Researching your Readers


Posted January 14, 2020

No written document can be effective if it fails to speak to its intended audience and make no mistake: audiences can vary dramatically.
Too many business writers write to their peers and colleagues – the person in the next cube. That person shares vocabulary, background, agenda, interests, and understanding with the writer. The actual audience may not. If the written work fails to speak their language, or to convey ideas in a way they can understand and appreciate, it will fall flat. We recommend creating and using an audience rubric, which is a guide to identifying and understanding the unique perspective of your audience. But how can writers and organizations identify and detail their audience(s)?

Know the questions you need to answer.

Getting to know your readers involves more than simply saying, “My boss is my reader.” You need to know:
  • Will she read the entire document, or just part of it?
  • What kind of information is she looking for?
  • Will she be skeptical of the material, in agreement, or neutral?
  • And more…
Develop a list of questions to ask about your target audience. You can find some suggestions here.

Talk to them.

One of the best ways to get to know your readers: engage them. Conduct surveys, interviews, or even focus groups. Just be careful that you don’t inadvertently bias the answers by asking open-ended, non-leading questions. Also consider normal communications with members of the audience. What do those exchanges – their thoughts, questions, and feedback – tell you about them, their needs, and their understanding of the material?

Use data.

You may have information about your audience at your fingertips. Whether we’re talking about customers or colleagues, you can probably identify some information, including education level, expertise, knowledge of the topic, role in the organization, and other factors that will influence how you’ll present information to them. You may also be able to procure information from advertising data, LinkedIn, Google Analytics, and similar services.

Conduct tests.

In some cases, you might even be able to test how the audience will react to your written materials. For example, Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, used Google Ads to test possible book titles: the headline/title that got the most clicks was the winner. You can use social media and paid advertising to gather information about your intended audience, answer questions you may have, and test their reactions to sample writing.

Look at competitors (but warily).

You don’t want to ape or emulate your competitors. You want to do better than them, and you have no way of knowing how effectively they’re speaking to your shared audience. Even if they’re more successful as an organization, that success could be due to other factors. Still, it can be helpful to note how competitors approach your shared audience, if only to identify ways to improve over them.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  Links: internal