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Organizations succeed when they provide offerings – programs, products, services, resources, information and tools – that their audiences want, can find, and choose to use. Even though this sounds like simple common sense, it usually gets complicated. Because if an organization doesn’t know who they are serving and why those audiences want what they offer, they can’t make informed decisions about what to offer, how to publish and communicate about those offerings, and how to measure success.

Here is an overview of some approaches, the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and how to put them into action.

Many thanks to Results Direct, who invited me to share thoughts on this topic at a Results Recharge session in February 2022.

Watch the video of the presentation

Download the slides (PDF, 35MB).

Download the audience understanding workbook that can serve as an accompaniment to the slides and this post. (PDF, 203KB)

Before deciding on the right approach to learn about their audiences’ needs, organizations need to focus on what they want to learn, and about/from which audiences. The final step in the process is to compare what they want with what the association offers and how it offers its programs through content.

What do you want to learn?

It’s best to start by thinking about the goals of the effort. The goals should include information about the audience’s general needs, goals, motivations, aspirations, and challenges, since – significantly – audiences seek out the organization’s offerings because those offerings address a need.

  • Which offerings audiences find most relevant and useful, and why
  • What else they’d like to see the organization offer
  • How best to manifest and market those offerings through content

The object is to learn how the association can help the audience address their pain points, solve their motivations, achieve their aspirations, and overcome their challenges.

Which audiences matter most?

Answers to this question provide critical focus for how the organization thinks about its offerings and the content OF and ABOUT those offerings.

Importantly, the organization’s most important audiences are not the staff, the board, or the volunteers. And it’s also not “everyone.”

Associations tend to serve multiple audiences: people who are new to the profession; experts; folks in related fields; consumers; people in specific member segments or who have specific jobs or roles; people who live or work in different locations; folks in various age groups; current and potential members.

Not all audiences are equally important to the organization, and not all need the same degree of focus.

Staff in various departments might have different perspectives on which audiences are most important, so it is essential to get agreement. While it may seem like an almost insurmountable challenge to get that agreement, we have found that it is actually possible through a workshop.

We present member profiles as stories, starting with data and adding humanizing information about what might be true for them. We usually create about a dozen profiles, drawing from various demographic categories. For example, one profile might be of a new member who is new to the profession, lives in the Midwest, and is of a particular age, and is on a particular career path. Staff members review the profiles to make sure they seem true, and it’s easy to modify profiles on the spot.

The final step of the workshop is that people vote on the most important members. We allow them to choose only up to four. This seemingly insurmountable challenge usually takes 30 to 45 minutes!

Once the organization agrees on the goals and the top-priority audiences, it’s time to choose the right approach for learning about what those audiences want.

Four approaches to learning what audiences want

1. Surveys

Surveys are the most common tool for learning about audience needs. Common questions include:

  • Of our offerings, which ones do you know about?
  • Which do you read/use?
  • What’s your opinion about our offerings?
  • What’s missing?

Surveys usually include demographic questions and volunteer status so we can sort and filter the results.

There are definitely things to learn through surveys, and some information that you have to discount. They tend to get a response rate of only 10 or 20 percent, often more heavily skewed to members who are engaged with the organization, volunteers, and longtime members. If we take those out, we learn a lot more.

Here’s what I usually find:

  • People may answer questions aspirationally, saying that they use a lot of the offerings, even though the metrics don’t show that.
  • People aren’t aware of many of the organization’s offerings or communication vehicles.
  • People don’t want to appear too critical. In simple rating scale questions, they often rate offerings and communications as “fine.” Negative information sometimes comes out in the comments, so it’s essential to take the time to analyze the comments.
  • In response to what’s the question about what’s missing, participants often ask for things the organization offers already.

2. Empathy-based personas and audience engagement journeys

This is my favorite way to help organizations understand their audiences. I find that this approach helps the staff understand how the organization’s offerings help the audience get where they want to go. (I’ve written more about the value of this persona approach.)

Because staff members actually build the personas, they feel connected to them. (If a consultant distills the data and tells the organization what their audiences want, it doesn’t have nearly the same impact.) The staff draws on their interactions with audience members at conferences, meetings, or by phone or email. They also think about who they know personally who has things in common with the personas and what their challenges and motivations are.

While these personas start with the data, they don’t stop there. The data reveals which segments have the most members, audience age groupings, where they live, which ones attend conferences most, etc. Starting with the prioritized member profiles, we add information about their tasks, their motivations, fears, frustrations, and the media they use.

Once we know who the audiences are, the next step is to identify what they want from the organization. This audience engagement journey maps how they move from being aware of the organization at all, to becoming a highly engaged participant in the organization. What should the organization do to become that valuable to the person?

At that point, the organization can look at its offerings through the lens of what people want. We can audit the content and see whether there is enough content and in the appropriate format to help these audiences meet their goals. We can look at our content with a more critical eye if we know who we’re serving and what’s important to them. And if we have content that isn’t for anybody, or that doesn’t address any of those needs, it shouldn’t be a surprise if we learn that that content isn’t very well used.

From my perspective as a content strategy consultant, you can’t make smart content decisions unless you understand not only who it’s for, but why they are interested in consuming it at all.

Our audiences want what associations offer, but internal brand names and jargon can get in the way. Advocacy folks may talk about S.B. 8, but members don’t know what that bill is about. Marketers promote an early bird discount to Connect, but members don’t automatically know that is the annual conference. Audience-centricity is key!

3. Staff pilots

For organizations that don’t want to create personas, an alternate approach is to choose an important topic and explore it through the eyes of the organization and then the audience.

  1. Each department identifies the most valuable, important content they created on that topic. When I did this last, we had about 55 pieces of content on this particular topic. When I added basic analytics — unique pageviews over the past year — there was a big range.
  2. In the next step, reorganize participants into the groups of the most important audiences. To know what “their” audience wants, they will need to use the organization’s existing research, or draw on their interactions with this audience or from people like this in their own lives. From their audience’s perspective, they review the list of content, as if it was what came up as search results for that topic. And based on those known or guessed audience needs, they identify which content they would be likely to click on. Various groups were able to do it better and differently, but it was a fascinating exercise.

4. Focus groups/audience interviews

Focus groups or audience interviews are the final way to learn about the audiences. I almost always use these in conjunction with one of the other three approaches. We recruit participants from the most important audience segments, and we ask questions based on the learnings from the survey or the staff work in the personas/journeys or pilot projects.

We ask a roomful of real people matching each audience’s demographic descriptions about their needs and expectations to understand whether we got it right. And we always actually do! Association staff members are smarter than they assume they’re going to be.

Real quotes from real audience members go a long way to instilling greater confidence and buy-in from the organization in using the audience information as a basis to make decisions.

One final note: Focus groups made up of uninvolved members are FAR more helpful than those comprised of members the organization already knows. Volunteers are often “quasi-staff” – they know the internal terms for the work, they understand the organization’s structure and who creates the content, so they can’t really participate as if they don’t.


  1. You are not your audience.
  2. All audiences are not equally important.
  3. Learning about your audience is going to make your content better, and your offerings more successful.
  4. There are lots of different ways to learn this information. Use what your culture and your budget allow.
  5. An outside perspective plus inside expertise are a really powerful and important combination.
  6. Focus more on the audiences that aren’t already engaged, because that’s your opportunity. If they’re already engaged, then you’ve got them. The opportunity is, who else is missing from our relationships, our partnerships, our audiences.
  7. It’s critically important to keep the learnings alive. The value of any kind of artifact is that you use it, you keep it alive, you refer to it when you’re making future content decisions. Make it an integral a part of how you make those decisions.

Challenges to audience understanding

Board and volunteer complications

Associations often decide what offerings to create and keep based on what their most vocal, involved audiences – their board or key volunteers – ask for. While they may identify a list of target audiences in their strategic plans, associations don’t always prioritize which of those audiences are most important. And they often just want to know which of the association’s resources the audiences use and don’t take the time to understand why they use them.

One participant pointed out another challenge: People on boards tend to be late career people, and one of their aspirations is giving back to the profession. But early career people don’t even know they’re in the profession before they know how to give back. The board thinks everybody wants to give back to the profession. Not yet! Eventually, maybe, hopefully.


Consumer audiences and content have some unique considerations. Consumers are an entirely separate audience. Therefore, when associations create content for consumers, we recommend they create a dedicated website section or a separate website. The organization also needs to keep its members informed about what consumer content exists, so they can share it with the consumers they are connected with (patients, for example).

Not connected to larger goals

One participant recommended leveraging revenue or strategic goals. “What do you need to move the most? It may not be public opinion, they might be a secondary audience based on what you really need to move, whether it’s education revenue, membership revenue, opinion leadership, it could be that, or advocacy.” Great advice!

How often to revisit personas and keep them alive?

In one participant’s previous experience in corporate retail, they reviewed personas once a year. At that organization, that audience knowledge drove merchandising and marketing strategies: who are our customers, whether they’re in a store or online. It was very much an annual all-hands-on-deck effort.

For me, it’s essential to keep personas them alive, keep them in front of people’s eyes so they make audience-focused content decisions. There are many creative ways to do that, including:

  • Make life-size cutouts of each of our personas and literally introduce them at an all-staff meeting.
  • Create laminated card-size versions of the audience profiles for staff people to keep at their desk, so they remember who they create content for and why that person or persona needs that content.
  • Create posters or short videos showing the personas.
  • Hold a scavenger hunt exercise for the personas: What content do we have for this person?
  • Hold a contest: What content does that person really want or need from us that we’re not currently creating?

Should you organize the website based on audience segments?

Many organizations have tried this, and it is not usually successful. Years ago, a big public school system separated its information for parents, students, educators, etc. They found that everyone wanted to see the content for the other audiences as much as the content for them. In their case, parents want parents want to know what you’re telling the teachers and they NEED to know what you’re telling the kids, and vice versa. Associations face the same risk if they try to do this.

It’s also not wise to organize a website by department (which is how all association websites started). Although it may seem logical from an internal perspective to show the conference, the magazine, courses, best practices, etc., this type of structure makes the  visitor work hard to use the site. They tend to start with a topic or a question and then they have to ask themselves: Might there be a conference session on this? Might there be an article, and do I have to know it was in the April 2021 issue in order to find it?

Instead, it’s best to organize the site by large topics or audience needs, and then show all the ways in which they can learn about or use information on that topic.

The topic names need to be based on what the audience calls it. The classic example is that if you’re talking to experts, say ‘cardiac arrest,’ don’t say ‘heart attack.’ If you’re talking to consumers, say ‘heart attack’, because consumers don’t use the term ‘cardiac arrest.’ But professionals are going to think you’ve dumbed down the content if you use consumer language with them. So what you call things also gets back to knowing the audience.

Can we marry organizational priorities with audience needs? How do we use content to drive people to take the actions that we need them to take?

At their core, organizations set priorities because they meet the audiences’ needs, but they don’t always make that connection explicit.

When the association sends out an email saying “Act now on S.B. 8,” and few people respond, they may assume that members don’t want to participate – but it’s equally likely that they just don’t know what that bill is. It’s also critical to connect the effort to why the association is advocating for this particular issue: If this tax bill passes, for example, it will cost members more to do business. The association has to remember that it must focus on why the audience cares about this issue. They don’t care about it because it’s an important initiative for the association. Actually, it’s the opposite: It’s an important issue for the association because it matters to members. They don’t participate because we want them to, they participate because it matters to them. And the association must draw that line for them.

One participant shared that in his organization, data  got people to pay attention. “When we looked at topics we thought were most important to everybody, some topics didn’t get as much interest as others. Another page had a high bounce rate when it when it shouldn’t have. This wasn’t a one-stop page, it was a page that should have had pull through.”

How should we accommodate people’s changing needs and interests?

Individuals move in and out of different audience groups as their career or role evolves, so delivering personalized content to someone based on their audience group is largely a technology issue, making sure the person’s information is current in the AMS or other system.

For the most part, the kinds of content that each audience group needs largely stay the same.

There are exceptions, of course. COVID is a great example of a need that didn’t exist until recently. It changed many professions and audience needs and challenges. In one participant’s organization, advocacy priorities changed quite a bit because the members asked them to focus on detailed policies that would improve their everyday lives rather than change-the-world issues.


As takeaways, participants mentioned that the upfront work to create this understanding is very valuable. If your organization wants to develop this understanding, get in touch today!

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