Nonprofits: Ten free ways to get to know your key audiences better.

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Who wants to be friends with people who only talk about themselves? People who only want you to help them, and never help you?

Nonprofits should think about these questions more deeply when considering their communications. Web 2.0’s two-way conversations demand more than a well crafted case statement or creative self-promotion.

Your audiences are no longer just passive recipients of information; they are also active consumers and producers of information. If your communications aren’t a blend of what they need and want and what you need and want, they have a million other choices.

The only way you’re going to create communication that’s valuable in their eyes is to get to know them better. You can label this “marketing research,” but it’s really just the common-sense basis of friendship. Friends are mutually interested in each other. Nonprofits have to let go of the dog-and-pony show and engage in more friendly, give-and-take conversation.

Start understanding your audiences not just as demographic segments you want support from—but as human beings with preferences, problems, needs, and desires you hope to help with. What are their burning issues and big questions? Their favorite communication channels? What makes them happy? What turns them off? How do they like to express themselves? What challenges are they facing? How do they spend their time? What organizations do they trust? (Keep in mind that you’re always trying to get to the “why” behind the “what.”)

Yes, this takes some work. And right now, scrambling nonprofits have little extra energy. Yet, this is exactly the time you need to be communicating most effectively with your key audiences to insure your survival. You can’t do that without knowing more about them.

How do you find out about your key audiences? You don’t have to hire an expensive firm to run focus groups; there are lots of free ways to gradually gather this kind of intelligence. But before you begin, be clear about what you want to know and why. Formulate a list of questions you have about each major audience, and then just start. Here are a few ideas.

Ask and listen.

  • Use existing conversations. For instance, when your development team meets with donors, have them include a few questions from you and ask them to record the answers. Do the same thing in other conversations your organization has with key audience members. It doesn’t take long to build a small qualitative data base to help you evaluate how valuable and on-target your communications really are.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to learn more. If you have an event, collect evaluation forms and ask the deeper “why” questions. Always include an item at the end that invites them to tell you one thing your organization could do better. If you send out a publication readership survey, try to get at what readers wanted out of this publication and whether they got it or not. It’s not enough just to end up knowing 38% read the director’s letter and 25% read the financial summary. What questions were they really trying to answer by looking at those sections?
  • Ask questions of friends and acquaintances who are members of your key audiences.
  • To get at specific information or insights, do research through quick polls on your website or social media pages, or use  low cost survey instruments like SurveyMonkey.
  • Pay attention to the most frequent questions and requests your receptionist gets from visitors and callers.

Study them online.

  • Find out basic demographics for your Web site or blog followers by using Quantcast (it’s free).
  • Follow Web sites and blogs aimed at the chief demographic groups you’re researching.
  • Follow relevant social media group pages.
  • Search for research other organizations may have done on similar demographic populations.
  • Follow your web site’s user statistics to track what’s popular and what’s not. If you have a blog, track comments for clues about what’s important to your audiences.

Once you start getting a fuller picture of your key audiences, think about ways your organization can engage and serve them through your communications. Think about how you might answer the questions they’re interested in and help solve the challenges they’re facing.

Your audiences will start seeing that the “it’s all about me” nonprofit lecture has changed into a more inviting conversation where their voices play an important role. In today’s communications world—it’s all about us.

What are some other inexpensive ways you can find more out about your key audiences?

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4 Responses to “Nonprofits: Ten free ways to get to know your key audiences better.”

  1. Geri Stengel Says:

    While free is good, I wouldn’t discount inexpensive tools. Many online survey tools are available that simplify the creation, distribution, collection and analysis of data. Surveymonkey.com has both a free or low cost version. I find the $20/month fee well worth the price. Naturally, your clients/customers need to be online. You wouldn’t use to survey seniors or the homeless.

    With the right survey, you can not only learn who your clients are, you can find out what they think about your products and services; understand the concerns, needs and performance of your partners and employees; and get feedback from the people who matter to your nonprofit.

  2. Barbara Christensen Says:

    When we receive a gift from a new donor, we send out a new member packet that includes a survey. We ask to what other groups they belong/donate, which issues spark their interest, and how they wish us to communicate with them.

  3. Nonprofits: Create “customer pathways” to build loyalty « IMPACTMAX Says:

    […] Not every nonprofit can undertake that level of commitment to finding out what supporters want and need, but there are free or inexpensive ways to gather that information. I’ve suggested several in a past post. […]

  4. Strategic Communications Planning for Nonprofits—Step Three: Audience research and messages « IMPACTMAX Says:

    […] my post “10 free ways to get to know your key audiences better” for other ideas, some of which can be built into your routine […]


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