Who vs. How Many - Targeting Your Audience

It's a common theme during this year's SES Chicago show. What is better: reaching the masses with a stock message, or reaching niche audiences with a specialized message? The answer is, it depends - largely on your business model, your audience and your resources.

For some, a blanket marketing message reaching the largest audience possible is appropriate. Large brands that can afford to rank highly for ubiquitous search terms stand a good chance of getting lots of traffic and converting at a high rate.

But for most, mass marketing is becoming more of a burden than an asset. The question many should be asking is "who?" Who will act on your offer? The more specialized your message to a specific audience, the better chance you have of being perceived as providing real value and, more importantly, converting sales. It boils down to knowing your audience and knowing what they are searching for. As search improves, consumers understand that their chances of finding very specific results for a fine-tuned query increases. And, as personalized, local and vertical search continues to encroach on the search giants, it becomes essential to provide a presence to that audience.

Ultimately, Web businesses must understand segmentation and personalization. The tools available to today's Web consumer provide a level of intimacy never before seen. Social networking and personalized search are just two examples of how a user can reduce the clutter and find exactly what they are looking for. What does this mean? Businesses need to make a concerted effort to follow the conversation. It's not enough to push your message to consumers who may or may not be listening. Consumers are talking and businesses need to listen. That means stepping into the user's world. We must get involved in their networks and dig deep, without intruding. We need to know what they want and how we can better tailor our services to them, not push our latest, greatest idea on an audience who is telling us that they want something different. Consumers have more control over us than many realize. They have the power to decide what products or services they want and they have the means to influence each other with blinding speed. Your business model may have been spot-on a few years ago. But things change and we have the resources to be nimble and change our plan according to our consumers' tastes.

Years ago, Nike rocked the shoe industry with Air Jordans. It was a new product with a radical style and consumers couldn't buy them fast enough. You weren't on the cutting edge if you didn't own the red and white super sneaker - the same sneaker your high school rival wore. Not now. Individual style is flying off the virtual shelves. Many shoe manufacturers offer the ability to customize your new sneakers - color combinations, even personalized messages can be stitched to the shoe. Individual style is nothing new, but the method and speed of delivery is revolutionary. You can make choices - even through a major corporation built on standards - and express your new, personal style in a matter of days.

There are numerous ways to learn from your consumers. Follow influential bloggers and read the feedback. Examine search trends and social bookmarking sites. Join the social networks while providing real value to other members. And always respond to customer requests and complaints - and quickly. Use analytics tools. Much listening can be achieved with free tools and services and can be as simple as asking questions. Listen, then act.