Targeting Behaviors Can Be Tough. Here’s How to Ease the Pain

For many of our nonprofit and foundation clients, selecting a target audience and a target behavior sounds great — at least at first. The term “targeting” is widely used in business, so it sounds like a sensible thing to do.

But early in our onboarding process, we nearly always hit a point where we are presented with a laundry list of “target” behaviors and a long list of “target” audiences that pretty much add up to asking everybody to do everything.

As all behavior change marketers know, unless your client has unlimited dollars to spend on a variety of segmented approaches, failure to target will mean failure to get anybody to do anything.

Here’s how we help our clients through the painful process of narrowing the list of who they want to reach and what they want them to do.  

Introduce the marketing “offer.” Many people who are deeply invested in making the world a better place are steeped in an educational approach. The idea is if you just give people the right information, they will do the right thing.

Behavior-change marketing takes that one-way conversation and turns it into an exchange. It asks two key questions: what do we want them to do, and why would they want to do that?

Salter Mitchell old pardigm

Provide examples. Bringing up real world examples where information alone is not enough to change behavior can help. An obvious example is losing weight. Most Americans are overweight, many would like to shed pounds, and the information about how to do that is very straightforward — move more and eat less. But, as anyone who has tried to lose weight knows, it is in reality anything but simple.

Meanwhile, if you analyze most anti-obesity programs, they are often unintentionally targeted to the people who need it least — people who are already into fitness. With a focus on “getting fit” and pictures of slim people in Lycra, these programs often signal “not me” to the people who need wellness most: those who hate exercise and never plan to step foot in the gym.

In Louisiana, we created a wellness approach with a marketing offer that appealed to what our research showed our audience (overweight and diabetic) really wanted: ways to have fun with family and friends, and functional fitness that would allow them to ride bikes with their grandkids rather than participate in a triathlon.


dial and exercise excuse


Help them prioritize. Often our best tool for targeting is a simple X-Y axis graph that allows clients to put their proposed target audiences and behaviors on a continuum of easy/hard to reach/do, and low/high impact. At a gathering of the organization’s key decision-makers and stakeholders, draw these graphs on two flip charts — one for behavior, one for audiences — and hand out sticky notes. By deciding where their favorite behaviors and audiences fit on these charts, it helps clients come to their own conclusions about which audiences and behaviors they want to focus on.


target audiences and target behaviors


Remind them they are weird. The people we work with are passionate about what they do. Whether they are trying to help people get healthier, reduce climate change impacts, improve water quality, or keep babies safe, they often have encyclopedic knowledge about their topic and the behaviors that can prevent or reduce highly negative outcomes (like death and disaster). One tool that can help them break out of their bubble is to have them create “personas.” Originally a tool used for website user experience design, the process of creating personas can help clients see things from the target audience’s point of view, and then find places where target behaviors intersect with audience wants and needs.     


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Of course, when budget is available, one of the best way to narrow your target audiences and target behaviors is through research. Download our Audience Research Guide to learn how to determine what type of research you need (qualitative or quantitative), write research questions, and analyze findings so they can be applied to your behavior change efforts.

Sara is Principal + Director of Strategy and Planning at Marketing for Change.

Four Steps to Better Research

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