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Taking think tank communications to the next level: Becoming fit for purpose (Part 3)

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A “commsversation” between Jeff KnezovichMelissa Julian and the communications team at ECDPM

In conducting a strategic review of communication activities, it’s important to understand what materials one has to work with, and what one’s niche is as compared to similar organisations. The other key component to understand clearly is the audience of a particular think tank or initiative, which is what this post covers. It begins by articulating a challenge faced by many think tanks and initiatives working in the international arena. It then provides an overview of various methods for understanding and targeting audiences relevant to both institutions and programmes. It concludes with some tips for putting it all together.

Who is the audience anyway?

Trying to say ‘Good morning. This is the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, how can I help you?’ before my first cup of coffee was not my favourite part about working there. And indeed, it was only in retrospect that I began to appreciate the name.

Although it was something of a tongue twister, the organisation did have the advantage of ‘doing what it says on the tin’. It also had an almost in-built audience because of it. As the name implies, it focused on higher education policy at the national and state level in the US. Conveniently, there is a Department of Education at the national level, and each of the 50 states has something similar at the state level.

To get a report in front of the relevant policy makers was a relatively straightforward proposition. One method was purchasing a catalogue of contact information (I haven’t worked in the US in ages, but I assume this would now be obtained as an electronic database?) – someone else had already done a lot of the leg work. And to really catch their attention, it was always worth getting an article in the sector’s magazine par excellence, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Or perhaps one in a dedicated section of the newspaper of record, the New York Times.

Fast forward to today, and I work in the Knowledge, Technology and Society (KNOTS) Team at the Institute of Development Studies. Now where exactly is my UN-KNOTS (see what I did there?), let alone my Malawi Department of KNOTS or even a UK Ministry of KNOTS?

This, to me, represents the challenge of trying to engage international audiences – there isn’t necessarily a built-in community. And even if there is, there may be fewer opportunities and mechanisms to engage directly in international policy processes depending on the sector. I don’t know if admitting it will make Andrea Ordónez, who recently wrote on five challenges ‘southern’ think tanks face in influencing international policy, feel any better – but it should. It’s hard for us in the ‘north’ to influence international policies too. What’s more, many conflate international policies with multi-national policies (which is to say policies operating at the national level but in many countries). Unfortunately, conflating these terms also often results in conflating audiences – and getting that right is the first step in understanding the audience for a particular think tank or initiative.


ECDPM and the Africa-EU Economic Trade Agreement Negotiations

From its creation in 1986, ECDPM had a niche audience for nearly 25 years through the specialisation of its work on the formal treaty guiding relations between the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of countries and the European Union. To address the changing global context, we revised our strategy a couple of years ago to enhance the participation of new stakeholders to engage in new policy debates, in new areas of work for us. So we’ve had to do a political economy analysis of the areas and audiences we work with and to make a concerted effort to try to reach these new audiences through our communications channels and tools. What remains constant is that we work around policy processes – like the African-EU Economic Trade Agreement negotiations or the implementation of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme – so in a sense we have this “built-in community” to which Jeff refers (though we of course always need to find goods windows of opportunity to communicate research). Our main targets are the key African and EU stakeholders involved in these processes.


The next step is recognising that different parts of think tanks have different abilities and opportunities to reach different audiences. Individual researchers and projects tend to have a lot more resources and opportunities to try to reach very targeted audiences and objectives. We’ll discuss ‘what goes where’ in greater detail in a future set of blogs, but generally speaking I would suggest that a more centralised communication team should be able to support others to reach those targets while focusing on building the reputation and credibility of a think tank or initiative – what are sometimes referred to as corporate communications or public relations. And so, in the following sections, I’m limiting my discussion to understanding and defining that core audience while simultaneously ensuring the ability to engage specific audiences for specific projects and programmes.

Tools to help define an audience

When it comes to defining audiences, one of the first tools that people go to is a stakeholder analysis – these include approaches like the alignment, interest and influence matrix (AIIM) or participatory impact pathways analysis (PIPA). Those are great when it comes to defining the audience and objectives of specific projects with specific objectives. But they are less good at helping organisations define audiences at a ‘corporate’ level.

There are another set of tools that are less talked about in the planning regimens du jour – approaches like a client perception survey, to use more of a marketing language. These surveys can be either of an organisation’s existing ‘clients’, or of those of their competitors, or combining elements of both. These surveys ask questions about how audiences view an organisation (or set of organisations), what they are seen to be doing well, and how they fit with their comparators. They can be particularly helpful in defining a niche that those inside the organisation are too indoctrinated to see. The challenge here is that most client perception surveys are done off the back of people with whom an organisation has already had some interaction, which may or may not be the target of a particular organisation. Reaching students might be a great thing, and having a list of student supporters is also great, but if the actual target is current policy makers (at any level), then it’s probably not worth investing too much in understanding how a given organisation is perceived among them.

In an ideal world, a more useful approach would be to start with a pool of the ideal target audience and select a sample thereof to understand their needs, concerns and how they interact with information. When an audience is the equivalent of ‘everyone everywhere’, that becomes a particular challenge. Instead, it may be useful to look for studies about what we do know – for example this analysis of information access and use of policy-makers in developing countries from a recent IDS working paper (spoiler alert, a lot of them were early adopters of the iPad, but a lot of them still relied on traditional media outlets for information).

And if the organisation is particularly bold, there’s always the option of following the lead of think tanks in Peru and hosting a public event that asks their main audiences what they want from them.

It is also possible to get information on a think tank’s current audience by looking into how they currently engage with existing communication outputs. For a website, GoogleAnalytics are invaluable – in addition to getting a geographic breakdown of where traffic is coming from, it is also possible to see from which networks people were accessing the site (In the menu it’s on the left of the screen it’s under Audience > Technology > Network). It doesn’t give a 100% accurate picture of who is accessing your material, especially if they’re browsing at home, but I always am relieved to see views coming from within UK government departments and from UN agencies!

To help make sense of all the information gathered about various audiences for strategic discussions, I’ve found it helpful to create characters or profiles of ‘archetypal’ audience members. By creating characters and scenarios of how they might engage (or more likely not!) with various communication products, it can really help think beyond what currently exists to what could exist.


ECDPM’s KM&C surveys

Gathering feedback for learning through regular monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of our knowledge management and communications activities is of strategic importance. This M&E is done through a variety of instruments, including the electronic measuring of audience interest, reader surveys, targeted phone interviews, analysis of unsolicited reader feedback and regular collection of evidence of the impact of our work on policymaking (e.g., documenting when a policy option put forward in an ECDPM publication is discussed during policy negotiations).

We gather this quantitative and qualitative feedback as part of our internal knowledge management (to ensure that the work of the KM&C Units makes sense to the Centre), as well as for communications with outside stakeholders and audiences. The units feeds this information back to the programmes and the all-Centre departments for further analysis and learning. The units also makes this information available for inclusion in the Centre’s Performance Assessment Framework, with which we assess and evaluate the contributions of our communications materials in the various policy processes.

In cooperation with programme staff, we are collecting stories and evidence of how policymakers used our information and insights and how our contributions influenced policymaking. Our Information Management and Knowledge Exchange (IMAKE) project will play an important role in further facilitating and improving our monitoring. For example, its reporting component will enable us to capture and archive evidence about the usefulness of our policy work. Also, its statistical software will allow us to track and analyse data such as user preferences, the audiences that access a particular service and the geographical distribution of readers.


Putting it all together

So now you’re organised – you’ve setup core lists. In turn, that’s set you up to do something of a knowledge audit. So now you understand what you’re doing, and maybe even what’s popular. And you’ve looked at what your comparators are doing and found a good idea or two to adapt. And last but not least you’ve figured out what your current audience thinks about you and how they like to use information. You’ve maybe even been able to more closely define who your audience are. Whew! Unfortunately, a set of lists and tables does not a strategy make. Darn!

Probably the easiest way to put it all together is to do the following:

  • Articulate a clear niche or unique selling point (USP) – A niche can be based on things you know you’re doing well (your strengths outlined in a SWOT, or items identified in a client perception survey that you can build upon), or a clear gap in the market (identified by audience surveys, for example).
  • Test your current set of outputs – Review the lists and see if they fit within the USP. But more importantly, test them against the archetypal characters created as part of the audience analysis. How would each of these characters interact with your products? How would they find them? Are there any of the key characters that the current scope of work isn’t reaching? Conversely, are there any outputs that you’re dedicating a lot of time to that don’t seem to resonate with the archetypal characters – if so, be brave enough to drop them!
  • Chart a course – It’s unlikely that you’ll have a perfect vision for the future, but this checking should give you a good idea of which direction to be pointing. With that in mind, it’s worth thinking through the practicalities of getting from where you are today to where you want to be in the future. Do you have to shore up core outputs first? Are you ready to introduce a new product right away, or is there a particular event or project that can be used as a launching pad?

In the next set of blogs we’ll discuss how to flesh this out a bit further as a content strategy and how different parts of an organisation can contribute to different elements thereof.

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