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Audience: Know Your Reader Before You Write

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Who is your audience? You must answer that question before you write.

A client had just invested considerable resources in developing a package for one segment of his mailing list – his advertisers. The piece was gorgeous: a full color, glossy magazine, with excellent content directed at people who provide services to teenagers.

“Let’s send it to our whole mailing list!” he said excitedly. “It’s so impressive!”

Unfortunately, the other segments of my client’s list weren’t interested in advertising services. Instead, they cared about what programming we provided for teens.

In his state of euphoria over the mailing’s look and feel, my client was about to violate a cardinal rule in nonprofit copywriting: “Write to your reader.”

Know Your Reader

Create a profile of your target reader: the basics with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter

Did I stop him? Of course … by asking some of the questions from the list below.

When we got to #12 (“What do your supporters care about?”), my client gulped. The bulk of his mailing list cared about events we provided for local teenagers. We were able to develop a donor mailing that opened the door for additional gifts to support more events.

Each project, to be successful, needs to target its readers. The best way to do that is to create a composite profile of your audience -- the project’s average reader -- and write to that individual personally.

It takes some research to know your audience. But it’s not hard when you know the right questions to ask. Here’s how: every time you start a new project, go through this checklist. Some questions may be irrelevant to a particular piece. But others will clearly show what makes your audience for this piece so distinctive and how you can target your project to his interests, feelings and needs.

Basic Information about Your Reader

  • What is your reader’s median age?
  • What is your average reader’s gender?
  • What is your average reader’s marital status?
  • Does your average reader have children?
  • What is your average reader’s education?
  • How is your average reader employed?
  • What are your reader's beliefs, world view, core values?
  • What is your average reader’s annual income?
  • Does your average reader own his own home?
  • What are your reader’s special interests?

Your Reader’s Relationship With Your Organization

  • Has the reader donated to your organization in the past?
  • What does your reader care about?
  • Is the reader a service provider?
  • What do your service providers want to know about?
  • Is the reader part of your competition?
  • Is the reader a prospect?

Use this fillable, reusable Target Audience Finder to identify the ideal reader for a piece of content.

Your Reader’s Response Habits

  • How long has the reader been on your mailing list?
  • Is the reader used to receiving additional mailings, such as organization newsletters, thank you letters or e-mail updates?
  • How long has the average reader in the segment supported your organization?
  • Does the reader respond to additional appeals (prayer support, volunteering, in-kind gifts, premiums?)
  • Does the reader respond to interactive devices (sign and return cards, surveys, petitions)?
  • Does the reader respond to new programs or products?
  • Does the reader respond to sponsorship appeals?
  • Does the reader respond to anecdote-based appeals?
  • Does the reader respond to capital campaign appeals (for buildings, roads, electricity, wells)?
  • Does the reader respond to emergency appeals (natural disasters, war, famine, epidemics)?

Your Reader’s Giving History

  • Is the reader an active donor?
  • Is the reader a past donor but now inactive?
  • How many times has donor responded in the last twelve months?
  • What appeal(s) did the donor respond to?
  • What was the amount of the last gift?
  • How recent was the last gift?
  • What was the largest past gift?
  • What was the smallest past gift?
  • Does the donor respond most often at a particular time of year?
  • Does the donor give systematically (monthly or quarterly) or only for special appeals?

Your Reader’s Other Habits

  • What other causes does the potential donor support?
  • What do those causes have in common with your organization?
  • What “hot buttons” does your organization have in common with those causes?
  • Does the potential donor support other causes systematically or for special appeals?

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