How to be more strategic: Know your audience

Post by Lee Smith, Director of internal comms agency Gatehouse

Monday 10 December 2018

Know your audience

We’re coming up to the half way point in our blog series and so it’s time to turn our attention to another of the vital elements of strategic internal communication – arguably the single most important element, the audience.

The role of the audience has been acknowledged since the very first thinking on persuasive communication. In Rhetoric, Aristotle presented his rhetorical triangle and proposed that communication has three elements: the speaker (ethos), the message (logos) and the audience (pathos). His teaching recognises that, as communicators, we’re ultimately in the business of change – changing opinions, attitudes, knowledge and behaviour – and his triangle emphasises that the recipient is integral to this.

We all know this, of course, but the extent to which we know and consider the needs of our audience varies massively from one communicator to another. The harsh truth – and this is borne out every year in our own State of the Sector research – is that most IC professionals do not go anywhere near as far as they should in this area. According to the 2018 study, just 14% of us have in place any sort of audience profiling tool or audience breakdown! That’s depressing when you consider how critical this knowledge is to effective communication.

Having deep audience insight helps us target our communication at the right people, get the messaging right, choose the best channel to deliver it, understand how it’s likely to land and predict how people will respond. It helps us be more efficient, avoiding the waste and additional noise that comes with a scattergun, one-size-fits-all approach. It enables you to win more respect internally too – as your stakeholders will come to appreciate your knowledge of employees and what makes them tick. That’s a long list of benefits.

So, where’s the best place to start and how can the over-worked and under-resourced internal communicator do the right thing in this area?

I always recommend starting with the basics by creating what my friend Liam Fitzpatrick calls ‘a demographic logbook’. Think of it as a handy compendium of key information about your audience: how many employees you have, where they are based, what department they sit in, what type of roles they’re in, level, age, tenure, gender mix, first language, etc. This is information you should be able to get your hands on relatively easily – even if it means going cap in hand to HR! Armed with your logbook, you can talk more authoritatively about your audiences and show your stakeholders that you understand the geography of your organisation.

Four segmentation techniques

Gathering information about organisational geography is a good start, but it’s not good enough if you want to be operating strategically. To do this really well we need to segment much more – to ‘slice and dice’ our audiences into discreet groups that link clearly to the outcomes we’re shooting for. Knowing the terrain alone won’t suffice – it’s time to capitalise on one of three other segmentation techniques:

  1. Channel use and access
  2. Attitude and disposition
  3. Outcome

The first of these is widely used and tends to go hand-in-hand with geography. Put simply, this means segmenting your audience based on way that they access channels and consume content. Are they online, plugged into your intranet or sitting in a call centre with very little down time? Are they remote or field-based workers far away from the head office? Are they based at home? How do they prefer to get their information? Are they part time or on shift based? Answering these questions will certainly help you target more efficiently.

Next you can segment based on attitude and disposition – what people think and how they feel about things. Once again, Aristotle is way ahead of us. Pathos, the Greek term for emotion, concerns how the audience feels or experiences the message. Of course, to do this well you’ll need to know how people are disposed towards your theme – which will require some real qualitative insight (please see my previous post on that subject: The power of insight).

However, arguably the most important way to consider your audiences is to think about how they relate to the outcome that is required – in other words, what do you need each group to know, feel or do differently to deliver your goal? At Gatehouse we use our 6As model to think about audience outcomes by plotting different groups on the graphic depending on where they are currently and where they need to be.

Gatehouse 6As model (copyright Gatehouse Consulting Limited)

For some groups, awareness alone will be sufficient (indeed, some groups may not even need that), whereas other will need a good level of understanding or appreciation. Similarly, we need some groups to take action and others to become advocates or flag wavers. Ask yourself, what groups do we need to be where?

Using personas to pull it all together

If you want to earn extra brownie points, then you can deploy all of the above to build up a rich multi-dimensional picture of your various audiences. A powerful way to do this is to create a series of personas – fictional representations or pen portraits of your key audience groups.

A technique widely used in Marketing and for User Experience Design, personas can be an incredibly powerful tool – not only helping you plan all aspects of your communications by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience and having a specific ‘type’ in mind, but to educate those around you about the complexity of the task and the differing needs of employees.

Personas can be built based on gut feel and what you know about your organisation, but they are far more impactful when they incorporate real insight. By combining hard data on employee demographics and behaviour, with educated speculation based on your own knowledge and experience, you’ll be able to paint a genuinely useful picture of each group based on who they are, how they feel, what they see and hear, how they behave, who influences them, what motivates them and what causes them pain.

When we cover this in Accelerate, the strategic IC development programme we run with the Institute of Internal Communication, delegates find it a revelation to build these personas. The resulting portraits – which many keep hung above their desks – help them engage senior leaders more effectively, develop their messaging, create integrated campaigns, craft FAQs and much more.

Persona for ‘Mike the Machinist’ (copyright Gallagher Communication)

Whatever technique you prefer, the important thing is that you demonstrate some level of sophistication when it comes to identifying, segmenting and targeting different groups of employees. As Stephen Covey, author of the mega-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, wisely said, ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’. This is sage advice for the internal communicator.



About Lee

Lee Smith is co-founder of London-based internal communication agency Gatehouse, a Gallagher company. As part of a Fortune 500 business with offices in 33 countries, he advises some of the world’s biggest and most complex organisations on how to engage, motivate and inspire their employees.

He has spent more than half his life in the communication business – a career that has spanned nearly three decades, covered both internal and external communication disciplines and in-house and agency roles.

He is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Institute of Internal Communication.


More in this series by Lee:

How to be more strategic

The power of insight

Hardwiring internal comms to organisational goals