Is The Customer The Target?

Every so often I read commentary in traditional and social media circles critiquing particular companies’ public relations efforts. The targeting of the effort is a common target for those pieces, with a common refrain being, “do they know where their customers are?”

Here’s something useful to remember: The customer isn’t always the immediate target.

Companies don’t necessarily look to communicate direct-to-consumer with every initiative. There are many viable approaches to outreach which, while they look at the end consumer down the road  (or businesses in a b2b model), focus elsewhere with their tactics.

Here are a few of the potential top-level groups that companies may be focused-on outside of the end user.

Employees: Domino’s found out, to their cost, what happens when employees go rogue. They’re not alone. Last year, Burger King was forced to take action after an employee was videoed taking a bath in a restaurant sink.

These are extreme examples of idiots being idiots, but the fact is that your employees can be your best ambassadors or your worst enemy. Smart organizations communicate with them.

Stakeholder groups: My background over the last few years is in government communications. I know only too well the effect that stakeholder groups can have on an organization’s agenda. A supportive word from a third party is worth way more than ten of your own news releases. Meanwhile, a negative comment can completely derail your initiative. 

Stakeholder groups are a critical piece of the corporate communications puzzle.

Thought leaders/influencers: If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Paul Gillin’s The New Influencers, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion or any other book on this subject, you’ll be familiar with the concepts of connectors, influencers and so on.

They’re the people that everyone knows, who lead the way for others, and who people look to for advice on topics. 

They’re NOT always the same thing as your customers. 

There are plenty of fields where the influencers don’t share demographic characteristics with the target audience. Think: if you’re looking at outreach that seems to be targeted awkwardly, are they really targeting the people that the end audience looks to?

Government: Organizations will often engage in public-facing communications activities, where the target audience is really the government. Why? Because they want to stir-up public opinion, which has a habit of changing government positions in a way that organizational lobbying can struggle to do.

Don’t get me wrong – the end audience of communications activities is critical. In an economy like this, companies need to be ever-more focused on achieving business goals with their communications activities (and not just inflating their CEO’s ego). However, remember that the end-customer may not be the first target.

Next time you see a communications campaign or message that doesn’t seem right at first glance, ask yourself:

Who is this really targeting?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.