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Segment target audiences for better communication

01 Jun, 2020 Annual communication plans, Communication campaigns, Internal communication, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

Different audiences have different communication needs. And different segments of audiences have different communication needs. As professional communication has progressed from the days of mass communication, we have increasingly been able to target messages to the needs of different audience segments – internally and externally. These audiences can be in-person, via mainstream media and social media. The lesson is to segment target audiences for better communication.

Audience segmentation is the process of dividing an audience into smaller groups, with similar characteristics, wants and needs that are selected according to communication objectives. Audience segmentation is based on the assumption that different groups within the total audience have different characterissegment target audiencestics 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 with limited resources. The ideal audience size is one person. However, tailoring our communication to the needs of each individual may be the ideal, but it is not practicable – too costly and time consuming to segment target audiences.

Seeking a balance between reach and specificity

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 awareness or 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.

Targeting messages

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. Tailoring is the process of crafting messages to cater for individuals’ characteristics. 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.

Cost becomes a factor with targeted information activities. Additional staff time and cost of software come into the picture.

Internal communication

Ed Holinski from the American Society of Employers believes employees should be treated like investors or stakeholders rather than ‘assets,’ noting that assets are investments from which you want the biggest return at the lowest possible fixed cost:

“If you think of them as investors or business partners, you will likely get greater commitment and engagement. This will improve productivity and retention.” This is a good intention, but requires depth of thought and commitment from management.

Every one of your employees makes a conscious decision to come to work each day. Then when they check in, they make another decision each day, whether conscious or unconscious, to invest (or not invest) their energy in advancing the business. If you treat them like the equivalent of assets – ie, machines – they will go about their work mechanically and do only what they need to do to get paid. If you do not treat them like important stakeholders, someday they will decide to go somewhere else.”

[And calling employees “human capital” is also demeaning to all employees. This term should be eliminated.]

Employees are by far the most important stakeholders

A stakeholder is a group or individual who can legitimately affect or is affected by the achievement of an organization’s objectives. Stakeholder orientation is about creating social as well as economic value for stakeholders, listening and responding to stakeholder concerns, with a spirit of goodwill between the two parties.

A national study was conducted in Australia to identify the stakeholders who have the most impact on corporate financial performance. The research found that employees are the most vital stakeholder group by a long way. Organizations that positively engage in stakeholder orientation activities achieve greater stakeholder satisfaction, which in turn leads to stronger financial performance. In other words, organizations that adopt the stakeholder concept are more profitable.

The research measured how strongly orientation towards different stakeholder groups influences financial performance. The coefficient for employee orientation was 0.84 compared with much lower but still substantial values for customers (0.36), suppliers (0.35) and communities (0.32). The coefficient for shareholder orientation was minimal at 0.08. Respondents contacted for the research were chief financial officers because they were considered to be best positioned to comment on their organization’s financial performance.

Segmentation of employees

A good example of the possibilities of audience segmentation is employee communication. Research consistently shows that employees are the most important audience or stakeholders of an organization and therefore it is vital to make 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.

Surprisingly many ways to segment employees. 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, social media
  • Use of communication channels, eg what time of day most people access their email
  • Job type – all the people with equivalent role
  • Country – obvious cultural differences in different countries
  • Language – an important matter with unskilled workers
  • Types of terms and conditions, eg contract workers
  • Working pattern, eg shift workers, home workers, field workers
  • Location – remote 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

Employees prefer email

Email would be the best communication channel because all generations favor email for workplace communication, according to a 2019 Spike survey. The study found that 77% of US workers preferred email, and a mere 23% chose messaging apps, although all those surveyed use both. Why do people like email? For 52%, it’s because email allows them to read and respond whenever they want. Still, 26% like messaging apps for the same reason.

Segment messaging

You can use email to match messages to your internal audience segments. For instance, Bananatag explain how you can effectively use Microsoft Outlook to manage email distribution lists (for versions released since 2013).

Another targeted approach would be to divide up communication in two ways: 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),

  1. You can publish 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. Various digital media channels are labor-intensive to use and their effectiveness needs to be evaluated compared with more controlled options such as emailing  and texting to employees. Internal audiences are using the organizational website, intranet, Facebook, etc.

In addition, there are still the old-fashioned alternatives such as conducting meetings for segmented employee groups within business unit workplaces, etc.

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.

To segment target audiences 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.

Four segmentation criteria

Audiences are traditionally divided using 4 main criteria, according to a GWI article in 2019. Within each of those, further divisions can be made for a more granular understanding of a market:

Behavioral – Consumer interactions with products and brands. This can include how and where they engage with brands, their social media usage, and online consumer journey.

Demographic – Criteria includes gender, age, income, education, social class, religion and nationality.

Geographic – Information on where they live. This can be subdivided by nation, state, town and so on.

Psychographic – This can include personality variables such as introvertedness and extrovertedness, lifestyles and attitudes to life.

How to get started with segmentation

There are five primary steps to segmentation, according to Qualtrics:

  1. Define your market: Is there a need for your products and services? Is the market large or small? Where does your brand sit in the current marketplace?
  2. Segment your market: Decide which of the five criteria (demographic/firmographic, psychographic, geographic or behaviour) you want to use to segment your market.You don’t need to stick to just one – in fact, most brands use a combination – so experiment with each one and find what works best.
  3. Understand your market: You do this by conducting preliminary research surveys, focus groups, polls, etc. Ask questions that relate to the segments you have chosen, and use a combination of quantitative (tickable/selectable boxes) and qualitative (open-ended for open text responses) questions.
  4. Create your customer segments: Analyse the responses from your research to highlight which customer segments are most relevant to your brand.
  5. Test your marketing strategy: Once you have interpreted your responses, test your findings on your target market, using conversion tracking to see how effective it is.And keep testing. If uptake is disappointing, relook at your segments or your research methods.

COVID-19 has made marketing communication more complicated

As we all know, the pandemic has created turmoil in markets around the world. A Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article in 2020 suggests that firms look anew at their customer markets and broadly segment the markets to take the pandemic into account because “times have changed, and business cannot be run as normal.” The HBS matrix below shows how companies can evaluate their broad competitive position in these new times:

Image: HBS matrix in 2020 showing how companies can evaluate their broad competitive position in these pandemic times.

External social media

Social media offer exciting new interactive ways of involving and segmenting target audiences, especially younger people in Generations X and Y. A huge number of channels are available, with, of course, Facebook leading the way. Plus text messages, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.

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.

Communicators need to do variations of core messages via different channels so the recipients don’t get bored by repetition.

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.

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About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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