3 min Read
August 8, 2013

Hello, General Public.

If you ever work on a project with Big Duck, you’ll find that we’re very resistant to listing “general public” as an audience. (And don’t try to get away with “everyone else” or “the broader community”—we’re onto you!)

First off, it’s usually not realistic—most nonprofits can’t afford the kind of advertising push needed to reach a very general audience. But even if you do have the means to do a marketing blitz, the general public still probably isn’t the best target from a strategic point of view.

It’s a hard line to draw—don’t you want everyone to know about the work you do or the program you’re running? Shouldn’t you aspire to appeal (or at least be known) as broadly as possible?

Maybe; maybe not. The most powerful nonprofit brands have a clear mission and a point of view, and that means not everyone is going to agree with the way they do things. The Girl Scouts, ASPCA, Planned Parenthood—even organizations like the Red Cross that seem like they should have almost universal appeal. Every organization has its champions and its critics, and there will always be those who disagree with your strategy or your priorities or maybe even your mission. “Please all, and you will please none”—it’s an idea as old as Aesop (probably older). And in the context of communications, it means that a message targeted at a generic, neutral audience might not offend—but it also might fail to inspire the people who should be your most ardent supporters.

So if you want to be effective in your communications, it’s important to identify what piece of the “general public” you really want to reach. It’s not as difficult as it sounds.

Let’s imagine your organization is doing a campaign to get kittens adopted. You want to reach beyond the usual suspects (the people who are already excited about adopting kittens and who do so regularly). Ideally, everyone in your community will be aware of this opportunity and intrigued by the potential benefits of kitten adoption. After all, even you reach someone who isn’t quite ready to adopt a kitten herself, maybe she has a friend who’d be interested. And someday when she IS ready to adopt a kitten, she’ll think of you.

It’s tempting to think that all of this adds up to wanting to reach the general public, but we can do better. Let’s start with thinking more about who the best prospects are for kitten adoption. They probably have the means to own a pet, are pretty responsible, and have a realistic sense of what’s involved in caring for a kitten. They’ve probably owned a pet of some kind before. Suddenly, we have a much sharper picture of who we’re talking to—and maybe some interesting ideas about where we can find them or what kind of messages could appeal to them. We might eventually decide that the best tactics for reaching this group are broad-based, like TV ads or posters that will be seen by a much wider audience, but we know whose eye we’re trying to catch—and we’re okay with the fact that a lot of those other people might tune us out.

Maybe your secondary goal is to get more people receptive to the idea of kitten adoption. Even then, we can identify some specific sub-sets of the “general public” to target—like educated young people who may have the means to adopt in another 3-5 years, or people of any age looking for a different way to bring companionship and meaning into their lives. Sometimes you might need a little research to inform these decisions, but the point is that it’s possible to be specific—and the more specific you are, the more successful (and efficient) you’ll be.