new complexities in defining audience:
direct vs indirect vs target

Author: Nick Tucker
Last updated: 12 Nov 2019
Length: 752 words / 3-4 minute read

It used to be simple. There was your business and there were customers. There was usually a wider audience who may (or may not) be aware of what you did. And there was typically a target sector within that audience (the target audience) which you focused on as likely to become customers. And those customers bought things. With money. And in the vast majority of cases they paid up front.

Nowadays, the picture is more nuanced, with additional layers and subtleties that can easily confuse and confound. The result is less clarity, not more, around what to do, when and where.

Defining the entirety of the audience is the simplest. Although you'll find various sources define this slightly differently, it's broadly the same reasoning that sits behind it, and it's quite easy for you to specify your particular edges. Here's my definition:

Audience: any individual or organisation which comes into contact with your content, product, service or representatives, whether directly, or indirectly through a third party.

That last part is important, and relates to the passing on of messaging or experience by the original receiver to another. For example, after seeing an advert on YouTube, I tell my partner about it. Easily overlooked, this is a significant extension to those definitions which cover only what might be described as the direct audience.

So we immediately have two sub-divisions of audience to consider:

Direct audience: those who directly come into contact with your content, product, service, etc.

Indirect audience: those who only have indirect contact with your content, product, service, etc.

And it's easy to see how an indirect audience can quickly become a direct audience if their subsequent actions bring them into contact with your brand. So my partner might look up that advert I mentioned herself, or visit the brand website to find out more.

Indirect audiences are extremely important in business-to-business (B2B) situations, because very often the initial researcher for a project or initiative is reporting findings to a wider group of internal stakeholders. And some of those might report back to their teams, some of whom might go home and tell their families about the cool stuff they're working on.

So we can actually split our indirect audience down into 1st order indirect audience, 2nd order indirect audience, and so on. If we felt that was of value. And it might be.

Why is this important? Because how complex and easy to understand your messaging is – and more vitally, how easy is it pass on – will heavily influence how effectively it's transmitted down through these layers. If your position, what you stand for, what you're offering and why you're the right fit are not absolutely 100% crystal clear, then your ability to engage with the people who sit beyond your direct audience is substantially undermined.

Think social media, reTweet after reTweet after reTweet. Is your message becoming diluted? Or is it strong and bold and clear enough to withstand such treatment? Content is important, but content without clarity, reach and 'impact at reach' is only doing half the job.

Now, digital channels such as social media do add another dimension to this that word-of-mouth communication doesn't. And the same applies to those company presentations in some circumstances. Both offer the opportunity (not always taken) to show the actual content, message, etc. At which point the receiver becomes direct audience. The same happens if they follow a link to your website. So a reTweet from a 3rd order indirect audience (who didn't go back to source but forwarded the website link) might generate you a new direct audience.

You can see the power of messaging that remains strong enough through the layers to still trigger engagement when it hits a receptive target.

Which leads us nicely onto the target audience, a term which was also once relatively straightforward to define. But there are new complexities too, and I'll explore those in another article tomorrow. For now, here's my current definition, and you'll see tomorrow why it's so open-ended.

Target audience: the subset of the audience (whether direct or indirect) that responds to your content, product, service, etc. in a way that leads to the level (or levels) of engagement that have been prioritised.

The key term here is 'engagement''. And the challenge comes as a result of the myriad ways in which individuals or organisations can now interact, thanks largely to the ease of information download and transmission via the internet. The implications of that are best left for tomorrow.