Mapping out your audience terrain


Communications is all about knowing your audiences: who are the key audiences you must reach in order to achieve your objective; where they are; and what kinds of messages will be of interest to them. If you’re working in the private sector, it’s relatively easy to define who will be the key audiences shaping purchasing decisions. But if you’re working for a public or para-public (NGO) organization, with an extensive sphere of partners and stakeholders, the challenge of identifying audiences and how to reach them can be quite complex.

In the latter case, you might want to consider stakeholder mapping: a specialized form of identifying and ‘mapping out’ key audiences and their relationships with each other in order to use these inter-connections for spreading your message. Stakeholder mapping recognizes that audiences exist in a dynamic ecosystem where individuals and organizations communicate among themselves, and may belong to different audience groups at different times. Effective stakeholder communications rests on a sophisticated understanding of these interrelationships and how they can be leveraged to reach your target audiences.

For example, if you’re working in health promotion you may find that getting a message to parents via their kids’ school or pediatrician’s office adds a level of credibility and relevance that would be lacking if you sent the same message directly to the parents. Or if you want to promote the importance of protecting intellectual property among entrepreneurs, you may get more bang for your buck by targeting business intermediaries such as lawyers and accountants, rather than trying to reach such a large, amorphous target audience of entrepreneurs directly.

Stakeholder mapping is the antidote to the old-school ‘cascading’ model of communications. Commonly used but woefully ineffective, the cascading model presumes that information flows downwards from the top of an organizational pyramid. (E.g. if we want to communicate a message to staff, we send it to the VPs, who will send it on to their directors, and so on down the chain until it finally reaches the staff.)

Of course you know and I know that communications doesn’t work that way, and neither do organizations. A systems approach that recognizes the dynamic, fluid nature of organizational relationships is much more realistic—and much more powerful as an approach to structuring communications.

So if you’re in an environment that you know to be a complex system of potential audiences and intermediaries, help yourself by looking into stakeholder mapping. It can add an impressive degree of clarity to an otherwise bewildering terrain of communication options.

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