Millennials. Early adopters. Adults 25–54. Fearless fashionistas. Jacob (a fictional character complete with stock image photo).
You probably included (if you’re a planner) or rolled your eyes (if you’re a creative) some version of these target audiences in your last creative briefing.
These are the target audiences that every brand covets because they represent a vast swath of consumers with money to burn. And because the most valuable targets are often the most ubiquitous and well-represented, it means, more often than not, you either are the audience or you know someone like them. Maybe you’re an ’80s baby. Maybe your best friend from high school was voted “Most Stylish.” Maybe your boyfriend is a dead ringer for “Jacob.”
Which is great for most marketers, because it’s easier to mine insights when you’re familiar with your intended audience. You’re inherently more confident in the strategy, media plan and direction for creative work. But that’s not always the case. In fact, familiarity can sometimes be a crutch.
But what do you do when the group you need to motivate is unlike you and everyone you know? When they’re unrepresented, misunderstood and difficult to find?
In the Fall of 2015, the Ad Council approached us to relaunch their high school equivalency (HSE) campaign. Although graduation rates recently hit a record high, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 29 million adults do not have a high school diploma. Opportunities for non-graduates can be limited, and many work multiple jobs with lower pay and less stability. Our goal was to motivate these non-graduates to take the first step in pursuing their HSE diploma.
The Ad Council gave us all their research from the 2009 campaign launch. But when the project kicked off in 2015, the HSE landscape had changed quite a bit. The GED underwent a massive overhaul that by many accounts led to a more difficult test. There was the added hurdle of computer literacy, with the GED moving from paper to computer only. And some states dropped the GED in favor of new, alternate exams like HiSET and TASC. The Ad Council wanted to understand how these changes affected potential students. While we learned these administrative changes had minimal impact, the research we did forced us to get a much deeper understanding of what these HSE candidates were facing. It forced us to see things through their perspective and ultimately led to the creative effort.
Non-graduates are invisible. There may be 29 million of them, but they’re difficult to spot. We started by reading the available research, but there wasn’t a lot. “Non-graduates” isn’t a highly sought after group for marketers, so you don’t see much data in syndicated research or industry white papers. And “adults thinking about finishing their high school diplomas” aren’t easy to pinpoint through other traditional means. They’re a uncommon group with uncommon experiences that live in every region of the country. And they’re not the type to shout from the rooftops to volunteer for surveys and focus groups.
The only way to understand their hopes and dreams, their concerns and worries, was to get out of the office and talk to them ourselves.
So we visited adult education centers and spoke with tutors. We reached out to luminaries in the adult education field. We even took HSE tests ourselves. (They’re harder than you'd imagine — can you calculate the volume of a cylinder? Describe the factors that led to WWI? Design an experiment to test the solubility of salt in water as the temperature rises?) We sat down with HSE seekers and recent diploma earners — and, importantly, their friends and family — in their own homes.
In doing so, we busted several non-graduate myths: HSE seekers don't lack ambition, intelligence or work ethic. In fact, they have big dreams. They want to start a family business, go to college or set off in a new field. Friends, family and colleagues attest to how smart and capable they are. They work harder than most, with less stable hours in less stable positions. And even though they sometimes have less, they give more. They're helping out their neighbors, extended family or anyone in need.
What stops HSE seekers from taking the first step isn't the fear that the test is too difficult. And it isn't the intimidation of what they’d have to do when they finally pass. What stops them is what we admired most about them: their commitment to others. They worry that the logistics of the HSE process, like going to classes, spending time studying over the course of several months or a year might negatively affect those around them. Because it would mean time away from their children and more responsibility for their partners or family members to take on.
At that point, we spoke with their friends and family, those they worried would be affected. From talking to them, we realized that the people around the HSE seekers are actually their biggest asset. They're the reason they want to pursue a diploma in the first place. So this isn’t some Sisyphean, solitary effort. It’s a group effort. Friends, family and tutors share in the motivation, they shoulder responsibilities throughout, and they celebrate when the diploma comes in the mail. Said best by Kim, a recent diploma earner, “When I graduated, we all graduated.”
These are findings we couldn’t have uncovered sitting behind a computer.
And that’s a fact that also applies to the millennial, early adopter, 25–54-year-old, fearless fashionistas and Jacobs.
One of the reasons those target descriptors are so overused is because it’s easy to rely on white papers, syndicated research, stereotypes and our anecdotal experiences for those targets we think we know. But the reality is that data tables and essays aren’t enough to help us create truly powerful messaging. They can be a crutch, keeping us from finding new insights, from uncovering nuances and from challenging our assumptions about who those people really are. They prevent us from properly understanding and empathizing with others and they hold us back from considering new avenues for strategy.
So the next time you find yourself staring at a list of buzzword-y descriptors, resist the urge to take them at face value and actually go talk to one of those buzzwords face to face.
Shoutout to Stevie Archer for improving this, like everything else she touches.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.