In Week One of our self-guided Introduction to Outreach class, our focus is on identifying and understanding our audience. The bottom line, for you, is that it is essential to select a specific audience for your science communication, because the wider your audience the more difficult it is to understand what that audience cares about.
You might be asking, “Why does this audience stuff matter so much?” To answer that question, we need to back up a step and talk about the basics of all public communication. Whether you are writing a scientific paper, giving a public talk, putting together a YouTube video, or doing any other kind of public communication, the following five questions must be answered if you want to succeed.
- What’s my message?
- Who is my audience?
- How will my audience be exposed to my message?
- What will cause my audience to engage with my message?
- What do you want your audience to do with your message?
As you can see, these questions are mostly focussed on audience. Put simply, if you don’t have a clear sense of your audience and what they care about, it will be very difficult to engage them with what you have to say.
How do you select your audience? In the past, when scientists in this class were initially asked who they wanted to focus their science communication on, we would usually get answers like: “adults”, “people who read the New York Times”, or (our favorite) “the public”. Answers like these are way, way too general.
Think of it this way. When you write a scientific paper, you certainly have a good sense of who you are writing the paper for and what that particular scientific audience cares about. Your next scientific paper is probably not going to be targeted at “Scientists as a Whole”. Instead, you’ll probably focus on people in your field (an audience you understand). Why is it generally a bad idea to target a paper at Scientists as a Whole? Because scientists as a whole have far less shared knowledge and interests than a specific set of scientists do. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to write a paper with which all scientists can engage (unless you are writing about scientists’ need for more research cash, something we can all get behind).
Further, even if you are targeting a paper at particular set of scientists, your paper won’t get much traction unless you frame that paper in the context of interests and concerns of those scientists. For example, an ornithology paper that is primarily framed around the most pressing issues in materials science probably won’t get very far. Why? Because, on the whole, ornithologists are not super engaged with the hot topics in material science. On the other hand, an ornithology paper framed around some of the topics most interesting to ornithologists has a much better chance of engaging the chosen audience.
The same kind of audience focus holds true if you are trying to do science outreach.
How to find your audience
Though an audience should be specific, it doesn’t need to be micro-targeted. That is, you don’t have to focus down to something like “Women in Hawaii between the ages of 25-30 who waterski and are allergic to peanuts”. Rather, a specific audience is one that is generally alike in interests and concerns (alike in knowledge is a bonus) when it comes to the issue that a scientist wants to raise. Let us emphasize that the audience does not have to be alike in all respects, just more or less alike when it comes to a scientist’s issue.
Here are three real examples of scientists who have found nicely focussed audiences for their outreach.
- A marine biologist whose research focuses on food webs of the US Pacific coast and who targets his outreach on fisherman of the central coast of California.
- A set of ecologists who write very short science stories for parents with young children (and who desire to read stories about science to their kids at bedtime).
- A fisheries biologist who corrects widespread misconceptions about the dangers of sharks, by focussing on those who are watching Shark Week television programming (a popular yearly event on the Discovery television channel that features angry, angry sharks with sharp, sharp teeth).
What is the right audience for your science message? If you are just getting started with science outreach, you might well have no idea. It often isn’t easy to narrow your audience from People of Earth to something a little more specific. The truth is that there are many different audiences you could select and the audience you are addressing might frequently change. Your audience will also naturally evolve as you gain experience. For example, you may start with the aim of teaching local adults about your research, but find that you are more interested in doing more general demonstrations for that audience.
To identify your audience, try this approach:
- What are the overall aims for your science outreach? There are no wrong answers! Even if you are new to this whole science outreach thing and don’t have a specific aim in mind, you can still formulate some general goals based on what you find initially interesting. And you can always change your aims. Here are some potential aims to get you thinking.
- I want to influence policy associated with my line of research or field.
- I want to influence public opinion on issues associated with my research or field.
- I want to increase the public visibility of my research or field.
- My research doesn’t use the creative part of my brain enough and I want to podcast/blog/other to exercise my creative side.
- I find my research or field extremely interesting and I think the wider world would share my passion if they knew more about my research or field.
- I want to transition out of a research career into some other career and I think that building a communications portfolio will assist in that transition.
- Once you have at least one aim in mind, think of what sort of audience would be most appropriate to achieving it. For example, let’s say that your top priority is option A from above (influence policy). For any given policy, there will be multiple relevant groups, such as: policymakers (at potentially local, regional, national, and international levels), various stakeholder groups, and consumers associated with a policy. Just as with general aims, there is no one right audience – just the audience that you would like to communicate with now. Here are some good guide rules:
- The more you can visualize your audience in your mind – the more you can see individual people (even if they are people you have invented in your brain) – the more on the right track you are.
- Start with what you know. It is much easier to have a sense of an audience with which you have at least a little personal experience.
- It’s time to venture out to the wider world to start looking for your audience and to begin understanding what they care about. How do you this? One word: Twitter. The power of Twitter is in the numbers. There are hundreds of millions of active users, meaning that whatever audience you want to engage, they’ll be on Twitter. How do you know what your audience cares about? If you read the tweets of people in your audience, they’ll tell you in real time exactly what they care about.
Many scientists are very wary of Twitter, afraid that one wrong tweet will torpedo their entire scientific career. Though the risk posed by this danger is extremely overblown, you can rest assured that all of the Twitter exercises for this class will present zero risk to you.
Before we go any further in describing how to use Twitter to understand your audience, we’ll first have to go over the basics of Twitter.