Understanding your audience is the single most important aspect of developing content. Content isn’t a one-way process between the organisation and the audience; rather, it is a two-way transactional process. When you ask an audience to read your ideas, you are asking them to come partway into your experience as a organisation.
In return, it is your obligation to go partway into their experience as an audience. The more you know and understand about your audience and their needs, the better you can communicate with them, share their experiences, understand their goals and help them to engage with your cause, and through your writing establish raport between you and your audience.
Why It’s Important
Thoughtful consideration of the needs of your audience is one of the best habits you can develop as a writer. Knowing your audience helps you to shape your communications in a way that’s most likely to gain their acceptance. That’s all the more important when your goal is to persuade, and not simply to inform, your audience.
Audience analysis can help you gain that valuable insight into your readers, which can help you to choose and develop relevant, meaningful content. It can also help you to create a content plan that is tailored to the needs of your audience.
What you need to know
Audience analysis provides a useful way for us to look at the content we produce within the framework of the goals of your audience and place your content strategy into context.
It is necessary to understand that people read your content, visit your website, read your publications with a specific task in mind. To understand these tasks you need to understand the challenges they face and the goals, motivations, and behaviors of your audience and define what they are trying to achieve and how your services fit into their lives. It is important to understand why they have sought you out.
Knowing this will help you to understand why people come to the website, how they use it to meet their goals and create content that supports those needs.
But how do you know what your audience wants?
There are likely many different ways in which your organisation is connected to your audience through a range of services and programs that you provide and through the various ways supporters engage with your non-profit. It is important to use as many of these resources as possible to have a broad view of your audience and their needs.
The most accessible information about your audience is likely to be from internal staff who have direct contact with your users. You should gather a good cross section of your organisation. These should focus on workers in direct contact with your users rather than those deemed to be the most important members of staff. What you need are people with the most current and extensive experience of your audience.
It is important however to understand that it is dangerous to rely too heavily on internal staff for a clear understanding of your users and their needs. It is after all a secondary source and can be limited and often distorted by their own experience and can be distorted by organisational and departmental preconceptions that may not be accurate. Staff working closely together can develop certain points of view that can inhibit open exploration of the needs of audiences.
Your help line
If you organisation has a help line this can be a great source of information. A family violence campaign I worked for kept a log of all inbound calls which gave me a very detailed understanding of the types of information visitors were seeking, what advice was being offered and what web content or external agencies they were being directed to.
If you do not document your help line calls I would recommend that you start. It provides a great overview of the type of information people are contacting the organisation for. In the long term it can save time as you can identify gaps in content or make pieces of information more visible on the website and reduce the amount of calls coming in.
The campaign had another fantastic resource that provided lots of information about theirr visitors. There was a question and answers section on the website where people affected by family violence and those who were violent could seek help. Often the questions gave very detailed background infromation about a segment of the audience and the issues they faced.
I was able to group these into key audiences and provide a breakdown of the types of information and support they sought. While they had very specific situations there was amazing consistency in the theme of the problems they faced and the concerns that were raised.
The reason that it is important not to rely too heavily on the experiences of internal staff is that while they have experience of the issues and the poeple seeking help from your organisation it is unlikely that they have taken time to analyse this information collectively and without this type of review it is difficult to recognise patterns and draw conclusions.
During one internal workshop when I had brought staff together to disucss audience groups and key tasks, they had listed asking advice and help as the reason victims of family violence came to the website. After analysing web content it was clear that there were some very practical concerns of a more specific nature that were were not being addressed.
There was also greater varience in the audiences then they had been able to identify. There were people who had left violence relationships and were considering returning to their partners, others who were in violent relationships and wanted to help their partners, family members who were worried about their children and siblings. It became clear that grouping victims of family violence into a single audience segment would limit the capacity to provide truely valuable content that would help them address the specific problems they faced.
The situations they were in were also very different and the information they needed was very specific. There were people who wanted to leave their violent partner, but were uncertain how to do so due to financial dependency, many of them were isolated, some had become so over time, others had relocated to the country and had no support, and there was also fear for their children if they were to leave. In many instances their partners had threatened to take their children from them if they left; in other cicumstances they were afraid of what might happen to their children once they left and they were not able to supervise visitation.
I saw that there was an amazing opportuntity to provide valuable content that would make immeasurable difference to people affcted by family violence. The need to provide this information and build a clear navigation structure that enabled them to find this information quickly was reinforced by the stories I read of how abused partners often had very little time in which to access the web and search for help.
Review Your Data
Your site traffic can provide a great deal of insight into the information that your audience is reading, which pages do people spend the most time and what people are looking for on your website.
It is important to be critical when reviewing web traffic data as it is easy to make incorrect assumptions. Low traffic on a web page can just as easily be a result of poor navigation structure as much as an appraisal of the quality and imprtance of the content, and a high bounce rate might be a positive outcome if the page intends to direct someone to another site where they can access the right help. It does however provide some interesting insights that can help you to make decisions about your content.
Don’t be shy about asking
It’s a sign that you care about your readers and about addressing their interests and concerns. Get out of the office and talk to people, attend community events run by your charity or organise a workshop and invite some of your supporters. Different audience groups often have different top tasks, so if your website serves several audience groups, talk to each group to determine what is most important to them.
Talk to visitors about their critical tasks. Why do they use your website? What’s easy to use, what’s difficult, are there things they’d like to, but can’t now, do online?
If you’re running a survey on your website, ask visitors what task they were trying to accomplish, and whether or not they were successful.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn groups and forums are a great resource to understand your audience. As well as posting questions and polls to gain insight into your audience and their needs there are lots of online analysis tools that provide insight into the types of post that are popular. Reviewing these can help to shape an undertsanding of the issues that your followers care about and can help shape your content strategy.
Shaping content strategies by understanding your audience
Identifying your audience needs can help you to shape your content strategy and deliver content that they want and need. It provides us with an approach to content development led by an understanding of how users will interact with the website and ensure that any changes you make are defined by their needs and by the tasks that they seek to complete.
A clear understanding of the tasks provides a framework to understanding how your content should be structured on the site to provide a clear route thorugh web content to their deisred outcomes. It provides us with a narative that should shpae how and what we communicate and the content that we develop. It can also help us to formulate a clear ladder of engagement and shape content that enables us to develop relationships with our supporters.