Would you ask a room full of toddlers to read the top five food blogs for their perspectives on the FDA’s guidelines for sugar intake as a way to sway them into eat their veggies? Of course not! But you might sit them down – with a yummy snack, of course – and read to them from the great Seuss tome of Green Eggs and Ham. Hey, if you do a good job, you might even convince a few picky tots to try a new food in the process.
As professional communicators, our job is essentially the same challenge – when we don’t know our audience, it is nearly impossible to be effective storytellers to them. We aren’t communicating at all when we aren’t in touch with how the audience is receiving our messages, or the contexts in which they’re being received.
We all spend a lot of time heads-down (reading PR industry pubs, using research tools, and scanning headlines) but there is no substitute for first-hand experience seeing world through our audience’s eyes. How can you fine-tune your own consumer insights? The answer is simple but often intimidating: Get out of your bubble and get hands-on.
With that in mind, here are my quick tips for getting up close and personal with your audience:
Leave Your Bias at the Door
Step outside your own demographic by tapping into your empathy. Spend some time reading and watching the same media as your target audience in a non-judgmental way. Check your bias at the door – you are likely approaching this assignment with some false assumptions. Perhaps you think you know what morning talk shows feature, but you haven’t watched one in years. Maybe you assume all consumers feel strongly about a topic, but you haven’t spent the time reading their comment threads in blogs. Maybe you’re getting all your info from one source and just need to dig deeper. Or perhaps, you just don’t relate to a given group so are biased in your overall approach. Get past it and challenge yourself to go beyond the surface, get a full picture, and get yourself aligned in the proces.
Take a Field Trip
Reading up isn’t enough to expand your understanding – you have to get out into the world and experience the context in which your audience lives. Visit the shops, neighborhoods, events, and hangouts your target audience may frequent. Pay attention to how other brands are messaging – what else is competing for attention? What has the most value in this native context? Ask questions, engage, but also quietly observe, take photos and notes. You’ll see inspiration everywhere and develop your spidey sense for what won’t fly for your audience. (Needless to say, leave your preferences aside for this assignment, too. See your audience’s environment through their eyes and not your own.)
Walk the Walk
I am a big believer in being a customer of all of my clients, whether or not I am the intended demographic – I shop in my clients’ stores, use their products, eat their food (drink their wine!), and live by their apps. But, and almost more importantly, become a customer of their biggest competitors too. Observe how they message to the same audience, and critically evaluate what works and what is off the mark. This goes a large step beyond competitor media coverage tracking – which also has a critical role – and provides a valuable way to see how competitors are really communicating.
There’s no way to reach your consumers if you don’t understand them. So make sure you aren’t on the outside looking in. Jane Goodall didn’t learn about chimpanzees by watching them behind glass – she got right in there with them. The same goes for consumers. So roll your sleeves up and get ready to do some field work. With a little extra effort, you can better understand your audience from the inside out.