Jamie Jean Schneider Domm
Digital Strategist for the North American Division
Good communication is when you communicate in a way your audience understands.
You may feel like you know how to use social media platforms for personal sharing, but writing to achieve a marketing/evangelism goal requires much more thought and strategic planning. This section is designed to give you a framework for successfully defining your target audience and determining how to speak to them in a way that is relevant, encouraging meaningful engagements. It is essential that we not only communicate clearly, but that we also take the time to deeply understand our audience. It doesn’t matter if you know what you mean. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and speak to them accordingly. Speak to your audience in a way and with the words that enable them to understand and connect with your message. REMEMBER, EMPATHY FIRST.
This means that when we communicate in the digital space, we must speak the language of the platform and recognize the “cultural expectations” and “norms” prevalent in the space, as well as within the culture(s) of the people we are communicating to. Without careful research, our words and intentions can easily be taken the wrong way, inadvertently offending and pushing away the very people we are trying to reach.
As Christians, we want to reach and include everyone. This is our ultimate goal as disciples. However, from a specific ministry standpoint, this approach ends up reducing the relevancy of the message and spreads efforts too thin for significant impact. Afterall, a standard marketing rule of thumb states:
If you try to reach everyone all the time, you’ll end up
Each person, ministry, and local church is uniquely equipped and positioned to reach different types of people. Therefore, it is vital to understand who your audience is before you create content, write a single social media post, or spend any money on social advertisements. This section will help you learn how to effectively shape your messages and content to match your audience’s needs and reach them effectively, no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, location, or situation.
Determine Your Target Audience
The first step in reaching your audience is to develop a clear picture of who you are talking to. Begin with surface-level demographic information. Use the criteria below and fill in the information for your ministry’s target audience.
Surface-Level Demographic Information:
Once you’ve determined the surface-level characteristics of your target audience, work down to a deeper level which will help shape your messaging and the kind of content you’ll create.
Create deep connections by identifying with
People no longer fit into neat categories, so we must connect with them on a more profound level, transcending the standard marketing demographics of age, ethnicity, gender, language, location, and interests. If you can dig deeper, your audience will be loyal to your brand because you resonate with them at their core.
The best way to do that is to investigate their needs, experiences, values, and perceptions. Conducting surveys and interviews is one key way to collect more information. Then start asking yourself questions that will help you to get inside the minds of your audience members. What motivates their actions? What makes them who they are? What do they have in common? How can I speak and write in a way that my audience will find relatable? What do they value? What do they actually need?
Examples of needs may include: a spiritually supportive community, affordable education, employment, affordable medical care, safe spaces for their children, mentorship opportunities, a better future, healthier relationships, self-improvement, Christian guidance on real-life issues, food security, or practical life-skills training.
Use the criteria below and write down possible answers for your target audience.
Deep Level Characteristics:
”Cultural Empathy” in the Digital Mission Field
As discussed in the previous section, the concept of “cultural empathy” is well known in the physical mission field and its principles should be applied to the digital mission field. We live in a world of intersecting cultures or communities, and, therefore, our definition of culture must expand. Many now find themselves between cultures and functioning in multiple communities simultaneously. In order to identify the unifying threads between seemingly dissimilar people, we need to first unpack their many cultural influences.
These cultures are potentially endless in variety, but can include:
Now take the time to consider the potential overlap in cultures found within your church, community, ministry, or target audience. How might they influence behavior and needs? What unifying factors can you identify?
Internal v. External
Are you speaking to Adventists or non-Adventists? Your language may change based on the answer to this question. We must modify the way we communicate in order to effectively reach different audiences without creating barriers. For example, when we are talking to our friends we use certain vernacular that tends to be more playful and friendlier, but when we are talking to our boss or elders, our persona is more serious and professional. The same is true with evangelism and discipleship. We may commonly use certain words such as “Sabbath” or “haystacks” that could seem foreign or confusing to non-Adventists. The list below offers some guidelines on how to distinguish between internal and external audiences.
Audience Personas 101
When communicating to your audiences, visualize actual people—their interests, culture, wants, needs, and expectations—to refine your voice. You will probably need to create unique personas to represent different target groups within your audience. According to The Guardian, personas can be simply defined as:
A fictional character that communicates the primary characteristics of a group or segment of your audience and takes into consideration needs, demographics, motivations, and environments.
Determining your audience personas can help you develop and write content that will be relevant and useful to your audience. The best personas are often created by simply talking to your audience, but social media insights, website analytics, and surveys can also prove very useful. Personas give a human face to a collection of information, and they allow you to classify groups for different messaging campaigns and programs. The best personas combine both quantitative and qualitative information.
Below is an example of a persona:
About Bryce: Adventist College Persona
Education: High school senior
Interests: Business, sports, camping, meeting other young people, discipleship training
Salary: $3,000 a year
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Family: Adopted, married parents, no siblings, Hispanic
Goals: Finding a good paying and meaningful job, mentoring younger peers, finding a girlfriend, finding a Christian friend group
Challenges: Finding friends with similar morals, avoiding drugs/alcohol, food insecure, feels rejected by his biological parents and struggles to connect, struggles with religious doubt
Values: Fair justice system, the environment, good reputation, strong character, fairness, good citizenship, technology and flexibility, diversity, leadership training and experience
Fears: The unknown, poor work-life balance, affording college, student loan debt, getting a good job, rejection, finding purpose/meaning
Preferred platforms for Media: Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube
Messages applicable to Bryce: We are all adopted into God’s family. Our church/school/ministry is a place to belong and a place to grow. Connection to others, connection to God. Diversity and purpose. Mentorship opportunities and support for leadership training or education.
Social media personas are developed based on your target audience as defined earlier in this section. The key is finding out what those people want and need; the rest is simply compiling those qualities into a made-up person. As a Church, we need to constantly find ways to reach our audience for the kingdom in the best, most efficient way possible. Creating social media personas is a valuable exercise that enables us, as communicators, to step into others’ shoes and view life from their perspective. Personas help us develop empathy with our audience.
Use the following framework to develop your own personas:
Special Note about Generation Z
The Church and the wider Christian community has become increasingly concerned with reaching Generation Z, people born approximately 1997-2012 (Pew Research Center). However, the Church has not yet adapted to meet the needs of the generation before them, Millennials. We should be concerned, as these two age groups represent the largest divergence from traditional Christian values and lowest participation in faith institutions we’ve seen. To reach and retain these generations, we must reframe our approach based on their perspectives.
Generation Z lives in a totally different world and interacts in a totally different way than any generation before them. When asked what the most important historical event in the USA in the last 20 years was, they responded, “The release of the iPhone.” Most older people would say the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Adam Fenner, Director, Adventist Learning Community)
From Gen Z and Millenial perspectives, their answer makes sense given that technology and digital communications have completely reshaped society, how we connect with each other, how we shop, and how we live. They have grown up in an almost entirely digital world, and they relate to technology in a more integrated fashion than any other generation before them.
So who is Gen Z? What you should consider when targeting this age group:
What do Gen Z’s values mean for the Church? It means we must innovate for meaningful impact. If we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame for the continuous departures. Change is hard, and the Church is notoriously slow to adapt. Now is the time to act if we really are concerned for the salvation of the next generations. Institutions are not permanent. After all, in the words of W. Edwards Deming, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” The good news is that God never fails. He will always have a people, and He has called us to participate in His great work.
We must put our assumptions and judgements in the trash. Too often we create programs and content based on our own interests and passions or based on what we think people need, according to our own perspective and bias. Use the audience factors discussed in this section to make data-informed decisions about your audience, then create programs, messaging, and content based on what you discover. We’ll go into content creation in further detail later in the “Content Creators/Creatives” section of this guide. If you’re still not sure where to start, spend more time with your target audience and ask more questions. Find out directly from them what they need, what they feel will improve their lives, and what will inspire them to develop a closer relationship with God.
To reach people, we must become a student of their culture. No judgement, only acceptance and adaptation. No one should know more about your audience than you do. Strive to become an expert on the people you are trying to reach.