Defining Your Audience
Whether we want to admit it or not, everyone wants a hit. Every time we post something on social media we hope that it’s the one that blasts off into the stratosphere and solves all our problems. Suddenly our audience is massive - we’ve made it and the days of watching the sales roll in while we sip cocktails in the sun (or La Croix in the shade) are here! But this moment isn’t reality. The "hits" you see aren’t overnight successes, they are the results of sometimes decade-long efforts to cultivate an audience.
Building an audience takes time, it takes dedication and discipline, but it also takes planning. We’ve committed to dedicating our lives to making art, but how do we know that we’re heading in the right direction? Sometimes it can feel like we’re adrift in the sea alone - it’s time we made ourselves a compass.
What’s old is new again
When we’re creating our best work, it is something only we can create. We filter all of our inspirations through our minds and create something unique. As independent artists we have to be able to self direct, but finding what we want to say can be difficult. I think this is why the pull to do fan art is so enticing; Through fan art we can immediately create a connection with our audience, because we both are responding to the same thing. It’s much harder to understand this about our own work. Self reflection is our most important tool. We have to understand the feelings our influences give us and how they do it. This way we can represent it in our own work.
In my previous article, I talked about choosing five words to define the feeling you want your customers to have - but how do we arrive at that feeling? We define the feeling our influences instill in us, deconstruct it, and pass it along to our audience in a new way. In order to define the feelings we’re looking for I think it’s important to choose five major influences that we can analyze: less and you risk being derivative, more and you risk confusing your message. Remember these influences can change based on the project or collection of work.
Here’s a small list of my influences:
- The Legend of Zelda
- Hayao Miyazaki
- Laika Studios
- Neil Gaiman
If we compare this list to my keywords they all fit within, but what else do they have in common? Let’s take a look at how we define an audience and see if we can make some connections.
Defining Your Audience
I feel that traditional methods for defining an audience can be a contributor to enforcing societal norms and social bias. Things like defining age, gender, income, etc. put restrictions on your audience that may or may not be there and can work against you when you’re trying to make an authentic connection. How I prefer to think about it is with a simple saying, "People like us, do things like this." This helps to make connections to how people think without prejudice. Here's a few examples using my influences, "People like us, buy the new Legend of Zelda the day it's released", "People like us, go on hikes to relax", "People like us, listen to video game and animated movie soundtracks". The next question to ask yourself is, why? Your audience does it for the same reason you do.
Since we’re creating things by synthesizing our influences we can use our influences to think like our audiences, because they think like us. So what do other people who are fans of my influences have in common? This is a question you will ask yourself time and time again. Here are a few examples for my list:
People like us,
- Have a deep appreciation for nature
- Value uniqueness
- Find the unsettling alluring and sometimes humorous
- Value deep meaning in storytelling
- Have a sense of adventure
Notice that this list is full of things that are unique to my interpretation of my influences and the ways they affected me. Others might have the same items on their lists but for completely different reasons. We can also use our list to make decisions about what products we might try to see if our audience responds.
Setting the mood
A tool I often use as a graphic designer is a mood board. This is a collection of images that fall in line with the feeling you’re trying to achieve with a design and acts as a guide when making design decisions. Here’s an example of what a mood board for my influences looks like:
Pinterest is a great tool for creating mood boards. I make a board for every illustration I do to gather my inspiration all in one place. When you’re putting one together, keep in mind the audience cross-sections of each thing you’re putting into the board. Find the connecting factor in each and put that into the project you’re working on.
If you build it, will they come?
There’s always that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you begin to create, "If I finish this thing will anyone even like it?" When you’ve defined your target audience based on your influences, worked to build a relationship with them, and then chosen a project that falls in line with what your audience wants it makes it a lot easier to have confidence in your project. You’ve removed some of the guesswork and you’ve gained a solid foundation to build on. Nothing is ever a sure thing, but at least you can move forward with a game plan.
When choosing a project based on your target audience, use your influences to guide you. Look at what types of things the audiences of your influences purchase, think about why they buy those things, it's for the same reasons you bought them. Most importantly, think about the feeling that your influences gave you and keep working until you can instill those feelings in your audience.