Targeting in email usually means sending tailored messages to specific subsets of your list, or segmenting. Usually in digital media the context is the same. Online advertising companies “target” prospects by serving specific ads to certain people based on their browser history or other attributes, and search advertising “targets” people based on search queries. In all these instances, the targeting is a function of identifying the people most likely to respond to a message, and serving it just to them.

But targeting through segmentation isn’t always possible. Sometimes you don’t know who of your subscribers lives near your event in Minneapolis, or how to distinguish senior executives from mid-level managers. When this happens, you have two choices: 1) don’t bother trying to promote whatever it is the targeting would help with, or 2) promote it anyway, but without any sort of segmentation. For most companies, that is no choice at all. When faced between canceling or broadcasting an event, marketers invariably choose broadcasting.

Broadcasting is an appropriate term to use here, in fact, as it does lead us towards a type of targeting independent of segmentation. Through television, advertisers are targeting people not individually, but through assumptions they can make based on the content of a show. People who watch Saturday morning cartoons are better targets for Legos than they are the P90X Workout DVDs, and the audience for Conan O’Brien’s late night show on TBS are not ideal candidates for AARP membership. An advertiser can select shows for its products if the expected audience is comprised of people who would be interested in the products, and avoid shows where the audience is not a good fit.

As an email marketer, you won’t have as many media options for your narrower messages as advertisers have channels and shows to choose from, but that does not mean that content-based targeting is not an option. If the media you need to market your events or products isn’t available, take a page out of the Proctor and Gamble playbook – create it yourself. P&G invented the soap opera as a medium to market its consumer products, since its audience (at the time) was comprised principally of women who stayed home during the day. Soap operas were designed expressly to appeal to this audience, and so the ads for the consumer products women purchased were a direct hit.

Creating a whole genre of tv shows is hard work. But launching a new email newsletter isn’t. Here are a few options for newsletters or other regular email communications that might give you a platform to market from with greater precision. The narrower you go, the smaller the audience will be. But what you lose in tonnage you make up for with targeting.

Executive Update: If you want to target senior executives for your products and events, launch a newsletter with content aimed directly at them. Have your CEO or Executive Director do a quarterly or monthly review of the strategic direction the organization is taking, or include other content that appeals to senior executives and nobody else. Subscription can be open to anyone, but the majority of susbscribers will be your target audience, or people who want to know what you are saying to this audience (who may well be the same people who would like to go to the events aimed at this audience).

Other Functional Newsletters: If it works for executives (above), it also works for any other group that is strategically important, such as vendors who sponsor events, research managers who respond to your surveys, or professionals with specific areas of functional responsibility. If there is a segment of your audience you need to reach regularly, a targeted newsletter just for them is an excellent way for them to tell you who they are, and that they’re listening.

Dates & Deadlines: One of our clients launched a Dates & Deadlines newsletter a few years ago, when the volume of messages informing their members of all the events, research studies, elections and webinars grew to the point of inbox clutter. Instead of individual messages reminding people to register for this or respond to that, they started publishing a weekly newsletter on Mondays that outlined all of the relevant tasks for the upcoming week, almost like a to-do list. The content cuts across all customer segments, as some of the events were for senior executives, some for managers, and other items were aimed at various areas of functional responsibility. But what subscribers have in common is a level of engagement. Someone who subscribes to a newsletter like this wants to know everything available to them from the organization each week, a clear signal of engagement. It does not mean they will respond to everything, but a newsletter like this can provide a powerful platform for getting the right message to the right subscribers at the right time.

In Targeting with Content Part 2 I’ll talk about how to aim at specific segments from within the context of your existing messages, including – and especially – the ones you send to your entire list.