You pull the balloon down by its string and show it to me. On its side in yellow letters it says I RECEIVED ADVICE I DON’T KNOW HOW TO USE OVER THE INTERNET!
“Oh. I see. What’s the dilemma?”
You say, There’s been this wave of people lately talking about how you need to be specific about your audience. You glare at me meaningfully but I just grin. Well, I want to be specific, sure. But when have you gone far enough? When’s too far? How do I know when I’ve gotten it right?
I keep grinning. “I actually know how to solve this one for you. Good timing on your behalf, too – I’ve been unconsciously doing this in client sessions for months but I didn’t have words around it until very recently. So you get it first: here’s the litmus test and here’s how to use it.”
You perk up. Bring it on!
The deep and meaningful questions
“Right, I’m going to ask passersby some questions, note what I do.” I walk up to a woman in a very sharp suit and I say, “Hello there. I’m from the internet – may I ask you a few short questions?”
She replies, “Sure, I guess.”
“Thank you very much. Firstly, are you a woman?”
“Are you a business professional?”
“Yes, I’m an electrical engineer.”
“Are you a woman breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry?”
“Hells yes I am!”
“Thank you very much,” I say, and walk back to you. “Did you see it?”
Did I see what?
“Ah, okay, another demonstration.” I walk over to a guy wearing an XKCD shirt and playing a Nintendo 3DS. “Hello there! Are you a geek?”
“Yep, sure am.”
“Are you a gamer?”
“Are you the kind of gamer who’d be interested in thoughtful critical analysis of the video game industry?”
“Hells yes I am!”
“Thanks very much, and enjoy the show.” I return to you. “Did you see it that time?”
Well, I saw that they both responded with “Hells yes I am” on your third question.
“Why do you think they did that?”
Because… you got more specific?
“Yes, but more than that. I got specific by finding the identities they care deeply about.”
Identity is POWER.
“Let’s use the businesswoman as an example. At first, I asked if she was a woman. She is, it’s part of her identity, but it’s not something she is profoundly attached to as a concept. Asking her age would have the same effect, which is why I’m so vehement that demographics suck and should be used sparingly if at all… but I digress.
“Then I asked what her job was. She’s clearly invested in it, but it isn’t a core part of her identity to be an electrical engineer. It was when I asked her about being a woman in a male-dominated industry that she lit up – that’s a part of herself she cares deeply about, and it’s one that really matters to her. Probably because she deals with that constant friction all the time – in order to thrive, she’s had to build that identity every day for years.”
Oh. I get it. If I made a website for electrical engineers she’d be mildly interested, but if I made it for female electrical engineers, or for women in any profession that’s mostly male, then she’d be excited.
“Well done, exactly! What about the other guy? You try.”
Okay, he was pretty calm and matter-of-fact about being a geek – didn’t that used to be a big deal?
“Yeah, but not so much these days.”
And he was also pretty blasé about being a gamer, which I’m going to assume is a geek who plays video games. And clearly that’s still too broad as a category.
“Got it in one!”
So there would be lots of types of gamer that he wouldn’t respond to. But the idea of being one who likes thoughtful critiques… he wants to be the guy who thinks about video games, who’s playing them for a reason?
“Well done! Yes, he wouldn’t want to be lumped in with the Wii-playing grannies or the abuse-flinging seventeen-year-olds on Xbox Live. He’s a mature gamer – it’s part of his identity, and one he cares about deeply.”
How did you know that in two questions?
“The XKCD shirt was a dead giveaway. Besides, I do this all day; I’m fantastic at it.”
The magical formula
You think for a minute. So what you’re really saying is that I should keep digging until my audience would answer “Hells yes I am” to my questions?
“Exactly! It’s so damn simple, I could hug myself with pride.” Which I then do, making small humming noises. “If you imagine your audience clearly and you say to them, “Are you this kind of person?” there are three possible responses. They could say no – which is a problem, of course – or they could say, “Yep” which is good but you’re not there yet, or they could jump out of their chair saying, “HELLS YES I AM!” That last place is the ground where you can build communities and resources that people would fight a rabid wolverine to be part of.”
Give me some more examples!
“Mother of children under 3?”
Still probably snore.
“Mother of children under 3, and raising them overseas?”
Hells yes I am!
“Are you growing your own vegetables?”
Oooh. I’m not sure, people I know who do that are pretty intense about it.
“Growing your own vegetables because it’s more sustainable?”
Hells yes I am!
“Growing your own vegetables so the kids can experience the magic?”
Hells yes I am!
“Growing your own vegetables because they taste better?”
Hells yes I am! Huh. So there’s lots of possible reasons, and the reasons matter. How do you choose which angle to take… do you even have to choose?
“Did I get an unequivocal “Hells yes I am” for just growing your own vegetables?”
“… but if you were the vegie grower you’d REALLY like to have all three of those groups on board. You want to help them, you have lots of ways you could help them. But you still have to choose.”
The cold hard decision time
“Because their goals conflict, and you can’t deliver your most powerful work to all three at the same time. The sustainability crowd would be put off by the heavy-duty nitrogen fertiliser you’d recommend for better-tasting carrots. The family-gardeners would want ideas on how to get toddlers helping out in the garden that would leave the other two groups cold. It would be MUCH better to choose one and stick to it. Or, if you’re slightly insane, have three different websites, one for each audience. Then you can get three unequivocal “Hell yes I am!” answers.”
That’s a lot more work!
“It most certainly is. But it’s less work than creating a big huge business that no-one gives a shit about. Also, more profitable and joyous.”
That makes sense. It sucks, but it makes sense. Last question – can you go too deep with this?
“You know, I don’t think you really can. The only possible problem is scale – there are only so many Labrador-owning jogging freaks in Poughkeepsie. But if you could expand to Labrador-owning jogging freaks in the rest of the state, or the country, or the world, then you’re good again. All hail the internet!”
You say hooray and wave your balloon on a string.
The moral of the story
When you base a business around an identity that people are deeply connected to, that business will rock on fucking toast.
Try it out in the comments, if you like: who are your people? And what is your “HELLS YES I AM!” question?
Want some help identifying your HELLS YES I AM? Goddamn Radiant is all that and a banana sundae.