The Art and Science of Understanding Users

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To understand your site, product, or service’s users and prospects — your audience — you need to be able to gather information about those people and make sense of it. It sounds easy enough: you just get your data, and assess your audience on demographic, psychographic, and behavioral traits so you can work out who you’re talking to. No big deal, right?

In fact, audience definition is crucial to communicating with your target users — whether that’s a group of prospects for your business, users for your new app, or a client’s customer base. Get your audience assessment wrong, and your whole marketing strategy will fall in a heap, no matter how slick your design or compelling your copy might be.

The Science of Understanding Users

To begin, let’s look over the three basic types of information — the “science” — we can use to form a description of audience members.

Demographic Information

Dealing with issues like gender, age, location, and nationality, demographic information provides you with basic knowledge about your audience.

Psychographic Information

Psychographic data considers audience members’ sentiments, attitudes, beliefs, preferences, and so on. Reliable psychographic information can be hard to come by.

Behavioral Information

Behavioral information reveals audience members’ behavior — most commonly behavior affecting their purchase and use of your offering.

They’re the key bases we use to define an audience. But how can we use that information intelligently?

The typical approach most marketers and business owners seem to take is to collect whatever information they can find about the audience, work out which groups are over-represented, and define the audience in that light. But this can be a risky approach.

The Art of Understanding Users

In a recent project, my client told me that the current customer base was mainly female, and comprised mainly young people under 35. To back this claim up, they provided some demographic audience data. The project was a website, so the data was collected and collated electronically, without users noticing.

According to the stats, the userbase was mainly female — but only by 10%. Males made up just over 40% of the userbase for the site. The stats also showed that although one third of users fell into the age group 18-35, the older age groups (35-50 and 50+) comprised nearly 60% of the user base.

As it turned out, the client’s description of the site’s users as “younger women” wasn’t really accurate. As the stats in this very simple example show, although younger women may have been disproportionately represented within the userbase, to target them exclusively (or even very specifically) would risk disenfranchising the not insignificant 40% of users who were male. It would also risk miscommunicating with the 60% of users, female or male, who were aged over 35.

As you can see, it’s important to define you audience very clearly before you start to develop products or services, communications collateral, or marketing messages. Rather than looking for single-sentence-summary information on your userbase, the art of understanding users requires that you consider much broader information.

Beyond the Stats

The proliferation of online stats packages has lulled many into thinking that this information is is all they need to clearly define their audience.  But as we saw above, there are other types of information that can help you form a clear picture of your audience members.

Other sources of behavioral and psychographic information include:

  1. Your support or help queue
    Email and phone support information can provide insight into the types of audience members who have questions about your offering, the aspects of it that they find challenging, and so on. This can provide direction for everything from development to communications strategy, but first and foremost, it should give you insights into your audience’s capabilities, approach, and so on.
  2. Social media
    Find out what people say about their experiences with your business, service, or brand in social media including forums, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and more. You may reveal heart-felt details about the way users see your company and interact with your offerings — valuable psychographic information to add to your audience definition.
  3. Sales data
    For behavioral information, you can’t go past existing sales (and fails!) data. Who buys what from you or your client? Who showed interest but wound up not purchasing? Unraveling the details of customer and prospect purchases can tell you a lot about their behavior, decision-making, and so on.
  4. Focused research results
    Whether you’ve applied software to your site that tracks users’ interactions with it over time, or you’ve commissioned a market research company to survey a representative sample of a customer base, the focused research results that result from that work can provide real insight into customers’ demographic, behavioral and psychographic characteristics.

In my books, the keys to effective audience definition are:

  1. Get good data.
  2. Interpret the data intelligently.
  3. Apply the data wisely.

What approaches do you use to define your audience, or the audiences your clients are targeting?

Photo by stock.xchng user nkzs.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
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Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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