by Terry Linhart

One of the most common inquiries we receive is to help a potential partner explore who their audiences are. Audience research is a persistent need for any organization or businesses. Even churches, synagogues, and nonprofit organizations would benefit from knowing who their people are, why they attend, and what their needs and hopes are. Gaining insight into their preferences and how various segments in the audience differ can save leaders time, frustration, and costs.

The truth is that it’s not terribly difficult the do your own audience research if you have the resources, time, and can do it free of biases. And, actually, bias is a significant problem because often the people doing the research have vested interests in the outcomes or they see the questions and answers through a well-conditioned “lens” that has developed over time. Also, it’s possible to do all types of audience research and at the end of the project be left with “findings” that you already knew.

Likely you’ve already experienced this. I have. In another organization, we hired a company to help with re-branding. As the consultants led the focus groups with us across our organization, I knew that their approaches and questions weren’t helping them learn who we are. Even though they were sitting with the right people, their questions and approach weren’t generating the best data. They were asking questions, but just the wrong ones. They were doing focus groups, but the people who needed to talk were sitting quietly.

Sure enough, when we were handed our proposed “new” taglines and color scheme, there was a noticeable silence. They had missed the mark and only the color scheme lasted more than a year. At the end of the project, they had effectually only interviewed the most talkative folks among the 300 or so employees.

Why We Value Good Audience Research

The key to audience research is to know who the audience is. Seems obvious, right? But, before you click away because it’s remedial, this is why we crave research so much! Most of us who lead organizations and businesses don’t really feel confident that we DO know who our people are. And often the templates and methods learned in undergraduate business school years or from a blog don’t guarantee that good listening and data collection will follow.

But, here’s the good thing: There are some things you can do that will help you improve your audience research. And you need to have it done well! Your people have a story. So does your audience. We just need to take the time to listen – and listen well. And document what we’re really hearing. And that’s usually why people contact us; they don’t have the time to do audience research and they need expert help with the listening.

Getting Audience Research Right

People are following and engaging you and not “the others” for some reasons that you need to know. The space for customers’ attention is so competitive these days, preferences are fickle, and adaptation is always required. Your competitors are more than just those in your field; your competition is what fills people’s calendar. And people fill their calendar and spend their attention and money on what is meaningful to them.

If you want to get to know your people better, there are seven steps that we think through whenever we’re designing our “best in class” audience research. Use these to give an immediate boost to your understanding and see if you don’t learn more about who your people are.

  1. Identify the strategic questions needed. You need to remember that you have limited time to get the data you need. Good questions matter and you can only ask a few before people begin to tire or need an incentive to keep going. So, if you were stranded on an island and could only ask three questions of your audience to know what you wanted to know, what would you ask? If a recognized expert in your field was also on that island, what would he/she ask? If your primary competitor was also on the island, what would they be asking? These questions help you focus on what is essential for you to know and helps to eliminate the questions that distract.
  2. Identify the right research techniques. Once you have your questions, you can then figure out where and how you want to ask them. Surveys are the most effective way to reach the most people and are still one of my favorites to do. My affection for surveys is helped because I have three of the best survey experts I’ve seen as part of the Arbor team. The other method, focus groups, is also the most expensive to complete, but focus groups usually generate the best data from a larger population. A good series of focus groups usually involves 6-10 people and if you can do five of them from your audience, you will learn a lot. Oh, and I recommend recording them or having a second person there to take notes. Also, we started using focus groups in 1996 and have developed a way to work with 24 people at a time while generating some of the richest data. We love focus groups and you will too if you organize them well!
  3. Identify the depth of insight needed. Do you want to know the patterns, preferences, or prompts (motivations) from the data? We like to know the story behind the numbers, but sometimes we just need to know how often something is true and for what groups. For instance, if you learn most of your audience identifies as female and then you learn that women are rating your convention program higher at one spot and then significantly lower over there, then you can reexamine your programmatic choices for the next gathering. If those who’ve attended your conference more often will rate your programming lower, then you can adapt and start to develop some tracks for “veterans” that may look like a VIP thing.
  4. Make sure you “hear the data.” As you conduct your audience research, you have to step back from your own biases and position and ask yourself what each sentence share means. Can you put that sentence in a category? Is there a theme to what they’re saying in this paragraph? I use the phrase “hear the data” a lot because it is what good researchers do; they can hear the meaning and observe the intensity in the responses.
  5. Make sure you have the numbers you need. It’s important that you have the right data for who your audience is. How do they segment? What is their background? How do they self-identify along important sociological categories (e.g. education level, ethnicity, age)? Do those relate to other questions you’re asking? How do those numbers compare to last year? To your competitors? And, I know it seems weird, but the larger you are the more important it is to get the right numbers. They will reveal to you the trends before your eyes can see them – when it’s too late to respond.
  6. Schedule time to just sit and observe. This type of research often gets overlooked but it’s important to do. More than just a “secret shopper” strategy, observing groups or individuals can tell you a lot. As you watched your audience, what do you notice? Write down everything you can recall; don’t assume something isn’t important when collecting data. Let your analysis phase determine that. What responses and emotions do you see? If you made a “heatmap” of the space you’re watching, what would you see over time as people move in and out of the space? We’ve learned a lot on projects where we’ve watched a group journey together, a bookstore in action for a day, and an exhibit hall setup and teardown.
  7. Appropriate interpretation and strategic recommendations. Once you’ve collected your data, then you can sit down and analyze what you are seeing. Look over your notes and make paper copies. Then, as you read over them, write words in the margins that summarize what is in the data. What themes do you see? What is repeating often? If you combine all of the instances where you wrote the same (or similar) word in the margin, what would you learn about that theme? What does it say about your audience? What does it say about how you and your organization see your audience? Write out a paragraph that summarizes your thinking. If you do this for 5-8 themes in your notes, you’ll suddenly have a better picture of your audience that, when combined with the numbers, begins to tell you a story.

If you give these a try, I’d love to learn how it goes for you! Just drop me a line.

And if we can help you in any way, feel free to connect with me and we’ll talk. We’ve got a team ready to go next week to help you with a research project that will save you time, problems, and money.

Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash