Last year, I received a catalog in the mail that offered home decor well outside my budget. I’m talking about holidays decorations that cost several thousands of dollars. Flipping through it, I gazed in wonder at real fir wreaths harvested (responsibly, of course) from virgin, organic forests and woven stockings knitted by elves in the North Pole (OK, maybe not quite that authentic). I couldn’t put it down. No, I’d never spend that kind of money on a glittering reindeer for my front lawn, but I flipped through the catalog several times, trying to identify who the catalog producer was writing for.
As I did, two things became clear:
- I live in an area with a large retirement community. The company looking at my zip code probably didn’t realize I still have three children at home who need braces and college degrees.
- I’m slowly creeping up on that age when I will have the time and discretionary income to care about putting $2,000 glittering reindeer on my front lawn. Remember the three children? Yea, I’m also their taxi service. My neighbors are lucky if I hang a $10, after-season Hobby Lobby wreath on my door. I only do that because I’m convinced they’re going to assume we don’t celebrate the holidays at all if we don’t. Like nothing. Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, nada.
The company that sent me the catalog with its fir wreaths, knitted stockings, and glittering reindeer had no idea I was waaayyyy outside their target readership. It was big miss.
How to Identify Your Audience
This struggle to identify audience is common among nonfiction book authors, too. They often have stories to share and messages to convey, but they find themselves in the weeds, unsure of how to bring it all together. More times than not, this confusion comes down to not knowing who their audience is.
In a recent class I taught on nonfiction at WriterCon in Oklahoma City, I spent a good amount of time covering this idea of audience. It requires thinking about more than demographics. While demographics deal with a top-level understanding of audience (gender, marital status, education levels, etc.), psychographics takes a deep dive into readers’ motivations, desires, and fears.
This kind of analysis requires you to stop and ask questions like:
- What does my reader want in life?
- What does my reader truly need?
- What does my reader fear?
- What does my reader do on his/her day off?
- What constitutes success to him/her?
How Will Understanding Your Audience Help You?
The answers to these questions will change the way you write and structure your book. Consider your stories. On a surface level, your stories are entertainment that help fill out your message. Once you understand your audience, though, your stories become catalysts for change. Readers will be attracted to them, relate to them, and apply lessons from them to their own lives.
So beyond entertainment, stories allow you to empathize with your audience and communicate with them more effectively, but they must be shared with the reader in mind.
Understanding your audience will also help you narrow your topic. Chris and I regularly meet with writers who have wonderful books in progress, but often they’re trying to speak to too many types of people. This can lead to wandering in a book. Writers will start out talking to one kind of reader and then they’ll move over to another. The result is a message that becomes lost or confusing.
For example, if a writer starts out speaking to moms who work outside the home and then pivots to include grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, their message can easily get lost or off-topic. Those two readerships are different—vastly different. Their experiences, their fears, and their mindsets are different.
But here’s the good news… If you can write to both those audiences, then you have two books. Sure, there may be overlap in the content, but if you want to speak to those two groups, you have two books, each of which will meet the needs and expectations of the group its speaking to.
Real Life Examples of Understanding Audience
Magazines take this idea of audience seriously, too. It’s one reason I find them so fascinating, even if I am not their target readership, mainly because I try to imagine who is.
Two that our family receives are Runner’s World and Just Cross Stitch. There may not be two more polar-opposite readerships, but let’s give them a look.
First, Runner’s World. This magazine caters to an urban, tech-savvy runner who will lace up their $150+ trainers to beat the pavement for the sheer joy of doing so. Rain, shine, fog, injury, even the occasional bad boyfriend, these runners are dedicated. Seriously dedicated. They love a good human interest story that centers around the religion of running. Why? Running has either saved their life or made it more bearable, and this magazine knows it’s talking to like-minded athletes.
What fascinates me most about Runner’s World is the length of their feature article. Most magazines run articles somewhere in the 700-2000-word range. Not Runner’s World. This one has a feature article that easily runs 2-3 times that. They read more like a minibook than a magazine article.
And I’m hooked. Every. Time.
I started reading them because, as a writer, I wanted to see where the articles went. I wasn’t disappointed. Each feature focuses on a personal story of overcoming, and at the center lives running. Each time I read one, I want to run. I want to join their church. Lace me up! Clearly, I’m not alone. Runner’s World must have found that it has a readership that wants to spend time getting to know other converts.
Then there’s Just Cross Stitch. This magazine has a much simpler, slower vibe. Readers are given free projects to round out their obsession and add to their works-in-progress. I give this one a quick overview and then return to it for a slower read into the history of needlework. Every time I read it, I learn a little more about my hobby.
Just Cross Stitch’s audience is clearly American women. There’s always a touch of Americana somewhere in the issue. Projects range from easy to advanced, so any stitcher on the spectrum will find something to love.
The readers’ psychographics are clear considerations in both publications. With each article, the editors ask the question, Does this fit, interest, or concern our readers? Will they care? Even the tone of the articles is unique to the readership. Runner’s World is inspirational and matter of fact. Just Cross Stitch is educational but curious. Both are respectful of their audiences.
Because of that respect, they’re read. It’s that simple. Their audience wants to read them because they always find something that resonates with them.
Who are You Writing for?
When Chris and I consult with writers, our first questions is always: Who is this for?
Whether it’s a children’s picture book, how-to book, or even a memoir. Who will read this and why? Why does someone want to spend their time reading what you’ve spend so much time writing?
To help writers answer that question, we’ve developed the Ideal Reader Worksheet. It’s free for download and addresses nonfiction and fiction.
We can’t stress this enough. Identifying your ideal reader will save you time. You won’t be stuck rewriting chapters or sections that don’t accomplish your goal or over-writing because you’re trying to hit every possible reader.
Whatever stage you are in your book, take time to identify your ideal reader. Download our free worksheet and consider your audience. Be warned, this is not a 5-minute exercise. This is a several-day expedition into the minds of your readers. And, it’s well worth it. You’ll be clearer on who you’re speaking to, how you need to write your message, and what your readers’ takeaway should be. Bottom line: You’ll write a better book, one that your readers will want to read.