Off Target: Lessons in Knowing Your Market

An image of a store window with "Digital Echidna" etched in the glass.

Lessons one through 131: know your market.

I'm sure you've been inundated with Target-related news and analysis. Everyone and their uncle is champing at the bit to take their kick at the company as it slinks out of Canada (sadly -- and hopefully people consider this in their Schadenfreude-tinged revelry -- leaving behind 17,000+ unemployed Canadians).

I'm not going to sit here and analyze the decisions and motivations of the business, but there is a very important lesson to be learned for any business or communications professional. While the reasons for Target's failure were many, one consensus is that they didn't understand the Canadian market.

And that's a lesson we should all take to heart.

Know your market. And cater your offering to what that market actually wants and needs -- not what you think they should have or desire.

It sounds obvious, but for business it can be a challenge. It is easy to get tunnel vision about a product or service, forgetting that there's an end-user out there who may not be aligned with your corporate strategy.

From a content strategy perspective, it's imperative to learn how to subjugate your own ego and talk to the customer the way they want to be talked to. Marketers are notorious for resisting this, even though their main goal is to position their product or service in the best possible light.

The example I've used often is facial tissue. It must drive competitors crazy to know that Kleenex has cornered the market on brand recognition to the point of the brand name is synonymous with the product. That kind of popular recognition is truly nothing to sneeze at.


But the point is there. You can ignore what customers are saying about your product. You can ignore the terminology and language they use. And you can remain steadfast that the internal jargon and terminology you're using within the confines of your business must be adhered to and enforced.

But you won't gain any traction or awareness in the marketplace that way. Online, if you're not using the terms people are searching for, how do you expect them to find you?

Canadians were drawn to Target because of variety and pricing. When that couldn't be replicated north of the 49th (whether that was due to a business decision, taxation issues, or simple economies of scale), customers chose to look elsewhere. They didn't find what they were looking for and moved on.

So what's going to draw people to you? What are people looking for from you and how can you deliver? What are they saying (and, equally as important, how are they saying it) and what can you do to provide content that addresses their wants, needs, and concerns?

There are plenty of ways to do it:


If you have a bricks-and-mortar location, listen to your customers. If they come in with positive experiences, make not of them and share them. If they come in with negative experiences, don't dismiss them as 'disgruntled' (or, the Internet equivalent, 'trolls'), but listen to what their issues are and see if there are ways to rectify them.


Online polls are a cheap and easy way to do things. They're also extremely limited and you're likely to get a majority of answers from one specific demographic. But if your business is targetting online business, it's a great way to see what people want and expect from your digital presence.

Just don't ask leading questions. Even if you think you know the answer, try to be as neutral as possible, so as not to frame questions in ways that are going to give you the answer you want -- not the answer you need.


It's not as nefarious as it sounds. There are often many conversations going on about your business to which you're not directly privy. Not everyone is going to use your @ handle on Twitter; not everyone is going to post on your Facebook wall. So set up some Google Alerts and/or do some searching to see what people are saying about you.

Resist the urge to jump into the fray, but rather take that information and try to solve any problems or fix any misconceptions that may be floating around out there.

Use the Information

It's not enough to just gather the info. You have to apply the learning gleaned from it. If there are regular questions, create content that proactively answers it. If people are searching for product X, but you insist on exclusively referring to Brand Y, you may need to rethink that -- or compromise and attach that description to your brand reference.

It's not a guarantee of success, but knowing what your targetted customers want and need -- and how they're going about finding it -- can tip the odds in your favour. And, pun fully intended, help you ensure your business communications are right on target.

Questions Answered

What lessons can be learned from Target's closing?

How do I know what my customers are looking for?

How do I optimize my site?



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