Mar. 24 by Brannan Atkinson |

Prioritizing Target Audiences with the CARVER Method

This is Part I of our series on building an integrated marketing plan. 

As marketing professionals, we\’re rewarded for our ability to get people to act, whether it\’s buying a product, supporting a cause, visiting a website, making a donation, etc.

So that we\’re on the same page, let\’s define target audience. A target audience is a group of people you want to take an action or change a behavior. Your plan will likely have a number of target audiences once you are done.

Your real value to the organization happens when the actions you create among your target audiences are tied to business outcomes for the organization. Sales is one action. At the same time, you could be focused on changing public perception, which is harder to measure but could be just as valuable.

We\’ll use these desired actions — and the degree of change you can cause — much more when prioritizing audiences.

Problem with most target audiences

Identifying target audiences is fundamental to any marketing plan. Unfortunately, target audiences rarely get more than a mention in the planning process.

I find most marketing plans have a section that says \”Target Audiences\” and list of bullets. That\’s about it.

The plan quickly moves on to the strategies and tactics because, truthfully, those are more fun. I\’m raising my hand to profess my guilt in this area.

Where most plans fail is in the prioritization of those audiences. Good, sound prioritization has several benefits:

  • It helps you justify specific recommendations and investments.
  • It makes the plan more defensible when you have to present it to your client or boss.
  • It identifies gaps and even vulnerabilities in your overall marketing, which could be an opportunity to ask for more budget.

At this point, you\’ll want to add the desired actions for each of your target audiences so that you have that reference.

Years ago, I worked on a campaign to allow wine sales in grocery stores in Tennessee. Our target audience were consumers, legislators, other associations concerned about alcohol consumption (MADD and police departments) and editorial boards at local newspapers. Our desired action by group were:

  • Consumers: join the grassroots organization we created and contact their legislators
  • Legislators: vote for the proposed legislation
  • Other associations: support the change, or at least stay neutral
  • Editorial boards: write editorials in support

Overall, the goal was to demonstrate massive consumer support for the change.

CARVER Method for Prioritizing Audience

CARVER is a military acronym that stands for: criticality, accessibility, recognizability, vulnerability, effect and return.

When planning a military campaigns, commanders could have hundreds if not thousands of potential targets, like power plants, bridges, military bases, etc. At the same time, they have limited resources — like a marketing budget. CARVER provides an objective ranking of targets that commanders can use to make final decisions.

Your goal is not to destroy anything — other than your competition. So we\’re going to explore CARVER through lens of causing target audiences to act in desirable ways.

You\’ll want to score each category for each audience on a scale of 1 (low) to five (high). I’ve created this worksheet to help you work through the process.


Criticality is about the value of the target audience to your overall campaign.

Here are few questions to ask:

  • Will hitting the target achieve a critical goal, such as increased sales?
  • If so, how much?

Your score should be five if this audience is critical to success and one if it\’s not critical.

You may be wondering why we would include audience with a low criticality score. Remember there are six factors in the CARVER score, and the audience may score well in other factors.


Accessibility refers to the ease of reaching the target. It\’s also important to assess if you can reach the target directly or if you need assistance from someone else.

  • How accessible is the target right now?
  • Do you need other people or partners to help you reach the target?
  • Will it take multiple steps to reach this target? If so, how many steps?

Score your audience high on accessibility if you can reach the audience directly right now, lower if you need help and even lower if you need help and there are multiple steps.


The saying goes, \”You can\’t manage what you can\’t measure.\” Marketing is no exception.

Recognizability is your ability to know if you are causing the action you desire.

When I worked for Raven Internet Marketing Tools, we recognized the success of marketing by trial registrations and website visits. Those were good measures about the success of our marketing.

For the wine campaign, we could measure people who joined the grassroots organization, the number of emails they sent to legislators, the legislators’ responses to emails and the number of editorial written about the issues.

What to ask yourself:

  • Will you be able to recognize when you are doing things to hit the target?
  • Is what you have to do clearly defined?
  • Is it measurable?

Give yourself a five if you can measure your results and one if you are guessing.


Reaching a target audience and having that audience be receptive are two different challenges. For integrated marketing, vulnerability is a measure of your audiences\’ receptivity to your message and the likelihood they will take the desired action.

Your target audiences will have varying degrees of vulnerability. At Raven, the easiest sales were online marketers already who were already using other software packages. This seems counterintuitive. Why would they need more software? What we found was they could easily make a judgment about the value of Raven because of their experience as compared to companies where Raven was their first software purchase.

Ask yourself:

  • How vulnerable/receptive is the target?
  • How much does the target already know about you?
  • If you reach the target, you have the resources, knowledge, personnel, content to make an impression?
  • Do they have experience with my services?
  • Is there a buying process in place?

Score your audience a five if you believe it is receptive to your and one if not.

Once again, audiences that score low on the vulnerability scale aren\’t necessarily a bad thing. You have identified some opportunities for improvement and perhaps a way to ask for more budget, especially if that audience scores favorably in other categories.


Effect and criticality are related. Criticality measures impact on business outcome, whereas effect looks at the impact beyond the marketing efforts.

For example, landing top clients can improve your company\’s brand, lead to great testimonials and generate positive media coverage. It can also make your competition shudder. These are ancillary benefits that aren\’t part of criticality measure.

Ask yourself:

  • How close will this take you to where you need go?
  • What are other results of successfully getting the target to act?
  • Will reaching this target garner praise or increased budget?
  • Will it enhance your reputation inside the organization?
  • Will it be a significant win?

Score yourself a five if you see a number of ancillary effects and one if you don\’t see any.

Return on Effort

Return on effort is the last measure of good reason.

It\’s easy to spend a lot of time and money communicating with audience that are difficult to reach or have low vulnerability. The payoff and the risk are equal. You\’ll have to make a judgment call.

Ask yourself:

  • How much time will it take before I see results?
  • Will I overextend going for this target?
  • Will I use a large proportion of my budget pursuing this target?
  • Will the rewards be worth the effort?

Score your audience a five if you believe the return on effort is high and one if its low. I think you\’ll find most of your audiences score in the middle of the pack.

Your Target Audience Matrix

After going through this process with all of your audiences, you\’ll have a nice table with scores for each of the six categories.

The final step is to sum all the rows to get the CARVER score for each audience.


Here\’s mine for the campaign to allow wine sales in grocery stores: Red White and Food CARVER Report

In the next post, I will review these score and three ways to interpret the results of this table before you move into planning content and challenge.

Relation to personas

I\’m a huge fan of marketing personas and love to see companies invest the time to create them.

Personas further segment your target audience using demographics, psychographics and other characteristics. They are useful once you begin creating content for the target audiences.

This series is focused on building the overall plan that will use. By all means, I encourage you to explore personas once you have the plan and your priorities developed.

Filed Under: Marketing

Brannan Atkinson

Brannan Atkinson, APR, is a partner with Amy Atkinson Communications. His 20-year marketing career includes being the public information officer for the City of Richmond (Va.), president of a PR firm, and CMO of a software company. He writes about integrated marketing, data and authority marketing. Connect with him on Twitter or on Google+.