the masses of human beings out there in Donorland” pretty much guarantees that you’ll just miss everyone. You need to focus in on the people most likely to actually respond to your request. (It would be nice if they also read your writing masterpiece, but we can’t ask for everything.) Knowing who your target donor is helps you chose words, concepts, even typeface.

Who isn’t the target audience?
While it can be hard to convince them of this, the target audience isn’t your boss, the board chair or even your fellow staff members. Nor is it their family members. Bluntly, these people know way too much about your organization’s purpose and programs. Some of them have been on the committee that wrote the mission statement that was designed to offend no one and restrict nothing. They see the reports, know the numbers, hear the scuttlebutt and have gotten a peek under the kimono.

And that means you aren’t the target audience, either. When you write your appeals, you can’t assume anything. Your donors, prospects and former donors need you to lead them down the path one step at a time. If you write to yourself, you’re going to make some leaps in logic that leave readers behind.

How can I force myself to focus on who my target audience is?
There are no hard and fast rules here. A lot depends on what helps you keep that focus. When I was 23 years old and writing to 70-year-old women, I kept a photo of my great aunt Mary handy. She, for me, was the target audience. Forget Peoria; I wanted to know if it would play in Aunt Mary’s apartment.

You may not need a physical photo. But you do need to know who that target audience is. Write it down, or review it before you start writing. What do you need to say to communicate to that person? When you forget (or ignore) your target, the chance that you’ll communicate to the eventual recipient of your message diminishes.

What if I have no idea who the target is?
At many nonprofit organizations, you can determine your target audience by looking at who comes to donor events. If your focus is local, you probably know a lot of the donors and prospects. (In that case, you have to be careful not to assume that everyone is like the people who volunteer and come to walk-a-thons; do those energetic donors represent most of your support base or a small portion who like to be more hands-on?)

If you don’t benefit from actually seeing the donors, you can get a good clue about who they are by reviewing typical interactions with your nonprofit. Take a look at the correspondence received in a typical day or week. Is it mostly email, or are you getting a lot of handwritten notes? Are you getting gifts via check or mostly online gifts? When donors call with questions, do they chat a bit or are they “all business”? Do your donors cluster in specific geographic areas? While none of this is definitive, it can give you an idea of the kinds of people who are more likely to support or choose to support your cause.

Of course, there are wonderful data overlay programs that can give you terrific insight into your donors and help you “find” other donors who have similar characteristics. I am a big fan of those services, but know they aren’t realistic for everyone. So lacking that, some sleuthing and questioning of colleagues can help you form a mental image of the person to whom you are writing.

So who is my target audience?

Ah, we’re back to the beginning. But alas, I have no easy answer. Every nonprofit has a unique target audience. It is narrower than “males and females aged zero and up” but different from you and your colleagues. Your task is to figure out who that is and then to focus on that one person. Your e-appeal or direct-mail appeal needs to be a conversation between the letter signer and the reader — not a lecture or an address to an assembled crowd.

When I share from my heart (in the voice of the letter-signer, of course) in a way that touches your heart, a connection is formed that can lead to a donation. But this old dog knows that I have to know who you are if I hope to penetrate your busy world and earn a few minutes of your time to listen. Otherwise, I am just more white noise in a day already cluttered with too much babble that is easily ignored.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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