How to choose priority audiences


Last week, we had the pleasure of working with an industry group in Calgary in delivering a Results Map workshop focused on defining priority audiences.

The idea was to work through a deliberate process to gain consensus on a priority set of audiences, which would then become the centerpiece of a strategic communications plan. The conversation provided a fast-track approach to generating focus and alignment in strategic communications. By shaping the discussion around audiences, the group was able to uncover some valuable insights on developing an audience-centric communications model – the nirvana of effective communications planning.

What you notice in a working session devoted exclusively to audience definition is that it’s all about making choices. Given that every organization has a finite envelope of resources to devote to communications (staff time, energy and money), the key to delivering maximum ROI is to carefully and deliberately define which audiences to target. The process of audience definition quickly becomes a process of elimination – to be targeted and focused, we have to make difficult decisions to exclude some audience groups.

Considering opportunity cost is important here – for example, if your team decides to communicate to international audiences, the time/energy/money spent on that work will be at the direct expense of focusing on other groups, which may be more important to advancing your goal. The bottom line is that to say “yes” to one audience group is to say “no” to others, and that’s not easy to do (for more on the fundamental importance of making deliberate choices, and exclusions, check out the terrific new book Essentialism).

Here are some tools that can help you explore your communications landscape by zooming in on the critical decision of defining priority audiences.

The first step in defining audiences is to clearly define organizational and communications objectives. This Objective Clarifier Worksheet can help guide that process.

Next, there needs to be a “filter” for decision making on audiences – otherwise, the process can become highly subjective and ad hoc. The easiest way I’ve found to filter audiences is to establish basic guiding principles – and ensure that all stakeholders involved in the process agree to that set of principles. Examples of foundational principles to guide audience definition include:

  • Evidence-based decision making: We should define our audiences based on the best information and data possible, including an empirical assessment of what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past.
  • Critical mass: There tends to be a gravitational pull toward being very inclusive in defining audiences. That leads to very real operational challenges, because organizations typically struggle to have the critical mass required to really make an impact on any one audience group when resources are diluted in a shot-gun approach.
  • Segmentation: Audience groups should be segmented in a way that will help facilitate an audience-centric communications approach. For example, should an industry sector be segmented by geographic location or by area of specialization, or by size? These decisions will shape the whole messaging and tactical model.
  • Aggregation: For ease of implementation, it can be helpful to aggregate similar audiences. Thinking about ways of clustering audiences is important to the effectiveness of the implementation, and the relevance of the approach.

Once you’ve established your guiding principles, you can examine the various potential audience groups and assess their fit relative to your corporate and communications objectives. If you’re working in a group setting, you might use a Dotmocracy exercise to ask the group to “vote” for priority audiences. The key is that the audience vetting process has to be anchored in the objectives and be guided by the principles you’ve established.

Arriving at a set of priority audiences tends to be a very iterative (and sometimes messy!) process. Some of the considerations that might be helpful are:

Priority: If you could only have 1 audience group, which would be the most important?

Absence test: What is the impact of eliminating a particular audience group? For example, choosing not to include internal audiences could significantly impede your progress if staff members are not effectively aligned and engaged.

Function: What is the desired function of communicating to a specific audience? Consider whether an audience might have a multiplier or amplification effect, which might make them raise in level or priority, or might help you eliminate second tier audiences (e.g. we will target small business associations rather than going directly to small businesses in order to ensure that we have critical mass and capitalize on existing networks of communication and relationship)

One of the most important benefits of this kind of deep dive on audiences is to really understand each audience’s particular needs, so that you can design highly targeted messages and tactics. The Audience Profiling Grid Worksheet can help guide an exploration of what makes each audience group tick.

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Once you have a list of audiences identified, the key is to get a sense of prioritization. One of the most effective techniques to do in sharpening your focus on audiences is to work through a Pie Exercise. It’s simple, but tends to yield real breakthrough results.

The Pie Exercise works like this:

  1. List your proposed audiences (4-6 is ideal).

Ex: Media, Municipal Government, Chamber of Commerce, Entrepreneurs

  1. Draw a circle, which will function as your “pie”. The object of the game is to visually define the relative importance of each audience group by giving each a “slice of the pie”.

In this example, the relative weighting of audiences could take several forms:

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The magic of this exercise is that it forces a group to make choices, because the pie structure is finite. If a group wants to have a large focus on a particular audience segment, it becomes very obvious that it will be at the “cost” of another group. This is the closest technique I’ve found to mimicking the real-life experience of having to make tough choices and trade offs.

This rigorous approach is the insurance policy against the tendency for audiences to be defined simply by force of habit, of subjective opinion, or of the “squeaky wheel effect”. The key is to make choices about audiences intentionally, deliberately and strategically at the beginning of a strategic communications planning exercise.

Interested in more on audiences? Check out this free Best Practice Paper on Strategic Communications Planning or the Results Map Handbook: The Essential Guide to Strategic Communications Planning.

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