Whether you're writing a book or running a company, having a strong understanding of your audience is key. However, learning about and truly understanding an audience is one of the hardest tasks for brands.

It's difficult to take a step back and make an unbiased analysis of your audience, whether because you feel you already know them well, business is going well, or you're not sure where to start. But having a strong understanding of the people on the receiving end of all of your communication will make you a more agile brand, able to adapt when those people's interests and needs inevitably shift.

It's not enough to feel like you know your audience. Creating fleshed out audience personas is the best way to prove that you do. Follow the four steps below, and you'll be well on your way.

Research, Research, Research

If you've been in your industry for a while, this stage will likely be a breeze. But no matter how well you feel you know your industry and your customers, don't skip it.

Focus your research efforts into two categories:

Primary Research

Primary research is defined as new research, conducted by you. This should include a detailed analysis of your current customers/readers. Who is buying your product? Has that shifted over time? Does that line up with who is visiting your website, reading your social media? Pull what data you're able to from your own resources and closely analyze your current audience.

What you choose to hone in on will be dependent on your brand. If you run a women's retail company, gender is a given. But how old are your customers? Do they tend to live in certain regions?

Also take a look at what your competitors are doing. Create a document outlining the tone, types of content, and avenues they use to reach readers. Tools like Spyfu can be a big help here to know which keywords competitors are using. Don't spend too much time unpacking this data yet. Until you've compiled all of your research, you won't know whether you should be speaking to a similar audience as your competitors or not.

Secondary Research

Take advantage of the already existing research out there. The Pew Research Center has an overwhelming amount of information that can help you dive deeper into understanding your audience. Pay attention to articles that relate to your specific industry that may shed light on more broad consumer behavior.

For instance, working in the publishing industry, I'm constantly aware of the discussion around e-books. Are they growing in popularity? Declining? Pew research shows that while the overall popularity of e-books has gone up slightly in recent years, that increase can be owed almost entirely to people reading on tablets and smartphones, rather than e-readers. This, along with a great deal of other research, comes together to help us paint a picture of our readers.

Understand Your Impact

With a clear understanding of your existing customer/reader base, as well as the larger industry-wide research, you can now start to carve your your place in the industry. But rather than focus on what makes you different from your competitors right now, instead try to answer the following questions:

  • What problem am I solving?
  • What value do I add to my customers?
  • What impact do I have on their lives?

Customers don't just buy products -- they buy the transformation that the product offers. When you understand your answers to these questions, you will be better able to understand for whom that transformation matters and speak to them as if in response to their particular pain points and wants.

Create Audience Personas

Create a range of personas that fit your understanding of your audience. Give the person you've envisioned a name and use the data you've collected to fill in their interests, goals and pain points. Don't just focus on their history, but instead try to imagine both their day-to-day frustrations and where they will be in a year, five years, etc.

Personas don't need to be limited to 1-2 people. You may only have a small handful of primary target customers, but there may be opportunities to engage lower personas in smaller ways. Keep in mind that not every persona serves the same function. While one may be your target customer, another may be a key influencer. Getting in front of the influencer may be the key to unlocking customers.

Speak to Them Always

Once you've zeroed in on your top 4-5 personas, write to them in the way that you imagine they'd speak. The simplest way to connect with your audience is to give them content that they'd find relevant and to use a tone that feels familiar.

Before writing or speaking in any setting, consider which of your specific personas you're talking to now. Who is going to get the most from this content? What do you want them to do when they've received it? Use every piece of communication as an opportunity to crawl into the head of your audience and learn more about them.

The last piece of the puzzle is, of course, more data. Once you've written the content, don't just assume you've hit the nail on the head. Use whatever data you can find -- reader demographics, page views, downloads, etc. -- to learn if you've succeeded or need to keep tweaking your strategy.

The most important thing to keep in mind when discovering your audience is that humans are complex. So while you may only need to do this process once in great detail, you should consider it an ongoing affair. Your audience will shift and change over time, and it's up to you to shift and change along with them.

Published on: Mar 16, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.