7. Why Do Business Schools Still Teach Us About Target Audiences?

I have never been hunting. Perhaps it’s because I have frail arms and hand tremors, and it would be a danger to society if I ever held a firearm. Perhaps it’s because hunting automatically reminds me of that traumatizing scene in My Dog Skip when some random hunters kill a deer and Frankie Muniz cries his eyes out (just like I did for the entire duration of that movie).

Whatever the case, the closest I’ve ever gotten to target practice is numerous hours of Duck Hunt from the years of 1995-1997 (my duck hunting career peaked early since my mom sold our Nintendo at a garage sale — something I may never forgive her for).

Now, I have nothing against the sport of hunting. I’m all for deer jerkey, taxidermy, and all that jazz. However, when it comes to marketing, I don’t think you should place a target on your audience.

The advertising game is changing. With the rise in social media, transparency is no longer a buzz word; it’s something that will permanently reside in future marketing books. Students will sit in lectures where they learn about the history of advertising and think “OMGZ what n00bs!” just like I do when I look at old business models. With billions of options, consumers hold the power. Companies that stay in their traditional ways will remain left in the dust.

Recently, Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen asked “why business schools still teach the 4P’s of marketing when three are dead“. According to the authors, “the digital revolution has rewritten the laws of marketing,” and I agree with this point. I want to take this one step further and ask, why do business schools still teach us about target audiences?

I personally believe that you should not  think of your audience as a “target,” and this is something that needs to change in the advertising industry. It’s time to start thinking of your audience as people. Not a demographic; not a generalization.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand the value of research and strategy. Both are key elements to successful advertising. However, I think that sometimes when we get into the realm of target audiences, we miss opportunities to reach out to people.

This isn’t to say that you should market to everyone, or that defining a group of consumers that you want to market to is wrong. In fact, defining your audience is a key aspect of successful advertising. What I mean is that it is crucial to gain insight on an individual level through the research process, instead of making assumptions based on a simple survey.

Good agencies know this. They take the time to truly engage with their consumers, and use feedback. But more marketers must recognize this need to connect with people.

In my opinion, “targeting” can put people into a box, and sometimes treat them as nothing more than a generalization. I consider myself a person with diverse interests and background – why should I be placed into a specific category? I am more than just one word descriptors that may apply to me based on my interest in one particular subject. I think of the people that I will advertise to, and this statement applies. If I don’t like being defined by just one aspect of my identity – why would they? I think the only way to truly define your audience is by taking the time to understand them on a personal level.

I really appreciate this campaign from Merckengage. They recognize that their audience is more than just a statistic. Instead of focusing on a target audience, they focus on individuals.

Fortunately, the University of Oregon advertising program seems to recognize this. My point is that other schools need to jump on the bandwagon. Shoot for a target audience, and you’ll never hit the bullseye.

*Edited November 10th

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3 thoughts on “7. Why Do Business Schools Still Teach Us About Target Audiences?

  1. I agree that constraining with the 4 P model or shooting for a specific target may not be ideal, but I disagree that identifying the most common attributes of your customers or target audience, is a thing of the past and doesn’t apply anymore. Figuring out these lifestyle, buying habits, demographics of your customer is still identifying a target audience. I think in digital, language and imagery are just as important as traditional advertising and therefore understanding what appeals to your customer (on target) is crucial to the define phase of any project. Relating to ‘everyone’ doesn’t always work. But I also don’t think of target audience as a ‘bullseye’, rather knowing who you’re talking to, why, and how you are trying to make them feel – this is different for different groups of people.

    • I agree 100% with what you say.

      It is crucial to identify what appeals to your customer, but what I mean by ‘things need to change’ is exactly what you said about not thinking of the target audience as a bulls eye. Like I said, Oregon’s advertising program seems to be ahead of the game, but some people who I talk to at other schools don’t seem to understand that they need to go deeper than just assuming something based on a specific demographic.

      Great research and strategy involves defining a target audience. However, I think that to become better marketers, it is essential to take that one step further and start to think of people as individuals through the research process and connect with them on a more personal level than just a survey, etc. I think that what you said is a completely valid point, and I agree wholeheartedly. Perhaps my thoughts on the matter did not come across as well as I hoped.

      Thanks for the great point, Kelly!

  2. As target audiences become more fragmented, it becomes ever more important to find ways to ‘customize’ your message and/or product to them. People want to feel like the unique individuals that they are. As an advertiser, how do you consistently achieve that on a national or even international scale?

    Good luck. I don’t think the answer is in a multiple choice pop-quiz!

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