Market Assessment: Look Before You Launch

The rest of this chapter goes into depth about all the work you should put into audience development, and it includes many links for further reading. Your guide is Tom Davidson, a journalist and digital-business leader who has worked for Gannett, PBS, Tribune Co. and his own startup. He starts with a question you may not have thought about:

Tell me what job you’re doing.

Nope. Not your “mission statement” (though it’s lovely and inspiring). And don’t try anything as vague as “We serve the information needs of our community!” People are overwhelmed with information – about the places they live, their jobs, their hobbies, the latest horror of reality TV, and especially that silly fundraiser their neighbor is running.

Seriously: What job do you do so well that the right portion of your community will visit you often enough that you can have impact? (Oh, and hopefully turn some of that audience into donors so you can keep your organization alive?)

Turns out that “job to be done” thing is vital to your organization’s future. (Need more motivation? Take a quick gander at these before-and-after readings about an attempt to start a replacement for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Spoiler alert: It did not go well.)

Fortunately for all of us, lots of smart people have spent years thinking about this “jobs to be done” thing. 

Start with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, who invented the study of technological disruption (like the kind that has shredded the organizations many of us used to work for – and the kind that allows you to run your news nonprofit). 

Or the American Press Institute’s wonderful “N2: A Blueprint for Transformation” project. (Leave aside the irony that API itself was forced to radically transform by changing economics of the media business.)

Or the Knight Foundation and Temple University’s “Table Stakes” project, which defines the things you must do to even have a chance to succeed in a digital-news environment. Rule #1: “Serve targeted audiences with targeted content.”

All of these focus on the same idea: Nobody seeks out a website, broadcast or an app to “fulfill their obligations as citizens.” Their needs are more particular: keeping up with the school calendar, or watching one particular development wend through City Hall, or watching the state Legislature because their next raise literally depends on the state budget.

Once upon a time, news products fulfilled a wide range of “jobs.” Think of a newspaper with local news AND nation/world reports AND the sports scores AND the horoscope AND Charlie Brown. Or think of the 6 p.m. broadcast that bundled together car crashes AND tomorrow’s weather AND some light features AND the hometown sports results.

Those things weren’t bundled together because there’s any natural connection among them (Really: how many horoscope fans also want to understand sub-Saharan Africa?). They were bundled together because of scarcity: Presses and broadcast licenses were too expensive to allow more than a handful of competitors in each place.

Technology has blown apart those economics. So the most successful organizations – think Pro Publica, ESPN or the Texas Tribune – are about very specific jobs to be done.

What’s yours?

Great! Now: How many people are interested in that?

Let’s say (absurdly) that I want to be the premier source of information about … Olympic-caliber luge athletes … from Utah. As of this writing, there are two of them. Even with their families, that’s not much of an audience.

So how many people are in your potential audience pool?

Don’t say “everyone who lives in my city!” Because you’ve already picked a more-specific job to be done, right? (Maybe even more than one.)

Not everyone who lives in your city is going to be interested in public affairs … or in-depth investigative coverage of government contracts … or the statehouse. (Yes, they should care. They should also eat more vegetables, and call their mothers more often. We’re dealing with reality, though, not “shoulds.”)

A real-life example: Nearly 28 million people live in Texas.

The Texas Tribune, however, declares that its core audience comprises those people who care passionately about public policy, politics, government and statement issues. Sure, the Trib will gladly take traffic (and donations) from any of the 28 million … but it focuses on reaching and serving the 4 million or so who fit their target “job to be done.”

Marketers call that the “total addressable market.” (You can read more about it in the customer research chapter of “Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” an excellent, and free, textbook.)

The Texas Tribune got to that 4 million number through looking at its current audience; U.S. Census and other public data about population and demographics; and finally by conducting some private market research. You don’t need to go to those lengths – at least not at first. But start by pulling together any and all information you can get about the number of people who have that job that you can do.

If your organization is built around a community of geography, start with the basic population data you can find at the American FactFinder, part of the U.S. Census. Grab any information you can get from your city, county or state about retail sales or other economic indicators, too.

If you’re serving a local or national community of interest – say, public education in Philadelphia – look to trade associations and licensing boards for more. In addition to the number of kids in Philly schools, for example, you should know how many licensed teachers there are in the district. (Pro tip: Find the research librarian at your local public library – or at a local university should you have access as a teacher or a student. Libraries often have pro-level statistics and research databases, like Factiva, Data Planet. Looking for directories of foundations or philanthropies? Check the Foundation Center and GuideStar data at, and with your local community foundation.)

Finally, there’s one last piece of this “market assessment” – who is willing to pay for you to do that job? In other words, what local foundations or philanthropies share your interest in the issue you’re covering?

To recap: Your goal is to write a one-page market assessment that:

  • Outlines the specific job (or jobs) you will do for certain groups of readers / users
  • Quantifies how many of those users you believe there are
  • Lists the other information providers competing in that space (and don’t kid yourself: there are always competitors)
  • Briefly says how you’ll be different than those competitors by focusing on those jobs to be done
  • A list of potential people who would pay to have that job done, like foundations and philanthropists who share your goals

With this first cut at a market assessment, you’re ready to take the next step – developing an audience development plan.

Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship book
Community Information Toolkit (The Knight Foundation produced this systematic approach to finding out how neighborhoods get their news, what type of information is lacking, and how communities can go about filling those gaps.)