How to approach audience research
Almost all of Big Duck’s client projects start with a research or discovery phase. Before our team can develop a clear brand strategy, sketch out logo options, articulate a compelling case for giving, or assess communications structures, we need to build a solid understanding of an organization’s mission and its community. This is necessitated, in part, by our role as consultants: we’re outsiders who lack the institutional knowledge and on-the-ground experience of staff. Research is the best way to find our footing and produce powerful work for our clients. It is also the best way to develop solutions based on what your audience wants and needs.
Research can also provide enormous value to in-house communications teams. A well-designed research process can challenge assumptions about audience groups and put pressure on “tried and true” strategies and tactics that may have, in reality, gotten staler and less effective over time. Research findings can also confirm that you’re on the right track, and you should continue putting resources toward established practices.
The concept of research can be intimidating, especially for a small communications team or one-person shop. When I applied for a job on the strategy team at Big Duck, I noticed the emphasis on “research skills” in the description and was given pause. Absurdly, I pictured myself in a lab coat holding a frothing beaker; I knew I wasn’t equipped for that kind of research.
Eventually, I learned to think of communications research as an opportunity to take a step back from the day-to-day, ask important questions, and build space for authentic dialogue with the people closest to your work.
Start with a big question
What would you like to learn about? Maybe:
- You’re not sure why program enrollment is down because there have been no changes in terms of outreach and recruitment tactics.
- You’re curious about what motivates some volunteers to stay involved while others drop off.
- You’re wondering which advocacy areas resonate most strongly with donors.
Whatever you want to know, make sure you have specific questions in mind and design your research approach to answer them. If your research goal is too general, you’ll have a harder time determining which methods are best and how to distill useful, actionable information.
Choose methods that work for your audiences and your budget
There are several research methods you can employ, and all have their strengths and applications. For example, you could review peer organizations to get a better idea of how they’re communicating with their audiences or dive into your social media or web analytics to discern trends and patterns. You could also conduct primary research among your existing audiences, including those methods we use most frequently at Big Duck: individual interviews, focus groups, and surveys.
Here are some ways to evaluate which of these methods are right for your organization:
- You have specific people you want to talk to
- You want to know why audiences think the way they do
- You want to learn new ideas
- You’re interested in mostly qualitative data
- Unpacks motivations, experiences, and behaviors
- Can be an engaging way for people to feel heard
- Time-consuming to coordinate and conduct
- Often only able to interview a handful of people, so the data collected will most likely not be representative of a larger sample.
- You’re interested in exploratory feedback from groups (e.g., volunteers, program participants, donors)
- You don’t have enough resources to conduct individual interviews and/or you want to hear from larger groups
Similar to interviews, but
- Allow for multiple perspectives on one topic
- Generate a vivid, holistic picture of your target audiences that can’t be captured any other way
- Empower participants to drive the conversations and surface the ideas that feel most pressing to them
- Capture your new audiences’ thoughts in their own words
Similar to interviews, but also
- Power dynamics and personalities
- People may adapt their opinion or perspective based on others aka “group think”
- Can lead to less objective data collection
- You want the birds-eye view
- You have a larger or geographically distributed group
- You want feedback on an idea (perception, logo, tagline, campaign concept, etc.)
- You’re working within a tighter timeframe
- You’d like to collect primarily quantitative data
- Accessible data points to share
- Inexpensive (if using your own list)
- Lots of data, short time frame
- Engaging for constituents
- Allows segmenting
- Analysis can be time-consuming
- Hard to gather nuanced information
- Difficult to get a representative response rate due to survey fatigue
Build an inclusive, equitable research process
Before you begin, take some time and answer these questions honestly:
- Whose voices do you tend to seek out?
- Whose views are being centered in decision-making?
You may find that, historically, you’ve only engaged people fluent in English . . . even though the majority of your program participants speak another language. Or that you tend to talk mostly with community members who can make time for a call in the middle of a weekday — that is, people who have availability during standard business hours.
It’s a natural tendency to give more weight to views that reinforce our own and the voices that are easiest to engage. To counteract that, you need to invest time and energy in meeting underrepresented groups where they are. This might mean that you’ll put more resources into reaching a specific group of people versus another.
At Big Duck, we work to advance the IDEA principles — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility — in every step of the research process.
- Inclusion: Designing a process that shows participants that they are valued — compensating people for their time, offering interview times outside of traditional business hours
- Diversity: Being intentional in recruiting and hearing from a representative pool of participants.
- Equity: “Leveling the playing field” and prioritizing the input of those closest to your work. Rather than focusing on donors, talk to program participants. Take the time to listen to your program staff instead of centering board members.
- Accessibility: Providing interpretation/translation and options to respond through different channels; considering access to technology and confidentiality concerns
Research goal: Assessing the existing vision, mission, and values of a well-established organization.
Audiences: Staff, board, program participants, donors
Method: Survey, focus groups
- What are the core values that motivate you in your work with [organization]?
- What is [organization’s] unique role in the community?
Centering IDEA principles (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility): The organization engaged a professional translation service and made the survey available in both English and Spanish. This allowed for wider participation from community groups.
Research goal: Understand current and potential members’ motivations, values, barriers, and needs
Audiences: Current and prospective member organizations
Methods: Interviews, survey
- What motivates audiences to first engage? What motivates them to stay connected/continue as a member?
- What barriers get in the way of your audiences first engaging with or staying connected to you?
- What are your audience’s top priorities? What are their organizations grappling with? How can we address and support these priorities or issues?
Centering IDEA principles (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility): We prioritized outreach to organizations without access to institutional funding, as well as organizations focused on the safety and well-being of youth who have been traditionally marginalized and negatively impacted by multiple systems of oppression (e.g. LGBTQIA youth, BIPOC youth, undocumented youth, and youth experiencing housing and food insecurity)
Research goal: Learn how to create an effective fundraising campaign for an international organization.
Audience: International communications staff and community partners
Methods: Focus groups
- Who are the most critical audiences for you right now? What communications channels or strategies are most effective in reaching them?
- Do you encounter misconceptions about [organization] and its work?
- If you could leave audiences with one feeling after the campaign, what would that be?
Centering IDEA principles (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility): The organization provided live interpretation for a Zoom focus group to ensure participants were able to fully absorb ideas and express their thoughts.
Visit Big Duck’s website to learn how we help nonprofits use thoughtful, equity-centered research practices to learn about audiences, including a case study of our research work with the KIPP Foundation.