Joe Barrell: Why charities are putting their audiences first

The communications agency founder on the eight most common reasons given by charities for developing audience-centred comms strategies

Joe Barrell
Joe Barrell

Engaging supporters, service users or campaigners has never been more difficult for the sector. No charity can ignore the seismic shifts in trust, regulation, technology and media, but many are struggling to know how to respond to these new and ever-changing challenges.

CharityComms held its conference about audience-centred strategies yesterday. A deep understanding of your audiences – fundraisers, campaigners and service users – is critical to overcoming this new and confusing landscape.

The Right Wavelength, a report I wrote that was launched at the event, helps charities think "audience- first" and, crucially, sets out the eight most common reasons given by charities for developing audience-centred strategies.

Media is (still) fragmenting

It’s been known for a generation that one can seldom reach a large audience through a single channel, but today’s media fragmentation goes even deeper. The consolidation of digital traffic around a few major providers masks further fragmentation within those channels, and audience groups have become isolated from each other. For example, with 29 million Facebook groups in the UK alone, communicators are making daily choices about which to target, and audience strategies are vital to guide these choices.

You can’t reach ‘everyone’

The sector has for too long been obsessed with reaching as many people as possible and measuring success through general public awareness. This often comes from the trustees, who will tend to equate fame with impact and want their cause to be top of mind for "everyone". In reality, few charities invest enough in external engagement to make more than a faint impression beyond a few million people. And that’s fine – a few million is a lot of people, if they’re the right few million.

Some audiences matter more than others

Many charities, laudably, want to throw open the door to anyone that needs their services. But with limited resources they still have a responsibility to find those with the greatest need, or where there are gaps in provision. The same applies for donors and advocates: different causes can attract very different supporters, and not all support in the same way. Understanding these differences and focusing efforts on priority target groups can mean much greater return on investment, efficiency and, ultimately, impact.

Frequency matters

The trick to building engagement with a cause is balancing reach with frequency. That means reaching the right people the right number of times and not spreading yourself too thin. Those of you with experience of buying advertising will be familiar with the magic number eight (or nine, depending on which media agency you’re talking to) – the perfect number of exposures to a message that will get you noticed without annoying your audience. So charities have to stick with the same audiences over time if they want their messages to stick.

Audiences are changing

Younger generations – millennials and Generation Zs – are making brands work harder than ever to earn their trust (and their cash) and will drop them easily if they don’t meet their expectations. Under-40s are less likely to commit to a charity brand (which is why committed giving is going out of style for them), and seek self-expression through the causes they support. Yet many charities have grown accustomed to communicating on the premise that the cause alone is motivation enough. Research to help keep up with these new audiences, and their motivations, has become essential.

Regulation is tightening

With the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation come limits on direct contact. Charities know they will have to rely more on mass communications to attract new supporters and work much harder to hold on to the ones they have. Charities are having to invent new strategies for engagement, which rely on a deeper understanding of what their audiences want from them.

It only works if you point in the same direction

Fundraising, communications and information teams work seriously hard, but too often in pursuit of competing objectives. For example, a drive for scale in public engagement can inspire digital teams to build profile of an issue quickly, but it can also incentivise them to pursue "clicks" without fully considering the value of the engagement. Fundraisers, meanwhile, want to reach people with a genuine interest in their cause and a real intent to support them for the long term, but don’t always think about nurturing a broader public appetite for sustainable change. When charities take the time to understand who their audiences are and what they want, and work together to give it to them, these competing interests can evaporate.

Trust is everything

While there has been a slow recovery in trust in charities since the nadir of 2015/16, the recent issues around the Presidents Club and some international NGOs show how important, and fragile, that trust remains. For some, restoring trust has become the single biggest priority for their communications and fundraising teams. Most are listening intently to their audiences to understand their misgivings and how they can best respond.

Many UK non-profits are now recognising the importance of these factors and seeking far greater insight and understanding of their audiences. The resulting strategies, which deliberately consider which audiences to engage and what their audiences want from them, are helping charities respond to changes in the world outside their control and become more effective at building their issues, winning support and achieving impact.

Joe Barrell founded the communications agency Eden Stanley in 2011 and is the author of the CharityComms book Make it Matter, which is widely used by non-profits developing communications strategies

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