Painting a Picture of an Audience

A love letter addressed, “To Whom it May Concern,” is going to fail. In much the same way, products and communications developed only using a demographic understanding of an audience are going to have the same generic effect in the market.

In any creative company, a deeper understanding of users and customers is critical to creating a "better love letter.” Whether that’s an app, a website, a new product innovation, or communications… deep empathy for an audience makes a strategist at his/her best. 

When I was working at creative agencies on retail and hospitality clients, the churn of brief-writing never seemed to stop, driven by the promotional nature of those businesses. It made gaining empathy hard to come by. And being given less than 24 hours to write a brief made it difficult to craft a compelling narrative around the audience. The default, all too easy, often began, “The audience is women 24-40…” 

What these audience depictions failed to take into account was, what is his/her hidden agenda? What are his/her motivations, attitudes, values? This satirical poster on the walls of one agency brought this to life too well: 

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To truly connect with people, we must move beyond thinking about only demographic information when we're designing for them. Whether an audience is brought to life in a draft form or a more fully-baked persona, bringing these motivations to life are what will drive change in a company.

Looking outside the marketing world, this lawyer sums it up well: 

"When you represent a criminal defendant you’ve got to shoot him [the defendant] up into your blood. You become him, you walk in his shoes, and you see with his eyes, hear with his ears. You’ve got to know him completely. You can translate his feeling, his meaning and his intellect. You take the clay of the person’s behavior and you embellish it, you make it a piece of art. And that is the lawyer’s creativity." – Tony Serra, criminal lawyer

Next, effectively communicating that idea to the team is just as important. A true insight into people makes another team member think, “I kind of know that person” or “I know someone like that.” This is nearly impossible to accomplish when a paragraph starts with the phrase, “Men 34-44 who live in urban areas…” 

Another place to look for inspiration is fiction. Authors are incredible at painting this picture of someone, and we can look to them for inspiration in character development. Take the way in which C.S. Lewis brings to life a complicated character, Eustace, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Narnia #3): 

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother ‘Father' and ‘Mother,' but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open. Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card...” – C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Page 1 

If Eustace walked by me, I’d be able to point him out. I could sketch him immediately. The only demographic information in the paragraph is that Eustace is a boy. Personas and audience insights that read like this will enable the reader to imagine that person in an instant. 

Even if it’s in a pinch, going through a short creative writing or mood board exercise to create an audience story will help more empathetic and useful ideas flow. And I've said before, reading fiction helps open up new ideas in our minds.

T.S. Eliot said, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information." By bringing to life our audiences beyond demographics, we increase the odds that our companies and teams don't get lost in information.

Josh Carlton is the Founder of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This post also appears on LinkedIn.

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