Think back to the last time you were really excited to buy something. What was it that had you giddy with anticipation? A promise that your purchase will help you become a better, cooler version of yourself? A resolution to an ongoing problem? Something to make your life so much easier? Whatever it was that made you excited was likely a result of great marketing. It shared a message that resonated with you so much that you were inspired to take action. If I had to guess, the message connected a product or service to a want or need you had.

Marketing works when an organization is able to communicate how its product or service relates to it’s target audiences’ needs or wants.

The problem? It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about what your audience wants.

And it’s not uncommon to have incorrect assumptions about what your audience wants. When you spend so much time developing a service or product, it’s easy to create an image of a perfect audience: who they are; why only your company can help them; how your offering changes their lives. Unfortunately, those beliefs are more of a wish list than a marker of reality.

The only thing that matters is what your target audience actually wants.

I’ve already touched on this idea a couple of times in the past; the reason I’m risking carpal tunnel to write more on the subject is because of just how frequently I see business owners fixate on their own wants instead of the proven wants of their target market. In my experience, it’s one of the most common roadblocks business owners put in front of themselves during the marketing process.

Why you need to learn what your audience actually wants

This roadblock most frequently occurs when a product or service has many components and/or benefits. Does your service save customers time, money, stress AND improve health, to boot? While it sounds like a fantastic offering, you’re going to have a hell of a time marketing all of the positive attributes in a way that captures the attention of the people most likely to use it. You’ll need to hone in on the most appealing benefit so that your marketing can be focused, concise and really drive home the benefit.

While this sounds easy enough, there’s a catch: without data to back you up, you might choose the wrong characteristic to market. And if you don’t choose an attribute that meets the needs of your audience, your audience won’t be interested.

How to find out what your target audience actually wants

Instead of relying on hunches, you should spend time learning more about your customers and what exactly it is that they want. It doesn’t matter if you are selling a product in a B2C environment or have a niche B2B service; in order to drive more sales, you’ll need to know the actual desires and motivations of your audience.

By exploring what makes your audience tick, you’ll be far more prepared to develop and launch marketing campaigns that best appeal to them. The information you discover during the research process will steer you in the right direction to get in front of and convert more of your target audience.

Before we jump into the different methods you can use to uncover this information, let’s discuss what kinds of insights you should be on the lookout for.

  • What factors or attributes are frequently mentioned? This could be many things, including price, quality, availability, fast shipping, helpful customer service, uniqueness and reliability, to name just a few.
  • What would make them interested in a product or service like this in the first place? What are the common starting conditions that a person must experience to be primed for looking for your product or service offering? Is it a common problem they are tired of dealing with; a last minute emergency that needs immediate attention; a long-held desire or interest?
  • What is the emotional state that a person would be in when they’d purchase this product or service? Are they stressed, hurried, exhausted, excited, hopeful, desperate or something else?
  • Have they tried other products or services like yours? What did they like about them, and what left something to be desired?

So how, exactly, do you get real, reliable data about the needs of your target audience? Mix and match the following methods that make most sense for your business:


Surveys sent to current customers can give insight into the minds of people who chose your product or business. If you can get an understanding of your current customers, you’ll be armed with the arguments needed to sway others like them. For the best results, be sure to keep your surveys under 10 questions in length and have clear, unambiguous answer options. Incentivizing people to take your survey can significantly increase your response rate; popular options that can entice a person to complelte your survey include entry into a raffle, a product or service discount or a Starbucks gift card.

Surveys can be accomplished for minimal cost on a small scale; a simple SurveyMonkey link emailed to your contact list is a cost-effective way to learn more about people who have opted-in to communication from you. For those with bigger budgets, consider using a service like AYTM, that can get your survey in front of millions of people, or GutCheck, which allows you to have one-on-one online interviews with consumers.

Focus groups

Hosting a focus group will give you the opportunity to engage in conversation with members of your target audience. This can be helpful, as you can gather information and insight that a survey wouldn’t be able to collect – thanks not only to the ability for more complex responses or the ability to tease out more information throughout the conversation, but also because you’ll be able to pick up on smaller cues like their level of excitement, frustration or urgency in each response.

There is a lot to consider when hosting a focus group. Who will be invited to participate – your best customers or members of your target audience who have never heard of your company? How should you incentivize them – money or free services or products? The answers to these questions may largely be driven by what information you’re looking for. Consider them carefully, as they will impact the outcomes of your sessions.

Social media/message board review

What are people saying about your product or service or the issues that it solves? Monitoring the conversations taking place online on places like Twitter, Reddit or message boards will allow you to better understand the problems that people are looking to solve (not to mention what others consider to be good solutions!). These websites give businesses, both large and small, insight into the opinions, concerns and questions of real people.

To find conversations that will shed light on your audience’s wants and needs on these websites, search for your product name, your competitor’s product names and key phrases used by people who could need a product like yours (ex: search for “safe cleaning products” if you produce a non-toxic kitchen cleaner).

Competitive review

You should always be keeping an eye on your competitors; of the many reasons to do so is to monitor the needs of their current – and your potential – customers. What benefits are being marketed by them? How do their customers seem to be responding to it (take a look at their Facebook page comments or do a search for the brand in message boards to see real conversation taking place about them)? You may just find that their customers are explicitly asking your competitor for something that you’re able to provide.

How to sift through the data to better speak to your audience

After going through the steps above, you should have tons of information about what your target audiences want. So what do you do with it all?

Review your information and find the common themes. Determine the three most important attributes your audience is looking for and see where you fit in. You’ll use this information to determine what type of product or service benefit or attribute to focus on.

If you have insight into information like an audience’s common starting conditions required to be interested in your product or service, past experience with other similar offerings or the emotional state they’ll likely be in during the research and purchase phases, consider how they all pair with the benefits they care about.

Putting it all together

Here’s an example of how this might all play out.

Let’s imagine you sell food bowls for cats and small dogs. There are lots on the market, but yours are made of a heavier, longer-lasting material than the typical food bowl you’ll find at the pet store. As a result of the material used, the bowls are a bit above the price most people are willing to spend on a pet bowl. It also isn’t particularly beautiful – that is, it’s not any nicer looking than the less expensive bowls on the market.

You’ve been marketing your bowl as being long-lasting, as you think the long lifespan of the product should justify the product’s cost. Though the feedback you’ve received from customers so far has been positive, sales are slow. Knowing there must be a way to start boosting sales, you decide to work through the different consumer research methods we outlined above.

Now I need to be honest with you: this example is very personal to me. It’s possible that I’ve spent so much time on Amazon looking at pet bowls that I’ve started to question just how necessary eating really is for my cat. It’s possible.

Had you, the manufacturer of these bowls, asked me for feedback, this is what you’d find out:

  • I’m not dropping $30+ for a bowl if it is not the single most beautiful food bowl I’ve ever seen. And your bowl? It’s not so beautiful.
  • A “long lasting” bowl sounds great, I guess. But how long is a bowl supposed to last? They last a long time anyway, right? This couldn’t be that important.
  • A heavy material, eh? Now that is something I’m interested in. Is it heavy enough that my cat can’t flip over his bowl, spilling water all over my hardwood floors? If so, sign me up. I’ll take five. (I told you this was personal).

Now that you’re armed with information, what do you do with it?

You market a heavy-duty bowl that prevents spills. Your audience (hi!) is often at their wits-end trying to figure out how to keep their pets from spilling, and they’re really sick of cleaning up the spills. Your marketing copy should speak to this frustration and reassure them that the right bowl will keep food and water off of floors, saving them the time and energy needed to clean up spills, while protecting their floors from water damage.

The goal of the audience research process is to find out how to best market what you already have to the people who are best suited to be your customers. As you can see in our example, the market research you conducted didn’t require you build a new product to meet your audience’s needs – it just required a change to the narrative around the product.

By being able to match your product or service attributes with the needs of your audience, you can tell a better story about your offering. You don’t have to let your audience know everything about your product or service up front. Be very conscious of the narrative you’re sharing, and tailor it to motivate your targets to do one thing – make a purchase.