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

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

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 a video of the event.

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.

Identifying Your Audience

Whether you are writing to inform an audience or motivate them to act you will need to  understand their expectations and needs to develop your rhetorical strategy,

This three-minute video from University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) introduces the importance of identifying the audience in making appropriate rhetorical decisions. Click on the green button at the end of the video to submit your responses.

Direct link to Writing With Your Audience in Mind by Tony DeFilippo

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.

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. Communications from the banking industry must be especially aimed at developing trust.

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 can likely predict many things about them.

Profiling your Audience

To understand your audience, answer six questions:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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, their experience, age, culture, language, and 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.

4. How much does your audience know about your topic? Consider how much your audience knows or needs to know. In writing a 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 a progress report to your supervisor, a financial analyst, you will not need to add this explanation.

5. 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.

6. 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. For example, 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.

Check Your Knowledge: Understanding Your Audience (4 Questions)

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).


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1.6 Profile Your Audience Copyright © 2021 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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