Strategic Communications Planning for Nonprofits—Step Three: Audience research and messages


Now that you know who your key audiences are and what you want them to do—it’s time to take a closer look at what kind of experiences and communications motivate them. Step three in the communications process—what do they need from you?

What kinds of communication can you generate that will involve them in your cause and lead to them taking the desired action? It’s not about broadcasting one-way messages, then sitting back and waiting for results. Trying to manipulate people through messages doesn’t work—we’re all too jaded from advertising.

In the not-to-distant past, most communicators thought of messages like packages. You wrapped the package as beautifully as possible, stuffed it with carefully honed messages, and sent it off to the right people. That’s no longer enough.

Today, look at your communications like seeds. You plant them, hopefully in the right soil at the right time, but that’s only the beginning. If relationships sprout, you need to nurture them over time…paying attention to problems and opportunities that affect them and trying to be of genuine service. That’s how your messages and interactions can grow into actions that benefit your organization and the world.

So, how do you figure out all this stuff about your key audiences: what stories they need to hear about your cause, what kinds of experiences they pursue and value, what their preferences are, what motivates them, and what turns them off?

You do research—either directly with audience members (surveys, interviews, or focus groups) or through online resources (like those listed below) that can help you draw a more generalized picture of your target markets.

The internet is a wonderland of free, DIY audience research tools. It takes some time to unearth what you need, but it’s essential that you understand as much about the people you’re trying to recruit as followers, activists, or donors as you possibly can. This is a step that nonprofits too often skip. My advice–don’t. You might have been able to get away without audience research in the old communications paradigm, but not in the new social media paradigm where authentic relationships rule. To serve people well, you have to first understand them.

Why don’t many nonprofits bother with audience research? It’s easier for staff members to assume their own preferences and beliefs mirror those of their key audiences. Most of the time, that’s not true. Unless the demographics, psychographics, and now sociographics of your staff are identical to your key audiences, you need to do research. You need to find out what they value and support, how they prefer to communicate, what sources they find most credible, and what they think about your organization and cause. You also need to find out where they already are online. (Go where they are, don’t just ask them to find your website–it’s called “in-reach.”)

One useful way to build a better understanding of your major audiences is to create written “personas” for each one, describing them like they are individuals. Here’s a guide from Nancy Schwartz on how to create and use personas in your communications.

And here are some great places to start researching your key audiences online.

  • This lifespan grid from Cultural Studies & Analysis can be a big help in writing personas.
  • Quantcast is a free tool that can help you start to understand the geographic, demographic, and lifestyle profiles of your current website traffic. Just put your website address in the box, and voila—you see who’s already interested in your organization…age, gender, location, affinities, etc.
  • Forrester’s Groundswell Project site offer a free social technographics profile that you build by filling in three pieces of information for each of your audiences: age, country, and gender. You then get a bar graph showing you the percentage of that audience that engages in six levels of interaction with social media technology. Based on 2009 research data, this is a good first step to understanding how receptive your audiences are to social technologies.
  • Another resource for technographics/sociographics is the ongoing series of reports issued by Pew Research Center as part of the Pew Internet and American Life project. You can quickly gain insight into usage of the internet and individual social media tools (like Twitter and Facebook) from Pew’s statistics and infographics.
  • Steve Cebalt’s ebook is more broadly focused on all kinds of communications research that nonprofits with small (or no) budgets can undertake. But I encourage you to look it over—it’s full of good tips, especially if you’re interested in doing your own research, like online surveys, to find out the interests and preferences of your audience directly from its members.
  • Likewise, Free Range Studio’s “Know Thy Audience” whitepaper focuses on surveys and focus groups, but also contains great info on how to decide what questions you need to answer about your audiences.
  • To find out what people are thinking about your organization, track online mentions of your organization’s name, the names of your top executives and flagship projects through google alerts, and in social media through the free tool Social Mention, which includes Twitter and Facebook.
  • Scan 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 operations.

Once you feel you have a good understanding of each of your major audiences—you’re in a much better place to think about what kind of communications they’re going to find most motivating. Recall your action goals for each audience. Now brainstorm what kinds of issue frames, stories, and messages would resonate most effectively with each audience—taking into account all you’ve learned about them.

In messaging—often one size does not fit all. For example, if you’re working in the field of community development, political leaders may not need to hear the same story that foundations need to hear. One may resonate more with long-term regional resource conservation and the other with the uplift of neighborhood residents. Likewise, in environmental advocacy, suburban moms may need to hear a slightly different story than rural landowners to help them understand the urgency of land protection. In youth development, parents may need to hear about the consequences of ignoring critical brain architecture development in their teen children, while legislators may need to hear stories that convey lost potential to a state workforce.

One important caveat—don’t segment the message so much that one of your messages contradicts others, or is inappropriate for your other key or general audiences. All your communications should dovetail and reinforce each other, even if they have slightly different emphases.

By the way, although few of you may have the luxury of testing your best guesses about frames, stories, and messages with your target audiences—if an opportunity arises, grab it. It can save you money and time.

As we move to my next post—choosing messengers—you should already have figured out as part of your strategic communications plan:

  1. the concrete changes you want to make in the world,
  2. which audiences can drive those changes most powerfully,
  3. exactly what actions you want your key audiences to take,
  4. what the characteristics of each of those key audiences are, and
  5. what frames, stories, and messages they will be most receptive to.

You are definitely past the hump! The rest is fun…

Here are links to my first two posts in this series, if you missed them.

Step 1: What do you want to happen

Step 2: Key Audiences

CC photo credit: 3fold



One Response to “Strategic Communications Planning for Nonprofits—Step Three: Audience research and messages”

  1. Tactics—Step 4 in strategic communications planning for nonprofits « IMPACTMAX Says:

    […] Strategic communications planning for nonprofits: Step Three—Audience research andĀ messages […]

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