How to better understand our target audience

We recently posted about designing an effective extension program and as part of that we talked about the need to understand our target audience. Today we thought it would be good to explore what that meant. Where would we start? In this post we are going back to basics and exploring what we can discover about our target audience, often without even needing to speak with them.

Let’s start with why it is important to understand our target audience. As enablers of change, if we want to design effective events or interventions, then the more we can customise them to the intended audience, the more effective they will be. There is the old saying that we need to focus on the WIIFM, as people are usually interested to know What’s In It For Me! This may seem a tad selfish, but it is the way many of us work – we are busy, time-limited people and we often have to choose between attending one activity and another. We tend to do a mental calculation of the effort we have to put in, compared to the benefit we will derive. So the more we can specify tangible benefits, the better it will be. And how do we do that? By understanding our target audience and knowing what excites them and what their pain points are. The more we know our audience, the better we can create targeted messages that they will notice and hopefully act upon. So here are five methods we think are useful to better understand our target audience. We are sure there are lots of other ways to do this but we think this is a good start! 

We will begin with the easy ones that do not require too many resources. We could undertake a literature review to see if anyone else has done some research on our target audience. As an example, let’s say we are working with some graziers in our catchment area in Central Queensland. While it might be unlikely that specific research has been done on our actual graziers, there are several studies relating to graziers in Queensland and other areas of Australia and New Zealand. Using the synonyms of cattle producer and perhaps farmer, we can broaden the scope of a literature review. Some of these studies describe the demographics of the industry, showing their age range, gender balance, and education. Others go deeper and identify the barriers to adoption of conservation practices. 

While many of these are published in scientific journals, some will be in what we call grey literature, and are locally published reports. Google Scholar is as good a place as any for beginning our literature review. A few years ago we would have needed to access the online databases such as Scopus and Web of Science from our institution’s library. If you have access to these, then certainly make the most of their powerful search algorithms. But do not lose hope if you do not have access to them, as Google Scholar is getting better and better. Do not forget to go through any industry newsletters or magazines as well, as they can also give us good insights. Once we have a collection of articles and reports, sift through them and look for relevant information. We could also reach out to some of the authors and ask if they are working on similar projects but have yet to publish the results. They might be able to suggest other material that we’re not aware of too. 

The next method is observation, where we unobtrusively observe the current behaviours of our target audience. An example is to loiter at a farm supplies store to see how farmers engage with the products and staff there. Are the people shopping the main farmer, their family or their staff? What are their age category and their sex? Do they know exactly what they want and walk in and ask for it by name? Or do they seek the advice of the staff? While it is tempting to engage with the people and ask them questions, that behaviour is out of bounds in this stage – save that for the interview stage. This is particularly important if we are involved in a behaviour change program where we are comparing the effects of our intervention with a control group. Other examples are observing who attends local field days or the larger agricultural shows. Observation is one of the less used approaches, but it can provide useful insights. When appropriate, it can be useful to have a small group of independent observers, as that reduces any biases we may have. 

The third method is the most common: using a survey, whether that be online, paper-based or by telephone. This is a common way to gather qualitative and quantitative feedback from a group of people in our target audience. Of course we need to design our survey carefully to ensure we only collect the necessary information and don’t include the ‘nice-to-know’ questions. Asking too many questions dramatically reduces the number of responses. We also need to be aware of non-response bias, where perhaps only a certain type of person agreed to undertake the survey whilst those that didn’t complete it may have a different set of values and motivations. We will cover survey design in another post! 

Another common method is to use interviews. These can be conducted in person, over the phone, or even during a web meeting. Semi-structured interviews are commonly used, where we have our main interview questions worked out in advance but we also allow some deviation to cover emerging topics of interest. While interviews provide rich qualitative information, they are generally expensive to conduct and quite time consuming. Again, we need to be aware of non-response bias. 

The final method to better understand our target audience is to run focus groups.This is where we ask a similar set of questions to different groups of people until no new useful information emerges. During the interview we start with broad, open questions and as the process proceeds, we ask more focused, probing questions. We will often segment our audience into more homogenous groups. As an example, let’s go back to the graziers we talked about earlier, and say we are now working on a national project. We could have a group of female graziers and another one for male graziers, to see if they respond to the questions differently. We could also have a group for those with small herds of cattle and compare their responses with those who have large herds. We could explore those who are established with those who have just started in the industry. We also know that there is a difference between beef production in northern Australia (which has fewer but larger properties) and southern Australia (which has more but generally smaller properties), so we could include those as two groups. Designing and conducting focus groups is a whole other episode on its own, which we will add to the list!

Any of the methods we’ve described will be better than us simply trying to guess how our target audience are thinking or feeling about a topic. Assumptions like these can really undermine a good project, as it is built on shaky foundations. That is really our take home message today: stop assuming and start using some of the methods we have just described to gather actual data about our target audience. Then use that to effectively design our project so that it meets the required objectives.

Well, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with better understanding your target audience, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

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Graham Harris
Graham Harris
21 days ago

Thanks again Denise and John. Good suggestions on how to better understand our target audience in designing future programs. I’ve used focus groups effectively to better understand the perspective of an audience. I was also involved in conducting these in an industry I was unfamiliar with at the time (and this in itself was a great learning opportunity).