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Who do you think you are talking to?

3 September 2019

One challenge I see all types of organisations struggling with is identifying and understanding their audiences. Sometimes the question ‘who is your target audience and what can you tell me about them?’ is met with an awkward silence. While we’ve never had so much information about our audiences, we still seem to know so little about them.

This is a problem because having clear understanding of your target audience is vital to communicating strategically and effectively – and achieving outcomes. If you don’t know who you are trying to communicate with, including what their challenges, concerns and motivations are, then you significantly reduce your ability to tailor and target your communication in order to persuade, influence and achieve your objectives.

It’s not an issue of resources or budgets either. Government agencies and large corporates can struggle with this just as much as NGOs and startups. This is because building an understanding your audience isn’t easy. It requires time, effort and strategic thinking, and there is no ‘right way’.

One approach I find useful is seeking to understand target audiences by thinking about the problem they are trying to solve. Clayton Christensen (Professor of Business Administration at Harvard) packages this into his “jobs to be done” theory – which explores why people want what they want, not just what they want.

This approach can help build an understanding of target audiences in a way that mountains of data can’t, because it gets at the audience’s motivations. It recognises that people rarely make decisions around what the “average” person in their category does, but often buy products or services (or engage with an organisation) because they have a problem they want to solve. In short, people’s motivations and circumstances often outweigh their demographic characteristics or personal attributes.

With this is mind, some of the key questions to ask when seeking to better understand your target audience(s) should include:

  • What: What problems are they trying to solve? What motivates them? What is happening in their lives?
  • Why: Why are we engaging with them (what do we want them to think, feel or do)?
  • Who: Who are they? Who do they trust? Who influences their behaviour/decisions?
  • How: How do they engage with our organisation (if at all)? How should we engage with them, and how can they best be communicated with?

This approach doesn’t need to be complex or require a huge research budget. It can simply involve asking the right questions, and where possible, speaking directly with members of your audience and asking the right follow-up questions. The most important thing is putting yourself in your audiences’ shoes and trying to build an understanding their challenges, circumstances and motivations.

— Ben Hornbrook

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