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What We Can Learn From the Teen Vogue Story & More

Ever feel like you’ve lost touch with your audience, like your company momentum has stalled because your once powerful message has lost its luster?

It’s possible your target market evolved without you knowing, or maybe you’ve misread your base all along.

Retail stores like Anthropologie and J.Crew have felt pain in recent years after failing to understand their female shopping base, posting significant declines in sales even as consumer spending recovered. The “skinny jeans and flowy top” look has overstayed its welcome , women are not motivated by new styles, and stores failed to offer enough casual dresses were among reasons circulated as contributing factors of the cause.

Teen Vogue can also tell us something about the importance of knowing your audience—on what happens if you get it right. Teen Vogue’ s publisher, Condé Nast, recently announced it was shuttering the magazine’s print edition , but not before it underwent a dramatic transformation. The magazine pruned its celebrity and beauty coverage for more “rebellious, outspoken, empowering” fare, as its ad copy now states. The glossy bible on makeup tips and prom trends turned into a rising voice of political dissent and social change.

Coverage on Black Lives Matter, gun control, Syrian refugees, sexual identity, politics and activism were fused into its pages, with Lauren Duca’s op-ed, Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America , drawing considerable attention in particular, equating Trump’s pre-election behavior to that of a psychologically manipulative spouse. The piece went viral, garnered nearly 30,000 retweets , and became one of the magazine’s top five most-read pieces last year . The publication’s online traffic has soared. The identity makeover, however, appeared to many as a curious about-face. Some, including Dan Rather, reacted with surprise or disbelief that a teen magazine would emerge as such an incisive source of political coverage. Fox News host Tucker Carlson responded to its recent political coverage with, “stick to the thigh-high boots”—as part of a now well-publicized feud with the magazine.

Related: Humor Is a Powerful Way to Capture an Audience

But, as feminist bloggers and others were quick to point out, there was nothing radical about the shift at all. As it turns out, teen girls have a healthy appetite for political news and are very much aware of their ability to fuel social movements. It was everyone else who was in the dark. That is, until Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth took the helm last year with a more warrior-like stance, insisting that fashion is not antithetical to politics, and that an evolved mind can—and does—co-exist with glam for teenagers and young women.

The transformation launched the magazine’s ascent into the national spotlight, recognized now for quality coverage, with stories on cultural appropriation and youth incarceration alongside those on Lady Gaga’s reported engagement and the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra. Although the news from Condé Nast means the glossy pages will no longer be available on shelves, the publisher has said it plans to focus on building its digital business.

Teen Vogue didn’t exactly push boundaries, it simply reconstituted to reflect the needs of the readers it already served. And it seized an opportunity to take teenage girls seriously when others had dramatically underestimated them.

If this has made you question how well you know your audience, here are some practical steps you can take to get to know your target market better:

  • Consult resources such as the nonpartisan Pew Research Center , which has extensive studies on millennials, and can help marketers detect and understand emerging demographic trends.
  • Marketing Land suggests reviewing U.S. Census data for specific demographics through American FactFinder , but branching out to explore other niches and assess interest from other areas. You can also launch your own survey using a tool such as SurveyMonkey .
  • Reimagine your audience , and move away from mass personalization to “individualized marketing.” To help, HubSpot offers a guide on creating customer personas , or “fictional, generalized characters that encompass the various needs, goals, and observed behavior patterns among your real and potential customers.”
  • And sometimes, we simply need to go the old-fashioned route and talk to our audience directly. This helps us reach a three-dimensional understanding of the people we serve. Never make assumptions. Teenage girls are a clear target market for makeup and fashion, but many of them have also been impacted by sexual assaults on college campuses or police shootings in their communities, complexities no email is likely to capture.