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Audience segmentation is important for better communication

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Different audiences have different communication needs. And different segments of audiences have different communication needs. As PR has progressed from the days of mass communication, we have increasingly been able to target our messages to the needs of different audience segments – internally and externally.

Audience segmentation is the process of dividing an audience into smaller groups, with similar characteristics, wants and needs that are selected according to our communication objectives. Audience segmentation is based on the assumption that different groups of audience have different characteristics that influence the extent to which they pay attention to, understand and act on different messages.

We can identify audience segments, but it is not always practicable to reach them due to our limited resources. The ideal audience size is one person. Tailoring our communication to the needs of each individual is the ideal. However, it is not practicable to do this – too costly and time consuming.

The slicing and dicing of a list of people can be quite demanding, so the challenge is to find the balance between the smallest number of messages and channels required to distribute information, while at the same time forming audience-segments that are as similar as possible. In essence, this is a balance between reach and specificity. The greater the reach of a campaign, the greater the number of individuals who can be influenced, but increased reach results in a mixed audience. Messages designed to reach a broad cross-section of the audience are likely to be less effective in bringing about higher-order (eg behavioral) changes than lower-order (eg attitudinal) changes because they are less tailored to the needs of individuals.

A problem is that audience segmentation is typically conducted in an ad hoc way or is put into the ‘too-hard basket’ because it takes time and effort to accomplish. Someone has to sit down and prepare multiple mailing lists of segmented groups, which takes time to do. And often this sort of work is left to the most junior person who may fumble the job because they don’t know enough about the target audience or just don’t care because such as task is boring.

Communicators have to determine which communication channels are likely to be the most effective in reaching the intended audience. This process, targeting, is the strategic use of communication channels to reach the audience segments, and is based on the principle that certain groups or segments of audience utilize certain types of channels and that cost-effectiveness can be maximized if the placement of campaign messages in particular channels corresponds with the use of the channels by the intended audience.

Once audiences have been exposed to campaign messages they have to be persuaded to make the ensuing behavior changes. Hence, in addition to campaign messaging and targeting, communicators need to construct messages to cater to individuals’ needs, interests, abilities and motivations. This process of crafting messages to cater for individuals’ characteristics is known as tailoring. Audience members must perceive that the issue is relevant to them. Relevance of the message is the extent to which it fulfills the desires and motivations of individuals.

Employee communication

A good example of the possibilities of audience segmentation is employee communication. Research consistently shows that employees are the most important audience to an organization and therefore it is vital making the effort to keep them engaged. Tailoring messages to their interests is one important way to do this. Employee interests can be measured by various instruments such as surveys, focus groups, telephone polls, and interviews of recruits and people exiting employment.

Communicators realize that audience segmentation is a goal to aim for with employee communication, but many don’t try to do this. Yet it is the logical thing to do, there is a captive audience, and email lists of employee segments can be easily collated.

Employees are commonly segmented by business division or location, but there are many other ways to segment them. They can be differentiated by:

  • access to communication channels, eg computers or Internet access

  • use of communication channels, eg what time of day most people access their emails

  • job type – all the people with equivalent roles

  • country – obvious cultural differences in different countries

  • language – an important matter with unskilled workers

  • working pattern, eg shift workers, home workers, field workers

  • terms and conditions, eg contract workers

  • age group, eg under 18, 25-34, 45-54, 55-64 etc

  • gender – messages about maternity leave, childcare arrangements

  • length of service, eg recognition for length of service, retirement information etc

  • membership of social club, eg availability of facilities, coming social events

  • participation in employee events, eg calendar of events

Therefore it pays match the internal message to the audience. Rather than trying to include newsletter content to suit most or all audience segments in a corporation, division or location (city, country or in different local plants), a more targeted approach would be to divide up communication in two ways:

  1. A short general newsletter with themes relevant to all employees

  2. Specific email messages and articles targeted at specific sub-groups as noted above, eg emails to all employees over 50 years of age, under 25 years of age, people doing similar jobs, in the same plant or division, people who work from home etc

In this way, people would all be aware of information relevant to them all while also receiving tailored news specific to them as a sub-group or segment.

External communication

Online communication is rapidly overtaking the use of mass communication because it is much more targeted. Mass media can still be effective for raising awareness of an issue, but online communication is more effective for promoting behavior change. Using email to contact an audience, and subsets of the audience, means you know the email address of every individual – and can customize messages to them. At the least, you can do mail merges to those recipients to address them by name. You can also use other information to personalize the message. For instance, you can craft messages like “Dear Ms Smith, You have been such a good customer of ours for the past [x] years, that we are making a special offer to you.” etc.

Audience segmentation is a key part of marketing communication. That’s why many organizations compile email lists of customers and potential customers – email lists enable much better targeting than other types of lists. It’s also why they enlist various methods to gain the contact names of potential customers, such as names entered in coupons and in competitions. However, external audience segments are much harder to reach due to their open-ended nature compared with the internal, captive, employee audience.

Social media

Social media offer exciting new interactive ways of involving an audience, especially younger people in Generation Y. Users are just as much engaged by the capacity for interaction as by the opportunity for accessing good content. People seem keen to create their own content and control much of the interaction with an organization and other users. In this case, communicators act as facilitators as much as writers.

Social media are labor-intensive to use and their effectiveness needs to be evaluated compared with more controlled options such as emailing campaigns.

Whether an internal or external audience, there is no doubt that we communicators have a greater array of communication tools at our disposal that enable us to target audience segments much more finely than in the past. The complication is that their use makes the communication task more complex and time-consuming.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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