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  • Nick Bibby

Is There Anybody Out There?

Updated: Apr 11

Thinking about ‘audience’ is one of the twin pillars of any communications strategy. I’ll look at the other one, ‘message’, in the next post.

When we talk about target audiences, it’s important not to conflate that with ideas about total readership or viewership – I’ll mostly refer to ‘readers’ in this and other blogs but the same would apply to viewers of video, attendees at events, listeners to a podcast, etc.

Audience is much more than a numbers game.

Social media can be quite a good example of the difference between the two. There was a phase in the evolution of Twitter when people would buy followers in bulk. This appealed to the idea that Twitter was a game, and the aim was to maximise the ratio between those following you, and those you followed. Treated as a game, having a lot of followers matters, treated as a communications tool, who they are is a lot more important than how many they are. Your research centre could have 100% saturation on Twitter among pizza shops in Dagenham and Partick Thistle fans in Gourock, but they’re not exactly useful demographics. One follower who is the policy editor of a news programme, or the chief executive of a local authority, on the other hand, could be very useful.

In any discussion of audience the question is not – as it’s often considered to be – “who might be interested?” but “who can do something with the knowledge you’re sharing to affect change in the world?”.

Women looks into the camera with blurred figures behind.
Engaging an audience is about understanding them as individuals.

The issue of how to get those ideal readers should be the main focus of the audience side of the audience-message discussions you should have at the start of (and repeatedly throughout) your communications planning. In order to maximise the likelihood of engaging the audiences we need to attract, we need to understand those groups and individuals, and then structure our communications to speak to them as clearly and directly as possible.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we identify ‘Analysts with a focus on housing working in central and local government’ as a target audience. Note that’s not ‘stakeholders’, ‘policymakers’, ‘local authorities’ or anything else. The aim is to be as exact as possible because, realistically, your audience is likely to be reading what you say as part of their job, so it’s useful to thinking terms of what that job requires and how it functions.

There are other lenses you could use to focus in on a target audience. You might, for example, use geography and prioritise those with a professional interest in Glasgow, or rural and remote communities, or towns with populations of under 50,000.

You’re not limited to only speaking to only that group, there will be lots of ‘related trades’ that you pick up along the way, but it gives you a starting point to begin thinking about some questions:

How does the audience usually learn?

Do they have structured information gathering systems? Are there publications aimed at this group? Are there networks – formal or informal – with which this group interacts? Does it have a formal training scheme? Is this a job where people read at work?

What are their priorities at the moment?

What are the current demands on their time? How can you help them meet current challenges? Is there a particular reason to engage now? What external pressures are driving their work schedule at the moment? Is it a good time to connect?

How do they use information they receive?

Are they the final recipient of knowledge or a conduit to others? What motivates them as individuals? What motivates the organisation(s) they work for? What do timeframes for making decisions look like?

Those questions aren’t a comprehensive list but are indicative of the sorts of considerations it’s worth thinking about. Doing so helps clarify decisions about the sorts of communications tools you might use, where you want to be seen, the assumptions you can make about existing knowledge, the tone you might need to use in communicating your work, and so on.

Having a precisely defined target can also provide a lynchpin for the next stage – those ‘related trades’ mentioned above. Formal and measurable changes in policy or practice often come following less tangible changes in understanding held collectively within networks. So, who are your target’s fellow travellers? This isn’t to say that you should shift your aim from your main target audience, just that you shouldn’t worry too much if you miss. You’re not shifting to a ‘general public’ / ‘stakeholders’ type of approach, just recognising complexity - and that change often takes place at the boundaries where different experiences and interest meet.

  • Social Science Connected also offers training and strategy workshops on how to identify and connect with key audiences when developing your research communications strategy. There's more information here.

Cover image by Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash.

Black and white theatre photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash.

Photo of a woman by Justice Amoh on Unsplash.


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