For decades, we imagined we could customize our message for different audiences, based on what served their interests and our purposes. It was never true, because audiences always overlapped.
Examples are easy to find. Your local power company reports record earnings. That translates into happy stockholders, and the company naturally wants them to know just how much money it’s getting for them. But to the people who are paying high power bills, that’s not such great news. Too much crowing about record earnings can cause the public service commission to order a rate refund.
This problem also turns up a lot when publicly held companies make a major announcement. Let’s say Company A is acquiring Company B, and both are publicly held. Employees of Company B are incensed that that they weren’t told first. But securities laws dictate that such announcements be made to the entire world at the same time so that there are fewer “insiders” who might trade the stock illegally based on information that isn’t readily available to the rest. This is the sort of problem that sends people to jail, so companies have to take it seriously, even if they do make employees mad. (I faced this very problem a number of times when I was handling communications for BellSouth’s acquisitions.)
These days, I see the audience-segmentation challenge a lot in the real estate auction industry, because I do a lot of work for auction companies. When a company gets a high price on a property, it’s good news for the seller. You want to let others with property to sell know what a great price you got. But putting all the emphasis on the high price can make the buyer feel he got carried away and overpaid.
Even worse, if you talk too much about the high prices you’re getting, buyers may stay away from your auctions, thinking they won’t be able to afford anything.
It’s tempting to say that the Internet has created this problem, but we’ve never existed as clean categories anyway. People who sell at one auction tend to show up as buyers for a different one. Employees have always been stockholders. Buyers have always been sellers.
The only safe approach is to assume every audience will read everything. That doesn’t mean you give up on targeting, but the message needs to be customized in terms of emphasis rather than core message. (If Mitt Romney had kept this in mind, he might have avoided making his infamous “47%” remark and been president today.)
Play it straight. You can still target messages. Just emphasize what’s relevant group and remember that others will “overhear” it. Trying to get too cute is a recipe for heartache.