Editor’s note: Earlier this year, I met Julia Howell, Vice President, Community Engagement at the Toronto Foundation, and our conversation found its way to the importance of focusing in on a specific audience. I see many nonprofits struggling with decisions about tactics, channels and creative while skipping the step of identifying their audiences.

For this Q&A post, I asked Julia to answer a few questions about identifying and focusing in on core audiences. Her answers are informative and helpful – I hope you enjoy them and share this post with anyone who wants you to design communications for the “general public!” – Marlene

Expert interview with Julia Howell: the importance of identifying your nonprofit’s audiences

Identifying your #nonprofit’s audiences: Q&A with Julia Howell #NPMC Share on X

Why should nonprofits develop communications for very specific audiences? What are the practical benefits?

Whether doing communications for brand or reputation building or for direct response, there’s no point unless we have a clear sense of who we’re talking to and why? Answering these two questions allows us to identify the right channels and messages. Without these, we’re just adding to the noise and wasting precious resources too.

Getting earned media, especially if it’s a mass consumer channel like a daily newspaper or TV news broadcast, always gives us cred since everyone from the board to key funders sees it. But apart from making us look good, it doesn’t always serve our main objectives and it takes a ton of time and effort to secure.

But when that mass channel is aligned with strategy, then we can be truly effective. We look good and we seed relationships with audiences that matter to us that we can feed over time to build brand awareness and drive response.

How can a nonprofit communicator determine which audiences make the most sense for specific campaigns or tactics?

It all starts with strategy. What are we trying to achieve through our communications? If your answer is “raise general public awareness”, then you are setting the bar pretty low. With a goal this expansive, absolutely anything you do can be interpreted as contributing to this. Message conveyed, mission accomplished. Examples of better strategies would be:

  • Shift target perceptions from x to y
  • Increase understanding of our role as x
  • Position us as an expert in x

Anyway, you get the point. Being clear about our aims upfront will point the way to creating content that serves our purpose and narrows our universe too. It’s important to remember that communications is a support function that enables our mission and puts our strategic plan into motion so start here when developing your comms strategy.

Determining audience or audiences comes down to setting priorities. Not all audiences are equal, but it can be a challenge to settle on one. The best way to address this is to create a tiered approach with a primary audience followed by secondary audiences. For most charities, the primary audience is going to be the donor but recognizing that your donor is unique to your cause will help you get the necessary focus to hone your message and your ideal channels.

Determining audiences comes down to setting priorities. #nonprofit #marketing Share on X

One way to do this is to write a profile of your ideal donor and keep this person in mind in all that you do. I heard recently that one organization reserves a vacant chair at every meeting for this person as a reminder to always keep him or her top-of-mind.

Your secondary audiences are typically going to be conduits to your ideal donor. An influencer campaign, for example, may directly target nonprofit or business leaders or even the media but these are secondary in that the raison d’etre behind this effort is to ultimately reach your primary audience. These influencers can help you communicate with that ideal donor.

That said, sometimes reaching a secondary audience might be an end in itself. If policy change is an aim, for example, then a campaign that targets government stakeholders will make sense.

Do you recommend targeting different audiences at different times of the year? Any guidance for doing this?

Most of us are leading small communications teams and juggling multiple projects and priorities. A lot of this work is reactive. We have an event coming up and we need to get “bums in seats.” The AGM comes around at the same time every year and allows us to collect and share our results and stories of impact. The fundraising team has launched a new campaign with a defined time horizon. If we think about these as anchors rather than isolated activities, then our job is to connect them with the bigger communications strategy.

When planning, start with these givens and then look at when and how to layer on additional touch points with your audiences so that you are building relationships over time. Remember too that it’s important to spread our communications out so as to avoid feast or famine. We all have natural rhythms in our work that communications needs to conform with. That said, when it comes to supporting fundraising, the calendar year end is always going to be a marker we are driving toward.

Can you point to any personal successes with strategically targeting your communications?

I must admit to having succumbed many times in my career to the general public cop-out when it came to earned and paid media. Often this was because we were relying on free space and so we chose to believe in the any-press-is-good press mantra. But of course, there are significant resources required to land these “free” opportunities that we have to factor in.

Today this kind of broad sweep approach is harder to get away with. Analytics are a lot easier to access and with measurement and evaluation having become a lot more than just buzzwords, we communicators are required to demonstrate results that support organization-wide goals and strategies.

While a work in progress, I’ll share our current thinking at Toronto Foundation. We are very clear that our Fundholder (and our prospective Fundholder) is our primary audience. Last fall we undertook a process to re-do our website with this target audience in mind. We didn’t negate the existence of our secondary audiences, like the nonprofit organizations that make up the volume of visitors to the site, but in the hierarchy of audiences, they did not rise to the top for us.

Has it been successful? Most definitely. But you might be surprised by why I say that. It’s too early to see if the changes have increased the time on site (one indicator we’ll be tracking) or increased specific page views that will suggest who is visiting. But what we do know for sure is that the new audience-focused website has been instrumental in defining and reinforcing our Fundholder-centric strategy.

Our websites are a central communications tool and the only one that encompasses all that we are and all that we do. It needs to get the audience question right.

Any advice for the skeptics? For those who fear leaving potential audiences out?

Even consumer packaged goods companies with massive budgets have target audiences. How else can they differentiate themselves from their competitors? It’s distasteful for charities to think in terms of competition but ignoring this reality holds us back. There’s nothing like comparative analysis to understand our unique value proposition. If we believe we have a unique offering then we also have a unique audience that will respond to this. Being “all things to all people” is not a strategy; it’s a communications fail.

This may sound harsh but I think that laziness and fear of accountability are the biggest obstacles to targeting. The fact is that we all have limited budgets and we have a duty to spend our resources responsibly. If we can’t articulate clearly and succinctly who we’re trying to reach and to what end then we do not deserve our paycheques.

Being 'all things to all people' is not a strategy; it’s a communications fail. Share on X
Julia Howell

Julia Howell

Vice President, Community Engagement at Toronto Foundation
For more than twenty-five years Julia has helped define and move dozens of cause-driven organizations forward. A generalist at heart she has held top roles in communications, fundraising and administration within nonprofit organizations as well as working from the outside designing and steering community investment strategy. Her experience in the field spans issues and sectors, from immigration to music education, criminal justice to parks, guiding corporate, government and nonprofit organizations. This eclectic mix has led to Julia's current role as Vice President, Community Engagement at Toronto Foundation where she oversees an integrated team in granting and communications.
Julia Howell

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