Know Your Audience: How the FBI Finally Nabbed Whitey Bulger

When the FBI, after 16 long years of searching, captured reputed Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger outside his Santa Monica apartment last week, it wasn’t because of the $2 million bounty on his head. That reward had been publicized for years.

The FBI’s hard-won success was due, instead, to a creative messaging strategy: TV ads on popular women’s programs like Ellen and The View, as well as a Times Square billboard, offering $100,000 for information leading to Bulger’s paramour, Catherine Greig—an immaculately groomed woman who frequented beauty salons, had her teeth cleaned monthly and had a penchant for plastic surgery. They banked on women—hair stylists, manicurists, neighbors, dental hygienists—who might have noticed Greig or helped her to look stunning, as informants.

The strategy worked. Within two days, a tipster led agents to Bulger and Greig’s home, where they had been living, undetected, for much of the time that Whitey was on the lam, blending into the local community of retirees.

It’s a fascinating lesson in how to think about reaching your target audience. A few takeaways:

Whatever your messaging goal, be it capturing America’s Most Wanted (Whitey was Number 1 after Osama Bin Laden was killed) or finding new customers for your product or service, don’t limit your focus to your primary market.

Think about your ideal client’s support network and how they might be a source of referrals to the people you’re trying to reach. The FBI caught Bulger because they realized that his long-time girlfriend had conspicuous grooming habits that other women would notice.

Research their interests and media tastes, just as you would for your ideal client, and target your messaging accordingly. The FBI placed 30-second TV commercials spotlighting Greig’s face and habits on highly visible women’s programs in major media markets around the country.

Create an incentive for a referral. The FBI offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to Greig’s arrest for harboring a fugitive. Your budget may well be slimmer, but there are many ways to encourage referrals, from offering discounts for goods or services from relevant business affiliates, to appealing to the support network member’s desire to help someone she loves.

And finally, pay attention to what’s right under your nose. Despite “Whitey sightings” in London and elsewhere around the world, Bulger hid from authorities for many years by blending into a laid-back Southern California retirement community. Take nothing for granted. Talk to your loyal customers. Learn from them what’s most valuable about your business, how they found out about you and why they keep coming back, and use their insights to attract more clients just like them.



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