1.6 Profile Your Audience

Linda Macdonald and [Author removed at request of original publisher]

Learning Objective

  • Determine the primary and secondary audiences
  • Identify these audiences’ expectations and needs
  • Apply your audience profile in creating a message

Clipart image of a disinterested audience during a presentation.

Identifying Your Audience

The clipart above demonstrates what happens when a presenter or writer neglects the audience’s needs and fails to meet audience expectations. The audience is disinterested, bored, angry, and frustrated.

In business communication, the audience is critically important. To meet a customer’s needs, you need to know who they are — their likes and dislikes, their understanding of your product or service, and what they want from the purchased product. To establish positive working relationships with your supervisors and colleagues, you need to understand their expectations of professional behaviour and their preferred channels of communication. These three audiences– customers, colleagues, and supervisors – each require a different strategy in your communication.

Your understanding of the audience is made even more complex by social change. Business communicators have to be especially attuned to shifting audiences and audience expectations. For example, just a few years ago it would have been considered grammatically incorrect to use “they” to refer to a singular person; we no longer accept the binary terms of “he” and “she”, and the singular “they” is now preferred. Businesses need to both adapt to and lead these changes in language to meet expectations.

The capitalization of the word “black” in reference to race is also undergoing change. As John Eligon’s article in The New York Times points out, hundreds of news organizations have adopted the use of “Black”, but the movement has not been accepted by all members of the Black community. The issue has “unleashed a deep debate over identity, race, and power” (Eligon, 2020). Business communicators will need to determine how this debate impacts business relationships. Your communications reflect and anticipate your audiences’ needs and, in the interest of social good, may contribute to a shift in expectations.

Failing to Connect

Failing to properly identify the audience and their needs and expectations can have terrible consequences for businesses.

Image of an aircraft in flight.

In 2017, a United customer was asked to leave a plane to make room for airline staff. In a message to employees, CEO Oscar Munoz commended his staff for “politely” asking the passenger to leave and for “going above and beyond.” He referred to the passenger as  “belligerent” and “disruptive” (Zhang, 2017). The message to the United team went public– as did the video linked below.

Click here for video link. United Airline passenger removed from the plane

In addition to failing to gather all the information before making a statement, Munoz failed to consider his audience, which included not only his employees but his customers and the media. Munoz did not consider what effect his words would have on these audiences. Because the customers clearly impact the company’s success, they should have been considered a primary, or decision-making, audience.

Fragrance company Dior has also demonstrated a lack of awareness of its audience. As the video linked below shows, the ad for Sauvage angered Indigenous groups and their allies. The company did not consider the demographics of their primary and secondary audiences.

Click here for video link. CBC: Dior Pulls Ad for Sauvage Perfume Amid Criticism over Indigenous Imagery

Financial institutions also must understand their audiences. Customer complaints about banks up-selling, reinforced by revelations from bank employees, have threatened to undermine banks’ relationship with their audience. As CBC news business analyst Don Pitts  writes, “Trust is a bank’s fundamental asset.” If banks do not understand their audience’s expectations of the industry, they risk losing them.

This message from a student also reveals a lack of understanding of audience: “Hey, prof, I wont be in class bc of an interview, let me knw if I miss anything. can I use you as a refrence?” The student writer damages the relationship with the instructor through a lack of professionalism. The message, with its abbreviated words and missing letters, looks more like a text message to a friend than an email to a professor. The message puts the burden on the recipient to let the student know “if” they missed anything and follows that with a request for a favour. The message fails to convince the reader to support the student in entering the professional realm.

To understand the audience, their needs, and their expectations, profile your target audience. You will have an incomplete picture of your audience’s personal values and social identity, but you will likely know many things about them. For example, this book is written for a target audience of first-year Commerce students. I cannot possibly predict your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but I know that my readers are from diverse backgrounds and can estimate, based on enrollment, that 10-30% are international. My target audience likely has at least a high school diploma. With this educational background, most readers will have some experience with academic writing and only limited experience writing for business. Because they have grown up with access to Internet, they likely prefer messages to be written in a sans serif font like Calibri and prefer visual messages over text :). I can predict a great deal more based on average age and choice of academic program, but I also have to consider that there may be mature students, students who did not grow up with the Internet, home-schooled students, and students who would not have chosen Commerce were it not for parental pressure. Nonetheless, having a basic understanding helps me be more strategic in crafting my message.

Profiling your Audience

To understand your audience, answer a series of questions:

  • Who is your primary audience? The primary target is the decision maker(s), the person or persons that will act on the information you deliver. In a job interview, the selection committee is the primary audience.
  • Who is your secondary audience? The secondary audience may not make the final decision, but they may influence the decision. For example, the selection committee may ultimately decide which candidate is right for the position, but the receptionist may influence the decision based on the interactions with the candidate.
  • What do you know about the audience? First, consider your relationship with the audience and their relationships with each other. For example, are they strangers to you and each other? Are they workmates who share common knowledge? Also consider their position in the organization and their experience, age, culture, language, education– anything that might affect your audience’s view of your message. If, for example, you are writing to an older audience of business leaders, your message may be formal in language and tone, but if you are trying to convince younger first-year students to join your society, a more casual approach would be appropriate.
  • How much does your audience know about the topic? Consider how much your audience knows or needs to know. In writing your stock performance report for a new investor, you will need to explain why you are using the TSX as a benchmark for your evaluation of the stock performance. When you write the progress report to your supervisor, a financial analyst, you will not need to add this explanation.
  • What are the audience’s preferences and expectations? You will not always know your audience’s preferences, but you can often make educated guesses. If you are writing a professor to ask for a recommendation, your email will need to include information about the job you are applying for and a copy of your resume. The email will also maintain a formal tone in a politely-worded request to meet your audience’s expectations of professional behaviour.
  • How is the audience likely to react to your message? Audiences may react positively to your message; other audiences may be more ambivalent; others may react with anger or hostility. Predicting their reaction helps craft your message. If you know that a customer will be unhappy that you cannot replace a broken part, you can plan in advance to mitigate dissatisfaction by offering an alternative.

Successful businesses, employees, and students anticipate audience needs and expectations. Lululemon uses social media, advertising, and brand ambassadors to satisfy the needs of a young audience that identifies with the lifestyle the company promotes. Lift & Co. uses inventive names for board rooms because “they make an office seem more enjoyable and employees feel the time spent there is less of a chore.” These companies know their audiences, and this knowledge brings success.

Understanding Your Audience

This resource is adapted from John Grant and is licensed with a Creative Commons – Attribution 4.0 International License.

Writing Exercise

Apply the information from the reading to the following scenario.

You have been hired for a co-op position in your field with your ideal employer. You are starting your co-op during the busy season. Your supervisor has asked you to write an email introducing yourself to the other members of your department.

In preparing to write this email, answer the six profile questions above. If you are not familiar with the organization, visit their website to get a general sense of what this organization’s mission and values are (look for the About Us page).

Clipart: Audience clip art public 60130 by webstockreview.net licensed under CC 3.0

Photo: Airplane by Andrew Malone licensed under CC BY 2.0


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

1.6 Profile Your Audience by Linda Macdonald and [Author removed at request of original publisher] is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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