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Making the case for audience insight in your charity

15 June 2018

Tuning into your audience is everything. A fragmented media, limited resources and tightening regulation are just some of the reasons why you need to put your audience at the heart of your comms.

We’ve outlined eight reasons why it matters more than ever, which you can read in The right wavelength, a free guide to audience centred comms for charity communicators.

Being audience-centred is high on the agenda of successful charities, businesses and community organisations. But perhaps you still need to persuade colleagues. Here are some of the questions you may face – and how to address them.

Q: If we become audience centred, won’t we just end up doing what our audiences want us to do, rather than being led by our mission and values?

No. The first question you should ask when developing an audience strategy is: ‘who can help us achieve our aims?’ Only when you’ve decided that do you then figure out who you want to engage and how to win them round.

Your values and purpose should always guide your work and how you communicate. But you still need to express yourselves in a way that is relevant to the outside world. Otherwise, you’ll be ignored.

“It’s a simple logic. If you are clear about your organisation’s strategy and the impact that you want to achieve, you can then consider the role of different audiences in achieving that impact and prioritise those audiences according to the ones that will help you make the biggest shift.”
Tracey Pritchard, executive director of engagement, Prostate Cancer UK

Q: Won’t it be expensive to invest in lots of audience research?

Not necessarily, but even a small investment is worth it. Developing an understanding of your audiences – who they are, what they want and how to engage them – does take some investment of time and money.

If you’re expending resources creating and putting out content, but you’re not targeting the right people, a lot of your effort will be wasted.

If you’re a large organisation, you are probably already investing in audience insight, and your challenge will be persuading colleagues to act on it in a consistent way – which can take time and effort. If you are a small charity just starting to think about audience insight, this investment is no less important, because you can least afford to waste your resources. No charity is ‘too small for strategy’.

“It’s been an eye opener to do audience research, even without a big budget or expensive technical solutions. I just talked to our audiences about their needs and wants. No charity is too small for strategy.”
Zoe Williams, communications manager, Kidscape

Q: Isn’t our most important audience always the people we serve? Shouldn’t they be at the centre of things?

Yes. Your audiences should include the people you exist to help. And of course, your services or programme colleagues should be thinking about who they need to reach, and how they can be sensitive to their values, expectations and needs. Being audience centred just means applying those principles systematically across all your external engagement to the way you approach supporters, funders, advocates, and campaign targets too.

An audience centred approach can also further strengthen your relationships with beneficiaries. For example, it can help broaden your horizons to find people who would benefit from your help, but whom you haven’t yet reached.

Q: But don’t our audiences change depending on what we’re doing? Won’t being audience centred limit our ability to respond to events?

Well… yes and no. When you think about it, most of your communication is designed to engage target groups over a period – whether winning fundraising support, or building trust and influence among media, opinion leaders or within communities.

It goes back to the ‘frequency’ point. If you persist with the same audiences, you’ll achieve more than if you keep changing course. But you are right, your strategy should not be a straitjacket, and should be flexible enough to respond to new possibilities.

This is an extract from The right wavelength, a free guide to audience centred comms for charity communicators developed by Joe Barrell at Eden Stanley.

Image: The right wavelength

Joe Barrell

executive director, Eden Stanley

Joe Barrell founded Eden Stanley in 2011 and is the company's principal consultant. He’s an experienced insight-driven strategist, who has led numerous transformative projects for such organisations as Amnesty International, Macmillan, Plan International, Drinkaware, The World Wide Web Foundation, The Children’s Society and UNESCO. He also designed and developed Eden Stanley’s data services, used by numerous UK non-profits to build audience segmentations and track their brands and issues with audiences most relevant to them.

Joe is author of two books, Make it Matter (2014) and Who Cares? (2020), both widely used by non-profits to develop external engagement strategies. In his previous life he served as director of communications at Save the Children from 2005-2010, and as head of communications at Shelter before that. A lifelong campaigner for social justice, Joe began his journey as a cameraman for Greenpeace in the 90’s, and has served on the boards of several UK charities, including as vice chair of the disability charity, Scope.