10 common objections to becoming audience centred and how organisations overcome them

So, you want to inspire an audience-first culture at your organisation?

You want colleagues to transform this idealistic way of thinking into an everyday practice … for the good of the organisation and for the people it serves.

You want everyone – from your Chair to the newest member of the team – to focus on responding to thy audiences’ needs.

But what happens when people don’t put their words into practice? When people don’t commit the time or budget?

Or, when one person objects so convincingly it creates a cascade?

It can be a challenge, to say the least.

But rest assured. As someone who values the power of caring about your audience, with kindness and energy, you can inspire the change you want to see.

I’ve recently been researching and reflecting on supporting organisations to become more audience-centred.

Here are some of the grumbles I’ve repeatedly encountered and things that have helped organisations overcome them.

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.

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

A thought on using this post

I’m sharing my opinions and experiences because I think they may help you.

My hope is that by digesting this article, your thoughts will more readily come to mind – on-the-spot – when objections and opportunities to influence come your way.

Folks share their opinions all over the internet.

But really it comes down to you and your context.

So, try not to take everything you read here as gospel.

Do reflect and question …

… Does the thought work for you? Is it right for your circumstances?

Then, use my thoughts as inspiration for coining your own, original ways of unscrambling qualms.

And whatever path you decide take, remember to check-in on sounding natural. Like ‘You.’

Objection #1: We already know our audience because we’ve been ‘them.’

This first one is common. Especially in the charity sector.

Many of us decide to work for an organisation because of a lived experience or something we feel passionate about. And insights born from personal experience can be like gold dust.

But thinking, “We don’t need to spend time talking to audience. We just ask people with lived experiences internally.” is a dangerous trap to fall into.

Why?

Because as soon as we join an organisation, we start to see things through a different lens.

Because one person’s journey is not the same as everyone else’s of course. 

Because when we only listen to a handful of stories, we only identify with those stories.

And because people have different opinions, habits and motivations for engaging with your organisation.

Look at any charity’s story database and the diversity among brave people showcasing their story of humanity is usually stark.   

Mind charity's web page showing a diverse range of people
Mind Charity's service user stories
Nacro charity stories page showing a diverse range of people sharing their stories
Nacro charity stories web page

So, be poised to remind people of the need to understand the diversity -as well as the commonality – in your audience.

I understand though! It can be difficult to express this out loud if the subject is a sensitive one. So, avoid making your response personal to your colleagues.

Instead, try:

  • using examples of diversity in other people. Perhaps you already have case studies of service users with different motivations or experiences. 
  • working together to define a goal that centres around identifying diversity in your audience so you can go on to respond to differing wants and needs.

And if this belief of ‘they’re just like us’ is still institutionally ingrained, one sure-fire way to disprove (or confirm) such a theory, is by anonymously surveying staff and comparing results to data from an audience survey. 

This often reveals dazzling learnings.

 

A case in point

I remember first coming across this very same objection many years ago.

I was working with well-known sports coaches who were creating learning resources for the coaching workforce.

The topics they wrote about were technical, geared towards coaches who aspired to coach elite performers.

And despite our marketing efforts, take-up was low. Our audience wasn’t showing much interest. Views were low. Conversion was poor. And impact was diddly-squat.  

When we talked to the expert group of coaches, we understood their reasoning for their focus. 

It was selflessly well-meaning. 

They simply wanted more coaches to have the same opportunities they’d had.

Still, we urged them to talk more to today’s coaches (most of whom who worked full-time in another job and coached kids on a weekend) to find out their real everyday needs.

But again and again, we failed to ignite the shift. Our experts continued to  repeatedly asked us ‘to get the products out there more.’

Now, I was willing to contend that I didn’t know best. That I didn’t know why these products didn’t fly. But I did not feel inclined to invest more budget in promoting these same products.

So instead, we put our energies into designing a coach survey and conducting follow-up group discussions.

What we discovered was this.  

Most coaches simply wanted to make things fun so that more kids would come back … week after week.

And they were hungry for new ideas to make this happen.

These results were hardly jaw-droppingly surprising.

 But the exercise served its purpose.

It helped our experts get into the habit of seeing things through a different lens: the audience’s lens.  

And what’s more, this simple piece of evidence provoked a profound shift towards a differentiated strategy for coach learning with experts going on to create different content for weekend coaches and aspiring coaches.

The range continued to evolve into what it is today. 

Website page showing a range of different learning topics to suit different types of coaches such as Lifestyle management and Protecting Children
Today's wide-ranging course topics for coaches on ukcoaching.org
Web page showing different course types for coaches. Webinars, workshops, badges etc
Today, coaches have access to a range of different learning formats on UKCoaching.org

Personally, I took away 3 lynchpin learnings from this experience.

  1. Being an expert in a topic doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘understanding thy audience.’
  2. It can take time to facilitate a change in a deep-rooted belief. Patience really is a virtue!
  3. Gathering robust evidence can help people to see things differently … sooner.

Objection #2: It’s not our job. Can’t our marketing people act as the voice of our audience?

This one can surface when you ask people to gather feedback. 

It’s true. Marketing and comms people do tend to be empathetic. They put themselves in their audiences’ shoes so they can represent the voice of the user, supporter or customer. It’s what we’re trained to-do, right?

Wrong!!!

This is where we need to help people see how dangerous it can be to be dependent on the innate abilities of the marketing team to represent the voice of the audience.

Remember in objection #1, we explored how as soon as we join an organisation, we stop being the audience. We leave the audience’s perspective behind.

This applies to marketers too.

Mark Ritson, brand consultant and ex-professor of a marketing MBA talks about this when he explains to his students about what makes successful brand management. 

The context is business. But his principles are easy to apply in the public and third sectors too.

Ritson explains that when marketing teams accept they know nothing about their audience, that’s when they get curious.

That’s when they find out the real pains, needs and desires of their audience.

And that, my dear readers, is when the magic happens.  

In the last decade, I myself have observed that those of us who are savvy with digital and social media tactics, might not seek to deeply understand thy audience.

It’s not our fault though.

It’s because the focus of marketing learning has shifted to executing digital tactics over marketing fundamentals. And demographics reports from Google Analytics and other social platforms tools, such as Facebook Audience Insights, lull us into believing we have all the data we need.

But these tools don’t give us the answers to the all-important why questions, such as:

  • Why do people engage with your organisation?
  • Why don’t x% of your audience engage with your social channels?  

Interestingly, Ritson goes on to reminds us not to be complacent if we hail from old school, CIM-y marketing either.

He points out that the more experienced we become and the more accomplished we feel, the more likely we are to believe in our own instinct.  And the harder it becomes for us to believe the audience is right.

Objection #3 We invested in research 3-years ago. Let’s not do the same all over again!

What about the theory of change research we did? Can’t we use that?

Or what about those personas that Josh commissioned for the new website? He’s left now but they must be on the system somewhere.

Sound familiar?

There may well be golden nuggets hidden in past research.

Much of it may be valid but, things change.

Does your organisation know what’s changed?

What is the impact of the after-effects of the pandemic for example?

Can you craft questions that might make your colleagues stop and think, such as:

  • If the make-up of our audience is changing, what data do we have to prove it?
  • If our potential audience base has grown or contracted, has our organisation adjusted to match?
  • Has the sentiment towards our organisation changed?

In a nutshell, we need to detect change so that we can respond early.

Amnesty International serves as an excellent case study.

Research by agency Eden Stanley identified an opportunity for Amnesty International to grow a new, wider market with ‘centrist consensus voters’ due to a shift in public opinion in the UK. 

This marked a profound shift not only in Amnesty International UK’s communications strategy but, in a wider strategy too (as outlined in these slides below.)

Slide showing Amnesty International's new market opportunity.

Can you find stories of inspiring organisations  that have injected energy into strategy through research?

Market research agencies are a rich source of case studies.

It’s also helpful to remind people how quickly perceptions have a habit of becoming reality.

It’s a concept Rutger Bregman explains so clearly in his wonderfully uplifting writing in, Humankind: A Hopeful History

Bregman describes how the media has helped flawed theories on humankind become popularised over many decades.

It’s what sociologists dub a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you predict a bank will go bust and that convinces a lot of people to close their accounts, then, sure enough, the bank will go bust.

Rutger Bregman

It’s the same for your organisation of course. 

If influencers – such as journalists or bloggers – hear negative sentiments about your organisation, and they spread the word, trust in your organisation will tumble. And before you know it, your organisation will be asking you to focus on re-building trust, which will eat away at your time for mission-driven work.

Indeed, it’s a core reason the function of PR came into being.

And we’re all acutely aware of how a lack of trust and stories in the media and can be the start of an uphill struggle; how they can invoke turmoil. The most recent example being the petrol crisis.

But don’t forget there is a more positive way of looking at detecting change too.

If you spot a positive change in sentiment early, you can build on that. And create a renaissance; or a brighter future … for the people or cause you serve.  

What all this demonstrates to me is this.

There is a compelling need for organisations to predict change in sentiment early so they can act … in time.

CC attributution by Visual Thinkery CC-BY-ND

Objection #4 Why not use research that is already publicly available?

This is such a valid question

Research agencies, Think Tanks and Universities publish a cathedral of  data and conclusions on behavioural science.  

You might not find exactly what you need. But something might help you get part way there.

For example, when looking to overcome the challenge of getting more girls active, someone in the sports and physical activity sector found a golden nugget in research and initiatives conducted by Newcastle University in Australia.

The research found that fathers tend to spend less time with their daughters than sons and don’t acknowledge their role in fostering their daughters’ physical activity behaviours. Yet, those who do have a positive influence on their daughters self-esteem.

This led to a Daughter’s and Dad’s pilot community project encouraging fathers to play a greater role in supporting their daughters’ physical confidence and skills. Weekly 90-minute sessions coach 5–11-year-olds through fun games and educate Dads about positive lifestyle role-modelling at the same time.

The first year of the project was hugely successful and was expanded in subsequent years.

The insight also led to a campaign by Women In Sport (funded by Sport England) to boost Dads confidence to be role models for their daughters.

Here are  so many sources of research, it can feel overwhelming. Here are just 5 examples of audience insight sources for purpose-driven organisations.

1 In the arts sector, the audience agency – with funding from the Arts Council – collects and shares data to provide national and local arts organisations with a clear picture for finding new audience opportunities. 

What’s more, their segmentation tool enables organisations to understand their audience by overlaying data on their CRM records.

Web page displaying the 10 audience agency spectrum profiles
Audience Agency Spectrum Profiles

2 In health, there’s an abundance of research published by Public Health England, the Health Foundation and think tanks.

But with so much to wade through, asking a public health specialist to point you in the right direction can be a welcome shortcut. 

Health Research web page on gov.uk, an A-Z
A-Z of health research on gov.uk

3 BIT, formerly the government’s nudge unit, publishes insights on policy areas and social issues.  And even has digital tools to help you design your own nudge programme. 

Screenshot of a BIT website page displaying barriers such as resources and time, social and cultural norms.
The Behavioural Insights Team Barrier Identification Tool

4 Research agencies such as Eden Stanley and Enthuse publish trends and tracking studies in charity giving. These are often reported on content websites such as CharityComms.   

Enthuse website page with links to donor insight reports
Enthuse publishes free donor insight reports

5 In the sports sector, Sport England shares what they’ve discovered. Their tools enable organisations to analyse data to understand peoples’ needs, attitudes and beliefs – locally and nationally – so that they can work out how to get more people active.

WEbsite page on sportengland.org displaying links to research on different target groups such as children and ethnicity
Sport England's insights on motivation for participation

Objection #5 We’ll end up doing everything our audience wants us to do …

… at the expense of our organisation’s purpose and identity!

This is a common concern for people who work in a charity or social enterprise who wholeheartedly, believe in their organisation’s raison d’etre.

Here, I try to be resolvedly open about the purpose of any activities.

I point out that one of the first questions I’ll be seeking to answer is: who are the people that will help us fulfil our purpose?

And I let people know we’ll be figuring out how our audience can help the organisation create the positive impact it wants to see.

This can be very reassuring. 

I explain how programme goals are directly connected to organisational goals. (If they’re not, it’s probably time for a re-think.)

And to keep ourselves on track, we consider how to keep organisational goals – and without sounding too Simon Sineky – OUR WHYs – front of mind even when the team get into the minutiae of unravelling data.

So ask yourself this.

How can you keep your whys at the forefront of your mind?

Can you keep them visible on your desk, on your notice board or PC wallpaper? Can you make them into something more visual that serve as an instant reminder – at a glance?

If the team enjoys a break from the screen, why not try a sketchnoting session as a fun way to articulate what you are doing and why?

 

Objection #6 Becoming audience centred will be too expensive for a small organisation like ourselves

There’s no denying it. 

Becoming audience-centred does require an investment in time. And it makes things harder for us, initially, at least.

You’ll need a sense of this before submitting any proposal so you can be honest and upfront.

But try get people thinking about all the resources you could waste by trying to connect with the wrong people or by using techniques that fail. Can you put a value on that?

My personal view is that no organisation is too small to invest in understanding and responding to its audience. On the contrary, the less resources an organisation has, the greater the need to gain a deeper understanding. Small organisations, operating on a shoestring, simply cannot afford to put resources to waste.

Thankfully, all the digital tools we have at our fingertips make it much more affordable for even the smallest of organisations to gather and share audience insights.  

Objection #7: It takes too much time to become audience centred

Time is precious for any department.

So, you might hear many different functions sharing this concern.

IT, for example, may not believe they can prioritise making learner feedback visible to everyone via internal platforms perhaps because it doesn’t directly result in a return on investment.

The comms team might not feel they have the time to talk to the audience before creating content because of a looming event. Or the web team might not have time for user testing before releasing a new feature because of funding deadlines.

These reasons are perfectly legitimate of course.

But it’s about a change of mindset. It’s about doing things differently. It’s about being more agile. And it’s about believing in the process.

Training on audience-centred processes – such as user-centred service design – can spark change. 

Accompanied by ‘we’re all in it together’ messages such as:  

  • We’re all trying to design better services for our service users
  • We’re trying to connect more deeply with our audience’s beliefs so we can inspire them to help us fight our cause
  • Or, we’re all trying to improve strategy + delivery so we can build back stronger.

You can find what messaging will work in your organisation by tapping into your colleagues’ challenges. An anonymous Q & A platform can help facilitate this.

Objection #8: Being so audience centred will limit our ability to be innovative and respond to key moments

With our marketing hats on, we all know that becoming audience centred is a foundation block for being innovative.

It can open a diversity of thinking. 

It can help people do things differently. 

It can lead to people collaborating on new ideas.  

And John Drummond, leader of the Corporate Culture Group which has helped many organisations shape customer and stakeholder engagement solutions, describes this concept sublimely in the Green Paper The Human Organisation.

A diversity of ideas triggers innovation.' writes Drummond. ‘Failure to be open to a diversity of ideas can lead to fixed beliefs that can challenge … survival.’

John Drummond

Being audience centred helps organisations overcome exactly what Drummonds warns against

But not everyone sees it from this perspective. At least not initially. And it’s not always obvious for us to understand why.

I remember having a mild fit of irritation when my colleagues didn’t get this.

Privately, I was getting a tad tired with the all-too-common fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach. And I’d been enthusiastically advocating we invest in better understanding our audiences’ future needs before writing the next strategy.

But I met plenty of resistance especially from the COO.

‘That approach would tie us to a fixed direction. It would prevent us from being innovative,’ challenged the COO.  

I felt puzzled and jumped straight to my default position of defence.

‘But innovating is all about adapting to changing needs; our audience’s changing needs’ I responded. 

‘And the basic process of innovation is to gather evidence, discover insight and imagine possibilities,’ I went on (rather naively). ‘So, understanding our audience is an essential part of this.’

Then, the penny dropped.

Of course! He was looking at it from his perspective.

Responsible for operations, he was concerned we’d get so focused on planned strategy that our efforts to react to unplanned changes would be sluggish. ‘It would be like trying to turn around a supersized ship.’ He explained.

He was right. This was a genuine risk.

So, we agreed that when it came to activating strategy, some people reserve a proportion for reactive work. And that’s exactly what we went on to do. And it suited some people entirely. Being always ‘on’ was right up their street.

We laughed every time we recalled this moment. 

So immersed was I in the fundamental theory of marketing, I too was guilty of not seeing things through ‘my audience’s’ lens.

I too was guilty of not putting my audience’s needs first.       

Objection #9: These audience focused learnings will disappear when people leave

We’ve all experienced this. It’s soo irritating!

You’ve invested time, not just in bringing the team on the journey but also, in informing the wider circle – from Board members to IT folks to social media peeps.

But before you know it, 20% of the people have changed. 

Momentum for something you’ve worked so hard for is slipping away.

And if you don’t regularly bring new people up to speed, you’ll slide right back to the beginning.

Now, people who’ve experienced this first-hand might not be bought into your change programme.   

So how do you allay their fears?

The trick of course is to embed new practices into the fabric of the organisation.

The words practice and embed combined together with letters from each word show in a different shade
CC attribution by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Here’s a simple time-saving tip for embedding learnings long-term.

It’s a technique I learned from Frank Dick, legendary coach, speaker and consultant to elite teams such as the England Rugby Leadership Team.

Start by asking people to write down something they’ve learned or their a-ha moments from the programme. Just in one paragraph and a few bullets.

It could be something they’ve learned from self-learning, from a trainer you’ve brought in or, maybe from speaking to a supporter!

Ask people to speak about it for more than 10 minutes. A different team member speaks every week.

Then challenge the team to go out and use that learning in their daily work.

The benefits are two-fold. It brings learning back to the front memory for existing team members AND it helps new team members learn at the same time.

In larger organisations, I’ve found that filming these short talks and sharing snippets through internal communication channels helps to energise people and re-ignite support.  

Objection #10: We’re already audience-centred in our team

Teams that are already focusing on the niche audience may feel they don’t need to embrace this change programme.

Digital people, for example, may follow best-practice user experiences processes. The learning team might be using learning evaluation results to shape future releases. Or, your marketing people might be using feedback because they have the know-how and tools to regularly review it.  

But in a true audience-centric organisation, where every decision and strategic move is made with the audience in mind, everyone feels empowered to improve the audience experience (even if it makes their lives harder.)

Bryan Mathers illustrates what ‘everyone really means’ in this light-hearted portrayal of  a Culture of Innovation.

Colourful pie chart of many wifferent roles in an organisation. With the title Slice of Genius
CC attribution by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

So, instead of preaching to the converted.

Can you encourage those who value being audience centred to join you in your campaign?

Can they help inspire the shift?

Can they, for example, make sources of insight visible – in an easy to digest format – in your organisations’ knowledge sharing tool?  

Managing objections sensitively, inspires change

What I’ve learned, through my journey of reflecting on handling objections to adopting an audience centred approach, is this.

There’s always more than one way to manage an objection well. Your response can be long or short. It can be a question, a statement or a suggested action.

But above all, I think people need to know you’re acting with kindness and good intentions.

People want to feel listened to.

People need to feel energised.

So when you next come across an objection, try these four things:

  1. Take time to listen
  2. Gently question to unearth the root of any qualms.
  3. Support people to focus on the common problem you’re collectively trying to solve
  4. Let your energy shine through. Energy carries.

And while doing this, stay rooted in the fundamental principles of marketing.

Why? Because of the we-don’t-know-what-we-don’t-know (WDKWWDK) factor. And there’s more WDKWWDK than we might think as clearly illustrated in this graphicby Visual Thinkery.

Confused man in front of a large pie chart . The biggest section of the pie chart is we don't know what we don't know, followed by what we know we don't know, and We know what we know.
CC attribution by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Quite simply, If your organisation acts in a vacuum without fully understanding audiences’ needs, it’s guesswork. It’s dangerous.

So I’d like to end with this thought …

For people who are accountable for strategy or re-directing the use of funds then, it’s comforting to know that decision-making is based on robust evidence.

But if in the process,  you can support colleagues to embrace the audience centricity journey – by seeing things through each other’s lens – my hunch is that something truly magical will unfold.

Two more things …

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.   

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

Books and tools mentioned in this post

HumanKind: an upllifting read that shows us that the human race is born to be kind.

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