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Any communications plan starts with putting your audience first

Hello person! Right here on this page, we'll be working together through some of the mysteries of science communication. We think (hope) you'll get a lot out of reading this - but (there's always a but) may we suggest that you consider taking one of our online communication classes, where we plunge yet further into the inky depths of science communication. The big bonus with them is that our classes are very collaborative, which is a huge assist when you're making your way through this kind of thing. Sign up for our exciting, delighting email list to keep in the loop! Anyway, on with the show.

Connecting your science to the wider world: getting started

So, dear researcher, you are thinking about connecting with your science to other folks - lots of other folks. Nice! But you already have a problem: how do you get these hordes of folks to pay attention to what you have to say? Not to worry, because here comes SciFund Challenge riding to the rescue, answers in hand. There is only one way to succeed in connecting with audiences of any kind: to put your audience first. But what does that mean exactly? The point of this document is to fill you in on what the “Audience First” approach is all about.

Your audience is not paying attention

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but here goes anyway: your potential audience is not paying attention to you. Rest easy though: it's not about you. And it's not about your science either. Why, just the very fact that you are reading these words is proof positive that your science is charming and delightful.

No, the real issue is something quite different. Namely, the people with whom you want to connect are almost certainly leading busy, busy lives. Lives so jam packed that adding even one more thing, such as stuff about your science, would cause heads to explode. As proof of this, just think of your own life. Think of everything going on. You have work responsibilities. Perhaps you have family responsibilities. You might regularly play a sport or take part in hobbies (competitive stamp collecting, perhaps?). And that's almost certainly just the beginning of all that you have going on. How much time or mental space do you have for something brand new? Probably not much. Let's say someone comes to you and says, "You need to spend some time getting to know about this new: social cause/ book/ local political candidate/ anything else." How likely are you to actually do that? Let's just say that the odds aren't high.

Unless. Unless the pitch is slightly different. Let's say that same person comes to you and instead says, "You need to spend some time getting to know this new book that will help you: run your lab more efficiently/ take care of an ailing family member more effectively/ select the perfect fantasy football team/ do anything else that really matters to you." Totally different story. It is much more likely that you'll actually check out that book, because it connects to something that is already on your mind.

And that's exactly how you can get your potential audience to sit up and pay attention: by connecting your science to stuff that already looms large in their minds. There's an issue though: what is exactly is that thing that is bouncing around in people's craniums? Well, if you're talking about the public at large, that's a tricky one. Breathing is probably high on the agenda. Drinking liquids might come up now and again. The trouble is that it is really hard to hang your hat, communication-wise, on stuff like this. In fact, a target audience that includes everybody - subsistence farmers in Malawi, schoolteachers in California, wildlife photographers in France, etc. - is an audience that really has nothing in common. And without a common feature that you can center on, cutting through the clutter and actually reaching your audience will be an uphill climb (a climb up Mt. Everest, that is).

And that's why, the most essential thing to do for any communication effort - science-related or otherwise - is to clearly define your audience.

Defining your audience

It is super common - maybe inevitable - that when you're getting started with selecting your audience, you'll aim too wide or too narrow. On the too wide side, scientists tend to settle on groups like “readers of the New York Times” or “people who watch YouTube videos”. The former group has reading in common, while the latter one shares an enthusiasm for moving colors, but this kind of thing is a pretty thin soup (we can all agree that thin soups are generally to be avoided).

Narrowing down your New York Times-reading, YouTube-watching, planet Earth-residing audience, doesn't mean that you 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 nicely-defined audience is one that is generally alike in interests and concerns (alike in knowledge is a bonus) when it comes to the issues that an enterprising scientist such as yourself wants to raise. Audience does not have to be alike in all respects, just more or less alike when it comes to those specific issues.

On the too narrow side of the audience-finding house, it's all about selecting a tiny handful of people. If you're trying to connect with the resource managers of a single national park, your local city council, or any other group whose members could fit in a van - well, the trouble isn't that your group doesn't have common interests. Rather, a general communications/outreach program is not the best way to reach these people. A better way to reach your group that's about to hop in that van is to contact each person individually. Your phone is definitely your friend.

In most cases though, if you find your audience to be extremely narrow, the answer is to widen that audience to include more people. Here are three real examples of scientists who have found nicely focused audiences for their science engagement:

  • 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 focusing 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 do you want?

So, what is the right audience for you? If you are just getting started with all of this, you might have no idea. Not to worry though: this audience-hunting stuff is challenging for everyone, regardless of their communications experience. The truth is that there are many different audiences you could select and your audience(s) may evolve over time.

So, what's the secret to this audience-finding business? Well, all you have to do is answer two questions. Here's the first one: what are the overall goals you hope to achieve by sharing your science or science-related experiences? There are no wrong answers! Even if you are new to this whole thing and don’t have any specific goals in mind, you can still come up with some general goals based on what you find initially interesting. And you can always change your goals later. Here are some potential goals to get you thinking.

  • I want to increase the public visibility of my research or scientific field.
  • I want to influence policy associated with my line of research or field.
  • I want to connect with other students in my field of study / researchers in my field of science.
  • My research doesn’t use the creative part of my brain enough and I want to use outreach/communication to exercise my creative side.
  • I want to influence public opinion on issues associated with 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.
  • I want people in my field to pay more attention to my research.
  • I’m a researcher, and I want to entice graduate students to join my lab.
  • I’m a graduate student, and I want to catch the attention of researchers who might be in a position to hire me down the line.
  • I would like to engage a set of people who would be willing to contribute funding to my research.
  • I would like to attract participants for my citizen science project.

Who gets you there?

Once you have a sense of your outreach/communication goals, here's the second key audience-hunting question: what sort of folks can best help you reach those goals? For example, let’s say that your top priority is to influence some public policy that is associated with your field of science. For any policy, there is likely to be lots of different people in the mix, such as policymakers (at potentially every level from local to international), as well as various different groups of people would are affected by policy changes in various different ways. Which set of people do you have the best chance of potentially influencing? Which sets play the biggest roles in shaping this mysterious policy of yours? Which of these people do you understand the best? These kinds of questions can really shape your thinking in the audience hunt.

Here's another example. Let’s say you are equally interested in engaging a group of at-risk teens with your science and in connecting with a set of people who might fund your research through crowdfunding. In this case, these two goals require two different audiences. After all, those teens are pretty unlikely to have the bankroll needed to throw cash your way. That's where a second audience comes in - an audience with a greater funding capacity - that can be engaged either through the science or through some connection to those teens.

Along with all of this, here's another approach to take: visualization. As a general rule, the better you can see your audience in your mind, the better your audience definition is taking shape. These might be actual humans that you know are in your audience or just people that exist in your mind's eye. The key question is: how fuzzy are those people in your brain?

What does your audience care about? Where can I find them to ask?

Okay, let's say that you now have your audience clearly in your sights (congratulations, by the way). What next? Here's the last essential piece of the puzzle: what's on the minds of your audience? What are their interests and concerns? The more you can nail down the answers to these questions, the better you'll be able to effectively connect with your people.

There are many ways to begin to understand your audience - but all of them require one thing: finding actual people in your audience. How is that supposed to happen, exactly? Well, there are quite a few ways. Perhaps you happen to be a member of your audience (say, you happen to hail from a long line of commercial fishermen and you're looking to connect with other commercial fishermen). Three cheers! You have the inside track, since you can use yourself as a great starting point to understanding your people.

Alternatively, perhaps you happen to know some people in your audience. You might be aware of a physical place where your audience can be found. Maybe you know of some publication that is widely read by your people. Social media can be an incredibly effective way to find your folks (check out SciFund's handy-dandy guides to Twitter and Instagram for info on how to do that).

But what happens if you come up short in finding people in your audience, despite your diligent searching of every highway and byway? It's possible of course that your Where's Waldo contigent is hiding somewhere that you didn't consider. However, coming up with an empty net isn't necessarily a sign of failure - rather, it might be telling you something really important. Namely, the reason that you haven't found anybody is that the audience you have defined doesn't exist - in which case, it's back to the drawing board to rethink who you're trying to engage with.

There are many possibilities why an audience might be illusory. Perhaps your audience definition is too focused - no one actually checks all of the boxes you are looking for (case in point: those “women in Hawaii between the ages of 25-30 who waterski and are allergic to peanuts” from before). Perhaps your audience definition combines people that do exist but aren't actually cohesive and don't form a single audience (don't go looking for an audience that combines Olympic powerlifters and BMW mechanics).

After working through all of this stuff, your audience definition will almost certainly be beginning to take shape. You'll also very likely have found at least one way to tap into your audience. Now comes the fun part: listen to your people! In discussions that are occurring (whether in person, in print, or online), do certain themes seem to keep coming up? What interests or concerns seem to be important to your audience? Note that you're not just looking for interests/ concerns/ themes that that are connected with your science in some way. Anything that pops to the surface is worth taking note of. Generally speaking, getting a sense of your people is not going to happen overnight. It takes time to get a feel for this kind of thing, so keep dipping your toe in the discussion waters.

This guy knows the deal (from the comic Sinfest).

Shaping your message

Once you start coming up with some initial ideas about what your audience cares about, you'll be in great shape to engage with them. By framing your science message within the context of your audience's concerns, you'll be able to get your target people to actually pay attention. For example, if it turns out that your audience meaningful connects in any way with your science (economically, culturally, socially, any other word ending in -ly), you will have a very straightforward frame to cut right through the clutter. In the case where your audience's interests don't overlap at all with your science message, some creative thinking might be needed to find the common ground. For example, let's say that you want to talk about astronomy with an audience that seems to be primarily obsessed with the New York Jets. You don't need to be engaging your people only with your thoughts about the Jets' chances in the playoffs. Instead, is there some way to connect your message to their football interests? Is there a way to segue from their obsession to your science?

Next steps

Well, you have now reached the end of this guide - thanks for reading through it! What now? Well, we have other guides for you (here) that you might want to poke around. Let us also humbly remind you that you should consider taking one of our online communication classes. We offer them several times a year and, by signing up for our mailing list, you can be the first in your neighborhood to be notified about what's coming up. Our classes are extremely collaborative - which is a really essential part of the process of working through this stuff. It is not so easy to come up with the answers all on your own.

Also, give us a buzz if you have any questions on anything! We're always happy to chat about this stuff.