Believe It: Your Inner Circle Is Not Your Audience

If there’s one point of learning I took away from the recent presidential election, it is that neither of the political parties really understood the depth of frustration, anger and alienation felt by a good portion of the American people. Both parties thought they knew their audiences, and both were wrong.

There is great danger in assuming you know and understand your target audience, as the Democratic Party learned earlier this week. As marketers, we live our lives, visit certain stores and restaurants, and travel a very specific path each day. That path is unique for each of us, but limits who and what we see. It alters our perspective. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I went to the NC State Fair in Raleigh. Going to the State Fair is definitely a departure from my typical path. My new mantra is: if you want to know your audience, go to the State Fair! (A county fair will do.)

The truth is, there are entire parts of our communities that we never visit. Honestly, most of us don’t even spend much time speaking with and listening to patients of our institutions. When it comes to understanding the audiences we serve, that should represent the low hanging fruit. But we end up spending a lot of our time listening to stakeholders like physicians, clinical leaders, department heads, etc. We need to invest time observing and listening to key audiences that may be underserved or simply not present in the context of our daily lives. It takes an intentional effort on our part to travel new paths and expose ourselves to different communities of people.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-3-59-34-pmMany of the people at the State Fair are quite different from the people I interact with each day. From my perspective, going to the fair is equivalent to conducting ethnographic research. These are the people we serve or would like to serve, yet we rarely interact with a good percentage of them. At the NC State Fair I saw a ton of white, working-class people; family people, proudly wearing Trump T-shirts and anti-Hillary shirts. There were also Latino, African American and Asian families – multi-generational groups attending the fair together. We went on a Sunday, so it was interesting to see some families dressed up as if they had just come from church. One of the things I love about the State Fair is the diversity of people from all walks of life who attend. To me, it feels like a great snapshot of a cross-section of America.

Generally speaking, it would be a mistake for me to think I understand these people without first immersing myself in their lives. The disenfranchised white, working class people caught my attention. They wore their discontent on their T-shirts, literally. I have to believe that their daily lives, and perhaps values, are so different from mine (and yours). They probably aren’t shopping at Whole Foods or that fancy suburban grocery store that has a sushi bar and a Starbucks. From focus group research I’ve done I know that when they think about the Walmart brand it has a different meaning for them than it does for me. That’s something to know: brands are perceived differently by different audiences due to demographic, psychographic, cultural and geographic differences. For some, Walmart is great (inexpensive, large selection) while for others it is the last place on earth they’d want to shop. Here’s a link to an excellent article on understanding the white working class (WWC) from Harvard Business Review, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” by Joan C. Williams, November 10, 2016. (Shout out to my friend, Chris Boyer, for first drawing this article to my attention.)

Where you live can make a big difference in how you see the world. For example, there are people who feel disenfranchised because of the region of the state or country where they live. Many people in North Carolina who live east of Interstate 95 feel they are the stepchildren of the state. They feel forgotten or overlooked. They live in the poorest and most rural section of the state. And it spans a relatively massive geographic area. This group of people feels as though they are defined and limited by their geography. For them, this is a very real condition of their lives.

Looking back at lessons learned from the recent election, my point is that we should always do more to immerse ourselves in the lives of those we seek to engage and motivate through marketing. What does a day in the life of this individual look like? Where do they shop? What is unique about them from social and cultural perspectives? The two best things we can do as marketers are listening and observing. We need to make an effort, an ongoing effort, to understand their world view, wants, motivations and needs. That understanding is foundational to good marketing.

So the next time you get the chance, go to the State Fair! It’s a responsibility of every good marketer.

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