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Targeting your Audience: The Chicken and Egg

Column writing is not a journal entry. When writing for publication, the reader is an equal partner. Authors tailor their writing to their audience and target their audience for their writing to create resonant messages that survive beyond the column itself.

However, targeting an audience requires research. Reading creates the discipline needed to craft your message and persuade your audience. It’s like staff work. I joined the Army to lead Soldiers in combat, but like it or not, success requires skill in both. “You can’t spell officer without office.” When writing, doing the less glamorous work first increases your chances of finding the right audience for your piece.

So, what is targeting? First, some misconceptions:

  1. Effective targeting is not simply finding an audience that agrees with you. Start with audiences that are interested in your topic. Don’t worry about agreement until you find an audience that cares enough to read past the title. Then, consider their opinions. Writing for an audience that disagrees with you is an excellent way to improve.

  2. Don’t assume a publication is only interested in its political slant. Many publications actively seek out opposing points of view. Sometimes, they are genuinely interested in stimulating constructive debate. Sometimes, they are trying to create the illusion of moderation. Either way, you can make an even greater impact when you write an “unpopular opinion.”

  3. Not every column needs to be an argument. Many introduce a new topic to the audience, explaining its importance. Others pitch to amenable audiences but try to spur action.

  4. You are not incepting or manipulating. Like advertising, many assume that targeting your audience is finding the most gullible and convincing them you are right about something. But that arrogance will show through your writing. Let your point of view speak for itself.

How do you find your audience?:

Enough of what it isn’t. Targeting is a balance between crafting your message and choosing your audience. I’ll discuss both separately, but they must be done simultaneously.

Choosing your message:

  1. What are you passionate about? – The most fundamental question, especially for new writers. While a professional column writer can often produce quality work regardless of the subject, a new writer’s work is better if it’s important to them.

  2. What do you know? – It seems simple enough but can cause roadblocks if you are still developing your voice. I didn’t start writing about military affairs and chronic illness; I wanted to write about philosophy, chaos theory, and other meta, super-nerdy things. But I naturally found that my columns were tighter, better quality, and more popular when I wrote about things I knew. I still write what I want, but I understand the marketability of my topics.

  3. What does the audience think about this topic?

    • Do too few people know about the problem? Find an audience that may be receptive to the information. Perhaps one that cares about similar topics.

    • Do people misunderstand the problem? Find an audience that actively discusses the topic. Determine whether most will agree or disagree with your perspective and tailor your message to them.

    • Does everybody know, but no one is trying to fix the problem? Find an audience that agrees with you and inspire them into action.

Researching your publications, some ideas from a past life in advertising:

  1. Read columns in the publication. What topics do they print? Have there been ten columns on a similar topic? It could mean you are guaranteed to be published, or maybe they are sick of it and want something new.

  2. How is the publication organized? Consider the contents. Are columns at the front or in the back? Do they pair with other content in the publication?

  3. What sort of advertisements are in the publication? Who are the advertisements targeting? If you can get access to demographic information through a press kit or marketing package, it can give you valuable demographic information.

  4. Consider the design. Are pages uniform and conservative, or are the pages awash with bright colors? What does that tell you about the publication's intended reader?

  5. Interviews: Talk to someone who reads the publication. Why do they read it? What parts do they read? Ask about their interests. The more people you talk to, the better.

  6. Brand analysis: Draw a picture of the brand as a person. If the Wall Street Journal was a person, what would it look like? What would they wear? What would their job be? What about Better Homes and Gardens? Wired? You can evoke powerful insights, but beware! You are drawing your perception, not reality. If you are not mindful, you may reinforce your biases and miss essential insights.

When writing for publication, you must accept the requirements up front. If you fail to research your audience, you may spend hours going to a polished piece of work that never finds a home. On the other hand, the more publications you study, the easier it becomes. Soon, you will get a feel for what resonates and be better acquainted with your reader.


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