Defining Target Audiences: Who Are We Talking To, Really?


Do you know who you’re talking to? Do your users know?

When I ask higher ed web teams who their primary audience is, inevitably the answer is "prospective students." Makes sense, right?

Since higher ed websites are such an important marketing tool, most people will agree prospective student is an appropriate primary audience. Yet, when you navigate college websites, how well does content speak to this audience? And what about other audiences? How do they fit in?

The reality is we cater to many different audiences in higher ed. Even within the audience group prospective students there is a diverse range of users: undergraduate students, part-time graduate students, full-time graduate students, PhD students, international students, and transfer students, among others.

If you take a walk across your campus and ask content owners in different departments who their primary audience is, you will hear about many other website users: newly admitted students, current students, parents, faculty, alumni, prospective donors, affiliates, partners, media, local community, guidance counselors—the list may seem never-ending.

However, the challenge we face is not that we have diverse audiences—that’s a good thing and represents who we are as an institution. The challenge is prioritizing and speaking clearly to our audiences.

Clearly defined target audiences inform every element of our content strategy—including content purpose and value, the organization and labeling of content, and the factors by which we measure success.

So, who are we talking to, really?

Prioritize and Speak Clearly

How many pages on your website speak to a "general" audience? Maybe your "About" section? Maybe news stories? How about your admissions, academics, research, and careers content?

Considering all the different audiences for our website, it seems reasonable to cast a wide net and craft your message for all audiences. However, the more people you cater to, the less relevant and meaningful your content becomes—for everyone.

Of all the politics surrounding our website content, audience priorities is often the most controversial. It’s easy to interpret audience priorities as a ranking of audience value—in the same way we might prioritize our to-do lists. Audience priorities have nothing to do with audience value. In fact, by prioritizing audiences you’re demonstrating that you respect all users by clearly guiding everyone to useful and relevant content—and not confusing them with a mix of unclear content value.

Prioritizing audiences enables you to speak clearly to all audiences, not just the ones at the top of the list. When a prospective student understands that a webpage is speaking to a current student, it clarifies the purpose and value of the content. This enables a prospective student to make good use of the content as a secondary or tertiary target audience.

For example, if a student activities page is clearly speaking to a current student, this informs a prospective student about how they can make use of this content. Rather than taking action to sign up for a student activity, a prospective student understands they are taking a backseat to learn about the campus life for current students.

In this example, the student activities page becomes more valuable for prospective students as a secondary audience because they understand the purpose of the page and how it relates to them.

Prioritize and Enhance Findability

Beyond speaking clearly, prioritizing audiences enhances findability for all users. Without prioritizing your audiences you can’t effectively organize or label content—including pages from the top to bottom of your website, as well as on-page content that speaks to multiple audiences.

At a high level, audience priorities inform how you prioritize and label your primary navigation menu. On web projects, sometimes people ask me if the "About" section belongs in the #1 spot. If you want a user-friendly website the answer comes down to identifying your primary audiences and creating content that meets their needs.

If your primary website audience is prospective students and your "About" section is speaking to peer institutions, faculty, and the media with topics like "Our Mission" and "Board of Trustees," then this is not appropriate for the #1 spot. However, if your "About" section is speaking to prospective students and parents about the culture and values of your institution, then it seems more appropriate.

User-friendly websites prioritize content based on user goals, not internal politics.

In the same way audience priorities inform the organization and labeling of pages on your website, they also inform the organization and labeling of on-page content. Prioritizing audiences doesn’t prevent you from speaking to multiple audiences on a single page—it enables it. By organizing on-page content by audience priorities you clarify relevance and value for all readers.

How to Prioritize Audiences (and Avoid Angry Emails)

As higher ed web professionals, we deal with politics. It’s part of the job. Often decisions are made based on internal turf wars and pride rather than user needs. With this in mind, your audience list should be used for planning, not publicizing. Of all the content guides and tools you may have, this is one you don’t want to promote because it’s not useful on its own and can be easily misunderstood. However, we still need it to inform our work on the web.

Ready to get to work? Here are some steps you can take.

1. Brainstorm potential audiences

To start, pull in the right group of people—anyone who can help identify the different types of website users—and list on a whiteboard all the possible audiences your website is speaking to. Get very specific. Instead of current students, list out all the different types of current students with different needs. Your list might look like this:

  • Newly admitted students
  • First-year students
  • Current undergraduate students
  • Current full-time graduate students
  • Current part-time graduate students

You might also include working professionals or commuting students. Identify any user group with different website needs.

2. Group audiences

Next, organize audiences into logical groupings. For example, the list above could be grouped together under the label of "Current Students." Or, maybe you’re organizing prospective employees like this:

  • Prospective employees
    • Prospective faculty
    • Prospective staff

Grouping audiences together allows you to plan for speaking to both broad and narrow user groups.

3. Prioritize audience groups

Finally, prioritize all the broad and narrow audience groups. One approach is to organize them all by primary, secondary, and tertiary audience groups. For example:

Primary Audiences:

  • Prospective students
    • Prospective undergraduate students
    • Prospective part-time graduate students
    • Prospective working professional students
    • Prospective full-time graduate students
  • Parents

Secondary Audiences:

  • Prospective employees
    • Prospective faculty
    • Prospective staff
  • Prospective donors

Tertiary Audiences:

  • Current students
    • Newly admitted students
    • First-year students
    • Current undergraduate students
    • Current full-time graduate students
    • Current part-time graduate students
  • Current employees
    • Current faculty
    • Current staff

Your audience list will likely include many more audience groups and types of users.

All done? Congratulations! You have prioritized your target audiences and provided an important guide for organizing and prioritizing information on your website. Awesome.

Using Your List of Target Audiences

Your target audience list is a planning document that should be used to inform the development of web content guides and tools—such as style guides, web writing and publishing guides, and content templates.

Prioritizing audiences is much easier to understand (and swallow) when you consider a single page. What is the purpose of the page? Who is it for? It’s when we talk about prioritizing audiences globally that stakeholders are likely to get grumpy.

So, instead, focus on a single webpage or type of webpage. For example, who are the audiences for an academic program page or a career services page or an alumni event page? A content matrix or content template can be a good tool for guiding content contributors on page-level audience priorities and page purpose.

How well does your college website speak to different audiences? What are your audience priorities?

Photo by Ernest Duffoo / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Hey Rick, I think this is a wonderful article there, with as much details as one may need. Thank you for sharing the insights. I am now gona keep a tab on this blog for more stuff to come. :-)

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