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Audience insight on a budget – what three charities have learnt

12 March 2019

Getting to know your audience is non-negotiable for successful communications – a fact that clearly hasn’t escaped the notice of those of us working within the charity sector. Indeed there’s some incredibly sophisticated segmentation and insight work now going on in charities, which have been made possible by improvements in digital data management, from large online surveys to Digital Management Platforms (DMPs).

The cost of gathering audience insight can be hugely varied though, so what if you have less to invest but still want to find and reach new audiences? Well first of all don’t worry, putting audience insight at the heart of your communications strategy isn’t just for the big brands, and proving this point are some smaller charities who have gained valuable knowledge about their audiences, without busting the budget. Here’s what all of us can learn from their experiences.

Ask partners to help recruit

Identifying new potential supporters can be essential. Solace Women’s Aid found this when it needed to step up fundraising activities after public spending cuts threatened traditional income streams, and also when it wanted to improve its reach into potential service user audiences to encourage women escaping abuse to get in touch sooner.

We worked with Solace to run focus groups with two audiences – one we called ‘engage to support’ and one ‘engage to survive’. As Solace had little experience of targeting a public supporter audience, we came up with a hypothetical profile of a supporter, then worked with a friendly London-based corporate – the UK arm of a global PR agency – to recruit participants from their workforce who matched our profile. The agency also generously hosted the groups at their offices, saving further costs. Meanwhile, the ‘engage to survive’ focus groups were recruited from previous and current service users.

The groups were very different from each other, but there was a clear common ground in what would inspire participants’ engagement with Solace – the idea that ‘women like me’ experienced violence. Solace put this insight at the heart of its communications strategy. As a result it’s now piloting a survivor ambassador programme to raise the voices of more women who have experienced violence.

Respect people’s time

Glasspool provides grants to individuals facing hardship, helping more than 11,000 people each year change their lives for the better. We surveyed 4,500 support workers – social workers and others who apply to Glasspool on behalf of their clients – to generate insights as part of an audit of the charity’s communications.

It was tempting to fill the survey with questions on every aspect of this audience’s perceptions, interactions and experiences of the charity, not to mention a range of comparator organisations. We worked with the charity to keep the online questionnaire duration down to seven minutes – otherwise we knew this hard-pressed audience would abandon it.

Being strategic about the most important questions to ask paid off. The survey attracted more than a thousand responses (a response rate of 23%), and almost all respondents completed it. Among the insights, our analysis showed an appetite for new communications channels from Glasspool, and a willingness to act as a conduit for impact stories, that in turn will help Glasspool engage all its audiences.

Use existing groups

Focus groups can feel risky if you’re a small charity – recruiting, hosting, facilitating and analysis all cost money. And what if no one turns up?

When the Motor Neurone Disease Association wanted to research the views of bereaved carers who had lost loved ones to MND, it was fortunate to be able to access existing volunteer-run or self-organised groups in three parts of the UK. As the independent facilitator, we opened up discussions with each group to help explore how the charity could support and stay in touch with carers beyond the time that they are caring for the person with MND.

We were warmly welcomed at each group and the discussions, while frequently emotional, were positive overall in terms of generating insights and testing ideas. MNDA is now reviewing elements of its offer to bereaved carers, with a view to improving and standardising support across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So what are the key takeaways from these cost-effective approaches to generating audience insight?

Accept and be clear about limitations

All these approaches have built in biases. Solace made assumptions about its likely ‘best bet’ supporter audience, and recruited participants who matched the profile. Bereaved carers we met while working with MNDA all advocated for self-help groups – but we only spoke to those who had already found support that way. Gold standard market research will give you the most robust and rigorous results, if you can afford it. But insights gleaned these alternative ways have proved useful too – because the charities involved were clear about their benefits and limitations.

Get an external perspective

One way to deal with these limitations is to bring in external freelancers or an agency to conduct your audience research. This can be a standalone exercise or part of developing an audience-centred communications strategy. Independent researchers can highlight new avenues of thinking, challenge your internal assumptions, bring expertise in research design, and help participants feel comfortable and safe to say what they think about you.

Keep barriers to participation low

If you’re designing a survey, like Glasspool did, challenge yourselves to be strategic about what you want to know. A short survey, with an engaging invite that makes it clear how participants’ time will make a difference to you and to them, will usually yield better response rates than a long and convoluted questionnaire. If you’re running focus groups, incentivise attendance – explain the difference participation makes, provide clear pre-joining instructions, pay travel expenses and provide refreshments. Of course, always thank people, and if possible, show them the difference they’ve made too.

Making the case for audience insight in your charity

Sarah Fitzgerald

director, Self Communications

Sarah Fitzgerald is director of Self Communications, developing ambitious communications strategies for charities and not-for-profits. She has more than a decade of senior communications experience in the third sector.