Seth Godin photographed by Betsy Weber

Seth Godin speaking at Business of Software 2010 • Image by Betsy Weber

Renowned marketer, author, online influencer, and thought leader Seth Godin famously wrote:

“You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers”

Seth’s advice also applies to creating eLearning content for students.

Conducting a needs analysis of your audience is an important part of every instructional design process. Producing the educational outcome that your target audience wants is every instructional designer’s ultimate goal. On the other hand, if you develop courses that don’t meet your students’ expectations, this can cause a number of problems:

  • you may irrevocably lose your audience, potentially eroding a future learner base
  • your stakeholders and clients may lose confidence in you as an ISD professional
  • all the time, money, and effort you spent producing the content will feel wasted

In other words, if you build your course content first without understanding if your audience will embrace it, you’re putting the cart before the horse — and that won’t get you (or your students) anywhere.

Here are three best practices for analyzing your target audience before you develop course content, so you can create media that actually connects.

End Before Beginning

digitalannotation_mattcornockBefore you even begin to write your content, ask yourself: “What is the end goal for my audience? What do they WANT to know that will pique their interest and get them excited about learning this subject? What do they NEED to know in order for this course to be worth their time, effort, and investment?”

Example: If your objective is to train users to troubleshoot problems in a specific program or operating system, your content must go beyond delivering theories or serving as a reference (with anecdotes, diagrams, etc.) and incorporate practical how-to components (like simulating common problems by using a hands-on tutorial).

Understand Your “Who”

Knowing who your audience is, and what pre-existing knowledge, experience, and skills they have, will help you produce content that builds on what they already know while still being easy to grasp. Your audience’s demographics matter, too. Gen Z and Millennial learners may have different needs, expectations, and requirements for their educational experiences compared to Gen X or Boomers. Knowing your audience’s learning preferences and comfort zones is key to making sure you can deliver information in a way they can easily digest and retain.

Example: If you’re creating an “Intro To Microsoft Excel” course,  it is important to first find out whether the audience is comfortable with basic keyboard and mouse navigation. If not, including some skills building/practice content to get them the pre-requisite abilities may be necessary.

Know Their “How”

Understanding HOW your target audience intends to learn is critical to the success of your course. Will they be in a structured classroom setting, or will they be learning independently on digital devices? Will they be viewing your lessons on on their laptops, or on their phones? Does your audience prefer scenario-based training, simulated content, or hybrid instructor-lead/self-taught approaches?

Example: If many of your students will be using their phones to consume your course content, you’ll need to design simple visuals that are crystal clear even on a small screen.


By carefully analyzing your target audience and their needs BEFORE you build, you’ll be better prepared to produce highly beneficial training that your students will enjoy, engage with, and remember long after the lesson has ended.

To paraphrase Mr. Godin, a needs analysis helps you create content for your audience rather than trying to create an audience for your content.

Images by Betsy Warner and Matt Cornock via Flickr Creative Commons license.