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Know thine audience

Approx. reading time: 6 minutes

In any kind of communication the more we know about our audience the better. Whether we’re writing for the web or for a flyer tucked under a windscreen wiper, this knowledge gives us clues about how to engage our readers, viewers and listeners. Engagement is a necessary precursor to understanding. Without engagement what we’re saying may only register as a sound tapping on the audience’s ear drums. We need to engage to get the message beyond the level of mere noise and up the neural pathways into the brain where it can be processed and understood and, all being well, acted upon.

But knowing the audience doesn’t just give us clues about content that might engage. It also helps us structure that content – put it in the most compelling order. It helps us determine the best style to apply to that content – serious or silly or somewhere in between. And it gives us useful information about the length of that content, the media we use to convey it, the places we put it and the time we put it there.

If we don’t think enough about the end users of the content we’re creating we risk ending up writing for the person we know best (ourselves) and getting it spectacularly wrong for everyone else. What I find funny may offend you and vice versa.

Grab a blank sheet of paper (very old school I realise but quicker, more flexible, and cheaper than using a sketching app like iDraw). In the middle draw the outline of a face, give the face a name and make this person representative of one of your target audiences. Let’s call him Bob. Around Bob’s face, spider diagram-style, jot down all the characteristics you think might be relevant. You’ll be scribbling obvious things like gender, age and race, and less obvious things like which social groups he belongs to, his hobbies and interests, his tastes in everything from music to food, his media habits – which papers he buys, which tv and radio programmes he likes, which websites he visits and yes, of course, which social media platforms he uses.

You also need to consider things like how much your version of Bob or Nadia knows already, how motivated they are to behave as you wish, and what mood they’re in. Knowing these things will help you understand where they are intellectually. Where they are physically in terms of time and space will also be informative. Are they on the bus, at their desk or in their armchair? Is it morning, noon or night? And are they in a hurry or on the slow train?

Let me give you a real rather than virtual world example. One January day I was filling my van with diesel and, as the display raced towards £100, feeling the metaphorical chill wind of fuel price inflation as well as the literal wind of winter. So time: in a hurry. Place: garage forecourt. Weather conditions: cold. Mood: bad. Armed with this broad brushstroke portrait of Richard, Worcester Bosch was able to target an advert for its energy efficient central heating boilers on the pump trigger. It couldn’t say much – because both time and space were in short supply – but it said enough to get me to Google the company name when I got home. And now what’s sitting in the corner of my kitchen? Yes, you’ve guessed, an energy efficient boiler! The same ad placed, say, on the locker door in my local gym would be less effective. I’d likely be hot and in a much better mood and consequently much less receptive to the implicit key message: buy our boiler.

Drawing a series of detailed pen portraits – one for each distinct target audience – takes some time. But it’s time well spent because like Worcester Bosch (the company’s not paying me, honest) it informs all the subsequent steps we take in the social media and ultimately leads to a much better return on investment.

This demographic information as marketeers call it can be gleaned from a range of sources. Some of it frankly is instinctive because we are like the people we’re targeting and knowing ourselves is knowing our audience. Or perhaps we know people – family or friends – who are like our target audiences. If I’m targeting children specifically then I’d do well to look at my own children to guide my approach.

Young people are particularly challenging to engage through the social media. Not least because as children of the Internet age they are more adept at the technology than older people but also because behaviourally they’re still developing and this means their vocabulary, idiom, interests and even choice of social networks can change faster than you can say Pinterest.

If like me you’re no longer a card carrying member of the hip cool generation then a brilliant way of keeping up with your target audience is simply to observe them. Become a social media anthropologist. A latter day Desmond Morris if you will sitting by the Facebook watering hole watching the young lion cubs at play. It sounds a bit creepy I know. And when the cubs you’re observing are your own it’s called Facebook stalking. I’ve heard grown ups describe Facebook as a third parent, going to places that real flesh and blood parents couldn’t possibly go to keep an eye on their children. I’ll let you decide whether going this far is too far. But there’s no doubt watching the online behaviour of our customers and prospective customers (and competitors for that matter) is a legitimate business practice. It’s called market research and it predates the social web by a long, long time.

Now it’s way beyond the brief of this article (or the workshop manual it originally appeared in) to explore market research except insofar as it touches upon social media strategy. And to that extent all we really need to know is that market research is, at its most basic, asking questions and listening to the answers and then using those answers to inform marketing decisions.

So we need to ask questions of our social media targets, listen to the answers and let those answers inform our social media decisions.

Asking questions of our target audiences helps us to get to know them so well they can, metaphorically speaking, sit on our shoulders as we create our online content and act as our critical friends. We should be asking these imaginary individuals what they think of what we’re about to post. Do they like it? If the answer’s no then why don’t they like it, what don’t they like about it, how could it be improved? Have an imaginary conversation with the imaginary Bob before you start the real conversation with the real Bob.

One other point on market research. You need to ask what questions people are asking. Questions about questions in other words. These question questions are important to ask because of the way people use the social web. In essence we type questions into search engines (even if we don’t actually hit the ? key) and then rely on those search engines to find us the answers – the more relevant the better. If I’m thinking about buying a camera I might type “digital SLR vs rangefinder” or “Canon vs Nikon.” If I’m worried about that pain in the pit of my tummy I might type “stomach cancer symptoms.” (Don’t worry about me by the way, turned out I was just hungry)!

It’s not just the questions they’re typing into Google we should be interested in. What questions are they asking and what comments are they posting across the social web, on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook? Maybe we’re in a good position to answer those questions for them, to add our own comments to theirs. What happens then is that our reputational stock rises – perhaps in one spurt so that they buy that slinky new Nikon camera there and then or perhaps by only a dribble but enough for them to return to us as a trusted source of information, refer others our way and maybe one day make that purchase, donate to our charity or get that lump checked out. And even if they don’t ever buy anything themselves they’re nonetheless leaving behind something valuable – a link, direct or indirect, back to you. Fantastic if they had something nice to say about you or your products and services. Not so fantastic if they had something nasty to say.

The fear of opening ourselves up to brickbats as well as bouquets is what stops many organisations from getting involved with the social web. But like conversation itself the social web is here to stay and is highly likely to integrate itself more and more with our everyday transactions – both social and commercial – so staying away will become less and less realistic. In any case organisations that open themselves up to criticism in such a public way find paradoxically, that managed well, they gain even from the brickbats. Dell Computers provides a fascinating and evergreen case study of this very point. First they feared the social web. Then they got a good kicking. Next they immersed themselves in it. And now they benefit from it hugely generating more than $1 million in sales directly from social media. The fashion retailer H&M is similarly instructive.