Audience analysis: why and how


Do you have a clear picture of who you’re writing to?

If you don’t know your audience, you might make some fundamental mistakes. Mistakes that will keep your writing from being effective.

Why do we need audience analysis?

Regardless of what we’re writing, we make choices about how we write. For example:

  • Should I use this long word, or that short word?
  • Should I include this bit of background information?
  • Should I add this quotation from so-and-so?
  • Should I be dispassionate, or let my emotions show?
  • Should I be explicit, or merely hint at these details?

Your own preferences will give you the answers to some of these questions. But other questions can be only if you understand who you are writing to. Let’s revisit those questions above, this time asking them with the audience in mind:

  • Will my readers understand this long word, or will it be clearer if I use that short word? If my language is too complex, I risk losing less educated readers.
  • Do my readers already know about this bit of that background information? If they are, I can just mention it, but if they aren’t, I’ll need to explain it with more detail.
  • Do my readers think that so-and-so, the source of this quotation, is an authority on this topic? If they know who he is, it might help my argument. However, if they think he’s a crackpot, I’ll seem less credible by citing him.
  • Will my readers find a dispassionate argument to be more persuasive, or are they moved by an emotional appeal?
  • Will I offend my audience if I am explicit with these details? Details can add impact and authority, but some people might say “Too much information!”

The more you know your audience, the better you’ll be able answer these questions. And your writing will be more effective.

How do you analyze an audience?

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just spend a bit of time answering the classic “5 Ws and an H” questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

Who? – Who are the people who will be reading this? Will most of them be men, or women? How old are they? What kind of education do they have? What are their interests? Do they have a family? What kind of work do they do?

Take this beyond demographics. What are their biases? What keeps them awake at night? What are their aspirations? What are their hot-button topics, the things that make them happy or angry? (Ask Scott Berkun about what not to say at Microsoft.)

You might find it useful to think about a specific person when you write. Pick someone that you know well, and write for that person.

What? – What do my readers already know about this topic? What do they need to know in order to understand what I’m writing about?

Where? – Where will they be when they read this? At home, sitting in a quiet room, sipping a cup of tea? In the subway? On a noisy factory floor? Over a morning cup of coffee, or while they’re making dinner? In a classroom? What kind of distractions will be competing for their attention?

When? – When will they be reading this? When they have plenty of time to absorb it and think about it? Or when they’re under pressure, and every second counts?

Why? – Why are they reading it? What’s their motivation? For fun, or for their job? Because they want to, or because they have to?

How? – How will they read it? In an email message? A book? A magazine or newspaper? On their iPhone or Blackberry? On a sign? At an information kiosk? On their laptop?

The answers to these questions will change how you write. Different audiences have different needs and expectations. You wouldn’t write the same way for a high-school student and a college professor. A magazine audience expects different writing than a newspaper audience does. People reading at work have different needs than people reading for leisure.

Sometimes you can’t be sure about these things; hard facts aren’t available, and you have to start with some assumptions. (For example, if you’re writing a blog, you can assume that your readers are using a computer to read, and that they’re reading because they want to know more about your topic.) But don’t leave your assumptions untested. Try to find out how accurate they are, and revise them as you learn more.

You have to tailor your message to your audience, and that means you have to know your audience.

Another approach: Some people use AUDIENCE as a mnemonic acronym to guide their analysis this way:

  • Analysis: Who are they?
  • Understanding: What is their understanding of the subject?
  • Demographics: What is their age, gender, background, profession, and so forth.
  • Interest: Why are they interested in your topic?
  • Environment: Where will they be reading, and what are the conditions?
  • Needs: What do they need from you?
  • Customization: Do you need to adjust things for any special needs or interests of specific audience segments?
  • Expectations: What does your audience expect? Do they already have some questions they want you to answer?

You can find out more here: How to conduct audience analysis.

Your turn: Who is your audience? How can you find out more about them? What kind of assumptions have you made about them?

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2 Responses to Audience analysis: why and how

  1. Thanks for sharing this thoughts but still I am thinking now more about On Writing Well and William Zinsser’s: "write for yourself".

  2. Roy Jacobsen says:

    Kamil,It’s true that your writing needs to spring from your own knowledge, needs, and motivations. However, there’s still a balance that you strike between writing for yourself and writing for your audience. The place where you find your balance point depends on your main reason for writing.

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