10 Steps to Understand & Define Your Target Audience

Private Schools Marketing

There’s an old saying that talks about how trying to be all things to all people results in being nothing to everyone–and like most old sayings, it has stuck around for a reason: it’s true. 

Savvy marketers know that it’s critical to define and understand your target audiences, and even more so in a digital age when you are directing ads straight to them. The better you can speak to these audiences, their current experiences, and help to solve their unique problems with your solution, the better your campaign will perform. 

The alternative to doing this work is risking a few negative outcomes:

  • Trying to be all things to all people dilutes the message and ends up reaching nobody

  • Trying to reach a wide audience is an inefficient use of your marketing budget, and you might wind up paying to market to people who aren’t a good fit for your brand

  • You might end up marketing based on assumptions and not facts–which can be colored by your own experiences and biases

  • You could miss the opportunity to reach alignment between marketing, admissions, your head of school, the board, and other key stakeholders

For private and independent schools, your primary audiences are likely different groups of parents, students, or families. You likely also have secondary audiences that could include more narrow groups of families, alumni, and other community stakeholders. 

So how can you find these target audiences (or refine and build on the work you’ve already done to define them)? We have ten ideas that you can use today–all in a row, one at a time, or in any sort of combination. 

  1. Analyze the information that’s in front of you

Every school has a database of current families–and likely alumni and prospective families too. This is a perfect place to start your work. Take a look at your database and pull it apart. Look for common themes and document what you know about your families (think about where they live, family make-up, household income, occupations, etc.). See what kinds of segments and themes and groups emerge.

There’s more information at your fingertips that you can analyze in a similar way and compare against what you learn from other sources, including:

  • Website analytics

  • Social analytics 

  • Surveys that your school has done in the past

  • Event registration databases

TIP: When reviewing your website analytics, start by looking at the people who are most engaged with your content–especially content related to admissions (like your ‘about’ page, open house registration information, tuition page, etc.). This would also be a great time to audit your tracking and make sure that you’re capturing traffic from all sources in one clear and actionable way. (If not, we can help!)

TIP: When reviewing social analytics, start by looking at your newest followers and your most engaged followers. You can also take a look at other accounts they follow to gain more insight into their interests, hobbies and lifestyle.

  1. Talk to and engage with internal stakeholders

There’s a wealth of information living inside the four walls of your school (and maybe right next door to your office). Try scheduling focused interviews with the people on your team who interact with current and prospective families the most. Choose team members who really understand the future direction of your school and who represent different points of view. Don’t shy away from interviewing newer hires–they bring valuable insight from the ‘outside world’ that can be invaluable to the process. 

TIP: If individual interviews are too time-consuming, you can prepare a survey that will collect the same information from a wider group of stakeholders. 

  1. Talk to parents and families

When considering stakeholders, be sure to include families too:

  • Use your database to talk to the people you can (current parents, prospective parents, alumni, and families who have left the school). 

  • Ask them about themselves and what is important to them. You may also want to ask about how they see your school’s reputation lived out in the community and the things they hear on the street and in their circles. 

  • Schools looking to recruit more middle senior years students could also consider asking current students about their friends’ perceptions of the school and what would motivate them to choose your school–kids in these age groups often have a strong voice in decisions around where they will go to school.

Surveys work well for these kinds of large-group investigations. Remember that external audiences are more likely to respond if there’s a compelling incentive attached! This could be as small or as big as you choose–from gift cards to school swag to VIP front-row seats at the holiday concert.

  1. Get aligned with future goals

When determining your target audiences, it’s important to consider who your key audiences are today–and who you want or need them to be in the future. Your school might have focused goals around diversity, equity and inclusion or you might be located in a region where there are major changes happening around industries and employment or even real estate trends. Just because an audience group is strongly represented in your school today doesn’t mean that they should necessarily be the primary audience you’re looking to attract from a marketing campaign perspective to continue building and growing your school well into the future.

  1. Define who you are NOT targeting

An interesting exercise in determining who you are targeting is determining who you are NOT targeting. Working backwards can bring clarity to the characteristics of your audiences. Think about the values, goals, mission, culture, and vision of your school… and think about the kinds of audiences who would not be a good fit. Defining the values, goals, mission, cultures and vision of the school will help you understand who you are not. Audiences that do not align with your values and goals do not constitute a targeted audience. This will help to understand the type of families and parents who are not a good fit for the school.

  1. Supplement with external research

The internet is full of valuable research and reference rolls that can allow you to dig into the demographics of your target postal codes and zip codes, understand the trends happening in your region, and more. This can come from government databases, market research firms, social listening… Once you have your target audiences defined, this extra step can help provide some of the color from an objective third-party source.

  1. Prioritize your audiences

Once you have some audiences defined, think about how you’ll prioritize them from a marketing perspective: primary, secondary, and maybe even tertiary. These decisions should be made based on who you want to attract to your school and not necessarily reflect the current makeup of your school. These priorities can shift, so be sure to revisit your rankings every couple of years, at least.

  1. Develop Personas

Collect and complete the story by outlining everything you know about each of your audiences in a more narrative form:

  • Give them a face and a name

  • Talk about their demographics

  • Talk about their psychographics–why they will be drawn to your school and what might push them away

  • Identify the problems you can help solve for them

  • Highlight the marketing platforms they are most likely to interact with (think: social media preferences, mobile vs. desktop, etc.)

Share these personas with other teams at your school–like admissions–and start to talk about them often. 

TIP: Personas can be a great way to check that you’re keeping your messaging on track and not bringing your personal opinions into your decision-making. When writing, a persona allows you to write straight to a person. When evaluating an idea, you can ask yourself how Ashley would respond to it.

  1. Revisit and revise

Nothing in life stays the same, and your target audiences are no exception. Personas change. Demographics change. Communities change. And we have amazing data at our fingertips that’s being refreshed and expanded every single day. Commit to revisiting your audience personas at least once every year to make sure that they are as current and relevant as they can be. 

  1. Leverage an external agency

There are agencies (like ours) who are experts in this type of work, and there’s benefit to getting an objective external view of your school or organization. It can also help bring multiple teams on board when one of them isn’t leading the exercise. And working with an agency that specialized in the private and independent school sector brings its own unique set of advantages. Consider building this type of project into your marketing plan every few years–on its own or, more likely, as part of a larger assessment and strategy project. It’s a critical investment if you’re serious about furthering your school’s strategic plan, cultivating your brand, and doing marketing that makes an impact.


At Metric Marketing, we develop measurable and practical strategies to help private and independent schools like yours to make the most of your marketing efforts. We understand that you need a professional to walk with you through the journey of marketing your private school to realize a value addition. We'd love to discuss your private school's marketing requirements with you. Contact us today to get in touch with our marketing professionals or sign up to receive more marketing tips in your inbox.


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