I have some bad news for you: Your target audience is hurting your business.
That’s right. Contrary to popular belief, chasing your target audience isn’t helping you grow your business.
It’s preventing you from growing.
Common marketing wisdom tells us you must have a “target audience.” If you haven’t heard the term before, it’s basically a description of the particular group you are targeting to sell to.
In theory, your target audience allows you to figure out which products appeal to which people. It helps you determine who to market to and whether or not you’ve maxed out your market share. Are there more people in your target audience to sell to or should you develop a new product?
Plus, it’s kind of fun! Instead of having to look into the great crowd of the world and wonder how to connect with your buyers, you can look at your specific target audience and feel like you know who you’re writing your blogs or Facebook posts to.
It sounds like a great idea!
Unfortunately, the target audiences that most people create do more harm than good.
Instead of helping them grow, their target audience is preventing them from reaching their business’s full potential.
In this article, I’ve outlined three of the biggest target audience myths that are keeping you from the growth you want. And I also reveal what you should do instead.
Let’s get into it.
Myth #1: I should create a “profile” for my target audience
From blog writing to social media to SEO and beyond, many marketers recommend getting super specific with your target audience. “Don’t stop at why people want your product, get inside their heads!”
Recommendations are all over telling you to create a “profile” for your buyers. Write down other brands they buy, where they spend their free time, how they take their coffee, and on, and on.
Many marketers tell us to imagine our ideal customer and create a profile for them so we know who we’re marketing to.
We end up with something like this: “My new app is designed to appeal to a 24-year-old millennial who still lives in his mom’s house and listens to Led Zeppelin on his brand new iPhone XS Max.”
The common belief is that a good majority of our customers are from our target audience. So we target our writing or ads to show up in their feeds and appeal specifically to them.
Let me tell you a secret: That guy you’re picturing isn’t helping you grow your business. In fact, he’s barely contributing to your bottom line.
Don’t believe me? Let me show you.
Harley Davidson is often held up as a company with a very specific customer profile. I bet you can picture them yourself: burley, bearded men who have tattoos and spend most of their time on or with their Harley.
These are the guys who get in fights over why Harley Davidson is the best and even tattoo the logo onto their arms. They make less money than other bikers and spend more of it on their bikes. They would say they feel more satisfied with life when they’re on their Harley.
Yes, this customer profile exists and has been studied.
And it only makes up 3.5% of Harley Davidson’s sales revenue (Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow).
Sit with that for a moment. The guy we all think of when we imagine a Harley Davidson owner only makes up 3.5% of Harley’s sales.
So where does the other 96.5% of Harley Davidson’s revenue come from? People who don’t fit into that profile; people who look nothing like that profile.
- They don’t care which brand of motorcycle they buy
- Riding their motorcycle doesn’t make them feel more satisfied with life
- They don’t get Harley tattoos
- They don’t fit a unique demographic
This isn’t my hunch. This is based on real data of Harley Davidson’s real customers.
I know this defies common marketing wisdom. But most marketing wisdom is based on hunches and case studies. This is based on careful research and mounds of data covering decades of sales and every industry you can think of.
This marketing and sales data show us that this is more than just a trend. This same thing happens across the board.
A company’s biggest fans and most obvious customers (what we could call their “customer profile”) contribute very little to their sales.
In fact, this happens so often and is so predictable it could be considered a law of marketing.
But, if we all think creating a customer profile is such a good idea, and it has so many people saying we should do it, then what’s the real problem?
Read on to find out.
Myth #2: My target audience is unique
When talking to a marketing consultant or agency, many business leaders hear some version of this question: “How are your customers different from those of your competitors?”
Most people believe that people in their target audience or customer profile are different from their competitors’ customers.
This unfortunate assumption is not true.
Think about products you buy frequently. Which companies do you buy from? Starbucks, Walmart, Chick-fil-A, Colgate, you name it.
Now, think back over the last year. How many different toothpastes have you bought? Toilet paper brands? How many coffee shops have you been to? Fast food restaurants?
I’m not talking about your favorites. I’m asking which ones you’ve purchased. Even if you have favorites — two or three brands you prefer over all the rest — you might not purchase them 100% consistently. Sometimes another brand is on sale, sometimes the one you want is out of stock.
Intention is not the key here — action is. Even if you’d prefer to only drink Starbucks coffee, sometimes you need a latte when Starbucks isn’t close.
Whatever the reason for purchasing a different brand, everyone does it. No one is 100% loyal to every single brand they buy. That means there is a percentage of every customer base that occasionally buys from a different company than normal.
Research tells us that most people buy from more than one company in every category. And your customers do the same thing.
The fact that you buy from competing companies means you are a customer of direct competitors. The same is true of your customers. They also buy from your competitors.
Which means your customers are not unique. They don’t think differently. They are the same as your competitors’ customers.
Ouch. It’s like a dagger to the heart! But I wouldn’t lie to you.
Think about the last few cars you bought. I’ve owned a Dodge, Saturn, Nissan, Honda, and Hyundai. I’m definitely guilty of being a customer to competing companies.
A famous study was done by Franklin B. Evans that looked into the difference between Ford buyers and Chevrolet buyers. The study found no difference in the personality traits of the buyers!
Just like with Harley Davidson, the percentage of people who are “true loyalists,” who never buy more than one brand, is tiny.
Surveys of customers within any industry reveal that within that industry, customers of competing companies respond to surveys same, think the same, and buy from more than one company in that industry.
An industry itself can have a unique audience from other industries, but the companies within an industry do not.
In fact, buyers regularly buy from competing companies without a second thought (think back to the toothpaste brands you’ve bought in the last year or the coffee shops you’ve been to).
Studies show this trend expands across every industry. Every company within an industry all share the same audience as the industry as a whole.
Yes, this even happens in your industry. Yes, even with your company.
What this means for you as a business leader is that there is no need to create a customer profile. There is no need to figure out the differences between your customers and your competitors’ customers. Because they’re the same.
Your customers and your competitor’s customers are the same people.
I know this flies in the face of common marketing advice, but stay with me. After the next myth, I share how to create the perfect target audience (here’s a quick hint: it is less about the person and more about the problem that person is experiencing, but more on that in a minute).
Myth #3: My target audience should include things like values and demographics
Now we know that your customers are not unique, they are the same as other companies in your industry. But demographics still matter, right? What about psychographics — personalities, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles?
At this point, you might be wondering: Isn’t it a good idea to have some idea of who my customers are? At least their age or income level?
Most people are convinced their customers are different from their competitors’ customers. They have different values and opinions than their competitors’ customers. They live in different places, are a different age or gender than their competitors’ customers. Otherwise, they wouldn’t buy from you!
Unfortunately, this is false.
Let’s look at an example. An extreme example. Not just about generic companies, but a company that truly tried to market to a unique target audience.
Over the years, Yorkie candy bars have had extremely targeted marketing. They advertised to men. Their ads often included truck drivers enjoying Yorkie bars. They even went so far as to outright say, “It’s not for girls!” Pieces of marketing included pictures of girls that were crossed out.
It’s hard to target your marketing or advertising more specifically than that.
But looking at the demographics of Yorkie reveals a lot: their customers are 56% men and 44% women. It’s a marginal difference. Practically negligible.
Even with marketing that targeted such a specific demographic, Yorkie could not escape the customer profile of their industry or the norm of about half men, half women buyers.
While this is only one example, there are hundreds more. (Find more in this book.)
But before we cross demographic differentiators off our list, there is one area that demographics do matter. Price.
Price is one of the only standout differentiators for brands.
Earlier I mentioned the study comparing the customers of Ford and Chevrolet. While Ford and Chevy share the same audience, Cadillac does not. The reason for this is that the price for a Cadillac is prohibitive; to buy a Cadillac you must be able to afford a Cadillac.
This simple distinction changes Cadillac’s customer demographics. Cadillac’s buyers make more money than Ford and Chevrolet buyers. Even so, there are often no other significant changes in customer bases.
Surveys sent to customers of rival brands reveal that they even think similarly. Customers of different brands were asked questions like these:
- I am happy with my standard of living
- I can’t bear untidiness
- I try to keep up with technology
- I always look for special offers
Their responses had statistically negligible differences. The responses of almost every company’s customer base are within 1% or 2% of competitors’ customer responses. I know this goes against everything you’ve been taught about your customers, but let me say it one more time—the research points in one direction:
No matter what industry you’re in, your customers are so similar to your competitor’s customers there is no advantage to defining or marketing to a different group.
When you narrow your target audience too far you miss out on customers.
This is the tough truth many marketers are missing.
If you focus all your marketing efforts on the 24-year-old on his new iPhone in his mom’s basement, you risk missing the 37-year-old woman who just started her own business and could use your app, or the 58-year-old gardener who would also find it valuable.
When you narrow your target audience, you might see a short-term bump in sales (as all the 24-year-olds download your app), but you miss out on long-term revenue and growth.
Is your brain throwing a fit right now? Is it arguing with me? Trust me, when I first learned this, mine was. It’s hard to wrap our minds around something that is so far outside of what we’ve believed to be true.
The good news is, creating a target audience that works is much simpler than you thought. And it makes so much sense your brain will thank you.
So how do you know who to market your product to?
How to create the perfect target audience.
At this point, we don’t have much of the standard definition of a target audience left. We’ve debunked the marketing myths that are hurting businesses and understand that:
- Customer profiles aren’t helpful
- Your customers aren’t unique
- Their demographics and personality traits are the same across your industry (and clever marketing won’t help you attract substantially different customers)
It can be difficult to let go of those three myths. On the surface, they make so much sense! But they are based on hunches and individual case studies.
Instead of relying on hunches, let’s turn to brain science.
The human brain is a complex organ that we are nowhere close to understanding. However, we do know some things. For example, we know what the brain’s primary goal is.
Our brains are built to keep us alive.
Above all else, our brains are concerned with our survival. Think about the last time you went to a restaurant. You probably didn’t know how many chairs were in the room, but you knew where the exits were. That’s your brain keeping you alive.
Whenever we encounter something new, our brain’s first question is, “How does this help me survive and thrive?” And that’s exactly what your customers’ brains are doing when they encounter your marketing.
Connecting with your customer’s desire to survive and thrive is the foundation for creating your target audience.
There are two questions to answer to identify who you’re truly selling to. If you’re familiar with the StoryBrand Framework, you’ll recognize these questions. They come directly from the Framework. Here they are:
1. What do your customers want as it relates to your product or service?
Be specific. You’re not interested in how someone takes their coffee unless you sell coffee or creamer. Keep your answer anchored to your product.
For example, I sell marketing services. If you’re reading this blog you probably want to grow your business. What’s the connection? My website services help people grow their business.
My answer to “What do my customers want?” could also be:
- Better marketing
- Marketing that makes you money
- A new website
- A sales funnel
But not all my clients know about those things. They aren’t all convinced that marketing is the solution. But they all want to grow their business. So that’s what I went with. In sales calls and throughout the process of designing and implementing their marketing strategies, I connect my marketing services with growing their business.
I don’t change anything I offer, I just change the way I talk about it. You won’t find anyone with a megaphone yelling about a pretty website over here. But we will talk about how our websites can help you grow your business.
You want to connect your products or services with something your customers want.
Sometimes when I’m asking a client this question, they give a long, complicated answer. Or they list of twelve things. Or they say, “Well, they think they want [this], but I know they really want [that].”
None of those approaches work. Keep it simple, keep it short, and make sure it’s something your customers know they want. You can introduce the specifics of how your product helps them down the road.
This question isn’t about you, it’s about your customers.
Another quick example: I have a client who helps people with ideas for a product find a manufacturer and set up a business selling that product.
She walks her customers through dozens and dozens of steps. It takes a lot of work to create a product and set up a business! But she doesn’t tell her customers how many steps she’ll help them walk through.
She tells them she’ll help them launch their product to success. That’s what they want. To launch their product. To bring it to life. To stop dreaming about it and make it! Hold it in their hands, sell it to a customer.
So her answer to this is “Launch your product to success.”
Keep it simple, keep it simple, keep it simple.
2. What problem do your customers deal with as it relates to your products or service?
We know what your customers want, but something is getting in their way. It’s preventing them from getting what they want. And your product or service helps them overcome that problem.
What problem does your product or service help your customers solve?
For this question, you might have a different answer for each of your products. And your overall business could have its own answer, too.
The reason for this is each of your products probably solves a different problem. That’s why you have those different products! A vacuum cleans dirty carpets (problem: your carpets are dirty), a mop cleans dirty floors (problem: your floors are dirty), and a duster cleans dusty furniture (problem: your furniture is dusty).
Like with everything else, don’t overthink this! Keep it simple.
Quick side note: it’s okay if you have multiple products that solve the same problem, but this doesn’t happen often in small businesses. Think about Coca-Cola, most of their beverages and flavors solve the same problem. This doesn’t mean their products are useless, it means they serve the same target audience.
Now that you’ve answered both questions, write them down.
This is your target audience! Your target audience is full of people who want what you sell (or the life that what you sell will provide for them) and have a problem that you solve.
And if you’re worried that this is too vague or that it will make your marketing harder, consider what these two questions can help you discover.
- What your customers search for on Google (they’re either searching for what they want or how to solve the problem they have)
- What kind of person buys your product (a person who wants what you sell and/or has a problem you solve)
- What you should talk about in your marketing (what your customers want and the problem they’re experiencing)
Let me give you one last example:
If we were to create a “customer profile” for the people we think would buy ClearBrand’s products, like everyone suggests, it would be male business owners who know about StoryBrand and bring in more than $1 million in revenue, but less than $20 million.
However, experience and sales have showed us just how wrong we would have been.
In reality, we have worked with just as many women as men, people who’ve never heard of StoryBrand, startups, companies that bring in over $20 million in annual revenue and companies under $500,000 in annual revenue.
What do they all have in common?
- They want to grow their business
- Their marketing isn’t working
- What they want and the problem they’re experiencing.
When you home in on what your customer wants and the problem they’re experiencing, you connect with them in a much more specific way.
Rather than trying to appeal to their demographic, you connect with what they’re going through. You build empathy and authority.
And when you do this, your business grows.
It’s time to throw away the old way of creating target audiences and start using something that works better. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a tool that exists to help you ask these questions. It’s the StoryBrand Framework.
In fact, this is only two of the seven aspects to creating a clear message your customers respond to. These two questions focus on getting to know your customer, the other five parts help you clearly describe what you do and why people should buy (without being a pushy salesman).
If you want to learn more, here are some ways you can dive deep into the StoryBrand Framework:
- Buy the book, Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller
- Attend a live StoryBrand Marketing Workshop
- Enroll in the online StoryBrand Marketing Workshop
- Read about how to StoryBrand your website