Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

Social Media Strategy Step 1: Find Your Audience

I’m a child of the 80s and a teenager of the 90s. Though my parents didn’t spoil me with riches, they did hop on the Internet bandwagon early. It’s a pretty impressive and serendipitous thing, if you knew my parents. I love them dearly, but let’s just say they’re not very tech savvy. Every visit home is a new tech problem I have to fix, which is usually a result of my mom forgetting her password or my dad deleting an icon.

So their buying a viable home computer in the early 90s was a feat; and that they subscribed to Prodigy (before AOL even existed) is hard to believe, but it happened. And so my addiction to the computer and all things Internet was born, and to this day I’m still knee-deep in it, only now I’m getting paid for it instead of running up the phone bill using a dial-up modem. 

All this paved the way for the way I use social media today, as a 30-something. But I’m part of just one demographic, and the Internet landscape has drastically changed. The way individuals use social media depends on a number of factors—age, gender, income and even race—and if you’re an advertiser, it’s important to dig deep into the sometimes-subtle differences in the ways they interact with it. What you think you know about the use of social-networking sites and mobile may be far from the truth, and that mistake can cost your brand. 

It’s Not As Obvious As You Think

Today it’s difficult to find an adult (or teen, or child, for that matter) who’s not using the Internet in some capacity. Dial-up modems are a thing of the past (they are, right?), having made way for 24/7/365 broadband and mobile access. Save for those times when they’re on the water or underground, it’s rare for an American adult to be more than an arm’s length from Internet connectivity.

 Sixty-seven percent of American adults who are online use social-networking sites, according to the Pew Research Center. Of course, this includes a large part of the “younger” demographic—83 percent of 18- to 29-year-old users—but it also includes more than half the 50-to-64 demographic and a third of those 65 and over. Sixty-seven percent of these online adults use Facebook, an impressive number considering that Twitter is used by only 16 percent of the same group, which, surprisingly, is only one point above the percentage that uses Pinterest (15 percent) and three above that of Instagram (13 percent). 

We know there’s a large audience on social media. So the question then becomes, where is your target demographic? Do you really know? 

Don’t Believe the Hype

A Marketers’ knee-jerk reaction may be to believe something that’s quite untrue. Take teens and young adults. Because of how quickly the social-media landscape changes, this demographic is a moving target. In mid-2012 (which may be a while ago in social-media time), Common Sense Media studied how teens view their digital lives. Ninety percent of teens aged 13 to 17 were using social media, according to the study, and Facebook was the main social-networking site in a landslide. 

But a more recent Business Insider article tells a different story. Titled “It’s Official: Teens Are Bored With Facebook,” the article cites an informal survey conducted by Adam Ludwin, who launched a social photo album called Albumatic, of a focus group of more than 20 people under the age of 25. He noted that the group didn’t like the app, simply because of its reliance on Facebook. In Facebook’s annual 10-K report, the social-networking behemoth admits that it is losing ground because of younger users’ jumping to other platforms. An interview by a BuzzFeed editor with his 15-year-old sister found that she is more obsessed with Instagram and Snapchat than with Facebook, and that Twitter use by her and her friends is almost nonexistent. Another informal poll showed YouTube as the big winner (note the informality and small sample sizes). 

Teens may be digital natives and may often understand the implications of new technology before other, “busier” demographics do, but can they be trusted to predict what’s new and next in digital? Can they provide insight into what is best for your brand’s audience? Probably not, unless your audience is those teens. 

It’s a Mobile, Mobile World

Mobile throws yet another wrench into any preconceived notions of social-media use. As of December 2012, 45 percent of American adults owned a smartphone, an increase from 35 percent in May 2011, according to Pew. Because more than one billion smartphones are currently in use, social-networking applications (Instagram and Vine being the poster children) often don’t have native web counterparts, as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn do. 

It’s a question not only of which social media your audience is using, but also of on which device they are using it most frequently. Is it an audience in school all day? At work all day? Retired? Parents? Wealthy? Urban or suburban? 

More than a passing knowledge of a few social channels is required to truly understand an audience and develop an effective social-media strategy that engages them on the right channels in the appropriate tone of voice. Whoever is creating your brand’s social strategy, whether an in-house team or a brand storytelling agency, must understand how individuals interact with social media and be able to dig deep into audience demographics. It’s not enough to know how to execute on a channel. You have to know which channel to execute on in the first place. 

Photo Credit: Flооd via Compfight cc

  • Rosanne J. Thomas

    Thank you for this wonderful, illuminating article. I may break out of the Luddite demographic yet!

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  • Jon Thomas

    My pleasure!!

  • Kirk Cheyfitz

    Finding your audience—and really caring about what interests them—is
    absolutely the critical first step, so it’s nice to be reminded of that.
    This is a solid and valuable compendium of the current stats, which is, of course, one important way of thinking about your audience. I’d be careful of Business Insider, however, and even more careful of informal polls since neither, in my experience, is reliable and neither qualifies as research. More importantly, I think, grouping people by demographics is generally less useful and less effective than grouping them by their passions. One of the primary rules of niche publishing for the past 50 years (ever since modern niche publishing was invented by the magazine business in the 60s) is that audiences make content choices based on their interests and those interests do not always line up with age, income, zip code or any other arbitrary leading indicators of demography. Social media is a set of constantly shifting communities of interest; brands with real stories represent a set of things that interest real people. The trick in finding audiences, I believe, is to think beyond demographics and get to the set of interests where the brand and a given collection of communities actually intersect. Brands become successful when they publish to the set of interests they share with their audiences.

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