Image of a female reaching up to pick a lightbulb with the words ideas and material for inspriring an audience centred approach through conversation

Ideas and material for inspiring an audience-centred approach (through conversation)

Tips, quotes and ideas for inspiring colleagues to place audiences (learners, customers, funders, service users or donors) at the heart of your organisation

We all know that understanding our audiences uncovers golden nuggets.

The illuminating kind we’d never unearth otherwise.

The bedazzling kind that spark innovation.  

And as marketers, we all know something about the audiences we aim to engage.

But how well do we support others in our organisations to be audience centred? 

Is everyone rowing in the same direction to meet your audiences’ needs? Is everyone contributing and supporting you?

Or are some hindering you? Are some people’s beliefs so deep-rooted that nothing short of a bombshell would inspire a shift?

Fear not! In this guide, I’m going to share with you ideas and materials for coaching even the most resistant to adopt an audience-centred approach.

However you describe your audiences, all the guidance can be used interchangeably to inspire a learner centred, customer centred, donor centred or user centred approach. And I’ll also be posing questions to help you develop your own authentic toolkit.

I’ve packed a heap of ideas into this post. Too many for one person to use. So pick out those which appeal to you. Then, feel free to weave them into everyday conversation.

Sidenote: People in all sizes of organisations use my blog to evolve their thinking. I earn my living though supporting organisations with personalised marketing and digital coaching and training.

So, if you re-use my words, please show your support by referencing or linking to this blog to help spread the word so that I can continue to write free articles for all readers. Thank you.

Table of Contents

Recognising when your organisation needs to better understand its audiences

Have you ever had that anxious feeling when your organisation launches something new?

We’ve all been there.

You thought it was awesome. The team worked hard to get the seal of approval from stakeholders.

But now you’re doubting yourself. You see it with different eyes. Your inner-critic kicks in. 

Will people gloss over it? Or, will it stand out? Will it resonate with people? Or, will it look odd?

You’re not sure.

You know you should have done more to better understand your audience to reduce the risk of a mahoosive flop. But there wasn’t time. Everyone had to work at cheetah speed because your organisation needs it now. As in, NOW now.

The email goes and the social team post, as scheduled. Phew!

Time to turn your attention to your inbox.

You flick back in 30 mins to see who has engaged.

Ugggh! It’s disappointing. Only a couple of interactions.

You close your eyes and hope for the best.

Perhaps there’ll be a delayed surge. Fingers crossed! 

Time to steel yourself for what’s next.

Izzy, a colleague in the development team, is working with an exciting partner. They want new content to serve as a resource on your organisation’s website. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

But you don’t think your web visitors will connect with it. It’s an instinct thing. You tried talking to Izzy about it but she’s persistent in driving it forwards.

So, you’ll have to get on with it.

You feel a mixture of frustration and here-we-go-again resignation.  

Person looking annoyed with the words so frustrating across the top
cc-by-nc-nd Bryan Mathers for We Are Open Co-op

It’s frustrating because you know the team could be doing more impactful work. But you don’t have evidence to prove it and you can’t delay any longer. And anyhow, Izzy might escalate a complaint.

Sound familiar? 

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. It’s a narrative we’ve all seen before because it’s like this for most of us who are doing our best in this crazy-busy world.

With the nature of digital and income targets meaning we’re always-ON, there’s always something more pressing. Every day, there are KPIs to hit, board reports to complete or social posts to respond to.

So we do what we need to do, to get to the end of each day. Rarely, do we get the chance to innovate.

And let’s be honest, deep audience research spirals down to the foot of our mountainous to-do lists.

List of scribbles listed under 4 headings : Nice to do, to do, doing, done with the words audience research at the bottom of the nice to do column

But what if things were different?

What if everyone in your organisation valued the benefits getting to know thy audience?

What if everyone afforded you the space to do so?

Well, here comes the good news.

Whatever your role, or seniority, you can ignite the shift. And you can do it through everyday conversation.

Maybe it won’t happen overnight.

But with a dash of patience and a sprinkle of resilience, you can be the ripple that paves the way for a more connected future.

Creating the space to help people adopt an audience-centred approach

Right now, you’re probably thinking …

… how on earth do I find time to help people understand our audience?

How do I break the stalemate? How do I mobilise my colleagues to do the same?

You can’t do it alone. That’s for sure. Planning the work yourself and revealing a complete proposal at the end could be a recipe for failure.

Why?

Because people nit-pick when they see something for the first time. It’s human nature.

So, squash any inner urge to fervently hammer out a document outlining an audience-centred programme.

You know you can’t preside and tell your leadership teams ‘I think we should do this,’ either. That never works.

So, if neither working all hours nor, announcing what needs to change will work, what can you do to inspire an appetite for a new way of working?

Well, I’ve had the most success when I’ve given colleagues the information and support they need to think things through – at their own pace – so they can come to their solutions.

Most modern business psychologists recommend this approach too. Dr. Nashater Deu Solheim, psychologist and business leader is fabulous at helping people to be more influential. In her book, the Leadership PIN Code, Nashater writes: 

A good coaching leader doesn't tell the team what to do but directs or facilitates them to finding their way to do it ... The solution begins when you shift from fixer to curious and learning mode. You're curious about what your team or other people need from you in order to do their work more effectively or to support you.

Dr. Nashater Deu Solheim

Whatever your seniority in your organisation – when it comes to being audience-centred – you have the know-how to be curious and find out what people need.

In Who Cares: Building audience-centred engagement strategies in the non-profit sector, in a chapter titled Make the case, Joe Barrell encourages us all to make the most of the unique knowledge we bring to the table as engagement professionals. 

Your toolbox might include ... channel and brand performance, competitor activity and so on, compiled into regular reports to make sense of it. Your role could be keeping your colleagues focused on the external environment, which is a healthy place to be.

Joe Barrell, Principal Consultant of Eden Stanley, delivering insight and strategy development programmes for non-profits

Who to involve in a programme to inspire an audience-centred approach?

Meeting with every individual can be time-consuming. So finding supporters of an audience-centred culture, early on, helps to spread the load. 

Successful programmes often bring together people from all parts of the organisation who can see the opportunities and help share the ethos. Whether it’s a trustee with a great idea for research or a colleague who has already experienced the benefits of audience research.

People power will become your most powerful lever.

Think cascade effect: the more people talk about an audience-centred culture, the more people will want to get involved.   

If you already have a team working on a strategy for engaging people, it makes sense to work with that team. But who else you might want to involve from start?

Here are some questions to consider.

Who is most likely to be interested?

Who can help make it a success?

Who has the skills to help?

Who is willing and keen to help?

Who will help spread the knowledge?

Who controls the resources?

Can you identify a sponsor on the board to involve in the journey?

In a digital strategy resource, Zoe Amar, a leading expert in the charity sector, reminds us to stay sensitive to how senior people, in particular, might be feeling about a new way of working.

Take on the role of coach. I’ve met many senior people who’ve told me privately that they feel worried about not being further along the digital journey and scared that they lack the skills to progress. I always tell them that the appetite to change is more important than experience- you can, after all, buy skills in.

Zoe Amar

How to spark an audience-centred approach

One of the most powerful things you and the newly formed team can do is to work more openly – from the outset.

Talking about the stuff you’re doing (or would like to do more of) in bite-sized chunks – can help remove barriers to knowledge and consequently, any lurking suspicions.

THe word open with the 'O' depicted as a window to the outside world with the word 'knowledge' appearing in the distance. Remove Barriers to knowledge is under the word open.
Remove Barriers to Knowledge by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Catalyst, a free network for digital for people in civil society, avidly advocates the benefits of open working. You can view oodles of examples of charities, groups and agencies working in the open on thecatalyst.org.uk

Most people also appreciate being listened to and having the opportunity to get involved.

When I first worked as part of a leadership team of a national organisation, I had a habit of writing short discussion papers and talking them through with people individually to seek their input. It worked because colleagues felt informed and listened to.

But when my colleagues changed, people didn’t read my papers anymore. I was puzzled.  

I sussed it eventually. My new colleagues needed to play a more active role. So, I switched to running workshops that enabled teams to find their own solutions, collectively. It worked because people enjoyed the human interaction and a sense of ownership.

So, the point I’m trying to make is that there is no silver bullet for the opening move.

Silver bullet with the words in red there's no silver bullet (when it comes to inspiring an audience-centred approach )
No silver bullet by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

It’s about understanding the people you’re trying to support.

It’s about meeting their needs. 

It’s about finding techniques that work for them.

That said, whatever recipe I use with organisations, here are 3 watchwords I always check for.

Superiority

Reassuring, empathetic and inspiring. You want to be all those things but never bombastic. Sounds obvious, right? You’d never dream of coercing or talking down to people. But when we have more knowledge than our peers and we’re eager for people to change, we can inadvertently come across as superior. We’ve all done it. And sure enough, as soon as we do, our colleagues switch off … in an instant. 

Language!!

When we hear the same words and messages again and again or terms that don’t mean anything to us, our ears send a blah, blah, blah message to our brain. 

Dull textbook speak sends non marketers to sleep. Remember, unless they’re superfans they won’t care. So give them a reason to care. Make them smile. Inject some laughter. Be more human. Be more you. 

young asian indian woman, dressed smart casual, laughing

Try varying words and avoid ones people might gloss over because they don’t understand them. For example, instead of segmentation try saying grouping people who have the same beliefs or habits.

Assumptions

When communication breaks down it’s usually always because one person thought one thing and the other thought something else. In other words, there was a misunderstanding.

So question everything. Assume nothing. And unearth misconceptions early so you can all take off on the same flight path.

Empathising with where people are on the audience centricity journey

‘Know thy audience’ is a well-known mantra.

We all know we should do it. Chances people in your organisation know it too – even if they’re not verbalising it.

Psychologists who analyse the traits of successful influencers repeatedly reveal that great influencers show empathy (not to be confused with sympathy!)

Showing empathy with why audience needs have fallen down the list and letting people know you’re all in the same boat helps people be more open to change.

Why? Because by getting things out in the open – without blame – you’ll be making it safe for people to explore how knowing your audience will lead to better outcomes. 

Influential people meet people where they are, wherever they are.

We’re hardwired to listen to stories when they are rooted in things we can relate to.

So, how about sharing your own not-so-perfect stories to establish common ground?

Or if that’s not for you, how about inviting people – from within or outside your organisation – to share their wisdom?

Explaining that not knowing thy audience is common in other organisations is good way to put people at ease.

These stats show how audience research is being forgotten about universally. 

  • only 18% believe that audience research and insight very much inform their external engagement and communications work published in Who Cares? By Joe Barrell with Sarah Fitzgerald. Source: the CharityComms Survey 2019
  • 65% of marketers in the private sector reported doing audience research “rarely or never.” in a study by CoSchedule

Once people feel more at ease, that’s when you can ask questions to help people distinguish facts from assumptions. 

Like most parents, I do this with my children all the time. Just last week, my youngest daughter said ‘All the other girls are cartwheel sensations but I can’t even do one.’

‘Why?’ I asked. 

‘Because my arms aren’t strong enough.’

‘Why are their arms stronger? Do they carry more to exercise their muscles?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘So, why can they cartwheel?’

‘Errrm … because they practice … all the time.’

‘Where could you practice?’

 And so re-begins her journey to learn to cartwheel in the privacy of our garden. 

Knowing your audience analogies

At some point in all this coaching, you’ll need to explain why it pays to understand your audience.

Writers and coaches explain things by drawing parallels with other aspects of people’s lives. It’s a good way to add some spice and make messages more memorable.

If you did home learning with your children in lockdown you’ll know all about using metaphors, similes and analogies to add interest to stories. Or if you’re like me, you’ll have got into a right muddle with them. 

So I won’t attempt to use the right technical term. Instead, here are a couple of ‘parallels’ I’ve explained recently to clients.

It’s like gathering kindling for a fire

Finding out about your audience is like gathering kindling for a fire.

Without kindling, I can’t get a roaring fire going in my cosy lounge. Nor, can I kindle a warming glow for our kids to warm their hands on a campfire and toast marshmallows on a chilly night.

Short film of a marshmallow toasting on an open fire

Similarly, without the right information about your audience informing your plans, your initiative will struggle to ignite.

Like a relationship that builds over time with a colleague or old friend

Think about a relationship you’ve built with a colleague who has become a friend.

You understand her, her motivations and how she’ll react because you’ve listened to her and observed her at work. You know you can pick up the phone and comfortably ask her questions. You totally get where she is coming from. She feels like you can read her mind. You can put yourself in her shoes and even second-guess her responses. Sometimes, you think you know her better than she knows herself!

Two female friends chatting happily

That’s the relationship you are trying to build between your brand and your audience.

Successful organisations make their audience feel like they’re reading their mind. They state their pain points, challenges and goals so clearly.    

They even say the stuff their audience believes but doesn’t talk about.

Feel free to use these paralells in your conversations. But I’m sure you can invent your own that would resonate better with your colleagues.

What would pique their interest? Is there a film, cause or sport you could relate the concept to? You know your colleagues best.

Understanding your audience quotes from the experts

Words spoken by experts impact more profoundly than words from a colleague.

I remember lots of nodding when I repeatedly explained ‘It doesn’t matter how many superlatives we use to describe our organisation. It’s what we do and what other people say about us that counts.’ Yet, those same people still spent hours editing copy, for what felt like 20 times or more, to describe our organisation’s greatness. We were stuck in a rut.

Then in 2012, I shared Google’s words in a marketing strategy workshop. Google had announced that consumers didn’t listen to what businesses said about their own products anymore. Instead, people had turned to independent reviews and friends and family to gauge opinion.

The sentiment among colleagues changed – instantly. We gained support to create a Word-of-Mouth strategy. If only Google had shared those pearls of wisdom sooner!

Fortunately, the value of getting to know your audience is the one thing all experts agree on so there are plenty of quotes to choose from. Here are some of the most well-known quotes that have an inspired audience-centred approach for decades. They’re business quotes but we can easily apply them to charities when take the view that a charity is a bridge connecting a donor’s belief with a cause. So feel  free to use these or even better, cite experts you know your colleagues respects.

Image of Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple with the words "Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.'
Quote from Seth Godin, best-selling marketing author 'Understanding the mythology of your partner, your customer and your audience is far more important than watching the instant replay of what actually happened.'
Illustration of Peter Drucker, founder of management as we know it today with the quote ''the aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product fits him and sells itself.'

So in other words, the trick is to understand who your audiences are, what they want and where you can find them, so you can help them solve problems or help them to make the world a better place. All while staying true to your mission and values.

And all you need to do is get your audience to tell you about their challenges in their own words.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Explaining why it pays to define your niche

Yep, sounds great Mel. But what about all the complicated research and data modelling I’d need to explain?

I understand your concern. It’s a question people ask often.

We all know that appealing to the masses through today’s fragmented media channels no longer works. Even large organisations with mammoth budgets pursue differentiated strategies to connect with different groups of people that share common needs, wants or beliefs.

Yet, I’ve lost count of the times I‘ve heard intelligent directors say phrases like:

“We just need to get our messages out there.” Or, “We want people walking down the street to know what we do,” without any regard for tapping into people’s beliefs and needs in order to change behaviours or inspire action. 

The desire for your organisation to succeed in its mission will overpower logic in some people. Especially, when under pressure.

So be prepared to calmly remind people why it pays to identify who is most likely to engage first.

Stats to explain why it pays to identify your niche audience

Things will click into place for some when they hear numbers about how our lives are jammed-packed with content.

Seeing the mind-blowing figures in black and white serves as a stark reminder that we can’t possibly attempt to appeal to everyone. 

Blogs

There are a staggering 600 million blogs in the world today and over 1.7 billion websites.

Over 2.5 billion blog posts are being published each year worldwide. That’s 6.9 million blog posts published per day, and 4,800 blog posts published each minute. (2021, Internet Live Stats)

Emails

About 60 billion spam emails will be sent daily between 2019 to 2023.

(Source: Campaign Monitor)

The average number of emails in an inbox is 200.

(Source: Harvard Business Review)

Social Posts

  • Snapchat users share 527,760 photos
  • 456,000 tweets are sent on Twitter
  • Instagram users post 46,740 photos

 every minute of the day

Source: Domo’s Data Never Sleeps 5.0 report

And more than 300 million photos get uploaded per day on Facebook (source: Facebook statistics)

Videos explaining audience segmentation

Explaining segmentation simply is hard. Here are some videos you can draw on.

First up is Stevie Langford, from marketing software company Hurree, giving a useful overview (in 6-ish watchable minutes) of the 4 main types of segmentation.

Or, if you’re a Games of Thrones fan, listen to Stevie segmenting the 7 kingdoms.

This Spaghetti sauce TEDEX talk from 2004 is still one of my favourite videos for explaining the concept of differentiation.

In this talk, Malcolm Gladwell explores the story of the man who refused to believe in a “perfect” spaghetti sauce, and how his research led to differentiated products. Edited down to relevant part (5:02 to 10:50.)

Explaining what's involved in becoming audience-centred

At some point, you and the team will need to explain what adopting an audience-centred approach will mean for your organisation.

How will you explain that now is the time to be strict with yourselves and to make the time for audience research even if it means doing less (to achieve more)?

However, you decide to do it, be realistic. People will respect you for it. The last thing you want to do is make promises you can’t keep and consequently, lose trust.

So let people know it won’t be all plain sailing. Talk about the time you’ll need to invest and the tough decisions you’ll need to make to stop doing some things – at least for a period of time. Indeed, it will be upsy-downy. 

But the biggest risk of all is: not doing anything. Can you help people imagine the consequences of carrying on blindly? Can you help colleagues visualise the effort that could go to waste without the benefit of insight? 

With advances in technology, the pressure to be more digital is immense.

People want to feel like they are dealing with humans, not robots. And never has there been a more pressing need to put people at the heart of digital than as we recover from the pandemic.

So this is probably a good time to work through workshop exercises with colleagues to help them find their own wisdom.  

Embedding audience-centred practices

Understanding your audience is a practice.

It’s NOT a one-off project.

It’s a way of operating.

Most experts agree; an audience-centred approach works best when it’s embedded in regular routines.

That said, many audience-focused organisations started with a one-off project. A project that swirled into greater things. So there’s nothing wrong with starting off with a one-off project. I’m all for doing one project at a time.

Sadly, one of the biggest waste of resources I see in organisations is letting the momentum fade to a distant memory after the first project.

Yet, the reality is … there is no such thing as knowing your audience well enough. In fact, the more you find out, the more curious you’ll become and the more questions you’ll have.

Dots expanding in a tree like structure to more and more dots. Female looking through binoculars with the words
cc-by-nc-nd Bryan Mathers for We Are Open Co-op

Inspiring an audience-centred approach is within your reach

Thanks to all the digital tools available at our fingertips, understanding and connecting with our audiences is now within our reach. You don’t need to be a data whizz nor have mammoth budgets to make it happen.

You may of course decide to employ the services of a specialist depending. That can be a wise move.

But by being the coach, supporting colleagues to overcome fears and roadblocks, you’ll inspire colleagues to embrace the journey. And that’s the biggest chunk of the travail.

How will you spark the change?

One thing is certain. Digital will get more demanding; channels will continue to fragment; and our resources will be spread more thinly.

But as marketers we have a choice.

We can follow the trends. Or we can choose to be different.

We can continue with the humdrum. Or we can muster the courage to be change-makers.

We can respond to everyone internally. Or we can choose to get focused.

We can stumble in the dark. Or we can illuminate the path ahead.  

We can’t create more hours in the day.

But we can take a step back to figure it all out. We can choose to empower our colleagues to empathise with audiences and pave the way for a more dovetailed future.

One more thing …

I hope you’ve found something in this article to spark even one little change in your organisation. If so, please share with your network and make a comment below.

And if you’d like personalised support on inspiring people to make the shift, give me a call. It costs nothing to talk.   

Some links in the post are affiliate links. Please use them. It doesn’t cost you any more if you decide to purchase and it provides me with a nominal income which allows me to buy more books to inspire my articles.

PS. A big thank you to Frank Dick and the members of his World Class Coaches Club for helping me to think through how to phrase things differently.

And thank you to Henneke Duistermaat whose wonderful blogs and guides gave me the confidence to write my first long-form post.

Books and tools mentioned in this post

Who Cares? By Joe Barrell. Highly recommended as a go-to reference for building an engagement strategy

The Leadership PIN Code by Dr Nashater Deu Solheim. Great for discovering your leadership blind spots.

2 thoughts on “Ideas and material for inspiring an audience-centred approach (through conversation)”

  1. What a great post!

    So many ideas to draw and reflect on. I love the concept of supporting colleagues to focus on audiences.

    I’m looking forward to your next blog.

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