Three steps for reaching the right audiences in an information-saturated world

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27 March 2014

Liz Carlile describes three activities that help IIED understand and engage with its diverse audiences. 

The IIED communications team discuss audience personas as part of the Communications Learning Programme held with partners in February (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

We call her Mercy. She's a fictional policymaker from African government. Then, there is Adi, a sawmill operator from Indonesia. He doesn't exist either. They are mere personas, but they and others form a key part of IIED's communication work. Developing personas isn't new, but it works. It's one of the tools we use to get heard in an increasingly information-saturated world. 

As a "think and do tank" that aims to "link local priorities to global challenges", we need to share our research with people who can use it to improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

To achieve our goals we need to use a range of communications methods, develop clear research messages and strategically target this research to particular audiences. We also need to build an enabling environment that makes it easier for people to use our evidence. To do this, we need to develop strong relationships with those people. We need to build their thinking into our research agendas, and we need to keep them informed of opportunities to feed into the research. 

In this context, think tanks like IIED face particular challenges:

  • The research report. Research must be robust and credible, but the standard means of sharing evidence – long reports often in impenetrable, academic writing – are often a bad fit with policy audiences. Time-poor policymakers and leaders, who could act on the research, rarely have the time to read them
  • The research process. It takes time to develop credible, well-researched evidence to use as the basis for transformative decision-making. Ensuring this process is thorough is important not just for the researcher but also for those people who are accountable for decisions made on the basis of such research.

One response to these challenges has been for IIED's communications team to build closer relationships with our own researchers to better understand who they want their research to reach. Three things have catalysed these discussions.

  1. Streamlining our portfolio of products. We have vastly reduced the number of different product types we use, to arrive at a new portfolio that is very clear about who each product serves. The portfolio invites us to ensure we include the right information in the right way for different audiences.  This also suggests ways to think about "research cycles" and how different opportunities for sharing information and engaging policy makers arise en route to final results.  This helps researchers to consider communication throughout the iterative research process rather that with a product only at the end of a project
  2. Communications Learning Week. We recently held the second of these conversations with counterparts in partner organisations about how to be more effective in our communications work. One of the big learning points for us is how important it is to understand the constraints that face the different groups of people we target with our research.  Time together ensures we can really understand what works and what doesn't. For many of our target audiences, particularly at local government, print is still essential, whereas for rural communities radio still rules. Although mobile technology is spreading fast, internet bandwidth remains a major challenge. Bridging the gap between the digital and print world is vital. Bridging the gap between assumptions we hold about how people receive information and what actually happens leads me to my third point
  3. Audience development – making friends with key personas. We are developing personas that represent IIED's key audiences. Although by no means a new technique, these fictional personalities are very effective tools for characterising real people with whom we need to communicate. Defining a persona means thinking about what media a person consumes, how they journey to work, with whom they interact, whether they use a smartphone or a laptop and from whom they seek professional advice. These things and more help us and our researcher colleagues to understand the needs of these people and the challenges they face. Mercy, who I mentioned before, is a typical member of the IIED family of personas. By getting to know her better – and her constraints and realities – we can make more sophisticated choices about how we reach her and with what communications tools. It will ensure we know how to engage with real people just like her, and better understand our contribution to change.

These three steps are helping us communicate more effectively to reach the right people and ensure we have greater impact and demonstrate better value for money. We are working hard to develop more stringent indicators and monitoring processes to ensure we improve at this all the time. What tools does your team use to reach its intended audience? I look forward to hearing your suggestions and thoughts.

Liz Carlile is IIED's Director of Communications (liz.carlile@iied.org)

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