21 Free (And Overlooked) Tools For Discovering Who Your Local Audience Is

"Sales is about relationships." How many times have you heard that? And all of the other concepts that follow it:

  • If people know, like and trust you, they'll do business with you.
  • To get people to know, like and trust you, show them your value by giving away or showcasing some of your knowledge that they'll find interesting and useful.
  • To understand what's interesting and useful to the people who will (hopefully, at some point) buy your product, you must "know your audience."

OK. But what if you're catering to a specific local market, and you don't know your audience? 

Maybe you're just starting out in a new industry — or you're in the workforce for the first time at all — or maybe you just moved to a new part of the country. There are any number of reasons why you might have started to connect with your audience before you learn exactly who they are.

Or maybe your audience has changed and you haven't realized it; maybe you're talking to people who would have bought your product or service twenty years ago but have since moved past the need for it. Maybe the audience you thought you were serving was never there in the first place.

If you feel adrift anytime someone refers to "knowing your audience," then consider using one — or preferably several — of these tools and resources for discovering the basics of geographic demographics ... and maybe even digging a little deeper here and there.

The obvious ones

1. The U.S. Census

There's an actual government agency dedicated to discovering details about your audience. (Probably more than one, actually, depending on your industry.)

But start with the basics. The Census will show you age, sex, household formation, computer and internet use, what languages are spoken, what the economy is like, school districts and enrollment, employment and health and housing data — there are even links to building permits data for things that haven't been constructed yet.

The Census is also useful for those who are catering to non-geographic markets. Remember: You can also look at Census data from a regional perspective — East, South, Midwest, etc. — and from a generational one. Maybe you sell personalized wedding favors online. It'd be good to know that millennials, on average, are marrying older, wouldn't it?

I live in an area that's much too small for the Census to track — but I know how the closest ZIP code in the nearest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) lines up against my own neighborhood, so even though I can't pinpoint an "audience" for my area using Census data, it's absolutely a starting point even in smaller locations.

2. Your local newspaper

Seeking a quick way to figure out what kind of community you've found yourself in? Check out the "letters to the editor" page for a fast rundown of the stories that have resonated enough to generate a response.

Otherwise, spending some time on the local newspaper's top stories and scanning the comments section (if it exists) is a worthwhile way to give yourself a crash course on what's happening around town — and what kind of people it's happening to.

And maybe they aren't as prevalent as they used to be, but there are still some papers out there that I supposed you could classify as "hyperlocal" — it might not be a daily, but it's putting out news. My county has one, and it's how I found out that the bike race in town last weekend was the Bailey HUNDO (which seems weird because it's 90 miles long ... and would a Bailey audience be interested in reading some kind of Q&A about the HUNDO, what it is and why it's thusly named? Probably!).

3. Your local business journal

Residents of major metro areas — in or around them, too — face good odds that there's some kind of publication that reports exclusively on business news in their specific city.

Do you know what businesses are opening and closing, and in which neighborhoods? Which industries are thriving and which ones are struggling? If you keep tabs on the business journal, you will!

4. Your local Chamber of Commerce

If you haven't already checked out the Chamber of Commerce in your area, then let me tell you what a wealth of information you are eschewing. The website for my local CoC not only includes a directory and a calendar of events but also a relocation guide, historical and recreational information for the area, a WiFi map and a page with links to area maps and resources that I spent at least half an hour mining all by itself.

5. Local societies

There's a county historical society that maintains a park with beautiful historic buildings and artifacts for the public to enjoy in my area; it also organizes events and holds meetings and sends newsletters, which are archived on the website. I haven't dug deeply into what other societies exist, but based on your own interests, you're likely to find a group that can give you a decent backstory on who lives where you live.

6. Local clubs

Whether it's your local outpost of the Elks Lodge or a homegrown club, you can learn a lot about your area by taking a look at the clubs and organizations that exist. (Colorado, for example, has the Colorado Mountain Club — even if you're not a joiner by nature, the fact that it's a thing does tell you something about the area.)

7. Community social media pages

This should probably be at the very top in terms of getting a crash course on your community.

My area has several of these pages — one general page; one for vendors seeking clients (and vice verse); one for ladies; one page for people who think the general page's rules are dumb ... those are only the ones I have bothered to join or look up. There is no doubt in my mind that more exist.

We also have Nextdoor and a weird little website called Pinecam that features a webcam stream (more on that later). If you follow any of those pages, you will quickly learn where the accidents on the highway are and what the residents' major concerns are.

A few weeks ago, the utility company was putting up new infrastructure — giant electrical poles that are at least twice the size of what's there already. It makes sense; there are more people living in the mountains than ever. But it caused a lot of consternation, and someone shared a post on Pinecam and Nextdoor about what they'd learned about the route and future plans to build up the electrical grid. It was such a popular post that I got an email about it!

The not-so-obvious ones

8. Government agencies

On Park County's website, I can take a look at the county budget, note that there is a government broadband initiative "to enhance telecommunications in Park County in order to facilitate economic development, attract new residents, and improve, manage, and keep abreast of telecommunications trends and developments." There are links to the Clerk & Recorder's office, planning and zoning, public health, search-and-rescue, the sheriff's office and more.

If I didn't know that this was a rural community with patchy broadband and people occasionally getting lost in the woods, I'd figure that out with a quick scan of the government pages.

9. Real estate portals

They don't just track houses for sale anymore. Zillow and Trulia regularly release reports about everything from home prices to decoration trends, and you'll see the same thing on Realtor.com — plus research functionality that will allow you to check out how "hot" your ZIP code is compared to others nearby (and compared to itself, historically) and crunch a bunch more numbers right there on the screen.

10. Vacation and recreation directories

Quick: What's the first place a tourist goes in your town? Why do they even come to visit?

You will learn so much about the fun things you can go and do without venturing far from your front door — and it's virtually guaranteed that you'll learn something about your area that you didn't know before when you start digging into vacation and recreation directories. From campsites to lists of things to do, they will give you a picture of who comes to your area for fun and relaxation.

11. Churches

There's a Buddhist monastery/retreat on the highway up to my neck of the woods, but most of the churches around here are nondenominational Christian or one of the more general Protestant branches of Christianity. The types of church in your area will tell you something about where you live.

Beyond that, look up the church's website and take a look at the staff page and the events calendar. Who works there? What's it got going on? Who's coming to speak and what gatherings will be taking place? This can give you an idea of the church's demographic — odds are, that's information you can use!

12. Local libraries

I promise: You can learn a ton by sitting in your library for a morning or afternoon (or better yet, all day) and just watching the people who come in and out.

Beyond that, you can ask your librarians about the most frequently asked questions they get, which are the most popular books and whether one particular movie has ever packed the house on movie night.

13. Local events pages

You can find this on the Chamber of Commerce page sometimes, or a town or county website, or even your local publication (if you're lucky enough to have one). If I didn't already have an idea that people in this area value nature and history, then the summer's agenda would have set me straight: Bailey Day, classic car shows, Historical Society activities and a few more town celebrations are all on the docket.

14. Local webcams

This probably isn't a thing everywhere, but it is where I live, so I'm including it. They're mostly set up to monitor traffic and weather — and that's all well and good and as it should be, but think about what it tells you about my community that people have bothered to set up webcams tracking traffic and weather and have made them available to all and sundry. (Hopefully it tells you something.)

15. Meetup groups

You don't necessarily even need to join any of these; simply knowing which groups exist and how many people (roughly) are interested in them will take you a long way toward understanding the market in which you're working.

16. School board meetings

You don't need to go to every meeting, but attending a handful will give you a solid grasp of a few very important things about your local community.

  • How many parents are there, approximately?
  • How involved are those parents?
  • What age range are those parents?
  • What issues do they seem most concerned about?

17. City council meetings

Again: You don't need to commit to going to every. single. meeting.

But think about what you could learn by attending one or two:

  • Who the involved citizens in your community are.
  • What they are concerned about.
  • How they choose to express that concern.

18. Neighboring communities

My neighborhood is "Bailey" according to Nextdoor — but if I didn't also join the Burland Ranchettes and Pine and Conifer and other community pages nearby, then I wouldn't know that there's a bear (potentially with cubs) in the area or how many of my neighbors need yard work done and can't find anyone reliable to do it.

19. Political pages

There are active groups for both major U.S. political parties in my county, and they each have a website that outlines meetings and activities and often priorities. Learning what issues are important to either and both groups — and familiarizing yourself with how they prefer to meet — can be useful when you're figuring out the flavor of your neighborhood.

20. Sports organizations

This could range from a kickball league to a marathon group to an organization of die-hard professional sports fans who happen to live outside their team's market to details about your city's own professional sports teams.

How popular are the popular sports, and are there any sports in your area that are unusual? What types of people typically engage in those activities?

You can tell a lot about what the people in an area like to do by researching which sports organizations exist and how popular they are.

21. Ask them!

This should be obvious and I'm not sure why it isn't — Survey Monkey exists — but it doesn't seem to be that obvious, based on some conversations I've had. So: You can always ask your audience who they are.

Do you have a mailing list? People love electronics and gift cards! Consider offering some sort of prize in exchange for a completed survey; they'll be compensated for their time and you'll have the information you need.

How do you learn about your community and your audience? What resources do you use that no one else is tapping?