Knowing the audience you want to communicate with is a cornerstone of effective non-profit communications. All too often when I talk to non-profits about who their target audience is, I'll get answers like "donors" or "the local community." These descriptors are way too broad and won't serve you well as you try to make decisions about communications goals, tactics, and content. The antidote to having a broadly defined audience is to identify your target audience and to get to know them through on-going research.
If you're new to audience research, this post will cover the basics of audience research and offer some advanced strategies for in-depth research. Let's get started!
Getting Started with Nonprofit Audience Research
The goal of doing target audience research is to have in-depth knowledge of the audience so that your non-profit can be more effective in communicating (or fundraising) with that audience. Most non-profits start in one of two places with audience research. They either 1) already have some idea about who the audience is, but they don't know that much about them or 2) they have no idea what audience they are trying to reach.
If you already have some idea about who your target audience is (or who you want it to be), audience research will be a little bit easier. You'll use what you know about your current audience to guide your research and explore assumptions you might be making about them.
If your nonprofit is starting from scratch and doesn't know what audience you're trying to reach, not all is lost! Chances are you probably have somewhat of an audience built already. Your job through research is to get to know the existing audience in order to pick out similarities among audience members.
Assumptions are the Enemy of Non-Profit Communications
When I guide organizations through audience research processes, one of the first steps we take is to understand what assumptions the organization is currently making about their audience. Assumptions are any piece of information about that audience that is not back up by data.
I see assumptions as a common challenge for many non-profit communications programs. Unfortunately, we don't challenge ourselves often enough about what audience information is actual fact versus assumption. I recommend you spend a few minutes brainstorming a list of everything you currently "know" about your audience. Once you've got that list created, go back through each point on the list and ask yourself if you've got data to back it up. If not, that point is an assumption until proven otherwise.
Set a Goal for Your Research
Now that you've identified some assumptions and facts about your audience, you can set a goal for your research. Goal setting is key to a successful research process as the goal will drive decisions about the kinds of questions you ask to how you conduct your research.
Here are some examples of goals I've seen in research processes:
>> To identify our target audience's key demographic information
>> To understand why our target audience wants to be connected to our organization
>> To understand what our target audience's goal is for their relationship with our non-profit
Take some time to think through a couple of possible goals for your non-profit's research process. Ultimately, you'll want to select just one goal for focused and effective research.
Nonprofit Audience Research Methodologies
You've laid all this ground work for audience research, but how do you actually conduct audience research? The good news is that with all of the digital platforms and technologies non-profits use we tend to have access to a lot of data.
What audience data you choose to look at will depend on the audience you're trying to research as well as the research goals you may have set. Here are some common places to start looking at audience data that you may want to consider.
>> Social media analytics - Specifically you'll want to pay attention to demographic information and behavioral data.
>> Website analytics - If you use Google Analytics, you'll have tons of information right at your finger tips. Your Google Analytics dashboard will give you access to information about website visitors, where they tend to go on your website, and so on.
>> Google Search Console - A sister product to Google Analytics, Google Search Console will give you useful information about the keywords that help people land on your website.
>> Donor and other CRM data - If your donor audience is your target audience for this research project, your donor CRM (AKA your database) will be a great place to gather some information. Information about giving behavior and preferences can ultimately inform donor communications.
>> Email CRM - Email is a popular communications channel for many organizations. While you may not be collecting a ton of information about each email subscriber, your email CRM will give you insights about subscriber behavior. Again, like with your donor giving behavior, this information can help you make better decisions about your email communications.
>> Past surveys and other analytics - It's always worth looking in your non-profit's file archives to see if staff have undertaken audience research in the past. Even if it's a few years old, you might find some of the data to be relevant to your current audience.
If your nonprofit wants to take a deeper dive into audience research, here are a few of my recommended methodologies.
>> Surveys - I use audience surveys in almost every project I work on these days. This is an opportunity to get information directly from the audience's mouth. Though I will add the caveat that it's important to look at stated preferences versus behavioral preferences. I tend to keep surveys focus and short. Often 5 to 10 questions total. Each question is strategically selected based on the goal for my research process. I make sure that the survey includes some multiple choice questions as well as open ended questions. I find that open ended questions are great for qualitative information that I can then use in messaging.
>> One-on-One conversations - Sometimes you just need to talk directly to people in your target audience. I typically do this as follow up after a survey. I'll reach out to people who participated in the survey and ask them if we can have a quick conversation about their responses. I use that conversation to have them go more in-depth on some of their answers. If you didn't send a survey, you can still have these conversations! Just make sure you go into them prepared with at least a few questions to ask.
>> Focus groups - This is not a methodology that I personally use, but I do know that some organizations like to use focus groups as a way to do audience research. If you've never done a focus group before, I would recommend working with a facilitator or a consultant who can guide the process for you.
I've covered a lot of ground in the post about audience research and I hope it's helpful for your non-profit! As you embark on research, make sure you have a central place to capture data and learnings from the process. Ultimately, your goal is to take what you learn about your audience and turn it into and audience profile (or persona) that summarizes who you are trying to reach through your communications.
If you have questions about audience research, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Turn your audience research into content that matters with the Monthly Content Planner Kit
Enter your name an email below to get your kit