The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

How to research your audience if you have no budget for consultants

A reader of this blog, Joe, asked me the following question in response to my post on diagnosing message problems.

He says:

Can you point us toward some resources for understanding our audiences’ mindsets? Good questions to ask, good ways to ask questions, etc. For organizations without the resources to hire an expert researcher, where can we start learning how to do it right?

Here’s my answer based on my chapter on the topic in Robin Hood Marketing.

If you have no research budget at all, try to glean what you can from those around you in your daily work. What trends have staff or volunteers noticed among our members, clientele, or donors? We and our colleagues can use all interactions with our audiences to gain insights. If we run a homeless shelter or a legal-aid organization or a health clinic, we should listen carefully to how our clients answer questions such as “How have you been doing?” or “What do you need?” If we are fundraisers meeting a major prospect, small talk can tell us a lot about what’s inside that person’s head: “How are things at your foundation?” “What are people focused on these days?” If we are knocking on doors as a canvasser or answering a toll-free line, we should listen as much as we talk. Find out how people feel about their lives, our issue, and current events. We can also gain important insights by simply observing our audiences. I worked on a project where policymakers were a key audience; I wangled an invitation to a health-policy forum and heard them discuss their priorities firsthand. The forum provided a gold mine of information.

Go wherever your audience congregates. If we work at a museum, we can observe the people coming in the door. Who are they? Greet them and ask them how they are. Try to figure out why they came or how they learned about our exhibit. If our audience members are online, go to their social networks, blogs, and websites and read what they are saying. Watch the television shows they watch and read their magazines.

An important point about what to ask: Our research questions should not probe directly for the information we want, which is why people think and act the way they do and what we can do to change their thoughts and actions. Unfortunately, our audiences cannot easily explain their thoughts and behavior nor predict the messages that will cause them to change. Human behavior is complicated, and most people are unaware of why they are the way they are. They can often provide a logical explanation for why they behave and think as they do, but, unfortunately, that self-justification has more to do with what they believe the “right” explanation to be than with their true motivations. Asking “why” will not tell us “why.” People are emotional, busy, and preoccupied with paying the mortgage, losing weight, helping their children with homework, and being loved—often all in the same moment in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep. All those thoughts are influenced by a host of factors, such as the events of the previous day, their social and economic status, or their sense of self-esteem. We can find out what’s going through their head in the middle of the night and what they’ve been up to lately, but we can’t expect them to make sense of this information for us. As marketers, that’s our job.

We can understand “why” by listening to their stories and getting at their feelings. The psychiatrist does not ask patients, “Why are you depressed?” but instead talks to them about how they decided to come for an appointment and elicits from them stories about their life that contribute to a picture of who they are. In hearing a story, an attentive listener comes to see the truth. The person who tells the story, in turn, benefits from that attentiveness and may see life in a new way through speaking about it; in this way talking about experiences can be therapeutic. Good research gets at the truth in a similar way, for different purposes.

Just as people aren’t reliable sources about the reasons for their behavior, they are also poor predictors of how they will behave in the future. They may readily express intentions to take action if they believe taking action is “right,” but we cannot be sure they will follow through. Most of us would say, yes, we will try to exercise more this year. But will we? Good research recognizes that gap between promise and action.

When framing questions, ask people about their daily lives, their priorities, their experiences, and their stories. Then ask how they perceive our issue in this context. This changes the type of information we get. If we had surveyed people about what they thought about the Hummer or the iPod or a $4 cup of coffee at Starbucks when these products were first conceived, we would not have necessarily discovered whether those products would sell. But by learning that people seek relaxation, power, convenience, or social contact, we could have known these products had the potential to meet unmet wants.

Hope this helps! Good luck.

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Linda Lombardi
Content Manager

We’re here to help you win hearts and minds—and donations.

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