If you start off your email marketing campaign in the wrong direction, it doesn't matter how much you spend on graphics or how catchy your subject is: Not having any idea who your real target audience is is the best way to kill a campaign before it starts. And yet, loads of people (even professional marketers) speed-run through this first step, ending up with no target market at all, a very vaguely defined one (to the point where you might as well not have one), or one that's made up in the imagination of a few executives rather than based on actual data, making it inconsistent with reality. Sure, demographics, psychographics, geography, and profiling might sound wishy-washy and strange, but these studies are done by the best in the business for a reason. Take the time to understand your market now and your whole marketing team will thank you.

Step 1a: Gather information about your current customer base.

If you're lucky enough to already be in business with a pretty big array of customers, study them and see what common characteristics many of them have.

Here are some demographics marketers measure:

  • Geographic locations (e.g., the Northeast or the U.S.)
  • Age range (e.g., 18-24 years old or 55-70 years old)
  • Gender (e.g., male, female, or transgender)
  • Income level (e.g., 30,000 per year or 500,000 per year)
  • Education level (e.g., those with Ph.D.s or those with a high school education)
  • Ethnicity (e.g., African-American, Asian-American, or Caucasian)

Here are some psychographics they measure, usually evaluated in some sort of test:

  • Personality
  • Attitudes
  • Lifestyle
  • Values
  • Interests
  • Purchasing habits

When you're done, it's important to note that you're not describing a person that exists: You're describing your ideal audience, a person who you're pretty sure will be interested in your products.

Step 1b: Use focus groups.

If you don't have the luxury of a confirmed consumer base, you'll have to go by best guess. Now, a best guess isn't gathered on the supposition of someone sitting at home alone; you'll have to go out and do focus groups, talk to people about your products, put up a website, or find another way to gather information.

Step 2: Study your competitors.

Try to find out what others in your niche are doing and who they're targeting.

Step 3: Look at the product.

When you're desperate, instead of a top-down approach, try a bottom-up one. Analyze the product itself and gather based on psychology who would be interested in it.

Step 4: Conduct a campaign.

Once you're confident in this new data, put your money where your mouth is. Invest in some form of direct marketing to target new customers who are within that target group. You can use Bookyourdata.com to pull email marketing lists of people by their occupation (which is especially useful when B2B marketing). You can use Facebook and Twitter to do targeted ad campaigns of your exact groups. You can also do more "classical" advertising, but that may be likely to not result in hard numbers, so be cautious when spending a lot of money.

Step 5: Evaluate and narrow your focus.

Sometimes, marketing feels like throwing darts at a wall after covering your eyes, then opening them and asking, "Did it work?" You should have enough data now to measure your campaign and see if it's successful or not. If you went in the right direction, perhaps your next campaign can target your audience even more. You could reduce the age range, specific locations, or narrow even further.

This is the most important step: Lather, rinse, and repeat! After a few go-rounds, you'll have a clearly defined audience.