Explainer: How to Define an Audience

A graphic of question marks provides the background art for our PRNEWS Explainer series which today asks what is an audience?

[Editor’s Note: Even experienced PR professionals need a refresher on the basics periodically, as well as insight about newer concepts. Whether it’s how to become a better writer or a review of PR ethics, we aim to provide you with content about a variety of topics and issues. Hence, our Explainer series.]

Previous posts looked at the Barcelona Principles, the Metaverse, social conversation platforms, off the record and sonic branding. Today we review how to define, assess and measure your audience.

If there are topics you’d like to see discussed in this series, please let us know.]

What is the definition of audience?

An audience is a specific group of people or stakeholders who are most likely to support and engage with your brand, as well as be interested in a brand or organization's products or services. Some audiences can also have shared demographic characteristics. 

For example, Dawn Rodney, Chief External Affairs Officer, National Parks Foundation defines its audience as “park champions as diverse as the parks themselves.”

“What threads this group together is their love of the outdoors, of learning about our common history and culture, and of their desire to protect our common ground,” Rodney says. “These park champions are individual donors, corporate partners, Congressional leaders, the media, local national park Friends Groups, and even our staff and board members.”

Christina Merritt, Chief Strategy Officer, Taylor, says her agency identifies an audience by looking at demographics such as gender, age, ethnicity, income, location and then follows that up with psychographics. 

“Here we want to understand the nuances of their personality,” Merritt says. “We look into their values, motivations, interests and decision-making styles to better interpret their behaviors throughout the purchase funnel and apply them to our product/service offering. Uncovering how personal values mirror brand values has been important in our work as we understand shifts in consumer sentiment and how they reflect the current multicultural, purpose-driven landscape.” 

Why should audience matter to communicators/PR professionals?

For communicators, who is receiving the message is just as important as the message itself. Identifying those receivers allows PR pros to determine who is most likely to be interested in a brand’s messaging, making efforts that more worthwhile. 

I’m a big believer in creating the right message, for the right audience, at the right time, and for PR/Comms professionals...leveraging the right kind of media and platforms,” Rodney says. “We too often rely on garnering the greatest number of impressions. I’m more interested in understanding if the right audience received a message in a way that compels them to engage with the National Park Foundation or support national parks.”

And according to Merritt, PR/communications is primarily about reputation building, so your target audience can also include stakeholders not necessarily currently consuming a brand’s products or services (i.e. legislators, event sponsors, employees, community partners). There’s always potential. 

“Understanding the emotions of a target audience is as important as understanding their behaviors, she says. “By delving into the rationale and "why" behind their actions, we can gain deeper insight into unique perspectives. This allows for more effective messaging strategies that not only resonate with the target audience, but also immerse the brand firmly in the public’s point of view. Putting the person before the product serves us better in the long-run.”

Where do you begin when assessing/determining an audience?

Defining your audience does not have to be complicated. It begins with asking some simple questions and digging into some research. 

Melissa Conner, Partner and Managing Director at JBC, says that in their their work, they consider all of the above when it comes to identifying the right audiences for their brands. 

“[We do] a thorough audit of a brand’s business and brand goals, as well as an audit of existing media outlets that will help them achieve this messaging,” Conner says. “As a thought leader-driven agency, we also consider founders: What kind of thought leaders do our brand leaders want to become—and what kind of thought leaders do they want to attract? What kinds of causes do they want to amplify?

For Merritt, her organization looks to business processes to dive into audience work. 

From a marketing perspective it starts with audience sizing and business modeling: how many people are potential consumers of a brand’s products or services and how does that unlock business growth?” she says. “From a PR/communications standpoint it starts with stakeholder definition and mapping of communication flows: how many people are potential recipients of a brand’s message and how does that shape organizational reputation?” 

She also notes the importance of mapping an audience’s journey and experience. 

“We have to consider the macro and micro perspective—how does a brand participate in the industry vs. how does it engage sub-cultures and niche communities with impact?” 

Tools for looking at audience data and insights

  • Google analytics
  • Qualitative and quantitative research (may need to contract out)
  • MRI/Simmons
  • GWI
  • SparkToro
  • Brandwatch
  • Tagger
  • Native social media platforms

Merritt says custom research can also help to develop a brand’s narrative, but expect surprises. 

“We run custom mixed method quantitative and qualitative studies for audience insights specific to business challenges,” she says. “We want to uncover insights that aren’t Google-able, stories that haven’t yet been told, and human needs that aren’t being met. 

For example: What occasions can a new alcohol beverage own? What are NFL fan behaviors and attitudes—during the season and in the lead-up to the Super Bowl? How can behavioral insights rooted in website/traffic/search analysis enhance corporate citizenship storytelling for a financial brand? In addition we constantly use social platform data and listening tools to uncover emerging attitudes and behaviors that inspire social content.”

More resources for audience:


Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal