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Getting to Know Your Audience Will Unlock Your City’s Goals

By Julie Liew

That was the first piece of advice shared by a presenter at a conference I attended with other government communications professionals from across the nation. I stifled the urge to roll my eyes. Is she seriously telling a room full of seasoned communicators to know their audience? That’s Communications 101!

Yet the more I thought about the presenter’s seemingly basic advice, the more I realized that the idea of “knowing your audience” is far more complex than it may seem. We might think we know our intended audience when it comes to communicating, persuading, or sharing ideas, but audiences — like communities — are constantly evolving. The quest to “know your audience” is a continuous work in progress.

So, what are the best ways to define your audience and tailor messaging to achieve the desired results? Try these five tips.

TIP 1: Think beyond the general public

Whenever I work with someone to craft a communications strategy or media plan, the first question I ask is: Who are you trying to inform or influence? Far too often, the response is “Everyone!” When developing any sort of communications, be it a single social media post or a multi-pronged public relations initiative, it is vital to take time to figure out exactly who you want to target. Is it business owners? New residents? Senior citizens?

Refining your audience to focus on the individuals and groups you most want to reach should be the first step in determining your communications strategy. It shapes everything going forward, including the:

  • Method of communication. Would this audience be more receptive to a letter to the editor in the local newspaper or a Facebook post?
  • Tone. Should it be fun and playful, or serious and authoritative?
  • Amount of information and detail. Does this audience require simple, straightforward messaging, or does it already have the base knowledge to allow you to drill down into technical details?
  • Next steps. Is it a one-and-done communication or a longterm strategy?

Remember: If you try to reach everyone, you may end up reaching no one.

TIP 2: Know the demographics

In order to define your audience, you need to know your community. As the 2020 Census results show, Minnesota is changing. For example, our state is quickly becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, with every county seeing an increase over the past 10 years in the percentage of non-white residents. Minnesota is also aging, with the number of residents over age 65 expected to outnumber children within the next decade, according to the Minnesota Demographic Center.

These stats are more than answers to trivia questions. Having a clear picture of the people and businesses who make up your community — or who may be part of your community in the future — can help drive your communications efforts. Here are a few resources to learn more about the demographics in your city:

TIP 3: Want to know the best ways to reach people? Ask them!

You now have a solid grasp on your local demographics and have homed in on a specific group you want to reach — now what? One of the trickiest skills in marketing and communications is figuring out the best methods of communication. While there is no surefire way to ensure your message is received and retained by all your desired recipients, it’s important to find out how people in your city consume information. To do this, you may want to:

  • Conduct surveys.
  • Explore social media, email, and website analytics.
  • Lead focus groups with a wide cross-section of community members.
  • Hold open forums, both in person and online.
  • And don’t overlook the benefits of an old-fashioned conversation. When you meet with residents, ask them if they read the city newsletter or if they follow your city on social media. If they say no, ask why and inquire as to how they prefer to receive information.

TIP 4: Don’t be afraid to try new things

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a mayor who expressed disappointment that his city was having little success at getting 20- and 30-somethings to join local planning committees and boards. “I always encourage new residents to get involved, but they never seem to take me up on the offer,” he lamented.

After some prodding, I learned the city promoted committee openings on its website and during City Council meetings. Aside from those two channels and perhaps word of mouth, there was little way for residents to know that opportunities to serve were even available.

In this case, the mayor knew his target audience (new, younger residents) and his goal (increased civic participation), but he failed to look beyond the way things had always been done. Traditional methods of communication are great, but you should also look for new, innovative ways to meet your audiences where they are.

It’s important to note that new ideas don’t always involve the latest technology or social media trends (and maybe a TikTok dance isn’t the best way to explain your new zoning ordinance anyway?). Billboards, flyers, parade floats, and booths at community events are just a few possible ways to share information without having to be a technology whiz.

TIP 5: Reflect, learn, refine

In our fast-paced world, where there is always another emerging crisis or exciting new initiative that demands attention, it is tempting to shut the door on one task and quickly move on to the next. However, after a communications campaign concludes it is critical to devote time to reflect and analyze whether your efforts were successful. A few basic questions to ask are:

  • Did we meet our goals?
  • What feedback did we receive from the people we were trying to teach?
  • What communications methods were most effective?
  • Were our communications clear, or did we get a lot of follow- up questions?
  • What challenges did we encounter?
  • How can we improve next time?

It’s important to remember that some communications strategies take weeks, months, or even years to see results — and some audiences require more time and effort than others. As you discuss and analyze your communications, look for patterns that could make future communications efforts easier. For example, you might find that a certain demographic responds well to direct mail, while another may require more face-to-face interaction. A few hours spent assessing your results now, could save a lot of time and money later.

Communication is a vital function of any city leader and government. Finding ways to better know and understand your audience will allow you to tailor your messaging to achieve maximum impact. I urge you to use these tips to define the audience for your next communications effort, be it large or small.

Julie Liew is communications manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 215-4006.