Tips to Identify Your Target Audience

Posted: October 21, 2014

When beginning any website design or redesign project, an important first step is to identify your target audience, or users. Your website will be built for their needs, so it is important that you answer the following questions...

  1. Who are they?
  2. Who is the most important?
  3. Who will visit most frequently?

By defining and ranking your audience segments (or user groups), and then determining their content needs, you give yourself a framework for gathering, creating and publishing content on your site.

You will refer to this information when determining your site's navigation, when writing copy and when laying out individual pages. Throughout the design/redesign process you are going to have to make choices. Having audience information available will help you.

Who are they?

Few websites have only one audience, so be prepared to group your audience into segments (or user groups). Here are some basic audience segments that many university websites must account for...

  • Students
  • Faculty
  • Staff
  • Parents
  • Donors
  • Alumni
  • Visitors
  • the News Media
  • UNC General Administration
  • State legislature

Not all segments are appropriate for all sites. Some sites will have a subset of these basic segments. Some sites will subdivide these basic segments into sub-segments. Some sites will have a completely different set of segments. But, the list above is a good place to start.

You can subdivide these segments based on audience need. For example, the needs of prospective students often differ from the needs of current students. A subdivision of the segment "Students" may look like this...

  • Students
    • Prospective students
    • Current students

For an academic department, a subdivision of students may be between undergraduate students and graduate students...

  • Students
    • Undergraduate students
    • Graduate students

It may even be appropriate to subdivide both ways...

  • Students
    • Prospective students
      • Prospective undergraduate students
      • Prospective graduate students
    • Current students
      • Current undergraduate students
      • Current graduate students

There are no hard and fast rules for doing this. The rule of thumb is that a segment should be subdivided if there are distinct differences in audience need within that segment.

When you're finished listing and subdividing your audience segments as needed, you'll have something like this...

  • Students
    • Prospective
      • Undergraduate
      • Graduate
    • Current
      • Undergraduate
      • Graduate
  • Parents
  • Alumni
  • Visitors
  • General administration

Fig. 1: Audience segmentation breakdown (example)

Who is the most important?

Once you have identified what your audience segments are, rank them in order of importance. "Importance" in this case is a subjective term. External websites - ie. those that primarily serve external audiences - usually rank prospective students, alumni, donors, the news media, etc. higher than faculty and staff. These sites are often recruitment-based. Other sites may rank current students, faculty and staff at the top. These are more retention-based or service-oriented. If you don't know how to visualize the importance of your audience segments, refer to your communication plan or your mission statement for guidance.

In documenting the ranking of audience segments, I would recommend using a breadcrumb-type method. For example, if you have identified your segments as follows...

  • Students
    • Prospective
      • Undergraduate
      • Graduate
    • Current
      • Undergraduate
      • Graduate
  • Parents
  • Alumni
  • Visitors
  • General administration

...write your rankings something like this...

  1. Students > Prospective > Graduate
  2. Students > Prospective > Undergraduate
  3. Parents
  4. Students > Current > Graduate
  5. Students > Current > Undergraduate
  6. General administration
  7. Visitors
  8. Alumni

Fig. 2: Audience importance ranking (example)

Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this. Use whatever method makes sense to you.

Who will visit most frequently?

Determining which audience segments visit your website most frequently, or in the highest numbers, is a real challenge. Often it is only a best guess, especially for new sites. If you have an existing site, Google Analytics tools can be of help. Also, talk to your office staff—they can help you estimate based on who telephone and emails requesting information.

Rank your segments from largest to smallest using the same syntax as you did for segment importance, but with one major difference: include percentages of site visitors, like this...

  • Students > Prospective > Undergraduate (65% - ie. an estimated 65% of the visitors to your site are prospective undergraduate students)
  • Students > Prospective > Graduate (25%)
  • Students > Current > Undergraduate (5%)
  • Parents (2%)
  • Students > Current > Graduate (2%)
  • Alumni (< 1%)
  • General administration (< 1%)
  • Visitors (< 1%)

Fig. 3: Audience frequency ranking (example)

Summary

When beginning any website design or redesign project, an important first step is to identify your target audience, or users. Your website will be built for their needs, so it is important that you know who they are and what they need and want. By defining and ranking your audience segments (or user groups), and then determining their content needs, you give yourself a framework for gathering, creating and publishing content on your site.

Pete Montaldi
montaldipa@appstate.edu