Thursday, 28 May 2015


Audience, Audience, Audience!

Jonathan Louis Stead
Head: Strategic Partnerships and Special Projects
South African Institute of International Affairs 

The property market determines value by “location, location, location”. In communication we replace this with “audience, audience, audience”. The ability to reach our target market effectively is the criterion by which our institutions’ communications strategies will be judged. Without this the valuable research findings our colleagues produce will stay hidden from the policy discourse. It requires us to distinguish between one-way information and two-way interactive communication that seeks and elicits a response.

I wonder if we in Think Tanks really know and understand who our audience is and what they need. In commerce if you do not know your customers – and know them well - you will soon be out of business. Some years ago as a university Marketing Director my team developed a student recruitment campaign that we believed would “wow” prospective students. The adverts emphasised, apart from academic reputation, the vibrant student life on campus – new friendships, dynamic student societies, and university sport. The high school focus groups held before we launched the adverts gave us their verdict. “If we wanted to go to a summer camp then we would go to one. We want to go to a serious university, to study and get jobs.” We as communicators had completely misread what our audience wanted to hear.

At my current institution we undertook our first substantive market survey of key stakeholders five years ago. This investigated the key issues of the institution’s reputation and its impact on public policy but, at my request, also the “touch points” where we engage our stakeholders – website, events, media and publications.

The insights we gained were invaluable in re-focussing our communication efforts. These included what material, how often and in what format/medium our key stakeholders wanted to receive our communication. We appointed our first full-time Communications Manager, started redesigning our website and developed a proactive media strategy. Equally important it led to an organisational restructuring that placed all the “market-facing” activities in one department for the first time.
Listening to your audiences can be painful (or pleasing) as they will tell you the truth – but ultimately it leads to greater communication effectiveness. I participated recently in a CSTEP Aditi survey on generating domestic sources of revenue – thank you for asking my opinion and for listening to it.

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