Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Don’t Dive Into Social Media Until You Learn About Your Target Audience: Here’s How To Do It and What To Ask Them

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This is one of a series of posts by Forrest Anderson on how to use research to plan communication strategy. Visit his Reputation, Research, Relationships and Messages blog to read them all.

Social media is great. It’s wonderful that we can use it to monitor trending issues and potential threats and review the activities of social media users. But I am very troubled that too many communicators, charged with doing research for the planning and evaluation of their programs, simply dive into social media measures without assessing the broader behavioral and media landscape related to their target stakeholders.

Who and where, exactly, are your stakeholders?

I’ve had many discussions with social and digital media specialists who say, “We do social media because we need to be where our customers are.” This may well be, but, unless you do some upfront research, you don’t really know where your customers are. Targeting only those people on a given medium almost certainly gives you a partial and unrealistic view of any group important to your organization.

I agree that, if you are Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, or one of the many other social media platforms, then your customers are on a specific social medium. But, even if you are LinkedIn, for example, measures of LinkedIn user activities only tell you about your current users. They don’t tell you about your potential users, or the ones that left because they didn’t like your platform.

A more holistic view: Start with why are they your target audience?

What makes more sense is to define the group you are interested in with a set of descriptors related to why they are your target audience. Then do some research to learn about them.

For example, if you’re trying to sell a laundry detergent, you could start by looking at the people who buy your competitive set—perhaps people who buy Tide, All, Ajax, and Wisk—as well as  those who buy your brand. Or, if you’re trying to get someone elected in the state of Texas, you might look at those who voted in the last election, or those who intend to vote in the next election.

The point is to begin by defining your audience, rather than by diving into social media. No doubt some of the voters in Texas are on Twitter, but why limit yourself to them? What about all the other voters?

Learn about your target audience: Questions to ask

So, learn about your audience in some manner that describes the population as a whole rather than some subset defined by the use of a specific social medium. Do research to determine:

  • What their interests are,
  • What issues they care about,
  • What products they purchase, and
  • What messages might resonate with them.

You will, no doubt, have other questions as well. But among the most important will be those about what media they use and how they use it. For example:

  • Do they use traditional media?
  • Do they use social media?
  • Which social media do they use?
  • How do they use it?
  • How engaged are they in different social media?
  • Are they regular bloggers themselves, infrequent bloggers, or people who follow blogs?
  • How often do they access social media?
  • Which social media do they access most often? Why?
  • How influential are social media in their purchase decisions?
  • Whose recommendations influence them? Why?

The answers to these questions may reveal that Facebook or Twitter is a great medium for reaching these people. But you might discover that other social media or even traditional media are better. You also might discover that your target audience pays attention to both, and so a program with cross mentions in both traditional and social media could be especially effective.

Finish with quantitative research

Before committing resources to media, you should do quantitative research to learn the percentages of people using social and traditional media, and the specific media they use. You need this information to make decisions about where and how to communicate to best reach your audience.

What matters is not what we find interesting, but what our target audience does

You won’t really know to what extent it is important to communicate using social media—or any other media—until you look at the interests and media habits of your target audience. Simply jumping into social media metrics doesn’t tell you about your target audience. At best it can only tell you about that fraction of your target audience that partakes in the media you track. At worst it will give you false confidence in your research and a skewed sense of who your audience is. That’s just bad research that will lead to bad planning and ineffective communications.


Forrest Anderson

Forrest Anderson

Forrest W. Anderson is a 30-plus-year veteran consultant in developing message architecture and managing corporate relationships and reputations. He works with organizations that are going through a change in strategic direction and that are concerned about what will happen if they mismanage their relationships with their key stakeholders. Forrest is a founding member of the IPR's Measurement Commission and teaches Communications Research Methods in George Washington University’s Masters Program in Strategic Public Relations. He holds an MBA in marketing and management policy from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Forrest Anderson
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