What’s most important in communications: a) the message, b) the channel or vehicle delivering the message, or c) the mindset of the person receiving the message? The correct answer: secret option d) all of the above plus a whole lot more.
Communications and marketing professionals frequently agonize over what they’re saying or writing because they know that the right expression of the right idea experienced by the right person can inspire the engagement and action they’re hoping for. But how do we know that we’re delivering the right message to the right audience? Even with the growth of digital analytics and behavior tracking, it can be difficult to know for sure.
This leads us to a common question: “When should we be segmenting our messaging efforts and when should we be keeping them more general or broad?” After all, we know that people are motivated to engage with nonprofit missions for different reasons, so the same messages won’t resonate equally for everyone.
First, let’s align on what we mean by “segmenting,” since it can mean several different things to different folks. Segmentation is taking a large group of our key audiences — maybe even all of them — and dividing it into smaller sub-groups based on things they have in common. We can segment based on interests, demographics, psychographics, behaviors, and more. Once we have sub-groups that we know to be similar in some way, we can then design and implement strategies that target those similarities with more relevant messaging and content. In theory, by improving message relevance we can inspire greater engagement.
Since our audience might comprise a wide range of people and partners — both internally and externally — segmentation can be key to reaching the right audience members with the right message.
While the idea behind segmentation is relatively straightforward, it’s easier said than done. It requires a greater amount of resources, time, audience research, and staff capacity to execute successfully. With that in mind, when does it make sense to segment messaging and when should we be addressing everyone more generally?
When to segment
- You have access to ample data. Segmented messaging tools like audience summaries and persuasive messaging can help make a more strategic and compelling case for your audiences and inspire them to donate, sign up, or take some other specific action, but you can only build and use these tools with data and insights. Google and social media analytics, audience surveys, focus groups, interviews, and many other tools can help your organization gather the needed information, but not all organizations have this type of access and these tools are often very time and resource intensive. If you already have them in place, you’re a step ahead.
- You have audiences with conflicting motivations or barriers. Effective segmented messaging involves not only knowing what your audiences want, but also what they do not want. If there are competing needs, motivations, and barriers among your audiences, segmented messaging could be useful (or even necessary) to avoid alienating any one group. Just because all of your audiences may generally agree on the world we need to strive for, that doesn’t mean they agree on how to get there.
- You need to be able to track results. If your organization has ample analytics and results-oriented tracking already in place, segmented messaging may be useful for measuring the effectiveness of your efforts. Segmented and targeted messaging for specific campaigns and requests can provide invaluable insights as to which topics, phrases, and approaches resonate most with your different audiences. This typically requires a significant amount of testing and trial and error.
When to keep general
- You are communicating about your organization at a high level. Certain things about your organization should remain the same regardless of which audiences you are communicating with. Overarching ideas about your mission and goals, requests for certain types of engagement, and more are generally applicable to everyone in your community, so spending the extra time and resources on segmenting probably doesn’t make sense for these messages.
- You need to create a connection between your different programs or initiatives. Sometimes, your communications and marketing efforts can inadvertently create the opposite problem of segmentation — too many different messages and perceptions fragment your brand, making it unclear how programs are connected or what the overall organization is for. This can occur when programs, initiatives, events, and sub-brands have outsized identities on their own (including through branding and visuals), and often results in it being more difficult for audiences to go from one program to another. General or broad messaging can be useful to rein in all of your communications and language, bringing everything together in a more cohesive way to show the connections between programs and your larger goals.
- Your organization/staff has limited time and resources for communications. The biggest reason to keep your messaging and communications more general is likely going to be time and resource constraints. Data collection and messaging segmentation not only require resource allocation (that may not exist), they also require large time commitments to synthesize results, test different options, and continually hone your marketing and communications outputs. For many nonprofits, where marketing and communications understandably yield priority to programs, services, and development, committing to segmented messaging just doesn’t make sense.
Both general and segmented messaging have a time and place in your marketing and communications activities, but it’s important to remember that decisions around either should not be made in a vacuum. Consider what else your organization is working with, who you are trying to reach and engage, and what you ultimately need to get out of your messaging efforts to be considered a success.