Friday, January 4, 2019

To Communicate Better, Start with Audience

by Steve Elliott

A few years ago, at a meeting of the four Regional IPM Centers, a web designer was briefing the group on a new website he was building. The first question someone asked was what colors he planned to use.

I cringed. We hadn’t talked about the purpose of the site and who it would reach and what content we’d post but here we were picking colors.

Unfortunately, at programs and laboratories and companies and districts everywhere, a lot of communication comes about this way. Someone decides they need to be on Twitter or update a brochure or do a podcast (or use blue on a website) without asking the basic questions first. Who is our audience? What do they need? How can we best reach them?

Good communication doesn’t start with hexadecimal color codes or clever Twitter handles. It starts with audience. Here’s a process we use, share and find valuable.

Start with Audience
Who do you reach, and who do you want to reach? Who can you reasonably expect to reach? Then ask what you know about them. Where do they get their information? What formats do they find useful? What stories do they read – or what videos do they watch, podcasts they listen to, etc.?

If you don’t know, ask. Make some phone calls. Send out a three-question survey. Look at your web traffic and newsletter stats. See what people use and value and what they ignore. Look for discrepancies between who you think your audience is and who they really are. (If, for instance, you think your audience is primarily farmers and ranchers and every email address you’ve collected ends in .edu, there’s something wrong.)

Also, recognize your audience isn’t some monolithic entity. Define the audience for your overall communication strategy, but recognize that within that there will be elements you can best reach in different ways. We identify a specific audience for each different communication vehicle we use and look for specific ways to target each group we want to reach.

Know Your Message
Message is the one or two sentence key idea you’re trying to communicate with each piece you publish. It’s the one point or idea or impression you want a reader to remember if they remember nothing else. It should be simple and direct: “We fund grant research.” “We add value to IPM programs.” “We have pest-management answers.” The more clearly you know your message, the more clearly you can communicate it.

(FYI, the message for this blog post is “Start with audience.”)

Have a Purpose
Purpose is the specific thing you’re trying to accomplish with each communication piece. It’s what you want to provide your audience – how to reach your program, what types of grants or services you have available, what you’ve accomplished in the past year. It’ll support your message but go beyond it.

In a perfect world, we’d do all these things first – define and develop the audience, message and purpose – and only then decide on medium, content and design.

Choose the Right Medium
A common place where communication strategies fail is when someone starts with the medium rather than an audience. “We need to be on Twitter,” “We should do an app,” “We have to update these brochures” are all perfectly reasonable statements and all perfectly wrong if that’s not what your audience needs, uses or wants.

Be on Twitter if the people you’re trying to reach are on Twitter (and use Twitter for what you’re doing). Print a brochure or flier if you're trying to reach people who don’t have good Internet access and need hardcopy documents. Shoot video if there’s a specific audience you believe will get your message that way.

The advice from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” – build it and they will come – doesn’t work for communicators. We have to go where the audience is, not expect them to come to us.

Keep the Content Focused
One of the great things about working through the audience-message-purpose process is not only does it guide you about what to include in a communications piece, it helps you see what you can leave out. And if something doesn’t serve your audience, support your message and further your purpose, leave it out. People are busy. We’re competing for their time so the more clearly, quickly and concisely we can give them the information they need, the better.

Do Design Last
This doesn’t mean design isn’t important, it just means it comes last in the process. And doing it last leads to better design, because then your designer can choose formats, fonts, images, everything to support all the work you’ve already done. The design is aimed at a specific audience, visually reinforces your message and clearly communicates the purpose. It makes for a better, more effective piece.

Finally, Try this Self-Evaluation Exercise
A while back, we developed a survey to see how other programs communicated – what methods they used, what audiences they targeted and how they measured the effectiveness of their efforts. As a survey, it was too long and complex and I’d have been better off just making phone calls.

As a self-evaluation tool, however, it turned out to be really effective. Everyone who took the survey said they were going to change some aspect of their communication strategy as a result. So we edited and shortened and reconceived the survey as a reflective, self-directed evaluation tool; a way to systematically work through all the ways you communicate and see if they’re working as well as they could.

You could do the exercise as a group – a leadership team and communicators – or individually. Save and print your answers at the end because nothing is stored or shared. It can take an hour or maybe longer if there’s a lot to think over and talk about, but communicating well is worth the time. Here’s the link.

But if you’re not keen on doing that, here’s a shortcut: Start with audience.

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