Understanding Your Target Markets
Richard L. Reising
A number of years back, a church called our marketing firm and told us they were opening a Christian high school; they wondered if we would help them design a “cool” T-shirt to help get young teens excited about their new school. It was a somewhat unusual request. I remember that I was immediately ‘concerned about the concept of relying on a T-shirt to stir up excitement.
I spoke with the associate pastor who was leading the school launch. His church had already spent over $150,000 on marketing for this launch with a different agency, yet with only a couple of months until launch they had garnered only two interested students. They needed thirty-two to break even. I could feel the frustration in his voice. This five thousand-plus member church ad stuck its neck out to fulfill a heartfelt vision of launching high school. I asked the associate pastor, whom I considered to be very sharp, to send me a sampling of the materials they had been using for promotion.
When I received the materials, I knew the problem. I called I’m back and advised that we would not be interested in de-signing the shirts. He was immediately flustered. I told him that his problem could not be solved with a T-shirt and that he needed a marketing plan. The problem, he voiced, was that their previous plan had burned their budget and did not work. On a wing of faith and tenacity we offered to fly down there rand perform a number of focus groups and develop a plan for ‘ ‘them. If they deemed our insight and direction to be worth it, they would pay our expenses and our fee. If they did not, we would swallow the costs. How could they refuse?
Making a long story short, we spent a day and a half studying junior high students (the potential students for the new high school) and understanding their world. We developed a plan based on what we knew would illuminate the school to them and seal the deal.
We helped them to see that the specific group of Christian teens they were looking for, at large, had the clout (earned or unearned) with their parents to make the decision on where they went to high school. Our plan outlined a communication strategy, a specific “look,” and a specific set of promotional methods. It called for spending less than $10,000 on strategic communication that would connect the hearts of these teens and their parents to the new school the church had envisioned.
We executed the plan. The school launched less than two months later with thirty-six students. The principal wrote us a letter thanking us for our help in saving their high school. Today it is a flourishing testament to Christian education. I recently visited and saw our executed design and communication strategy beautifully fulfilled in almost every aspect of the school. The energy aspect of the school. The energy was palpable. The students were proud of their school. I was introduced in a Spanish class as the owner of the firm that made their school so cool. The teens gave a standing ovation. I cried. There is no substitute for understanding your target market. Not understanding it is oh so costly.
The Biblical Foundation for Target Marketing
If marketing is the management of perception, then what is target marketing? Webster tells us the “target” is “one to be influenced or changed by an action or event.” Combining these two would tell us that target, marketing is taking specific aim to manage the perception of a person or group. I know you’re wondering how this plays out biblically. So here goes . . .
Let’s look one more time at Paul’s words, “and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor. 9:20-22).
Why didn’t Paul just say, “I will be all things to all people” without spelling it all out? It seems he was taking time to categorize people deliberately—grouping people with common tendencies together. After all, not all Jews are alike. Not all weak people have the same weakness. Paul was doing two things: (1) he was indicating that not all people were viewing the gospel from the same perspective, and (2) he was saying that certain types of people tended to think alike or have a similar perspective.
Paul was not prejudging them. He was not negatively stereotyping them. He was, however, categorizing them based on perspective and lifestyle. I cannot believe I just wrote that! But read it for yourself; it’s true! He grouped people based on ethnic background (Jews), spiritual devotion (under the law), spiritual ignorance (those who are without the law), and psychological and/or economic needs (the weak). Finding out what lifestyle pattern people lived in helped Paul connect with them on their level.
When you think of Paul’s ministry, is it any wonder that he became adept at reaching people of different backgrounds? If you look at his travels in the book of Acts, you’ll see that his ongoing communication with people from the different areas he touched is crystal clear. Look at Paul’s ministry in Athens . . .
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.”
There goes Paul perceiving again. What a brilliant job. Notice that he did not blast them for their many idols and false gods. In order to have an opening to communicate the One True God, Paul actually complimented them on their many gods. Oh my! Does that not blow your mind? His ministry bore fruit and he moved on to Corinth…
So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and
Can you believe this? Paul, the great minister who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament, is hanging out building tents just to disciple people on their level. Then when he preached his sermons, he related specifically to people of Jewish mind-set and also packaged a portion of his ministry in context with the Greek mind-set.
Paul traveled from town to town ministering in a variety of different ways and adjusting his approach and reasoning based on his audience. In Jerusalem, his perception of the crowd and his quick response took him even further.
Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak
to the people.”
Further on . .
But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”
After baffling the crowd by using his insight into the group’s contrasting perspectives on the topic of resurrection, he won points using Greek and by managing the commander’s perception of who he was. He went on from there to speak Hebrew to the crowd and won their complete attention. To top it off, in Acts 22:28, he told his accusers he was a Roman citizen, which stymied their prosecution and opened doors for him to move forward in his destiny.
The story of Paul reminds me of an excellent program I saw on PBS called Merchants of Cool. In this documentary, top American brands that marketed to teens shared their philosophies on how they learned to connect to America’s “cool kids” in order to sell their products. A marketing executive at MTV shared, “We learned that the companies that win are the ones who learn to speak the kids’ language the best.” Now think about Paul. He constantly adjusted his message to match his target. He was adept at speaking their language, whether a dialect, a mentality, or a hot topic. He used it to shape perception, gain audience, draw attention, and a master target marketer.
Further, Paul goes on to write letters to the people he had ministered to. Notice the variation in the letters throughout the balance of the New Testament. He did not copy the same letter over and over and send it to everyone he knew. He sent them letters based on where they were spiritually and in life. He did not scoff at those less spiritual; he challenged groups and individuals to move to the next level. His message to the Corinthians was decisively different than to the Romans or the Philippians. Why? Because Paul target marketed. Paul took specific aim to manage the perception of a person or group, based on where they were in life.
Dealing with Demographics
We live in a time where our communities reflect what Paul saw on his trek across Asia. Gone are the days of four radio stations and three television channels three television channels. In almost every town, there is unparalleled diversity in mind-set and lifestyle—just as Paul experienced. Paul’s audiences were dramatically fragmented—ethnically, mentally, economically, religiously, and culturally. Having insight into the lifestyles that exist in your community is paramount to connecting effectively with those outside your church. You’ll find it will help you serve your congregation better as well.
As we begin to categorize (like Paul did) we must remember it is an effort to learn about the people we are attempting to reach—to be able to see life and church from their eyes. We need to understand their frame of reference. For example, couples who have children see life differently from those who do not. People who grew up in wealthy households generally have a different perception of the world around them than do those who have been reared below the poverty line. Military families who move frequently look at things differently than nonmilitary families who raise children in the same house their parents raised them.
How can we better understand this variety of lifestyles? For one, demographics. According to Webster, demographics are “the characteristics of human populations and population segments, especially when used to identify consumer markets.” Demographics are numbers. To the trained eye, they can tell volumes. They are not meant to replace personal interaction any more than studying a foreign language can make you fluent without immersing yourself in the culture. They can, however, give you insight into very interesting dynamics. They can tell if your community is broke, affluent, in debt up to their eyeballs, or financially passive. Demographics can give us insight into people’s needs, lifestyles, and thought patterns.
Here are some examples of typical demographic data. You can generally find such data sectioned down to the zip code or neighborhood level in some form or fashion.
· Household income
· Population growth
· Age distribution
· Industry of labor
· Ethnic distribution
· Household size
· Number of autos
· Rent or own
· Year household built
· Cost of living
· Travel time to work
· Education level
· Tenure in home
· Migration patterns
· Mortgage as a factor of income
· Trends/changes in all of the above data over time
You could obtain countless more categories of data, but for most churches, this list would be a good start and is available at no cost from your local chamber of commerce and from the census details provided by the U.S. government (www.census. gov). You will also find valuable information by simply doing an Internet search for “demographics” and your county name. By compiling, reviewing, and mulling over the information you will begin to see definable patterns and trends. It is valuable and gives you relatively good information. Consider it like an election poll—close but not exact.
Basic Human Needs
One of the quintessential aspects of understanding human nature is determining what people truly need. We know they ultimately all “need” more of God, but there are some basic physiological and psychological needs that all people have. A stellar resource on understanding human needs was developed in the 1930s by Abraham Maslow. It is not a “spiritual needs” chart. It is a chart of basic human needs and is very helpful in categorizing what people are struggling with. His chart conjectures that people tend to have fundamental levels of need. Each level builds upon the level that preceded it. Keep in mind that this is not a doctrine, it is just a way of helping us categorize people’s needs. It certainly is not holy, but it can be enlightening.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Level One: Physiological Needs (Food/Clothing)
Need for relief from thirst, hunger
Need for sleep
Need for relief from pain
Need for biopsychosocial balance
Level Two: Safety Needs (Shelter/Security)
Need for security
Need for protection
Need for freedom from danger
Need for order
Need for predictable future
Level Three: Love and Belonging Needs (Affection)
Need for friends
Need for companions
Need for a family
Need for identification with a group
Need for intimacy
Level Four: Self-Esteem Needs (Rank/Status)
Need for respect
Need for confidence based on good opinions of others
Need for admiration
Need for self-confidence
Need for self-worth
Need for self-acceptance
Level Five: Self-Actualization Needs
Need to fulfill one’s personal capacities
Need to develop one’s potential
Need to do what one is best suited to do
Need to grow and expand meta-needs: discover
truth, create beauty, produce order, and promote justice
How does this affect target marketing? Let me bring this into context. When you are ministering to people who do not know where their next meal will come from, you are not connecting with them by telling them that God has great plans for their life. Teaching the “great plans for your life” message is trying to fulfill a level one need with a level five solution. Conversely, if you are speaking with an affluent group who have a strong sense of belonging (level three) and are truly self-confident (level four), you are not connecting with them when you tell them, “God can deliver you financially!” Your ministry to them on a level one or two need is not relevant. In both cases the people are not in a position to handle this information. It will likely be seed that falls by the wayside, as the soil is not ready or is more compatible with different seed (Mark 4). A wise sower learns the characteristics of various soil types and knows to plant seeds that have a greater chance to take root. Let’s take a second to chew on this. What are the needs of your congregation? Are they level one, two, three, four, or five? It is highly unlikely that all five are represented in great numbers because people with level four needs usually do not spend time with people with level one needs and vice-versa, not even in the church. It’s just not typical.
Combining the use of the demographic data we discussed earlier with the evaluation of basic human needs is one way we can determine the lifestyle characteristics also called “psychographics.” Webster tells us that psychographics are “the use of demographics to study and measure attitudes, values, lifestyles, and opinions, as for marketing purposes.” In short, psychographics are how demographics translate into a person’s lifestyle. Not all those who make $30,000/year have the same lifestyle. If you and I make the same amount and you live alone in an inherited, moderate house putting 30 percent in savings monthly, and meanwhile I own a 4,000-square-foot home that eats up 80 percent of my income and have a wife, four kids, and three cars—it is sufficient to say we do not have the same lifestyle. Our demographics may be similar in some areas but our psychographics (lifestyles) are worlds apart.
In learning about demographics and psychographics, you will begin to see that most people tend to fit lifestyle patterns. Chances are you are in one. Major marketing firms have seen the correlation between what music you like, what foods you eat, and what shoes you wear. And if you think that you break all the molds, well, I’m sorry to say there is also a mold for you. You are “the person who has decided to try not to fit any molds.” Come on. Even nonconformity for the sake of being a nonconformist is just simply conforming yourself to nonconformity. I’m teasing a bit here, but it’s true.
When I worked in the high-tech industry I remember chatting with a worldly salesperson. I was telling him that I loved coffee. He was a proud “Texas boy” misplaced in the Silicon, Valley who said that he thought drinking coffee was a gimmick bought into by the weak that it was ploy to make people feel like they are smart and “belong.” To him, people sitting around drinking coffee meant they were just giving in to a smug, yuppie mentality. Coffee did not even taste all that good. He was proud not to be one of those “followers.” I knew him too well to let him get away with this “mightier than thou” attitude, so I simply asked him if he liked cigars. He said he loved them. There was nothing better than sitting around with a bunch of friends and tearing open a fresh cigar—what a feeling it gave him. He mentioned he could really bond with someone over a cigar. I just laughed. My coffee was his cigar. If I was a follower, so was he, and he just realized it.
Since belonging is one of the foundational human needs, even people who are living in higher needs categories have already established their sense of belonging and therefore tend to fit a lifestyle pattern. Common lifestyle patterns enable us to categorize people into lifestyle profiles.
While consulting at a large affluent church, I challenged the board by claiming that a common trait of people who attended their church was that they were discriminating, not ethnically but in areas of quality. Noting that the church was located in a woodsy community, I inferred that they were the type who did not wear “hiking boots,” they wore “Timberlands.” They did not have “sunglasses,” they had “Oakleys.” Offended by my observation, one of the members challenged me. “That’s not true. We’re not like that,” he said. A colleague quickly reminded him that she had never heard him mention his ever-present bottle of water as anything other than “my Evian.”
Paying attention to these lifestyle patterns helps us learn languages to communicate relevantly with the people in our com-munities. Often what it all boils down to is this: the church that speaks their language the best grows the fastest. Speaking their language means connecting personally and spiritually with them. It does not mean showing a video clip as an object lesson or borrowing a sermon series title from the name of the most recent box office hit. If your church is not relevant, a video clip, multimedia presentation, or catchy sermon title will not solve your problem. I find it fascinating that many churches have decided that the use of video makes them more relevant. I am not against video clips. It’s just that there are thousands of churches showing video clips that are not hitting home runs. Why? Because relying on the clips masks the fundamental problem of not meeting people where they live.
Listen, the reality is that we all like to belong. From sports teams to pickup trucks to country clubs and designer clothes, there is something most people cling to outside of themselves that gives them a sense of belonging, even if they rarely see it as such. It’s inherent. It even happens inside the church—denomination to denomination; there are as many consistencies in lifestyle, hairstyle, and dress as there are with doctrine. Understanding lifestyle trends can give a great window Into the mentality of people we are trying to reach—just like it did for Paul.
What has changed a bit since Paul’s day is the added complexity of people groups—especially in the United States. The more complex a society becomes, with a greater variety of economic circumstances, ethnic backgrounds, and the added multiplicity of influences such as media or style, the more difficult it is to attribute group characteristics based on a single lifestyle factor. Paul was able to categorize based on ethnicity, but we most likely cannot. We cannot assume that the lifestyle of all people with a similar income is the same any more than we can assume that people with the same skin color are the same. In a more complex society, we have to break it down further. We have to categorize by grouped lifestyle characteristics. Remember when Paul mentioned the weak? He was generalizing a group of people. For us, we might generalize a group of people who are “living paycheck to paycheck” or are “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Ultimately, it often helps to create personas that represent these characteristics. Think about how they live. What are the common characteristics of their lifestyles? Where do they shop? What do they drive? Where do they work? How many children do they have? What are their life challenges or their basic human needs? It might help you as a church to define made-up representatives of lifestyle groups. You might represent a group that spends over 50 percent of its income on mortgages as “House-broke Hal.” Whether that helps you understand people better or not, it is important to be able to recognize, understand, and distinguish different psychographic groups and their lifestyle patterns.
Lingering with the Masses
People often ask me, “How do you derive rich psychographic understanding from demographic data?” Well, categorical systems such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are one means of understanding people’s needs and lifestyles, but the best understanding comes from lingering with the masses. Observing people is one of my favorite activities. I love to go to the mall or to the airport and watch people. I look at the details (what color T-shirts the different teen groups are wearing) and at the big picture (how I would assess the people groups that I see at this mall compared to a mall across town). I watch which stores they go into. I evaluate the different stores and the different target groups. I pretend to be everyone’s personal shopper and determine which store they would buy from and then from which section in that store. In the airport, I guess where people are going to and coming from. I read people by their shoes, their good-byes, their periodicals, and their luggage. I have matrices in my head of what makes people tick. I hope to be as good as Paul one day. I am not a big believer in surveys. Surveys are good for learning quantifiable data such as “What percentage of our church membership has an Internet connection at home?” Surveys fall short in delivering qualitative data. Visitors will hardly ever share why they are not going to return to your church (unless something really makes them mad). Most of the time, they do not even know why. They could not circle it on a survey because they can’t describe the disconnection between you and them, especially because the disconnection might reveal some of their hidden prejudices. That means we must become students of our target audiences as Paul was.
How did Paul know to tell the group of Pharisees and Sadducees that he was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6)? He knew it would trigger something in them because he knew their nature, their issues, and their debates. Why did he tell the Greeks that they were so religious (Acts 17:22)? Because he knew they were wise in their own minds and that his message would direct them toward the real God without pointing out how wrong they were. He was a quick read. He understood what made people tick. He was sensitive to it.
You have probably caught on by now that demographics and psychographics are just fancy words for “understanding people better.” Just because Paul did not write an essay on the mentality of Greeks in relationship to their social discussion of idols does not mean he did not care enough to understand their frame of mind. He might not have written it down, but he stopped to think about it: “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Acts 17:16).
Paul had made a lifestyle of being relational and understanding .what made people tick. How did he minister to people in Corinth? He built tents with them (Acts18:3). He lingered with them. Jesus did the same. He even hung out with sinners. Jesus responded to the “religious” who accused Him of not surrounding Himself with “holy” people. “‘How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?’ [they asked]. He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’ (Mark 2:16-17). Jesus was so centered. How can we reach those outside our walls if we don’t spend time with them?
The example above somewhat defines the two different approaches to the Christian’s interaction with the world: (1) being around them to give relevant light as Jesus and Paul did, or (2) avoiding the world from a position of judgment.
I’ll never forget a time when I was in undergraduate school and had driven home one weekend. I was headed out of church to meet some friends for lunch when I ran into someone I had never met. She was a short, withered woman, likely in her sixties, who looked as if she had been through a lot in life. Her skin was dark and rugged, and she smelled of cigarettes. She had only a few teeth and was out of place by many church standards. By her appearance I assumed she had seen many years of poverty. I could tell she hungered for attention, as she was quite talkative to me, a stranger. She was charming, and you could hear in her words that God had His hand on her life. I made a concerted effort to listen to her and ask her questions about herself. She and I stood outside her car for at least twenty minutes sharing stories of God’s goodness.
Although I was late for my lunch appointment, I soaked in the moment. It was completely out of my element to be doing what I was doing. As we chatted she reached into her car to offer me a music cassette that had meant much to her. I could see that this might just be more than her car. This was likely where she lived as well. It was certainly a life I had never known.
We encouraged each other in the Lord a few moments longer and then she departed. Right before she left, she invited me to ride with her to a ministry event she had planned to attend over four hours away. At that moment, I remember thinking, “It would be like Jesus to go with her.” My school and work prohibited it, but I truly considered it—knowing it would change how I saw my life and hers forever.
Lingering with the masses does two things: it changes how we see people and how people see us.
When I was in high school I had a life-changing experience with Christ. I went from being quite the party animal to becoming a Christian leader in my school. In spite of my growth, I had a recurring problem—the inability to get out of bed in the morning. I was a night owl. My brother had a remedy for this problem of mine. He would come into my room and yell, “Get up!” while turning on every light in my room.
Learning from this method, I used it to wake myself up one morning. I leaned out of bed to flip on a “blinding” light. My eyes were not adjusted. I could see red spots and immediately fell back into bed and closed my eyes. A few moments later I subjected myself to another blast from my bedside lamp. My eyes stayed open longer as I became more and more adjusted. After a while I was ready to get up—eyes wide open for the day ahead.
Something hit me as I struggled to adjust to the light. I realized this is what it is like when most people see God for the first time. Their eyes are accustomed to darkness. When they first see the light they often close themselves off to it. But after a while, as they experience more light, they begin to realize that they cannot live without it. It is essential to them. Their alternative is to close their eyes and go back to sleep.
The time and effort we spend in lingering with the masses will pay off in many ways. And yes, sometimes God gives them a blast of light, as He did Paul, that leaves them blind for a season while the light grows on them and in them (Acts 9:3-9).
What a heavy chapter! Let’s look back for a second. We determined that nonjudgmental categorization is helpful and even biblical. We learned from Paul that categorizing based on such things as ethnicity, spiritual participation, doctrine, and needs is fair game. We discussed the value of demographic data, understanding basic human needs, and processing the two into psychographic (lifestyle) trends and therefore categories. We learned that we must become students of the people around us and learn how the details of their lives correlate into lifestyle trends. We learned that there is value in thinking about how to relate to people as well as spending time with various types of people in order to enhance our ability to minister to them.
It is important that we put some of these things together and begin to process them. We must open our eyes to the world around us like never before. Think about what people in your community are going through. Think about what is important to them. How does the message of Christ intersect with their needs in a “home run” way? Write it down.
Are your church’s messages meeting people where they live? One thing to consider is the same type of personal struggles over time might be creating the type of crowd your church is reaching.
Does your crowd reflect your community? Does your community live lower or higher on the Hierarchy of Needs? If visitors from a different lifestyle or need level came in, would your building, your decor, your church culture, and the message connect with them where they live or would it only serve to reinforce the chasm that exists between them and church?
Describe the type of people your church is adept at reaching. Categorize them. Define their lifestyle, what goes on in their day. What are their cares and concerns? What makes them laugh?
Make a dedicated effort as a staff to linger with the masses. Make it an ongoing project. Learn what makes them tick. Share your insight with your team. Find out how to introduce light into their lives. Learn from it. Share your findings—what works and what doesn’t.
What do they need from church? What do they think they need?
How can your church help them perceive this need without turning them off? Where are the open doors?
Create a number of profiles for the lifestyle categories that you consider your primary targets. Write down your ideas, observations, and conclusions.
The above article, “Understanding Your Target Markets” was written by Richard L. Reising. The article was excerpted from Reising’s book Church Marketing 101.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”