How should you approach audience research?
Effective research begins with clear objectives and choosing methods aligned with your audience to answer key questions. Farra Trompeter, co-director, sits down with senior strategist, Menaka Chandurkar, to talk about the benefits research provides to in-house communications teams and how research connects to issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA).
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How should you approach audience research?” We hear from lots of organizations all the time that they want to diversify their audience or reach new audiences or make sure they can hold onto the audiences they have but yet expand into new places. The first place you want to start with answering that question is really getting to know the folks you are trying to engage. And I’m excited to talk to Menaka Chandurkar all about it today. Menaka, who uses she/her pronouns, is a senior strategist at Big Duck. She joined our team in 2022. She balances a seasoned understanding of the nonprofit sector with the instincts of a storyteller. Menaka has worked for a range of nonprofits in development, communications, and outreach roles. Most recently, Menaka led the community education program at Asian Families Support Services of Austin, where she provided outreach to immigrant communities around domestic and sexual violence issues while advocating for immigrant survivors at a systems level. Menaka holds a master’s of public policy and management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a Bachelor of film and television degree from New York University. Menaka, welcome to the show.
Menaka Chandurkar: Thanks for having me.
Farra Trompeter: Well, so before we get into today’s topic since this is the first time you’ve been on the Smart Communications Podcast and hopefully not the last, I’d love to have a moment for our listeners out there to learn a little bit more about you. Let’s talk about the experience you have related to nonprofit communications, particularly all the work you’ve done related to storytelling and community outreach. Can you just share a little bit about this and how those experiences shape your approach to research and strategy here at Big Duck?
Menaka Chandurkar: Sure. So prior to joining Big Duck, most of my career was in nonprofit and most of those roles involved communications either by design, it was in my job title, part of my job description, or by default because that’s how nonprofits work, just kind of fell into my purview. I started my career, you had mentioned I went to film school at NYU, it’s a whole other story, but I started my career at Witness, which is a human rights nonprofit that works with activists to help empower them to tell their stories through documentary. Obviously, as technology changed back in the day, we were literally sending out video cameras, sending out videotapes, getting footage back, working with them. And that work really taught me the power of strategic trauma-informed communications. It got me grounded into thinking whose story is this and who should be telling the story? Which I think is something that at that time, which was like 20 years ago, was less of a concern or less top of mind in nonprofit communications and even mainstream media, right? Like there was less of that, “Hey, whose story is this?” Are we kind of coming in as an outsider and assuming authority over the story that we do not have? So aside from, you know, the fact that these were human rights situations, so we had to take safety precautions, we also centered trauma-informed practices, talking to folks and making sure that we were not doing further harm by telling their story. The main thing that I walked away with was understanding that people are experts in their own communities and their own needs, full stop, period, end of story. And you can’t get more authoritative or expert information than from people talking about themselves, which seems obvious, but I think it’s a reminder that we all need in the communications field as we work with various communities.
Menaka Chandurkar: I went on to development and communications positions at various direct service organizations and I was creating content. So you know, newsletters, grant reports, agency videos, speeches. And that meant talking a lot of times to people about the hardest moments in their lives, whether it was a health crisis, battling a school system to get the resources their children needed, surviving domestic and sexual violence. And that also just made me think, okay, I have to be really sensitive about this and really mindful of where I am in the storytelling process. It’s not that we didn’t have communications goals, we did, you know, if you’re doing a post for a campaign or doing a video, there’s a reason that you’re telling that story, and a lot of times that reason is for fundraising. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive from making sure that you’re empowering people to tell their story in a really authentic way. And people do want to tell their stories. Everyone I talked to, I really made sure they wanted to share their stories because they were helped and they wanted to reach other people who might be experiencing the same issues, who also needed help, right? They wanted to do it.
Menaka Chandurkar: I also think though, coming from a nonprofit and coming from a service provider, we also had to be mindful of the power dynamic because even though you think of yourself as like, well, I’m a nonprofit staff member, you are a gatekeeper and a provider of resources to these folks and you don’t want them to feel beholden or coerced in any way, even if that’s not your intention of telling their story and sharing their trauma. So kind of another way I evolved my storytelling is not only trying to let people be fully involved in the process, I would do a lot of kind of work with media as well. If I had someone say they didn’t want to be on camera, guess what I told the journalist, they’re not going to be on camera. And it might not even be a safety reason. It might just be like, I just didn’t feel like being on camera that day. Fine. Like the story can go ahead without that, right? So that was part of it. Part of it was also just making sure that people were always comfortable. I think people got sick with me checking in on them, but I think that’s really important. I’d rather they get sick of me going, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” “Are you okay with this?” “Is this what you want to do?” It becomes like a mosquito buzzing in their ear. I’d rather that than someone feel like they’re caught off guard.
Menaka Chandurkar: And another component I really thought about was, how much do these people owe us? How much do people owe this audience? I started getting away from having people or even asking about their abuse or their experiences. They said they were a domestic violence survivor, done and let’s move on. If they felt like sharing those details, fine, but no one, no one is owed that, right? And they don’t need to tell anybody that to justify why they’re getting services or why they have an association with an organization. So all that to say that I bring this kind of background to Big Duck with client work. And I try to bring that mindset and think about when can I surface these issues? You know, are we talking about reaching an audience? Are we talking about trying to learn more about a specific group of people? And then if we are like, are we doing it in a way that’s informed? Are we talking to the right people? Right? So I think there’s a lot of times it’s really easy to think about people who are just like you, who are accessible in the middle of the day, who can jump on a Zoom, who speak English, who understand, in this case, we’re talking about communication. So understand kind of the technical aspects of communications. That’s an easy conversation to have. Doesn’t take a lot of lift from our side, but is that really who you should be hearing from? And if you want to hear from different people and you need to hear from different people, then how do you clear that path and make it easy for them and give them the agency to come to you and tell you their stories?
Menaka Chandurkar: So in the research phase specifically, ’cause that’s what we’re talking about, I try to raise those issues, I try to advocate for that. And if I don’t feel like I’m doing my job as a strategist, because it’s not like clients are reluctant or they push back, it’s just they’re all, you know, working hard, limited time, limited resources and they’re trying to push these processes ahead and it just may not occur to them.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So what I’m hearing from you is this idea of questioning whose stories we’re telling or who we’re trying to learn from, asking questions around access. Is this the right language, the right time, the right method? And of course, always going back to consent, making sure people agree to how and when their story is being told, that they feel comfortable with the format it might be shared, and that they allow, you know, they sign off on that final story and making sure it comes from that place of dignity. So thank you for sharing. That was really helpful to hear. So back to the topic, A few months ago you wrote a blog post on our website called “How to approach audience research,” which is of course the very question we’re going to ask today. And we’ll be sure to link to that post at bigduck.com/insights. In the show notes, you can also find the blog at that same very link. In that post you outline a few reasons why research is valuable and essential, and I’m just wondering if you can share some of those reasons with our listeners today.
Menaka Chandurkar: Sure. Well at Big Duck, most of our projects start with some sort of research or discovery phase. It’s usually part of our scope. One of the practical reasons is we’re coming in as consultants, right? We don’t have that institutional knowledge, we’re not in the organization. So research is a good way for us to find our footing and produce powerful work for the clients. It can also provide enormous benefits to in-house communications teams, it’s the best way to develop solutions based on what your audience wants and needs. So you can identify what they want and they need and make sure that your communications are singing up with that. It can challenge assumptions you have, right? You could think, oh, well clearly audience wants to hear about this. You know, they want to hear about topic A, where really they’re more interested in topic B and C, and the only way you’re going to know that is to go and ask them.
Menaka Chandurkar: It can put pressure on tried and true strategies and tactics. So you’ve done GivingTuesday the same way for years, right? And that’s just how you do it. Never questioned, it seems to be working fine, maybe it’s not. Maybe you haven’t done the research and there’s something that could work even better. Being on staff at nonprofits, like I mentioned, for most of my career, I am so aware of the lack of resources, especially for communications teams. And that’s something I think about a lot in my role. So you want to make sure you’re putting your resources in your time into something that’s working and yielding results. Maybe the same amount of effort directed a slightly different way could be more successful. It can confirm you’re on the right track, so maybe you are doing the right thing and it’s great and now you know and you can keep going. And I think it also helps create some common ground when you’re working in comms, a lot of times you might have a gut instinct that’s something’s going on, there’s a shift, maybe an audience isn’t, you know, responding the way they used to, to a specific kind of messaging. This way you have that backup to confirm that. And that also helps you go to decision-makers or other team members and say, “Hey, like this is what we’re seeing. Here’s the research that backs it up. Let’s think about how we can change our approach.” So it’s not just you as a lone voice saying, this is what I’ve seen anecdotally. You have a much broader kind of perspective and other folks who’ve weighed in who are kind of confirming what you’re saying.
Farra Trompeter: That’s really helpful. Another point that you make in the blog post is that good research starts by being clear about what you want to learn and picking the methods that will help you answer any big questions you have based on who the audience is you’re trying to learn about. And of course, the budget you have available. Can you share an example of how someone might select the right method or format of research based on their audience, their budget, what they’re trying to learn, et cetera?
Menaka Chandurkar: Sure. And yes, definitely, like you said, you need to start with a clear idea about what you want to learn. If you just kind of start out with, let’s talk to people and see what they think, you are going to not have a very targeted process and you’re probably not going to have very useful kind of returns on that, right? Whatever you hear, maybe there will be some interesting tidbits, but you’re not going to get an answer that you need that’s actionable. So we really want folks to think about what they need to know and that will help them kind of circle around whatever the process is that works best for them, whatever the method is.
Menaka Chandurkar: So at Big Duck, we do a few different things. I’ll just give you an overview of what we generally do. A lot of times we look at materials, so we’re kind of looking at an agency or client’s materials to see what they’ve been doing. We can look at their analytics, you know, from their website or from their social media or maybe some of their donor data, of the donations that are coming in and their rate. We look at their peer groups sometimes to see what their peers are doing. A lot of times we do one-on-one interviews with stakeholders. We might do a bigger kind of group discussion or focus group and or we do surveys. So kind of it’s a mix and match of that stuff in our research scopes. I think the best thing is to first figure out what you want to know and kind of get us pointed as you can. And the next thing is, you know, what are your resources? What is easier for you? If you want to hear from an audience, say that’s kind of, you know, hundreds and hundreds or thousands of people. One-on-one interviews probably not great because you’re only going to reach a few of them unless you have a lot of time and money. Focus groups also can be really hard to convene if we’re talking about folks out in the community, right? So a survey might be the best way to go. It gives you a bird’s eye view. You can talk to a larger geographically distributed group if you want feedback on an idea. So say you’re trying to test, hey, like is this logo working for us? Is this campaign concept working? Is this tagline or how we’re talking about ourselves working? It’s a great way to do it. You know, you can throw that up there, have people do a scale. That’s great if you’re working with a tight timeframe as well, you can turn it around and you can collect primarily quantitative data. And so that’s something that can be easy to get out there, can be kind of lower cost versus staff time or consultant time doing a focus group or interviews, and can get you a lot of responses.
Menaka Chandurkar: So you have to make sure that that survey is designed well, right? To answer the questions that you want to yield the information you’re looking for. And you also want to make sure, and this is an equity thing that we’ll get into a little bit more, that say that the audience you want to reach is, you know, mostly your client population or people who participate in your programming. Maybe they don’t speak English or read English as their primary language. You might have to think about translation if you’re really serious about reaching them, right? You might have to think about is email the best way to reach them? Maybe they’re not checking emails, maybe it’s text, maybe it’s WhatsApp, or another platform. And also just incentives. You know, you are asking something of somebody else. You’re asking for their time and their insights. So what can you offer them? Can you raffle off gift cards? Can you give them free tickets to something? What is it that can make it worth their while? And also acknowledge that they are spending some time and energy on your organization.
Farra Trompeter: So you mentioned equity, I would love to get into that. And specifically thinking about how research connects to issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility or IDEA. Our colleague Ally wrote a blog a few years ago about creating an inclusive and equitable research process, which we’ll be sure to link to. And we talk a lot about that within Big Duck and also across our content. But in your post, Menaka, you provided a few more ways of thinking about bringing IDEA principles into research. For those, first of all, who are not as familiar with the concept of IDEA and how it shows up in research. Could you just break that down for us?
Menaka Chandurkar: Sure. So IDEA is something that we try to apply to our work at Big Duck and it stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. So inclusion in this kind of context might be something like I’d spoken to above with a survey, designing a process that shows participants that they are valued, so compensating people for their time, which is really important. Offering time, say you’re doing interviews, don’t just offer them during business hours. Some folks have jobs where they’re not sitting on a Zoom for eight hours a day, or it’s easy for them to just shift or have flexible hours. Making sure that you are showing people that they are valued. And in the way you do that is how you design the process, right? You don’t want it to be lip service. You don’t want to be like, well, we asked people and they said no and now we’re done. You want to really authentically create those opportunities for people to participate. So that’s inclusion.
Menaka Chandurkar: Diversity is being intentional in recruiting and hearing from a representative pool of participants. Again, don’t just reach out to those few people who you know are going to answer their survey or who you know are going to pick up the call. Because chances are they are already being represented disproportionately in whatever you do as an organization, right? If they’re the folks you’re always hearing from. So really be intentional thinking about who are you not hearing from and go find them, meet them where they are, ’cause that’s the only way you’re going to hear from them. Equity is kind of leveling that playing field and prioritizing the input of those closest to your work. So rather than focusing on donors, you talk to the people who access your programs. Listen to the staff on the ground doing the work rather than board members, right? Again, think about who’s generally in the room when decisions are being made and kind of decentralize them. Not to say don’t talk to them at all, but realize the person who is say, going out to the schools and conducting your afterschool program. The person who is there in the facility as a caseworker, they’re the ones closest to the work. And having been on staff at nonprofits, I know often everyone has the best intentions. Everyone cares. The experience of that person at the ground level versus a board member or an executive team member is going to be very different. And you want to hear from them. You want to hear from the people who are the closest to the work.
Menaka Chandurkar: And accessibility. That’s where the interpretation and translation comes in. Options to respond through different channels, like I was talking about, considering access to technology, confidentiality concerns. You know, there might be folks, again, this goes back to my background in domestic violence, there might be folks who don’t want to out themselves as a client of your organization, so maybe there’s a way they can respond anonymously, right? All of this will help you incorporate these principles into your research and hopefully yield you better, more robust answers from a more representative group of people.
Farra Trompeter: Thanks for breaking that down. And now I’d love to ask you to do one more thing, which is apply IDEA to a specific research goal. What decisions could one make based on considering inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility?
Menaka Chandurkar: Right. So the example that seems to come up very frequently over my time at Big Duck has been organizations who want to hear from folks who participate in their programs. Kind of like what I was talking about before. You can’t assume you know what they’re thinking or what they need unless you talk to them. And I think that’s an assumption folks make, right? Like, well, we have these programs, people sign up for them. So that’s that. You don’t know. I mean, there could be something really simple you could shift and suddenly that makes a world of difference to folks, but you wouldn’t know that unless you talk to them. So you have to ask and ask in a way that maximizes opportunities to participate. So exactly what I was talking about earlier, right? Making sure there’s incentives, making sure that the timing or the channels that you’re using is outside of what you may traditionally think of in like a business sense, right? Nine to five, over the internet. Maybe it’s showing up in person somewhere with a survey. You know, if you’re trying to reach folks and they are gathering at a community center, if they’re gathering at an event, go there with an interpreter. It’s a little bit more effort and resources, but it’s going to hopefully get you the information that you need that can only make your programs better and more valuable to the people participating in them.
Farra Trompeter: Awesome. So much good stuff here in your comments, Menaka, I appreciate it. But before we go, ’cause sadly we do need to wrap up. Just curious if you have any other tips or advice that you’d like to share that you wish you could go back in time and tell yourself when you were in-house in an organization, or just for folks out there to think about as they’re trying to figure out new ways to conduct audience research?
Menaka Chandurkar: Well, I’m going to be annoying and just kind of beat the drum. I’ve been beating this whole conversation, but I totally understand that people have limited time and resources to do this work, especially communications, right? Most nonprofits do not allot a ton of the budget to communications work. And so even with the best intentions, a lot of people can say, and I’ve seen this with clients and I’ve seen it in my own career, you know, people say, “Yeah, we’re totally going to do this. We’re totally going to do translate this,” or “we’re totally going to reach out to folks through these different channels” up until the moment where they have to do it. And there’s that pinch because there’s a million other priorities and there’s a million other, you know, draws in their time and then they drop the ball and it seems disproportionate. The effort to do some of these things might seem like it’s way more than it’s worth or way more than the results you’re going to yield, but it’s about building a practice, right? It should just become second nature. It should be part of your flow. And you need to understand that often you have to put in more time to reach these audiences. That’s why these people are marginalized and not heard from by the establishment and institutions because it takes that much more time and energy and effort and thinking to reach them in a way that works for them. But it’s important. And I really believe you know that if you put in that time, that energy, and that care that will be reflected in your communications and your work. I don’t think there’s a substitute. I think we can all, we all know we’re all very savvy. We know when somebody is trying to pull one over on us. We know when someone’s being too slick. And the flip side of that is you can really set yourself apart and show how authentic you are and the passion that you have for the work and for your communities by doing these things. And it starts with the research.
Farra Trompeter: Awesome. Thank you so much. While at Big Duck, we think, talk, and write a lot about the importance of centering your communications around your audiences. And if you’re looking for more content on that, be sure to check out bigduck.com/insights to get blogs, podcasts, webinars, and more. Menaka, thanks so much for being here.
Menaka Chandurkar: Thanks for having me.