Audience Development: Can we have a meeting to discuss the dissemination of my research report?

18 August 2014
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Clair Grant-Salmon, at IIED. I t was written a year ago but I think it fits nicely with one recently posted by Vanesa Weyrauch on audience segmentation. As an additional note it is worth saying that this post highlights something that I believe to be crucial for good communications (and management) in a think tank. Rather than focusing on frameworks and tools to make decisions, centres need conversations between people to make the best possible decision. The search for the magic rule or protocol is a waste of time.]

This is a question I get asked most days at IIED. I am the audience development manager, part of the communications team for the Institute. I head up the marketing and web teams, so it is right to ask me this question; my problem is that I never know quite how to answer it. Gone are the days of producing a standard set of marketing activities that we can apply to all our products; funds and time are short, and impact and effectiveness are key. So I answer this question with a question: “What are you trying to achieve and who are you talking to?” and so begins a useful conversation laying down some strategic communications plans. This is one of the key elements of our audience development and my chief remit.

We are asking our researchers to start their projects and programmes by thinking about who they are trying to impact and why, and then combine this with the appropriate output that enables them to get their message across. Thinking carefully about audiences at the beginning of a project and choosing the right channel for presenting information is critical to ensuring maximum impact.

Being audience-centred allows us to be innovative with our outputs and communication tools. Understanding how our audiences best consume information means we can think outside the usual 40-page research report and look at the most effective ways to engage and influence. These can be blogs, videos, briefings, virtual conferences, social media, press releases, backgrounders, infographics or one-to-one meetings. Or a combination of several of these.

What is audience development?

Audience development is about developing our communications with existing and new audiences, not just increasing the number of people we are talking to. By understanding and gaining knowledge about existing and potential audiences, we can develop relationships in order to communicate relevant, timely, simple messages of value. And by understanding our audiences we can build up trust and credibility so that they seek our help. We can also avoid trying to communicate with audiences who are not interested in our work.

According to the Arts Council of England:

The term audience development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help organisations to develop on-going relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, education, customer care and distribution.

In IIED’s case the term ‘audience’ includes the five priority groups defined in the 2009 – 2013 strategy:

  1. policy,
  2. media,
  3. academia and research,
  4. private sector and philanthropists, and
  5. the informed general public.

Plus two additional groups: our partners and our donors.

How is this relevant to a think tank? It is important for us to know who we are talking to and how to connect our outputs with IIED’s target audiences. This will enable us to:

  • have a stronger voice – being heard more often by our key constituencies and audiences
  • amplify the power and credibility of our messages through greater clarity, consistency and coherence
  • encourage deeper understanding of impact and influence – through greater analysis of who we need to target and what we employ to achieve greatest impact.

What goes into our audience development strategy?

Having an audience development strategy helps us to focus on who we want to reach and how we want to reach them. It helps to identify how to put plans into action, and enables us to develop ways of serving existing audiences, finding new ones, and seeking new opportunities and partnerships.

For this to work we need:

  • A robust system for collecting, evaluating and disseminating data about our audiences and what the impact of our work is. This is anything from collecting web stats and numbers of publications downloads, to holding focus groups with our partners to ask more in-depth questions.
  • To be part of the planning process for projects, programmes and larger bodies of work. Using a range of outputs and communications tools strategically and creatively has to be considered at the start of a project, rather than on publication of the research report. It’s too late then. This helps with time and funding implications for communications activities too.
  • A clear framework to enable us to build up the systems and processes to facilitate this approach. Definitions, guidelines, sharing of information across the organisation all go towards setting the foundations for this new way of thinking.
  • Audience mapping sessions are a vital tool for engaging our researchers to think in more detail about their audiences, and for me to understand exactly who their audiences are, so I can generate a picture of this for the whole institution.
  • A centralised customer relationship management system (CRM) so that audiences can be shared and trusted relationships can be built. Sharing your address book for some is a scary prospect, but imagine if your neighbour has contacts who would be interested in your project!

Communicating complex research findings in a relevant and useful way to audiences supports delivery of project and organisational goals, building the foundations for achieving an impact. It also informs all our work through a more nuanced identification of outputs, ensuring that IIED continues to achieve its desired outcomes.