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How to get to know your audiences

January 19, 2023 #How to
How to get to know your audiences
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What do we risk when our messages miss?

Policy communications is a persuasive activity. We need to persuade people because we want to make change in the world. We try do that by formulating policy, and then making our best efforts to get it implemented. 

The problem is that ‘policy’ can mean a lot of things. When the Institute for Government interviewed UK government ministers and civil servants, they defined it as:

  • the goals or strategies of [political] leaders
  • specific acts such as decisions, announcement and statutes
  • an overriding logic of action (e.g. “our policy on the environment”)
  • a structure of practice (e.g. “the school’s policy on late essays”)

Similarly, Brazilian officials found it hard to tell the difference between policies, government programmes, and policy instruments. This suggests when we try to influence public policy, we’re trying to make a change in the messy middle between the administrators and the implementers. And so we need to persuade them. 

So different people hold different understandings of ‘policy’. They also have different views on the value of ‘evidence’. Unless we really understand what these views are and what messages will resonate, we risk failing to persuade.

This isn’t just a missed opportunity. As Bec Sanderson, Director of Research at FrameWorks Institute, puts it:

“When messages miss, they can leave a lasting negative impression on how people think about your issue. This can set you back in time and resources, and make it harder to realise your vision.”

Start by saying ‘no’ to audiences that don’t matter

I worked in and around think tanks for a decade. In different ways, these think tanks wanted to make a change in the world. 

If we’re serious about doing that we need to be strategic. Now, in my colleague Tom Hashemi’s words, strategy is the prioritised deployment of limited resources against agreed objectives. In other words, being strategic often means doing less, because you only do those things that support your objectives.

At the think tanks I worked at we’d sometimes consider which audiences we wanted to reach. “Policymakers” were naturally at the top of the list. We also wanted to somehow connect with a group we called “the public”. Sometimes this was the “informed public”. Sometimes the “news-reading public”. 

We nodded and did our best. We didn’t have this conversation often enough, and certainly not in the context of reviewing our organisation’s mission and strategy. Instead, we were communicating research and time was short: we couldn’t pursue a conversation about who really mattered. We worried about who we’d annoy if we prioritised some audiences and not others. So we tried to please everybody.

This could go differently. Let’s say your organisation wants to bring more of the world’s oceans under sustainable management. You’re not going to make that happen unless policymakers are signed up. The conversation changes when we switch focus from our need to communicate to their potential motivations to act. And “no” plays an important role here:

Who are we targeting?


Policymakers in every country?


Policymakers in coastal countries?


Policymakers focused on all policies?


Policymakers who have (or should have) an interest in the ocean?


Now you have ‘Policymakers in coastal countries who have (or should have) an interest in the ocean’. Already, your audience is more specific. This means it is easier to ask good questions about their motivations, and it will be easier to discover ways to persuade them.

Segmentation is your most powerful tool

I propose that ‘no’ is a very empowering word. Saying ‘no’ to undefined or undefinable audiences frees us up to identify audiences we actually want to reach.

What we’re doing here is audience segmentation: dividing up your audience into groups that share meaningful characteristics.

A useful audience segment is: 

  1. relevant to your organisation
  2. significantly distinguishable from other segments
  3. large enough to be worth targeting
  4. in reach of your communications

Here are some audience segments developed for the cultural development agency Arts Council England. They’re in use by over a thousand arts organisations, who also contribute their audience data to make the segments better.

‘Experience seekers’ are “socially minded mid-life professionals” and “students and graduates with adventurous attitudes in diverse urban areas”. ‘Kaleidoscope creativity’ includes “settled and diverse urban communities” and “hard-pressed singles in city tower blocks”.

Each group represents around 9% of the UK population. They also live close to each other, in city centres. But ‘experience seekers’ participate nearly twice as much in the arts ‘kaleidoscope creativity’. 

These differences allow arts organisations to ask questions. For example, how do they show ‘kaleidoscope creativity’ members, with their limited incomes, that spending on the arts is worthwhile? They live close to arts venues, so what’s stopping them from visiting? How might the way we communicate about the arts exclude them?

This segmentation is very sophisticated, and rightly so: if people don’t engage with the arts, cultural organisations lose money on their productions and close down. Significant public funding is wasted, and the economy suffers.

The stakes will be different for your organisation. My argument is that the major risk for policy communicators is that we don’t try to understand what our audiences are really thinking. And that means we don’t understand what’s at stake for them when we make policy recommendations – and they think we’re pursuing our own agenda.

The Arts Council’s segmentation is also a big investment – it uses data from a UK-wide survey, the research and credit rating agency Experian, and as I mentioned before, real audience figures from arts organisations. 

To get effective audience segments, you’ll want to spend some time and resources on research: online surveys, focus groups, and semi-structured interviews are just a few good methods.

But this research will only be as good as the questions you take into it. So if you want to talk persuasively to your audiences, you need to start by listening to them.

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Image credit: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash.

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